The Vedas classify all pursuits of a human being into four fundamental categories. These four pursuits, collectively called purusartha, are Dharma, ethics; Artha, securities; Kama, pleasures; and Moksa, liberation. These basic human pursuits can be subdivided into two sets. One set, the pursuit of security and pleasure, artha and kama, is shared with all other living beings. The other set, effort in accordance with ethics, Dharma and the pursuit of liberation, Moksa, is unique to human beings.
Artha, one of the two pursuits human beings share with other living beings, stands for all forms of security in life. Every living being seeks security in some form appropriate to itself. The dog buries its bone, the bee fills a comb with honey and the squirrel gathers acorns. All animals have a sense of insecurity and want to be secure. However, their attitude and behaviour are governed by a built-in programme and their sense of security is contained. For human beings, on the other hand, there is no end to the longing for security in forms such as wealth, power, influence and fame. Irrespective of how much one gathers, one continues to feel insecure.
Kama stands for the many forms of sensual pleasure. All living beings seek what is pleasurable through their sense organs. They pursue what they are programmed to enjoy, directly and simply. The human pursuit of pleasure is more complex. One’s instinctual desires are complicated by the human ability to entertain wide-ranging personal desires.
Each person lives in his or her own private, subjective world of likes and dislikes. Subjective values do not remain the same; when values change, likes and dislikes also change. Likes and dislikes dictate the pleasures one seeks just as they dictate what one rejects or avoids. All human beings struggle to obtain the pleasant and avoid the unpleasant.
Because the struggle for security and pleasures is not instinctively controlled, but rather guided by personal values, it becomes necessary for human society to have a set of standards which is independent of any individual’s subjective values.
Since every human being has the faculty of choice, one must have certain norms controlling one’s actions. Not only must the chosen ends be permissible, but the means to gain those ends must also conform to certain values. This special set of values controlling the individual’s choice of action is called ethics.
It is not necessary to be religious in order to be ethical. The ethical standards which specify the right and wrong means of achieving security and pleasures are based on common sense. There is, however, another set of ethics that are religious in nature. Religious ethics confirm common sense ethics and add to them.
The religious ethics called dharma, as found in the Vedas, confirm common sense standards, specify further religious “do’s” and “don’ts”, and add the concept of punya and papa, results produced by proper and improper actions, to the life here or in the hereafter.
According to dharma, human action has an unseen result as well as an immediate tangible result. The unseen result of the action accrues in subtle form to the account of the doer of the action and, in time, will fructify, tangibly, for him as a pleasant or unpleasant experience. The subtle result of a proper action, punya, fructifies as pleasure; the subtle result of an improper action, papa, fructifies as pain.
Dharma occupies the first place in the four purusarthas because the struggle for security and the search for pleasure must be governed by ethical standards. Artha, striving for security, comes second, as the desire to live is the foremost desire of everyone. Merely surviving, however, is not enough for the human being, as one also wants to be happy and to pursue pleasures. Thus, kama is the third purusartha.
The last purusartha is the goal of liberation, moksa. Moksa is listed last because it becomes a direct pursuit only when one has realised the limitations inherent in the first three human pursuits.
Moksa, like dharma, is a peculiarly human pursuit not shared by other living beings. Even among human beings, liberation is the conscious concern of only a few. These few recognise that what they want is not more security or more pleasure, but freedom itself; freedom from all desires. When a mature person analyses his experiences, he discovers that behind his ethically guided dharmic pursuits of security and pleasure is a basic desire to be free from all insufficiency, to be free from incompleteness itself; a basic desire which no amount of dharma, artha and kama can fulfill.