From trivarga to puruṣārtha A Chapter in Indian Moral Philosophy

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Patrick Olivelle



This paper explores the history of two central categories of ancient Indian moral philosophy: trivarga and puruṣārtha. After an exhaustive analysis of the textual evidence from the earliest times until the middle of the first millennium CE, the paper concludes that the classificatory term trivarga requires an implicit referent and that its reference is artha in the sense of things that are beneficial. The term puruṣārtha, furthermore, is an elaboration of artha as the referent of trivarga: something that is beneficial to a human being. The term artha in the compound puruṣārtha does not mean aim or goal, even though that meaning may occasionally seep into it in actual usage especially in later texts . Within this compound artha has the same meaning it has in Mīmāṃsā and Kauṭilya: something that is beneficial, as opposed to anartha: something that is detrimental. The expression puruṣārtha is rare with reference to the trivarga in the early literature until at least the middle of the first millennium CE. Its absence in the comprehensive lexicon, the Amarakośa, which records the trivarga and caturvarga (with the inclusion of mokṣa), shows its marginal status in the Sanskrit vocabulary relating to trivarga. For the authors of the ancient Indian texts, the three concepts—dharma,artha,kāma—comprehended by trivarga do not constitute goals or aims of human life, as they are so often depicted in modern scholarship. They represent three major domains of human activities and pursuits that are beneficial to persons who perform them.

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