Q.486 Desires

Q: No one wants desires. When we get a desire, what we really want is for it to go away. The usual way to achieve this is by following the desire and fulfilling it. But an alternative way must be to ‘dissolve’ the desire somehow. Then it goes away without having the trouble of giving in to it and trying to satisfy it. Can advaita do this?

A: Here is what I said in ‘Advaita Made Easy’:

“Life is a never-ending cycle of desires followed by actions followed by results (usually disappointing ones because we expected too much). It is a cycle because, once we have attained the desired objective, we quickly supplant the old desire by a new one and the process begins again. We thought that we would be happy when we got whatever it was that we believed that we wanted – but it always turns out that we were mistaken.

“Why do we do it? It is because we feel that we are limited in some way and that the desired object will make us complete. This applies to all desires, from the most basic to the most sophisticated. But there is only one desire which, once achieved, will bring us the fulfillment that we seek and that is to realize our true nature. This is because that realization will bring with it the discovery that we are in fact unlimited. We are already complete.”

19 thoughts on “Q.486 Desires

  1. A further thought. It is clear that Advaita addresses liberation from desires prompted by ignorance of the self, owing to the erroneous assumption that the self is incomplete and thereby inadequate. When the nature of the self is understood one is liberated and those desires are no longer pursued.

    However, there seems to be no reason for us to conclude that avidya is equated with desire or that the liberated person is not free to desire or act in ways that express a new understanding of the self. For one thing, the elimination or curtailing of selfish desires may provide an impetus to work for the well-being of others, as Krishna emphasizes in the third chapter of the Gita (22-25). Shankara paraphrases Krishna’s meaning in 3:25 as follows: “For me, or for any other person who, knowing the Self, thus seeks the welfare of the world, there is nothing to do except it be with a view to that welfare of the world at large.”

  2. Definitely! Although I don’t think the word ‘desire’ is entirely appropriate. Perhaps ‘compassion’ would be better? Since it is the case that the j~nAnI still has to work out remaining prArabdha and continue to live in the world, it seems natural that any actions should be ‘for the welfare of the world’ (loka saMgraha).

  3. I can understand your preference for ‘compassion’ over ‘desire’, as the latter is fraught with negative associations.

    The Upanishads tell us that even Brahman has desires which, perhaps fortunately for Brahman, is okay with Shankara because ‘They are by nature truth and knowledge and they are pure by virtue of their identity with Brahman.’ In other words, the desires of Brahman proceed out of the fullness of knowledge and not out of a sense of lack born of ignorance. From this it’s clear that desire is not contradictory to the nature of Brahman, as is often assumed. And he who knows Brahman becomes Brahman.

    In the Gita (7.11) Krishna identifies himself with desire that is not contrary to dharma.

    Nisargadatta somewhere speaks of ‘desire born of compassion’ which I rather like.

  4. I can’t accept the idea of Brahman ‘having desires’ I’m afraid. (Do you have a reference for this, please?) When it is not possible to make ANY attributions to Brahman, the notion of ‘desire’ is just anthropomorphism. Of course, rationalization of this sort could well be a means of ‘explaining’ the behavior of the seemingly altruistic.

    Also, the idea of ‘becoming Brahman’ is a confusion for many. Everyone is already Brahman, whether or not they realize this. I know that you know this but it is the use of such phrases by those who know that is likely to confuse seekers. I’m all in favor of being pedantic!

  5. “I can’t accept the idea of Brahman ‘having desires’ I’m afraid. (Do you have a reference for this, please? ”

    Please see Taittiriya (2.6.1) with Shankara’s comment as noted above and Chandogya (6.2.3); these two mention, in addition to Brahman’s desire to become many (bahu syam), the desire to be born (prajayeyeti), which may also be translated as a desire for offspring. Prasna (1.4) is more explicit and refers to the lord of beings as having a desire for progeny. This wish for offspring may be construed as desire on the part of Brahman to share and celebrate its plenitude through self-multiplication. Since Brahman is partless and indivisible, such self-multiplication means the creation of countless forms and Brahman becoming the self of each one.

    I believe that anyone who is confused by the phrase ‘he who knows Brahman becomes Brahman’ and has a real desire (mumukshutvam) to know what it means, will make the necessary effort to inquire in order to understand the meaning to the best of his ability despite my inadvertent obfuscation.

  6. I’ll have to get back to you on this, Rick. Coincidentally (and this has happened on quite a few occasions now!), I am just up to Taittiriya 2.6.1 in my reading of this work. Are you able to quote the first few words of Shankara (Sanskrit) to which you are referring so that I can give extra attention to this part?

  7. Hi again, Rick. Apologies for delay – I am still reading Tait. bhAShya 2.6. It is long but very interesting, talking about the reality of Brahman etc.

    As regards your comment, though, about Brahman ‘having desires’ etc., this is not talking about (nirguNa) Brahman but about (saguNa) Ishvara. This is a problem throughout the Brahmasutra bhAShya, that Shankara switches between the two without making it clear – he just assumes that the reader will know which aspect he is discussing. In fact, of course, it can be a source of confusion!

    And all teaching about creation, karma, jIva-s and so on is only interim, to be rescinded in the final analysis as we approach the asymptote of ajAti vAda.

  8. To your point Dennis, Shankara is in fact quite fluid in his terminology marking a distinction between nirguna and saguna Brahman, and a radical distinction finds little support in his writings. As Paul Hacker and Michael Comans have shown, Shankara uses the terms Ishvara, Parameshvara, Paramatman, and Para Brahman to refer to the absolute Brahman. A sharp distinction is more characteristic of post-Shankara Advaita. The description of Brahman as saguna and nirguna suggests to me a bifurcation in the nature of Brahman that is inconsistent with its non-dual nature. If the nature of Brahman does not admit distinctions of any kind, what warrant is there for the distinction?

    The Upanishads freely use language that suggests action on the part of Brahman without seeing the need for a hierarchical distinction. Brahman is described as desiring, deliberating, creating, and entering into all that is created. The Upanishads describe the activity of Brahman in a series of paradoxes – it moves, does not move; standing, it outruns those who run; sitting down it roams afar; it is far away yet near; is undivided yet divided; is within the world and outside. We can’t say that it moves without adding that it does not move; we can’t say that it is unmoving without adding that it is swifter than the mind. The activity of Brahman is represented as nonpareil, without ontological change or loss of nature. Such an understanding would seem to obviate the perceived need to posit the problematical hierarchical distinction between saguna and nirguna Brahman.

  9. Thanks, Rick – that is very well put. Of course I do not disagree with anything you say and, for one who understands all this there is no problem.

    But there IS a problem for someone who has not yet gained such a level of understanding. How can such a one reconcile the supposed fact of reailty being non-dual when encountering such passages in the shruti? Worse still when it is found that Shankara himself when ‘explaining’ such passages continues to use such apparently contradictory ideas?

    There is very frequently an issue with seekers which involves ‘mixing of levels’, and the notions of paramArtha versus vyavhAra and of mithyA were obviously devised to provide interim explanations to enable them to continue to move forward. There is always going to be this danger when we continue to perceive apparent duality no matter what our level of understanding.

    This is why I try always to point out such things, since the site is intended to cater for all levels of understanding. So your above explanation is very useful for enabling the clarification of this.

  10. Rick Riekert made a very good point and I have been waiting eagerly to see a detailed response from Dennis.

    Dennis may recall that on this very point we both (Dennis and myself) exchanged several mails almost a year ago, myself quoting several Upanishad mantras. The subject line of our e-mail exchanges was “Brahman and Action.” Our correspondence took a break when Dennis said that he was going to take it up as a part of his book and would post the relevant parts as a blog post. I realized that it is the concept of Kashmir Shaivism that speaks about brahman expanding to be the world through Its power of vimarshA shakti.

    As Rick indicated, Shankara himself did not care much to dwell on explaining the hierarchical process of creation. Nor did he waste time in his commentaries to be pedantic about the words ‘avidyA and mAyA,’ except using the two words as he felt appropriate to the context to explain the reason for the perceived world.

    Whenever the Upanishads referred to a creation, it was always as an “adhyAropa,” the superimposition being done by one who is in avidyA. His commentary at 13.2, BG is very instructive on this.

    Further, Shankara was very categorical at 2.1.33, sUtra bhAShya. He says at the end:
    न चेयं परमार्थविषया सृष्टिश्रुतिः ; अविद्याकल्पितनामरूपव्यवहारगोचरत्वात् ,
    ब्रह्मात्मभावप्रतिपादनपरत्वाच्च — इत्येतदपि नैव विस्मर्तव्यम् ॥ ३३ ॥
    [[F]or it must not be forgotten that such a text is valid within the range of activities concerned with name and form called up by ignorance [avidyA], and it is meant for propounding the fact that everything has brahman as its Self. (Translation by Swami Gambhirananda).]

    We should also see Gaudapada kArikA 3.15 and Shankara’s commentary there on.

    मृल्लोहविस्फुलिङ्गाद्यैः सृष्टिर्या चोदितान्यथा ।
    उपायः सोऽवताराय नास्ति भेदः कथञ्चन ॥ — verse 15, Ch 3, G. kArikA
    [Meaning: (The scriptural statements regarding) creation as illustrated by the examples of earth, iron, sparks etc., or otherwise, serve the purpose of (ultimately) explaining the unity of (jIva and brahman). (Really speaking) multiplicity does not exist in any manner. Translation by Swami Nikhilananda.]

    Shankara observes:

    तस्मादुत्पत्त्यादिश्रुतय आत्मैकत्वबुद्ध्यवतारायैव, नान्यार्थाः कल्पयितुं युक्ताः । अतो नास्त्युत्पत्त्यादिकृतो भेदः कथञ्चन ॥
    [Therefore, we have reasonably to conclude that the scriptural statements regarding creation, etc., are for the purpose of helping the mind to realize the oneness of Atman, and for no other purpose whatsoever. Therefore, no multiplicity is brought about by creation, etc. (Translation by Swami Nikhilananda.)]

    In brihadAraNyaka Upanishad bhAShya at 2.1.20, we have Shankara commenting:

    तस्मात् एकरूपैकत्वप्रत्ययदार्ढ्यायैव सर्ववेदान्तेषु उत्पत्तिस्थितिलयादिकल्पना, न तत्प्रत्ययकरणाय ॥
    [Therefore the mention in all Vedanta texts of the origin, continuity and dissolution of the universe is only to strengthen our idea of Brahman being a homogeneous unity, and not to make us believe in the origin etc. as an actuality. Translation (Swami Madahavananda)]

    Sage Vasishta even goes to the extent of saying that it would be so futile to look for a reason or rhyme for creations as it would be if we look for a cause for dreams.

    So, the above goes to establish the contention that brahman does not really act or do things. It is only a phantasmagoria of the human mind to think It does.

    We can even deduce whether brahman has any elbow room to move from the fact that space is said to be brahman-like except for its insentience. Have we seen “space” moving anywhere or anytime? Does it have any wriggle room to move where it already does not exist?


  11. Hi Ramesam,

    Thanks for that! I’m afraid you will probably not be getting any comment more detailed than the one I just made to Rick. I acknowledge the points and do not really disagree. I also acknowledge that I probably promised a detailed response a year ago. Since then, however, we got bogged down in pratibandha-s etc. I have also spent the last couple of months writing an equally long analysis of saMnyAsa. The ‘Confusions’ book currently stands at around 120,000 words so that topics such as ‘creation’ and ‘ignorance’ are now postponed until volume 2 (which will be the task for next year)!

    There is just a slight chance I may add something when I finish Shankara’s bhAShya on Tait. 2.6. about Brahman’s anupravesha (entering into the world).

    Best wishes,

  12. ramesam writes, “Whenever the Upanishads referred to a creation, it was always as an “adhyAropa,” the superimposition being done by one who is in avidyA. [Shankara’s] commentary at 13.2, BG is very instructive on this.”

    I think it’s important to clarify that the Upanishads do not present the world as a projection of human ignorance. It is a deliberate creation of Brahman, an outpouring of fullness (srishti), much as in the Veda kavya is an outflow of kavi’s creativity and wisdom. The world of plurality that we experience is not a consequence of our ignorance, but is the result of the world being willed into being by Brahman. Ignorance causes us to misunderstand the nature of the world, but does not bring it into being. In other words, avidya does not create the universe, but is responsible for a certain interpretation of its nature.

    For Shankara, the world has its source and origin in Brahman alone and has a reality independent of human thought. Yet Shankara often speaks of the world as a product of ignorance (avidyakrta/avidyakalpita), and in ways that fail to maintain the distinction between ignorance as misunderstanding of reality and ignorance as cause of the world. This leads him to denigrate the world as a thing to be shunned (see his remarks in the Brihadaranyaka Bhashya, 1.6.1).

  13. On the other hand Rick, there can be no ‘projection of human ignorance’ because the human entity is itself the ignorance. And Brahman cannot ‘will’ anything, as it is non dual and therefore desireless.

    Mandukya Upanishad:

    1.6 This one [Prajna] is the Lord of all; this one is Omniscient; this one is the inner Director of all; this one is the Source of all; this one is verily the place of origin and dissolution of all beings.

    And then Guadapada’s Karika, before even considering his ajata vada (non-creation):

    7. Others steeped in cogitation about creation consider origination as an exuberance (of God), while by others it is imagined that creation is comparable to dream or magic.

    8. With regard to creation some have the firm conviction that creation is a mere will of the Lord. People engrossed in the thought of time (to wit, astrologers) consider that birth of beings is from time.

    9. Some others say that creation is for the enjoyment (of God), while still others say that it is for (His) disport. But it is the very nature of the Effulgent Being, (for) what desire can One have whose desire is ever fulfilled?

    Sankara in his commentary writes:
    Therefore the noble people, aspiring to liberation, evince interest in the contemplation of that Turlya alone, but not so in that of creation that serves no purpose. Hence these theories are advanced only by those who cogitate about creation.

  14. Thank you, Venkat, for the GK references.

    @ Rick Riekert:

    Hi Rick, You say that “[The world] is a deliberate creation of Brahman, an outpouring of fullness (srishti), …”

    I wish you could give an exact Upanishadic reference / quote so that I could dig into it further. In the absence of that, I feel for now that the concept of the world being a “deliberate creation by brahman,” is more in tune with the KS people.

    The reference to 1.6.1, brihat deals with the world being the combine of thought-object-function (name-form-kriya). And Shankara talks there about “brahman” i.e. AtmA, being the core of all things in the world and not as a creation of brahman, to my understanding. IOW, if we notice the “particular,” we are in duality; if we notice and be as the “Universal,” It is brahman.

    Please see Shankara’s commentary at tine end of 5.13 BG : “The power of acting or of causing to act is not inherent in the Self; for, the Lord has taught that the Self is unchangeable (2. 25, and “though seated in the body, he acts not, nor is he tainted ”- (13. 31 ). The shruti (Bri. Up. 4.3·7) says: ‘It thinks as it were and moves as it were’.”

    Moreover, Shankara observes in his Intro to 2.4.1, aitareya:

    न हि सृष्ट्याख्यायिकादिपरिज्ञानात्किञ्चित्फलमिष्यते ।
    [It is well-known that there is no good to be attained by the narrative of the creation, (as it is false);

    ऐकात्म्यस्वरूपपरिज्ञानात्तु अमृतत्वं फलं सर्वोपनिषत्प्रसिद्धम् ।
    [It is well established in all the Upanishads, that the end attained by the conception of the unity of the real Self is immortality.]

    We should remember that if “creation” were to be real, there would be no way of mokSha (being free) from it!


  15. ‘Hi Rick, You say that “[The world] is a deliberate creation of Brahman, an outpouring of fullness (srishti), …”

    I wish you could give an exact Upanishadic reference / quote so that I could dig into it further. In the absence of that, I feel for now that the concept of the world being a “deliberate creation by brahman,” is more in tune with the KS people.’

    Hari Om, ramesam. I don’t know who the KS people are but offhand I can supply a few relevant Upanishad references for your exploration: Brahman’s intention to create is clearly indicated in Aitareya 1.1, Chandogya 6.2.3, and Taittiriya 2.6.1. which refers to Brahman’s desire to create (so kamayata) and the process of deliberation/contemplation (sa tapotapyata sa tapastaptva) which precedes creation.

    In his comment on Brahmasutra (1.4.15) Shankara specifically refutes any doctrine of spontaneous creation and emphasizes the role of Brahman as creator. A similar argument is put forward in his commentary on Brahmasutra (1.1.2)

  16. Rick

    Vedanta starts from the facts of our common experience – multiplicity of names and forms – and then goes about deconstructing them. Given the world that we see, one initially assumes that there must have been a creation. The passages that you are indicating are essentially providing an explanation that Brahman is both the efficient and material cause of the universe, therefore that it pervades everything, and that the universe did not emerge out of a void – or that there is Brahman and some other material out of which he made the world.

    BSB1.4.14: “We can understand that when the Upanishad speaks of the forms of manifestation etc in extenso, the intention is to declare the non-difference of the effects from the cause . . . the creation that is taught divergently with the help of clay, iron, sparks, etc, is only a means for inculcating the knowledge of Brahman; but there is no diversity whatsoever”

    So the Upanishadic discussion of creation is a means to explain the world, and to see through it to the non dual Brahman.

    But then the highest truth is expressed in MK2.32 “There is no dissolution, no birth…” If a teacher went straight to this ajata vada, then his students would inevitably be confused since we were apparently born. Hence intermediate theories of creation for the seeker ‘by Brahmam out of Brahman’ (like a spider emitting a web) . . . which Gaudapada and Sankara ultimately dismiss as irrelevant (see my earlier comment).

    Sankara’s opening commentary on MK2.32 states:
    “When duality is perceived to be illusory and Atman alone is known as the sole Reality, then it is clearly established that all our experiences verily pertain to the domain of ignorance”.

    Compare with your earlier comment:
    “The world of plurality that we experience is not a consequence of our ignorance, but is the result of the world being willed into being by Brahman.”

  17. Rick, Ramesam,

    I have to say that I can’t think of any Upanishadic references to non-creation. They all do tend to talk about Brahman creating. It seems that this is only in the articulation and gloss of Gaudapada and Sankara.

    I did find this rather striking bhasya passage though, when reading around Taittiriya Upanishad that Rick pointed to – it is later on in 2.8.5:

    Objection : Duality has existence because of its perception in the dream and waking states.

    Answer: No, for the dream and waking states are creations of ignorance. The perception of duality that occurs in the dream and waking states is the result of ignorance, because it ceases on the cessation of ignorance.

    Objection : The non-perception (of duality) in sleep is also a result of ignorance.

    Answer: No, for it is natural. The natural state of a substance is immutable, for it exists in its own right. Mutability is not its real nature, since that depends on other factors. The real condition of a substance cannot be dependent on external agencies. Any peculiarity that arises in an existing substance is a result of external agencies, and a peculiarity implies a change. The perceptions occurring in the dream and waking states are but modal expressions, for the true state of a thing is that which exists in its own right, and the unreal state is that which depends on others, inasmuch as it ceases with the cessation of others. hence, unlike what happens in the dream and waking states, no modality occurs in deep sleep, for the non-perception in the latter state is natural.
    for those, however, for whom god is different from the self, and creation, too, is distinct, there is no elimination of fear; for fear is caused by something external; and neither can an existent be annihilated, nor can a non-existent emerge into being…
    . . . From the stand-point of non-duality, the world is a superimposition through ignorance.

  18. Dear Venkat and Rick,

    Thanks for the inputs both of you have given regarding the creation and how the Upanishads and the bhAShya-s of Shankara handled the issue.

    My response, after my own search on the scriptural references specifically given by Rick, has become too long to be posted here.

    So I made my response as a separate Blog Post titled, “The Lie of the Upanishads.” Let me please know your reaction.


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