Thursday, September 17, 2015

Desire - A Genealogical Approach


            Desire – a primal force behind evolution, very easily visible behind all human endeavors and achievement. There is a greater emphasis, especially from American centric ideas of having desires, goals, positive mindset and many more similar ideas widely published, widely circulated. Some make money selling “The Secret”. Some opine there is no secret. Amidst all this chaotic hard sell we find the common man, tossed between multitudes of desires in his daily life. History pages are filled with individuals, communities, societies, nations and civilizations rising and falling on desires.

            So what is Desire? What are its origins? What are its associates? Are all desires good or are they all bad? What are its impacts? How can I tame this force to benefit myself? Desire, though it appears as a stand-alone entity, but it comes as a family of attributes. These are some of the focus in this article. The West glorifies desire as the magical engine for all good. In the East, especially in India, while this aspect has been recognized, there has been a strong trail of insights from many spiritually advanced souls to share a complete picture of Desire.

            Napoleon Hill, a great thinker and writer who influenced all of what we recognize today as Self-Help made the following very interesting insights:

Desire is the starting point of all achievement, not a hope, not a wish, but a keen pulsating desire which transcends everything.

When your desires are strong enough you will appear to possess superhuman powers to achieve.

The starting point of all achievement is desire. Keep this constantly in mind. Weak desire brings weak results, just as a small amount of fire makes a small amount of heat.   
            These quotes sufficiently capture the power of a desire, when channelized properly. As we have noticed time and time again many rise from the depths of odds to scale the heights of achievement. Be it Alexander’s world conquest or Abraham Lincoln’s gritty resolve to overcome failures or our favorite sports team or person who seem to defy the odds to win a championship or ourselves who have achieved anything and everything is a factor of our desire.

            But again why in the East, especially India, there seems to be a message that is counter intuitive, warnings about desire. Thiruvalluvar in his Thirukkural has written ten Kurals (couplets) warning about அவாவறுத்தல் (Avaavaruthal) – Curbing of Desire. Is there more to understanding the nature of Desire than what we read in the so called Self Help or PMA books? If Desire prompted motivation is taken away will mankind lose all the zeal to move forward?

            Let us dive deeper. We are now going to observe what happens. A desire bubbles to the surface from the depths of our mind. At this moment, let us not focus on why and how it appears. As soon as the desire arises, depending on its intensity, it prompts us to act. The desire arises on account of the duality - I as the seeker and the object sought. The seeker wants identification with the Object sought and that experience is happiness. The seeking mind thinks “I like to eat laddu, eating it gives me joy”. A boy is madly in love with a girl, marrying her is seen as happiness. It may be even a virtual object, like a state of mind. The key thing here being the object sought need not be physical and the object is separate from the subject.

            There is an intense pressure created in the mind on account of the desire which pushes it in the direction of the desired object. This rushing towards the objects perceived as external to the consciousness is called Materialism. When the consciousness expands to encompass the entire Universe, it sees everything as part of itself or itself as a part of something larger, there is no movement or rushing towards objects. There is a sense of peace, just like the river that has merged into the seas. This is the divinity one seeks. Desire is nothing more than a backdoor way mind attempts to expand itself to be at Peace. But unwittingly, it is everything gone wrong.

            This happiness one obtains by desire fulfillment is referred in tamil as sittrinbam (சிற்றின்பம்), ephemeral fleeting pleasure. The intensity and longevity of the happiness is proportional to the intensity of the desire. The mindset of the seeker plays a critical role in the manifestation, pursuit of the desire and also the fruits of its actions. The mindset is nothing more than the interplay of the three gunas – Saatva, Rajas and Tamas. For instance, a child may be so intensely attached to its favorite toy. It may not want to part with it even for a second. As the child becomes an adult, it will not have the same intensity towards the same object. This is due to the constant rearrangement of the mind.

            As soon as the object of desire is attained by the seeker, there is a temporary expansion of consciousness, followed by a quick realization of the duality experience. For instance, if a child gets its toy or a food connoisseur gets some favorite delicacy, though the sought object is acquired, the object retains a distinct separation. Even if I as a seeker get all the land or all the money I seek, the objects are still outside my consciousness. This constant reminder itself keeps reinforcing the duality. What might be an object in one’s view could be a seeker in another perspective.  Even if it is an atom, it will not want to merge into another, giving up its identity.

            Another aspect of desire fulfillment is its insatiability. This is very evident from the story of Raja Yayati. The desire fulfillment immediately reinforces the vasanas that give birth to the desire. This reinforcement renews the vasanas, giving birth to the same desire again and again. In many cases, this also reinforces the urge to repeat the process. Some have even gone to exclaim, Happiness is in the process of achieving, not the achievement. While this observation carries some merit, it is not complete by itself.  This outlook does not realize that we are mere hamsters on a wheel, in the hands of our desires.

A desire may have many outcomes. The outcome may be completely opposite of what we want. The outcome may be favorable but in smaller measure. One may meet their expectations of the desire and achieve exactly what one desires. The outcome may be more than what we expect in our favor. The first two may bring unhappiness and disappointment while the latter two may bring more than just happiness.

Favorable: The happiness that sparks due to the fulfillment of the desire may fuel a host of emotions in the mind it originates in. The most visible and predictable one is rekindle the desire again and again. Try eating one potato chip from a bag. Try watching TV or browsing internet for only few minutes. This will trigger us to repeat the process mindlessly.

If the impulses get embedded as chemicals, they can turn into addictions. Addictions of higher kind like smoking, drinking, drugs may be chemically triggered after a certain point causing the desires to be born out of compulsive impulsions. Though this may represent a smaller fraction of favorable outcomes, it is easy to observe people indulging in smaller guilt free pleasures as they give sanction to such desires themselves. How many times, we see a diabetic patient consoling themselves that one laddu won’t kill me or what kind of life is it if one cannot even enjoy one laddu?

Apart from reiterating the vasanas to give birth to the desire, desire also morphs itself into other emotions. The mind that achieves the object puffs up in Mada (Pride). The ahamkara (ego) becomes stronger on account of repeatability of achievements. The victories of great conquerors like Alexander, Napolean, Hitler only fuelled more conquests, not greater administration. Also on account of achievement, there is a greater opportunity to compare the degrees of success. A perceived lack on one’s success relative to others generates Lobha (Greed). Lobha can take the form of Covetousness and even violent ways to snatch from other’s successes. The desire can simmer inside in the form of Matsarya (Jealousy). Due to the pride of desire fulfillment, the bloated ego goes into a state called Moha (intense attachment or temptation based on delusion). When the object of desire is centered around carnal pleasure, it is called as Kama (Lust).  Since Self preservation is one of the primal instincts in nature, Kama can have a vice like grip in different forms. Though it need not be visible in lewd promiscuous behavior, it can be morph from the choice of words or actions on the milder side to extreme violence. How many times we see the most oddest of couples and still call it as love? Kama can delude a person to seeing a Urvasi in the ugliest person and vice versa.

Unfavorable: This is very easy to understand. Disappointment and unhappiness is the first modification of desire, when the object of desire is not materialized. A blockage when the seeker is seeking an object transmutes the desire into Krodha (Anger). This anger if in greater intensity is called rage and can further as wrath.  

Repeated disappointments can lead to frustration. The eagerness to have the object of desire results in worry, anxiety. The displeasure when in the presence of a factor while will not entertain expression turns to depression. When desire confronts the source that blocks, it also becomes as Fear, even if it is imagined. An extreme nature of fear can be understood as Psychosis. As noted the insatiability also expresses itself as always wanting, a shortcoming in one self. This creates a constant craving. Sometimes, the seeker is at liberty to go after the cravings, one after the other with different objects. Under certain conditions, marriage for instance, due to the societal norms, one may be constrained to be limited to few sources.

The sage wisdom of Indian thought process crystallized these passions as  Arishadvarga – six passions – kama (lust), krodha (anger), lobha (greed), moha (intense attachment or temptation based on delusion), mada (pride or hubris) matsarya (jealousy).

            Some more thoughts on desire

            Desire is a psychological operation where the seeker perceives the object to be an exact fit.  Desire is constantly connected with a pair of opposites - Raaga (Like) and Dvesha (Dislike). Desire manifestation urge gets channelized by Raaga-Dvesha. This also results in the attachment to the fruits of action performed. Thus as we observed, Desire whether fulfilled or unfulfilled, will disturb the peace of mind. This is owing to the fact, the mind being attached to the outcome.

            We saw that desire is a powerful force that can lead us in different ways. It arises on account of the Avidya (Igorance). We already saw that it can manifest in different ways. It cannot be suppressed. The more aggressive one gets with desire, the more stronger, it will get in its varied expressions. The Tamasic and Rajasic minds give birth to violent expressions of desire, be it externally or internally. An increasingly Saatvic mind, will incline towards subliming the desires rather than mere fulfillment. Krishna’s therapy is not desire suppression, but being detached and not hankering after the fruits of karma. This cuts the cycle of desire reiterating the vasanas. Newly arising desires can be dealt with Viveka and Vairagya.

            What is the test of desire? If it creates a ripple in the mind, be it happiness or unhappiness, it may not be desirable. The idea of desirelessness as  the key has been at the heart of dharmic traditions from India.  Consider these quotes



No matter how much of something you get, it never satisfies your desire for better or more. This unceasing desire is suffering; its nature is emotional frustration. – Lama Yeshe


There is no fear for one whose mind is not filled with desires – Gautama Buddha

            While desirelessness is a lofty spiritual goal, we can start benefiting by realigning ourselves with the following thoughts:

            Satchitananda’s Reflections:

After reading all this, it is natural to have the question, we are living in a fast paced world, how can we apply all this? Is it practical to become desireless, right away? What about my legitimate obligations to my family, society and to even oneself?

  • Let us watch the origin of the desires and all its modifications. The family of desires is much larger and complex than what is listed above. The mere fact we watch it will moderate the desires or its ramifications.

  • There may be simple or mild desires like drinking a cup of tea, which may not trigger any major side effects. These may be permissible. But there will be certain desires like a diabetic wanting a laddu or alcohol. A middle aged person with family responsibilities wanting to drink alcohol, especially with troubled health background in past or in family history. These warrant exercising vairagya based on viveka. Raising awareness to the nature of desire helps it get sublimed instead of getting suppressed.

  • There may be some stronger desires which may arise due to various factors like trying some drugs or could be violent modifications of desires like anger, fear, greed, jealousy, pride etc. Observing the roots will again help one moderate these.

  • One of Krishna’s key messages in Bhagavad Gita is not to hanker after the fruits of karma. This means that one can make sankalpa (an idea or vow to perform, desire an action). Krishna also highlights in Gita that no one can exist without making actions. This basically implies that one can be a watchdog of the vasanas which give birth to the desires. One can control the conditions that give birth to such vasanas. For example, avoiding smokers or places habituated by them is a good way for a person intent on giving up smoke.

  • Purusharthas, especially Dharma are a key to evaluating the nature of desire. Desire as we noted gets differently expressed due to the gunas of the mind. Dharma is not based on the morality of society, which can be changing. Fire even during cave man times also burnt whoever touched it. That is the dharma of fire. As there is increasing Sattva, the understanding of Dharma becomes clearer. Just like to understand Einstein’s laws one’s mind has to be subtle, in the same way Sattva helps in increasing the clarity of one’s own mind.

  • Expanding one’s consciousness to include more will help one evoke nicer desires from the mind. If one loves humanity as a whole, one’s desires will be more evolved rather than a selfish person.

  •       Thiruvalluvar aptly guided in one of his kurals

பற்றுக பற்றற்றான் பற்றினை அப்பற்றைப்
பற்றுக பற்று விடற்கு.

patruka patratraan patrinai appatraip
patruka patru vidaRku

Hold on to that desire, a desire to remain detached.

  • The entire article has been beautifully summarized in Bhagavad Gita slokas 2.62 and 2.63.

    ध्यायत विषयान्पुंसः सङ्गस्तेषुपजायते
    सङ्गात्संजायते कामः कामात्क्रोधो अभिजायते || 2.62

    dhyāyato viṣayān puḿsaḥ sańgas teṣūpajāyate
    sańgāt sañjāyate kāmaḥ kāmāt krodho ‘bhijāyate

    While contemplating the objects of the senses, a person develops attachment for them, and from such attachment lust develops, and from lust anger arises.


    क्रोधाध्भवति संमोहः सम्मोहत्स्म्रिथिविब्रमह्
    स्म्रितिब्रम्सद्बुद्धिनाशो बुद्धिनशत्प्रनष्यति|| 2.63

krodhād bhavati sammohaḥ sammohāt smṛti-vibhramaḥ
smṛti-bhraḿśād buddhi-nāśo buddhi-nāśāt praṇaśyati

From anger, complete delusion arises, and from delusion bewilderment of memory. When memory is bewildered, intelligence is lost, and when intelligence is lost one falls down again (into the material pool  - Samsara)

Om Tat Sat

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4 comments:

  1. The desire to be detached off all desires is still a desire...While in my opinion, desires and human existence are inseparable, though contentment against greed and such similar sustainable human goals need to be pursued. Once again simple yet probing take on the much dissected concept of desire from the author...

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    1. Thanks as. But these ideas existed in Indian society for several thousand years. Our literature, be it Bhagavad Gita or Siththar songs are filled with wisdom of the ages. You are perhaps right in observing that humans and desires are not inseperable.

      Let me remind that "We are not human beings having a spiritual experience. We are spiritual beings having a human experience." - Pierre Teilhard de Chardin

      Once we alter our perspective to view ourselves from a higher level, the lower aspect makes no sense. We are all animals, biologically, but we choose to think and act as humans. In the same way, if we realize the above quote and live like a spiritual being, the folly of human perspectives will wither away.

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