jñānena tu tad ajñānam yeṣāṃ nāśitam ātmanaḥ | teṣām ādityavaj jñānaṃ prakāśayati tat param
“As the sun dispels darkness and illuminates everything, so divine knowledge destroys ignorance and reveals the transcendental Absolute Truth.” — Bhagavad-Gītā 5.16    

Dharma, artha, kāma, mokṣa

Dharma (religion; discharge of religious duties), artha (economic development), kāma (regulated sense enjoyment) and mokṣa (liberation) are four objects and goals of a human society. They are collectively called caturvarga (four paths). They are described in detail below.


Dharma means religious principles, divine laws and refers to (1) varnāśrama dharma (the practice of religious duties in the Vedic social system) and (2) sanātana-dharma (nitya-dharma – eternal religion) or bhagavat-dharma. Dharmam tu sākṣād bhagavat-pranītam – true religious principles are given by the Supreme Personality of Godhead. There are also specific religious practices for each of the four ages, called yuga-dharma.

  1. (1) varnāśrama dharma: The duties in the Varnāśrama social system are laid down in various Vedic scriptures such as Manu-Saṃhitā. They are ultimately meant to regulate people's activities so that they can make spiritual progress. In each of the four varnas (social classes – brāhmaṇa, kṣatriya, vaisya, Śūdra) and the four āśramas (stages of life – brahmacarya, gṛhasta, vānaprasta, sannyāsa), people have different duties to perform. When the members of the Varnāśrama system perform their respective duties, it benefits society as a whole as well as the individual: Peace, order and prosperity for all and purification of consciousness, spiritual upliftment for the individual, depending on how resolutely he follows the instructions of the scriptures.
  2. (2) nitya-dharma: According to their innermost nature, all living beings are tiny parts of the Supreme Lord and they are His servants. This is their dharma. Identifications of living beings with their respective bodies are manifestations of the influence of the three modes sattva, rajas and tamas. In the human form of life, the living being, the spiritual soul has the opportunity to realise that it is not identical with the body but is of a spiritual nature. Trapped in various notions related to the body and having nothing to do with sanātana-dharma, people think “I am German”, “I am Indian”, “I am Christian”, “I am Muslim”, “I am Jewish”, etc., and do not understand their true nature as eternal servants of the Supreme Lord. People who are established in sanātana-dharma attain liberation from all misconceptions, happiness, fearlessness and love for the Supreme Lord by engaging in His devotional service through the nine processes of bhakti-yoga.

In the Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam (11.19.27) the Supreme Lord explains what true religious principles, true knowledge, true detachment and true opulence are:

“True religious principles are those that lead one to My devotional service; true knowledge is the consciousness that reveals My all-pervading Presence; true detachment is complete disinterest in the objects of material sense gratification; and true opulence consists in the eight mystical perfections (anima-siddhi, etc.).”

In a lecture, Śrīla Bhaktivedanta Narayana Goswami gives interesting and insightful explanations on the subject of dharma. He describes three or four types of dharma: nitya-dharma, naimittika-dharma, anitya-dharma and kaitava-dharma.

"All the varieties of dharma in this world can be divided into three general categories: nitya-dharma, naimittika-dharma and anitya-dharma. Anitya-dharma is that dharma which does not accept the existence of the Lord and the eternality of the soul. Naimittika-dharma is that dharma which accepts the eternality of the Lord and the jīvas, but only prescribes temporary means to attain the Lord's mercy. And nitya-dharma is that dharma which endeavours by the means of pure love to obtain the servitorship of Kṛṣṇa.

This nitya-dharma is one, although different countries, castes and languages identify it by various names. This is the supreme occupation of all jīvas. In India this dharma is presented as Vaiṣṇava-dharma. Vaiṣṇava-dharma is eternal and the highest ideal of supreme dharma. In the performance of occasionally prescribed duties there is no direct execution of nitya-dharma. Rather it indirectly aims at nitya-dharma. Thus it is of very little use. Those processes that make up anitya-dharma are devoid of nitya-dharma and are described as the function of animals. They are fit to be rejected.”

ahara-nidra-bhaya-maithuna ca samanyam etat pasubhir naranam | dharmo hi tesam adhiko viseso dharmena hina pasubhih samana     — Hitopadesa 25

‘Human beings are equal to animals in the matter of eating, sleeping, fearing and mating. Yet the quality of religion is unique to human beings. Without religion, they are no better than animals.’

That dharma in which the nature of the self (the soul) is not cultivated; in which endeavours are made to increase eating, sleeping, mating and defending; and in which enjoyment of the temporary sense objects is supported as the ultimate objective of human life, is the dharma of animals. In this so-called dharma, it is in fact completely impossible to escape all sorrow and attain pure happiness, which is the goal of human life.

Therefore, it has been stated in the Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam (11.3.18):

karmany arabhamananam duhkha-hatyai sukhaya ca | pasyet paka-viparyasam mithuni-carinam nrnam

’All men in this world are inclined to perform karma for the purpose of becoming liberated from sorrow and attaining happiness. But the opposite results are seen. In other words, sorrow is not dispelled and happiness is not attained.’

For this reason Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam gives the highest instruction for all people of the world:

labdhva su-durlabham idam bahu-sambhavante | manusyam artha-dam anityam apiha dhirah | turnam yateta na pated anu-mṛtyu yavan | nihsreyasaya visayah khalu sarvatah syat     — Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam 11.9.29

‘After wandering throughout 8,400 000 species of life one achieves the rare human form of life, which, although temporary, affords one the opportunity to attain the highest perfection. Thus, a sober human being, without wasting even a moment, should endeavour for the ultimate welfare of life as long as his body, which is always subject to death, has not fallen down and died. . . . ’

“. . . . In the world today the majority of dharmas are, in the words of Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam, kaitava-dharma, ‘cheating religion’. Śrī Caitanya-bhagavat also states:

prthivite dharma name yata katha cale, bhagavata kahe taha paripurna chale – ‘all worldly ideas that go by the name of religion are, according to Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam, nothing more than a deception.’

Anitya-dharma is that dharma in which prayer for bread and butter is the highest form of worship of the Lord; in which one changes his moral conduct from that of a Hindu to that of a Muslim, a Buddhist, a Christian and a Hindu once again; and in which one attempts to rid oneself of bodily diseases, considering his body to be his soul (self) and his soul to be the Lord. Feeding the people Kichari1 with the misconception that they are poor; constructing hospitals and godless educational centres believing this to be the topmost service to God; thinking that nitya-dharma, anitya-dharma and all other varieties of dharma are one; neglecting nitya-dharma and propagating secularism; sacrificing harmless animals and birds in the name of love for the world; and serving man and nation, are all anitya-dharma. None of these activities ever brings permanent welfare to the world.

However, if we consider nitya-dharma to be like a temple – in other words, to be our highest objective – we may accept these other dharmas partially, but only as steps to reach this temple of nitya-dharma. Wherever these other dharmas contradict, cover or dominate nitya-dharma, they should be completely abandoned. Morality, humanity or worldly love that are devoid of nitya-dharma are meaningless and unworthy of any glorification. The real objective and only purpose of humanity and morality is to attain kṛṣṇa-prema, love for Kṛṣṇa. If there is just one true performer of this nitya-dharma who keeps the fire of hari-saṅkīrtana ablaze, then his nation, caste and society can never be ruined – even after that nation is oppressed and kept dependent by another country and has its treasures looted, its scriptures burned to ashes, and its culture and prosperity destroyed. This saṅkīrtana makes possible the eternal welfare of the world and of one's country, society, caste and self.

I complete my lecture by repeating the final instruction of Śrī Kṛṣṇa, the founder of dharma, as found in the Gītopaniṣad (Bhagavad-Gītā 18.66):

sarva-dharmān parityajya mām ekaṃ śaraṅaṃ vraja | ahaṃ tvāṃ sarva-pāpebhyo mokṣayiṣyāmi mā śucaḥ

‘Completely abandon all varieties of dharma relating to your body and mind, and just surrender fully unto Me. I shall deliver you from all sinful reactions. Do not fear.’


Following dharma in the Vedic social system and pious actions lead to artha, economic development, improvement in living conditions, wealth, prestige, etc. in this life or the next.2 People anchored in sanātana-dharma are not interested in artha, kāma and mokṣa.


Through economic development, improvement of living conditions, wealth, prestige, etc., one attains kāma, sense enjoyment or satisfaction of the senses. There are also rules or regulations for the enjoyment of the senses. Failure to follow these regulations leads to degradation, i.e., if one gratifies one's senses according to one's whim and violates all the regulations of the scriptures, one is sure to find oneself in misery sooner or later.


When one gets tired of sensual pleasure because one realises that one is not really happy through it or when one cannot satisfy sensual desires for some reason, one may strive for mokṣa, liberation, salvation. Then one indulges in severe asceticism to become forever free from suffering and the pursuit of happiness. Or one may think that when one has no more cravings at all, one is happy. But that's a mistake – you could just as easily become a stone. The desire to have no desires at all is itself a desire.

Those who are engaged in sanātana-dharma automatically attain artha, kāma and mokṣa, although they are not at all interested in them. One should unreservedly engage oneself uninterruptedly in the service of the Supreme Lord – without seeking material benefits – then one will get all that one needs to live; one will be happy and, after leaving the body, will enter the kingdom of God.

In the Caitanya-caritāmṛta, Madhya-līlā 19.149 it is said:

“Because a devotee of Kṛṣṇa is desireless, he is peaceful. Karmis (those who strive for the fruits of their labour) desire material enjoyment, jñānis (those who strive for liberation from the cycle of birth and death) desire liberation, and yogis (those who strive for mystical powers) desire power over matter and therefore they are lustful and cannot attain peace.”

In Bhagavad-gītā 9.22 the Supreme Lord says:

“But to those who worship Me with devotion and meditate on My transcendental form, I give what they need and preserve what they have.”

Mokṣa or mukti is not the solution to all an individual's problems. Buddhists and other impersonalists strive for that, and unintelligent people believe that everything is over with death – so why strive for liberation? That is why it is said in Caitanya-caritāmṛta, Madhya-līlā 19.150:

“O great sage, among many millions of materially liberated persons and among many millions of siddhas who have almost attained perfection, there is hardly one pure devotee of Narayana. Only such a devotee is really completely satisfied and peaceful.”


Sanātana-dharma, or to be engaged in the loving service of the Supreme Lord, is actually the goal of dharma, artha, kāma and mokṣa. People who perform their duties in varnāśrama-dharma to satisfy Viṣṇu are on the right path and will eventually come to the level of sanātana-dharma, where the rules of varnāśrama-dharma no longer have any meaning for them. People who follow the rules of varnāśrama-dharma for the sake of material benefits deceive themselves and they will eventually fall down from their position. People who follow no rules at all, disregard the Vedic scriptures and have no interest in spiritual progress are called dvipāda-paśus (two-legged animals) in the Śāstras (the revealed Vedic scriptures), and in the third mantra of the Sri Isopanisad they are called ātmā-hā, “murderers of the soul”.

In the kali-yuga, the present age, the mass of people are ignorant of their spiritual nature, the Vedic scriptures and of what bestows eternal happiness and freedom; varnāśrama-dharma is virtually unknown to them and people strive mainly for material happiness; those who consider themselves religious and follow some “ism" disregard the Vedic scriptures and the Personality of Godhead and are therefore no better than ordinary hedonists.

In Bhagavad-Gītā the Supreme Lord says:

yadā yadā hi dharmasya glānir bhavati bhārata | abhyutthānam adharmasya tadātmānaṃ sṛjāmy aham
“To rescue the pious, to destroy the wicked, and to reestablish the principles of religion, I appear age after age.”
— Bhagavad-Gītā 4.7

The Supreme Lord appeared in the form of Śrī Caitanya in Navadvipa, Bengal, about 500 years ago. He descended from His eternal realm to teach sanātana-dharma
(see: Yuga-dharma – Religion in the 4 Ages).


1 An Indian dish consisting of rice, dhal, ghee and other ingredients.

2 Attainment of artha and kama in the same lifetime is unfortunately less and less possible in the Kali-yuga, the present age, as time progresses. Since in the Kali Yuga many things are upside down, many things are wrong, in this time wealth and sense enjoyments are obtained rather by deceit, rather by irreligious actions. The fruits of pious actions, however, will certainly be obtained in the next life.