Living Gita: 50: Desire Wisely

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dhyaayato vishayaan pumsah sangas teshoopajaayate
sangaat sanjaayate kaamah kaamaat krodho'bhijaayate// 2.62 //
krodhaad bhavati sammohah sammohaat smriti vibhramah
smritibhramshaad buddhinaasho buddhinaashaat pranashyati // 2.63 //
raagadwesha-viyuktaistu vishayaan indriyaish charan
aatmavashyair vidheyaatmaa prasaadam adhigacchati // 2.64 //
prasaade sarva-duhkhaanaam haanir asyopajaayate
prasannachetaso hyaashu buddhih paryavatishthate// 2.65 //

When a man repeatedly thinks of objects of pleasure, attachment for them arises in his mind. From attachment is born desire and from desire, anger. Anger gives birth to delusion, delusion leads to loss of memory, loss of memory to loss of intelligence and when intelligence is lost, the man perishes. But the man of self-mastery moving among desirable objects with his senses under control and free from both attraction and revulsion attains peace. With peace there is an end to all sorrows. The intelligence of the man whose mind is filled with happiness soon becomes steady.


The Mahabharata tells us the story of Nahusha’s fall. He was the grandson of Pururavas and Urvashi and was a glorious emperor whose empire stretched from Egypt in the west to what is today Myanmar and neighbouring countries in the east. When Indra, the lord of the gods, had to go into hiding for a grievous sin he committed, it was Nahusha they approached to temporarily take over as the lord of the celestial world because he had the reputation of being the wisest and most competent ruler on the earth. When the gods made their request Nahusha politely refused saying he was only a mortal with limited powers and cannot rule over the all powerful gods. The gods then gave him a boon that whoever Nahusha looks at would lose half his power to Nahusha.  That way, with Nahusha’s own power plus half of the god’s power Nahhusha, would be more powerful than any god, they said.

After Nahusha took over as the ruler of the celestial world everything went well for a while. However, soon Nahusha lost his mastery over himself, which was one of his greatest assets as an emperor on earth. He became a slave to the pleasures of heaven – his life became one of constant indulgence in the foods of the gods, their drinks, their music, the apsaras, and so on. A small coterie of gods gathered around him, as around any powerful man, and encouraged him in his indulgences.

One day as he was standing in the celestial garden Nandana when he saw a woman he had never seen in heaven passing by. He asked his coterie who it was and was told it was Indrani, the queen of Indra. “If she is Indrani and if I am Indra now, why has she never come to my bed so far,” asked Nahusha, shocking even his coterie.

A terrified Indrani ran to Brihaspati, the guru of the gods, when she heard what Nahusha wanted. To cut short a story the Mahabharata tells in great detail, as advised by Brihaspati Indrani informed Nahusha she would receive him in her bed if he came in a palanquin carried by the saptarshis, the seven sacred sages. Nahusha ordered the saptarshis to carry him to Indrani and they had no choice but to do that. The palanquin was moving slowly and in his impatience to reach Indrani Nahusha from the palanquin kicked Agastya, one of the saptarshis, saying sarpa, sarpa – move, move. A furious Agastya in turn cursed Nahhusha and turned him into a snake. [The word sarpa means both move and a snake in Sanskrit.]

In the light of the two Gita shlokas under discussion, let’s now look at what happened to Nahusha. Nahusha first sees Indrani passing by the celestial garden. After Nahusha sees Indrani, he cannot get her out of his mind. Though he had already had all the apsaras in heaven in his bed, he wanted Indrani. He starts to constantly think about her, dream of her. She is not out of his mind even for one moment. This is what Krishna means when he says dhyaayato vishayaan pumsah sangah teshu upajaayate – when a man who constantly thinks of a thing, he develops attachment for it.

Now Indra loses interest in the heavenly sights, heavenly food and drinks, heavenly music, the apsaras, all. The only thing he is interested in is Indrani. That is kama. Obsessive desire.

With kama there are two options: either you get what you desire or you don’t. If you get what you desire, there is momentary satisfaction, followed by desire for either more of it or for something else.

As the Upanishads say, all satisfaction you get from objects are momentary and desire will never be appeased by the enjoyment of desired objects – na jaatu kaamah kasamaanaam upabhogena shaamyati. Your desire for something makes you restless and when you get the desired object, your mind becomes peaceful for the moment and there is a sense of happiness for the moment. But soon the mind becomes restless again. And if you do not get what you desire, there is frustration, there is anger.

This is what Krishna means when he says from desire is born anger – kaamaat krodho’bhijaayate. Frustrated desire creates anger. Anger at the people who stand in the way of the fulfillment of your desire. Like you want to buy a new car but your wife says no to the idea, saying there is no need for a new car now, you cannot afford a new car, there are other priorities – and you are angry with your wife. The child wants a new toy gun and the father says no to it and the child is angry at the father.

The saptarshies carrying Nahusha to Indrani are not moving fast enough and in his kama for her, Nahusha is frustrated and angry.

From anger is born delusion, says Krishna: krodhaat bhavati sammohah. Nahusha now has the delusion that he is greater than all the gods, he is the lord of the gods and not merely a caretaker, he has the right to kick even the rishis to whom the whole world bows down, including the gods and Indra himself.

Sammohaat smriti-vibhramah, say the twin verses – from delusion is born confusion of memory, loss of memory. Nahusha has forgotten who he is and who the saptarshis are. He has forgotten that his demand that Indrani should accept him in her bed is thoroughly immoral. He has forgotten that the saptarshis are such people whose feet even the gods touch in reverence. He has forgotten that she should not ask them to do such menial work as carrying his palanquin. He has forgotten that he is not only asking them to carry his palanquin but asking them to carry his palanquin to visit a woman for pleasure. He has forgotten he has absolutely no right to kick one of the rishis. He has completely lost his memory. His smriti-vibhrama is complete.

Smriti-bhramshad buddhi-nashah – when you lose your memory, you lose your intelligence, your power of discrimination. In his state of lost discrimination, Nahusha kicks Rishi Agastya urging him to move faster. An unthinkable, unforgivable act. In his lust for Indrani, Nahusha has stopped thinking using his intelligence. It is his lust that does his thinking for him now. And it is that lust that asks him to kick the rishi and Emperor Nahusha, grandson of Pururavas and Urvashi, lord of all the civilized world who has had the honour of being asked to become Indra for the time being because he is the greatest ruler on earth, becomes a slave to his lust and obeys it.

Buddhi-naashaat pranashyati, says the Gita: when your intelligence is lost, you are ruined. Sage Agastya is beneath his palanquin, carrying it, and Nahusha cannot see him and hence has no power over him. Agastya curses Nahhusha to become a snake on earth and the emperor falls from heaven to crawl on the earth and live on the food of a snake. To make his condition a thousand times worse than that of an ordinary snake, the snake Nahusha has his memory intact.

When a man repeatedly thinks of objects of pleasure, attachment for them arises in his mind. From attachment is born desire and from desire, anger. Anger gives birth to delusion, delusion leads to loss of memory, loss of memory to loss of intelligence and when intelligence is lost, the man perishes.


In the Ramayana we have Kaikeyi living a contented life as the wife of Dasharatha. The Ramayana describes her as a happy person, happy in the love of Dasharatha, her palace beautifully decorated, musical instruments and paintings everywhere. She is a highly competent woman, the only woman in the epic who can drive a chariot, that too in a battlefield. She is the youngest wife of the old emperor, extremely beautiful, whom in a single verse Valmiki describes as an apsara, a kinnari and as the goddess of beauty, that too when she is lying on the floor without any makeup, her hair undone. As happy people usually are, she is very generous – she loves Rama more than her own son Bharata and openly says Rama is her first son and Bharata is only her second son. When her old retainer Manthara comes and gives her the news that the next day Rama is going to be anointed as the crown prince, she becomes so happy that she takes out a precious necklace she had on her and gives it to Manthara.

But Manthara flings the necklace on the ground and starts working on her mind, telling that once Rama becomes the crown prince she would lose her position in the palace to Kausalya and Bharata and his future generations will forever lose all right to the kingdom. Manthara then starts tempting her by explaining why she should demand the kingdom for her own son Bharata. Kaikeyi starts thinking in terms of her son becoming the crown prince, visualizes the advantages of it, becomes attached to power and slowly becomes obsessed with the idea of Bharata becoming the yuvaraja. She now goes into the krodhagrioha, the anger chamber, and when Dasharatha comes to visit her there later, is so deluded by the idea of power for her son she forgets all her love for Rama and Dasharatha. She loses all her intelligence in that condition and forgetting Bharata’s love for Rama, the idea that Bharata may even refuse the kingdom if it is given to him, insists on that and with that her fall happens. The Kaikeyi we find prior to this incident is very different from the one after that. Everyone in the palace and everyone in the city of Ayodhya hates her, her own son hates and abuses her for snatching the kingdom from Rama and there is no more joy in her life. She loses her husband and her son’s love, loses all joy in life and lives the rest of her life in darkness.

It is for this reason that the wisdom of ancient India taught nyasa or anasakti, non-attachment, for all in general and for leaders of men and organizations and spiritual aspirants in particular. With anasakti the chain of vishayadhyana-sanga-kama-krodha-smritivibhrama-buddhinasha leading to ruination is broken.

Valmiki Ramayana gives us a wonderful example in the person of Rama for such detachment.
He had known from his earliest childhood that he would one day become the king of Kosala after his father’s death and all his had been a preparation for becoming an ideal ruler. However, as we all know, on the morning of his coronation as yuvaraja, all his plans are destroyed by Kaikeyi who asks him to leave the kingdom to his younger brother Bharata and go on an exile for fourteen years. Rama here shows total detachment to power and leaving the kingdom goes into exile. If he had attachment for power, he could have taken over power by force – Lakshmana suggested that, his own mother approved of it, even his father asked him to do that. But Rama shows no attachment to power – not even when later Bharata comes to Chitrakoot along with the three queens and begs him to take over the throne. After completing fourteen years of exile, Rama comes back to Ayodhya and starts ruling the kingdom as king. Thus Rama fulfills his duty to both his father and to the people of Kosala and becomes the most charismatic king known to man. This was possible because of his non-attachment, anasakti


The Greek epic Odyssey tells us the story of Odysseus and the sirens. After leaving for several years with the sorceress Circe after the Trojan war, when Odysseus takes leave of her to return to his home country Ithaca, Circe advises Odysseus about the danger of the sirens en route. The sirens live on an island in the sea and when they see ships passing by, they sing to attract the travelers. Their singing is so beautiful no man who hears it can resist it. Men jump into the sea and swim towards their island the beaches of which are piled high with the skeletons of the thousands of seafarers who have attempted this.

Being a hero, Odysseus wants he hear the song of the sirens and at the same time he does not want to meet with the same end as that of those who have attempted it earlier. So he asks the other sailors in his ship to tie him to the mast of the ship so that he cannot jump into the sea and not to release him whatever happens if they love him. At the same time, he also asks the other sailors to close their ears with bee wax so that they do not hear the song of the sirens.

As the ship approaches the island of the sirens, the waves of the song of the sirens reach Odysseus and he tries to break free. He shouts and screams at the soldiers, threatens them and curses them but they ignore it all. As the ship nears the island, Odysseus’s struggles become more violent and eventually it is only when they leave the island far behind that his struggles stop and he is released. Greek mythology tells us that Odysseus thus becomes the first man to hear the song of the sirens and yet remain alive.

India wanted those on the spiritual path and those in positions of leadership to develop mastery of the senses at a still higher level than that of Odysseus. In fact, the only reason why Odysseus did not jump into the sea was that he couldn’t since he was tied to the mast. India wanted both spiritual aspirants and leaders to be totally free and yet resist the greatest temptations. And that is what Krishna means when he speaks of mastery over the senses.

Failure to be masters of the senses leads to disaster, as Krishna says. The Mahabharata tells us several stories of kings failing in mastering the senses. The story of Bhishma’s father Emperor Shyantanu is one of them. In his old age as he was on a hunting trip in the forests on the banks of the Yamuna an irresistible fragrance assails his nostrils. Searching for its source, he comes across a beautiful young girl, the fisher maid Satyavati. it is his failure to be a master of his senses that leads to Bhishma renouncing the kingdom and taking the vow of remaining a bachelor all his life, which in one way could be said to the reason why the Mahabharata war happened. Similarly Shantanu’s son Vichitravirya too fails in mastering his senses and eventually falls a victim to overindulgence in sex with his two wives.

As we saw earlier, Krishna never says no the pleasures we get through the senses. What he teaches us is self mastery, not self-denial. He is asking us not to be slaves to the senses. He wants us to be balanced in our sleep and waking, in our activities and rest, in our pleasures, in the food we eat, in everything we do in life. This is an important lesson not only for spiritual aspirants and leaders and managers, but for all.

Following Indian culture, Krishna classifies food into three types: sattvic, rajasic and tamasic.   Food that is stale, food that has lost its taste, is putrid and rotten is considered tamasic food and these have the effect of increasing our tamas. They increase our lethargy, laziness and negativity, reduce our creativity, imagination and intelligence, and help our asuri qualities grow. Food that is bitter, sour, too hot in taste, pungent and so on are rajasic. They increase our rajasic qualities like restlessness, aggression, desire to dominate over others, impulsiveness, recklessness and other negative qualities, but at the same time they give us drive, energy, passion and ambition.  Fresh food that is nourishing, tasty is considered sattvic and while keeping us healthy, they increase our lifespan, the calmness of our mind, positive thoughts, strength, joyfulness, intelligence, imagination and other daivi qualities.

For spiritual aspirants the food that is recommended is sattvic. Traditionally India has considered clarified butter [ghee/ghrita] highly sattvic. Certain spices – not all – are considered good for increasing sattvic qualities if used moderately. These include basil, coriander, cardamom, cinnamon, cumin seeds, fennel, fenugreek, ginger and turmeric. Sprouted grains are sattvic, as are most fruits and nuts.

While the ideal guna for those who have to do creative and imaginative work is sattva, some amount of rajas in combination with sattva is considered good for those in leadership positions that require a lot of drive, passion and ambition. Sage Baka Dalbhya in the Mahabharata states that the ideal guna combination in a leader is a blend of sattva and rajas. Naturally their food too will be a combination of sattvic and rajasic foods.

Krishna recommends moderation in everything, including the quantity of food we eat. Adi Shankaracharya recommends filling half our stomach with food, one fourth with water and leaving the remaining one fourth empty – for the circulation of air is how he explains it, vaayoh sancharana-arthaaya.

Over thousands of years India has developed many methods of developing self mastery, one of which is occasional fasting. A variation of it was living only on fruits on certain occasions. Mauna or observing silence, say once a week, was another method. Similarly sex was also strictly regulated through a serious of prohibitions which limited permissible sex to a few days a month and to certain hours of the day even when it was between a husband and wife.

The more we think about – meditate upon – a desirable object, the more our longing for it increases. The French thinker Edward de Bono in his book Lateral Thinking gives us a beautiful example that illustrates this. Imagine you have a lump of smooth wet clay. When a drop of water falls on it, it can flow in any direction. When the next drop falls on it, there is some chance that the drop will follow the path of the first drop. With the third drop, this chance becomes stronger. After a few drops a channel is formed and now you can predict the path the drops will follow – they will flow through the channel. Our thoughts follow the same pattern. When you think again and again about a desirable object, it becomes a compulsion and we become obsessed with the object. This is the secret behind the success of advertisements. After we see an advertisement that creates in us a desire for something, like a car, a beautiful dress, a brand of chocolate, we start repeatedly thinking about it, consciously or unconsciously, and it becomes a need for us.

The solution is to live consciously.
The Gita is not asking us not to go to the shopping mall. But when you are there, when you are tempted by a certain object, ask yourself if you really need it, if getting it will really make you happy.  Most of the time it is an infatuation that will die a natural death unless we encourage it, nourish it by constant meditation on it. If we can stop the constant meditation on things that tempt us, the chain of meditation upon the object, attachment, desire, anger, delusion, loss of memory, destruction of intelligence and ruination that Krishna speaks about is broken at its very beginning. We will remain our masters, not slaves to our senses.

And then, with self-mastery, move among objects of pleasure with our senses under control. We will have peace then and our sorrows will come to an end. The intelligence of the man whose mind is filled with peace soon becomes steady.

There is no need to reject the world. You have only to be a master of our senses and mind. An adult moving among children’s toys in a mall is not tempted.

“You are what your deepest desire is.
As is your desire, so is your intention.
As is your intention, so is your will.
As is your will, so is your deed.
As is your deed, so is your destiny,”
——— say the Upanishads.

Desire management is one of the arts of self-management. Desire wisely, for what we desire we become.

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