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In Hinduism, the purusarthas (Sanskrit: पुरुष-अर्थ) are the four main aims of life for a Twice-born Hindu males. These teleological life-goals include both mundane and spiritual aspects providing a holistic understanding of life in all its capacities. The aims start from lower to higher thereby providing a graduated scheme of aspirations for Hindus to regulate and structure their ethical behavior and life direction. In living tradition, the notion of the four purusarthas represents a comprehensive approach to the satisfaction of a man's physical, emotional, and spiritual needs.

Historically, the first three goals, dharma, artha and kama, were articulated first (Sanskrit: trivarga), and the fourth goal, moksha, later (Skt.: chaturvarga). Conventionally, the purusarthas are listed as follows starting from lowest to highest: 1) Kāma - sensual pleasure or love; 2) Artha - wealth; 3) Dharma - righteousness or morality; and 4) Moksha - liberation from the cycle of reincarnation. However, sometimes the first two aims are switched with Artha being placed first.

The Purusathas are based on the presupposition that life should be enjoyed in all its aspects at the appropriate times (including sexual pleasure and material enjoyment) but that eventually some goals (i.e. righteous living and the pursuit of liberation) transcend others, and ought to be one's highest calling in life.

Religious Context

The Hindu doctrine of the Purusarthas (four aims of life) arose from the fusion of a number of interrelated doctrines that provided ideological backing for this teaching. These affiliated doctrines are known as the Varna System, the ashrama system, and the dharmic duties for Twice-born males enumerated in the Dharmashastras. There is a popular correspondence between the four purusharthas, the four stages of life (Skt.: āśrama: Brahmacharya [student life], Grihastha [household life], Vanaprastha [retired life] and Sannyasa [renunciation]) and the four primary castes or strata of society (Skt.: varna: Brahmin [priest/teacher], Kshatriya [warrior/politician], Vaishya [landowner/entrepreneur] and Shudra [servant/manual labourer]). This, however, has not been traced to any primary source in early Sanskrit literature.

In Hinduism, the highest three castes of Hindu society are known as the twice-born (Sanskrit द्विज: Dvija) because they have undergone the sacred thread ceremony (Upanayana), in which male members are initiated into the second stage of life (ashrama) of a Vedic follower. This sacred thread ceremony is considered to be a type of second birth.

Traditionally, twice-born Hindus belong to the first three groups of the Hindu caste-system: 1) Brahmins, 2) Kshatriyas, and 3) Vaishyas. However, in many Hindu scriptures the word Dvija refers only to Brahmins in Hindu texts who possess mythical, religious superiority.

The doctrine of the "twice-born" has been criticized for promoting hierarchy and elitism in Hindu society but its supporters see it as a type of initiation and purification into a higher state of existence, analogous to baptism in other religions.

Stages of life

Asrama refers to the four stages of individual life prescribed for all twice-born Hindu males. A human's life was divided into four stages of equal time. Brahmacharya ("student life") for 25 years, Grihastha ("householder life"), after marriage, for another 25 years, Vanaprastha or age of retirement for another 25 years ("anchorite life") and if after that, Sannyasa ("renunciate life") or permanent seclusion from all human activities for the rest of life. These "stages of life for a twice-born man" or Ashrama are discussed in the Hindu Manusmriti. The Manusmriti goes into some detail, regarding what is expected of an individual during each stage.

Varna System

Varna is a Sanskrit term meaning "colour." Hinduism categorizes human society into four "Varnas" indicative of the group's social standing in marital and occupational matters.[1]

These four varnas are as follows:

  • Brahmin - "scholarly community," including teachers, doctors, and other scholars.
  • Kshatriya - "warriors and rulers or politicians community"
  • Vaishya - "mercantile and artisan community"
  • Shudra - "service-providing community"
  • Dalit - "untouchables, those without varna"

The first three varnas are called 'twice born'. They are allowed to study the Vedas. In India and Nepal, the sub-communities within a Varna are called "Jat" or "Jati." Traditionally, each Jati members are allowed to marry only with their group. People are born into their Jati and normally it cannot be changed, though there were some exceptions in Hindu Scriptures.[2] Once someone is born to certain sub-community or Jati he or she cannot normally change their Jati, although some groups throughout history have risen or fallen according to their deeds.

The Brahmins (priests), The Kshatriyas (warriors, nobility), the Vaishyas (the craftsmen and men of commerce), and the Shudras (agriculture workers; menial workers) were the four varnas. A person of each varna was said to possess certain set of characteristics: the Shudras, they believed, were of the tamasic nature; the Vaishyas were either tamasic or rajasic; the Kshatriyas were believed to be noble, learned and selfless, his or her duty being the administration of the people and fighting of battles against intruders, often very spiritually inclined; and that the Brahmins were religious, pure, said to be society's bank of knowledge and wisdom for their memory of holy scriptures, the performers of rituals. However, there is a dispute as to which varna holds the greatest spiritual purity. Brahmins are associated with the evil Daksha, an arrogant Brahmin that received the head of a goat, and according to scriptures caused all Brahmins to be cursed by Nandi to never attain the greatest spiritual heights in Hinduism as Daksha insulted Shiva.

To the Brahmin, belongs the right of teaching and expounding the sacred texts Vedas. The occupations of the Vaishya are those connected with trade, the cultivation of the land and the breeding of cattle; while those of a Kshatriya consist in ruling and defending the people, administering justice, and the duties, of the military profession generally and ruling and expounding all Dharma. Both share with the Brahmin the privilege of reading the Vedas. Shudras were the serfs, and performed agricultural labor.


  1. "Low-caste Hindus adopt new faith" BBC News. Retrieved January 30, 2008.
  2. For example, sage Vishwamitra was born as a Kshatriya (ruling class) and by deep meditation (tapas) became a venerable Brahmin rishi (saint).

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Apte, Vaham Shivram. 1965. The Practical Sanskrit Dictionary. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers. ISBN 81-208-0567-4
  • Flood, Gavin. 1996. An Introduction to Hinduism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-43878-0
  • Hopkins, Thomas J. 1971. The Hindu Religious Tradition. Cambridge: Dickenson Publishing Company, Inc.
  • Kane, Pandurang Vaman. History of Dharmasastra: (ancient and mediaeval, religious and civil law). Poona: Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute, 1975.
  • Morris, Carstairs G., and Margaret Mead. The Twice-Born: A Study of A Community of High-Caste Hindus. Hogarth Press, 1968.
  • Sinclair, Stevenson. The Religious Quest Of India - The Rites of The Twice Born. Hesperides Press, 2006. ISBN 978-1406730845
  • Sri Aurobindo. The Human Cycle, The Ideal of Human Unity, War and Self-Determination. Sri Aurobindo Ashram Trust, 1970. ISBN 81-7058-014-5


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