What to do About Desires?

From Karma Yoga Book 2: Experience of Life, from the teachings of two great luminaries of the 20th century, Sri Swami Sivananda Saraswati and Sri Swami Satyananda Saraswati

Swami Satyananda: The first principle is that one should fulfil one's desires. The second principle is that desire cannot be satisfied. Therefore, the third principle is that one must practise both. If possible, one should aim for fulfillment of desires and desirelessness at the same time.

Desire is an expression of one's personality. If there is a dirty rag in a room, the foul smell cannot be killed by spraying it with perfume, because the source of the smell is still there; the dirty rag has to be removed. In the same manner, one should not try to reduce one's desires. Instead, the aim should be transformation of consciousness, the very frame of the mind, in such a way that it automatically becomes desireless.

Instead of trying to eliminate or avoid desires, it is better to change the quality of the desire. Desires cannot be eliminated. One should not eliminate desires. It is dangerous and it is not a good idea. One must have desires, otherwise there will be unhappiness. Desires can never be satisfied, and desires can never be suppressed or killed. If a person is thinking of killing his desires, he will never succeed. Desire can only be channel led or sublimated.

Law of nature

The law of nature shows one how to walk along the natural path. The three basic desires for sexual gratification, wealth and progeny are part of human nature, just like hunger, sleep and excretion. As a human being one must have an outlet for one's desires and passions. One must have food, one must have a place to sleep, one must have some security and something to fulfil one's passions. These are the four primary instincts of every human being: ahara, food, nidra, sleep, bhaya, security, and maithuna, sex. At the same time, these basic instincts can be managed with proper awareness and regulation.

Swami Sivananda used to say that it is not possible for everybody to become free from desires, because desires are created by the forces and laws of human incarnation. A balance has to be found, otherwise the whole structure of life will collapse. Life has its structure, and evolution depends on that structure. If one destroys the structure, there will be regression. If one doesn't have desire or ambition, there is no incentive. One will not work, and if one doesn't work, the mind will not improve. Therefore, desires and passions and renunciation have to be balanced properly.

It is also not good to become desireless before the maturity of one's spiritual practices. Therefore, one should try to minimize the quantum of desires only after going through the experiences of karma, after facing frustrations, disappointments and satisfactions, and realizing that these are part of life experience. Nevertheless, there is still something to be accomplished or fulfilled, not because of a desire to accomplish, but because the karma has not yet been worked out.

The best thing for a rajasic or dynamic person is to desire for others and not for oneself. This can be called selfless desire, when the self is not involved but there is still desire. There is thinking and wishing, but for somebody else, not oneself.

Desire is not an ordinary function of life. It is said in the Mahabharata (12:217:36):

Soocchya sootram yathaa vastre samsaarayati vaachakah;
Tadvatsamsaar sootram hi trishnaasoochya nibadhyate.

As a weaver drives his threads into a cloth by means of his shuttle, similarly the threads that constitute the fabric of the universe are woven by the shuttle of desire.

Creative force

Desire is the prevailing force. Compelled by desires, there are initiatives. Therefore, desire is a creative force. One should not deal with it in any way one likes. The easiest and best way to deal with one's pains and troubles or desires is to plan life; that is the systematic way.

Hindu tradition has a system, called 'ashrama dharma', in which the life span is divided into four ashramas, or stages of life. The life span of the human body is one hundred years, and this is divided into four periods of twenty-five years each. There is also a second tradition called vairagya dharma, which means 'the inclination born of dispassion, which arises at a young age'. There are some children who have dispassion at the age of four, five, eight or ten. There are also people who marry at the age of eighty. Therefore, everybody has his own way of thinking, but this means that one has to plan one's life.

The person who wants to take the long way should listen and hear what to do. Go and join a monastery. Kill all the desires; curb them all. Whenever passions arise in the mind, take the Bible and read it. Whenever desires become overwhelming, say to the Lord, "My God! Please, help me." That is the long way: renouncing desires and praying to God for help. It is okay to pray, but don't fight with desire, because He created desire for everyone's good. Desire has two faces: one is ugly and frightening, the other beautiful and pleasant. One face of desire is called Devi, the Divine Mother power; the other is rakshasa, demonical.

Everyone should know what desire is, how to conduct it, and how to go beyond it. Is there any religion in the past or present which believes that kama, passion, can be used as a springboard for evolution? The truth of nature must be accepted, not because the vedic or tantric traditions are trying to justify it, but because the minds of millions of people could become normal through this understanding.