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.