Yoga’s supreme objective is to awaken an exalted state of spiritual realization, yet the tradition also recognizes that this state does not exist in absolute isolation from the world and worldly matters. Thus, the science of yoga teaches us how to live and how to shape our lives with a commanding sense of purpose, capacity, and meaning.
Learning to honor the four desires allows us to thrive at every level and leads us to a complete and balanced life.
According to the Vedas, our soul has four distinct desires, which collectively are described in the tradition as purushartha, “for the purpose of the soul.” The four desires—dharma, artha, kama, and moksha—are inherent aspects of our soul or essence; our soul uses them for the purpose of fulﬁlling its unique potential. All four kinds of desire, including the desire for material prosperity, if pursued mindfully, can be spiritual because they can pave the way for our soul to express itself on earth. Learning to honor the four desires allows us to thrive at every level and leads us to a complete and balanced life.
The concept of desire coming from the soul or essence may seem strange since, by deﬁnition, the soul is eternal and changeless. But the Vedas explain that the soul has two aspects: it is complete, whole, and eternal, in a permanent state of oneness with the Absolute, and at the same time, it desires to fully express itself and its divine nature in the world. The Vedic term for “soul” is atman, which means “essence”—the highest principle, or Self. The two distinct aspects of atman arepara and jiva. Para means “supreme, highest, or culmination.” Jiva means “individual or personal.”
The Vedic term for “soul” is atman, which means “essence”—the highest principle, or Self. The two distinct aspects of atman are para and jiva. Para means “supreme, highest, or culmination.” Jiva means “individual or personal.”
The paramatman or higher soul is the inﬁnite and unconditioned essence that is beyond all limitation, eternal and changeless. The Shvetashvatara Upanshad, a sacred text from the seventh century, describes this higher aspect of soul beautifully: “Omnipresent, dwelling in the heart of every living creature…He is the inner Self of all, hidden like a little ﬂame in the heart…. Know Him and all fetters will fall away.” The Apostle Paul, in 1 Corinthians 3:16, points to this same aspect of soul: “Know ye not that ye are the temple of God and that the Spirit of God dwelleth in you?” Your paramatman is identical to the Divine; there is no separation or distinction. “Aham brahma smi” (I am one with the Absolute), say the Vedas.
Jivatman, on the other hand, is the individual soul. Think of it as your spiritual thumbprint, utterly unique for everyone. It is the part of you that, from the moment you were conceived, determines your uniqueness, your distinct capacities, talents, and challenges, as well as your inclinations and desires. Jivatman is literally where your soul meets your unconscious—the individual aspects of you that make you uniquely who you are.
I ﬁrst became familiar with the Vedic teaching about the nature of soul many years ago, but it was not until my twin sons were born that I had practical proof of its accuracy, for I saw from the very beginning of their lives how the concept of jivatman applied to them. My boys, Jaden and Theo, were conceived at the same time and gestated in the same womb, where they consumed the same nutrients. They were born only ten minutes apart, yet from the moment they came into the world they have been utterly distinct. Theo, for example, was born with an incredible ear for music. Days after he was born, we noticed that music would completely captivate him. Jaden, on the other hand, showed little response to music; he came into the world with much more tactile awareness. A gentle rub on his back and he would be spellbound. I can also recall him, at just a couple of months old, clenching my shirt and trying to climb upward. A few months later he could work his way up to the top of my head. Ten years later he’s still a relentless climber. Theo has turned out to have a pitch-perfect ear and is now an inspired pianist. Now that they are in the world, their environment will undoubtedly affect their inherent qualities in a variety of ways, but what made them, from the beginning of their lives, who they are and who they will potentially become is their jivatman, their individual souls.
The ancient wisdom of the Vedas teaches that each of us is both universal and unique, that the two aspects of the soul, para and jiva, are distinct but not separate. The nature of the paramatman is that it is identical to Inﬁnite Being. Jiva or the individual soul, on the other hand, comes into the world with a speciﬁc purpose, which it is compelled to fulﬁll. In the same way that there are speciﬁc genetic traits in a tulip bulb that will determine its color, the shape of its petals, and the time it will most likely bloom, the jiva of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Leonardo da Vinci, and Albert Einstein contained the unique potentialities of their destiny the moment they were conceived.
Your soul, speciﬁcally the jiva aspect of your soul, has four desires that it uses to propel you toward your unique destiny. The ﬁrst and most overriding of the four desires is dharma, the longing for purpose, the drive to be and to become who you are meant to be. Dharma, in simple terms, is the drive to fulﬁll your potential; it is the inherent drive of every being to thrive. Dharma is also the impulse toward altruism, the inner longing, known or unknown, of every individual to add his or her unique luster to the gem of creation. The term dharma has many meanings, including “law,” “path,” “order,” and “virtue.” Each of these deﬁnitions helps to deﬁne dharma as the one desire that informs the other three desires. In the yoga tradition, dharma is often referred to as duty. Dharma, in the context of the four desires, is usually interpreted to mean career, life path, or work—but dharma speciﬁcally places career and work, as well as the other roles we play in the world, within a larger context of serving the universe of which we are a part.
This larger sense of dharma is at the heart of the soul’s inherent longing to fulﬁll its individual potential. Arthur Avalon, one of the world’s greatest authorities on tantra, described the drive to fulﬁll our dharma as “that course of meritorious action by which man ﬁts himself for this world, heaven, and liberation.” In other words, the inherent drive or desire for dharma is to fully realize everything that we are capable of and, in so doing, positively affect the world. According to the tradition, there is nothing in nature that is not compelled by this same imperative.
The reason dharma is the ﬁrst of the four desires is twofold. One, the Vedic tradition is founded on the principle that, as individuals, our happiness is completely dependent on us fulﬁlling our own unique version of duty. The second reason is that everyone’s unique dharma determines the scope and speciﬁcs of our three other desires.
The desire for artha includes all the means necessary to fulﬁll our soul’s destiny.
The second desire, artha, is for the means necessary to accomplish our dharma. In the most basic sense, artha refers to material resources, such as money, food, physical well-being, and a roof over our head, without which fulﬁlling our purpose would be difﬁcult if not impossible. The particulars and the scope of what each of us will need to fulﬁll our drive for artha will vary from individual to individual, but all of us, even monks, have some material needs. However, artha is not conﬁned to material wealth or abundance. The desire for artha includes all the means necessary to fulﬁll our soul’s destiny. Mahatma Gandhi’s artha included fasting, meditation and prayer, passive resistance, vegetarianism, even the clothes he wore, for which he spun the yarn himself. All these elements were unique to his version of artha. Compare him to Jackie Robinson, for example, the ﬁrst African American baseball player to break the color barrier and play in the major leagues. Aside from a salary, food, and a place to sleep, some of his means included boundless will and an extraordinary capacity to endure prejudice (like Gandhi), as well as being a great baseball player.
The third desire, kama, is for pleasure. Kama is often interpreted to mean “sensuality” or “lust,” but the deeper understanding of it that comes from the ancient tradition speaks of kama as the desire for pleasure of all kinds, including closeness and intimacy, beauty, family, art, and friendship, as well as sex. For some people there is a temptation to write this desire off as lowly or sinful, but consider whether any of us would exist if there were no desire for the pleasure of sex.
The truth is that the desire for pleasure is the motivation behind all actions. Anything and everything aspired to and achieved produces a feeling of pleasure.
The truth is that the desire for pleasure is the motivation behind all actions. Anything and everything aspired to and achieved produces a feeling of pleasure. In his book Virtue, Success, Pleasure, and Liberation, esteemed Vedic scholar Alain Daniélou cites two quotes from the Mahabharata that make this crystal clear: “He who does not desire pleasure will not seek to enrich himself. Without desires, neither does a man desire to fulﬁll his duty,” and “The merchant, the laborer, the gods themselves act only if their actions are linked to some satisfaction. For pleasure, a courageous man will brave the ocean.” Thus, if it were not for kama, few things of value in this world would exist.
The desire for moksha is the longing for lasting peace or to experience the sacred, whether it is found in a church, a temple, a mosque, contemplative solitude, nature, or self-inquiry.
The fourth and ﬁnal desire, moksha, is the longing for liberation, true freedom. It is the intrinsic desire to realize a state free from all boundaries, including the limitations of the other three desires. This desire has been the driving force behind the world’s spiritual traditions. It is the longing to know the Eternal, that which is beyond all limitations, beyond the province of the ﬁve senses and even death. It is the impulse that compels us to seek out prayer, meditation, contemplation, surrender. The desire for moksha is the longing for lasting peace or to experience the sacred, whether it is found in a church, a temple, a mosque, contemplative solitude, nature, or self-inquiry. In practical terms, moksha is the longing to be free, to experience unfettered awareness, to be completely unburdened. It is the aspiration to be free of suffering and realize something beyond temporal pleasure. Fulﬁlling this desire gives us entry into the rarest and most sublime heights—heaven on earth.
It is critical to understand that learning to honor all four desires is key to achieving both worldly and spiritual fulﬁllment. While dharma is preeminent in that it shapes the particulars of our other three desires, no one of the four is greater or more important than the rest.
At various stages of life, a particular desire often comes to the forefront as the one that needs to be focused on and fulﬁlled. During a health crisis, for example, artha—our soul’s innate desire for well-being and health—would very likely become our preeminent desire. Once we regained our health, we could expect our soul to move on and place greater emphasis on fulﬁlling one of the other three desires. Collectively, the four desires are the compelling force that our soul utilizes to lead us to realize our full potential in becoming who we are meant to be.
Adapted from The Four Desires: Creating a Life of Purpose, Happiness, Prosperity, and Freedom by Rod Stryker (Delacorte Press, July 2011).