One Goal, Different Paths

Ultimate Goal

Within a broad spectrum of religious practices, Hinduism accommodates both material and spiritual needs. However, as material benefits are temporary, most traditions consider eternal moksha the ultimate goal.

Hindu texts detail four sequential aims – dharma, artha, kama, and moksha. Dharma recommends righteous and regulated living, so that one is able one to acquire wealth, artha. With prosperity one can then enjoy kama, sensual pleasure. When one realises the futility of temporary gratification, one eventually seeks moksha (liberation). Some traditions, particularly of the bhakti school, accept moksha, but point out the selfishness in even desiring liberation. They mention a fifth goal called prema (love of God) or nitya-lila (eternal loving service).

Spiritual emancipation is therefore considered the main goal of life, and other goals are necessary stepping stones towards it. Hinduism thus recommends a balanced life with an ultimate spiritual goal. Liberation usually entails union with God, conceived of in various ways by different traditions. The word for this process is yoga, from which we can derive the English word yoke, meaning to join.

Key Points

  • Hindu scriptures say there are four goals in civilised religious life:
    • dharma – righteousness
    • artha – economic development
    • kama – sensual enjoyment
    • moksha – liberation, the ultimate goal.
  • Moksha is achieved through union with God (yoga).

Scriptural Passages

“All performance of dharma is meant for ultimate liberation (moksha). It should not be performed for material gain. Furthermore, one who is engaged in the ultimate occupational service (dharma) should not use material gain (artha) simply for sense gratification (karma).”

Bhagavat Purana 1.2.9

Related Values/Issues

  • Personal fulfilment
  • Goal setting
  • Planning our lives

Personal Reflection

  • How important is it for us to have goals in life? What are the results of having clear goals?
  • What are the consequences of having lofty long-term aims but no short-term objectives?

Related Practices

Following the system of four ashrams, where material desires are met in a regulated way through the four stages of life with emphasis on renunciation towards the end of life. Only the second ashram, initiated at the wedding ceremony, allows for intimate contact between men and women.

Different Paths

There are various types of yoga, also called different margs, (paths). There are three main ones: karma-yoga, the yoga of selfless action; jnana-yoga, the yoga of spiritual knowledge; and bhakti-yoga, the yoga of loving devotion. Some add a fourth path called raja-yoga or astanga-yoga, the eight-step path, which includes physical exercises and culminates in meditation on God within the heart (for more information on these four paths, see Four Main Paths).

There are different opinions as to the merits of each. Some say that all are equally valid, like parallel paths. Others favour a particular process claiming that the various yogas are successive steps on the same path. Practically all Hindus agree that whichever process one chooses it must be followed according to scriptural injunction rather than whimsically.

Useful Analogy 1

Paths up a mountain – the paths are many but the peak is one.

This analogy is favoured by the advaita schools
All paths are considered equal and chosen according to personal inclination

Useful Analogy 2

The yoga ladder – the complete path of yoga is a ladder with progressive steps

  • This metaphor is used by the personalistic bhakti schools which claim that love of God is the ultimate goal.
  • The bottom of the ladder is the beginning of spiritual life (selfless actions through karma-yoga).
  • The top of the ladder represents loving union with God (bhakti).
  • At a particular stage (on one step) one may be known by that name (e.g. hatha-yogi) but if she progresses she will ultimately come to the topmost platform. Anyone who is making progress should not be criticised even if practicing on a relatively low level.

Common Misunderstandings

Bhakti is for those who are less intelligent and predominantly on the emotional level
Actually, many bhakti schools place great emphasis on knowledge but do hold that there is no wisdom (realised knowledge) without surrender to God.

Key Points

  • There are four main paths/steps to achieve yoga (union with God)
    • karma-yoga – selfless action
    • jnana-yoga – spiritual knowledge
    • raja (astanga) yoga – meditation
    • bhakti-yoga – (devotional service)