Sunday, August 23, 2015

Vāsanās - A key to understand our past, present and future

            Vāsanā (वासना) is a key Indian concept and its understanding has great import in our daily lives and also can revolutionize our spiritual thinking. A proper insight into Vāsanās is critical to peeking in at other related ideas like Karma, Janmas (rebirth), fate, free-will. This article is an attempt in demystifying this core idea.

            Most sanskrit words are very difficult to translate, as concepts like dharma, karma are not found in other languages. The latest scientific terms coined in English, usually are very difficult to translate in other languages as such ideas may be alien to that language.
            For our discussion, let us understand Vāsanās as imprinted volitions of the mind. Latent Tendencies that keep bubbling in the mind. Thinking or longing of, with an expectation. Knowledge derived from memory. Past impressions that influence the present conditions or thinking. Simply put Vāsanās are the channel of thoughts created by past actions and thinking that determine contour of our present thinking, our outlook, attitude, behaviour and current inclinations that will influence our future by guiding our present thoughts and actions. In other words.. Fate!!!

            To understand better, let us turn our gaze to our normal lives. We hear that Mozart started composing at the age of five. It is so classical that we find it so hard to have other great musicians to scale to even fraction of such heights. We hear about many child prodigies. This is not an occasional thing of the past. This century witnessed Andre Rieu introduce a three year old musician, Akim Camara1 to the world.  How did children gain such an insight and talent at such an early age? We hear children having memories from past lives2. But most parents can vouch for observing the tendencies of the children from very early age. It may not have to be drastic like a prodigy, but many of the adult qualities which the child will grow up to exhibit like being friendly, easy to anger, being picky on certain foods are demonstrated so early. If it's like science attempting to explain that all is learnt from one's current experience, where did these early tendencies arise from? If it is from the environment, parents with multiple children can testify that each child is different from very early age. This goes against the explanation that it is learnt experience coupled to environment.  

            Kahlil Gibran, perhaps, took a cue from the mystic east when he wrote that children come through you and not from you.

Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life's longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.

- Kahlil Gibran3

            Before we go beyond a single life, let us understand how Vāsanās get formed. Is there something like a brand new experience? Perhaps NO. Because even if someone were to give us a new food or fruit to try which we may have never heard of, we immediately correlate with our mental files and reckon something closest to it. Let us assume that we have a brand new experience, where we had a favorable outcome. For instance, I might be visiting a far off city for the first time in life like Beijing. My existing Vāsanās of being vegetarian will drive me searching for vegetarian options. Either by research or recommendation or luck, if I chanced upon a decent restaurant with some good vegetarian options, though it may not be the same cuisine, it goes as a memory in my databank. Next time I visit Beijing, my mental guidance system informs me that a good choice exists for my food. Let us take two scenarios. If I visit the restaurant and get one more favorable experience, my tendency to like that eatery goes higher. But on the other hand, if I chanced to go to another restaurant. Immediately my mind does a mental comparison subconsciously and informs me if this new experience can supersede the old or if the old one was a better one.

            Just like rain water that keeps collecting, tends to follow the natural lowest draining points, eventually forms deep gullies and ravines and canyons, depending on the intensity and repetition of Vāsanās being reenacted, it can keep deepening. Modern psychologists and scientists have definitely made a strong correlation with the neural network paths and repeated experiences.

            Based on one one's Gunas - Sattva, Rajas and Tamas, one's approach, understanding, manifestation of Vāsanās will alter. Vāsanās have no morality. They are attributes foisted based on the Gunas that express in space and time. For example, many high school students try smoking. Usually succumbing to peer pressure, they may try it for the first time. If the Vāsanās to pick smoking are high, they rapidly transition into a regular smoker. For others, this serves as a memory not to go that path again. The same is true for alcohol or drugs. Some develop binge eating to counter their psychological pressures. In case of addictions, besides a mental inclination, there is a strong physio-psychological emotional trigger that gets built-in while the Vāsanā deepens. In other words, one may understand it as addiction.

            Let's take a more benign example. Kids from same class, same teacher, develop different ideas and impressions of the subject or teacher. This memory also morphs over time as later ideas can either reinforce the existing ones or may be counter to the prevailing mindset. There may be people who may have Sastr Vāsanā and want to keep reading all the time, perhaps no time to apply it.

            Vāsanās  are the birthplace of desires that bubble in our bosom. Owing to our gunas, the presentation may appear to be different. Whether it manifests or not, these mental impressions keep bubbling in our mind. We all have certain attitude to it. Some may take it as day dreaming, some do not even watch themselves close enough to understand that the Vāsanās are strengthening subconsciously. Upon manifestation, either Vāsanās can get stronger or weaker due to the current guna composition of the mind. Hence Yogis, Rishis and great sages have always advised on being alert. Even engaging in a flight of fantasy in the secret recess of the mind, is enough for keeping the Vāsanās alive and burning for a future opportunity to express. This state is called Tanu Avasta or suppressed tendencies.

            How do we deal with Vāsanās? Not all are bad. So the good ones and  beneficial ones can be cultivated more like a good habit. This will make the subconscious reinforcement process to be beneficial in our favor. This can be like a positive self talk, which can keep highlighting the good ones we want to keep. But the vast majority are mundane and distracting ones. How does eating a laddoo be a good or bad Vāsanā ? So eating one laddoo may not be bad, unless one is diabetic, where self-restraint can definitely help. But eating laddoo in every meal or daily may not a healthy choice. If one has eaten a  full stomach, laddoo may not appeal, but it can reappear at the next instance of hunger. So don't be surprised if the laddoo becomes a to-go item, though one may be satiated. Aplication of discretion via Buddhi is key for materialization of Vāsanās. But Vāsanās seem to have a vice grip on our mind, effectively silencing our Buddhi.

            Vāsanās are the fabric of the mind. If all the threads of Vāsanās are removed slowly or destroyed(Vāsanā kshaya), one will find the mind merge automatically to the higher. Vāsanās are the vestige from our past Karmas. They like to germinate. Just like a pathogen causing a disease, they want to also breed, thus forcing us to be bound to the past. The repetition of past patterns in the present keeps us bound to the past, even in our future. One must effectively overcome this barrier, if one thinks of evolving to the next level. An iron piece would like to go back to its native state, which is what we call as rusting. But it is its tendency. If one were to break that cycle, one can introduce some carbon to the iron and make it steel which does not rust. In our case, we can raise some Saatvic qualities and be vigilant to the old Vāsanās. Being detached in our attitude to the negative Vāsanās, we can effectively neutralize. Chanting the Lord's names is an easy defence for a Bhakta.

            Suppression of Vāsanās is not a way to raise above it. Try holding a big ball under water in a pool. The minute your force reduces or not balanced, the ball will raise to the top. This of course is due to buoyancy, but in our case it is Vāsanās. Forceful suppression can sometimes lead to violent consequences, be it behavior or actions or even on the mind. Transmuting the Vāsanās by giving proper channels to have suitable outlet may being us to a civilized moral state. But is that really enough to win against Vāsanās. One may live in total isolation from society in Himalayas. There may be no opportunity for the Vāsanās to manifest and it may be easy to think that one has risen above it. How many stories keep popping up on fallen aspirants in spirituality or aged men falling victim to their Vāsanās by making big follies? We hear renounced sannyasis coming back to society as householders. What is the way out when great sadaks have been cast aside by the power of Vāsanās?

 Storytime: A mouse shows the way

            Long ago, there was a highly regarded sage, Yajnavalkya. One day, as he was doing his morning rituals in a river, a hawk dropped a mouse on to his hands. Out of compassion, he made the mouse into a beautiful girl child, with his Tapas. He and his wife devoted all their love and time in raising this amazing girl.  Yajnavalkya's wife reminded that the girl is attaining marriageable age and of their responsibilities to get her married. After a long thought, the sage summoned Surya, the sun God, as he was the strongest, and asked him to take his daughter's hands. Seeing the reluctancein the girl, Surya said that he was not the strongest and a black cloud can cover his radiance. The dark clouds appeared in front of the sage, noticing the disinterest in the damsel, recommended that Mountains can easily block their path, are more powerful. The sage took his daughter to the biggest mountain and asked if he was the strongest and if he can marry his daughter. The mountain, though proud of its strength, pondered and though he may be strong, there are so many mice that live in him by tunneling and how helpless he was. The sage brought the King of mice in front of the beautiful girl. She bowed her head out of modesty, indicating her liking and pleaded her father to make her back into a mouse. She said nothing will make her happier than being with the mouse king. Yajnavalkya realized that the Vāsanās of the girl are too strong and will continue to guide her. Needless to say, the mice lived happily ever after, per their Vāsanās.

Moral of the story is, Vāsanās are strong  and powerful. If not properly channelized will continue to influence our future, just as it has shaped our present. It continues to exert a strong influence on our present thoughts, actions, mindset and attitude. But it can never take away our ability to use freewill. Vāsanās will continue to taint our vision. In this tug of war, the VIGILANT MIND has an upper hand . An unsuspecting mind, which  is at the mercy of the Vāsanās.

 Krishna solves our conundrum

            How do we get out of this rodent race? In Bhagavad Gita, Krishna comes to mankind's rescue with this masterly wisdom.

उद्धरेदात्मनात्मानं नात्मानमवसादयेत्
आत्मैव ह्यात्मनो बन्धुरात्मैव रिपुरात्मनः

uddhared ātmanātmānaḿ nātmānam avasādayet
ātmaiva hy ātmano bandhur ātmaiva ripur ātmanaḥ (Chapter 6, Verse 5)

A man must elevate himself by his own mind, not degrade himself. The mind is the friend of the conditioned soul, and his enemy as well.

            This above appears like a vicious trap to an untrained mind. How can the mind help itself if it is at the mercy of the Vāsanās? Krishna advises to use the higher mind to elevate the lower mind. The mind has a tendency to chase the sense objects. The five jnana indriyas (sense organs) constantly keep reporting to the senses. Due to the Vāsanā pressure, the mind attaches itself to the sense objects, thus dragging the intellect (buddhi) along with it. This in short is the definition of materialism. But if we follow Krishna, we are aware of the Vāsanā pressure and we let the Buddhi (higher self) guide the lower mind. But this buddhi has to be centered in Atman (Self) for it to tap the full potential, else it may be a secular level of focus where one may be a disciplined successful good person. It is a good start, but hardly scratches the surface of our Atmic potential. The mind instead of being subject to Vāsanā pressure, remains in a state of contentment (santosha) as the sense organs and objects do not trigger the Vāsanās. This is spiritualism. In Katha Upanishad, Yama advises the path of Preyas(Pleasure) and Shreyas(Good).  

            Krishna patiently explains us about the importance of Karma Yoga. In this technique one is detached to the outcome of one's actions. Having a Prasada (gift from God) buddhi bestows the ability to take on Vāsanās headlong. A vigilant mind watches the bubbling of Vāsanās with detachment, instead of jumping impulsively on the next bubble to go on a ride. This practice over time exhausts the Vāsanās. Also new Vāsanās or the renewal of the old is impossible, as our attitude has altered, due to our being vigilant. Doing this also gives Jnana (wisdom) and Jnana roasts the seeds of remaining Vāsanās. Just as roasted seeds cannot germinate, the past will cease to have any impact on our future, because we take total control of our present by freeing the power of Vāsanās on us. Doing Purushartha will liberate us from the clutches of the Vāsanās. Let us pray to Krishna to give us enough good buddhi to follow the greatest benediction has already given to mankind in the form of Bhagavad  Gita.

 Om Tat Sat
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  1. That Hinduism is a treasure trove of knowledge- real, virtual, cosmic, spiritual or whatever novices like me may attempt to describe it as..., is a universally accepted fact. No wonder, it holds almost magical and mystical charm over all those who dive into its depths...................
    The writer has put together very serious concepts that can easily get muddled in legalese and verbiage , but he has taken care in keeping the prose absolutely rooted and simple...and yes the temptation to run down contemporary concepts has been resisted and rather complementarily contextualised for easy doesn't get simpler or better than this...thanks

  2. Thanks as for your consistent encouraging words. They mean a lot as it adds more responsibility while writing. Appreciate it.

  3. This is an excellent article on vasanas. We overcome our (negative) vasanas through the practice of dharma known as Yoga. If I am serious, I soon realizes how lacking I am in this thing known as “self-awareness”. I also realize how lacking I am in many other needed helpful qualities in uprooting these vasanas. There is a niyama known as swadhayaya – translated as the study of scriptures. I like to think of swadhayaya as “studying one self” - first during my practice and second by progressively extending that “self-study” throughout my day for as long as I live.
    Teachers (gurus) encourage us to adopt the posture of a drashta (or witness) to face the many, many challenges, discomforts, obstacles, difficulties etc. we run into when trying to “transform” ourselves. This – the posture of a drashta – helps us “uncover” qualities such as patience, persistence, consistence, faith (in ourselves) among many other helpful qualities.
    The karmas we have accumulated over endless number of lives (aneka janma) are like fuel (karmendhan). With the help and guidance of a Guru, we burn this karmendhan through the “fire of self-knowlegde” (gyaanaaagni).
    Thank you Raghuji for this wonderful blog that you are writing.

    1. Thanks for taking time to read and comment, Sureshji. Very insightful thoughts to ponder. We may have a Himalayan size of Vasanas, but when Guru's grace, God's grace descends, one spark of fire of self knowledge (Atma vidya) will burn this Himalayan size straw pile of vasanas. That's why one must always be focused on doing Purushartha. This self effort is key be it for material success or for spiritual journey. Once we equip ourselves with the desired prerequisites, a guru will manifest out of our own practices and lead us.

  4. Very well described, Vaasanas are somewhat like inherent trait. As said by you if it is positive we can continue else we have to get rid of that. It is like alkali metals achieving a noble gas electron configuration either by losing an electron(here badvaasana vaasanas/behaviours) to achieve the electron configuration of the next lowest noble gas. or gaining an electron(cultivating as a good habit from a beneficial vaasana) to achieve the electron configuration of the next highest noble gas or 2 or more elements(people) share electrons(practice to get rid of bad vaasanaas or satsangham) to attain the noble gas configuration of the nearest noble gas. Or radioactive elements change by losing protons,neutrons, electrons,energy finally to become stable.
    Think you were referring to this verse from KathOpanishad:
    आत्मानग्वं रथिनं विद्धि श्हरीरं रथमेव तु
    बुद्धिं तु सारथिं विद्धि मनः प्रग्रहमेव छ​
    इन्द्रियाणि हयानाहुर्विष्हयान्स्तेष्हु गोछरान्
    आत्मेन्द्रियमनोयुक्तं भोक्तेत्याहुर्मनीष्हिणः
    Thankyou Raamasakha for your wonderful post about Vaasanaas !
    Even in the phala shruthi of VishNu sahasranaama we can see some lines which depict the same meaning.

    1. THe thing is because of "affinity" i.e vaasana the atoms tend to lose,gain or share electrons to achieve the desired configuration.

    2. Harih Om,

      One of the greatest insights our rishis have given us is about vasanas. Vasana is as agnostic as it can. Doesnt matter positive or negative. But as it manifests as action, we all have a choice, thanks to Krishna in Bhagavad Gita. We can choose to identify ourselves as the doer, strengthening the vasana and ahamkara or go after the real source that illumines the action.

      Isnt it such a marvellous insight that every waking moment we have the opportunity to connect with the real SOURCE?

      Just like a used asafoetida/perfume bottle retains the smell long after the contents are gone, so are vasanas. Yet the power of Satsangha, like washing it or leaving it in sunlight, mitigates the vasanas.

      Just like the mind can look both within and without, vasanas can be both our friend or foe, but ultimately we need to rise above both vasanas and mind.

      May Rama's abundant grace be upon us in this endeavor.