yaḥ śāstravidhim utsṛjya vartate kāmakārataḥ
na sa siddhim avāpnoti na sukhaṁ na parāṁ gatim
One who acts under the influence of desires, disobeying scriptural injunctions, neither attains perfection nor happiness, nor the Supreme Abode (16.23 Trans. Prasad).
The sixteenth chapter of the Bhagavad Gita cuts like a blade for the ego forged in the fires of late industrial capitalism. After all, we have been schooled in the delusion that “greed is good,” the mantra of the Reagan-Thatcher era, and in the belief that our desires are somehow sacrosanct. Believe and achieve, Think and Grow Rich, and so many other destructive clichés come to us from childhood, so we do not question the prevailing assumption that the point in life is to actualize our desires. Oftentimes, the goal of Self-realization can become confused with the mere actualization of desire. This is due to the commercialization of yoga and Indian philosophy more generally: the timeless traditions of dharmic belief have become little more than wallpaper for various sales techniques.
We can scarcely conceive what it might be like to act without the influence of desires, so alienated are we from the sublime philosophy that Shri Krishna propounds. The purpose of work is to get paid. The purpose of love is pleasure. The purpose of art is commerce. This line of thinking eliminates any intrinsic reward in the everyday aspects of life. We can never do anything for its own sake: we must always be looking to gain something else when we pursue an interest, a relationship, a hobby. The reward, too, must be calculated in advance: for this reason, we struggle to achieve anything of enduring significance. Our time cycles have become very short as we become more and more accustomed to instant gratification.
It is easy to criticize social media or global capitalism or another bogeyman for this desire-oriented outlook on life. It is much harder to understand the dynamic and move beyond it. It will do little good to sermonize on the evils of capitalism and globalization if we cannot tame the beast of desire in our own hearts. First, think about how miserable it can be to live our lives always one step behind the eight ball, so to speak. The mentality of desire gratification lives in the mode of future-directedness: I am always looking for the next fix, the next acquisition, the next score. I must get to the next level in the game. I must get a burger and fries. I must reach x number of followers on social media. This treadmill effect never ends, and the first step is to just notice that it will not wind down of its own accord.
Think about eating a bag of potato chips (crisps). This food has little nutritional value, and it does not fill your stomach in a normal way. So you eat a few chips, they taste salty and delicious, and it is hard to stop eating them. If you just listen to sense gratification, you will not stop until the bag is gone. But if you can start talking to yourself, you can begin to release the desire to eat the whole bag. You might say, “you’re not going to feel any better after five more chips, so you might as well stop now.” Or you might think about how sluggish you will feel afterward or the healthy dinner that you will have later. The desiring impulse can be overcome: it just takes a lot of work and persistence.
Consumer culture has a lot of junk food, a lot of junk thought, a lot of junk news, and a lot of junk entertainment. This crap content works by just catching our attention for a few seconds or minutes at a time. This would not be a problem if we were not barraged by crap content twenty four hours a day, seven days a week. The trouble is that our lives are made out of time, and we can easily squander time by succumbing to the quick fix. And the quick fix always wears off. The more we cave to the desire for the quick fix, the less satisfying it is. The diminishing returns kick in pretty quickly: the next potato chip will not be as good as the last.
So rather than being motivated by desire, we might think more about our duties. This is really the point behind the whole Bhagavad Gita, that we must act in accordance with duty without regard for the fruit of our actions. Only the Western notion of duty has been warped by the notion of the atomic individual, the idea that my primary duties are to myself and my rational self-interest. Rajiv Malhotra helpfully distinguishes between synthetic unity (the prevailing view in the West), in which the individual is primary and the social dimension must be fabricated from there, and integral unity (the prevailing view in the East), in which the subject-object dichotomy is thought to be illusory and union is the norm. This is a quick summary: those unfamiliar with Malhotra’s work should take a look at Being Different.
The typical westernized person acknowledges duties to self, to family, and to a circle of friends. Perhaps a church or some charitable organization might also be included. But the dharmic tradition teaches that we have five duties, the pancha rina, which break down as follows:
- deva-rina: debt to God [or gods]
- rishi-rina: debt to the sages [or gurus]
- pitri-rina: debt to the ancestors
- nri-rina: debt to [human]kind
- bhūta-rina: debt to the [non-]human beings
(adapted from Swami Bhaskarananda, Essentials of Hinduism, p.102)
If we take this more expansive view of duty, the shortcomings of the typical westernized view will be thrown into relief. The usual way of thinking about duty relieves the individual from having to think about the rest of human society and the non-human and natural world. The gods, gurus, and ancestors usually don’t even make it into the picture.
If we think in terms of the pancha rina, it will be easier to achieve the desire-less state, for we will be thinking of the good of all beings rather than only thinking of ourselves and our immediate associates. And if we acknowledge God, gods, gurus, and ancestors, we provide a way to carry on the living tradition by setting a good example for the coming generations. The paradox of paying attention to tradition is that it actually safeguards the future better than points of view that focus only on the present. By honoring the past, we make way for the future. And this is why the sixteenth chapter focuses so much on the importance of following scriptural injunctions. If we just make things up as we go along, we will be extremely vulnerable to whatever fad happens to come along at a given moment.
Ultimately we have to eliminate desire in order to achieve liberation, and that can be a very daunting goal. But if we place ourselves within the larger context of dharmic tradition and dharmic society, we realize that we don’t have to go it alone. We have many others who have gone before us, who have walked in the right way and teach us how to do the same thing. We just have to follow their example, which leads us to have compassion for all beings, to reverence the illumined ones, and to live a life of true service to others.