Desires are one of strongest basic human instincts. It is so basic that in Christianity, it is referred as reason for beginning of human life as we know it. Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit at the behest of serpent, who stimulated desire of taste in them. All three were cursed and sent to earth to live like mortals and to experience pleasure and pain. In Bhagvad Gita, Sri Krishna gave a very comprehensive view on desires. He points to the origin of desire:

ध्यायतो विषयान्पुंस: सङ्गस्तेषूपजायते |

सङ्गात्सञ्जायते काम: कामात्क्रोधोऽभिजायते || 2.62||

While contemplating on the objects of the senses, one develops attachment to them. Attachment leads to desire, and from desire arises anger. (BG 2.62)

Both the above examples point to origin of desire. It is a human brain’s response to stimuli of senses. In Hindu scriptures there are 5 primary senses – vision, taste, sound, smell and touch. All these senses are perception in brain as per its preconceived notions.

Brain plays with our senses

How our brain play with our senses can be demonstrated by a simple example we used to do in primary school.

Take 3 glasses of water, first marginally hot, second icy cold and third at room temperature. Now take your left hand and dip your fingers in hot water for 2 mins. Take out your left hand and dip again in third glass where water is at room temperature. You will instantly feel that water at room temperature is cold.

Now repeat the exercise with your right hand but this time use icy cold water initially. After couple of mins, once you dip the right hand from icy cold water in glass with room temperature, you will feel the water at room temperature to be warm. Now is the temperature of glass at room temperature different? The answer is no.

While a digital thermometer will tell you temperature in glass at room temperature is constant, your left and right hand will tell you a contradicting story. So our brain gives us a different message for same glass of water. This experiment proves that our brain reacts to different stimulus in different ways for the same object.

Now just extend this experiment to all the ad blitz and media our brain is exposed to. It is not difficult to see how our environment can stimulate desires in our brain using our senses through this constant conditioning.

इन्द्रियाणि मनो बुद्धिरस्याधिष्ठानमुच्यते |(3.40.A)

The senses, mind, and intellect are said to be breeding grounds of desire. (BG 3.40.A)

Problems encountered with excessive desires

A desire can end in two ways. Either it is temporarily satisfied through stimuli of senses or it is not satisfied due to one or other reason.

What happens when desires are not fulfilled

Let us evaluate what happens when desires are not satisfied or if someone is not able to satisfy the urge even after putting forward a reasonable effort. Sri Krishna explains that such desires lead to anger and it also sets in a chain reaction.

क्रोधाद्भवति सम्मोह: सम्मोहात्स्मृतिविभ्रम: |

स्मृतिभ्रंशाद् बुद्धिनाशो बुद्धिनाशात्प्रणश्यति || 2.63||

Anger (from desires) leads to clouding of judgment, which results in confusion in brain and memory. When the memory is bewildered, the intellect gets destroyed; and when the intellect is destroyed, one is ruined. (BG 2.63)

An unsatisfied desire not only produces bout of short term negativity, it can even drive humans to act in ways harmful to themselves and others around them. Now this is not difficult to see that in today’s world, most of the violence is fueled by anger due to unsatisfied desires. Whether it is school shootings, infatuated men throwing acid on girls they claim to love or terrorism. While in traditional psychology terms, these people are declared mentally unstable or brain washed, the question is what stimulates their mind to get unstable. Sri Krishna explains this when he says in above verse that an unsatisfied desire may ultimately lead to unstable mind and eventually ruin one’s life. Again

एतैर्विमोहयत्येष ज्ञानमावृत्य देहिनम् || 3.40.B||

Through them (the senses, mind and intellect), it (the desires) clouds one’s knowledge and deludes the embodied soul. (BG 3.40.B)

What happens when desires are fulfilled
Desires are like immortal devil. The more we satisfy it, the more hungry it becomes for further fulfillment. Here Sri Krishna points out:

आवृतं ज्ञानमेतेन ज्ञानिनो नित्यवैरिणा |

कामरूपेण कौन्तेय दुष्पूरेणानलेन च || 3.39||

The knowledge of even the most discerning gets covered by this perpetual enemy in the form of insatiable desire, which is never satisfied and burns like fire, O son of Kunti. (BG 3.39)

Sri Krishna has called out desires related to senses insatiable and a perpetual enemy. It is like that water which after drinking increases the thirst even more. After that first home, people vie for a bigger home or newer fancier cars or may be that expensive 9th watch. It just doesn’t stop. Desires act like a quick sand, irrespective whether you try coming out or not, you will sink further and further down.

Are all desires bad?

Reading above one may draw inference that desires are bad. Many a time while discussing this topic people interpret that all forms of desires are bad. To explain this, let us go back to verse 2.62

ध्यायतो विषयान्पुंस: सङ्गस्तेषूपजायते |

सङ्गात्सञ्जायते काम: कामात्क्रोधोऽभिजायते || 2.62||

While contemplating on the objects of the senses, one develops attachment to them. Attachment leads to desire, and from desire arises anger. (BG 2.62)

The verses has to interpreted as a chain

Stimulation -> Senses -> Attachment -> Desire -> Lust -> Anger -> clouding of judgment -> confusion in brain -> destruction of intellect -> life ruined

If we break the above chain before the mind gets attached to desire, we can break the circle of desire and avoid eventual destruction from it. The key here is “attachment”. If we can break selfish attachment with desire, then desire is not bad at all.

One example can be, if someone has a desire to do selfless service without any expectation then its not bad. Similarly moving on without attachment after loss of some material possession will not stimulate anger. We just need to disassociate ourselves from the bondage that follows a desire. A wealthy man attached to his wealth might go sick with anxiety thinking about loss of wealth. Whereas a non-attached person may remain peaceful even after losing his belongings.

How to deal with excessive desires

Krishna gives solution to deal with desires. He mentions:

तस्मात्त्वमिन्द्रियाण्यादौ नियम्य भरतर्षभ |

पाप्मानं प्रजहि ह्येनं ज्ञानविज्ञाननाशनम् || 3.41||

Therefore, O best of the Bharatas, in the very beginning bring the senses under control and slay this enemy called desire, which is the embodiment of sin and destroys knowledge and realization. (BG 3.41)

Krishna urges us get our senses under control and thereby keeping control on desires. Here he is not asking us to completely block our senses but just advising us to control them.

Very simply put, this is distinction between need and greed. There is a very thin line between need and greed. Gandhi said – There is enough in this world to satisfy everyone’s need but there is not enough in this world to satisfy a man’s greed. An unattached desire for basic needs should be fulfilled. However, we need to be careful before basic needs start becoming our greed. While one car might be a need in city marred with poor public transportation but having multiple fancy cars is across the line.

For a normal human, the message is plain and simple, stay within the boundaries of your needs and you will be able to stay away from ills of excessive desires. While weeds of greedy desires will keep on arising in the fertile mind, we simply need to reject/ postpone them again and again. With practice, we will be able to keep our senses in control and eventually “slay the enemy called desire”. Krishna understands that no human can be perfect and therefore he uses the word “control” rather than “banishment”.

On the flip side, positive wishes of selfless service or helping others without “expectations or attachment to results” should be promoted as they do not bind us with negative selfish desires, greed and attachment.

Om shanti!