Purusha means human being and artha means object or objective. Purusharthas means objectives of man. According to Hindu way of life, a man should strive to achieve four chief objectives (Purusharthas) in his life. Of these, the first three belong to the realm of worldly values; the fourth is called the supreme value. The fulfillment of the first three paves the way for Moksha.They are:
- Dharma (righteousness),
- Artha (material wealth),
- Kama (desire) and
- Moksha (salvation or freedom through communion with God or the infinite).
Every individual in a society is expected to achieve these four objectives and seek fulfillment in his life before departing from here. The concept of Purusharthas clearly establishes the fact that it is not advocated to live a life of self negation and hardship, but a life of balance, achievement and fulfillment.
Dharma or Virtue is the fundamental means by which to attain the other three goals. Dharma is founded in Truth and it is the support of the universe. But the majority of people in their ignorance forget the first and the last, and run after worldly pleasures, often resorting to unrighteous means. As a result they suffer all through their lives. Misery is the inevitable result of adharma (opposite of dharma).
Observing this sad plight of the people, Vyasa says in the Mahabharata:
Artha and Kama, which all people desire so much, can be attained from Dharma itself. Why then do they not follow Dharma?
Sri Shankaracharya said:
Dharma is the law of conduct by means of which man attains worldly prosperity as well as final beatitude or Moksha.
The key to individual and social ethics of Hinduism is the conception of Dharma, whose full implications cannot be conveyed by such English words as religion, duty or righteousness. Derived from a root which means to support, the word signifies the law of inner growth by which a person is supported in his present state of evolution and is shown the way to future development. A person's Dharma is not imposed by society or decreed by an arbitrary God, but is something with which he is born as a result of his actions in previous lives.
Dharma determines a man's proper attitude toward the outer world and governs his mental and physical reactions in a given situation. It is his code of honor.
Dharma is the basis of both individual progress and social welfare.
Dharma should be strictly adhered to for the attainment of worldly prosperity. Wealth must be earned or acquired according to Dharma.
The object of the third legitimate desire is Kama, or the enjoyment of sense pleasure. This covers a vast area- from the enjoyment of conjugal love, without which the creation cannot be maintained, to the appreciation of art, music and poetry. Sense pleasures, if not pursued according to Dharma, degenerate into sensuality.
Wealth and sense pleasure, which are only means to an end, are valuable in so far as their enjoyment creates a genuine yearning for spiritual freedom in the mind of the enjoyer.
The fourth legitimate desire, equally irresistible, is related to Moksha, or freedom from the love and attachment prompted by the finite view of life. Man, who in essence is spirit, cannot be permanently satisfied with worldly experiences. After fulfilling all his worldly desires and responsibilities a man still wants to know how he can suppress his inner restlessness and attain peace. So at last he gives up attachment to the world and seeks freedom through the knowledge of the spirit.