Chapter 8 – The Three (Or Is It Four?) Aims Of Life In The Hindu Imaginary

By: Lexi


In chapter eight of The Hindus, Doniger discusses the “complex hierarchical relationship among the three aims of pleasure, wealth and dharma…” (199). She highlights that this information is not necessarily connected to a particular time or social group, but that it is central to understanding the practice of Hinduism and how it developed through time.

First, Doniger explains how new taxonomies created in the Upanishads began to link key concepts in threes alongside the dualisms that have been discussed before. She then goes on to describe various triads that are found in a variety of texts (200).  From here she presents the three aims of life: dharma, artha and kama, otherwise known as the Trio. Dharma represents duty, religion, social and ritual obligations, the law and justice. Artha focuses more on money political power and success and kama represents pleasure and desire. Every human has a right to these aims in order for them to have a full life.

Next, three Sanskrit texts that are devoted to the three aims of life are presented. They are Manu’s Dharma-shastra, Artha-shastra and the Kama-sutra. Doniger points out that Manu and the Artha-shastra quote each other and are clearly sharing one body of ideas. While there are similarities between the texts, there are still significant differences in the ways that the texts approach the concept of religion.  Manu discusses vedic rituals in detail while not mentioning temples, while the others discuss temples and festivals but not the vedic rituals. (203) Doniger comes to the conclusion that “different texts apparently catered to people who engaged in different religious practices.” (203)

Then, Doniger discusses the addition of moksha to the three aims and comes up with five solutions to this fourth addition. The solutions were listed in order as follows:  the goals were to be followed one at a time in sequence, argument from plenitude, compromise, identification and mutual hierarchy. Ultimately, Doniger concludes that we are trapped within a basic social paradox with karma and the Trio plus one, leaving us with no easy answers.

Aims of Life



This chapter had a lot of moving parts and although it was one of the shorter chapters looked at so far, it was not lacking in information. Because the concepts that are in this chapter are so complex, Doniger seems to have tried to start out small and expand these ideas as they are used in Hinduism. This however, was very difficult to do because of the complex nature of the subject of the aims of life. One complicated and somewhat confusing area came when she was describing the relationship between moksha and dharma (201). This pulled in ideas that have been present so far in her description of Hinduism, where things are created out of each other, which she describes as another “chicken-and-egg process” (201). This same situation was described in earlier chapters during the creation of Brahma and Vishnu. By explaining this concept right off the bat, it we can see that this “chicken-and-egg process is common through out ideas of Hinduism. Doniger does a good job of reminding us of this concept in order to help readers grasp these complex ideas.

Because the three (or four) aims of life are so intertwined within the stages of life and each other, this chapter was extremely confusing for me, and took a few readings in order to begin to understand the concepts the Dongier is trying to explain. She seems to be trying to bring in connections from the other chapters of the book while blowing through the aims of life and all the text that goes along with it in a mere 13 pages. There were a lot of new ideas thrown into this chapter alongside the aims of life including: karma, renunciation and rebirth, and ideas surrounding violence with the 5 solutions to the addition of moksha.

Overall, The confusion I was feeling while looking into this chapter may actually help to explain the concepts that Doniger is describing. In the aims of life and Hinduism more broadly, many individuals and concepts are, in Donigers words, in a sort of “…rock-paper-scissors arrangement, in which one is constantly trumping the others in an eternal merry-go round.” (204). Everything seems to have a sort of connection to concepts around it and are more important at different times depending on what the practitioner is looking for. We may not have an exact solution to the fourth addition of the three aims and we may be trapped within a basic social paradox when it comes to dharma, there really are no easy answers or explanations after all.

Discussion Questions:

  • How do you feel about the way this chapter was put together? Was the explanation easy for you to understand and follow or was there too much information in a short period? Why?
  • Which solution to the fourth addition of the three aims was most interesting/convincing to you? Why?
  • How did the discussion of Karma at the end of the chapter, change how you think about Hinduism? Did it fit with the definitions of karma that you had in mind before reading this?

5 thoughts on “Chapter 8 – The Three (Or Is It Four?) Aims Of Life In The Hindu Imaginary

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  1. Answering Q1 I felt that this chapter was very well put together even though it seemed a lot for a small chapter. At least for me, the Sanskrit words helped a lot to understand the chapter. Most of the Sanskrit words are similar to Hindi and Nepali so it made me really interested as well as easier to understand the text.
    Answering Q2 Solution 1 was more interesting then convincing to me how the Kama-sutra attempted to put all the aims together and when each should be undertaken: I really like how it mentioned the three aims should be divided Childhood with artha, youth with kama and smoothly slides old age with dharma and moksha. It just leaves the topic as it is and focuses on other parts.
    Answering Q3 I grew up believing in the definition of Karma mentioned in the text and nothing has changed.


  2. To answer the second discussion question, the most interesting argument for me was the last one that claimed that there’s a mutual hierarchy that presents equal alternatives for a well-rounded life, mainly because it’s not the most convincing. Doniger presents very little evidence for it, referencing the Mahabharata other than the three texts she focuses on earlier and provides none of her own, personal reasoning for this answer as she does with her second and third proposed solution. Along with that, the idea of equal alternatives almost seems to go against my understanding of Hinduism, mainly the fact that this theory does not fit within the character of Hinduism.

    For one, in this chapter Doniger claims early on that dharma, ones own sacred duty, is one of the most important aims of life, furthermore explaining that dharma is set from birth. This importance of dharma is very evident in the Bhagavad Gita, as Arjuna needs to kill the enemies because that is his duty, and there is no alternative unless Arjuna basically wants to go to “hell.” So how can one have an alternative to dharma, this very highly regarded belief of life, in the form of moksha? Next, from my understanding, the caste system is rather set, one doesn’t change castes and each caste has different, strict ideals, this is further echoed in most of the Hindu religious texts. Additionally, both the Rig Veda and the Upanisads present very rigid ways to perform rituals and carry out life, giving excruciating detail on such, for example the Rg veda hymn “Marriage of the Surya.” If such specifications always need to be followed in order to get a solution, how can someone just, do something different, find a different solution to their problems as opposed to the sure fire way the primary Hindu texts that we’ve read present?

    Even more so, if moksha is an equal alternative, Doniger using renunciation versus family duties as her example, how does one choose that? Additionally, why would someone choose moksha and what benefits and disadvantages appear? There’s no way for me to tell any of this and Doniger doesn’t explain any of this either, and if she did it may be too much information and there’s no way to really tell what’s right versus wrong. In contrast to this solution, the most convincing solution would have to be the first, she spends significantly more time on it than the other two and presents reasoning relevant to the earlier part of the chapter. However Doniger herself makes it clear that these are all just propositions she has, and she can’t necessarily prove anything or she wouldn’t have proposed multiple solutions.


  3. In response to the third question, Doniger’s explanation of karma fits very well, and furthers, my understanding of Hinduism. The concepts of plurality and unity mentioned in the last paragraph of the chapter (p. 211) are reminiscent of the rabbit-in-the-moon phenomenon alluded to throughout the book – the idea that it is possible to simultaneously hold two perspectives equally, without choosing one over another. Some of the primary texts that we have read (such as the Brhadaranyaka Upanishad) address the concept of the self (atman) which I think fits with Doniger’s concept of general
    dharma. The particular nature of a species or person (sva-bhava) can then be likened to the aspects/activities of a person explained in the B.U. (BU 1.4.7,) which are said to only together be the whole self. I found it interesting that, according to Doniger, “the particular rule overrides the general rule” (Doniger, p. 211.) It added to something that I have been pondering while writing my essay, which is that it seems that although there were/are societal structures and beliefs in place which emphasize fulfilling a prescribed role determined by family or other uncontrollable factors (such as the caste system), it also appears to me that there is and was a great importance placed on individuality. Doniger’s discussion of karma and dharma has made me aware that, like with the double-vision of the rabbit-in-the-moon, it might be possible for both of these to be true at the same time.


  4. In response to your second question, the most convincing solution to the fourth addition of the three aims was the second argument of symbiosis, while the most interesting to me was the fourth solution, that of identification and fulfillment of worldly obligations. Doniger details that the second argument places an emphasis on a mutual reliance and relationship between the worldly and transcendent people in a society, in order to maintain a peaceful and “complete” society. In my personal philosophy for life, I tend to gravitate towards solutions that center around balance and coexistence, which is primarily why this particular solution was the most convincing for me. As for which was the most interesting, I found that the fourth solution regarding duty and obligation piqued my interest the most. The notion that one can achieve Release through their daily duties positioned the fourth addition in an even more confusing, but interesting way than any of the other solutions, as it appears that different aims could be approached simultaneously. I thought this dualistic relationship was extremely interesting and allowed me to think about the complexity of these aims in a different light.


  5. In response to your first question, I overall liked the way the chapter was set up. While I definitely still found it a little overwhelming and confusing, I think that she was more straightforward in her explanations of topics. Because the chapter was so short, she did not have time to go on any long tangents like in other chapters. Without these tangents, I was able to really stay focused on the points she was trying to relay. I also think that her very clear listing of the five different possible solutions to the fourth addition to the three aims helped me to keep them separate in my mind. By giving somewhat of a “title” to the specific solution I was able to understand the difference between.

    In this chapter, I also found the way she explained the “rock-paper-scissors arrangement” with the three aims reminded me of the idea of Kathenotheism. This idea that one aim of life is always trumping another seemed similar to the notion that one god is superior to all others at a singular moment, but who this god is varies.


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