In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Puruṣārthas

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Bibliographies
  • Translations of Puruṣārtha and Its Components
  • Individual Components and Their Incorporation
  • Philosophical Interpretations of the Puruṣārtha

Hinduism Puruṣārthas
Greg Bailey
  • LAST REVIEWED: 27 January 2011
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 January 2011
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399318-0044


Puruṣārtha (meaning “goal of a man” or “aim of a person”) is a term normally used in the plural to define three spheres of activity that encapsulate most areas of cultural activity. They are treated as options to which particular individuals can give weightings according to how they might wish to lead their life, either at specific times or throughout their life—or as in the case of the Pandavas (Mahābhārata 12, 10–18), use them to justify particular activities. As a plurality they are combined into a group called either trivarga (having three parts) or caturvarga (having four parts), and each can be broken down into their individual components: kāma (sensuality/desire), artha (wealth/power) and dharma (normative order/merit), with mokṣa (liberation) being added as a fourth in an all-encompassing scheme called caturvarga (having four parts). These translations can be problematic, as each of the individual words can be translated differently according to context. What I have suggested is a set of translations defining a kind of family resemblance underlying most of the meanings of these words. But the reality is that each word carries much weight in the Hindu context. Much more scholarly work has been done on individual components of the trivarga/caturvarga than on the respective conglomerates. In part this is because each of them developed as individual concepts, producing a large body of descriptive literature after 100 CE. Very little explicit literature in Sanskrit on the trivarga as a collective exists, and what does exist has been scarcely studied or even edited.

General Overviews

In a foundational article Halbfass 1994 bemoans the fact that while the puruṣārthas are frequently mentioned in literature, there are scarcely any comprehensive conceptual studies of them nor of their role in Indian tradition. There have been few overviews of the puruṣārthas. Rao 1970 is one such overview. Like Sharma 1982 it is philosophical and does not take into account the historical development of the doctrine of the puruṣārthas as a collective. Sharma 1982 is interested more in the treatment of the puruṣārtha as idea in later Indian thought. Biardeau 2002 analyzes classical Hindu thought as a set of doctrines through the puruṣārthas. The four chapters dealing with the individual components of the caturvarga are masterly treatments in Mittal and Thursby 2004, but the mastery is of the historical and thematic treatments of the individual components rather than the groups in which they can be found in literature. Davis 2004 argues that the puruṣārthas are Indic in general, not just Hindu, and Banerjee 2008 and Doniger 2009 are general summaries of the doctrine.

  • Banerjee, S. C. “Puruṣārtha.” In History of Science, Philosophy, and Culture in Indian Civilization. Vol. 3, Part 5, Philosophical Concepts Relevant to Sciences in Indian Tradition. Edited by D. P. Chattopadhyaya, 301–337. Centre for Studies in Civilizations: New Delhi, 2008.

    A general survey of the four components. Traces them briefly through a range of texts beginning with the Mahābhārata. Focuses more on the individual components than on the three or four as a group.

  • Biardeau, Madeleine. Hinduism: Anthropology of a Civilization. Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2002.

    Classifies Hinduism in terms of the four puruṣārthas. Found in chapter 2 is an elegant essay focusing on the interaction between the four. It begins with dharma as encompassing the others and then contextualizes the other three in relation to the particular social roles associated with women, the king, and Brahmins.

  • Davis, Donald R., Jr. “Being Hindu or Being Human: A Reappraisal of the Puruṣārthas.” International Journal of Hindu Studies 8.1–3 (2004): 1–27.

    Excellent article summarizing most of the previous scholarship. Argues that the puruṣārthas provide a description of, and prescription for, human aims from an Indic perspective, not just a Hindu perspective—as they also occur in Buddhist and Jain literature. The beginning point for all scholarly work on the puruṣārthas.

  • Doniger, Wendy. The Hindus: An Alternative History. New York: Penguin, 2009.

    Runs through the trivarga as it is defined in the Mahābhārata, Manusmrti, the Arthaśāstra, and the Kāmasūtra. Tends to focus on the interrelation between the four component parts and the hierarchical difference between them, as this is explained in alternative ways in texts dealing individually with each of the three components.

  • Halbfass, W. “Menschsein und Lebensziele: Beobachtungen zu den puruṣārthas.” In Hermeneutics of Encounter: Essays in Honour of Gerhard Oberhammer on the Occasion of His 65th Birthday. Edited by Francis X. D’Sa and Roque Mesquita, 123–135. Publications of the De Nobili Research Library 20. Vienna: Sammlung de Nobili, 1994.

    An important article providing an introduction to the meaning of each of the components in the caturvarga and a brief evaluation of their historical development. Also exposits the oft-repeated view that the presence of the aims of life, insofar as they give the possibility of reasoned choice, is a fundamental feature distinguishing humans as a species from animals.

  • Mittal, Sushil, and Gene Thursby, eds. The Hindu World. New York and London: Routledge, 2004.

    Chapters 10–13 deal sequentially with each component of the caturvarga, mainly focusing on the meaning and development of the individual component in Sanskrit literature.

  • Rao, P. Nagaraja. The Four Values in Indian Philosophy and Culture: A Study of the Puruṣārthas. Mysore, India: University of Mysore, 1970.

    A general study from the perspective of delineation of fundamental values. Illustrates the tendency among certain Indian philosophies to build up a Hindu philosophy of culture on the basis of the puruṣārthas.

  • Sharma, Arvind. The Puruṣārthas: A Study in Hindu Axiology. East Lansing: Asian Studies Centre, Michigan State University, 1982.

    Essentially a useful annotated bibliography. Consistently attempts to assert the importance of the puruṣārthas as a normative foundation for contemporary Hindu culture.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.