Self-Love and Jinana: The Symbiosis of Desire and the Mind
When the major cities of Harrappa and Mohenjo Daro collapsed, the Indus Valley Civilization became extinct, resulting in a large migration of strongly militant, Sanskrit-speaking western people into the Indus Valley (Olivelle xxv). The link between these people and the origin of the Upanisads and other Hindu texts is unclear. However, having been recorded in 1200 BC and 800 BC, the Rig Veda and Upanisad scriptures, are 3,200 and 2,800 years old, respectively. Their depth, significance, and historical placement in forming the Hindu religion from the emerging Hindu philosophies are without equal. The Yoga Sutra, written by the great Indian philosopher, Patanjali, is from a much earlier era, but carries a similar amount of monumental significance in shaping the Hindu traditions and beliefs. Amongst the origin of existence, earth, and man, these scriptures also discuss the details of the development of deities, such as Agni, the god of sacrificial fire, Yama, the death god, and Indra, the warrior god. However, one of the reoccurring, almost thematic, explanations in the scriptures is the concept of desire. Theses texts frequently reiterate and re-examine the origin of desire, it’s relationship to the mind, and its link to suffering and fulfillment.
A universally paramount message found in world religions is the necessity of restraining desires. In Hinduism, over-indulgence of the sensual desires results in bad karma, suffering, and the consequential samsara; in Christianity, over-indulgence causes sin and then a descent into Hell; in Islam letting your chariot of desire be guided without restraint results in neglect of the five Pillars – Shahada (declaration of Allah), Prayer (five times a day), Zakat (obligatory tax of giving about 2.5% to the poor), Ramadan (month-long fasting), and Hajj (pilgrimage to Mecca) – and the consequential departure from salvation. Desire threatens to hinder the progress of the ultimate goal of salvation in other religions, as well. However, it is only Hinduism that validates the importance of desire.
According to the Rig Veda, desire is related to the origin of all existence. The Creation Hymn, or Nasadiya, discusses how in the beginning of the universe, “darkness was by darkness” and “there was neither death nor immortality” (Doniger 25). From this state of existential nothingness arose the incitation of “the power of heat” (Doniger 25). The catalyst for this heat was desire. Desire, creativity, and impulse seemed to have been the ingredients for the origin of existence: “desire came upon that one in the beginning” (Doniger 25). Therefore, desire created the momentum, while the poets, through the process of creativity, “found the bond of existence in non-existence” (Doniger 25). The poets create substance out of nothing by “seeking in their heart” (Doniger 25). The ability to utilize the generative powers of creativity is clearly exemplified with Henry Fielding’s discussion of creativity: “[it] is the ability to introduce order into the randomness of nature”. In this case, these “founding poets” introduced substance into the absence of everything, but desire was the catalyst for this birth of existence. Clearly, the combination of creativity coupled with desire is a very potent convergence – it is the recipe from which all life began.
The Rig Veda prompts “was there below? Was there above?” and responds by saying the above there was “giving-forth” and below, there was “impulse” (Doniger 25). It seems that from this desire came the creativity which formed substance, and then these different substances began to interact each other through impulses or “giving forth”, depending on whether or not these forces were below or above.
In his discussion of the origin of desire, Maurice Bloomfield describes desire and the mind to have reciprocity between each other because they both relate to each other through a certain degree interdependence. Bloomfield references the Hinduism notion that the vehicle for desire is the mind. He says, “you mount your mind or wish-car and reach your destination, that is to say, the object of your desire” (Bloomfield 281). While the mind may be the vehicle for attaining desires, the mutual symbiosis between the mind and desire becomes more blatant when one realizes the similarities between the manas (desire-vehicle mind) and kama (desire). Bloomfield perpetuates the interdependent relationship with desire and the mind by referencing the exchange directly: “fulfill desire, fulfill the mind of the poet” (Bloomfield 281). Desire completes and is integral to the fulfillment of the mind, but the mind in turn delivers and acts out the desire: “by means of the mind one exercises desire” (Bloomfield 281). There is totally reciprocating exchange between the mind and desire because the mind could not live without the fuel and the fulfilling impact of desire, but the desire needs the mind to implement itself on the world. The mind simultaneously manufactures and receives the fulfilling benefits of desires. Bloomfield’s argument that “either [desire or the mind] indifferently may be mounted and ridden to the goal,” is illogical because the destination of desire is only acquired through the mind and desire typically never “acquires itself” (Bloomfield 281). However, Bloomfield’s recognition of the overlapping exchange between desire and manas has validity throughout the Hindu scriptures.
The mutual essentiality of both concepts, mind and desire, is obvious because without the fuel of desire, the driver (and car) would be immobile, but without the navigation of the mind-driver, the car would soon crash into something. However, given this mutually symbiotic relationship between desire and the mind, there is a need for some discipline. Bloomfield recalls “the man who rides (as it were) in a chariot drawn by his five senses and directed by his mind (as the charioteer), who keeps it on the path of the virtuous, can never be overcome by his enemies (lust, wrath, and greed)” (Bloomfield 282). Some sections of the Upanisads and the Yoga Sutra pose a stark contrast to the Rig Veda in references to desire because they call for the discipline of wishes, to not let one’s senses run rampant, and to recognize desire as a potential cause of suffering.
In the ascetic prevention of over-indulging, understanding is created. “When a man has understanding, his mind is ever controlled; his senses do obey him, as good horses, a charioteer” (Olivelle 239). This is a stark contrast from the man who lacks understanding because “his senses do not obey him, as bad horses, a charioteer” (Olivelle 239). In other words, through the power of understanding one acquires more mastery over their senses and indulgences, and from this mastery, desires are more efficiently fulfilled because the senses work in harmony instead of discordance.
Equally important to having your chariot of desires being pulled by good horses (i.e. an understanding mind), is the fulfillment of one’s desires. The very fulfillment of desires dissolves avidya and generates a form of mokti where that self “cannot be grasped, by teachings or be intelligence, or even by great learning” (Olivelle 276). A passage from Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet describes children as having a similar inaccessibility: “You may give them your love but not your thoughts. For they have their own thoughts. You may house their bodies but not their souls, for their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow” (Gibran 4). The clarity associated with the self that enters the “Brahman-abode” and the unfathomable and unreachable alacrity of children have similarities (Olivelle 276). However, the source of acquiring the ungraspable state of mokti is “when one’s desires disappear in this very world” because they have been authentically fulfilled (Olivelle 275). So the Hindu view of desire-fulfillment is not selfish, but extremely selfless because by fulfilling your desires, you acquire more of a Brahman state from which you can more effectively help others. In that sense, fulfilling your desires is the pathway to becoming the most effectively compassionate because you would have acquired a state of ungraspable continuity of presence.
When the Upanisads say, “one who hankers after desires in his thoughts, is born here through his actions,” they are referring to the ephemeral, fleeting existence – the lack of a consistent presence – in someone who lacks mastery over their desires (Olivelle 275). The man who has fulfilled his desires has a greater consistency of presence because he is not fleeting in and out of existence; he possesses the permanence of the “Brahman-abode” (Olivelle 275). From this Brahman-abode, the Brahman works with seers, the wise, aesthetics, and the worlds, themselves. The seers attain him and are freed from “passion and tranquil” and are made perfect, while the wise attain him and “enter into that very All” (Olivelle 276). Furthermore, the ascetics become disciplined through renunciation, and then the worlds are “fully liberated” (Olivelle 276). Clearly, the tactful, or mindful, fulfillment of desires generates the Brahman-abode, which leads one to a higher didactic and altruistic capacity that collectively helps others.
Desires can be fulfilled through self-love and knowing one’s self. In the Brhadaranyaka Upanisad, during the discussion between Yajnavalkya and Maitreyi, Yajnavalkya conveys that “one holds a husband dear…not out of love for the husband; rather, it is out of love for oneself (atman) that holds the husband dear” (Olivelle 28). As the dialogue progresses, it becomes clear that the relationship between self-love and external love is true for external desire; if you love or desire a wife, children, Gods, wealth, power, worlds, or any other possible thing, this love is a manifestation of self-love, of love for one’s atman. This concept alludes to the idea that desire not only originates in our self, but also is satiated through our self-love. Additionally, “by reflecting and concentrating on one’s self, one gains the knowledge of this whole world” (Olivelle 29). So it is through knowing one’s self through reflection and concentration and through self-love that desires are swiftly fulfilled. However, one cannot meander a fantastical world, believing their desires are instantly fulfilled through simple reflection. Instead, enlightenment must be cultivated through various forms of yoga and through the utilization of the senses.
If used correctly, our senses do much more than bombard us with desires; they become primary mechanisms for cultivating our desires . The early Brhadaranyaka Upanisad discusses how in the beginning – after the spark of desire, creativity, and impulse – there was only the atman and desires of Brahman. Brahman then used his sight to acquire “human wealth”, his hearing for “divine wealth”, speech for his wife, breath for his offspring, and body for his rites (Olivelle 17). This is not to be taken linearly, insinuating that looking around will make you a billionaire, that listening to the radio will generate spiritually alignment, that speaking will cause your wife to spontaneously emerge, that when one breaths babies appear out of no where, or that one’s body will automatically perform rituals. What the Upanisads are referring to here is that you possess the tools and gifts required to generate all of your desires. With your own faculties of mind and senses, you can create a poignant relationship with a wife by communicating emotions, sincerity, and love; you have the calmness of breath to raise children, the intellectual expression to communicate and exchange wealth on a material level, the intuitive hearing to listen to and comprehend your inner voice, and the body to exercise ceremonial rites. In other words, you are fully equipped with the tools needed to fulfill all desires and therefore should direct your love to the self instead of outwardly grasping for desires.
It’s important that self-directed love is not misinterpreted as selfish conceit because “the Whole has become one’s very self,” according to Hindu belief. Therefore, self-love is the pathway to most effectively love your world, wife, husband, gods, family, friends, and any other external entity (Olivelle 30).
The paradoxical relationship between atman and desires, in Hinduism, however arises when one understands that desires and wishes as infinite, while the body as finite. However, by using one’s sight, hearing, speech, breathe, and body, one can recognize the everlasting nature of one’s jiva, the invariant component the emerges with each new reincarnation, and abandon the problematic idea of an ephemeral being. No one is immortal, obviously, but recognizing the qualities of immortality, namely ideas, solves the problem with having a finite body with infinite desires. John F. Kennedy once said, “A man may die, nations may rise and fall, but an idea lives on”. Kennedy’s reference to the everlasting nature of ideas, amongst the fleeting, impermanent nature of man and worldly things can be used to solve the “infinite desires within a finite and ephemeral body” dilemma because one simply harnesses the power of the mind, to create the eternal ideas.
In the Svetasvatara Upanisads the ramifications of truly knowing God are discussed in relationship to desire. The verse reads, “when one has known God, all the fetters fall off…birth and death come to an end” (Olivelle 254). Furthermore, in addition to the cessation of samsara, or the termination of birth-death cycle, when one meditates on god, there is a “dissolution of the body…and in the absolute one’s desires are fulfilled” (Olivelle 254). Through the devout and continual practice of comprehending god and by being mindfully meditative of God, the problems of the body, literally dissolve, and desires are instantly fulfilled.
Desires are significant because they generate motivation. If one desires to know God, according to the Svetasvatara Upanisad, such a desire will consequentially result in the discovery of God and then the fulfillment of one’s desires. However, desires must, not necessarily be “tamed”, but they truly must work in correlation with the mind. The Katha Upanisad reminds us “when a man’s mind is his reins, intellect, his charioteer; he reaches the end of the road” (Olivelle 239). By having the mind be the navigator that control’s the chariot of desire, one reaches the end of the road and their ultimate goal. But this does not insinuate a termination of practice because new desires are generated and must be integrated with the mind. Therefore, reaching the “end of the road” is not a signal to kick up your heals and retire from the process of acquiring jinana, but, rather, it is an indication of balance between the mind and desires, and that one’s process of knowing Brahman has evolved.
The Yoga Sutra teaches one to enjoy a state of objectivity where one’s “spirit stands in its true identity as observer to the world” (Miller 29). Such centeredness is acquired through the “cessation of thought”, which is manufactured by, amongst other things, “practice and dispassion” (Miller 32). Dispassion is specifically defined as “mastery over the craving for sensual objects” (Miller 32). Because it is defined as simply mastery over desires and the senses, dispassion is not the abandonment of sensual satisfaction, but the mitigation or total elimination of the control that sensual desires exert over one’s spirit.
While the Yoga Sutra doesn’t call for a total renunciation of all sensual desires, which would result in a divine being, the relationship with desires and the senses must be controlled. The stance proposed by Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra portrays desire as perpetuator of “the control that material nature exerts over the human spirit,” preventing us from rediscovering our state of centeredness or sattva guna (Miller 1).
In Samkhya philosophy, one of the six schools of Hindu Indian philosophy, a guna is described as a tendency towards a mental state. In Samkhya there are three guna’s, or three of these mental state tendencies – sattva, rajas, and tamas. Sattva -- most closely associated with the brahmin class -- implies a perfect equilibrium of will and desire and the tendency to always do good over evil. The rajas mental state --most common in the second, kshatriyas varna -- implies a mental state that is too overactive and chaotic. The third guna, tamas -- most closely referenced to the fourth, shudra varna -- refers to too much inactivity, lethargy, darkness, and obfuscation.
By having dispassion and control over desires for material cravings, one can observe “the lucid perfection of nature and spirit” (Miller 71). Such a state of attentiveness can only be generated by not the abandonment, but the transcendence of the senses: “when the senses are mastered, they can be transcended, giving one immediate apprehension of all dimensions of nature” (Miller 72). In turn, this state of sattva creates absolute freedom, which “occurs when the lucidity of material nature and spirit are in pure equilibrium” (Miller 73). Such a state of equilibrium is the same experience that famous American writer, Ralph Waldo Emerson, described when he experienced a state of “Universal Being”: “my head bathed by the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite space, -- all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eye-ball” (Emerson 1109). This state of incredibly transparency is the same equilibrium defined by the Yoga Sutra as absolute freedom. In other words, absolute freedom and tranquility are not acquired by discarding desires. Instead, such liberation and clarity is generated through mastery and tranquility over wishes, by absolving over-attachment to material longings, and by contemplating the pristine equilibrium of nature and spirit.
Despite the apparent disparity in the definitions and interpretations of desire, all the texts point to desire being a key element in the equation for eliminating suffering. The Yoga Sutras point out how excessive desire must be eliminated, while the Rig Veda consider it a proliferating force, that it was the origin of existence, and the Upanisads calls for the necessity of balance, to ensure mental mastery from the mind over the chariot of the senses and desire, but they do mention how fulfilling one’s desires helps the wise, the seers, the wise, the ascetics, and liberates worlds.
Whether the interpretation considers desire to be stifling or motivating, it is a major concept in Hindu philosophy. Conclusively, desire should be examined as a vital source of motivation that must be neither abandoned nor allowed to run rampant. Without desire, one runs the risk of slipping into a lethargic tamas guna, but with too much desire, one could become chaotically over-active, with a rajas mental tendency. Only through the simultaneous mastery and fulfillment of desires can one acquire the “faith, heroic energy, mindfulness, contemplative calm, and wisdom” that generates tranquil cessation of thought and liberation (Miller 44).
Bloomfield, Maurice. “The Mind as Wish-Car in the Veda.” Journal of the American
Oriental Society, 1919. p. 280-282
Provided a very philoosphically inspiring idea of the mind as a wish-car and scope on the rig veda as a whole.
Doniger, Wendy. The Rig Veda. London: Penguin Books, 1981.
The core text of the Rig Veda.
Emerson, Ralph W. “Nature”. The Norton Anthology of American Literature. 6th ed. New
York: Norton and Norton Publishing Co., 2003. p. 1106-1135.
The text of Emerson’s “Nature” used for references to Universal Being state being similar to the Yoga Sutra’s description of absolute freedom.
Gibran, Kahlil. The Prophet. New York: Alfred Knopf Publishing, 1953.
Useful interpretation of the pristine nature of children.
Miller, Barbara. Yoga: The Discipline of Freedom. Barbara Miller Trans. New York:
Bantam Books, 1998.
The core text of Patanjali’s Yoga sutra.
Olivelle, Patrick. Upanisads. Trans. Patrick Olivelle. Oxford: Oxford U P, 1996.
The primary text of the Hindu Upanisads.
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