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The Master Ideals of Indian Culture: A Reappraisal-III–M.S. Srinivasan

[Published in Mother India.] 


The second quartet of the Master-ideals of Indian culture is the Purusharthas which means the aims of the Purusha, human being.  In the Indian vision of life the highest Purushartha is spiritual liberation, Moksha.  But the ancient Indian thinkers are wise enough to perceive that the individual and the collectivity can arrive at this ideal only through a gradual evolutionary progression.  They also recognised that the legitimate needs, desires and interests of the human ego in the different dimensions of the human personality and the different stages of its evolution have to be fulfilled before man can rise to the highest consciousness of unity and oneness of the spirit, or the state of Moksha.  In other words, the dharma of each stage of human evolution, and each part of the human being, has to be taken into consideration, has to be properly fulfilled by giving it creative and constructive self-expression.  With this balanced and integral vision of life the Indian thinkers evolved the ideal of four-fold Purusharthas: Artha, Kama, Dharma and Moksha.  They correspond roughly to the physical, vital, mental and spiritual needs of the human being.

The Artha is the physical and economic needs, well-being, progress and prosperity of the material being and life of the individual and the collectivity.  Kama is the need for vital enjoyment of life; it includes the sensational emotional, aesthetic and mental enjoyment and the vital need for power, wealth, success, achievement, expansion and mastery.  The Artha means also “instruments”, which includes all the material, economic, social, political and technological instruments for the fulfillment of the legitimate physical and vital needs of human beings.  The dharma is the need of our higher mental and moral being for knowledge, values, ideals and right living.  And finally Moksha is the spiritual need for the ultimate freedom, fulfillment and perfection.  Let us now examine the implications of this Indian concept for human development.

The first business of a Government is to create a sound, strong and vigorous economic, social and political system, which can efficiently fulfill the Artha and Kama needs of the community.  But this is to be done in the right way within the limits of Dharma and not in an unrestrained way, which would make man a mean and petty slave of his desires.  In the Indian view not only every individual but every human activity, even something grossly physical as sex, has its own Dharma, its right and natural way of fulfillment according to the truth and law of Nature in that activity.  When the activity is performed in a disciplined way according to the canons of its unique Dharma then it leads at once to Bhoga as well as Yoga or, in other words, right enjoyment, success and evolutionary progress for the individual.   So to discover the Dharma of each activity, and to evolve a system of values, and the art and science for regulating each human activity according to its Dharma is one of the major aims of culture.  So Indian culture insists that even while building a sound socio-economic and political system to fulfil the Artha- Kama needs of the community, the ideals and values of Dharma and the cultural life of the community must not be neglected but have to be actively encouraged and promoted so that they cast a refining and restraining influence on the socio-economic life of the community.

In the Indian scheme of Purusharthas the word Dharma is used in the sense of “duty” or, to be more specific, fulfillment of the social responsibility of the individual through an occupation, which is in consonance with his/her swadharma, true nature.  But the word can be interpreted in a broader sense to include the mental, moral and cultural development of the individual and collectivity.  For Dharma is all that lifts man beyond the essentially animal impulses of his physical and vital being towards his true manhood. Since Man in the present status of his evolution is essentially a mental being, his first major accomplishment must be to fulfill his mental Dharma which means to develop fully all the powers, faculties and potentialities of his Mind-intellectual, moral and aesthetic-and impose a harmonised control of the higher mental will over his lower physical and vital impulses. This is the true meaning and ideal of culture¾to realise our highest Manhood. As Sri Aurobindo puts it in a masterly fashion:

“Not to live principally in the sense-mind, but in the activities of knowledge and reason and a wide intellectual curiosity, the activities of the cultivated aesthetic being, the activities of the enlightened will which make for character and high ethical ideals and a large human action, not to be governed by our lower or our average mentality but by truth and beauty and the self-ruling will is the ideal of a true culture and the beginning of an accomplished humanity.” (1)

This is the ideal of Dharma in the Indian scheme of the fourfold Purusharthas; fulfilment of social responsibility and the realisation of a cultured humanity is the dual aspect of this Purushartha. So once the Artha- Kama needs of the community are reasonably assured through a sound socio-economic and political organisation, the governing organ of the community must turn its attention, creative energies and resources more and more to the cultural development of the community.

But the unique and special feature of the Indian scheme of development is the spiritual aim of Moksha.  The master-builders of the Indian culture perceived that mind cannot bring any settled harmony and fulfillment to human life; nor does the human mind possess the secret of ultimate self-mastery.  So the architects of Indian culture fixed the spiritual aim of Moksha as the ultimate goal and destiny of human life.  In all the different stages of human evolution, this spiritual aim of life, its meaning and substance, have to be constantly kept alive in the communal mind, so that when the time comes and the consciousness of the collectivity is ready and prepared, the spiritual values find a ready acceptance and self-expression in Society.

Thus we can see that Indian culture denies none of the natural and legitimate needs, desires and interests of human beings; it denies only the unrestrained and licentious indulgence of these desires and counsels a regulated and disciplined satisfaction of them under the uplifting guidance of some higher moral, aesthetic and spiritual values.  The architects of Indian culture recognised that while on one hand a severe ascetic suppression of these natural needs and desires may lead to loss of vitality and vigour in society, on the other hand a free and unrestrained indulgence of these needs and desires may lead to a collapse of civilisation into barbarism and, in the long run, to an exhaustion of vital energy.  So they avoided both these extremes and evolved a balanced approach which tries to harness the creative energies of man and make them flow in constructive channels which will lead to both inner and outer progress.

Modern society is very much in need of such a balanced approach to development. Now there is almost a near-unanimous agreement among progressive thinkers that the traditional, purely materialistic “greed is god” philosophy is no longer a viable model of development and if obstinately pursued may jeopardise the very material survival of the human race. But among this new crop of thinkers, there is a small influential group which tends towards a reactionary other extreme, preaching some form of escape or retreat into “Nature” or a pure ascetic spirituality, denying the values of prosperity, progress, technology, etc.  But such extreme measures cannot solve the problem because they are not in harmony with the evolutionary laws of Nature. Progress is one of the eternal values of the human soul and one of the fundamental laws of Nature.  It is true that Indian culture gave a much higher importance to inner progress than to outer progress, which is perhaps the right emphasis needed for a “sustainable develop­ment”. For no progress can be secure, sound and sustainable on a long-term basis if it is not a spontaneous outer expression of the inner progress.  But the ancient Vedic culture of India never denied the necessity of this inner progress manifesting outwardly in society in the form of economic, social and political progress.  For, the Vedic Ideal of the society is to make it a conscious collective self-expression of the fourfold powers of the creative Godhead in man.


 1. Sri Aurobindo, SABCL, vol. 15, pp.85-86

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This entry was posted on April 9, 2012 by in Indian civilisation & Culture.