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29 April, 2012

Is desire an evil?

       Among all living beings, human beings are considered the most superior and the most powerful.  Our sastras or scriptures give the reason for our superiority:  human beings alone are endowed with the three fold power known as icchasakti, jnanasakti and kriyasaktiIcchasakti means the power to desire; Jnanasakti is the power to know and kriyasakti is the power to do.

       It is because of jnanasakti that we have so many educational institutions and research centers.  The body of knowledge is forever expanding.  And it is because of kriyasakti that the face of the earth has undergone such tremendous transformation, changes that we see all around us touching our lives every day -- from using the ATM to surfing the Internet.  Thus, science alone is not enough; science must be converted into technology.

       Equally important is icchasakti.  The power to desire is the driving force behind jnanasakti and kriyasakti.  Let us suppose we have the power to know (a keen mind and a sharp intellect) but not the desire to know.  The power to know is of no use if there is no desire to know.  Similarly we can have the power to do (the stamina and strength) but this power is useless if we have no desire to do anything.  The power to know and do is made meaningful by the power to desire. 

       In our tradition we respect all three powers equally.  In fact, we worship these powers considering them a blessing from God.  One of the names in Lalitha-sahasranama (verse 130, nama 658) is 'icchasakti-jnanasakti-kriyasakti-svarupini, - The One who is the power of will, power of knowledge and power of action'.

       Here we face a problem.  While we look upon desire as a blessing, our scriptures - despite glorifying the desire on one hand - strongly condemn kama or desire which is looked upon as an internal enemy.  In the Bhagavad-Gita (3.37) Lord Krishna calls kami (a person with desires) a great papi or sinner -  'It is desire, it is wrath begotten by rajoguna: all consuming, all sinful, know this as the foe on earth'. 

       Katha Upanisad (2.3.14) states - 'When a man has all his heart's desires destroyed, he attains immortality and becomes one with Brahman in this very life'. 

       Again, in the Bhagavad-Gita (2.25), Lord Krishna defines liberation as the destruction of all desires - 'when a man abandons, O Partha, all the desires of the heart and is satisfied in the Self by the Self, then he is said to be stable in wisdom'

       To the above scriptural references, we can also add the well known English saying 'Desire is the root cause of all evil'.

       Are the scriptures confusing us?  Is desire a blessing or a curse?  On every new year day we make resolutions which are nothing but expressions of our desire.  Should we continue to make these resolutions - considering desire a blessing - or do we refrain from doing so - considering desire a curse?  What should we do?  What is the scriptural stand?

       Scriptures cannot afford to condemn desires.  The very existence of the scriptures is only to fulfill desires.  Our scriptures prescribes four purusarthas or goals of life: dharma (values), artha (wealth), kama (desire), and moksa (liberation). 

       To achieve the above goals or purusarthas we must first have a desire for them.  A doubt can arise.  Desire itself is one of the purusarthas.  Does it mean we must have a desire for desire just as we hve a desire for the other three?  When desire is mentioned as a purusartha, it must be understood to mean desired objectives such as a successful career, winning a competition etc.  Veda-purva-bhaga (the earlier portion of the Vedas) contains elaborate procedures like homa and yajna for fulfilling our desires like getting progeny, acquiring cattle, property, etc.  Even God has desire. 

       Taittirya-upanisad (2.6) says, 'He, the Atman desired:  May I become many:  Let me procreate Myself.'  Bhagavan desired and created the world.  The incarnations of the Lord are manifestations of Bhagavan's desire.  If desire is to be condemned sastra itself becomes irrelevant.  Desire is the starting point, the basis, the foundation of for all our activities, endeavours, pursuits.  Desire is indispensable for every being.  Thus desire and desiring power are a blessing in the form of icchasakti because of which alone we are able to make use of our jnanasakti and kriyasakti and progress in life.  Hence, we look upon desire not as an evil or course, but a blessing.

       Then why do our scriptures condemn desire?  Why do scripture define liberation as giving up desire as we have quoted earlier?  When our scriptures condemn desire, we must understand it to mean abnormal desire.  To understand what abnormal desire is, we first understand what is 'abnormal' and for this let us consider an example.

       A friend says, "I have a sugar problem.'  Does this mean that the sugar in our system is a problem?  Sugar is essential for a healthy life, but the doctors have prescribed a limit on consumption of it.  It is only when this norm is exceeded or violated that a person has a diabetes.  Thus, it is not sugar per se, but abnormal sugar which is the problem.  Similarly, cholesterol is necessary for good health.  Yet we hear of people having 'cholesterol problem'.  Again, what is meant by abnormal cholesterol in the system.  In the same way, when our scriptures condemn desire, it means abnormal desire.

       Thus, what is abnormal desire?  It is a desire which exceed the limit, violates the norm.  A desire which is within limits, conforms to norm, is a normal or healthy desire.  Just as there are prescribed norms for sugar and cholesterol, there are certain norms (three in number) for normal or healthy desires.


1.  Appropriate desire:

       Krishna says in the Bhgavad-Gita (7.11), "In beings I am desire, not contrary to dharma, O chief of the Bharatas"Lord Krishna defines an appropriate desire as dharmic desire.  Any desire that does not violate the norms of ethics, morality and justice is appropriate.  In fact, Lord Krishna says a dharmic desire is an expression of his vibhuti (glory).

       When adharmic desires arise in our mind we need not feel bad because we have no control over the their appearance.  But we do have control over their continuity.  And so, when an adharmic desire pops up in our mind, we simply nip it in the bud.  A desire is like a visitor - both welcome and unwelcome - who appears at our door unannounced.  While we have no control over who knocks at our door, we entertain and spend time only with the welcome visitor while turning away the unwelcome one.

       What is wrong, if we entertain adharmic desires?  We are likely to think 'nobody will know'.  But we know.  We lose respect for ourselves and our self-esteem is affected.  In our heart of hearts, we will not accept such behavior.  Such a person cannot be a happy in life.


2.    Balanced desire:

       There must be a balance in our desires.  All this is a two-fold balance.  The first balance is in getting and giving.  We all have the desire for acquisition and hoarding.  But, how many have the desire for giving and sharing?  The desire for acquisition should be balanced with the desire for contribution.  Desire for acquisition is natural; desire for contribution has to be cultivated.

       How can we contribute?  We can contribute time, energy, effort, knowledge and money.  Scriptures looks upon the entire universe as a gigantic, cosmic infrastructure.  We tap this infrastructure to fulfill our wants, needs and desires.  Scriptures call upon us to give back to the infrastructure which sastra describes as having five components.

a.  Nature: 

       Sastras or scriptures refers to nature as a panchabhuta or five elements: space, air, fire, water and earth.  These are a source of energy and our very sustenance.  In our tradition we look upon Lord as the panchabhutas or five elements.  And what have we done?  Rather than give back to nature (by planting trees, etc.,) we have polluted the air, land and water.  Global warming is the result of us going against nature.  We have to contribute to preserve nature.

b.  Living beings: 

       This includes all living beings, flora and fauna.  We contribute to their well being.

c.  Society:  

       We contribute to social welfare schemes that benefit the less privileged sections of the society.

d.  Educational Institutions:

       Scriptures attach great importance to eduction and teachers.  The role of educational institutions is to turn out responsible human beings who know what normal and abnormal desires are, healthy and unhealthy desires and more importantly have self control over abnormal desires.

e.  Family:

       Our scriptures consider family to be the most important infrastructure for a healthy mind.  We can enjoy a healthy mind only if we have the cushioning support of a family.  This especially applies to children and elderly people.  Institutions such as schools cannot give the love and care as effectively as a family.

       This five fold contribution - nature, living beings, society, educational institutions and family - is known as pancamaha-yajna and is referred to in sastras as devayajna, bhutayajna, manusyayajna, brahmayajna and pitryajna respectively.

       The second of the two-fold balance is balancing material pursuits and spiritual pursuits.  According to our scriptures, the entire universe is a combination of matter and spirit - prakriti and purusa.  We ourselves are a mixture of matter and spirit.  A spiritualistic person chasing money, entertainment, pleasure will feel a hollowness or emptiness in the heart, an inner sense of vacuum and incompleteness.  We must spend at least an hour a day for spirituality.  At a minimum we can study a few verses of Bhagavad Gita daily.  A spiritual person who neglects basic comforts - nutritious food, a comfortable place to stay - with a wish to eschew materialism would face needless and unnecessary hardships which actually hinder spiritual growth.  Hence, we must have a balanced mixture of both material and spiritual pursuits.


3.  Clean desire:

       Our scriptures say desire has certain byproducts which are harmful.  These toxic byproducts are krodha (anger), lobha (greed), moha (delusion), mada (arrogance) and matsaryam (jealousy), fear, anxiety, worry, rivalry etc.  A successful businessman desirous of being even more successful, plots to eliminate his competitors.  We should not entertain such unethical desires.  In other words, we cultivate 'clean' desires.

       Thus, we follow the above principle - we have Appropriate, Balanced, Clean Desires.  We can have any number of desires.  We need not feel guilty.  On the contrary, we can feel proud and privileged.  Swami Vidyaranya says in Pancadasi (6.262) that we can even have a cross desires - "When a person can dis-identify the Self from egoism and realize that the Self is in no way connected with egoism, then though he may have crores of desires, they will not bind him because he has cut the knot of the conscious with the unconscious."

       Let there be plenty of healthy desires!

Source: Excerpts from the Talks given on new year day January 1, 2007 by Swamy Paramarthananda at 'Asthika Samaj', Venus Colony, Alwarpet, Chennai.

08 April, 2012

Holy River Ganga


     A mythological story describes story describes the river Jahnavi, better known as Ganga, descending from heaven to earth.  Ganga originated in heaven where she was personified as a goddess bearing the name Akasa-GangaKing Bhagiratha prayed to the goddess to descend from heaven to earth.  Akasa-Ganga granted the prayer but warned Bhagiratha that the earth would not bear the torrential flow of water from heaven.  The Lord Siva alone could withstand the force and receive the water.  Bhagiratha prayed then to Lord Siva to receive the Ganga water.  Siva acceded.  He received the water in his locks and retired to the jungle for meditation.  The Ganga remained in Siva's locks but did not flow on earth.  Hence, the king prayed to Siva a second time.  Now, to release the water to the world.  Siva granted his prayer.  The Ganga is presently believed to be the flowing from Siva's locks!



       The story has a deep allegorical significance.  Ganga signifies Brahman, the supreme Reality.  Brahman remains above all terrestrial experiences.  Symbolically in the heavens.  King Bhagiratha represents an enlightened soul who alone can transmit the spiritual knowledge to the world.  Lord Siva represents  a tapasvin -- an austere, introvert, contemplating person - who qualifies to receive the knowledge.  After receiving the knowledge the seeker has to assimilate and absorb it.  This is indicated by Siva retiring to the forest for meditation with the Ganga in his locks.  The knowledge absorbed turns the seeker into a spiritual master.  He then imparts the knowledge gradually, carefully.  The people of the world can take it only in small doses.  Hence, Siva releases the Ganga in trickles from his locks.  Since the river signifies spiritual wisdom a dip in the sacred Ganga symbolises the devotee's union with Brahman.


Lord Krishna glorifies the river (Jahnavi) Ganga in Bhgavad Gita  Chapter X Verse 31

Among the purifiers, I am air.
I am Rama among those who bear weapons. 
And among the  fishes I am the Shark;
among the rivers, I am the Jahnavi (Ganga).
     Among the rivers I am Jahnavi, otherwise known as Ganga.  Her water is always fresh.  It is said that no bacteria can thrive in Ganges water.  Whether that is so, or not, every Hindu home has a pot of Ganga water, which never spoils.  And through association and the circumstances of her birth, Ganga stands for knowledge.  She is said to have come from Lord Siva's head.  And there are hundreds of stories associated with her as a source of knowledge and purification.  In India every river is worshipped.  But Ganga has a special place.  It is not just a river, but jnana-ganga, the unbroken flow of knowledge itself.  One dip is said to remove all sins.  That is the shraddha people have for Ganga.  She is looked upon as a devata.  

1. Commentary on Bhagavad Gita Chapter X by Swamy A Parthasarathy.
2. Swamy Dayananda's Bhgavad Gita Home-study-course Vol.III.

01 April, 2012

Why do we have a prayer room?

In Indian Culture..

Why do we have a prayer room?

       Most Indian homes have a prayer room or altar. A lamp is lit and the Lord worshipped each day. Other spiritual practices like japa (repetition of the Lord’s name), meditation, paaraayana (reading of the scriptures), prayers, devotional singing etc, is also done here. Special worship is done on auspicious occasions like birthdays, anniversaries, festivals and the like. Each member of the family- young or old –communes with and worships the Divine here.

• Why do we have a prayer room ?

       The Lord is the owner of the entire creation.   He is therefore the true owner of the entire creation. He is therefore the true owner of the house we live in too. The prayer room is the Master room of the house. We are the earthly occupants of His property this notion rids us of false pride and possessiveness.

       The ideal attitude to take is to regard the Lord as the true owner of our homes and ourselves as caretakers of His home. But if that is rather difficult, we could at least think of Him as a very welcome guest. Just as we would house an important guest in the best comfort, so too we felicitate the Lord’s presence in our homes by having a prayer room or altar, which is, at all times, kept clean and well-decorated.

       Also the Lord is all pervading. To remind us that He resides in our homes with us, we have prayer rooms. Without the grace of the Lord, no task can be successfully or easily accomplished We invoke His grace by communing with him in the Prayer room each day and on special occasions.

       Each room in a house is dedicated to a specific function like the bedroom for resting, the drawing room to receive guests, the kitchen for cooking etc. The furniture, d├ęcor and the atmosphere of each room are made conducive to the purpose it serves. So too for the purpose of meditation, worship and prayer, we should have a conducive atmosphere – hence the need for a prayer room.

       Sacred thoughts and sound vibrations pervade the place and influence the minds of those who spend time there. Spiritual thoughts and vibrations accumulated through regular meditation, worship and chanting done there pervade the prayer room. Even when we are tired or agitated, by just sitting in the prayer room for a while, we feel calm, rejuvenated and spiritually uplifted.

Source: Excerpts from the Book on In Indian Culture Why do we … by Swamini Vimalananda & Radhika Krishnakumar.