India is the only civilization to elevate kama-desire and pleasure-to a goal of life. Kama is both cosmic and human energy, animating life and holding it in place. Gurcharan Das weaves a compelling narrative soaked in philosophical, historical and literary ideas in the third volume of his trilogy on life's goals: India Unbound, the first, was on artha, 'material well-being'; 7he Difficulty of Being Good, the second, was on dharma, 'moral well-being'. Here, in his magnificent prose, Das examines how to cherish desire in order to live a rich, flourishing life, arguing that if dharma is a duty to another, kama is a duty to oneself.
This fascinating account of love and desire sheds new light on love, marriage, family, adultery and jealousy. Are the erotic and the ascetic two aspects of our same human nature? What is the relationship between romantic love and bhakti, the love of god? How do we prepare for the day when desire disappears and turns bitter?
Gurcharan Das shows us that kama is a product of culture and its history is the struggle between kama pessimists and optimists. The yogis and renouncers regarded kama as an enemy of their spiritual project. Opposed to them were those who brought forth Sanskrit love poetry and the Kamasutra. In the clash between the two emerged the Kama realists, who offered a compromise in the dharma texts by confining sex to marriage. Ultimately, this ground-breaking narrative leaves us with puzzles and enigmas that reveal the riddle of kama.
GURCHARN DAS is a renowned author, commentator and public intellectual. He is the author of two bestsellers, India Unbound and The Difficulty of Being Good, volumes one and two of a trilogy on life's goals, of which this book is the third. His other literary works include a novel, A Fine Family; a collection of plays, Three Plays; and a book of essays, The Elephant Paradigm.
His last book, India Grows at Night, was on the Financial Times's best books for 2013. He is general editor for Penguin's multivolume series, The Story of Indian Business. He studied philosophy at Harvard University and was CEO, Procter & Gamble India, before he became a full-time writer. He writes regular columns for six Indian newspapers, including the Times of India, and occasional pieces for the Financial Times, Foreign Affoirs and the New York Times.
Our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness,' wrote Vladimir Nabokov in the opening lines of his memoir, Speak Memory. Whereas the fearful unknown of the dark voids drove my father to mystical religion, I was drawn to the bright crevice, curious to discover the extraordinary visions that might lie therein. There I found kama, which means' desire' in Sanskrit. Unlike animals, human beings are not governed by instinct alone. Instinctual desire travels from our senses to our imagination, whence it creates a fantasy around a specific individual. These fantasies are the source of intense 'pleasure', which happens to be the other meaning of kama. Despite constraints, men and women found a way to communicate their fantasies and this gave rise to erotic love. Most societies worried about this charming human inclination by instituting monogamy via the institution of marriage for the sake of social harmony.
This is a memoir of kama and I sometimes wish I had written it when I was younger, when desire was more troublesome. Young, vigorous warriors are supposed to be better candidates for sex, not ageing cyphers who are resigned to mostly look back:
It is unbefitting and perverse for men
Who are aged to have erotic passions.
Nor is it meet for ample-hipped women
Whose bosoms are flaccid to cling to life or love.
Kama is not only the joy of sensual attraction but also the aesthetic delight one feels while, say, beholding a Mughal miniature of great beauty. Kama can be a desire for anything, but it refers generally to erotic desire. Kama is also the desire to act. It drove Shakespeare to sit down one morning and write the dazzling Othello, whose eponymous hero turned out, alas, to be one of the unhappiest victims of kama. Since my ancient Hindu ancestors realized that kama is the source of action, of creation and of procreation, they elevated it not only to the status of a god, but also saw it as one of the goals of human life. They thought of it as a cosmic force that animates all of life.
There is another rich word in Sanskrit, smara, which means 'memory' or 'love' depending on the context, especially a remembrance of sexual love. In writing this memoir I have learnt that the recollection of love is sometimes more powerful than the original confused experience itself. Memory binds us to our former selves, sews together events that have not met before, reshuffling the past to suit our present. Marcel Proust, the French novelist, believed that only in recollection does an experience become fully significant, as our imagination arranges it in a meaningful pattern, recreating it to suit our desires. Remembrance takes us back to the wellsprings of being, to the cultivation of a private consciousness as well as to the mystery of eros.
Although the two dark eternities before and after our brief lives are identical, Nabokov believed that human beings are more afraid of the abyss after death and viewed the one before birth more calmly. While I was in my mother's womb, I remember overhearing my parents, much like Abhimanyu. They were recently married and they were talking about kama. Visiting them was my mother's charming, fun-loving cousin, Ramu, who is best described as a 'kama optimist'. He told them stories about kama's ability to give ecstatic pleasure and regaled them with strategies from the Kamasutra for entering the 'web of desire', as William Blake called it. Unfortunately, my mother dozed off just as my unworldly father, who was a kama pessimist, began to warn her about kama's darker, sinister side: how it creates but also destroys; it inspires love, but is uncontrollable, obsessive and violent; a neighbour's wife is an intoxicating temptation-giving in to it brings pain and tragedy, destroying families and peace. Because my mother fell asleep, I had learnt how to enter kama's web but not how to exit it; and it has taken a lifetime to discover how to enjoy desire but not too much-how to strike a civilized balance between overindulgence and repression.
The beguiling world of kama is full of paradoxes. I desire only what I don't have. Once I attain it, kama dies. Plato wisely observed that desire is a lack of something that one does not possess. Lovers long to unite in order to fill this deficiency. But how can something that is missing, or perishes once attained, be a goal of life? Yet, Kama is ubiquitous and indestructible. Kamagita, a 'song of desire', embedded deep inside the Mahabharata, reminds us that when we control one desire, another pops up. If I give up desire for wealth and give away my money, a new craving emerges-a desire for reputation; if I renounce the world and become an ascetic, I am driven by a desire for heaven or for moksha, 'liberation', from the human condition. King Yayati realized that he had grown old but his thirsts were forever young.
In the very moment of enjoying Kama, Yayati thought that even
in a thousand years these pleasures would remain unsatisfied, and
this prospect filled him with melancholy.
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