Anatomy of Desires
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.
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.
or Lasting Happiness Impossible in the World
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)
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)
shall discuss here the effects, cause, seat and root of desire.
Acts Despite Himself
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)
Cannot Quench Desires
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.
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.'
Leads to Gradual Ruin
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:
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)
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.
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.
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!'
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.
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
Seat of Desire
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.
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
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)
Root of Desire
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)
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
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
* * *
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.
The Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda, 9 vols. (Calcutta:
Advaita Ashrama, 1-8,1989; 9, 1997), 5.419.
Chandogya Upanishad, 7.23Л.
'Shantiparva', Mahabharata, 177.25.
Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, 4.4.5.