In the last post in the Living the Bhagavad Gita series, we saw that no matter who we are, our desires fall into one of the four universal categories. We also saw that as we move from tamas to rajas to sattva, there is a simultaneous and related movement to moksha, the attainment of which leads to desirelessness.
This whole discussion brings up a very relevant and often misunderstood concept, of being desire “less”. Understanding this concept is necessary in order to grok the true meaning of yoga, be it in the context of karma yoga, bhakti yoga or jnana yoga. How can we possibly act without desire? Action arises from desire. In fact, the entire cosmos arises from desire. Desire is what drives us to get out of bed, to get ready for bed, to go to work, raise children and all of the things we do over lifetimes. However, when we talk about desirelessness being the result of liberation, we will first need to understand what is so undesirable about desire.
The quality that degrades desire to being undesirable is that of attachment. When we act out of attachment to a specific outcome, we become enchained to the action-thought-emotion complex arising as a result of that attachment. Let us take a common example – say I am a long-term employee of a corporation. I have invested my life-blood into this company, and am finally qualified for a big promotion. As soon as I find out I am in the running, my entire focus as a person, my self-image seems to miraculously rest on it. As the announcement draws closer, I begin to think of all the ways my life will change in this new position. I feel much of my thought process during the day being drawn to it, and begin to daydream about the bigger salary, the new car I can buy, the debts I can repay, the long-awaited vacation I can take. At night, I find myself unable to sleep, thinking about the other possibility – what if I do not get it? How will I show “face”? How can the company do this (hypothetically)? Is there no value for loyalty? It is a shark-eat-shark world out there..
And so the day arrives, and I find that I did not make the cut. A younger, newer employee is given the position. What happens next? Every action arising from this initial attachment-driven desire is colored by my disappointment and resentment. My self-image goes for a toss and I feel humiliated. My mind goes haywire in thoughts of self-pity, the unfairness of it all, the pointlessness of working for this inhuman company (that only recently was seen with pride when the initial announcement was made) and how it should not have happened to “me”. Whether I stay on in the company or move on, the resentment from this incident will continue to color my thoughts and subsequent actions. In other words, I have created a strong vasana or impression. And this is how our lives are lived for the most part, between polarities of likes and dislikes, loves and hates, mine and not mine. Every action arising from such polarities creates more vasanas. And vasanas are what bind us to being limited and small.
What if, on the other hand, the scenario were different and I have cultivated the ability to live and act from a desireless state? I was up for a promotion. I acknowledged it and continued with my life, with no second thought given to it. I am completely okay whether I get it or not. It does not define my self-image, my self-worth, my happiness or how I view the company or the world. Any outcome is welcomed, and day-to-day work is done for the mere joy of it. I find out I did not get the promotion, that a younger, newer employee made the cut. I seek out that person, genuinely congratulating and celebrating his new position. It is all as it should be. No vasana is created with this.
The difference between desire-driven and desirelessness is attachment. And this is Arjuna’s conundrum as well. He is so attached to the outcome of the war that it has led to depression and delusion, causing him to freeze. Ambition, rivalry, jealousy, anxiety, anger and even day-to-day stress is a result of attachment. Tamas has this attachment to the greatest degree. Sattva has the least attachment with the greatest degree of equanimity. Equanimity is to be completely okay with whatever results from a particular action. And equanimity is the first cousin of trust, that whatever happens is for our highest good.
How and where does this incredible trust come from? How do we deal with vasanas? We will see in subsequent posts.