According to the Yoga Sutras, the four aims of life are
dharma, artha , kama and moksa... Dharma is the active observance of spiritual discipline. It is the weaving together of the yamas and the niyamas into a way of life. If dharma is the creation of a life in balance on a spiritual plane, then artha is the creation of a life in balance on the physical plane. Work, family, money — all are brought into balance and are in keeping with one’s spiritual values. Kama is enjoyment of the fruits of one’s labors. It is not enough just to plant the garden and cultivate it with care; we must set aside time to enjoy it as well. Moksa is the final aim of life, liberation. Dharma, artha, and kama are our actions; in moksa we surrender the fruits of our actions to the universe. We let go of everything and hold on to nothing.
We are all performing the purusartha in our own ways, just as our parents did and our grandparents before them. We do not need yoga in order to work toward a happy, fulfilled life. Yoga simply gives us an outline. The purusartha brings together all the work of this path. They are like the forest, while the individual limbs of yoga are the trees. Use the purusartha as a means to keep sight of this forest as you immerse yourself in the trees ahead. — Rolf Gates, Meditations from the Mat
It is not necessary to be religious to be ethical. The ethical standards which specify the right and wrong means of achieving security and pleasures are based on commonsense. An irreligious person can be completely ethical by commonsense standards. To be ethical is to be fully human – not controlled by mere instincts. A man can choose the wrong means to gain his ends. With a mind capable of rationalization, he can always abuse the freedom of choice given to him; he can ignore commonsense ethical standards. When he does so, he does not fulfill his role as a human being in society. Society establishes rules to prevent and alleviate the suffering such abuse of freedom of choice can cause others through criminal and civil laws.
Sometimes one can be clever enough to abuse freedom without transgressing man-made laws or, at least, without being caught. At this point religious ethics enter the picture. One must learn to distinguish between commonsense ethics and religious ethics. Religious ethics confirm commonsense ethics and add a few more.
The religious ethics called dharma, found in the Veda, confirm commonsense standards, specify further religious “do’s and don’ts”, and add the concept of punya and papa – results produced by good or bad actions, now or hereafter.
According to dharma, human action has an unseen result as well as an immediate tangible result. The unseen result of the action accrues in subtle form to the account of the “doer” of the action and, in time, will fructify, tangibly, for him as a “good” or “bad'” experience – something pleasurable or painful. The subtle result of good action, punya, fructifies as pleasure; the subtle result of bad action, papa, fructifies as pain. Papa can be defined as sin. Sin is the choice of either a wrong deal or a wrong means in the pursuit of an acceptable goal. This choice will bring an undesired result; the very kind of result that the doer wanted to avoid in the first place. Papa is paid for in terms of undesirable experiences. The word punya has no good English equivalent. It indicates the result of a good action which is not seen , but which will bring later a desirable experience, something that is pleasing.
Dharma occupies the first place in the four categories of human goals, because the pursuit of security, artha, and pleasures, kama, need to be governed by ethical standards. Artha, striving for security, comes second, because it is the foremost desire of everyone. Everyone is obedient under the doctor’s scalpel precisely because everyone wants to live. Granted life, one then wants to be happy, to pursue pleasures, kama. I want to live and live happily; and both pursuits, the struggle for security and the search for pleasure, must be governed by ethics.
The last category is the goal of liberation, moksa, ranked last because it becomes a direct pursuit only when one has realized the limitations inherent in the first three pursuits.
Moksa, like dharma, is a peculiarly human pursuit not shared by other creatures. Even among human beings, liberation is a concern of only a few. These few recognize that what they want is not more security or more pleasure but freedom itself – freedom from all desires.
Everyone has some moments of freedom, moments when one seems to “fall in place”. When I “fall into place”, I am free. These fleeting moments of falling into place are experienced by all human beings. That everything is in place is evidenced by not wanting anything to be different in the circumstances of the moment.
When I do not want anything to be different, I know that I have fallen into place with what is. I know fulfillment. I need make no change to become contented. I am, for the moment, free – from the need to struggle for some change in me or the circumstances. If I fall into place permanently, requiring no more change in anything, my life would then be, fulfilled, the struggle over. The pursuit of moksa is the direct pursuit of that freedom everyone has experienced for brief moments when everything has “fallen into place”. How can that freedom be gained? What kinds of bonds deny that freedom?
Moksa becomes relevant when one realizes that behind one’s struggle for security, artha, and pleasures, kama, is the basic human desire to be adequate, free from all incompleteness, and that no amount of security or pleasure achieves that goal. So when a mature person analyzes his experiences, he discovers that behind his pursuit of security and pleasure is a basic desire to be free from all insufficiency, to be free from incompleteness itself, a basic desire which no amount of artha and kamam fulfils. This realization brings a certain dispassion, nirveda, towards security and pleasures. The mature person gains dispassion towards his former pursuits and is ready to seek liberation, moksa, directly.
-Swami Dayananda Saraswati