Kama or desire

Kama is our desire, but not just the limited sexual desire as is frequently taught.  Kama is our experience of divinity via the senses.  And ultimately it is a vehicle for returning home to our true essence.

In Ayurveda, it is recognized that for householders, four main aims are taught:

  • Dharma
  • Artha
  • Kama
  • Moksha

Dharma is a code of conduct.  Artha is prosperity.  Moksha is liberation, and Kama is desire. 

Frequently Kama (desire) is interpreted to be only a reference to love, in particular sexual love or sexual desire.  But this is only the strongest or more correctly, the most basic form of kama. 

Kama is basically enjoyment.  While enjoyment is strongly associated with the emotional mind (manas), it can also have a higher spiritual manifestation.  This would commonly be referred to as kama-apara and kama-para or lower desire and higher desire. 

In a sense, the Rg Veda is about the fulfillment of desires.  Obviously some of these are the lower interpretations (kama-apara) of the Vedas; with people wanting cows, prosperity, among other things. 

Certainly the Atharva Veda has rituals for the desire of a husband, wife, or other desire.  While these could be viewed by some as apara or lower, they certainly play an important role as the soul witnesses the play of karma.  And these same desires have a higher manifestation.  Such as cow representing physical or mental/spiritual prosperity, they also represent mental and spiritual prosperity on a higher level.  Occasionally these are also referred to as the inner and outer forms.  So the same teaching can be applied to the higher and lower forms.

The Atharva Veda also deals with the desire for health and wellness.  Certainly these are desires that do need to be addressed and would be valued by most people in society.  So obviously there is a more expansive view toward Kama  than the narrow meaning of just sexuality.

Was kama ever intended to be limited to a base bodily function and mere mindlessness of the senses?  Most likely not, as we find kama referenced in numerous ancient texts such as the previously mentioned Rg and Atharva Vedas.  Kama appears within texts such as the Taittiriya Samhita from the Krishna Yajur Veda, offering mantras when desires are not fulfilled 2.3.3.  These particular mantras have nothing to do with sexuality or sexual desire, but with other types of desire.

Within Sanskrit, a deeper meaning of kama is revealed.  The primal root to Kama is “Ka” and the Taittiriya Samhita from the Krishna Yajur Veda, states that Ka is Prajapati, the lord of creation. Within Sanskrit, ‘ka’ can be a reference to the soul, sun, Vishnu and much more.  So clearly it does not contain the negative attributes given in later texts. It is within the “Bhagavad Gita” XVI, 11-12, that the Kama is held in the lowest esteem.  It is in this section (XVI of the Gita) that kama is associated with more demonic qualities or those of a lower nature.  Again this is focusing on kama from only a sexual/lust view.  This is section of the “Gita” is obviously focusing on the lower or kama-apara.  In which case, the teachings in the “Gita” have numerous valid points.

In this short exploration of kama, we are starting to see the dual nature of kama revealed through the concept of lower and higher desires.  We have explored the Vedic view and that of the Gita.  The next area to explore kama through is tantra.  Certainly within tantra, this could only be a reference to sexual desire, as sexual tantra is what most people are familiar with.  But sexual tantra is actually a small portion of the greater field of knowledge within tantra.  Obviously it would follow the same concept of higher and lower teachings toward desire.

Within the Tantric teachings, kama manifests as a shakti known as kamala.  She is ultimately a manifestation of Kali, and it is this form of Kali that is worshipped by many people around the world, as she is strongly associated with beauty and prosperity in such forms as Laxshmi.  But she is also the spirit of giving.  It is through giving that one begins to bring an end to just the outer seeking of the senses; and one begins to manifest the higher form of kama (para).  We begin to discover the higher desire for spiritual truth and realization.  In this sense, many people go through a variety of experiences that inspires a longing for truth.  Kamala is located in the heart chakra, which is the seat of devotional worship.  In fact, this spiritual seat, within the heart chakra, is considered by many as the most important spiritual doorway for the astral and causal body; jnana yoga even values this spiritual doorway, as the heart chakra and various points within this field was referenced even by Ramana Maharishi.

Kamala and Kama in its higher form, begins as recognition of the divine beauty within the world.  This appears on basic levels as an appreciation of art, music, beauty, and slowly starts to manifest as an appreciation of aromas, and other meditative tools such as incense, candle’s, meditative music, and meditation itself.  Kama as Kamala can manifest as a powerful desire to meditate and experience the power of the heart chakra.

Kama is presently known more as a puranic version of the deity than the older Vedic and Tantric teachings.  Kama’s energy is reflected in numerous Hindu teachings with the quote “God wanted to be many.”  This references the original primal desire of consciousness.  Our return to our true source and essence begins with desire (kama).  This idea is taught repeatedly with one of the oldest references being in the Rg Veda, “Desire first arose in it…” X.129.  Kama is also mentioned in the Atharva Veda, and at times associated with Agni within the Rg Veda.  According to the “Taittiriya Brahmana” he is born of Dharma and the deity of Justice.  This is a very different view of kama verses the puranic god of lust and sexual desire that is often portrayed.  But in reality, kama on the lower levels is reflected in human sexuality, which is only a veiled “urge to merge”.  Regrettably many people do not come to fully understand this “urge to merge” and cannot move past the basic sexual urge.  In other words, they become lost in the sexual experience and never realize the spiritual teaching behind the experience.  But for others, over time, this desire evolves into a higher longing.  This idea is reflected in tantra and such things as art and music, a modern notable example would be Steve Winwoods, “Bring me a higher Love.”

As we begin to experience kama in a new and different manifestation, we begin to experience the opening and energization of the heart chakra.  This is an important stage for all spiritual students.  This brings a desire to commune with the deities, energies, or essence of our soul.  It also indicates the awakening desire for truth.  Desire plays an important role in this development and desire to commune in a different way.

Again this desire for divinity is a critical step in spiritual growth and development.  As it inspires us to keep working, it helps us in addressing our longing for divine communion, or more correctly, to awaken to the divine communion that is occurring on a daily basis in our life.  A common pattern for a few students is twisting a desire.  Usually this manifests as a desire to just have an experience or to see something.  Again this is a process that some must pass through.  Eventually the teachings remind us that once desire for divinity has taken us almost to the goal, of divine realization, we must sacrifice our desire for divine realization, in order to take the final step into realization.  But for many, desire is condemned to an autocratic philosophy before one has had the opportunity to reap the benefits from, or cultivate, higher desire.  And after all isn’t this one of the goals of spirituality?  To provide a practical step by step process in moving from one level of consciousness to another.


Some quotes on the concept of Desire from ManuSmriti or the Laws of Manu, an ancient Indian text -

To act solely from a desire for rewards is not laudable, yet an exemption from that desire is not to be found in this world: for on that desire is grounded the study of the Veda and the performance of the actions, prescribed by the Veda.

The desire for rewards, indeed, has its root in the conception that an act can yield them, and in consequence of that conception sacrifices are performed; vows and the laws prescribing restraints are all stated to be kept through the idea that they will bear fruit.

Not a single act here appears ever to be done by a man free from desire; for whatever man does, it is the result of the impulse of desire.

He who persists in discharging these prescribed duties in the right manner, reaches the deathless state and even in this life obtains the fulfilment of all the desires that he may have conceived.

The knowledge of the sacred laws are prescribed for those who are not given to the acquisition of wealth and to the gratification of their desires

A wise man should strive to restrain his organs which run wild among alluring sensual objects, like a charioteer his horses.

Those eleven organs which former sages have named, I will properly and precisely enumerate in due order -

The ear, the skin, the eyes, the tongue, and the nose as the fifth, the anus, the organ of generation, hands and feet, and the (organ of) speech, named as the tenth.

Five of them, the ear and the rest according to their order, they call organs of sense, and five of them, the anus and the rest, organs of action.

Know that the internal organ (manas) is the eleventh, which by its quality belongs to both sets; when that has been subdued, both those sets of five have been conquered.

Through the attachment of his organs to sensual pleasure a man doubtlessly will incur guilt; but if he keep them under complete control, he will obtain success in gaining all his aims.

Desire is never extinguished by the enjoyment of desired objects; it only grows stronger like a fire fed with ghee.

If one man should obtain all those sensual enjoyments and another should renounce them all, the renunciation of all pleasure is far better than the attainment of them.

Those organs which are strongly attached to sensual pleasures, cannot so effectively be restrained by abstinence from enjoyments as by a constant pursuit of true knowledge.

Neither the study of the Vedas, nor liberality, nor sacrifices, nor any self-imposed restraint, nor austerities, ever procure the attainment of rewards to a man whose heart is contaminated by sensuality.

That man may be considered to have really subdued his organs, who on hearing and touching and seeing, on tasting and smelling anything neither rejoices nor repines.

But when one among all the organs slips away from control, thereby man's wisdom slips away from him, even as the water flows through the one open foot of a water-carrier's skin.

If he keeps all the ten organs as well as the mind in subjection, he may gain all his aims, without reducing his body by the practice of Yoga.

Let him abstain from honey, meat, perfumes, garlands, substances used for flavouring food, women, all substances turned acid, and from doing injury to living creatures

From anointing his body, applying collyrium to his eyes, from the use of shoes and of an umbrella, from sensual desire, anger, covetousness, dancing, singing, and playing musical instruments

From gambling, idle disputes, backbiting, and lying, from looking at and touching women, and from hurting others.