Desire and Enlightenment

Following an extended, off-line discussion, I have added a new sub-section to Volume 1 of my next book, ‘Confusions in Advaita Vedanta’ and I am posting this below. I am currently in the process of editing the proof copy of the book and it will be published by Indica Books in Varanasi, hopefully in 2022. Details will, of course, be provided as soon as it is available. It will be printed in hardback and paperback but unfortunately not in electronic format.


It was mentioned in 2.g that desire stems from the belief that we are lacking something in our life, and that acquiring the desired object (gross or subtle) will somehow make us complete. The fact that this appears actually to happen albeit only for a short time, if we get the object, reinforces this belief. When Self-ignorance is removed, it is realized that we actually are the complete, infinite Brahman. Accordingly, it is reasonable, natural and, indeed, inevitable that desires are effectively dissolved instantly. There is nothing other than me that I lack and could want. (The proviso here is that some desires may seem not to have disappeared because the associated action was habitual. This is discussed at length in 3.s – pratibandha-s.)

As Sureshvara puts it in his Naiṣkarmya Siddhi (1.73):

“And tell me what possible cause could there be for action on the part of one who is established in the Absolute and has become everything, both individually and collectively, not seeing anything as other than himself.” (Ref. 7)

It has to be this way round because it is the understanding that we are complete that renders inoperative any thought that obtaining X will make us complete. If we genuinely believe that we are lacking an essential ingredient X then it is going to be very difficult, if not impossible, to drop that idea. This is why those who believe that it works this way try to instill the idea that it is the very dropping of desires that enables enlightenment. They may even claim that its extreme difficulty explains why so few are enlightened! It is presumably reasoned that the desire to drop desires will then trump any other desire. This would seem very optimistic, to say the least! Make this suggestion to an alcoholic and he will laugh you out of the room!

There is also the implication that, if we have desires for material or subtle objects in the world, then we cannot be a true mumukṣu. How can we want mokṣa with the required intensity whilst still wanting all these other things? Clearly, we have to drop the other desires so that we have the mumukṣutva that is required for sādhana catuṣṭaya sampatti? And there is some merit in this attitude. But even here one does not actually need to drop the other desires (even if we could). As mumukṣutva becomes the overriding desire, the mundane ones naturally fall away.

The need for preparing the mind via sādhana catuṣṭaya sampatti has already been mentioned a number of times. There is no question but that it is necessary to attain a degree of detachment (vairāgya) and control of mind and senses if one is to be able to pay attention to the teaching and absorb its content. (And one has to have mumukṣutva or there will be no incentive to pursue Advaita.) Knowledge gained from scriptures and guru will remain, at best, at the level of the mundane (jñāna) for the mind that has not been suitably prepared. But, for the seeker who is qualified, the knowledge will be transformative (vijñāna). (See 2.s.vii for more on this difference.) In his bhāṣya on Taittirīya Upaniṣad 1.11, Shankara explains at length how it is that action is not involved in the acquisition of Self-knowledge. But he is careful to explain at the outset that action is necessary in order to obtain sādhana catuṣṭaya sampatti. 

But some go further than this and suggest that both Shankara and Sureshvara speak about the importance of utter detachment and desireless combined with knowledge being required for liberation. It may even be suggested that one must become a saṃnyāsin after gaining Self-knowledge (see Section 2.c for this). They refer to various scriptural quotations and commentaries in support of these ideas. On the face of it, someone who has effectively ‘dropped out’ of society and who has no responsibilities to anyone or anything ought to be much more able to devote his thoughts and efforts to the teaching. This is not, however, a foregone conclusion. Even a mendicant may have diverting desires! In fact, a mendicant may spend most of his time worrying about where his next meal, clothing and shelter are going to be coming from!

But the idea that one has to ‘do’ anything in addition to gaining Self-knowledge is samuccaya vāda and Shankara explicitly contradicts this. He insists that it is knowledge alone that gives enlightenment and that one does not have to do anything else. He deals with samuccaya vāda at length in the Taittirīya Upaniṣad and Sureshvara does the same in Naiṣkarmya Siddhi.

Furthermore, if it is claimed that one has to ‘give up’ desire in order to gain mokṣa, one has to ask: is ‘giving up’ not itself an action?  Wikipedia tells us that “An action is an event that an agent performs for a purpose, that is guided by the person’s intention.” Since a seeker would be giving up desires in order to make Self-knowledge efficacious, it would clearly be an action according to this definition. With this understanding it follows that, according to Shankara, it is not necessary to give up desires. See 5.a below for a discussion of the various types of samuccaya.

As an example of the possibly misleading śruti statements, Kaṭha Upaniṣad 2.3.14 says that: “When all desires clinging to one’s heart fall off, then a mortal becomes immortal, (and he) attains Brahman here.” (Ref. 70)

This verse can actually be construed as talking about jīvanmukti – gaining jñāna phalam now as opposed to when one dies (which is the belief of the Viśiṣṭādvaitin). Shankara, in his bhāṣya, does not say that one gains knowledge and then one has to drop the desires in order to obtain mokṣa. He says that, when one gains knowledge, the desires automatically drop:

“At the time of gaining the knowledge of Brahman, all the desires are completely dropped because there is no second (real) thing which is to be desired, as I alone am the real thing in which everything else which is mithyā is resting). Those desires which were existing as a burden in the form of saṃskāra-s in the mind of a wise person before gaining this knowledge are now falsified. Those desires existed only in the mind and not in the ātmā.” (Ref. 249)

It should also be noted that Shankara does not use the word jīvanmukti in the way that it is now understood (See 2.o.iii). For him, the phalam of jñāna is mokṣa itself, not the vyāvahārika things such as loss of fear and worry etc., which are of no further interest since they are now known to be mithyā.

Some of the other quotations that might be thought to support the idea that one must lose desire are in fact saying that, after gaining Self-knowledge, there remain no desires to stimulate action since the jñānī now knows that there is only Brahman so there is nothing that he/she lacks. E.g. “No impulsion to activity is possible in the case of those whose desires have been fulfilled, they being then established in their own Self as a result of the absence of desire.” (Taittirīya Upaniṣad Bhāṣya, Introduction – Ref. 70) But later in this same introduction, Shankara explicitly states that “emancipation is not a creation of karma”. This makes it clear that it is the Self-knowledge that is responsible and not the absence of desires.

Shankara confirms this in his Upadeśa Sāhasrī (18.231):

“For a man does not engage in action for the sake of obtaining that to which he has become indifferent.  Having become indifferent to the three worlds, for the sake of what could the one desirous of liberation strive?” (Ref. 11)

Lest one should try to argue that Shankara is not referring to someone who has already attained Self-knowledge here, Dr. N. C. Panda points out that “Even one seeking liberation is free from desires and efforts; how much more free is one who has obtained it?” (Ref. 59)

It has to be conceded that Sureshvara, in his vārttika on the Yājñavalkya Maitreyī Dialogue (from the Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad) verse 21 does appear to state that renunciation is necessary:

An ascetic, who has not given up desire, may not attain liberation even if he is a knower of Brahman.  Therefore the combination (of the knowledge of the Brahman) with renunciation is mentioned here (as a means of attaining liberation).” (Ref. 228)

This is an indication of the need for vidvat saṃnyāsa, as described in 3.t. But Shankara actually states in his introduction to Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad 3.4:

“Therefore the knowledge of Brahman leads to the highest goal for man not with, but without the help of any auxiliary means, for otherwise there would be contradictions all round.” (Ref. 8)

It has to be concluded that Sureshvara took what his teacher had considered to be merely desirable, and in keeping with the attitudes of the society of his time, and made it into a requirement. It should also be remembered, as pointed out in 2.b.i, that Sureshvara’s teaching became a separate school after Shankara’s death – the Vārttika school, along with Bhāmatī and Vivaraṇa. This would appear to be one of the ways in which his teaching diverged from Shankara’s.

The importance of getting rid of desires should not be underestimated. Vivekacūḍāmaṇi 375 says that:

“O wise one, know that detachment and metaphysical understanding are the two wings of the soul whereby it soars upwards like a bird. It cannot alight on the pinnacle of liberation by the use of only one wing without the other.” (Ref. 64)

But it is in the context of vairagya, as part of sādhana catuṣṭaya sampatti that it is really relevant. Without it, you simply will not have a sufficiently stilled and controlled mind to be able to assimilate the teaching. But, providing you have, and once you have gained Self-knowledge, that is mokṣa. You do not need to drop any remaining desires as their power has now gone (although do not forget the pratibandha proviso).

3 thoughts on “Desire and Enlightenment

  1. For the purpose of the topic of the post, I divide desire into two categories: before and on/after enlightenment. SadhnA chatustyAy takes care of the first category by way of inculcating vairAgya. During this phase, desire is real (not mithya) and a seeker works on it accordingly. What happens to the desire on and after enlightenment? Does it disappear? Though the answer is ‘no’, there is a crucial difference. The desire is now mithyA. BhAgvad Gita says that a jnAni performs action for loksangrah (welfare of the society) knowing very well that the desire and consequent action are mithya. A related question is whether a jnAni has any adhArmic desire (pratibandha) due to prArabdha? I think that the answer should be that even if if such a desire arises, a jnAni will not follow it up with any action.

  2. The question whether a reputed jnani can behave badly was answered to the young UG Krishnamurti’s satisfaction when he caught his Yoga Master, Swami Sivananda, devouring some hot pickles behind closed doors. He concluded that the revered swami was a hypocrite and a fraud, a slave to uncontrollable urges, so he gave up his yoga practice and hit the road to get as far away as possible from the unholy presence of those miserable pickles.

  3. In verse 38 of Naishkarma Siddhi, SureshvaryAchArya deals with the possibility of adverse emotions arising in a jnAni and whether any action ( meditation) is needed to gain further knowledge to overcome the adverse emotions. Extracted below is a portion from the post: Karma, jnAna and moksha ( part3) in this regard.
    “Samuchchay (continued from Part 2)
    8.31 Knowledge is to be followed by action
    Advocate (K3) of this view holds that Self- knowledge arises in two stages, namely, knowledge through sravan followed by the knowledge through meditation. The sravan stage knowledge falls short of realization that is converted by meditation into realization and liberation. K3 also argues that even if knowledge arises at the stage of sravan, the common experience is that it gets weakened gradually with the rise of adverse emotions and ignorance takes over. Therefore, it is argued that knowledge acquired by sravan is not sufficient to destroy ignorance for good. It needs further support by way of karmas, such as meditation.
    8.32 Refutation
    The Acharya does not agree. He says that proper sravan is sufficient to give liberation. No new knowledge is acquired by meditation. Mediation, etc, is needed for sAdhanA chatushtAya sampathi so that a seeker becomes an adhikAri for Vedanta teaching. Sravana is the primary sAdhanA for Self-knowledge and liberation. All other sAdhanAs are subsidiaries. The AchArya is firm that once ignorance is gone, in no way it will come back otherwise it will be in violation of the maxim, namely, ignorance is beginningless. Then the question is why does one entertain adverse notions of duality, suffering after gaining knowledge? The explanation is that ignorance is not responsible for the emergence of erroneous notions. The vAsanAs are responsible. JnAna destroys avidyA, not the avidyA vAsanas. The next question is whether any karmas are required to cure adverse vAsanAs. No, says the Acharya. NidhidhyAsana, i.e., Vedantic meditation (not yogic meditation) is sufficient to firm up jnAna vAsnAs so that whenever adverse vAsanAs arise, jnAna vAsanAs should get automatically triggered for a good seeker and neutralize the opposite emotions. He need not deliberately invoke jnAna vAsanA. It is to be noted that nidhidhyAana does not give any new knowledge. Knowledge is full and complete at the sravan stage.”

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