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Duties and Responsibilities - The Hindu Social Framework


The four Purusharthas


Hinduism has defined four goals (aims) of human life which are called the four purusharthas ("purusha" means a human being or God, and "artha" means an object or objective. This "purushartha" means the objective/goal of a human being). These four goals create a stable social framework within which one can live peacefully and gradually evolve spiritually.


The first goal is Dharma. The root of the word dharma comes from dhri, which means to uphold or maintain. Dharma is defined in Sanskrit as "dharayati iti dharmaha", meaning dharma is that which upholds. Again, it is said "dhriyate iti dharmaha", thus meaning not only what is supported is dharma, but that which does the supporting is also dharma. So dharma consists of both the force that sustains as well as what is sustained. It can also be said that there is the path of dharma as well as its conclusion, the object of dharma, or what we are seeking, the goal of life. So dharma is the means as well as the goal. Dharma is the first human goal and forms the foundation for the pursuit of the other three goals. Dharmic actions are those individual, social, political, and professional actions which are based upon the four virtues - truth, ahimsã, morality and ethics.


The second goal is Artha. The Sanskrit word "artha" has several meanings. In the context of the four purusharthas, the word "artha" means material wealth (although in deeper spiritual interpretation of the four purusharthas, many wise sages have interpreted the word artha as "meaning/understanding of one's existence"). Hinduism recognizes the importance of material wealth for the overall happiness and well being of an individual. While Hindu thinking advocates simple living, it does not glorify poverty, and does not consider wealth as a hurdle to self realization. It is greed and attachment to wealth that is considered a hurdle, not the wealth by itself. Thus "Artha" means to earn wealth in accordance with dharma.


The third goal is Kãma. There is a general misconception which associates the word Kãma with sexual desires. Kãma actually means all the physical, emotional, and intellectual desires of a person. In Hinduism and in Buddhism, desire has been considered to be the root cause of all sufferings. However, Hinduism acknowledges Kãma as a goal of human life and declares "he who performs his prescribed duties out of desire in the right manner will obtain the fulfillment of all the desires and reach the deathless state."


The fourth and final goal is Moksha or liberation. Moksha denotes spiritual perfection, which, according to Hindu thinking, is attained automatically when one leads a life that is dedicated to dharma.


The five debts (Rin)


The purpose of purusharthas is to ensure that people would not neglect their obligatory duties by becoming obsessed with particular desires that may lead to moral and social degeneration and destruction of values. To further ensure a stable social framework, Hinduism introduces the concept of debts.


According to the Taittiriya Sanhita (, a child is born with three debts to repay in his (or her) lifetime.


Human beings get easy access to the objects created by God, hence they become indebted to the deities. This is called "Deva Rin (rin=debt)". This debt must be repayed by performing various religious acts and worships (puja).


Human beings acquire the knowledge generated by the ancient sages and intellectuals. Thus humanity is indebted to them. This is called "Rishi Rin". By studying and acquiring knowledge (and if possible adding matter to the existing knowledge), this debt can be repaid.


A person is indebted to his/her ancestors as they have propagated their lineage and are the cause for his/her birth. This is called "Pitri Rin". To replay this debt, Hinduism advocated (righteous) procreation as well as performing rituals in rememberance of the ancestors.


Another ancient Hindu scripture, Shatpath Brahman (, added two more debts. According to this scripture:


  • a person is indebted to humanity at large (called Nri Rin or Manushya-rin) which can be repaid by treating others with respect and helping them
  • a person is indebted to plants, animals and nature (called Bhuta Rin). These debts are repaid by performing the five great sacrificial fires (panchamahayadnya) in the stage of the householder. [Refer ‘Science of Spirituality : Vol. 1 C. Varnashramvyavastha, Chapter 1 C B. Stages of life (ashrams), point - The stage of the householder (gruhasthashram)’.]

We can see that the concept of "service" has its roots in the ancient Hindu tradition of the five-fold debt system. The concept of the four ends and five debts generates awareness of one's duties and responsibilities, provides moral and ethical direction to life, encourages family values, and helps one to organize life for individual accomplishments.



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