In 2008 there was an extensive discussion on my blog between Arvind and Broken Yogi about whether a desire for the Self was good or bad. Arvind defended the position that desiring the Self was wrong, while Broken Yogi took the opposing view. The pros and cons of this debate prompted the following query to me from an anonymous contributor:
There was a pretty serious debate on desire between Broken Yogi and Arvind and others. Now I am left unsure as to who was actually describing Sri Ramana’s position correctly. What is the correct teaching? Am I to desire the Self consciously as much as possible till I achieve the Self, or am I to desire it only unconsciously and keep no desire-thoughts in my mind? Does the Self have desires or does God have desires? …
I think in such situations you have to clarify what was the teaching as per Sri Ramana. I don’t want Papaji’s position or Lakshmana Swamy’s position nor the position of some of the other Masters – but Sri Ramana’s actual teaching.
Before I begin my reply I should mention that several years later Arvind wrote a long and detailed summary of his views on this topic and posted it on his own blog. It was an outstanding and detailed discussion of the subject that I can highly recommend even if I don’t necessarily agree with some of the conclusions. The post is here.
The question ‘Does the Self have desires, or does God have desires?’ is probably the easiest component of the query to give an answer to. According to Bhagavan, the answer would be ‘no’:
Bhagavan: Without desire, resolve or effort, the sun rises; and in its mere presence the sunstone emits fire, the lotus blooms, water evaporates, people perform their various functions and then rest. Just as in the presence of the magnet the needle moves, it is by virtue of the mere presence of God that the souls governed by the three functions or the fivefold divine activity perform their actions and then rest, in accordance with their respective karmas. God has no resolve; no karma attaches itself to him. That is like worldly actions not affecting the sun, or like the merits and demerits of the other four elements not affecting all-pervading space. (The Collected Works of Sri Ramana Maharshi, pp. 42-3.)
Bhagavan included a summary of these ideas in one of his replies in Talks with Sri Ramana Maharshi, talk no. 28:
Question: Why then is samsara – creation and manifestation as finitised – so full of sorrow and evil?
Bhagavan: God’s will!
Question: Why does God will it so?
Bhagavan: It is inscrutable. No motive can be attributed to that Power – no desire, no end to achieve can be asserted of that one Infinite, All-wise and All-powerful Being. God is untouched by activities, which take place in His presence; compare the sun and the world activities. There is no meaning in attributing responsibility and motive to the One before it becomes many.
That is to say, God has no sankalpa, no resolve, will, desire or intention. It (God or the Self) simply is.
One of the briefest sections in Talks with Sri Ramana Maharshi (talk no. 537) comprises the following quotation by Bhagavan: ‘Desire constitutes maya, and desirelessness is God.’
A moment’s reflection will see why this is so. Desire can only exist if there is something separate from the subject who desires. When that separation is not there, desire no longer exists:
Bhagavan: There is room for kama (desire) so long as there is an object apart from the subject (i.e., duality). There can be no desire if there is no object. The state of no-desire is moksha. (Talks with Sri Ramana Maharshi, talk no. 502)
The other question that was asked – is it good or bad to desire the Self? – is a more complex one. I think that one reason this debate went on for so long in the responses’ section is that it is possible to find statements from Bhagavan that can support either side of the argument.
Here are some unqualified assertions from Bhagavan, recorded in Padamalai, pages 71-2, which stress the importance of wanting and desiring the Self:
Through a longing for the swarupa that waxes more and more as abundant bliss, infatuation for the false world will slip away.
The glory of Self-realisation is not experienced except in the hearts of those who are very zealous about sinking into the Self.
Those who greatly desire the Self, the state of mere being that transcends all concepts, will not desire anything else.
Devotion to the Self, the best of desires, yields the true jnana sight in which all names and forms are names and forms of the Self.
If you wholeheartedly desire and realise the truth, that truth itself will liberate you.
Verse twenty-seven of Guru Vachaka Kovai contains similar sentiments:
Do not be confounded by this worthless samsara that appears as a dream in the deluding [sleep of] ignorance. In a mind that has an intense desire for reality – consciousness, the supreme – it is impossible for the binding mental delusion that arises in the dense darkness of ignorance to remain.
In contrast to these verses, and seemingly contradicting them, we have the following unequivocal statement, recorded on page 191 of Padamalai:
Even the desire for liberation is the work of delusion. Therefore, remain still [summa iru].
Similar sentiments can be found in a reply Bhagavan gave in Day by Day with Bhagavan, 24th December, 1945:
Bhagavan: Liberation is our very nature. We are that. The very fact that we wish for liberation shows that freedom from all bondage is our real nature. That has not got to be freshly acquired. All that is necessary is to get rid of the false notion that we are bound. When we achieve that, there will be no desire or thought of any sort. So long as one desires liberation, so long, you may take it, one is in bondage.
Here is another reply on this topic, this time to a devotee who wanted to follow the path of surrender:
Question: Does not total or complete surrender require that one should not have left in him the desire even for liberation or God?
Bhagavan: Complete surrender does require that you have no desire of your own, that God’s desire alone is your desire and that you have no desire of your own. (Day by Day with Bhagavan, 1st March, 1946)
Since the questioner has asked for ‘Sri Ramana’s actual teaching’ on this topic, I will add one more citation, Guru Vachaka Kovai, verse 378:
Only in those who have completely severed the bond of desire and attachment will the illusory appearance that associates with them through ego-defilement perish. The aim, then, is to cut off, without so much as a second thought, even the desire for the indescribable supreme bliss of peace that is full of jnana.
How may these seemingly contradictory statements be resolved? I would say (and I will back this up with some quotes from Bhagavan) that desiring the Self intensely is, somewhat paradoxically, a way of reaching the state where all desires, including the desire for the Self, vanish. Bhagavan might say, as he did in one of the Padamalai verses I cited, remain still, without having a desire for liberation, but who can carry out this particular instruction? If I say, ‘Give an apple to your mother,’ that is a simple physical action that can easily be accomplished. If, on the other hand, I say, ‘Give up all desires, including the desire for liberation, and remain still,’ who has the capacity to do this? Those who cannot will request a route to the state of desirelessness, and in such circumstances Bhagavan would say that one should take attention off desires for the objects of the non-Self and instead direct it towards the Self. At this preliminary stage of practice the Self is an object to be focused on, and a strong desire to reach it will enhance one’s ability to focus on the goal. If one wants and desires it to the exclusion of all else, then one is not diverted by mental and physical distractions.
Here is a well-known dialogue from Day by Day with Bhagavan (11th January 1946) that illustrates some of these points:
A young man from Colombo asked Bhagavan, ‘J. Krishnamurti teaches the method of effortless and choiceless awareness as distinct from that of deliberate concentration. Would Sri Bhagavan be pleased to explain how best to practise meditation and what form the object of meditation should take?’
Bhagavan: Effortless and choiceless awareness is our real nature. If we can attain it or be in that state, it is all right. But one cannot reach it without effort, the effort of deliberate meditation. All the age-long vasanas carry the mind outward and turn it to external objects. All such thoughts have to be given up and the mind turned inward. For that, effort is necessary for most people. Of course everybody, every book says, “Be quiet or still”. But it is not easy. That is why all this effort is necessary. Even if we find one who has at once achieved the mauna or Supreme state indicated by “Be still”, you may take it that the effort necessary has already been finished in a previous life. So …, effortless and choiceless awareness is reached only after deliberate meditation. That meditation can take any form which appeals to you best. See what helps you to keep away all other thoughts and adopt that method for your meditation”.
In this connection Bhagavan quoted verses 5 and 52 from ‘Udal Poyyuravu’ and 36 from ‘Payappuli’ of Saint Thayumanavar:
‘Remain still, mind, in the face of everything!’
This truth that was taught to you, where did you let it go?
Like wrestlers, bent upon their bout, you raised your arguments.
Where is your judgement?
Where, your wisdom? Begone! (‘Udal Poyyuravu’, verse 5)
Bliss will arise if you remain still.
Why, little sir, this involvement still with yoga, whose nature is delusion?
Will [this bliss] arise through your own objective knowledge?
You need not reply, you who are addicted to ‘doing’!
You little baby, you! (‘Udal Poyyuravu’, verse 52.)
Though I have listened unceasingly to the scriptures
that one and all declare,
‘To be still is bliss, is very bliss,’
I lack, alas, true understanding,
and I failed even to heed
the teachings of my Lord, Mauna Guru.
Through this stupidity I wandered in maya’s cruel forest.
Woe is me, for this is my fated destiny. (‘Payappuli’, verse 36.)
Though all the scriptures have said it, though we hear about it every day from the great ones, and even though our Guru says it, we are never quiet, but stray into the world of maya and sense objects. That is why conscious deliberate effort is required to attain that mauna state or the state of being quiet.
In the original Day by Day citation Bhagavan merely summarised the ideas in these three verses. I have added the complete text, which I took from a translation that Venkatasubramanian, Robert Butler and myself did a few years ago.
While we still have minds, we have choices, motives and desires. Bhagavan advises us in these circumstances to choose the Self over the non-Self, and with a strong dose of vairagya (discrimination between what is real and important and unreal and unimportant) keep one’s attention on the Self by desiring awareness of the ‘I’ to the exclusion of all other desires.
Here is another well-known passage from Bhagavan, taken from Sadhu Om’s translation of Bhagavan’s essay version of Who am I?:
The mind will subside only by means of the enquiry ‘Who am I?’ The thought ‘Who am I?’, destroying all other thoughts, will itself be finally destroyed like the stick used for stirring the funeral pyre.
The question ‘Who am I?’ indicates a desire to find the true nature of the ‘I’. If that thought ‘Who am I?’ is held strongly and continuously, it burns up all other thoughts and eventually consumes itself, the original desire to know the Self, leaving a desire-free ‘I’. However, for this to happen the desire for the Self must exceed the distracting power of one’s vasanas:
Bhagavan: If the will and desire to remember Self are strong enough, they will eventually overcome vasanas. There must be a great battle going on inwardly all the time until the Self is realised. (Conscious Immortality, 1st ed., p. 57)
The process by which a strong desire for the Self burns up the mind and all its desires was stated even more explicitly by Bhagavan in the following reply, taken from Talks with Sri Ramana Maharshi, talk no. 152:
Bhagavan: Long for it [God or the Self] intensely so that the mind melts in devotion. After the camphor burns away no residue is left. The mind is the camphor; when it has resolved itself into the Self without leaving even the slightest trace behind, it is realisation of the Self.
All these ideas are neatly tied together in Guru Vachaka Kovai, verse 149:
The non-dual experience will only be attained by those who have completely given up desires. For those with desires, it is far, far away. Hence it is proper for those with desires to direct their desires towards God, who is desireless, so that through desire for God the desires that arise through the delusion that objects exist and are different from oneself will become extinct.
The last line of this verse may also be translated as ‘so that through desire for God their deluding desires become extinct’. This second version is the one that appeared in Padamalai, on page 242.
So, ‘Anonymous’, I have stuck to your brief and only included citations from Bhagavan. I hope they will dispel a little of your confusion. To conclude, here are two more verses from Guru Vachaka Kovai. Though they do mention that giving up desires is essential for Self-realisation, they don’t really contribute much more to this discussion on desiring or not desiring the Self. However, since they do offer good practical advice on self-enquiry, that is a good enough reason for me to include them here:
By becoming the source of all desires, the ego is the doorway to the sorrow of samsara. The extremely heroic and discriminating person first attains through dispassion the total renunciation of desires that arise in the form of ‘I want’. Subsequently, through the Selfward enquiry ‘Who am I?’, he renounces that ego, leaving no trace of it, and attains the bliss of peace, free from anxieties. This is the supreme benefit of dharma.
Instead of marring the fullness of being that is God, who exists and shines without a second, by rising arrogantly as ‘I’ in opposition to him, a person should enter and subside in the Heart, his source. This truly is the virtuous discipline that should be unfailingly observed by a person who wants to reach God’s sanctum sanctorum, his consciousness-presence [jnana-sannidhi].