Kama – Desire and Spirituality
Author of this article Yogi Baba Prem is also editor of the Institute’s newsletter.
For humanity, few arguments have withstood the test of time as well as the perceived conflict between desire (Kama) and spirituality. This conflict appears within most spiritual traditions and has enkindled an endless debate as to the proper perspective and role of desire and spirituality.
To the average student of spirituality, they have been lead to believe that desire is in complete conflict with spirituality. This is especially true of students of the western hemisphere, but appears throughout the world. An apparent paradox has evolved out of this. The paradox is the commonly held belief that desire shows lack of spirituality while the practice of spirituality contains numerous prayers, mantras, and meditations aimed at fulfilling desire. But do all spiritual traditions support an autocratic stance toward spirituality and desire? While it is true that most have at least elements of this paradox, often the reason can be linked to a misunderstanding of words and spiritual principle’s.
Within the Ayurvedic system, it is recognized that for householders, four main aims are taught:
Dharma ordinarily is a good vocation. 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. Kam 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.
Kama in practical application and daily life.
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.
To begin to use kama in a productive way in life, try some of the following:
- Make a list of desires, all of them, evaluate which ones are still important, which ones have been fulfilled and which need more time. (The key is to be honest with yourself on this one).
- Evaluate different desires, see which ones serve you and which ones cause pain and suffering.
- Allow the cultivation of bhakti (devotion) with a deity that you are drawn to. This could involve meditation on the deity or basic mantras to the deity.
- Experience the manifestation of divinity through the senses, using mantra, sacred images, candlelight, incense, and spiritual music.
- Experience the manifestation of divinity in nature. I would recommend reading, Yoga and the Sacred Fire as well as Tantric Yoga and the Wisdom Goddesses by David Frawley.
- Study and contemplation of sacred texts.
- Begin the practice of yoga and Ayurveda, or both.
- Begin a daily meditation practice.
- Practice giving to others.
- Recognize that Kama as a deity or force is a powerful presence in your life. Examine ways to use this force in productive, positive and balanced ways in your life.
- Realize that Kama as a goal in life is ultimately for the manifestation of moksha or liberation.
- Create a list of higher values and start to cultivate them using some of the above techniques.
- Create positive sensory input by using the above techniques.
- Recognize that all sensory input is food. Food for the mind and for the body. Ingestion of proper food allows one to move more quickly along the spiritual path just as nutritious food is better for the physical body than ‘junk’ food. Examine the mental foods being ingested and evaluate which ones serve the best.
- Practice the bija mantra to Kama or Kamala, which is “Shriim”. This should be learned from someone versed in Sanskrit.
Sources and recommended reading:
Yoga and the Sacred Fire By David Frawley.
Tantric Yoga and the Wisdom Goddesses by David Frawley.
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