Kama – The changing face of desire

Sexual desire in the kâma sûtra

In Hinduism, the Vedas depict the idea of kama as lust or sensual desire, pleasure and prosperity, while the Brhadaranyaka Upanishad sees kama as any desire.

Later in the Artharvaveda, Kama is portrayed as a force that compels the undifferentiated Absolute to initiate the process of creation. And in the Brahmanas, he becomes Kamadeva, a figure not unlike Cupid, the Roman god of love.

Hindus actually have four life goals that may seem contradictory.

The four proper goals or aims of a human life…are Dharma (righteousness, moral values), Artha (prosperity, economic values), Kama (pleasure, love, and psychological values) and Moksha (liberation, spiritual values).¹

Over the centuries Hindu thinkers have debated how best to resolve the tension between worldly enjoyment and spiritual renunciation. One of the most fascinating solutions appears in the Baghavad Gita, where the idea of ‘action without fruit‘ is prominent.

Properly known as nishkam karma yoga, ‘action without fruit’ means living in accord with God’s will, wherever that takes you. It could mean having sex, it could mean killing someone in war, it could mean getting filthy rich, it could mean giving alms and helping the sick. The point is, the Hindu believer in nishkam karma yoga supposes they are acting in line with God’s will and not their own personal desire.

Myself, I am skeptical of this notion because ‘God’s will’ and unrecognized personal desires are often difficult to differentiate. Personal biases and cravings could easily contaminate the belief that one is acting piously. We see this with hokey cult and religious figures who have a harem of young women whom they sexually and economically abuse, all in the name of ‘The Divine.’²

This may be an extreme example but it illustrates how kama may gain the upper hand and eclipse any sincere desire to be selfless and do the right thing (which is the one ‘meta desire’ that is pretty much okay across the board in Hinduism).

Another problem with nishkam karma yoga is that is it caste-based. Certain castes have prescribed ‘holy duties.’ One is more or less born into a divine duty according to wealth and social status, instead of, as most Christians understand it, called into service, regardless of class and status.

The actual practices of these two religions may not differ too dramatically but the ideals do. Put simply, Jesus, portrayed as the King of Heaven, was not a rich guy—not materially, at any rate. And he abhorred the notion of killing for God.

Buddhism reacts against some of the caste-based and ritualized aspects of Hinduism and emphasizes the avoidance of kama. In the Pali Canon story, the Buddha is said to renounce kama (sensual desire) on his path to enlightenment. And Buddhists, in general, are advised to practice celibacy or at least moderation with one’s spouse.

Buddhists, for the most part, see worldly desire as a flame that leads to the fires of suffering. And Buddha’s whole purpose was to teach his followers how to avoid suffering.

¹ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kama

² Gandhi himself was controversial in this area, to put it mildly. See also https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/oct/01/gandhi-celibacy-test-naked-women

Michael William Clark has a Ph.D. in Religious Studies from the University of Ottawa, Canada. Among his varied interests, he is particularly keen on promoting new directions leading toward the confluence of spirituality and science. 

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