The Four Purposes of Life: Discovering Your True Purpose with Ancient Indian Philosophy
I recently dropped a kid off at college and found myself stressing over how she’d take to adulting. Eighteen years of stability, comfort and organic food given up for a tiny box of a room, unhealthy food, and the freedom to binge on alcohol and god knows what else teenagers binge on. I suddenly seemed to be afflicted with amnesia, unable to recall any risky behavior I might have indulged in when I left home for college. My mom asked me if I’d taught her to cook. I rolled my eyes and said, “There are thousands of YouTube videos that she can watch to cook anything she wants. The correct question is, “Does she want to cook?””. What about managing money? We live in a world of digital currency. No more worrying about cash when there’s Venmo. The question is, what will she spend money on? As this conversation went on, I realized, somewhat triggered by Yuval Noah Harari’s works that I’d been reading, that two important questions to answer on our journey to adulting is “What do I really want?" and “Why do I want it?” As Google becomes our most trusted friend and guide, TikTok and Instagram tell us what we should like, and Amazon tells us what we should buy, do we have free choice anymore? “Know thyself” is age old wisdom but is probably more relevant and important today than it has ever been.
The oldest seeds of human self awareness can be traced through the hazy maze of history to almost ten thousand years ago. The roadmap for human life lies like a diamond in the rough within the cryptic, archaic Sanskrit literature called the Vedas. Aptly called Purushartha (literally translated to “self meaning”), the Vedas alluded to four objectives of human life: earn one’s living, experience life to fulfill one’s desires, live a life of balance to understand and abide by what’s right, and finally, learn to let go, be “free” of desire. Detailed works expounding upon each of these four objectives were subsequently recorded by various scholars. We can distill some core principles from this ancient wisdom and use them as a compass to help us live with awareness.
Artha, pursuit of material objectives: The Purusharthas advocate for the pursuit of wealth and material comforts. However, this needs to be done within the boundaries of Dharma. Dharma is a word that is impossible to translate into English. In this context, it implies that the pursuit of wealth must be done without harming others and in an honest manner. The guidance is to work with utmost focus without being attached to the work, or the fruits of the work. Through our work, we contribute our bit to the betterment of humankind. How do we interpret this in modern society? Some thoughts: