"Religion is the idea which is raising the brute unto man, and man unto God." - Swami Vivekananda











PRABUDDHA BHARATAPrabuddha Bharata | May 2004  









              An Anatomy of Desires




     Vedanta says that we are not this body and mind, but are essentially divine. This divinity is at the root of our very existence and is the source of infinite Knowledge and Bliss. Man is not conscious of his divinity because of ignorance (avidya). It is this ignorance which prompts him to desire (kama) enjoyment and seek lasting happiness in the world. And desires are not merely those directed towards gross objects; there are desires for wealth, prosperity, progeny and, to cap it all, name and fame. Vedanta has a term for these desires: esana. Desires, in turn, goad man to action (karma) towards their fulfilment. Sri Shankara often refers to this triangle of avidya, kama and karma in his commentaries on the Upanishads and the Bhagavadgita.

     Our search for happiness in the external world is through the five perceptions: hearing, touch, sight, taste and smell. And the instruments for these perceptions are our five sense organs: ears, skin, eyes, tongue and nose. The sense organs are so constituted that they are ever outward directed and tend to come in touch with their respective sense objects.



     Unmixed or Lasting Happiness Impossible in the World



     Life in the world is beset with dualities: pleasure-pain, praise-blame, heat-cold and so on. Unmixed pleasure is thus impossible in the world. It is a package deal: you have the one and the other comes in uninvited. Says Swami Vivekananda, 'Happiness presents itself before man, wearing the crown of sorrow on its head. He who welcomes it must also welcome sorrow.' (1)

     That desire is the cause of all misery. Buddha discovered long back and declared it as one of the Four Noble Truths. A life of unbridled sense enjoyment has to necessarily end up in misery and frustration. The Upanishads also make it clear that lasting happiness is possible only by realizing the Infinite (Spirit); there can be no happiness in the finite things of the world. (2)

     We shall discuss here the effects, cause, seat and root of desire.



     Man Acts Despite Himself



     In the Gita, Arjuna asks Sri Krishna an important question: 'Under what compulsion does man commit sin, in spite of himself and dragged, as it were, by force?' Replies the Lord, 'It is desire, it is anger; both spring from rajas. These are our enemies, all-devouring and the cause of all sin.' (3) A poignant verse from the Mahabharata describes how Duryodhana was helpless when he was overpowered by desire for his cousins' land and kingdom: 'I know what is dharma, but I cannot practise it; I know what is adharma, but I cannot refrain from it.' Desire and anger are twin brothers. And in the words of the Gita, when coupled with greed these twin brothers pave the way to hell. (4)



     Enjoyment Cannot Quench Desires



     Most people think that they will see through worldly enjoyments, and that Vedanta could wait for their retired life, if at all. Unfortunately, things do not work out that way. A mind given to sense enjoyment and brooding over worldly concerns cannot just turn to higher things concomitant with retirement. Nor does fulfilment of our desires help us get rid of them; they only increase all the more.

     King Yayati's life from the Bhagavata illustrates the point. In his brim of youth Yayati was cursed to premature old age by an incensed sage. The king asked the sage's pardon and prayed for a remedy. The sage told him that he could have his youth back if someone else exchanged his youth for the king's old age. The king exchanged his son's youth for his old age and enjoyed sense pleasures for thousands of years. If desires could be quenched by satisfying them, Yayati would have been a sated man by now. Instead, he discovered a profound truth: 'Desire can never be quenched by enjoying sense objects. Like fire fed with ghee, it only flames up all the more.' (5)



     Desire Leads to Gradual Ruin



     In sense life too, there is no such thing as free lunch. If man gets sense pleasure on the one hand, the pleasure also simultaneously forges one more link in the chain that binds him to the cycle of birth and death, and blinds him to his real, divine nature. The Gita vividly describes the systematic descent triggered by brooding over sense objects:

     When a man broods over sense objects he develops attachment towards them. Attachment gives rise to the desire to possess them. Desire results in anger (towards the obstacles to sense enjoyment). From anger is born delusion, and delusion results in loss of memory (of what one has learnt from the scriptures and from one's guru). With loss of memory one's buddhi, discrimination, is lost. And loss of discrimination is followed by spiritual death. (6)



     How Desire Originates



     When desires can spell man's ruin, they merit a deeper study with a view to doing something about them. How do our desires sprout? From the subtle impressions in the mind, called samskaras. Our every act and thought leaves a subtle impression in our mind called samskara. There are good and bad samskaras corresponding to good and bad actions and thoughts. And it is these samskaras, collected over innumerable births, that determine what we are every moment. And in Swami Vivekananda's words, their sum total determines our character.

     Each action produces an inevitable karmaphala, or fruit of action. This result of action is bound to visit the doer with unerring certainty. Besides this, the action also leaves its mark on the individual's mind. This mark or impression is called samskara, which is of two types: (a) karmasaya, the tendency or desire to repeat an action and (b) vasana, the memory of the action.

     Every repetition of an action or thought deepens the samskara, deepening with it the tendency to repeat the action or thought. When the samkara become sufficiently deep, the action or thought become a habit and makes us good or bad in spite of ourselves. The deeper the samskara, the greater the effort required to change a habit or thought pattern. The effort involved in turning a new leaf is so formidable that many give up the struggle midway. People exclaim, 'Who says you can't give up smoking? I gave given it up many times!'

     Vasana is memory of an action or a perception. This memory also stores in it the knowledge of how we perceived a thing. If we eat a rasagolla for the first time, the knowledge about the sweetness of the sweet - that is, how it differs from the sweetness of any other sweet - is stored in the samskara.

     By itself, the memory of an action is harmless. It doesn't bind our soul. We get bound only when our will, the dynamic aspect of buddhi, hooks itself to the tendency or desire produced by karmasaya.



     The Seat of Desire



     Vedanta says divinity is the core of our personality. When this real 'I', the Atman, identifies itself with the mind and the body, we feel we are individuals with distinct identities. In order that any perception becomes possible, the 'I' should get connected to buddhi; the buddhi should get linked with manas, the deliberative faculty; the manas should come in contact with the sense organ; and the sense organ should get linked with the sense object.

     Both memory and the desire to repeat an action inhere in our mental storehouse, called chitta. Though memory and desire are two separate things, they get easily connected in a person who is not wide awake. In most of us, our 'I' is identified with the mind and the body; the buddhi is not always awake or alert. When our 'I' gets connected to the combined memory and desire, it is really our will (buddhi) that gets linked to them. When the will (energized by the Atman behind it) gets linked to the desire, harmless images from memory become animated with life, hooking with them the manas, the sense organ and the sense object, making us succumb to the desire. The chain of this enjoyment need not always terminate at the gross level; it could stop at the subtle sense organ and subtle sense object, resulting in enjoyment at the mental level itself.

     Desire thus extends from our buddhi through manas to the sense organs, making us blind to our real nature. Says Sri Krishna in the Gita, 'The sense organs, the mind and the intellect (buddhi) are the seat of desire. Through these it deludes the embodied soul by veiling its wisdom.' (7)



     The Root of Desire



     The significant point in the above discussion is this: it is the will (the dynamic aspect of buddhi) that starts the downward journey by attaching itself to the desire. This wilful attachment of the will to the desire is what is called sankalpa, resolution. Parenthetically, it may be said that the sankalpa done before a puja has a positive connotation: it is done to consciously connect the wayward will to the act of puja. The famous verse from the Mahabharata underlines the importance of sankalpa in triggering man's downfall: '0 desire, I know your root. You spring from will (sankalpa). l shall not tag my will to you. You will then be destroyed with your roots.' (8)


     The Brihadaranyaka Upanishad describes the connection between desire, will and karma: 'The Self is identified with desire alone. What it desires, it resolves; as is its resolution, so is its action. And whatever it carries out into action, that it reaps.' (9) Sri Shankara comments on this passage: 'Desire manifests itself as longing for a particular object, and, if unchecked, it assumes a more definite shape and becomes resolve.'

     During the initial stages of his struggle with his mind, a spiritual aspirant may not always succeed in detaching his will from desire. As long as it is not a wilful action on his part, he need not be unduly worry about his will getting hooked to the subtle sense organ and the subtle sense object. He only needs to strive with greater effort for purity of mind. That is perhaps what Holy Mother Sri Sarada Devi meant by saying 'In this Kali yuga mental sin is no sin.' The aspirant's sincere struggle with his mind fortified with prayer and japa will enable him to gradually gain upper hand over his unruly mind.



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     We have discussed how desires influence our personality, their origin, seat and root. Does Vedanta advocate desirelessness for everyone? What are the possible means to rid ourselves of desires? These will form the subject of the next editorial.






     1. The Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda, 9 vols. (Calcutta: Advaita Ashrama, 1-8,1989; 9, 1997), 5.419.
     2. Chandogya Upanishad, 7.23Л.
     3. Bhagavadgita, 3.36.
     4. Ibid., 16.21.
     5. Bhagavata, 9.19.14.
     6. Gita, 2.62-3.
     7. Ibid., 3.40.
     8. 'Shantiparva', Mahabharata, 177.25.
     9. Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, 4.4.5.

International Yoga Day 21 June 2015
International Yoga Day 21 June 2015






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