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Kāma as a Puruṣārtha: An Investigation


Kāma is counted among the four puruṣārthas or goals of life conceived in Hindu philosophy. Literally Kāma means ‘desire’ or ‘wish’. Though, Kāma is an extremely well-researched topic, especially in the context of Kāmasūtra, there has been little attention paid towards understanding Kāma as a puruṣārtha. This paper seeks to investigate this –how Kāma as a Puruṣārtha has been conceptualized in Hindu philosophy.

0. Introduction

Hindu philosophy speaks about four fold goals of human life termed as ‘caturvidha puruṣārtha’. ‘Puruṣa’ means human and ‘artha’ means object or goal. The four-fold goals are –dharma, artha, kāma, and mokṣa. While kāma refers to different desires that a human being is endowed with, artha refers to wealth, prosperity and the means necessary to afford a comfortable life. Dharma refers to a sense of ethics and duty within the confines of which one is advised to fulfil kāma and artha. Mokṣa, which is conventionally posited as the ultimate goal of life, refers to freedom from this cycle of life, death, and rebirth. This framework of life wherein each human being has an obligation to pursue the four-fold goals in his or her life is a unique and very important contribution of Hindu philosophy.

Though the puruṣārthas including kāma are an extremely well-researched topic, the researches on kāma have predominantly focussed either on the presentation of sexual desire and its fulfilment in the kāmaśāstra tradition[1], or on kāma as a limited pursuit that is secondary to other aims of life. For example, Joanna Macy in her 1975 paper titled ‘The Dialectics of Desire’ examines the notion of kāma in the sense of desire in both its positive and negative connotations as enunciated in different Hindu texts belonging to different philosophical schools. However, she does not investigate the Hindu conceptualization of kāma as a puruṣārtha.[2] Likewise, Shalini Shah in her 2007 paper examines kāma in Classical Sanskrit literature between 7th and 13th century CE and presents a comprehensive view of kāma in different śāstra traditions. Though she makes some noteworthy observations regarding the prominence given to kāma in some traditions as in Āyurveda over the other puruṣārthas, she does not explore this aspect in any depth.[3] As a whole, there has been little attention paid to kāma as a full-fledged puruṣārtha in its own right going beyond the auxiliary position it occupies in the conventional framework.

This paper aims to fill this gap in the modern scholarship by investigating how kāma has been conceptualized in Hindu philosophy by drawing from various Hindu texts starting from the śruti (veda) and smṛtis to itihāsa-purāṇa, kāmaśāstra, and bhakti literature to arrive at a comprehensive view of kāma as a full-fledged puruṣārtha.

In chapter one, I undertake a brief discussion on the definition of kāma and its different connotations. In chapter two, a presentation of conventional framework of puruṣārtha is undertaken. In chapter three, I examine kāma as the primary puruṣārtha. In the final chapter, a discussion on kāma as the parama (ultimate) puruṣārtha is undertaken.

I will limit myself in this study to an examination of kāma as a puruṣārtha and will not examine the conventional notion of kāma as erotic desire.

1. Defining Kāma

The Sanskrit word kāma is derived from the verbal root ‘kamum̐ kāntau’ and has a number of different but inter-related meanings. Monier Williams’ Sanskrit-English Dictionary lists wish, desire, longing, love, affection, object of desire or of love or of pleasure, pleasure, enjoyment, sensuality, as among the many meanings of kāma.[4] Joanna Macy observes that though the term kāma is often translated into English as sexual desire, its usage in Indian texts is as wide as the usage of English terms like desire and lust.[5] As a common denominator for the different usages of the term kāma, she defines the term as “a felt need for something, a wanting of something which is not yet in existence or not yet a part of oneself; it is the urge to remedy the sense of one’s own incompleteness; it involves, therefore, by definition, an internal separation, a sense of duality between the subject and the object for which desire is felt.”[6]

1.1. Kāma as Desire

The earliest references to kāma occur in the Veda. In the Ṛgveda 10.129, which constitutes the famous Nāsadīya sūkta, we find a description of kāma in the sense of primordial desire, a creative force. The sūkta says “Darkness there was: at first concealed in darkness this All was indiscriminated chaos. All that existed then was void and formless: by the great power of Warmth was born that Unit. Thereafter rose Desire (kāma) in the beginning, Desire, the primal seed and germ of Spirit. Sages who searched with their heart’s thought discovered the existent’s kinship in the non-existent.”[7] Likewise in Atharvaveda 19.52.1, we find a mantra stating “Thereafter rose Desire in the beginning, Desire the primal seed and germ of Spirit.”[8]

In the Brāhmaṇa texts also we find a reference to primordial desire that impelled the creation of the universe. Macy observes: “Creation myths in the literature of the Brāhmaṇas retain and reinforce the centrality of desire. Whether the desire is felt by the waters, the rishis or Prajāpati himself, its function is unmistakable.”[9] This function is the impelling of the creation as exemplified in Taittirīya Brāhmaṇa which notes how in the beginning there was nothingness and in this non-being which was alone, arose a wish to be, causing it to manifest a mind from itself.[10] Likewise Śatapatha Brāhmaṇa details how in the beginning there was only water i.e. the universe was in a state of undifferentiated unmanifestation and how this state of unmanifestation developed a desire to reproduce and bring about manifestation.[11] The same text at describes how in the beginning there were only the ṛṣis who had a desire to create and they created seven puruṣas through pain and austerity and then joined the seven into one Prajāpati who would further create the universe. The Prajāpati then desired to become more than one and performed austerities towards achieving the same.[12] We find similar references to primordial desire in the Upaniṣads as well.[13]

However, primordial desire is not the only sense in which the term kāma is used in Hindu philosophy. More often, the term is used in the sense of worldly, sensory and sexual desire.

In Manusmṛti 2.2-5 we find a discourse on how kāma is at the root of all actions and how without it the world cannot function. Verse 2.2 notes that though ideally one should not be solely driven by desire for rewards in his/her actions, it is impossible in the world to function without desires, for even positive and beneficial actions like the study of the Veda or the performance of activities prescribed in the Veda are all are prompted by desire only. Verse 2.3 adds that all desires are rooted in thought or will. That is, a person develops an intense desire to pursue a course of action only after he develops an understanding that such a pursuit leads one to the intended result. Verse 2.4 further stresses how no person in this world is without desire and every action done here is a result of desire. Verse 2.5 concludes the discussion by noting that if a person performs actions by developing a proper attitude towards desire, then he can achieve fulfilment in this world as well as immortality in hereafter. Thus, Manusmṛti posits kāma as a worldly desire that impels all actions.[14]

A more technical definition of kāma is given in the Kāmasūtra of Vātsyāyana, a prominent text in the Kāmasãstra tradition that is largely believed by scholars to have been composed between 400 BCE and 300 CE. Verse 1.2.11 of the text describes kāma as the pravṛtti (inclination/flow) of the senses of ear, skin, eye, tongue, and nose (whose base/ground of support is the manas/mind anchored to the ātman) towards those objects to which they are naturally drawn to.[15] The key phrase here is ‘pravṛtti’ which in this context refers to the desire or the inclination of the mind (and the senses) to obtain their objects of desire. This desire could be regarding any object, action, or a person that is perceived by the mind and the senses as a source of pleasure. Hence, we find Kāmasūtra 1.3.14-16 listing 64 different arts and skills as subjects under the purview of kāma.[16] However, Kāmasūtra as well as other texts in the Kāmasãstra tradition enunciate in great depth on sexual desire, ways of fulfilment of it and its place and function in a healthy society, thus showing a special connection between kāma and eroticism. Other concepts which are closely connected to the notion of kāma as a mental inclination or attachment include Rāga (passion), Rati (love) and Bhakti (devotion), which we would see in detail later.

1.2. Kāma as Pleasure

Desire or inclination of the mind, however, is not the only way the term kāma is understood in Hindu philosophy. Kāmasūtra 1.2.12 gives a second definition. It says that kāma is the pratīti (direct awareness/experience) of what results from the contact of the abhimānikā sukhānuviddhā (the one who self-identifies and who experiences joy) i.e. the mind with the object of senses.[17] The key phrase here is ‘pratīti’ which in this context refers to the pleasure experienced when one attains the object of desire through direct contact between the mind which is of the form of both ego and enjoyer and the object of the senses. The commentator Yaśodhara explains kāma as the pleasure or bliss experienced during sexual intercourse.[18] However, kāma as pleasure can easily be understood as being applicable to every kind of pleasure, joy, or bliss that one experiences when one attains one’s objects of desire.

Kāmasūtra thus provides a dual definition of kāma as being both pravṛtti or desire and pratīti or pleasure i.e. the means and the end goal, respectively. As a means, it impels a person to undertake a pursuit of the object of desire, and as the end goal, it stands for the pleasure one experiences upon the attainment of the object of desire. This dual definition is very vital for a holistic understanding of kāma as a puruṣārtha.

2. The Conventional Model of Puruṣārtha

Hindu philosophy understands and evaluates human life through the framework of puruṣārtha. The four tenets of puruṣārtha are at once ideals and values to live by, goals to be pursued that bring meaning to life, and means to attain overall wellbeing. However, all puruṣārthas do not have same weightage and hence, in the conventional model there is a hierarchy.

Kāmasūtra 1.2.14 enunciates that among the three puruṣārthas of dharma, artha, and kāma, the preceding ones are superior to succeeding ones.[19] That is, dharma is superior to artha, and both of them superior to kāma. Likewise Gautama Dharmasūtra 1.9.46-47 notes that a person should pursue all the three puruṣārthas, but among them he must chiefly attend to dharma.[20] On the other hand, from the Upaniṣads, we come to know that mokṣa is the highest puruṣārtha. From this we can gather:

  1. Dharma is the primary puruṣārtha.
  2. Artha and kāma are secondary puruṣārthas that act as auxiliary to Dharma.
  3. Mokṣa is the ultimate puruṣārtha

2.1. Dharma as Primary; Artha and Kāma as Auxiliary Puruṣārthas

In the conventional model, kāma refers to worldly desires, chiefly: desire for progeny (i.e. family and companionship), for wealth and prosperity, and for attaining heaven and other worlds after death.[21] Of the three, artha specifically concerns itself to wealth, prosperity and social security. Between the two of them, artha and kāma covers the entire gamut of worldly pleasures and worldly prosperity. However, if one were to pursue pleasure or wealth indiscriminately and recklessly, one would invariably end up in sorrow. To remedy this, Hindu philosophy has posited dharma as an ethical, duty-based and restraining goal of life that controls and facilitates a safe way of pursuing artha and kāma.

The term ‘dharma’ literally means ‘that which upholds’ and can be variously understood to mean ethics, morality, law, justice, duty, righteousness etc. depending upon the context of its usage. In the Mahānārāyaṇa Upaniṣad 79.7, we find following description of dharma: “Dharma, religious righteousness, is the support of the whole universe. All people draw near a person who is fully devoted to dharma. Through Dharma a person chases away sins. All are supported by dharma. Therefore, they say dharma is the supreme means of liberation.”[22]

Thus, in the context of an individual, dharma refers to ethical and duty-bound actions. In the context of a society, it refers to social harmony and morality. In the context of governance, dharma refers to law and justice, and in the cosmic context, it refers to cosmic order and balance.

Further, dharma acts as a connecting principle that connects artha and kāma with mokṣa. As Srinivasa Rao observes: “Achieving mokṣa becomes possible only when a life pursuing desires (kāma) and wealth (artha) has been led consistently within the framework of dharma. Dharma thus plays a very crucial role in not only ensuring a  good life here and now, but also in enabling one to attain the state of supreme good or liberation, from which there is no lapsing back to karma and rebirth.”[23]

Thus, in the conventional puruṣārtha model, dharma plays a primary role of facilitating the attainment of the other three goals of life and as such can be considered as the primary puruṣārtha. As a result, Artha and kāma becomes delegated to a secondary position.

2.2. Mokṣa as the Ultimate Puruṣārtha

Mokṣa which generally refers to freedom from this cycle of life, death, and rebirth, has a specific connotation in the Vedic texts. In the Muṇḍaka Upaniṣad 3.2.9, mokṣa is defined as the knowledge of Brahman on attaining which one becomes Brahman.[24] Brahman refers to non-dual, eternal, infinite existence, knowledge, and bliss which is the unchanging substratum of this transient and transactional universe. This transient universe is held merely to be an appearance which arises due to ignorance about the true nature of Brahman and as such, liberation from the bondage of this universe lies in attaining direct knowledge of Brahman. Śvetāśvatara Upaniṣad 3.8 stresses that there is no other way than this to escape the cycle of birth and death.[25]

This attainment of knowledge of Brahman is posited as the highest goal of human life. Muṇḍaka Upaniṣad 3.2.9, for example, says on knowing Brahman, one becomes Brahman and then he becomes free from all grief and aberrations, and attains immortality.[26] Kaṭhopaniṣad 1.3.11 says there is nothing higher than this Brahman and it is the highest.[27] Taittirīya Upaniṣad 2.1.1, likewise, says that those who attain Brahman attain the highest.[28] Kenopaniṣat 2.5 goes a step further and declares: “If one has realized here, then there is truth; if he has not realized here, then there is great destruction. The wise ones, having realized (Brahman) in all beings and having turned away from this world, become immortal.”[29]

From these Vedic declarations it is very clear that in the conventional framework, mokṣa is the ultimate puruṣārtha.

3. Kāma as the Primary Puruṣārtha

In the chapter on defining kāma, we noted how kāma can be understood both as the means and the end result of all our pursuits in life. In this chapter, I shall further examine how kāma can be understood as the means in the context of puruṣārtha framework.

3.1. Mahābhārata’s Discussion on Puruṣārtha

In chapter 161 of the Śāntiparva of Mahābhārata, we find an interesting discussion between the five pāṇḍavās (Yudhiṣṭhira, Bhīma, Arjuna, Nakula and Sahadeva) and Vidura about which puruṣārtha is most important. Yudhiṣṭhira opens the discussion with the following leading questions: “The conduct of people is based on dharma, artha and kāma. Which of these is the most important? Which is medium and which is the least important? If one wishes to conquer all three categories together, which of these must one control? O wise ones! You should speak truthful words and satisfy me.”[30]

In short, the central question that Yudhiṣṭhira poses is: which among the four pursuits of life can be considered as primary pursuit from which all others spontaneously follow?

In response to this question, Vidura is the first one to speak. Positing the primacy of dharma he notes how the worlds are established in dharma and how even artha is submerged in dharma itself. He places dharma as supreme, artha as medium, and kāma as the least important. After Vidura, Arjuna put forwards his position. Positing the primacy of artha, he argues that all the activities can be accomplished only through artha and hence, without artha, even dharma and kāma cannot be acquired. This position is further upheld by Nakula and Sahadeva who add that artha and dharma are always united with each other and hence, must be pursued together. Bhīma speaks next and argues for the primacy of kāma noting how without kāma there will be no impulse to undertake any other pursuits. However, he adds that all the three puruṣārthas are to be pursued in equal measure. Finally, Yudhiṣṭhira puts forward his position on the issue. He notes that there is a fourth puruṣārtha called mokṣa apart from the three discussed, which is supreme, and which frees one from all the demerits, as well as from the dualities like happiness and unhappiness.[31]

Thus, the Mahābhārata puts forward nuanced arguments that uphold the primacy of each of the four puruṣārthas and add that all the four positions are based on sacred texts, i.e. all the four positions can be considered as authentic philosophical positions in Hindu tradition.

Let us now undertake a more careful examination of Bhīma’s arguments for the primacy of kāma.

3.2. Bhīma’s Enunciation of Kāma as the Primary Puruṣārtha

Bhīma is one of the important personalities of Mahābhārata. He is the second son of King Pāṇḍu and Queen Kuntī, the younger brother to Yudhiṣṭhira, the crown prince and physically the strongest pāṇḍavā. Bhīma not only played an important role in the Kurukṣetra war, but also in major events leading up to the war. Śrī Madhvācārya in Mahābhāratatātparyanirṇayah 2.134 notes that Bhīma was endowed with ten qualities –devotion, knowledge, dispassion, intelligence, retention, courage, steadfastness, endeavour, activity and strength[32] –and as such, his views on puruṣārthas are very significant.

Mahābhārata presents Bhīma’s position on kāma as below:

A person without kāma does not desire artha. A person without kāma does not desire dharma. A person without kāma cannot follow the path of desire. Therefore, kāma is the best. It is because they are united with kāma that the rishis are controlled in their austerities. They eat leaves, fruits and roots. They subsist on air and are greatly restrained. There are others who are engaged in chanting the Vedas, they are devoted to studying. They perform funeral rites and sacrifices and receive donations. Merchants, farmers, herdsmen, craftsmen and artisans are engaged in the tasks of the gods. But it is kāma that drives the action. Driven by kāma, men enter the ocean. Kāma has many different forms. Everything is driven by kāma. There is nothing, there was nothing and there will be nothing that is beyond the simple fact of kāma. O great king! This is the essence and dharma and artha are dependent on it. Kāma is to dharma and artha what butter is to curds. Oil is better than what is left of oilseeds after the extraction of oil. Ghee is better than what is left of milk after churning. Good fruit is better than wood. Kāma is superior to dharma and artha. Just as honey comes from the juice of flowers, like that, happiness comes from kāma. O king! Serve kāma. Pleasure yourself with women who are attired in extremely beautiful garments and are ornamented, mad with intoxication and pleasant in speech. Kāma will come to you swiftly. In this group, this is my view. O Dharma’s son! You should not reflect about this for a long time. If virtuous people paid heed to these beneficial words, which are not shallow in import, there would be the greatest kindness. One must serve dharma, artha and kāma in equal measure. If a man serves only one of these, he is the worst. A person who is accomplished in two is said to be medium. The superior person is engaged in all three categories. He is wise. His well-wishers smear him with sandalwood paste. He is adorned in colourful garlands and ornaments.[33]

  1. From the above excerpt, we can see that Bhīma puts forward three significant arguments for establishing the primacy of kāma among the three puruṣārtha:
  2. First, Bhīma posits kāma as the root of all actions, an idea which is also enunciated in Manusmṛti2-5. He notes that kāma in the sense of the desire is the cause of dharma and artha. Without desire, there is neither dharma, nor artha, and hence, both are fully dependent upon kāma. He further notes that kāma has many forms and it is desire that impels some to take to austerities and others to exert themselves in worldly pursuits. That is, dharma and artha can also be considered as a special manifestation of kāma. Kāma is thus supreme as it is not only the cause of all the three puruṣārthas, but the different puruṣārthas are nothing but different forms of kāma itself.
  3. Second, Bhīma posits Kāma in the sense of pleasure as the essence of all pursuits as it is the end-goal of all pursuits. Kāma constitutes the essence, the juice, the end-goal of both dharma and artha, and hence superior to both of them. Bhīma illustrates this using a number of illustrative examples: butter being the essence of the curd, oil being the essence extracted from the oilseeds, ghee being the essence extracted from the milk, honey being the essence extracted from the flowers –in each case the essence extracted or the end-result being superior to the means used to attain it. Thus, kāma is supreme because all human pursuits, all the three puruṣārthas finally end in kāma –the pleasure and happiness, which is the essence of all pursuits.
  4. Third, to Yudhiṣṭhira’s central question about which among the puruṣārthas is superior, which the middling, and which the inferior, Bhīma does not designate any particular puruṣārthas to respective categories. Instead, he notes that pursuit of all the three –dharma, artha, and kāma –in equal measure is the superior path, pursuing any two of them is the middling, and pursuing only one of them is inferior.

3.3. Kāma as the Cause of Dharma and Artha; Trivarga as Special Manifestations of Kāma

In the conventional framework of puruṣārthas, trivarga or three categories refers to dharma, artha, and kāma, and aparvarga (completion) refers to mokṣa. Among the three arguments put forward by Bhīma, let us now examine the first and the third argument more carefully. We will take up the second argument for a deeper examination in the next chapter.

In the first argument, Bhīma sheds light on two meaningful ways to understand the puruṣārtha of kāma: kāma as the cause of dharma and artha, and the trivarga as a special manifestation of kāma.

In the conventional framework, dharma refers to the desire for karmic merit, artha refers to the desire for wealth and prosperity, and kāma refers to the desire for erotic and other mundane pleasures. Kāma here is used in a very limited sense. However, kāma also refers to desire itself and has a much larger scope. If we take the meaning of kāma in this larger universal sense, then all desires are kāma including the desire for karmic merit and wealth. Thus, be it erotic desire, or desire for material prosperity, or desire for karmic merit, they are ultimately desire itself i.e. the trivarga constitutes three different forms or special manifestations of kāma.

Further, without the principle of desire, neither dharma nor artha is possible as desire impels action required to acquire dharma and artha. Thus, kāma is the cause of both dharma and artha.

Though, not stated explicitly, it is this dual understanding of kāma vis-à-vis trivarga that leads Bhīma to declare that the pursuit of trivarga in equal measure is the superior path. Since, dharma, artha, and kāma are all special manifestations of kāma, for leading a meaningful and wholesome life, one must definitely pursue all of them in equal measure.

3.4. Mumukṣutva as a Special Manifestation of Kāma

Bhīma’s arguments for the primacy of kāma was made with respect to trivarga alone, because Yudhiṣṭhira’s questions were limited to the context of trivarga. The conventional model posits mokṣa as the ultimate goal of life and hence superior to trivarga, an argument put forward by Yudhiṣṭhira as well. However, in the light of Bhīma’s insights into the nature of kāma, we should re-examine its position vis-à-vis mokṣa.

The vedānta darśana, which is rooted in the Upaniṣads, concerns itself specifically with the puruṣārtha of mokṣa and enunciates on questions like what is mokṣa, what practices one must adopt to attain mokṣa, and what eligibility competencies that a seeker must develop in order to successfully practice the required practices. The last question about eligibility competencies is particularly relevant to the current discussion.

While the enunciation of eligibility competencies for vedānta practice is scratted across the various Upaniṣads, Ādi Śaṅkarācārya in his Vivekacūḍāmaṇi 17-30 has grouped them into four categories: viveka (discrimination between real and unreal), vairāgya (dispassion towards worldly objects), ṣaṭka-saṃpatti (a set of six virtues: restraint of mind and senses, forbearance, withdrawal of mind from worldly objects, one-pointed concentration, and trust in the words of śāstra and guru), and mumukṣutva (a burning desire for liberation from the cycle of birth and death).[34] They are together designated in the vedānta tradition as sādhanacatuṣṭaya.

Though, all the four categories of competencies are equally important to start on the path of vedānta practice, it is self-evident that without an intense desire for liberation or mumukṣutva, a person will not begin making efforts to even attain sādhanacatuṣṭaya. Hence, mumukṣutva can be considered as the primal cause which impels one to first pursue and attain sādhanacatuṣṭaya, and then get into vedānta practice to ultimately attain mokṣa.

However, mumukṣutva is nothing but desire itself, though the object of desire is not a material object here, and as such, mumukṣutva is merely another form or another special manifestation of kāma. As a corollary, we can conclude that kāma is the root-cause (though not the immediate cause[35]) of mokṣa as well.

3.5. King Bhoja’s Classification of Personality Types and Their Corresponding Puruṣārthas

In the previous sections, we have not only established kāma in the sense of desire as the root-cause of all the four puruṣārthas, but have also shown how the four puruṣārthas are different forms or special manifestations of kāma itself.

However, the discussion will remain incomplete if we do not answer the following questions:

What makes kāma to manifest in four different forms?

Why in some people the desire predominantly takes the form of pursuit of social worth and material prosperity, while in others it takes the form of pursuit of ethical goals?

Why in some people it takes the form of pursuit of material pleasure and in others as a pursuit of dispassion towards material objects?

We find an answer to this in King Bhoja’s Śṛṅgāraprakāśa, a treatise on Sanskrit poetics. Bhoja was a polymath, poet, and a scholar-king who ruled in central India during eleventh century CE. In this magnum opus, Bhoja borrows the sāṃkhya concept of prakṛti and applies it to poetics for classifying the literary characters into different categories based on their personality types. Based on whether a character’s personality and psychological make-up is driven by the preponderance of sattva-guṇa (clarity of thought), rajo-guṇa (activity), tamo-guṇa (inertia), or sattvodrikta (an excess of sattva-guṇa), Bhoja classifies the characters respectively into four categories: udātta, lalita, uddhata and śānta.[36]

He further lists a set of twenty-four traits[37] and classifies the characters into uttama (superior), madhyama (middling) and kaniṣṭha (inferior), based on whether they contain all the twenty-four traits, or eighteen traits, or only twelve traits, respectively. While udātta and śānta characters are considered superior, lalita characters could be either superior or middling, and uddhata characters are either intermediate or inferior.[38]

In addition to these twenty-four traits, each character type also possesses a set of eight unique traits. The udātta’s unique traits are moral character, civility, steadfastness, profundity of character, confidence in one’s enterprise, maintenance of decorum, gratitude, and modesty. The lalita’s unique traits are being well-groomed, attractiveness, youthfulness, liberality in giving gifts, pleasing talk, natural gracefulness in mannerisms, sweetness without any fury, and fidelity in relationships. The uddhata’s unique traits include inability to bear the loss of status, enhancement of energy when insulted, narcissism, mannerisms associated with pride, boastfulness, impatience, inability to supress opinions when gripped by impulse, and impetuousness. Finally, śānta’s unique traits are forbearance, complete control over one’s senses, contentment, tranquility, cleanliness, guilelessness, contemplativeness, and dispassion.[39]

Further Bhoja connects the four puruṣārthas with the four character types and enunciates how each of the character types pursue life goals differently. While uddhata character single-mindedly pursues artha to the exclusion of other puruṣārthas, the lalita character pursues artha for the sake of kāma (i.e. enjoyment is the primary goal). The udātta and śānta characters concern themselves with dharma and mokṣa, respectively. Owing to their different prakṛti, each of the four character types evaluate an object or a course of action in a different way leading to a pursuit of different life goals. Owing to tamo-guṇa, the uddhata characters are exclusively concerned with the question whether possessing an object increases their social standing in the world and if it does, then they would do anything to acquire it. They do not bother themselves with either the ethical aspect of such a pursuit, or the philosophical necessity of such a pursuit. Nor are they bothered with the question whether such a possession of the said objects would bring them pleasure or not. Their sense of pleasure is restricted to temporarily attaining a positive mental state on acquiring an object due to temporary mitigation of their fear about the loss of social worth. However, the lalita characters are especially concerned with the question of pleasure. Owing to rajo-guṇa, they evaluate an object based on whether they can derive pleasure from it or not. If enjoying an object leads to pleasure, then they pursue it wholeheartedly. Otherwise, they don’t. Here, the aspect of enjoyment of an object, rather than preserving one’s social-worth takes precedence. However, they are also not bothered with ethical or philosophical concerns of such a pursuit. It is the udātta characters, owing to their sattva-guṇa, who are especially concerned with the ethical questions of any pursuit. They evaluate an object based on whether its acquisition is ethically right or not, and derive pleasure in pursuing objects within ethical framework. The śānta characters are, however, purely concerned with the philosophical questions regarding any pursuit. Owing to sattvodrikta, they evaluate an object based on whether it is permanent or impermanent. They increasingly try to distance themselves from the pursuit of worldly objects which are impermanent and instead focus upon attaining the eternal freedom from displeasure.[40]

Thus, there is a direct correlation between the prakṛti a literary character is endowed with, the personality traits he/she exhibits, and the puruṣārthas that he/she predominantly pursues. Since Bhoja conceptualises literary characters as possessing personalities the way individuals in the real-world do,[41] this correlation between prakṛti, the personality types, and the pursuit of puruṣārthas holds good with respect to real-world individuals as well. Hence, it is the prakṛti of an individual, which causes different people to pursue different puruṣārthas. The difference in prakṛti leads to different personality types, which in turn causes kāma or desire to manifest in four forms as desire for social worth (artha), desire for pleasure (kāma), desire for ethical adherence (dharma), and desire for liberation (mokṣa). However, since each individual in the real-world is endowed with all the three guṇas with one or two of them being predominant, most people pursue at least three, if not all the four of the puruṣārthas, but in varying intensity with the pursuit of one or two puruṣārthas being predominant.

4. Kāma as Parama Puruṣārtha

After examining in the previous chapter about how kāma in its meaning of desire is the root-cause that leads to a pursuit of all the four puruṣārthas, let us now examine in this chapter the second definition of kāma as pleasure and how it can be understood in the context of puruṣārtha as the end-result of all pursuits.

4.1. Kāma as the End-Goal of Trivarga

To understand kāma as pleasure and its relationship to trivarga, we will again have to turn to King Bhoja’s Śṛṅgāraprakāśa.

As we noted before, Bhoja enunciates how a person’s pursuit of particular puruṣārthas depends upon his/her prakṛti, because it is prakṛti which determines the kind of end-goal a person would want to pursue.

The pursuit of artha is undertaken by those with uddhata personality type, and in such a pursuit, the end-goal is the reinforcement of the uddhata’s trait-based self-identity and sense of social worth. Here the individual derives pleasure, albeit temporarily, in the reinforcement of his social worth. However, if such a person fails to obtain the objects of his pursuit, the non-acquisition leads to sadness and anger.[42]

The pursuit of kāma (taken in the limited sense as part of trivarga) is undertaken by those with lalita personality type, and here, the end-goal is the pleasure derived from the sensory enjoyment of the objects and as such, the pleasure is temporary. Here, the negative mental state in the form of sadness may arise due to inability of the person to experience pleasure because of not having the necessary traits to acquire means for enjoying the objects.[43]

The pursuit of dharma is undertaken by those with udātta personality types, and in such a pursuit the end-goal is the reinforcement of one’s conviction that he/she is an ethical person who is living life according to ethical dos and don’ts as prescribed in scriptural texts. Here, the individual derives pleasure in the form of satisfaction and contentment in the fact that he/she has acquired and enjoyed the material objects by staying within an ethical framework.[44]

The pursuit of trivarga, thus, ends with pleasure, the difference is only in the form of pleasure one experiences. Be it the pleasure derived from the reinforcement of social-worth, or the pleasure experienced in sensory enjoyments, or the pleasure derived from reinforcement of ethical conviction, they are all kāma itself. Therefore, kāma in the sense of pleasure is the true end-goal of trivarga.

4.2. Kāma as Brahman, Mokṣa as Supreme State of Kāma, and Bhakti as Special Manifestation of Kāma

In Bhoja’s model, the pursuit of mokṣa is undertaken by those with śānta personality type, and in such a pursuit while material objects are acquired and enjoyed by adhering to ethical principles, there is a continuous realization that these objects are impermanent, and thus their acquisition (and enjoyment) must be gradually reduced. Here, the experience of pleasure from the acquisition and enjoyment of material objects is accompanied by a conviction that the said pleasure is impermanent and the goal is to attain that which is permanent. As the list of objects pursued by such a person gets shorter, there is reinforcement of one’s conviction that he/she is eligible to attain liberation.[45]

However, this only shows the form of pleasure a person experiences when he/she is in the state of mumukṣutva and as such does not shed any light on mokṣa, the ultimate goal of life and how it is placed with respect to kāma understood in the sense of pleasure.

In the chapter on conventional model of puruṣārthas, we noted how mokṣa is defined as the knowledge of Brahman on attaining which one becomes Brahman. That is, the end-goal of pursuit of mokṣa is the attainment of Brahman or in other words, mokṣa is the state of existence as Brahman.

But, what does attainment of or existing as Brahman mean? In vedānta darśana, Brahman is often described as saccidānanda as existence, consciousness, and bliss.[46] It is important to note that terms like existence, etc. are not qualifying Brahman, instead they are used in the sense of definition of Brahman and hence, each term can be understood as independent definition of Brahman and need not be combined together for analysis.[47]

For our purpose, it would be enough if we enquire into the definition of ānanda that is applied to Brahman. Ānanda can be variously translated as joy, bliss, happiness, or pleasure. Ādi Śaṅkarācārya in his commentary on Taittirīya Upaniṣad 2.7.1-4, which is a section evaluating the concept of ānanda, states that ānanda can be understood in two ways based on “whether it arises from the contact of subject and object, as is the case with worldly happiness, or whether it is natural.” By ānanda which is natural, Ādi Śaṅkarācārya means Ānanda that is Brahman. He further explains the worldly bliss is “a particle of Bliss that is Brahman, which becomes transmuted into impermanent worldly bliss, consequent on knowledge becoming covered up by ignorance.”[48]

From this, it follows that ānanda as described in the Upaniṣad is kāma itself. Conventionally, we designate worldly pleasures as kāma and transcendental absolute bliss as ānanda. However, they both refer to a single principle of pleasure, albeit in different forms, and as noted by Ādi Śaṅkarācārya the worldly pleasures flow from absolute Pleasure that is Brahman.

Thus, Kāma is Brahman and mokṣa which is understood as attaining Brahman or existing as Brahman can be called as the supreme state of kāma. It is no surprise then that in a text like Lalitāsahasranāma that enunciates the thousand names of Goddess Lalitā­ –a deity who is the feminine representation of Brahman and is explicitly identified with Brahman in the text –we find that She is addressed by names such as –Mahāratiḥ (Great Delight), Mahābhogā (Supreme Enjoyment), Bhoginī (the Enjoyer), Ratirūpā (She who is in the form of pleasure), Ratipriyā (She who loves pleasure), Ramaṇalampaṭā (She who loves to sport with her consort), Kāmyā (the Desired), Kāmakalārūpā (She who is of the form of both kāma and kalā) , Kāmapūjitā (She who is worshipped by Kāma, the deity of love), Śṛṅgārarasasampūrṇā (She who is fully filled with sentiment of erotic love), Lolākṣīkāmarūpiṇī (She who is in the form of desire in women), Brahmānandā (She who is Bliss that is Brahman), Premarūpā (She who is in the form of love), Kāmadhuk (Fulfiller of Desires), Kāmarūpiṇī (She who has desirable form), and Rasaśevadhiḥ (She who is the treasure-house of rasa) –that have clear association with kāma in both its meanings of desire and pleasure.[49]

However, in the bhakti traditions, we find a conceptualization of bhakti and not mokṣa as highest goal of life.[50] Here bhakti is understood both as the means and as the end-goal.[51] But, the very definition of bhakti shows that it is a special kind of kāma itself. Nārada Bhakti Sūtra Verse 2-3, for example, defines bhakti as parapremarūpā (of the form of highest love) and amṛtasvarūpā (of the nature of immoral bliss).[52] Likewise Śāṃḍilya Bhakti Sūtra Verse 2-3 defines bhakti as parānuraktirīśvare (supreme attachment to Īśvara) and adds that one rooted in bhakti will experience immortal bliss.[53] We can find similar definitions in other texts of bhakti tradition as well. From these definitions it is clear that bhakti in its aspect of means refers to extreme love and attachment to Īśvara and in its aspect of the end-goal it refers to attainment of amṛta or immortal bliss. Thus, in both its aspects, bhakti is kāma itself. It is in fact a special form or manifestation of kāma, wherein the object of pursuit is Īśvara and not any worldly objects.

4.3. Madhusūdana Sarasvatī’s Conceptualization of Sukha as Parama Puruṣārtha

Madhusūdana Sarasvatī was a renowned teacher of advaita vedānta who lived in sixteenth and seventeenth century. He is especially known for his defence of advaita vedānta against the attacks by scholars of dvaita vedānta. In his Śrībhagavadbhaktirasāyanam, he provides singular insights about the framework of puruṣārtha and posits happiness unmixed with sorrow (duḥkha asambhinna sukha) as the parama puruṣārtha or highest goal of life.

In the commentary that he has himself written on the first chapter of Śrībhagavadbhaktirasāyanam, Madhusūdana Sarasvatī brings up the topic of puruṣārtha for discussion. He observes: “It is the established doctrine of all systems that bliss unmixed with any suffering is the highest goal of life. The commonly accepted view that there are four goals of life–namely, religious duty, the acquisition of wealth, pleasure, and final liberation–is to be taken figuratively. This is because, like the saying, ‘The plow is life,’ it suggests that things which are really only means are, in fact, ends. Therefore our thesis that bliss alone is the goal of life is not upset.”[54]

He further notes that “religious duty, the acquisition of wealth, and pleasure are not in themselves independent goals; the bliss arising from them is the goal of life. We can, therefore, omit the qualifications ‘arising from religious duty,’ ‘arising from wealth,’ and so on, because they lead to prolixity and excessive restriction, and demonstrate that bliss alone is the goal of life,” and adds that even final liberation is considered as a goal of life because it is supreme bliss.[55]

What Madhusūdana Sarasvatī essentially says is that the four puruṣārthas are not in themselves the goals of life, but they are figuratively called so because they lead one to the true goal of life, which is happiness or pleasure. While the pursuit of trivarga leads to happiness which is temporary and mixed with sorrow, the pursuit of mokṣa leads one to permanent happiness marked by complete absence of sorrow. The highest goal of life is this state of happiness unmixed with sorrow.

From this it follows that that what Madhusūdana Sarasvatī calls as duḥkha asambhinna sukha or happiness unmixed with sorrow and what Ādi Śaṅkarācārya calls as ānanda in its natural state is the supreme form or the absolute state of kāma in its meaning of pleasure and this pleasure is characterized by complete absence of pain and sorrow. This absolute kāma is thus the parama puruṣārtha or the highest goal of life.

Further, whether we perceive kāma as being implicit in the four puruṣārthas in the dual form as cause and end-goals of these puruṣārthas or we understand it independently on its own standing as the absolute state of bliss, we can easily conclude that kāma alone is the true puruṣārtha.

5. Conclusion

The framework of puruṣārtha is a fundamental building block of Hindu worldview. Though there have been a lot of research on puruṣārthas as a whole, they have largely focussed upon dharma and mokṣa. Researches on kāma have predominantly focussed upon presentation of sexual desire and its fulfilment in the kāmaśāstra tradition, but very little attention has been paid in contemporary scholarship to examine kāma as a puruṣārtha.

This paper has tried to fill the gap by examining kāma purely in the context of puruṣārthas and adds significantly to contemporary understanding of puruṣārthas.

Often, the definition of kāma is limited to erotic desire. However, by an examination of Hindu texts across different genres, this paper has presented a two-fold definition of kāma as pravṛtti or desire and pratīti or pleasure i.e. the means and the end goal, which have serious bearing on kāma’s position as a puruṣārtha.

The paper has demonstrated that in its aspect of desire, kāma is not only the cause of dharma and artha, it is also the root-cause of mokṣa since mumukṣutva is a special kind of desire itself. Further, since dharma (desire for merit), artha (desire for wealth), and kāma (desire for material enjoyment) in trivarga are basically three different kinds of desires, they can be considered as three special manifestations of kāma. It was further demonstrated that the manifestation of kāma as trivarga is dependent upon the prakṛti of an individual.

The paper makes singular contributions to understanding kāma in its aspect of pleasure. It has shown that pleasure is not only the end-goal of trivarga, it is also the end-goal of mokṣa. Though pleasure is often understood in the limited sense of worldly enjoyment, the paper has demonstrated that pleasure, like desire takes on different forms. In its worldly aspect, kāma manifests three kinds of pleasure: as satisfaction that arises ethical practice, as sense of social worth that arises from pursuit of prosperity, and as sensory pleasure that arises from enjoyment of worldly objects. In its absolute state, kāma is Brahman. Thus, mokṣa is the supreme state of kāma and the worldly pleasures are a particle of Kāma that is Brahman, which becomes transmuted into impermanent worldly bliss, consequent on knowledge becoming covered up by ignorance.

Further, it was shown that even in bhakti traditions that consider devotion and not liberation as the ultimate goal of life, bhakti by its very definition is a special kind of Kāma.

This paper further demonstrated that if one approaches the question of ultimate goal of life or parama puruṣārtha purely from the perspective of the basic definition of the phrase, then duḥkha asambhinna sukha or happiness unmixed with sorrow alone can be considered as the parama puruṣārtha. This duḥkha asambhinna sukha is nothing but the supreme form or the absolute state of kāma in its meaning of pleasure that is characterized by complete absence of pain and sorrow.

In conclusion, the paper contends that whether we perceive kāma as being implicit in the four puruṣārthas in the dual form as cause and end-goals of these puruṣārthas or we understand it independently on its own standing as the absolute state of bliss, we can easily conclude that kāma alone is the true puruṣārtha.

 [A version of this paper was written and submitted as part of MA Philosophy Thesis by the author.]


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———. “The “Kamasutra”: It Isn’t All about Sex.” The Kenyon Review 25, no. 1 (2003): 18-37.

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[1] Wendy Doniger has explored the content of texts like Kāmasūtra in a number of works including Wendy Doniger, “The “The “Kamasutra”: It Isn’t All about Sex.” The Kenyon Review 25, no. 1 (2003): 18-37; and Wendy Doniger, “Reading the “Kamasutra”: The Strange & the Familiar,” Daedalus 136, no. 2 (2007): 66-78.

[2] Joanna Macy, “The Dialectics of Desire,” Numen 22, no. 2 (August 1975): 145-160.

[3] Shalini Shah, “The Philosophy of “Kama” In The Classical Sanskrit Literature, 7th -13th Centuries C.E,” Proceedings of the Indian History Congress, 68 (2007): 153-161.

[4] “Monier Williams Sanskrit-English Dictionary,” Cologne Digital Sanskrit Dictionaries, accessed April 9, 2020,

[5] Macy, “The Dialectics,” 145.

[6] Ibid., 146.

[7]Rigveda, trans. Ralph T. H. Griffith (Benares : E.J. Lazarus, 1896), Book 10, Hymn CXXIX, Verse 3-4,

[8] Atharvaveda, trans. Ralph T. H. Griffith (Benares: E.J. Lazarus & Co, 1895), Book 19, Hymn LII, Verse 1,

[9] Macy, “The Dialectics”, 147.

[10] Ibid.

[11] The Satapatha-Brāhmana Part V, trans. Julius Eggeling (Oxford: the Clarendon Press, 1900), Kāṇḍa XI, Adhyāya 1,  Brāhmana 6, Verse 1,

[12] The Satapatha-Brāhmana Part III, trans. Julius Eggeling (Oxford: the Clarendon Press, 1894), Kāṇḍa VI, Adhyāya 1, Brāhmana 1, Verse 1-8,

[13] There are many references in the Upaniṣads to primordial desire including Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad 1.4.1-3 and Aitareyopaniṣad 1.1.1. See The Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad With the Commentary of Śaṅkarācārya, trans. Swami Madhavananda (Mayavati: Advaita Ashrama, 1950), 92-101; and Eight Upanishads, Volume 2, trans. Swami Gambhirananda (Kolkata: Advaita Ashrama, 2012), 19-21.

[14]Manusmriti with the ‘Manubhashya’ of Medatithi, Volume 3, English Translation, Part 1, Discourses I & II, trans. Ganganath Jha (Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers Private Limited, 1920-39), 163-171.

[15] Gosvami Damodar Shastri, ed., The Kāmasūtra by Śrī Vātsyāyana Muni (Benares City: Vidya Vilas Press, 1929), 13.

[16] Ibid., 28-30.

[17] Ibid., 14.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid., 14-15.

[20] Dharmasūtras: The Law Codes of Ancient India, trans. Patrick Olivelle (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), 92-93.

[21] In Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad 3.5.1 one can find the enumeration of three-fold desires, See: The Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad, 474-475.

[22] Mahānārāyaṇopaniṣad, trans. Swami Vimalananda (Mylapore: Sri Ramakrishna Math, 1968), 331-332.

[23] Srinivasa Rao, “Sādhārana Dharma: The Indian Doctrine of Universal Human duties,” in Dharma and Ethics: The Indian Ideal of Human Perfection, ed. D.C. Srivastava and Bijoy H. Boruah (New Delhi: D.K. Printworld, 2010), 37.

[24] Eight Upanishads, Vol 2, 163.

[25] Śvetāśvataropaniṣad, trans. Swami Tyagishananda (Mylapore: Sri Ramakrishna Math, 1949), 66.

[26] Eight Upanishads, Vol 2, 163.

[27] Eight Upanishads, Volume 1, trans. Swami Gambhirananda (Kolkata: Advaita Ashrama, 2012), 169.

[28] Ibid., 304.

[29] Ibid., 71-72.

[30] The Mahabharata 8, trans. Bibek Debroy (New Delhi, Penguin, 2015), Section 85, Apad Dharma Parva, Chap. 1489 (161), Kindle.

[31] Ibid.

[32] Madhvācārya, “Mahâbhârata-Tâtparya-Nirnaya,” Dvaita Text Resource, accessed June 23, 2020,

[33] The Mahabharata 8, Chap. 1489 (161).

[34] Vivekachudamani of Sri Sankaracharya, trans. Swami Madhavananda (Mayavati: Advaita Ashrama, 1921), Verse 17-30, Wisdom Library.

[35] The immediate cause of mokṣa is ātmajñāna (knowledge about the true nature of Self) as enunciated by Śvetāśvataropaniṣad, Verse 3.8. See Śvetāśvataropaniṣad, 66.

[36] Shankar Rajaraman, “Bhoja’s Model for Analysing the Mental States of Literary Characters Based on Samkhya Metaphysics,” in Self, Culture and Consciousness: Interdisciplinary Convergences on Knowing and Being, ed. Sangeetha Menon, Nithin Nagaraj and V.V. Binoy (Singapore: Springer Nature, 2017), 237.

[37] Ibid., 237-238. The twenty-four traits are as follows: exalted birth, exalted lineage, exalted kinship, exalted nationhood, exalted habitation, exalted position, exalted filial connection, superhuman influence, wisdom, learning, absence of self-depreciation, rhetorical ability, spatially and temporally informed decision-making, ability to accurately decode others’ expressive behaviours, skill, artistic aptitude, shrewdness, physical beauty, sex appeal, generosity, friendliness, physical prowess, and courage.

[38] Ibid., 238.

[39] Ibid., 238-239.

[40] Ibid., 239-245.

[41] Ibid., 237.

[42] Ibid., 241.

[43] Ibid., 243.

[44] Ibid., 243-244.

[45] Ibid., 244-245.

[46] Tejobindūpaniṣad 3.11, for example, states: “I am solely Sat, Ānanda, and Chit which is unconditioned and pure. I am the Saccidānanda that is eternal, enlightened and pure.” See Thirty Minor Upanishads, trans. K. Narayanasvami Aiyar (Madras: Printed by Annie Besant at the Vasanta Press, 1914), Ṭejobinḍu-Upanishaḍ of Kṛshṇa-Yajurveḍa, Chap. 3,

[47] Ādi Śaṅkarācārya in his commentary on Taittirīya Upaniṣad 2.1.1. See Eight Upanishads, Vol 1, 308.

[48] Ibid., 369.

[49] Sri Lalithambika Sahasranama Stotram, trans. Swami Vimalananda (Tirupparaitturai: Sri Ramakrishna Tapovanam, 1984),

[50] For example, Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam Verse 11.20.31-36 clearly articulates bhakti as highest goal of life. See “Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam,” Bhaktivedanta Vedabase, accessed July 22, 2020,

[51] Ibid. Bhakti as means is mentioned at a number of places in Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam including at Verse 1.2.7, 2.3.10, and 6.1.15. Bhakti as goal is also mentioned in Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam at a number of places including Verse 2.2.33, 10.47.24, 3.25.44, and 4.9.10.

[52] Y Subrahmanya Sarma, ed., Narada’s Aphorisms on Bhakti (Holenarsipur: Adhyatma Prakasha Karyalaya, 1938), 1-2.

[53] Sri Shandilya Bhakti Sutras, trans. Bhakti Prajnan Yati (Madras: Sree Gaudiya Math, 1991), 4-7.

[54] Lance Edward Nelson, “Bhakti in Advaita Vedanta: A Translation and Study of Madhusūdana Sarasvatī’s Bhaktirasāyana” (Phd diss., McMaster University, 1986), 244.

[55] Ibid., 246.

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