Maslow's Hierarchy Of Needs And Purusharthas of Hinduism

Maslow Hieararchy and Aims of Life in Hinduism

by Jayaram V

In 1943, Abraham Maslow published in the journal Psychological Review a paper titled, "A Theory of Human Motivation." In that he suggested that the motivated behavior of human beings was driven by different needs, and such behavior may be either preparatory or consummatory to express or satisfy many such needs. Maslow also believed that the needs arranged themselves in hierarchies of pre-potency, which meant that "the appearance of one need usually rested on the prior satisfaction of another."

Human beings were perpetually wanting animals, whose needs or drives were interrelated than isolated. Although the motivation theory of needs determined some aspects of human behavior, it was not meant to be construed as a theory of human behavior itself. While human behavior was mostly motivated, it was "also almost always biologically, culturally and situationally determined as well," because apart from the needs, certain conditions also motivated human response and behavior, especially those that threatened their wellbeing or interfered with the satisfaction of their needs.

Based upon such observations, Maslow identified five sets of goals or basic needs, namely physiological, safety, love, esteem, and self-actualization needs. Human beings were driven by not only these basic needs but also by the motivation to maintain or create conditions that would lead to their gratification. The five sets of needs are listed below.

The 'physiological' needs: Satisfaction of these needs is required by the body to maintain equilibrium and stay normal. These needs are more compelling, that is unless they are satisfied, the human mind would think of them only, rather than any other need. For example, "A person who is lacking food, safety, love, and esteem would most probably hunger for food more strongly than for anything else." Examples of physiological needs are need for food, water, air, and the normal room temperature."

The safety needs: When the basic physiological needs of human beings are met, they begin to focus upon satisfying their safety and security needs. These are the need for safety, protection from threats, shelter, etc. In modern life, they manifest as need for job security, financial security, social security, preventive healthcare, and so on. The need for physical security is not felt by adults as much as by children, unless they live in violent and unstable surroundings or have to deal with emergencies such as "war, disease, natural catastrophes, crime waves, societal disorganization, neurosis, brain injury, chronically bad situation."

The love needs: These are the need for love, affection, friendship, and belongingness. They become dominant when the physiological and safety needs are met. As Maslow observed, once the basic need for survival and security are met, a person will "feel keenly, as never before, the absence of friends, or a sweetheart, or a wife, or children. He will hunger for affectionate relations with people in general, namely, for a place in his group, and he will strive with great intensity to achieve this goal." It is important to note that in Maslow's classification sex was included in the physiological needs rather than in love needs since in his opinion sex was not synonymous with love.

The esteem needs: These are the needs that arise from the need for "self-respect, or self-esteem, and for the esteem of others." When a person satisfies his biological, safety and love needs, he begins to think about gaining attention, and earning self-respect, status and recognition in society. Maslow divided them into two subcategories," The first category included,"the desire for strength, for achievement, for adequacy, for confidence in the face of the world, and for independence and freedom." In the second category, he included what he called, "the desire for reputation or prestige (defining it as respect or esteem from other people), recognition, attention, importance or appreciation." Maslow observed that these needs were important to personal happiness and wellbeing, because their satisfaction would lead to "feelings of self-confidence, worth, strength, capability and adequacy of being useful and necessary in the world, "but when thwarted, they would produce "feelings of inferiority, of weakness and of helplessness."

Self-actualization needs: These are the need for self-expression, and for freedom to do what one likes to express one's individuality. When all the above mentioned four types of needs are met, a person may still feel restless, unhappy, and disconnected, since he does "what he is fitted for." This is self-actualization, which Maslow defined as, "the desire for self-fulfillment, "or the tendency to become actualized in the potential that person has. It is "the desire to become more and more what one is to become everything that one is capable of becoming." For example, "A musician must make music, an artist must paint, a poet must write, if he is to be ultimately happy. What a man can be, he must be. This need we may call self-actualization."

As stated before, Maslow believed that certain conditions were imperative to the satisfaction of these basic needs. If they were absent, human beings would react to them with an emergency threat response, as if "it were a direct danger to the basic needs themselves." Some of the conditions which he identified in this regard were, "freedom to speak, freedom to do what one wishes so long as no harm is done to others, freedom to express one's self, freedom to investigate and seek for information, freedom to defend one's self, justice, fairness, honesty, orderliness. "

Critical evaluation of the theory

Maslow hierarchy is often presented as a pyramid, with physiological needs forming the base and the self-actualization forming the top. While the pyramid succinctly depict the hierarchy and their relative importance and place in human motivation, Maslow himself never used the analogy or suggested a pyramidal structure. While outwardly Maslow's theory of the hierarchy of needs seems logical, there is no proof that all humans are driven by these needs in the same order as proposed by him. There is clear evidence that human beings are driven or motivated by several needs which can be categorized into the five categories as suggested by him. Such categorization or compartmentalization of needs may be useful to explain human behavior and motivation, but it is doubtful whether it represents a universal constant or whether people would universally and consistently seek to fulfill them in the same order in which he arranged them. Maslow himself suggested that fulfillment of the needs and the drive for the resultant behavior required the presence or absence of certain conditions such as freedom, which is not equally available to all humans. Those constraints may seriously interfere with human motivation and its resultant behavior.

While we may accept Maslow's propositions as relatively important to understand human motivation, we cannot ignore the importance of cultural factors, religious beliefs and individual differences that may interfere with people's behavior and motivate them to act differently. For example, an ascetic person who has renounced worldly life, may not worry much about food and shelter even if the need is stronger, since he conditions himself to cultivate sameness to the dualities of life and focus upon his inner freedom to work for liberation. While food may satisfy our basic hunger, it also serves an important social function in parties and functions to bring people together and satisfy their need for sharing, belongingness, love, and affection. People may also use food to enhance their self-esteem by choosing what they eat or where they eat.

The hierarchy of needs in the context of Hinduism

Human beings are well aware of what drives them into action and what makes them happy or unhappy. Hence, rudiments of Maslow's theory of hierarchy of needs can be found in most cultures. In Hinduism, one can almost see a parallel between the two. Hindu scriptures identify needs and desires as the most compelling reasons for human behavior upon earth, which leads to their happiness as well their suffering, and to their bondage as well as their liberation. Constant interaction of the senses with the sense-objects (worldly things) due to desire and need for them results in attachment to them. Attachments motivate them to repeatedly reengage in similar behavior, which leads to karma and future births.

Desires are responsible for the creation, preservation and destruction of life upon earth. Desires, thus, have a positive and negative aspect. Our desires can be uplifting or degrading. Those who indulge in base desires with animal passions would incur sin and fall into lower worlds, while those who engage in actions without desires, would reach the highest heaven. In between these two extremes are a range of possibilities that depend upon how our behavior is motivated by different desires. The word that is used for motivation in our scriptures is intention (sankalpa). Your intention is important. Good intentions lead to good results and good karma, and vice versa.

The conclusion that we learn from them is that one should not live like an animal to satisfy the basic biological needs only, but live with good intentions and aim for liberation through self-actualization. The effort for liberation should not be motivated by any particular desire. This is the ideal. However, in most cases it begins as a desire, but at some stage on the path, one has to renounce even that desire and live without intentions and expectations. In other words, in Hinduism desire is the basis of life, existence, creation, order and regularity of the worlds and beings, while its absence is the basis of transcendence, freedom, renunciation, equanimity, peace, happiness, freedom from birth and death, and final liberation. By transcending desires, one transcends mortality.

Although self-restraint and renunciation are the highest virtues, Hinduism clearly recognizes the reality that not everyone is prepared for the hardships of an ascetic life. Besides, the order and regularity of society cannot be ensured if everyone decides to renounce worldly life. The gods need to be fed. The ancestors in heaven, and the creatures upon earth, need to be taken care of for the worlds to continue. Hence, from the perspective of God's creation, Hinduism acknowledges the life of a householder as the highest and the best of the endeavors in human life. In the ashrama dharma, the stage of householder (grihasta) is three times more precious than that of a student, retiree, or ascetic. A householder has the permission to live his life normally and fulfill his desires, duties and responsibilities according to a prescribed code of conduct. A householder is expected to live upon earth like a servant of God and fulfill the four aims of human life, namely dharma (duty), artha (wealth), kama (sex) and moksha (liberation). These four aims provide them with an opportunity to fulfill their basic physical, psychological and spiritual needs and lead a holistic life. Human beings may pursue any or all of them according to their specific situation, needs, and goals.

The hierarchy of needs and the four aims of human life

We can draw a correlation between the hierarchy of needs as proposed by Maslow and the four aims of human life as suggested in Hinduism. Both approaches distinguish humans from animals, and recognize the role of desire induced motivation in human behavior. Broadly speaking, we can superimpose the Hindu model of the four aims of human life upon Maslow's model of the hierarchy of needs in the following manner.

Aims of life Hierarchy of needs
Kama (physical desires) Physiological needs
Artha (wealth) Security needs
Artha (wealth) Love needs
Dharma (knowledge and virtue) Self-esteem and respect needs
Moksha (freedom and liberation) Self-actualization needs.

It is important to remember that this is a rather loose comparison to suggest that the Hindu seers who formulated the basic principles, beliefs, and practices of Hinduism understood human behavior and defined a model of ideal life based upon their understanding of human motivation. They believed that human behavior was motivated by four important needs: the need for physical comforts and bodily pleasures, the need for security through the order and regularity of family and society, the need for name, fame and recognition through knowledge of the scriptures and their practice, and the need for actualizing the hidden Self through austerities, and spiritual practices. Although, modern psychology was nonexistent then, as seers (observers) they understood the human behavior, and that it could be regulated within the religious framework both for the welfare of the individuals and for the welfare of society as a whole. The two models do approach the same idea rather differently and for different purposes. One important difference between them is that each of the four aims of Hinduism may involve the satisfaction of more than one category of needs in Maslow's hierarchy of needs. For example the practice of dharma may simultaneously lead to wealth, recognition in society and fulfillment of physical desires such as food, and shelter.

Share This


Suggestions for Further Reading