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From trivarga to purusartha A Chapter in Indian Moral Philosophy.

In much of the scholarly discussions about moral philosophy and the "goals" of human life in ancient India, two Sanskrit expressions loom large: trivarga and purusartha. The first refers to a "triple set," a group of three concepts: dharma, artha, and kama, whose precise meanings are ambiguous and, as we will see, are defined differently by different authors. The second, often mistranslated as "aims of man," refers to the same set of three, sometimes with the addition of a fourth, moksa or final liberation. Even scholars who are careful to distinguish the two, giving logical and chronological priority to the former, do not take the next step to ask how that expression came to be transformed into or equated with purusartha. They assume that the two are synonyms and often use purusartha as a shorthand for these three (or four) concepts. (1) Second, there is a debate as to whether the concepts subsumed under these categories are, in fact, presented as goals to which human beings should aspire or simply a categorization of major human activities and pursuits (Davis 2004). This study attempts to answer these questions--very tentatively--using a philological scalpel to expose the complicated semantic history of these terms. It will show that many of the scholarly assumptions, with some notable exception, are, from a historical perspective, quite simply wrong.


I take it as established that trivarga is the older and the more original formulation, and this study will further demonstrate it. The compound simply means "a group of three," and the group or set may consist of any three things in some way interrelated. This expression is quite old. The Samavidhana Brahmana (1.4.8 [13]) says prathamas trivargah, which, according to the commentator Sayana, refers to the three Samans originating from the verse agna a yahi vitaye (SV 1.1 = RV 6.16.10). In the context of a Vedic sacrifice, the Katyayana Srautasutra (8.6.11) uses the term to refer to the two sets of three roofs constructed on the northern portion of the sacrificial hut (sadas): trivargau cottaratah. Likewise, the Latyayana Srautasutra (4.12.8), after instructing the sacrificer to give a milk cow and so forth to various priests, says that he should give to the Udgatr priests all of the above made into trivargas (sarve trivargah), that is, each gift is tripled and the gifts are thus made into sets of threes. Clearly, in this early period of its usage, the term referred to any set of three objects.

The meaning of varga as a grouping or cluster is made clear by a statement in Kautilya's Arthasastra about official royal documents: "A varga should be made with a minimum of one and a maximum of three words so as not to create an impediment to meaning of the other words" (KAS 2.10.21: ekapadavaras tripadaparah parapadarthanuparodhena vargah karyah). As I have pointed out in my translation of this passage (Olivelle 2013: 525-26), here varga refers to a clustering of words in a document; after a varga there is a stop (virama) probably made by leaving a "white space" between one varga and the next (note that in ancient Indian inscriptions and manuscripts there are no white spaces between words; they run together). This is evident in the oldest documents we have from India, the Asokan inscriptions. As Klaus Janert (1973: 142-43) observes: "In the versions of the edicts under discussion spaces within the lines are frequent and occur particularly after groups of two or more words. It is my conclusion that this spacing can scarcely be anything other than a form of notation for pauses made during recitation of the edicts and which the scribes each recorded in this fashion." Each varga is expected to have words that are syntactically related and form a naturally meaningful unit.

The term varga thus can mean a category and could refer to any grouping of like objects, individuals, or concepts. Kautilya's Arthasastra, one of the earliest texts to use trivarga in its technical meaning with reference to dharma, artha, and kama, also uses varga to refer to other groups of three or more. In dealing with royal vices, for example, Kautilya (KAS 8.3.4; see also MDh 7.52) says that a group of three vices originate from wrath and a group of four originate from pleasure (kopajas trivargah kamajas caturvargah). Once again, no special or technical meanings are attached to either trivarga or caturvarga. Nevertheless, these usages reveal that these terms must have a referent, implicit or explicit, outside of them: a set of three makes little sense unless we know to which broader category these three refer. In the above examples, the implicit reference is vyasana, vices that afflict kings in a special way. We have an explicit referent in the extended compound satrusadvarga (group of six enemies) at KAS 1.6.11-12; 12.2.1. In all these expressions, varga refers to a group of similar things. So, at KAS 2.15.14-21 we have various kinds of sweets, salt, juices, spices, vegetables, and the like all referred to as varga (ksaravarga, lavanavarga, etc.); at KAS 2.15.63 types of slaves and laborers (dasakarmakaravarga); at KAS 9.6.56 upayacaturvarga (group of four strategies); and at KAS 2.17.4-12 the categories or types of various forest produce, plants, medicinal herbs, poisons, and the like (kupyavarga, venuvarga, vallivarga, valkavarga, ausadhavarga, visavarga). In dealing with seducible factions in an enemy's territory, Kautilya (KAS 1.14.2-5) refers to different categories of such people: kruddhavarga (angry people), bhitavarga (frightened people), lubdhavarga (greedy people), and manivarga (proud people). Likewise, in the Ramayana (2.40.2) we have suhrdvarga, people who are friends, and (2.73.17) silpivarga, those who are artisans.

It is within this context of the varga semantics that we must locate and understand the technical use of trivarga referring to dharma, artha, and kama. Given the other usages of varga, we should expect a priori that (1) these three are in some way similar, and (2) there is some other category or concept to which this particular trivarga refers, of which these three are subcategories. You simply cannot have a free-standing trivarga. A passage in the Arthasastra (9.7), which is closely followed by Vatsyayana in his Kamasutra (6.6), gives us an insight into the thinking of the Arthasastric tradition, in which this expression was probably coined, (2) with regard to the referent(s) of the trivarga. The context is Kautilya's discussion of a king preparing to march into battle. In such a situation, the king has to be cognizant of artha (advantages, benefits), anartha (disadvantages, material losses), and samsaya (doubt, uncertainty) with regard to things happening during the military expedition. An example of artha is capturing the rear enemy, and of anartha is giving troops and money to the neighbor of an enemy. But Kautilya knows that what is a seeming advantage may turn out to be a disadvantage, and vice versa: this is doubt.

That is the context within which Kautilya presents the threefold classification of these three possible scenarios (KAS 9.7.60-64):
artho dharmah kama ity arthatrivargah--"artha, dharma, and kama: that
is the trivarga of artha."

anartho 'dharmah s'oka ity anarthatrivargah--"anartha, adharma, and
sorrow: that is the trivarga of anartha."

artho 'nartha iti, dharmo 'dharma iti, kamah soka iti
samsayatrivargah--"Is it artha or anartha? Is it dharma or adharmal Is
it kama or sorrow? That is the trivarga of doubt."

After each definition of the first two trivargas, Kautilya says: "Of that, it is better to encounter each preceding one than each following" (tasya purvah purvah sreyan upasampraptum), while after the trivarga of doubt he says: "Of that, it is better to encounter the first alternative after subduing the second" (tasyottarapaksasiddhau purvapaksah sreyan upasampraptum). A few points are worth noting here. The discussion is carried out within the most royal of a king's pursuits: waging war, underscoring the Arthasastric provenance of the trivarga doctrine. Second, the technical term trivarga is ascribed both to artha (what is beneficial) and to its opposite, anartha (what is detrimental). Third, in the enumeration of the three, artha occupies the first place, signaling its centrality within the trivarga doctrine of Kautilya, who states explicitly (6.7.61) that for the king it is better to encounter artha than dharma. Finally, the trivarga (artha, dharma, kama) is presented as subcategories of artha, presenting an interesting bifurcation of the meaning of artha. In the expression arthatrivarga, the term artha appears to signify an advantage in general or something beneficial and good, while within the trivarga itself, in conjunction with dharma and kama, the term refers more clearly to material, political, and/or military advantages. Another significant point in Kautilya's discussion is that the opposite--the anartha--of kama is not akama but soka: sorrow or grief. As we will presently see, at 1.7.3 the opposite of kama is given as nihsukha, the absence of sukha or pleasure, a concept very similar to soka. This conception of kama as the opposite of grief is interesting in light of the use of prlti (joy, pleasure) in Sahara's discussion of purusartha discussed below. These three are "similar" in that they all are "beneficial" (artha in the first sense) and conducive to a person's happiness (priti).

In a very interesting twist, the Kamasutra (6.6.5-6) cites the definitions of arthatrivarga and anarthatrivarga verbatim from the Arthasastra, and also deals with the topic of doubt (samsaya), all within the context of a courtesan and her activities.

Another discussion of the trivarga that gives us an insight into Kautilya's views occurs in KAS 1.7 in the context of secret tests (upadha) administered to ministers and high functionaries of the state to test their honesty and loyalty to the king. The king uses three kinds of tests with reference to the three areas of the trivarga (dharmopadha, arthopadhd, kamopadha). In all three, the secret tests are used to find out whether the officials are more loyal to the king than to one of these three: dharmic behavior, wealth, and sexual pleasure (KAS 1.10.2-12). The reference here is clearly not to any abstract notion of aims of human life but to activities and pursuits that officials value highly or are passionate about. However, in a verse (KAS 1.10.16) that concludes this section, a verse from the hand of the later redactor, (3) these three are identified as trivarga.

It is within the context of these broader discussions of the trivarga that we must locate its treatment in the training of a king in chapter seven of the first book of the Arthasastra. The subject is introduced in a roundabout way by telling the king what he must refrain from:
evam vasyendriyah parastridravyahimsas ca varjayet, svapnam laulyam
anrtam uddhatavesatvam anarthyasamyogam adharmasamyuktam
anarthasamyuktam ca vyavaharam. KAS 1.7.2.

Having thus brought his senses under control, he should shun the wives
and property of others and refrain from causing injury, as also from
sloth, frivolity, falsehood, wearing lavish clothes, associating with
pernicious individuals, and transactions that go against dharma or

Having introduced adharma and anartha, Kautilya turns to kama:
dharmarthavirodhena kamam seveta, na nihsukhah sydt. samam va trivargam
anyonyanubaddham. eko hy atyasevito dharmarthakamanam atmanam itarau ca
pidayati. KAS 1.7.3-5.

He should pursue kama without transgressing dharma or artha; he should
not deprive himself of enjoyments (nihsukha). Or rather, he should
pursue the trivarga equally, each intimately linked to the others. For,
among dharma, artha, and kama, when one is pursued excessively, it
harms itself as well as the other two.

Two points worth noting here are the placement of dharma as the first member of the group (also in 1.7, in contrast to 9.7), and the use of the term amibaddha. The same term is used in KAS 9.7.14-15 to show that sometimes an advantage (artha) when attained leads to further advantages; it creates a snowballing effect. Here, the mutual increase is with regard to the three members of the trivarga. Note, however, that, unlike the Dharmasastra texts we will encounter below, Kautilya does not create a hierarchy among the three, just indicates that one should not be followed to excess, which would result in harm to the other two. It is important for the king also to pursue kama or pleasure; he is instructed not to be austere and to deprive himself of pleasures. However, the final assertion ascribed to Kautilya hints at a disagreement, perhaps with the placement of dharma first, thus giving it priority: "artha alone is paramount," says Kautilya, "for artha is the foundation of dharma and kama" (artha eva pradhana iti kautilyah. arthamulau hi dharmakamav iti. KAS 1.7.6-7).

One significant feature of Kautilya's discussion is that the three concepts--artha, dharma, kama--are more often than not discussed on their own and without being identified as part of the technical trivarga. The supposition, then, is that these three probably existed individually and as a group before they were given the label trivarga, and continued to be discussed on their own even after the invention of the trivarga label. (4) This is supported by their appearance without that label in texts going back to the third and second centuries BCE, that is, the Dharmasutras of Apastamba and Gautama.

Apastamba introduces just two of the three--dharma and artha--in three different contexts. The first (1.4.23) is the obligation of a student to take care of his teacher "with activities connected with dharma and artha" (athahar ahar acaryam gopayed dharmarthayuktaih karmabhih). The next context is the penance for killing certain classes of people (1.24.6-9), where Apastamba says (1.24.23) that the same penance applies to a person who "when dharma and artha are in conflict opts for artha" (dharmarthasamnipate 'rthagrahina etad eva). The term samnipata is somewhat ambiguous, but it must refer to a situation when the course dictated by dharma and the course dictated by artha cannot be pursued together; only one can be pursued and the other given up. Finally, Apastamba (2.10.14) notes that a king's chaplain should be well versed in dharma and artha (purohitam dharmarthakusalam).

Gautama, on the other hand, introduces all three concepts while enumerating a motley list of duties incumbent upon a Vedic student who has graduated (snataka), that is, a young adult who has completed his Vedic education and performed the concluding ceremonial bath. Gautama (9.46-47) says: "To the best of his ability, he should not make the morning, midday, and afternoon fruitless with respect to dharma, artha, and kama. Among these, however, he should place dharma at the forefront" (na purvahnamadhamdinaparahnan aphalan kuryad yathasakti dharmarthakamebhyah. tesu tu dharmottarah syat). The meaning here is clearly that the man should not waste his day but attend to duties required by dharma (such as performing daily rituals), artha (engaging in economically productive activities), and kama (sexual and recreational activities). Interestingly, if the three times of day are viewed distributively, then dharma is done in the morning, artha at midday, and kama in the afternoon. Like Apastamba, Gautama emphasizes the superiority of dharma over the other two. The attempt to present the three in a descending hierarchy is a hallmark of the Dharmasastric authors.

Turning to the two other authors of Dharmasutras, Baudhayana (1.4.1) gives dharma and artha as two possible reasons why a teacher may take someone as his pupil: "If dharma or artha is not present in someone,... then he should die with that knowledge; let him not sow it on barren soil" (dharmarthau yatra na syatam... vidyaya saha martavyam na cainam usare vapet). And Vasistha (17.77) gives dharma and artha as reasons why a wife may not want to go to a distant land with her husband (yadi dharmarthabhyam pravasam praty anukama na syat).

In these four texts, which we can say with some confidence predate Kautilya's Arthasastra, the two categories of dharma and artha are used with some frequency in quite diverse contexts, indicating that the pair was somewhat common as two significant areas of human pursuits and activities. All three occur only in Gautama, and the context there is rather broad: the way a person should conduct himself in his daily activities. In none of them, however, is the technical term trivarga used.

I think we can conclude that, even though these terms individually and, to some extent, collectively, were used with reference to beneficial human activities (artha as used in KAS 9.7.60-64), it is, in all likelihood, within the Arthasastric tradition that the three coalesced into a tightknit group and were theorized in such a way that they came to be referred to by the technical term trivarga. This conclusion, I think, is supported by the use of trivarga in Vatsyayana's Kamasutra and the Sanskrit epic Mahabharata, in which we find the most extensive use of the term in all of Sanskrit literature.

In no other Sanskrit text does the trivarga play as central a role as in Vatsyayana's Kamasutra. He opens the book (1.1.1) with the invocation dharmarthakamebhyo namah ("Homage to dharma, artha, and kama"), and gives the reason: sastraprakrtatvat ("Because they are the subject matter of a/this treatise"). He then devotes the entire second chapter of the first book to the trivarga. It constitutes the most extensive discussions of the subject in Sanskrit literature. Given the strong dependence of Vatsyayana on Kautilya (see Olivelle 2013: 29), we must assume that Vatsyayana thought the trivarga doctrine to be central to Kautilya's treatise. The discussion for the most part is dependent on Kautilya's text, but Vatsyayana introduces a new concept: each of the three members of the trivarga should be followed during the three successive periods of a person's life.
sataryur vai puruso vibhajya kalam anyonyanubaddham
parasparasyanupaghatakam trivargam seveta. balye vidyagrahanadin
arthan. kamam ca yauvane. sthavire dharmam moksam ca. anityatvad ayuso
yathopapadam va seveta (1.2.1-5).

One hundred years, indeed, is a man's lifespan. Dividing that time, he
should cultivate the trivarga, each intimately linked to the others (5)
and none causing harm to the others--during his childhood, arthas
consisting of knowledge acquisition and the like; during his youth,
kama; and during old age, dharma and moksa. Or rather, given the
uncertainty of one's lifespan, he should cultivate them as opportune.

It is clear, however, that the three pursuits cannot be exclusively cultivated during these three periods of life, for otherwise the statements about their intimate links and making sure that one does not harm the others would make little sense. The instruction to pursue artha in childhood is somewhat anomalous, as also the linking of learning to artha. At 1.2.9, Vatsyayana gives a fuller list of artha-related activities: vidyabhumihiranyapasudhdnya-bhandopaskaramitradinam arjanam arjitasya vivardhanam arthah ("artha is the acquisition of knowledge, land, money, farm animals, grain, utensils, household goods, friends/allies, and the like, and the increase of what has been acquired"). That knowledge can be part of economic activities and can procure wealth is implied in the legal provision on the partitioning of ancestral property. A son living in a joint family need not subject to partitioning any property he has acquired through his learning. (6)

Another anomaly is the listing of moksa within the enumeration of the triple set, thus creating a list of four. Coming at the end of the sentence, however, it may well be an interpolation or a commentarial gloss that found its way into the text. This assessment is supported by the fact that, while Vatsyayana goes on to define the contents of dharma, artha, and kama (in 1.2.7-13), he is completely silent on moksa. The commentator Yasodhara (on 1.2.4) also makes the interesting observation that the insertion of moksa is with reference to the view of an opponent, namely one who asserts the primacy of knowledge and who subscribes to the caturvarga theory: moksagrahanam paramatapeksam. jnanavadinam caturvargah purusarthah. asminn eva kale tair apy adhyatmikam cintyam iti. A point to note is that the Kamasutra never uses the term purusartha, even though scholarly studies take its discussion in the second chapter to be about the purusarthas. (7)

Turning to the Mahabharata, I have been able to identify fifty-two passages where trivarga appears. (8) Its most frequent use is in the twelfth book, the Santiparvan, where it occurs thirty-four times, most prominently in Bhisma's instruction to Yudhisthira within the section on the duties of a king (rajadharmaparvan). In the first eleven books the term occurs eleven times, and in the last six books it occurs seven times. Even outside of the twelfth book, the context in which the expression appears is almost always discourses centered around a king. (9) So, for example, Sakuntala in her address to king Dusyanta, who refused to acknowledge her son as his own, waxes eloquent on the central importance of a wife, using well-known Brahmanical tropes: "Half of a man is his wife. The wife is his most excellent friend. The wife is the root of the trivarga. The wife is his friend/ally as he is dying" (ardham bharya manusyasya bharya sresthatamah sakha | bharya mulam trivargasya bharya mitram marisyatah || MBh 1.68.40). The connection of trivarga to the king and his duty to punish wrongdoers (danda) is repeatedly emphasized. At 12.15.3, for example, Arjuna, in trying to dissuade Yudhisthira from renouncing his kingship, says: "danda (punishment) protects dharma, as well as artha, O King; danda protects kama; danda is said to be the trivarga" (dharmam samraksate dandas tathaiva-artham naradhipa | kamam samraksate dandas trivarga danda ucyate ||). People can pursue the trivarga only in a well-ordered and law-abiding society where evildoers are threatened with punishment by a just king.

The expression trivarga occurs just twice (1.6.5; 4.37.22) in the Ramayana, and both refer to the well-known triad of dharma, artha, and kama, and both times in the context of royal speech.

Even though trivarga is closely associated with the king and his duties, yet the discussions in the Dharmasutras, the Kamasutra, and the Mahabharata show that the concept is broader than that and encompasses activities of all people, including women such as courtesans. Thus, at MBh 5.122.32, Vaisampayana says that "undertakings of wise people are associated with the trivarga, and when trivarga cannot be followed, people stick to dharma and artha" (trivargayukta prajhanam arambha bharatarsabha | dharmarthav anurudhyante trivargasambhave narah ||). And at MBh 12.161, moreover, we have a long and detailed discussion about the relative importance of the three members of the trivarga. A similar discussion is found in the Ramayana 4.37.20-22. I will discuss these passages in greater detail below.

The term trivarga is rare in the major Dharmasastras. As we have seen, it is absent in the four early Dharmasutras, and it occurs just twice in Manu (2.224; 7.26-27) and once in Yajnavalkya (1.74). At MDh 2.224 the discussion is about the duties of a Vedic student. Manu gives three competing views about the superiority of the three items in a way similar to the KAS: "Some say that dharma and artha are conducive to welfare; others, kama and artha; and still others, dharma alone or artha alone. But the settled rule is this: the entire trivarga is conducive to welfare." (dharmarthav ucyate sreyah kamarthau dharma eva ca | artha eveha va sreyas trivarga iti tu sthitih). But at 7.26-27, Manu is clearly speaking to the king: "The proper administrator of punishment, they say, is a king who speaks the truth, acts after careful examination, is wise, and has a masterly grasp of dharma, artha, and kama. When a king administers punishment properly, he flourishes with respect to the trivarga" (tasyahuh sampranetaram rajanam satyavadinam | samiksya karinam prajnam darmakamarthakovidam || tarn raja pranayan samyak trivargenabhivardhate |). Here the trivarga is presented both as something in which one can gain intellectual expertise and as activities and pursuits. As in the Dharmasutras, the three members of the trivarga without that label, however, occur more frequently and have a general application with reference to major areas of human activity.


As I have already noted, both in modern scholarship and in medieval Sanskrit sources the term purusartha is used often as a synonym of trivarga, especially when the latter is expanded to four to include moksa. Monier-Williams in his Sanskrit-English Dictionary, for example, defines purusartha as "any one of the four objects or aims of existence (viz. kama, the gratification of desire; artha, acquirement of wealth; dharma, discharge of duty; moksha, final emancipation)." Modern scholars invariably refer to the three concepts in trivarga as purusartha (almost as if the latter is a term of scholarship) and signal that the latter was a central topic of discussion and theorizing in the Brahmanical tradition (see above n. 1). The evidence for this, however, at least in pre-Gupta literature, is meager at best. This scholarly practice entails the real danger of seeing the older category of trivarga through the eyes of the much later theory of purusartha.

The term purusartha in its technical application to these three (or four) concepts is totally absent in the early Brahmanical literature: all the Vedic texts, including the ritual sutras, the four early Dharmasutras, the major Dharmasastras including Manu and Yajnavalkya, Kautilya's Arthasastra, and Vatsyayana's Kamasutra; I will deal with the epics below. The only time it is used in Manu (purusarthaprayojanam: 7.100) it refers not to these three concepts but to wealth--the fourfold duty of a king to obtain wealth, to protect and increase it, and to distribute it to worthy recipients.

Before turning to the texts that use the term in a variety of senses, I want to deal with the issue of what exactly purusartha means, something that scholars who have used the term to examine Indian axiology rarely do. Does it mean, or did it originally mean, goal(s) of a human being--what humans should aspire to--as has been usually taken by modern scholars? I think the evidence points in a different direction.

Whatever meaning we assign to artha (and I will deal with it presently), the pivotal issue in interpreting purusartha centers around what sort of a Sanskrit compound it is? The two possibilities are Tatpurusa (dependent determinative: "artha of a person") and Bahuvrihi (possessive or exocentric: "[an object or act] whose artha is a person"), with the added possibility that in its usage in Mimamsa it may be what the grammarians call Nityasamasa. (10) If purusartha is taken to refer to goals of human beings or something similar, then it must be taken as a Tatpurusa compound and thus as a substantive rather than an adjective, which is what Bohtlingk and Roth do with the definition "das Ziel des Menschen." The use of the compound purusartha within the context of the trivarga, however, is, in all likelihood, dependent on its use in the tradition of Mimamsa, where, indeed, it makes its earliest textual appearance. In Mimamsa the compound, whether we take it as a Bahuvrihi or Nityasamasa, is adjectival (thus certainly not Tatpurusa) and refers to ritual acts that are for the benefit of the human being performing the ritual (Malamoud 1982: 39 n. 13). The connection to Mimamsa is evident in Manu's commentator Medhatithi's comment on purusartha discussed below connecting it with purusapriti, joy or happiness of man. And priti is used also in the Mimamsa Sutra 4.1.1-2 to explain the Mimamsa technical terms purusartha and kratvartha.

The Mimamsa Sutra 4.1.1 reads athatah kratvarthapurusarthayor jijnasa--"Next, the desire to know what is kratvartha and what is purusartha." This terse statement is explained by the fifth-century commentator, Sahara. His comments clearly points to an adjectival compound: kratave yah sa kratvarthah purusaya yah sa purusarthah--"That which is for the sake of a rite is kratvartha, and that which is for the sake of a person is purusartha." The dative of purpose points to an act performed for the sake of kratu (the rite) or purusa (person performing the rite). But what is it whose artha is the man? The next sutra, PMS 4.1.2, points it out: yasmin pritih purusasya tasya lipsarthalaksanavibhaktatvat. Sabara explains this difficult sutra: yasmin krte padarthe purusasya pritir bhavati sa purusarthah padarthah--"That act in which, when it is performed, (is found) the happiness of a person, is an act whose artha is the person." The unstated substantive to which purusartha refers is now disclosed as padartha, and this technical term of Mimamsa (demonstrating the infuriatingly wide semantic compass of the term artha) refers to an action, especially a ritual action. It is this action, when carried out (krte of Sabara), that causes joy, happiness, and perhaps satisfaction (priti) in a man, and it is this action that is purusartha. The latter is distinguished from kratvartha, something beneficial to the action itself, especially ritual action (kratu), which is said to be subsidiary (anga), while purusartha is principal; the former produces happiness indirectly, and the latter directly. The centrality of priti in the definition of purusartha is shown by Sabara's comment on the term avibhakta ('not separate') in the sutra. He says that purusartha cannot be separated from priti; whatever is instrumental in producing priti is ipso facto purusartha (avibhakto hi purusarthah pritya, yo yah pritisadhanah sa purusarthah).

The compound purusartha, then, refers to an activity (padartha) that a person undertakes. But what is the meaning of artha within the compound purusartha. If we take it as a Nityasamasa, it has simply the meaning of a dative of purpose. Yet, I think artha here should be taken with a stronger meaning than simply a dative of purpose, especially when we take purusartha within the context of the trivarga. In that context it makes much better sense to take the compound as a Bahuvrihi. Ganganath Jha, in translating the sutra (PMS 4.1.1) and Sabara's commentary on it, uses the expression "subserves the purposes of man" to translate purusartha, even though he presents the compound as a Bahuvrihi. I think his choice of "purpose" was influenced by the general meaning of artha as aim or purpose. Malamoud (1982: 43) defines artha as motive, which is more problematic because it involves the internal psychological state of the actor. For the possible meaning of artha in this context, however, we must look to the Mimamsa usage of artha in a similar context. Fortunately, we do not have far to search. At the very opening of the PMS (1.1.2) the term is used in the definition of dharma, the central concept both in Mimamsa and in Dharmasastra: codanalaksano 'rtho dharmah. In the understanding of Sabara and other commentators, the sutra means: "dharma is something beneficial (artha) disclosed by a Vedic injunction." Sabara (p. 21) explains: "The beneficial (artha) and the detrimental (anartha)--both are here disclosed by injunctions" (ubhayam iha codanaya laksyate 'rtho 'narthas ceti). This very juxtaposition of artha and anartha shows that artha cannot mean motive or purpose, for then what would anartha mean? Vedic injunctions may prescribe some rites that are conducive to and some that are detrimental to human felicity (nihsreyas), such as various kinds of sorcery. The meaning of dharma is thus restricted to prescribed rites that are beneficial (artha). This distinction recalls Kautilya's distinction of arthatrivarga and anarthatrivarga that we have already noted (KAS 9.7.60-63). We will see below the use of anartha by Asvaghosa within a very similar context in his Buddhacarita. It is not a stretch, I think, to see purusartha as an extension and elaboration of the Kautilyan artha in the context of the trivarga. A longer compound would thus be: purusarthatrivarga, "the triple set of things beneficial to a human being."

Given that purusartha in Mamamsa refers to an activity, especially ritual activity (padartha), which is governed by an injunction (codana or niyama), and given the parallels in Kautilya and Asvaghosa, it is legitimate to take artha in purusartha to have the same or similar connotation as artha in the definition of dharma. Thus purusartha means an activity that confers a beneficial result, that is, happiness or joy (priti), on the person performing that activity.

With this understanding of purusartha gleaned from Mmamsa, we can turn to the early sources where the term is used. Given the frequent use of trivarga in the Mahabharata, we would have expected it also to use the companion term purusartha. And, indeed, it uses the term nine times, but not generally within the context of the elements of the trivarga. At 3.176.27, for example, the term means human effort (paurusa) as opposed to fate (daiva); at 5.133.29 it appears to refer to manly enterprise (Sharma 1982: 1). The only place where it appears more likely to have been used within the trivarga context is 1.109.19. In the well-known story of a seer and his wife taking on the forms of deer and doe to engage in sexual intercourse, the sage-deer, shot by King Pandu, says: purusarthaphalam kantam yat tvaya vitatham krtam ("in that you have stymied the fruit of purusartha"), in all likelihood referring to kama, because his intercourse with his wife has been rendered fruitless. A reference to trivarga is made by the sage-deer again at 1.109.23. The expression purusarthaphala then means the fruit of an act (i.e., sexual intercourse) that is for the benefit of the person (i.e., begetting children).

In the Ramayana also, where the expression occurs three times, (11) it does not refer to elements in the trivarga. At 6.103.6, for example, purusartha is given in a passage that also uses paurusa and manusya (as opposed to daiva) with the identical meaning of human effort. Note that, with this meaning, artha has the sense of activity: purusartha = human activity, much like the Mimamsa term padartha.

So, the much discussed term purusartha, according to scholars the lynchpin of Brahmanical discussion about the aims or goals of human beings and of Hindu axiology, (12) is very rare or entirely absent in the vocabulary of most ancient Indian texts. And, of course, it does not refer to goals or aims of human life. Thus, it is ironic that the only ancient text to use the term purusartha with a modicum of frequency within the context of the trivarga is a Buddhist text, Asvaghosa's Buddhacarita. When Siddhartha, the future Buddha, decides to leave home and adopt the life of a wandering mendicant, his father, King Suddhodana, attempted various strategies to bring his son back. The trivarga doctrine is used as a strategy by King Sreniya of Magadha (10.28), a friend of Suddhodana. Sreniya asks Siddhartha to devote himself to dharma, artha, and kama and not to upturn the trivarga by taking to renunciation too early in life. He goes on to advise Siddhartha (10.30):
tasmat trivargasya nisevanena
tvam rupam etat saphalam kurusva |
dharmarthakamadhigamam hy anunam
nrnam anunam purusartham ahuh ||
By pursuing, therefore, the trivarga,
make this lovely body of yours bear fruit.
For when a man gains in their entirety
dharma, artha, and kama, they say,
he has achieved the purusartha
of men in its entirety.

Here too purusartha does not mean goal of human life but simply what is good or beneficial for a human being, the highest human good, somewhat similar to the use of artha in Mimamsa and KAS 9.7.60-64. This is confirmed by Siddhartha's reply to Sreniya, where he uses the alternative manusyartha (11.58-59) and contrasts it with anartha in a way similar to Kautilya:
trivargasevam nrpa yat tu krtsnatah
paro manusyartha iti tvam attha mam |
anartha ity eva mamatra darsanam
ksayi trivargo hi na capi tarpakah ||
pade tu yasmin na jara na bhir na run
na janma naivoparamo na cadhayah |
tam eva manye purusartham uttamam
na vidyate yatra punah punah kriya ||
As to what you said to me, that the trivarga
when followed in its entirety
is the highest manusyartha;
My view on this is that it is truly an anartha,
for the trivarga is transient,
and it fails to satisfy.
The state in which there is no old age and no fear,
no sickness and no birth, no death and no distress,
That alone I consider the highest purusartha,
in which there is no repeated activity.

The statement that the trivarga even when followed to perfection is not the ultimate purusartha indicates the clash between the "worldly" pursuits encapsulated in the trivarga and the freedom from the world and from birth and death that drove people to adopt the itinerant and mendicant way of life. Later, as we will see, this latter pursuit was also, somewhat awkwardly, incorporated into the triple category making it a fourfold one.

The fact that purusartha was not a strong presence in the Sanskrit vocabulary at least until the middle of the first millennium is demonstrated by its absence in the Amarakosa, the earliest Sanskrit lexicon and thesaurus probably composed in the fifth-to-sixth c. CE, in its presentation of trivarga discussed below. The earliest technical use of the term I have been able to find within the Brahmanical literature is in Medhatithi's (ninth c. CE) commentary on Manu. In introducing MDh 4.176 he says: uktas trivargah purusarthah ("the trivarga beneficial to a person has been explained"), where purusartha is clearly a Bahuvrihi compound qualifying trivarga. On MDh 2.224, a verse that contains the three concepts of trivarga but not that term itself, Medhatithi says that, according to some, kama is the chief purusartha (kamas tavan mukhya eva purusarthah), while, according to the Carvakas, kama is not just the chief but the only purusartha (kama evaikah purusarthah). Here, for the first time, we have an apparent use of purusartha as a substantive, where the compound is probably used as a Tatpurusa.

There has been some scholarly attention paid to the connections or correlations between the trivarga--purusartha complex and other Brahmanical classificatory systems, most notably the four varnas and the four asramas. Malamoud, (13) for example, devotes an appendix to his study of the purusarthas (1982: 49-52) to the correspondence between these three classificatory systems. So also does Sharma (1982: 16-17). Sharma presents the clearest charting of correspondences between the three institutions:
Varna      Purusartha      Asrama

brahmana   dharma, moksa   all four
ksatriya   dharma, artha   brahmacarya, grhastha, vanaprastha
vaisya     artha, kama     brahmacarya, grhastha, vanaprastha
sudra      kama            grhastha

This and similar correlations are drawn out of thin air; they do not correspond to any ideas found in the ancient sources. For example, that Ksatriyas are unconcerned about kama is totally contrary to what Kautilya says. These classifications are distinct and address various imperatives of ancient Indian social and religious thought; with the exception of the claim that only Brahmins are entitled to become samnyasins, the ancient thinkers themselves never deemd it necessary to bring them into some kind of correlation. Neither should we.

In medieval times "Purusartha" occurs in the titles of works in the genre of Dharmani-bandha (Digest of Law). Kane (I-II: 1065) lists five such works: Purusarthacintamani, Purusarthaprabodha, Purusarthaprabodhini, Purusartharatnakara, and Purusarthasudhanidhi. These, however, do not deal with the "aims of man" but rather with rituals that must be performed during certains times of the day and during certain days of the liturgical year.


The scholarly consensus is that the original trivarga became expanded into four with the addition of moksa. Malamoud (1982: 37), in dealing with the Indian penchant for the 3 + 1 scheme, says: "In the series of man's four aims, moksa is obviously the + 1. The structure shows through first of all in the formal indications of the terminology: the first three purusartha (14)... together make up the trivarga; this 'triple group' becomes transformed into caturvarga, where is added a fourth term, which is invariably moksa." In confirmation of this observation, Malamoud cites the Amarakosa (II: Brahmavarga 57), which reads: trivargo dharmakamarthais caturvargah samoksakaih ("The trivarga with dharma, kama, and artha, and, together with moksa, caturvarga"). Significantly, this fifth-to-sixth century text is the earliest that I have been able find where the term caturvarga occurs, contrary to Malamoud, however, without the use of the term purusartha, which is never used in the Amarakosa.

The addition of moksa to the three is not recorded in any Dharmasastra. The only places in the early literature that this addition is found are the Santiparvan of the Mahabharata and Vatsyayana's Kamasutra. At MBh 12.59.29-30, in the description of the text composed by the Self-Arisen One, the author says:
yatra dharmas tathaivarthah kamas caivanuvarnitah |
trivarga iti vikhyato gana esa svayambhuva |
caturtho moksa ity eva prthag arthah prthag ganah ||
In which dharma, artha, and kama were described. This group was called
trivarga by the Self-Arisen
One. There is a separate fourth artha and a separate group: moksa.

The only other place where moksa is introduced into the trivarga is at MBh 12.123.5, where it is said that sense objects serve to procure food. That is the root of the trivarga (mulam trivargasya). It goes on to say: nivrttir moksa ucyate ("their cessation is moksa"). Nowhere, however, is the term caturvarga used.

In the long discussion of the trivarga in the second chapter of the first book of the Kamasutra that we have already surveyed, Vatsyayana directs a person to divide his lifespan into three and pursue one of the three in each (1.2.1-4). As I have already noted, the introduction of a fourth category, moksa, may well be a later interpolation for the reasons I have already mentioned and also because this is the only time this term is used in the entire text.

So, the conclusion is that the expansion of the three into four was not a matter of great concern to the authors of these early texts. The fixed insertion of moksa to make a group of four must have happened sometime before the middle of the millennium, since it is noted in the Amarakosa. The four appear together as a group in medieval Dharmasastric texts. A ninth-century commentary on the Yajnavalkya Smrti--a long fragment of which exists in a single manuscript in Nepal (15) and whose author remains unknown--gives the following "etymological" definition of "veda": vedayate 'smin dharmarthakamamoksa iti vedah ("The term veda is derive from the fact that in it dharma, artha, kama, and moksa are made known" [p. 6a]).

That Dharmasastras deal with all four areas of the caturvarga is explicitly stated in Visvarupa's (ninth c. CE) commentary on the Yajnavalkya Smrti. He states (pp. 3-4) that the text aims to provide instruction in the caturvarga, noting that the term dharma in Dharmasastra is a synecdoche intended to include also artha, kama, and moksa. He also explains (p. 2) that these four implicitly refer also to their opposites as well, which also can be learnt from the Dharmasastras. Visvarupa, thus, states that these texts have as their object the astavarga, the set of eight. This is the largest expansion of the original trivarga I have encountered.

The category of moksa, however, rests uneasily in the company of the other three (Krishna 1986). As we saw, many authors recommend that the trivarga should be followed as a whole; none should be ignored and none should undermine the others. The fourth category, however, requires the person who is dedicated to it to abandon the other three: nivrtti or cessation, as the above passage of the Mahabharata points out. All four of these cannot be carried out together.

Of greater concern to these early authors is the relative value of the three pursuits of trivarga. Which is more important? Can a person follow one to the detriment of the other two? Is there a hierarchy among these three? As already pointed out, the earliest author to deal with this is Gautama (9.46-47): "To the best of his ability, he should not make the morning, midday, and afternoon fruitless with respect to dharma, artha, and kama. Among these, however, he should place dharma at the forefront." Giving priority to dharma is common in the Dharmasastras, as is only to be expected. Manu (2.224) gives three opinions about which of them is superior: "dharma and artha are said to be superior, or kama and artha, or just dharma; or here just artha. The settled rule, however, is that it is the trivarga" (dharmarthav ucyate sreyah kamarthau dharma eva va | artha eveha va sreyas trivarga iti tu sthitih ||). More clearly at 4.176, Manu establishes the superiority of dharma: "He should give up completely artha and kama that is devoid of dharma" (parityajed arthakamau yau syatam dharmavarjitau).

Kautilya (KAS 1.7.6-7) also engages in this debate, as we saw above, and he comes down in favor of the supremacy of artha, because dharma and kama have artha as their foundation, and Manu may indeed be referring to this passage when he says that some take artha to be the best.

The longest and most detailed discussion of this topic is found in the Mahabharata (12.161.2), where Yudhisthira asks Vidura explicitly which of the three is most important, which is the middling, and which is lowest in rank. Vidura's reply occupies the whole of the chapter. The bottom line here is that dharma is the best; next comes artha; and kama is the lowest--the same thesis that we find in the Dharmas'astras. In the Ramayana (4.37.20-22) also, dharma is presented as the highest of the three; the others can be followed only if they do not hinder dharma.

In spite of this theological debate, it is clear that trivarga was generally viewed as a single group of activities that, when pursued together, are wholesome and confer benefits (artha) on human beings. Kautilya (KAS 1.7.2) is clear: "(The king) should pursue the trivarga equally, each intimately linked to the others." They are not some abstract and theoretical goals or "ends of man" but three major areas of wholesome human activity and engagement to which a person should pay attention.


On the basis of this study, then, we can posit a few general conclusions with respect to trivarga and purusartha as they are presented and explained in texts preceding the middle of the first millennium CE.

(1) The classificatory term trivarga, just like its counterparts sadvarga and the like, requires an implicit referent: what is it that contains this triple grouping? Kautilya provides the answer with the compound arthatrivarga, showing that artha, in the sense of things that are beneficial, is the referent of trivarga. Thus, artha as a component of the trivarga has a different meaning, referring to success in the economic and political arenas, that is, wealth and power.

(2) The term purusartha is an elaboration of artha as the referent of trivarga: something that is beneficial to a human being. In its original and earliest usage within the Mimamsa tradition, purusartha is a Bahuvrihi compound (or possibly a Nityasamasa) referring to a ritual act (padartha): something that is of benefit to the human performer, as opposed to kratvartha: something that is of benefit to the act itself. So, cutting vegetables benefits the act of cooking, while the act of cooking itself benefits the human who will consume what is cooked. Within the context of trivarga, the compound means "the triple set that is of benefit to a human being."

(3) The term artha in the compound purusartha does not mean aim or goal, even though that meaning may occasionally seep into it in actual usage especially in later texts. Within this compound artha has the same meaning it has in Mimamsa and Kautilya: something that is beneficial, as opposed to anartha: something that is detrimental.

(4) The expression purusartha is rare with reference to the trivarga in the early literature until at least the middle of the first millennium CE. Its absence in the comprehensive lexicon, the Amarakosa, which records the trivarga and caturvarga (with the inclusion of moksa), shows its marginal status in the Sanskrit vocabulary relating to trivarga.

(5) The three concepts--dharma, artha, kama--comprehended by trivarga do not constitute goals or aims of human life, as they are so often depicted in modern scholarship. They represent three major domains of human activities and pursuits that are beneficial to persons who perform them. A balanced and wholesome human life requires that an individual pursue all three of these in a balanced manner: such a person can be said to have lived a good life. In this sense, one can say that the doctrine of trivarga constitutes--or at least contains the germs of--a moral philosophy or a philosophy of life.

Scholarly discussions of trivarga and purusartha frequently conflate, or do not adequately distinguish, three levels of analysis: (1) Historical, which is the level of analysis in this paper; (2) Philosophical/theological, based on other areas of Indian philosophical and religious traditions, thus attempting to "understand more fully" these concepts by locating them within a larger context; and (3) The construction of a new axiology or philosophy of value and a new soteriology or a doctrine of ultimate salvation/liberation. The latter two are not illegitimate intellectual activities, but must be kept distinguished from the first if we are to gain an accurate historical understanding of these categories.

KAS   Kautilya, Arthasastra
MDh   Manava Dharmasastra
MBh   Mahabharata
NSm   Narada Smrti
PMS   Purva Mimamsa Sutra
Ram   Ramayana
SV    Sdma Veda
YDh   Yajnavalkya Dharmasastra


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(1.) Sharma (1982, 1999) discusses Manu, Yajnavalkya, the Mahabharata, the Kamasutra, etc., as if they deal with the purusarthas, even though, as we will see, the term does not occur in any of them. Even Malamoud (1982) uses the term freely to refer to the trivarga. Thus, he says that KAS 1.7.3-5 (which we will examine below) "states that a purusartha to which one has devoted himself exclusively is detrimental to the other purusarthas and to itself" (Malamoud 1982: 39 n. 14). And again he translates KAS 1.7.7 as "artha is the main (purusartha). For the root of dharma and kama is artha." K. J. Shah (1982: 56) also comments: "For properly understanding artha as a purusartha, as a goal of life, one must begin perhaps, where Kautilya himself begins." The KAS, of course, never uses the term purusartha.

(2.) The earliest inscription to record the term (Prakrit tivaga) is the Nasik Cave Inscription of Vasishtiputra of 149 AD. See Sircar 1986: 204.

(3.) For the compositional history of the KAS, see Olivelle 2013 and McClish 2019. Briefly, we believe that the original text of Kautilya was subjected to a substantial redaction by a person sharing the Dharmasastric worldview sometime after the composition of the MDh, that is, after the second century CE. In general, the verses that conclude Chapters (adhyaya) are the work of the redactor.

(4.) We find such discussion in the KAS itself: see 1.2.11: 1.4.11; 1.17.45-47; 2.7.10; 5.3.2; 5.4.6-7, 11:8.1.49; 8.3.31-32, 50, 54; 9.7.81; 12.2.2.

(5.) See the use of the identical term anubaddha in the KAS 1.7.3-5 cited above, and my comments there.

(6.) For this provision, see MDh 9.206; YDh 2.126.

(7.) See Sharma 1982, 1999; Malamoud 1982.

(8.) MBh 1.68.40; 1.109.23: 1.171.3; 3.119.21;5.121.22; 5.122.32, 36; 6.10.59, 69; 9.4.28; 11.2.19; 12.12.17; 12.15.3; 12.28.42; 12.56.4; 12.57.17; 12.59.30, 38, 76; 12.69.64 (twice), 67 (twice); 12.118.10; 12.121.13; 12.123.5, 8; 12.136.207; 12.137.95; 12.138.57; 12.161.3, 38, 46; 12.183.9; 12.184.10, 17; 12.185.3; 12.187.55; 12.276.15; 12.308.88, 129 (twice); 12.316.47; 13.32.20, 21; 13.118.24; 13.128.56; 13.129.15; 13.131.40; 14.37.14.

(9.) In MBh 12.59.31 there is an interesting extension of trivarga to moksa and to danda. The three associated with moksa are the three gunas: sattva, rajas, and tamas. The three related to danda are stability, growth, and decline (sthana, vrddhi, ksaya).

(10.) This is a type of compound whose meaning cannot be explained by simply dissolving its constituent words, as is done in other kinds of compounds. One example is kumbhakara, which cannot be explained as kumbham karah, but as kumbham karoti sah. One kind of Nityasamasa consists of compounds ending in -artha. which has the same meaning as a dative of purpose. See Abhyankar and Shukla 1986: 219-20.

(11.) 1.6.5; 4.37.22; 6.103.6.

(12.) For a survery of modern scholarship on the issue, see Davis 2004. who argues, correctly I think, that the purusarthas are not values at all or even aims, goals, or motives. For these arguments, see Potter 1963; Koller 1968; Flood 2000.

(13.) Malamoud refers to an article by Syrkin written in Russian that is a "semiotic study of the place of the purusarthas in the totality of representations forming the latticework of ancient Indian culture" (Malamoud 1982: 52): A.Ia. "K sistematizacii nekotorykh poniatti v sanskrite" (Contribution a la systematisation de certains concepts en Sanscrit). Semiotiklo i vostocnyie iazyki (Semiotique el langues orientales), Moscow: Nauka, 1967, pp. 146-64.

(14.) Note his use of purusartha here, even though sources never use that term.

(15.) National Archives, Kathmandu, Nepal, Manuscript No. B432/19.
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Author:Olivelle, Patrick
Publication:The Journal of the American Oriental Society
Geographic Code:9INDI
Date:Apr 1, 2019
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