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The Place Of Kāma Among Other Puruṣārthas: A Sanskrit Poetics Perspective

A goalless life is a life gone waste. Traditional Indian knowledge systems have discussed at length about life-goals and brought them together under the over-arching term “puruṣārtha”. Before venturing to understand the meaning of “puruṣārtha”, it is useful to dwell a bit on the term “puruṣa” itself.

Puruṣa is a key concept in Sāṃkhya, one of the six main schools of Indian philosophy. According to this school, each individual being (“jīva”) is in reality an unchanging, conscious principle called “puruṣa” (“True Self”). There are as many True Selves as there are individual beings. Similar to someone misidentifying himself/herself with his/her image on a mirror, the True Self misidentifies itself with its reflection in an ever-changing, unconscious “prakṛti” (“Matter”), another important Sāṃkhyan concept. Unlike the plural Selves, Matter is single and encompasses everything from our minds and bodies to the objects, such as trees and houses, seen in the external world. Its elements are the three dynamically interacting guṇas – sattva, rajas, and tamas – that, though invisible, can be inferred from the effects they bring about at the mental and physical levels. Sattva is responsible for pleasure, rational thought, and agile movements; rajas for displeasure, confused thought, and agitated physical movements; and tamas for blunting of feeling, irrational thought, and immobility.

The misidentification of the True Self with Matter transforms the former into an individual being that goes through pain and pleasure – both features of the materially derived mind. Such an individual being has its own self-concept. However, the self that the individual being conceives itself to be is an apparent self. This self, founded as it is on Matter, keeps changing unlike the True Self. The supreme goal of life, known as “mokṣa” (“spiritual liberation”), is dependent on the True Self’s identification with itself as against its reflection in Matter’s mirror. In reaching this goal, the individual being that the True Self has become must put to proper use its buddhi (intellect), which, surprisingly, is an evolute of Matter. Thus, Matter binds but, as intellect, it also shows the way to eternal freedom. The journey towards this freedom is a long-drawn one. It occurs in stages – stages where the individual being attains goals that are hierarchically placed below spiritual liberation. Just as one carries a different set of paraphernalia while travelling, for say 50 kilometers and 500 kilometers, so one is equipped with a different psychophysical apparatus to achieve different goals. It is self-evident that goals that are more difficult to achieve require a more developed psychophysical apparatus that than those that are comparatively easier to achieve.

In the backdrop of what has been discussed above, puruṣārtha can be understood as referring to hierarchically placed life-goals of the individual beings, limited by Matter, that puruṣas have become. It can be classified into two sets of goals: (1) goals operating in the world of Matter and Artha (2) the supreme goal of eternal freedom from the world of Matter, i.e., abiding in one’s real nature as puruṣa. The first set of goals comprises a triad known as “trivarga” that includes artha, kāma, and dharma. Artha is the goal of material prosperity that brings within its fold the acquisition, protection, augmentation, and utilization of a material object. Kāma refers to deriving pleasure from a material object in two senses: firstly, by mere exposure to the said object, and secondly, in a wider sense, by enjoying the object after acquiring it. Dharma pertains to earning unseen merit (puṇya) through the ethically guided realization of artha and kāma. Dharma is twofold. Pravṛtti-dharma is the performance of ethically sound actions while being engaged with the material world. Nivṛtti-dharma is the performance of such ethical actions as would naturally lead the performer towards the next goal of spiritual liberation by gradually disengaging him/her from Matter. The goals of artha and kāma can be truly described as puruṣārtha only when they fall within the ambit of dharma. This is so, because, only then do they allow the puruṣa to evolve towards the ultimate state of freedom from Matter. The pursuit of artha and kāma for their own sake is no puruṣārtha. It is nothing more than hedonism and doesn’t contribute a bit towards the evolution of puruṣa. Among life-goals, materially derived pleasure is placed above mere material prosperity; ethical pursuit of material prosperity and pleasure is placed above that which is unethical; and eternal freedom from Matter is a higher goal than the ethical pursuit of material prosperity and pleasure. In other words, artha, kāma, dhrama, and mokṣa exist along a hierarchical continuum with artha placed below and mokṣa above all other life-goals.

How is the discussion on puruṣārtha pertinent to Sanskrit poetics? This larger question must be addressed before one narrows down one’s focus to Kāma per se and its place in Sanskrit poetics. To answer this question, we can turn our attention to two towering Sanskrit aestheticians, Abhinavagupta (10th-11th century AD) and Bhoja (11th century AD). It is well-known that Abhinavagupta discusses at length about the aesthete’s joyful appreciation of literature, both as text and dramatic performance, in his commentary on Bharata’s (2nd century BC – 2nd century AD) Nāṭyaśāstra. However, Abhinavagupta also stresses on the educative value of literature, drama in particular, at several places. While watching a dramatic performance, the audience not only experiences a heightened state of delight (rasa) but also receives education (vyutpatti). This education is all about which life-goals one must pursue and how one must or mustn’t pursue them. It is about how one character successfully attains its life-goal by employing goal-congruent means as against another character that is unsuccessful in attaining a life-goal because it employs goal-incongruent means. Are all the characters in a drama equally important in imparting the knowledge of life-goals to the audience? According to Abhinavagupta, it is from the actions of the hero (nāyaka) and the anti-hero (pratināyaka) that we learn about the successful and unsuccessful pursuit of life-goals respectively. The hero acts towards attainment of his life-goal after ensuring that the aggregate of means necessary for such attainment is under his disposal. His actions therefore bear fruit. The anti-hero’s actions do not bear fruits because he does not possess the aggregate of means for realizing his life-goal.[i] Since the audience acquires knowledge about the successful attainment of a life-goal from the hero, dramatists are cautioned to not portray him as wavering in his goals.

Can one not learn about life-goals, goal-congruent means, and means-appropriate actions from the mundane world itself? Why invoke drama for this purpose? Abhinavagupta argues that a drama teaches us about the positive or negative consequences of our actions in the matter of a few hours or days.[ii] In the real world, we need to live an entire life to realize the consequences of our past actions. It is also quite possible that the implications of our past actions remain a mystery to us even at the moment of death. Drama provides definite answers to people whose everyday lives are characterized by uncertainty as regards the future impact of current actions.

Whereas Abhinavagupta foregrounds the relationship between a character’s life-goals, goal-congruency of means, means-appropriateness of actions, and the extent to which actions are successful in bringing about goal fulfillment, Bhoja tackles a much more basic question: Why is it that the actions of one character (e.g., the hero) bring about desired results whereas those of another (e.g., the anti-hero) don’t? Put differently – Why is it that one character achieves its life-goal whereas another doesn’t? In an attempt to answer this question, Bhoja works out a sophisticated theory of character personality and typology. Here, I bring together the potted contents of Bhoja’s theory as detailed by me elsewhere (in Rajaraman, 2017). This theory draws heavily from the Sāṃkhyan notion of guṇas. The three guṇas are always changing in their relative strengths by overpowering one another. However, this change is not random. In any given person and across several situations, one of the three guṇas always predominates thereby allowing a guṇa-based classification of his/her personality. Keeping this logic in mind, Bhoja classifies prototypical literary characters, i.e., characters that are described as exclusively pursuing one of the four life-goals, into four groups: sattvodrikta (characterized by an excess of sattva guṇa), sāttvika, rājasa, and tāmasa. In the context of Sanskrit poetics, he renames them, in that order, as śānta, udātta, lalita, and uddhata.[iii] The life-goals corresponding to these character personality types are mokṣa, dharma, kāma, and artha respectively. If one were to hierarchically arrange these character types on the basis of increasing levels of sattva guṇa, one would have uddhata in the bottommost position followed by lalita, udātta, and śānta.

The building blocks of personality are traits. Bhoja enumerates several traits that go to form each of the four character personality types. Each of these traits is also referred to as “guṇa”. These guṇas can be understood as second-order traits that are further elaborations of the first-order traits, namely, sattva, rajas, and tamas. Bhoja categorizes the second-order traits into three groups: 16 differentiating traits, 24 commonly shared traits, and 8 unique traits for each character type. Given ‘A’ and ‘B’ are two different character types, the differentiating traits inform us how ‘A’ is different from ‘B’, the commonly shared traits how ‘A’ is similar to ‘B’, and the unique traits how ‘A’ and ‘B’ are unique in their own ways. In total, including all the four character types, there are 120 second-order traits ([16X4] + [24] + [8×4]). These traits are mostly part of the character’s psychophysical apparatus. But some also extend into the character’s social, moral, and spiritual spheres, thus pointing to the all-pervasive nature of these second-order traits and through them of the three first-order ones. Traits are the final means through which a personality type can execute goal-relevant actions; the paraphernalia in its life’s journey towards an end.

Of the three categories of traits specified above, it is the commonly shared traits that are the most important. All the 24 commonly shared traits are positive. This means that the commonly shared traits are second-order traits under the first order trait of sattva. The uddhata character, dominated by tamas, partakes fewer of these shared traits. According to Bhoja, such a character can possess 12 – 18 commonly shared traits. These many traits are enough to achieve the lowermost goal of artha that the uddhata character pursues. At the other end, the śānta character must possess all the 24 commonly shared traits because the life-goal of mokṣa is the most difficult to achieve. The lalita character can possess anywhere from 18 to 24 shared traits. Finally, an udātta character, pursuing dharma, must, like the one pursuing mokṣa, possess all the 24 shared traits. Does this mean that characters pursuing dharma and mokṣa are identical? No, because the two differ from one another by way of the 16 differentiating and, most importantly, the eight unique, traits. The 24 commonly shared traits are as follows: exalted birth (jāti), exalted lineage (anvaya), exalted kinship (abhijana), exalted nationhood (nivāsa), exalted habitation (āspada), exalted position (pada), exalted filial connection (pitarau), superhuman influence (prabhāva), wisdom (prajñā), learning/domain-specific knowledge (śāstrajñāna), absence of self-depreciatory talk (adīnavākyatā), rhetorical ability (vāgmitva), spatiotemporal propriety of thought and behavior (deśakālāvabodha), ability to accurately decode others’ expressive behaviors (iṅgitākārajñatā), skill (dākṣya), artistic aptitude (kalāvaidagdhya), shrewdness (caturatā), physical beauty/exalted physical appearance (rūpasampat), sex appeal (saubhāgya), generosity (tyāga), friendship (sauhārda), exalted enterprise (mahārambhatā), physical prowess (śakti), and bravery (śaurya).[iv]

As regards a prototypical character that exclusively pursues kāma (the prime focus of this article), it has been said above that such a character possesses 18-24 commonly shared traits. The six shared traits that this character might not possess are wisdom, superhuman influence, spatiotemporal propriety of thought and behavior, ability to accurately decode others’ expressions, exalted enterprise, and friendship.[v] The eight unique traits of this character type are suveṣatā (being well-groomed), sampriyatā (attractiveness), yauvana (youthfulness), sthūlalakṣatā (liberality in bestowing others with gifts), priyamvadatva (pleasing talk), lālitya (natural gracefulness in mannerisms), mādhurya (freedom from fury under all circumstances), and dṛḍhabhaktitā (fidelity in relationships, especially romantic ones).[vi]

The 24 shared traits not only allow a character type to perform actions that are goal-relevant; in the uddhata and lalita character types, these traits are appropriated by the ego (through the process known as “abhimāna”) and are responsible for the emergence of self-identities such as “I am skilled” and “I hold an exalted position”. Though the other two character types possess these traits more completely, their self-identities are not based on them. The udātta character’s self-identity is founded on ethical actions stemming from these traits. It is of the nature “I never transgress ethical injunctions in my actions”. The śānta character’s self-identity is of the nature “I am eligible for eternal freedom from Matter” or, put differently, “I am someone whose actions, directed at material objects, are dwindling with time”. To summarize, self-identity of the uddhata and lalita characters is dependent on traits, of the udātta character on action (ethical), and lastly, of the śānta character, on imminent inaction.

When traits promote goal-relevant actions through which a goal-congruent object is acquired or alternatively, a goal-incongruent one thwarted, trait-based self-identities such as “I am skilled” are strengthened. At an experiential level, the strengthening of self-identity evokes a pleasurable mental state. On the contrary, when traits actualize as feeble goal-relevant actions through which neither a goal-congruent object can be acquired nor a goal-incongruent one thwarted, trait-based self-identities are weakened. This leads to the experience of a displeasurable mental state. What has been said above holds good for the uddhata and lalita characters only because it is they that have trait-based self-identities. Not acquiring a goal-congruent object or being unable to thwart a goal-incongruent one does not lead to displeasurable mental states in the udātta character because his/her self-identity owes only to the performance of ethical actions, determined by scriptural authority or the actions of ethically superior others, not to something personal such as traits. In this case, there is no personal blame attached to oneself if one’s ethical actions have not borne fruit. As regards the śānta character that is established in inaction, the very question of trait-based action doesn’t arise. In spite of this, it must be conceded that even the śānta character must perform certain actions as long as he/she is embodied. As regards the nature of actions they perform, śānta characters resemble udātta ones.

The uddhata and lalita characters experience displeasurable mental states not only when their trait-based self-identities are weakened as a consequence of failure to procure goal-congruent objects through actions stemming from traits. They also experience them due to other reasons discussed below. The uddhata character pursues an object whose acquisition will enhance his/her social worth and alleviate an underlying fear of losing status. He/she does not allow previous experience of pleasure (like lalita), ethics (like udātta), or spiritual knowledge (like śānta) to guide him/her in deciding which object must be pursued and which not. Because there are fewer restrictions on the uddhata character to choose, his/her universe of pursuable objects is the largest. Unfortunately, a larger universe of pursuable objects also means more competition. More competition means a greater possibility for failure to acquire a desired object. Greater possibility for failure in turn carries an enhanced risk of disruption to self-identity. And lastly, greater the disruption of self-identity, more the possibility of displeasurable mental states such as sadness, fear, and anger (directed often at fellow competitors to the same object). The lalita character is only slightly better off than the uddhata character. When he/she chooses to pursue or not pursue a given object, he/she allows previous pleasurable or displeasurable experience with that object as a guide for the present time. His/her universe of pursuable objects may be smaller than that of the uddhata character but it is still larger than that of the other two character types. Competition, the possibility of failure to acquire a desired object, disruption of self-identity, and interpersonal problems involving co-competitors exist in the case of a lalita character too. As for the udātta character, ethical injunctions themselves limit the universe of pursuable objects and thereby reduce competition. Finally, the śānta character is pursuing something which he/she alone in the universe can pursue and attain, namely, his/her True Self. No one else can compete with him/her for realizing the True Self that he/she is. This True Self is like the joy of our deep sleep – something each of us can attain and must attain by and for ourselves.

To understand kāma through the lens of Sanskrit poetics is to understand it vis-à-vis other life-goals. The lalita character exemplifies an individual who preferentially pursues kāma over other life-goals. Such a character represents a prototype that we may never come across in our real lives. The actual world is populated by non-prototypes who life-goals are dynamic. At times, we behave like an uddhata character. At other times, we resemble a lalita character. We rarely rise to the level of an udātta character. And we almost never touch the heights of a śānta character. Dynamic individuals that we are, we are a confusing and a confused lot. Literature, especially drama, brings the non-prototypical “us” face to face with the prototypical “they”. All our confusions dissolve in the prototypicality of primary characters (heroes, in particular) that come alive before us. These characters teach us about life-goals such as kāma in their essential, unalloyed state. They seem to tell us this: “If kāma is what you aspire for, pursue it in the way we do”. And most importantly, they teach us in the softest (sukumāra) way possible without letting us be aware that we are being taught.[vii]


Primary Sanskrit texts with Abbreviations:

A.Bh.4 – Abhinavabhāratī commentary of Abhinavagupta on the Nāṭyaśāstra of Bharata.

Vol. 1. Ed. K. Krishnamoorthy. 4th ed. Vadodara: Oriental Institute, 1992.

S.P – Śṛṅgāraprakāśa of Bhoja. 2 vols. Ed. Rewaprasada Dwivedi and Sadashivakumara

Dwivedi. New Delhi: Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts, 2007.

Secondary reference:

Rajaraman S. (2017). Bhoja’s Model for Analysing the Mental States of Literary Characters Based on Samkhya Metaphysics. In: Menon S., Nagaraj N., Binoy V. (eds) Self, Culture and Consciousness. Springer, Singapore

[i]A.Bh.4, Vol. 1, Ch. 1, p. 7: Dhīrodāttadhīralalitadhīroddhatadhīrapraśāntānāṃ pūrṇopāyapravṛttatvena nāyakānā-matādṛgupāyāśrayeṇa pratināyakānāṃ ca caritaṃ saphalatvāphalatvena sākṣātkriyamāṇaṃ

[ii]A.Bh.4, Vol. 1, Ch. 1, p. 13: Sarveṣāṃ karmāṇāṃ kriyamāṇānāmanu paścādacireṇaiva kālena darśakaṃ pañcaṣādibhireva divasaiḥ śubhāśubhakarmatatphalasambandhasākṣātkāro yatretyarthaḥ

[iii] S.P, Vol. 2, Ch. 15

[iv] A careful reading of the verses provided by Bhoja to illustrate the 24 identity-related traits facilitated translation of the Sanskrit trait names into their English equivalents. To elucidate with an example, nivāsa and āspada might both generally mean “abode” in Sanskrit. The verses provided by Bhoja for illustrating selfidentity based on nivāsa and āspada are as follows respectively:

evaṃ tayoradhvani daivayogādāseduṣoḥ sakhyamacintyahetu |

eko yayau caitrarathapradeśān saurājyaramyānaparo vidarbhān || (S.P, Vol. 2, Ch. 19, p. 1028; source: Raghuvaṃśa, 5.60)

Translation: By chance, the two met each other on the way and became friends. And then one of them proceeded towards the province ruled by Citraratha and the other towards Vidarbha, promising because of the good governance it enjoyed.

śriyaḥ padaṃ dvāravatīti nāmnā purī parītā lavaṇārṇavena |

astyāvṛtevāmararājadhānī nistriṃśanīlena nabhastalena || (S.P, Vol. 2, Ch. 21, p. 1092; source: unknown)

Translation: There exists a city by name Dvaravati, an abode of the Goddess of fortune. Surrounded by the salty ocean, it looks like heaven’s capital bound by the deep blue sky.

It is clear that the first verse refers to a group of people united under a common rule and the second merely to a place fit for being inhabited. On this basis, self-identities based on nivāsa and āspada have been understood as the traits of exalted nationhood and exalted habitation

[v] S.P, Vol. 2, Ch. 20, p. 1058: uttamasya prajñāprabhāvadeśakālāvabodheṅgitākārajñānamahārambhatā-sauhārdābhimānāḥ ṣaḍitare:’pi syuḥ; Though, for the sake of simplicity, the main article does not allude to the classification of character types into the superior, intermediate, and inferior subtypes, what this subtyping essentially stands for is that the superior character possesses all 24, the intermediate 18-24, and the inferior 12-18, shared traits. By specifying that the superior character possesses the 6 extra traits of wisdom, etc., Bhoja informs that these 6 traits are absent in the intermediate character

[vi] S.P, Vol. 2, Ch. 20, pp. 1059-1061: udāranepathyaprayogaḥ suveṣatā, sarvajanamanohāritvaṃ sampriyatā, tāruṇyāvatāro yauvanam, analpadātṛtvaṃ sthūlalakṣyatā, manojñabhāṣitā priyaṃvadatvam, abuddhikṛtā śṛṅgārākāraceṣṭā lālityam, sarvāvasthāsvanugratā mādhuryam, sthirānurāgatvaṃ dṛḍhabhaktitā

[vii] A.Bh.4, Vol. 1, Ch. 1, p.12: sarveṣāṃ varṇānāṃ sarasasukumāreṇa nayena svakartavyanirūpaṇaṃ

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(This article was published by IndiaFacts in 2018)

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