The Four Stages of Life
The four ends of life or goals of humanity are called purusharthas. In Hindu tradition, these four comprise a scheme or set of goals that tell what life is for. The scheme has been maintained in its currentform for over 2,000 years.
Artha is the first aim of life. It signifies material prosperity and achieving worldly well-being. The word literally means “thing, object, or substance,” but signifies the whole range of tangible objects that can be possessed, enjoyed, and lost, and which you require in your life for the upkeep of a household, raising of a family, and discharge of religious duties. Wealth and material well-being is not its own end; rather, it is a means to an enriched life.
Successes in the stage of artha are means to ends, since they help you support a household and discharge your civic duties. But there are limitations even at this stage, since success can be very private — success here is private, not cooperative. There is another problem: Wealth, fame, and power do not survive death and are, therefore, ephemeral.
Kama, which is the second aim of life, has to do with fun, but more generally pleasure. In Indian mythology, Kama is the counterpart of cupid; he is the Hindu god of love. Kama refers to the emotional being, feelings and desires. According to Indian philosophy, people denied their emotional lives and fulfillment of pleasurable desires are repressed and live under a continual strain. All of this is ruinous to their sanity and well-being.
Who was the Kama Sutra written for?
There is little doubt that the Kama Sutra was written for a predominantly male audience, setting out to cater to their sexual desires. Some passages refer to how men might better satisfy women’s sexual pleasure, but even these passages are male centered.
Kama teaching is exciting because it runs counter to frustrations resulting from arranged marriages of convenience. As time went on, marriages became more and more family managed affairs. There were no limits to how meddlesome the parents might be. Bargains struck by the heads of families, based on the horoscopes cast by astrologers and economic and social considerations, determined the fate of the young bride and groom.
The third of the four aims includes, in essence, the sum and substance of your religious and moral duties comprising your righteousness. Indian literature contains rituals and numerous social regulations for the three upper castes. Brahman (priest), Ksatriya (noble), and Vaisya (merchant and agriculturalist) are meticulously formulated according to the teaching of the Creator himself (in the Vedas).
Dharma is the doctrine of the duties and rights of each group and person in the ideal society, and as such the law or mirror of all moral action. Ethical life is the means to spiritual freedom as well as its expression on earth. At this stage, the individual undertakes a kind of religion of duty. Here, energy is directed toward helping others, but this service is also finite and will come to an end.
What people really want is found in the fourth aim, which is spiritual release. The chief end of man is the full development of the individual. The Upanishad tells us that there is nothing higher than people, but people are not mere assemblages of body, life, and mind born of and subject to physical nature. The natural half-animal being with which man confuses himself is not his whole or real being; it is the instrument for the use of spirit, which is the truth of his being. It is the ultimate aim, the final good, and as such is set over and above the other three. Artha, Kama, and Dharma, known as the trivarga, the “group of three,” are the pursuits of the world; each implies its own orientation or “life philosophy,” and to each a special literature is dedicated.
By far the greatest measure of Indian thought, research, teaching, and writing has been concerned with the supreme spiritual theme of liberation from ignorance and the passions of the world’s general illusion. Moksa, from the root muc, (“to loose, set free, let go, release”) means “liberation.” These and other terms taken together suggest something of the highest end of man as conceived by the Indian sage.
The sacred scriptures of the Hindus are the Vedas (“knowledge”). They were written in the ancient language of India, Sanskrit, and are considered to be the creation of neither human nor god. They are theeternal truth revealed or heard by gifted seers. Most of the Vedas have been superceded by other Hindu doctrines; nevertheless, their influence has been pervasive and long lasting.
In the western world, two publications stand out in the vast collection of Hindu scriptures and texts — The Upanishads and The Bhagavad-Gita. The name “Upanishads” means “sitting near,” as in being near enough to listen to your sage or master. The conversations found in these writings took place between gurus and their students and concern the meanings of the Vedas.
The Upanishads record the wisdom of Hindu teachers and sages who were active as far back as 1000 B.C.E. The texts form the basis of Indian philosophy. As they represent the final stage in the tradition of the Vedas, the teaching based on them is known as the Vedanta (“end of the Veda”).
The philosophical thrust of the Upanishads is discerning the nature of reality. Other concepts dealt with include equating atman (the self) with Brahman (ultimate reality), which is fundamental to all Hindu thought; the nature of morality and eternal life; and the themes of transmigration of souls and causality in creation.
A verse in the Upanishads illustrates how the universe is pervaded by Brahman: “When a chunk of salt is thrown into the water, it dissolves into that very water, and it cannot be picked up in any way. Yet, from whatever place on may take a sip, the salt is there! In the same way, this Immense Being (Brahman) has no limit or boundary and is a single mass of perception.”
Various translations of the Upanishads were published in Europe during the nineteenth century. Though they were not the best translations, they had a profound effect on many philosophical academics, including Arthur Schopenhauer.
The Bhagavad-Gita has been the exemplary text of Hindu culture for centuries. The Sanskrit title has been interpreted as “Song of the Lord,” which is a philosophical poem in the form of a dialogue. Although it is an independent sacred text, it is also considered to be the sixth book in the Mahabharata.
The Mahabharata — the longest great Indian war epic poem — contains mythological stories and philosophical discussions. One of the main story lines is the conflict between Yudhishthira, the hero of the poem, and his duty or dharma. The Bhagavad-Gita’s structure is in the form of a dialogue between two characters — Arjuna, the hero preparing to go into battle, and Krishna, his charioteer. But Krishna is not quite what he seems. Arjuna is characterized by not only his physical prowess but also his spiritual prowess, which involves a mystical friendship with Krishna. From the start, Arjuna knows that his charioteer is no ordinary mortal. The power of Krishna’s divinity gradually unfolds in all of its terrible glory, and Arjuna sees himself mirrored in the divine.
The Bhagavad-Gita offers a philosophy of karma when Krishna counsels Arjuna to do his duty as a warrior, as Arjuna hesitates at the thought of killing members of his own family on the battlefield.
Though they do not worship one ultimate god, Hindus do believe in a supreme being who has unlimited forms. This is not a contradiction in terms because of the many forms these deities take. For instance,Vishnu and Lakshmi have the full powers of a god, but Brahm and Sarasvati have only partial godlike aspects. The Hindu approach to all this has their philosophy of nonspecific inclusion at its core.
The search for the worship of the “One that is All” is made through a favorite divinity, of which there are many. However, there is no exclusivity in the choice of the divinity to worship during the search. Imagine that the search for the “One that is All” is like a revolving mirrored ball in a dance hall. The observer meditates on the search and a beam of light goes on illuminating one side of the glass ball, which is slowly turning in the light. As it turns, mirrored facets are visible and the observer selects one on which to concentrate. The ball is the “One that is All”; its mirrored facets are its deities.
The avatara is a Hindu concept, signifying the descent to earth of the deity. It has come to mean an incarnation or exemplar. Among the most popular and best-known avatars are some of the ten incarnations of Vishnu, which include Krishna and Rama. Krishna is probably number one in popularity.
Hindu teachings revolve around what, to Western eyes, might seem to be a vast series of interlocking narratives, rather like the actions in a play. In fact, that is exactly how some of them are presented. Their purpose is to draw the Hindu audience into a discourse. For several years, people have responded to prominent stories of a divine play and interactions between gods and humans. In watching the narratives played out, Hindus have often experienced themselves as members of a single imagined family. To play out the narratives, a deity enters this world as an avatar — a deity who descends and is manifest in a bodily form.
The plot of such a presentation follows. Women performers sometimes act out the story of a popular narrative called ramayana. The cast is comprised of Rama, Sita, and the wicked Havana. It is a tragic story, one of love, honor, and courage. Havana kidnaps Sita. Rama rescues Sita and kills Havana, but the lovers are forced to separate. The story represents the tragedy of life in the real world, where love of the soul for god is constantly tested.