I think that one of the saddest things I have seen in life is a little child who has done something wrong or silly being confronted by a parent. The dialogue is always this:
“Why did you do that?”
“I don’t know.”
It is sad when the child says “I don’t know” in hope that the parental anger will be deflected or defused. But it is much sadder when the child is speaking the truth–he really has no idea why he did what he did. There was an impulse, and he followed it. And now look at the consequence.
We pride ourselves on being adults, but no matter how much we have learned about the world and life, what do we really know about ourselves? What, especially, do we know about the “why” of our actions? When something happens to us we glibly say it is karma, but why do we do the things that create our karma? Speaking for us, Arjuna puts the question to Krishna, the embodiment of Infinite Consciousness:
Arjuna said: Then by what is a man impelled to commit evil, against his own will, as if urged by some force? (3:36).
The word translated “evil” is papa, which means any kind of negative action, one which accrues negative karma or demerit. A secondary meaning is misfortune or harm–the results of papa, just as karma is both action and reaction.
Arjuna was a great yogi. According to the Mahabharata he lived without needing to sleep–a condition far more psychological than physiological–and could easily pass at will from this world into any higher world he might wish to visit. The bonds of body and mind rested very lightly upon him. But in the Gita he is questioning Krishna on behalf of all humanity, so he sometimes asks things to which he already knows the answer. (And we must not forget that Vyasa wrote the Bhagavad Gita as a universal instructor for humanity and adjusted it accordingly. I hope nobody thinks that Arjuna and Krishna spoke to each other on the battlefield in blank verse.)
Arjuna’s question here assumes that action can take place without our conscious will being involved, as though there is another kind of impulse that pushes us into evil deeds. Those who are self-aware to any significant degree know that such impulses come from inside us, not from outside. “The devil made me do it” is one of the most shameless evasions of responsibility of which the human being is capable. Too bad it happens to be ingrained in Western religion, and no wonder we have a sociopathic society. All such impulses come from us alone, and are our choices, our mental habits, on some deep subconscious level. The problem is, we have many “minds” and many “wills,” as we are presently mostly a conglomeration of fragments. The phenomenon of multiple personality disorder demonstrates that. Buddha spoke of us as being a collection of skandhas–literally “heaps.”
Know the enemy
Krishna goes directly to the root of the whole matter:
The Holy Lord said: This force is desire and anger born of the rajo-guna, the great consumer and of great evil. Know this to be the enemy (3:37).
Rajas means activity, passion, or desire for an object or goal. The quality of rajas is the rajoguna, which impels us to those things. This raging fire has two major flames: kama and krodha, desire and anger. However, it is the rajoguna itself that is “the enemy.” And what an enemy! Krishna calls it mahashano, “mighty eater” or “mighty consumer,” and mahapapma, which means “great evil,” “great misfortune,” “great sin,” “great harm(er),” and “great(ly) injurious.” It must be reckoned with. But right now our attention has been drawn to desire and anger.
Although we know academically that desire includes lust, in both English and American usage it has such a strong sexual connotation that it overshadows the simple word “desire” when we encounter it in the Gita. Kama is desire in any degree or form. Fundamentally, kama is desire for any object, whether it is solely mental or produces an overt act or speech. Even simple wishes are pastel shades of kama. So simple “desire” is still the best translation. Krodha is anger in any degree, including wrath and fury. Hatred is essentially krodha.
It is necessary for us to understand that desire and anger in even the slightest degree is still a problem, an obstacle to real peace. Simple attraction (raga) and aversion (dwesha) are not passions, but they, too, must eventually be expunged from the yogi’s heart. How much more, then, must kama and krodha be seen as the dangerous forces they actually are, “the great consumer and of great evil.” They prey on us unmercifully, ravaging us on all levels of our being. That is why Socrates, later in life, spoke of the fading of lust as “freedom from a harsh and cruel master.” Of all sins, desire and anger are the most lethal.
We must be vigilant and sensitive to the presence of these two assassins of the soul. Desire and anger take many forms. They arise in us wearing an array of masks–many of them seeming righteous and even holy–but we must ruthlessly strip them away and expose their real character. Otherwise these snipers of the heart will destroy us. There can be no truce with them. They are implacable enemies, and we should be as implacably inimical to them. No quarter should be given or any prisoners taken. As Krishna will soon tell us in verse forty-one, we must “kill this evil being, which destroys ordinary knowledge and supreme knowledge.”
The “works of the devil”
It is not so hard to detect the evil of anger and hatred. Their destructive nature is readily seen. Anger and hatred, even when willfully indulged, are essentially painful to us. But desire (kama) promises us pleasure, a wheedling false friend that leads us into suffering, but which first drugs us and makes us think we are enjoying ourselves. It is a terrible trap which few escape. For anger can burn us out, but desire is an addiction augmented by its every indulgence. Krishna’s exposition will cover it thoroughly.
As fire is enveloped by smoke, as mirrors are covered by dust, as wombs cover embryos, in the same way knowledge is covered by this, the constant enemy of the wise, having the form of desire which is like insatiable fire (3:38-39).
As long as you feed it, the fire keeps burning. And it will burn anything it touches, as well. Desire cannot be fulfilled any more than a fire can be put out by adding fuel to it. It is true that if we dump a huge amount of solid fuel on a fire it may become invisible to us, but it is down there working, and will eventually blaze up even stronger. It must be extinguished fully.
Desire is a fundamental denial of our nature which is satchidananda: existence, consciousness and bliss. It makes us feel we need some pleasure or power, object or state, that such things will somehow make us more than we presently are and will make us happy. In this way desire is the prime force of the not-self. There is no way our true nature can be altered, diminished, or destroyed, but desire certainly alters, diminishes, and destroys our perception of reality, burying our Self beneath its insubstantial debris that is really nothing. It makes us like fools fishing in a pond for the moon. This is because:
The senses, mind, and intellect are said to be its abode. With these it deludes the embodied one by veiling his innate wisdom (3:40).
Desire grips us in compulsions that end in terrible suffering. It is indeed “the constant enemy of the wise,” for its enmity is without cessation or mitigation and is all-embracing.
The fire of desire is, according to this verse, inherent in the senses, mind, and intellect. And when it blazes up in them its smoke obscures and even conceals the Self. In ancient India it was considered that fire was inherent in whatever was flammable, that it was evoked by friction or external heat, but it was always there in potential form. And when fire “went out” it really just withdrew to some subtler, inner level of existence.
So when Buddha used the simile of fire for the Self of a person, he did not mean that it became “extinguished” or annihilated, but that it simply passed into another level of being, that objects and desires were the fuel that kept it trapped here for a while. Once they were gone, the fire-Self was liberated. And that was Nirvana.
Therefore, controlling the senses at the outset, kill this evil being, which destroys ordinary knowledge and supreme knowledge (3:41).
We can rid ourselves of this awful addiction, this horrible hallucination that is desire. It is not easy, but it must be done.
The first step is control of the senses. This is impossible without the observance of yama and niyama, the ten commandments of yoga:
- Ahimsa: non-violence, non-injury, harmlessness
- Satya: truthfulness, honesty
- Asteya: non-stealing, honesty, non-misappropriativeness
- Brahmacharya: sexual continence in thought, word and deed as well as control of all the senses
- Aparigraha: non-possessiveness, non-greed, non-selfishness, non-acquisitiveness
- Shaucha: purity, cleanliness
- Santosha: contentment, peacefulness
- Tapas: austerity, practical (i.e., result-producing) spiritual discipline
- Swadhyaya: introspective self-study, spiritual study
- Ishwarapranidhana: offering of one’s life to God
(For explanations of all these, see The Foundations of Yoga.)
The two absolutes for success in sense control are a vegetarian diet and meditation. But Krishna has more to tell us regarding this.
They say that the senses are superior to the body, the mind is superior to the senses, the intellect is superior to the mind. And much superior to the intellect is the supreme intelligence. Having learned this, sustaining the lower Self by the higher Self, kill this difficult-to-encounter enemy which has the form of desire. (3:42-43)
This is why meditation is necessary. Only through the practice of yoga can we ascend the ladder of senses, mind, and will to reach the Self, the only source of mastery and freedom. At the same time we have to use our good sense, so Krishna tells us that we must “kill this evil being, which destroys ordinary knowledge and supreme knowledge.” For it is really the ego who is masquerading in the form of desire so it can persuade us that it is really us who are the source of its impulses. It wants to blame us and even make us feel guilty–another delusion. Instead we must see it for what it is, cast off our non-existent weakness, and confront it with the truth of our almighty Self.
We are not to simply overpower desire, or banish it, or merely weaken it, or come to some kind of peace agreement with it. For it is “the constant enemy of the wise” and will eventually return to the attack with increased strength. It must be killed out by the very roots. And we must do it by the power revealed within us by yoga sadhana.
“Always disciplining himself thus, the yogi whose mind is subdued goes to the supreme peace of nirvana, and attains to union with me.… Therefore be a yogi” (6:15, 46).
Read the next article in the Bhagavad Gita for Awakening: Devotee and Friend