Q: I read your article “Rainproofing Our Mind” about desire and spiritual liberation. It raises this question: How can someone live without desire in the world today?
“Desire” is the usual translation of the Sanskrit word kama, which means desire, passion, or lust. Desire arises from the ego and is always “I want” with little regard for the principles of spiritual life or the ultimate consequences of fulfilling such desire.
That is why the Gita says: “Renounce all your desires, for ever. They spring from willfulness” (Bhagavad Gita 6:24). And: “He knows peace who has forgotten desire. He lives without craving: free from ego, free from pride” (Bhagavad Gita 2:71).
On the other hand, the wise person is to live by sankalpa–resolve and act of will and intention based on enlightened intelligence (buddhi). This is a manifestation of icchcha shakti, the power of will (ichcha).
For example, someone can desire to become wealthy so they can have whatever they want and impress others and perhaps even have power over them. This is kama, and evil egoism. Someone else may decide to do their best to become wealthy so they can repay personal debts and help others. I know of an entire family in India that is of this second type. The family members have united in forming the largest charitable trust in India. The individual members engage in many personal charities.
One whom I met, Sri Jagannath Roy, always traveled third class on the train, had only two changes of simple cotton clothes, and lived extremely frugally. When a friend of mine asked him: “Mr. Roy, why don’t you spend any of your money on yourself and your comforts?” he replied: “Then how would I be able to give that money to help others?”
“Getting ahead” in the usual sense is not a worthy intention, but success in doing good and benefitting others and enabling one to follow dharma more easily and effectively is laudable.
Desirelessness is attained only by the yogi. Therefore the Gita says: “When a man can act without desire, through practice of yoga;…when his heart is poised in the being of the Atman no bonds can bind him” (Bhagavad Gita 4:41). And: “He puts aside desire, offering the act to Brahman. The lotus leaf rests unwetted on water: he rests on action, untouched by action” (Bhagavad Gita 5:10). And most importantly: “The abstinent run away from what they desire but carry their desires with them: when a man enters Reality, he leaves his desires behind him” (Bhagavad Gita 2:59).
This is why we must heed the exhortation of Krishna to Arjuna: “Therefore, Arjuna, become a yogi” (Bhagavad Gita 6:46).