Desire is the essence of life.
— Mahabharata XII. 167.34
“Our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness,” wrote Vladimir Nabokov in the opening lines of his memoir, Speak Memory.
Nabokov believed that human beings are more afraid of the abyss after death and viewed the one before birth more calmly.
Whereas the fearful unknown of the dark voids drove my Hindu father to mystical religion, I was drawn to the bright side. There I found kama or “desire” in Sanskrit.
Unlike animals, human beings are not governed by instinct alone. Instinctual desire travels from our senses to our imagination, from where it creates a fantasy around a specific individual.
These fantasies become the source of intense “pleasure,” and this happens to be the other meaning of kama. Ever fearful of too much devotion to erotic love, most societies are worried about this charming human inclination, and instituted monogamy via the institution of marriage.
This was done for the sake of social harmony. Fancying a neighbour’s wife or husband can be an intoxicating temptation. Reaching for it can bring pain and tragedy, destroying families and peace.
Kama can be a desire for anything, but like the English word “desire,” it refers generally to erotic desire.
A desire to act
Kama is also the desire to act. It drove Shakespeare to sit down one morning and write dazzling Othello, who turned out, alas, to be one of the unhappiest victims of kama.
Since my ancient Hindu ancestors realized that kama is the source of action, of creation and of procreation, they elevated it not only to a god, but also one of the goals of the human life. They thought of it as a cosmic force that animates all of life.
Kama’s history is the struggle between kama optimists and pessimists. While kama optimists zero in on strategies from the Kamasutra for entering the “web of desire,” as William Blake called it, kama pessimists are concerned about kama’s darker, sinister side.
They dwell on how it creates, but also destroys. That it may inspire love alright, but this drive can become uncontrollable, obsessive and violent.
One can spend a lifetime to discover how to enjoy desire but not too much how to strike a civilized balance between over-indulgence and repression.
Wanting what you don’t have
Plato wisely observed that desire is a lack of something that one does not possess. Lovers long to unite in order to fill this deficiency. But how can something that is missing, or perishes once attained, be a goal of life.
Kamagita, a “song of desire,” embedded deep inside the Mahabharata, the ancient Indian epic, reminds us that when we control one desire, another pops up.
For example, in those who choose to give up desire for wealth and give away their money, a new craving emerges — a desire for reputation. Conversely, those who choose to renounce the world and become an ascetic are often driven by a desire for heaven or for moksha, “liberation” from the human condition.
More than 2,500 years ago in the forests of north India, some curious fellows, while conducting mental experiments, called the Upanishads were struck by the unsatisfactory nature of kama.
To them, finding an answer was very important, and it was also central to the Buddha’s project. The ancient yogis sought ways to quiet this endless, futile striving, and their goal became chitta vriti nirodha, “to still the fluctuations in the mind,” in the words of Patanjali.
Acting without desire
The answer of the Bhagavad Gita to this riddle of kama is to learn to act without desire. But how is this possible when, according to the earliest Upanishad, “man is desire”?
You are what your deep, driving desire is.
As you desire is, so is your will
As your will is, so is your deed.
As your deed is, so is your destiny.
The Bhagavad Gita is aware that a person cannot stop desiring, nor does it want him to lose the will to act. It proposed the idea of “desireless action,” which means to renounce the personal rewards of one’s own actions – in short, act so that you don’t care who gets the credit.
I have read this refrain dozens of times, but I remain sceptical that a person can give up his fundamental, egoistic desire and still remain human.
A lurking pessimism
In India, we tend to blame the Victorians for the prudishness of the Indian middle class. But we must acknowledge that, lurking deep in the Indian psyche, is deep pessimism about kama’s prospects.
This is what led the great ascetic god, Shiva, to burn the god of love in frustration when the latter disturbed his thousand-year meditation. Hence, desire exists ananga, “bodiless,” in the human mind.
During my Christian missionary school education here in India, I was taught to equate desire with “original sin.” But the ganja smoking priest from our neighbourhood temple told me stories of playful, mischievous gods, who created the world for the fun of it.
And one of them, Krishna, danced with 40,000 women for an entire Brahma night that lasted 4.5 billion human years. From him I learned that our civilization is the only one that elevated kama to an aim of life and left behind a legacy of erotic Sanskrit love poetry, the Kamasutra and the erotic sculptures at Khajuraho.
Even the devotional love of god took a romantic turn in Gitagovinda, where Radha, a married woman, longs to unite with her divine, adulterous lover.
I am at an age when I mostly relive memories, some intimate, others wistful, and still others so distressing that I am left in a sweat.
Desiring to desire
Much like the next person, I desire to desire. The human rhythm is that we live for a while and then we die. It matters to us in ways that it does not to other creatures.
What is this mattering? We want our lives to have meaning. Well, kama too is a gesture in the direction of a meaningful life.
If nothing else, it is a compensatory move. After all, we are constantly reminded about dharma, “our duty to others.” Repressed as we are, the thought escapes us that kama is also a duty—a “duty to ourselves.”
Ultimately, kama is needed to realize our capacity for living a flourishing life.
Editor’s Note: Adapted with permission from Kama: The Riddle of Desire by Gurcharan Das, Penguin Random House, 2018.
Our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness.
Unlike animals, human beings are not governed by instinct alone. Instinctual desire travels from our senses to our imagination.
One can spend a lifetime to discover how to enjoy desire, but not much how to strike a civilized balance between over-indulgence and repression.
The human rhythm is that we live for a while and then we die. It matters to us in ways that it does not to other creatures.