Purusarthas: A General Theory of Values

  • P. K. Mohapatra


Purusartha literally means an object of desire – what men desire to have. Men desire to have what they value as worth having. This reveals a normative element, revealing the nature of purusartha as an evaluative concept, not merely a descriptive concept. But what different people value often comes into conflict. The urge to solve this problem plays a decisive role in distinguishing what men value and what they ought to value. This distinction is famously known as the distinction between preya and shreya in Indian ethics. What men ought to value/desire is what I call bona fide purusartha and what they actually value, purusartha by courtesy.

This is/ought or fact/value distinction must not be taken as absolute. For, we argue, a factual phenomenon has considerable effect in shaping its evaluative nature. [e.g., if p is elder/wiser then he should be obeyed/respected; if p has made a promise, then he should keep it; if a society comprises of diverse ethnic groups or religious following, then it ought to be governed by secular rules]. Thus, common usage that is governed not only by semantics and formal logic but also by the pragmatics of language shows the flexibility of the is/ought distinction. This also shows that the desirable is essentially related to the desired. And the process of arriving at the desirable is an inductive-evaluative process.

The purusarthas in the normative sense are organically/integrally interconnected. Artha and kama will be bona fide values only if regulated by dharma. Otherwise each would be a disvalue – not a negative value, as some seem to think.

Considered in the normative sense, the trivarga theory of purusarthas is self-complete in shaping the good life, dharma playing the dominant role in this. Moksa, by common admission, was a later addition to the scheme; and we argue that it is not an integral part of the scheme. We further argue that moksa is a purely personal value in contrast with the other three that are essentially social, so moral, values. Putting them together would be a category mistake, and therefore the chaturvaga theory would be logically incongruent. The Indian theory of purusarthas is thus a theory of general values, comprising both moral and non-moral values.


Purusartha Evaluative concept Secular rules Preya vs shreya Sarvamukti Trivarga Chaturvarga Category mistake 


  1. Prasad. (2008). A conceptual – Analytic study of classical Indian theories of morals. New Delhi: Concept Publishing Company in association with the Centre for Studies in Civilizations.Google Scholar
  2. Mohapatra, P. K. (Ed.). (1994). Studies on the Purusarthas. Bhubaneswar: Utkal University, DSA in Philosophy.Google Scholar

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© Springer Nature Singapore Pte Ltd. 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  • P. K. Mohapatra
    • 1
  1. 1.Former Professor of PhilosophyUtkal UniversityBhubaneswarIndia

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