Sanatana Dharma offers an interesting insight into the question of the goal of life, suggesting that there are in fact four legitimate goals for human beings to pursue: kama, material pleasure, artha, the accumulation of wealth, dharma, righteous living, and moksha, the spiritual element in life focused on release from rebirth. It might seem a little unusual for a religion to include the fulfilment of mundane desires as one of the goals of life; typically religion sees material inclinations as antithetical to the spiritual pursuit they advocate. So why are kama and artha not condemned in this way? The answer is about finding a balance. It is accepted that all but a few great saints will wish to find pleasure in life and even the sensual pleasures referred to in the Kama Sutras are not regarded as inherently sinful.
So how does this balance work? The idea is that most persons will inevitably be drawn towards material enjoyment. But these inclinations must always be tempered by acknowledgement of the precepts of dharma. Ideally, the pursuit of kama and artha should never contravene these ideals of dharma and as long as this principle is maintained then kama and artha are regarded as legitimate goals to pursue.
There will inevitably be conflicts between kama and artha on the one hand and dharma on the other. As far as possible we should try to give priority to dharma, but until the state of absolute enlightenment is achieved this will not be possible at all times. There is no point in feeling excessive guilt over any preference for kama and artha, but we should recognise that as far as possible we should try to move a little further towards dharma. Artha is particularly significant as it can be used to facilitate both kama and dharma. Those who are wealthy can seek to enjoy pleasure through the acquisition of the manifold goods made available in modern societies. There is nothing wrong in this as long as there is a similar commitment to acts of dharma in the form of charity and helping those who are poor, exploited and downtrodden. Again the key word is balance; finding that balance and then trying to move ever closer to dharma and away from kama.
The most compelling definition of dharma is found in the Mahabharata, which asserts that dharma is based on the principles of never harming others and compassion for all beings. We can thus readily see how a commitment to dharma will balance out any excessive tendency towards kama and artha. Where exactly we strike that balance is very much a matter of personal spiritual development, but the point is that kama and artha are to be celebrated as the joys of life as long as they are not pursued in ways that contravene the core values of Sanatana Dharma.
Moksha is defined in different ways by different sacred texts, and the paths they offer form our own personal spirituality. One point we must note, however, is that the quest for moksha cannot be successfully undertaken without a prior commitment to dharma, for true spirituality without deep compassion is inconceivable.
Hence we can see how these four goals of life can perfectly complement one another when balance is maintained and the priority of dharma ensured. The problems of the world arise because of the elevation of kama and artha at the expense of dharma. At a personal level, we need have no sense of shame over our aspirations to enjoy the good things of life but we must be aware that dharma is the superior way; we may not be able to follow the path of dharma at all times but we should never lose sight of the ideal of dharma. If we have spiritual leanings, then again we should be aware that dharma is the platform on which all spirituality is constructed, for without that commitment to dharma spirituality becomes no more than fine words and empty rituals.