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What is the Cause of Desires? How Can We Conquer Them?

Reading Time: 6 minutes

इन्द्रियाणि मनो बुद्धिरस्याधिष्ठानमुच्यते |

एतैर्विमोहयत्येष ज्ञानमावृत्य देहिनम् || 3.40||

Bhagavad Gita, Chapter 3 Verse 40 (In Sanskrit)

Senses, mind, and intellect are said to be its abode. With these, it (desire) causes confusion by covering a person’s wisdom

Bhagavad Gita, Chapter 3 Verse 40 (English Translation)

The senses, mind, and intellect are the locus of the enemy of desire. At the same time, these three parts are also the locus of the solution. On the other hand, atma is unchanging. If atma were to possess the problem of desire, the problem would exist for eternity. It would not be possible to overcome desire if atma was also at the root of the problem. The senses, intellect, and mind are at the locus of the problem and solution alike.

The enemy called desire causes delusion and confusion for any person. It’s your wisdom that gets covered by the energy of desire, not atma. Atma, your true nature, is utterly unaffected by anything in this world because of its divine or transcendent nature. Desire is a worldly concept, and nothing in the world can corrupt or affect atma. At this moment, atma is fully present in your experience as the consciousness by which you know what is going on.

How Do We Conquer the Enemy Called Desire?

तस्मात्त्वमिन्द्रियाण्यादौ नियम्य भरतर्षभ |

पाप्मानं प्रजहि ह्येनं ज्ञानविज्ञाननाशनम् || 3.41||

Bhagavad Gita, Chapter 3 Verse 41 (In Sanskrit)

Therefore, at first controlling the senses, O Arjuna, destroy this sinner, the destroyer of wisdom and discrimination.

Bhagavad Gita, Chapter 3 Verse 41 (English Translation)

Where do you begin if the abode is the senses, mind, and intellect? The process of defeating the enemy called desire is to approach the problem of the senses. As discussed in chapter two, the problem of desire begins with the senses. The first thing to be done is to practice restraint or control. Only when you see something can you have a desire for it. Desire is preceded by sense perception. To defeat the enemy, you have to anticipate it before it wreaks havoc. If senses are the cause of the enemy, then they have to be controlled so as to not steer you in the wrong direction.

Karma yoga begins to exercise restraint over your behavior. Instead of doing what you want and fulfilling your desires, you restrain your behavior and direct yourself towards duty (dharma) instead of desire. The restraint serves to avoid being dragged about by what you sense. Instead of pursuing your desires, pursue what is righteous.

In short, you must control your senses and don’t let your senses drag you about. Use your will to restrain yourself, and instead of fulfilling your desires follow dharma. That’s step one. That’s the first step of overcoming desire and overcoming raga and dvesha

Desire is a sinner in the sense that it leads you to adharmic activities. Desire is the enemy that destroys your wisdom and your ability to discern property.

Which Part of the Self is Superior?

इन्द्रियाणि पराण्याहुरिन्द्रियेभ्य: परं मन: |

मनसस्तु परा बुद्धिर्यो बुद्धे: परतस्तु स: || 3.42||

Bhagavad Gita, Chapter 3 Verse 42(In Sanskrit)

They say: the senses are superior, the mind is superior to the senses, the intellect is superior to the mind but that (atma) is superior to the intellect.

Bhagavad Gita, Chapter 3 Verse 42 (English Translation)

The senses are powerful, but the mind is more superior. But beyond the mind is the intellect. Finally, beyond the intellect is atma or your true self.

In other words, the senses (indriya) are strong, but the mind (manas) is stronger, and the intellect (buddhi) is even stronger. The strongest of all, however, is the self (atma).

The sequence progresses from the most to least physical, transcending the world with the final stage (atma). You can think about this as a sequence from worldly to otherworldly. They increase to reach all-pervasiveness: each one is more limited than the other. Senses are confined to the body, but the mind and intellect are less confined to the body. And atma is not confined at all to the physical being all-pervasive.

What Does it Mean to Establish Yourself in Your True Self?

एवं बुद्धे: परं बुद्ध्वा संस्तभ्यात्मानमात्मना |

जहि शत्रुं महाबाहो कामरूपं दुरासदम् || 3.43||

Bhagavad Gita, Chapter 3 Verse 43(In Sanskrit)

Thus knowing that which is superior to the intellect steadying yourself with a self, O Arjuna, destroy this enemy in the form of desire which is hard to overcome.

Bhagavad Gita, Chapter 3 Verse 43 (English Translation)

In this verse, the first mention of atma means yourself, and the second refers to the mind and intellect. You establish yourself in your true self by means of your mind and intellect. This shift in orientation involves recognizing your mind as your true nature and understanding that your true self is an uncreated, unscathed consciousness. 

Where you fix your attention, that part becomes stronger. In this verse, Shri Krishna describes a process of shifting your attention first away from your senses, then away from your mind, away from the intellect. Finally, you establish your attention on atma or the true self, the inner divinity. 

In meditation, you close your eyes and sit in a quiet place, restraining your senses. Then you do some meditative practice to quiet your mind. Then you use other techniques to transcend intellect which is when your ego undergoes resolution. When your sense of being the meditator goes away, your buddhi is transcended, and you rest in your true self. Atma is beyond the senses, so you have no connection to the external world. Atma is beyond the mind, so there is no interaction with thoughts. The intellect is also transcended, which is what you identify yourself as. After transcending all of this, you arrive at your true self. When indriya, manas, and buddhi cease to function whatsoever, all that is left is atma

When you’re free from all these distractions, you naturally and effortlessly abide in your true self, which is uncreated, unscathed consciousness. You don’t have to reach or accomplish anything or undergo any type of transformation, it’s simply a matter of becoming free of these distractions. That atma is innately free from desire. Atma has no desires. Desires arise in regards to indriya, manas, and buddhi. Atma is desireless, full, and complete. 

Shri Krishna describes a technique for overcoming the enemy called desire. The enemy of desire is destroyed through karma yoga, which is the gradual progress of weakening raga and dvesha by shifting your motivation in life from the conventional motivation of chasing what you want and running away from what you don’t want. 

The progression of karma yoga starts by shifting away from this conventional orientation and reorientation of yourself to follow dharma to adopt a prayerful attitude. It involves recognizing Ishvara as the giver of the results of our deeds. It also involves recognizing that we are at best an instrument of action, but Ishvara gives us the results of the actions. This helps us develop a devotional attitude. And further by recognizing that whatever we accomplish in life, we accomplish with the power of the gifts given to us by the universe. All of this helps us develop an attitude towards our ordinary day-to-day activities, which helps weaken the grasp of raga and dvesha.

Raga and dvesha get weaker and weaker until they are no longer an impediment to your discovery of your true nature. There is no hope for spiritual growth as long as raga and dvesha control your life. The major impediment in spiritual life is raga and dvesha. Gradually overcoming these compulsions allows you to discover your true nature.

Eventually, you become enlightened and shift your focus to your true self, which is utterly free; in this way you completely overcome or transcend desire by resting in your true nature. 

Again you don’t have to reach atma, it is already your true nature. It is already free from desire. When you recognize that your true nature is utterly independent of the senses, mind, and intellect, you transcend the abode of desire and become free from desire.

What the Gita Teaches Us

The senses, mind, and intellect are responsible for desire. Each level is increasingly less-worldly. The final level, atma, is outer-worldly and all-pervasive. The senses connect us to the world most strongly, the mind less so, intellect even less so, and atma not at all. Eliminating the enemy called desire begins at the first level, the senses. This can be done through karma yoga; specifically, by following dharma and adopting a prayerful attitude in everything we do.