Desire is innate to human existence, and love is its prime manifestation. From sexual to asexual and from material to abstract, desire is double-edged something that explores human strengths while simultaneously imploring its vulnerabilities. Lethal as it may seem, desire’s origin as Kama in scriptures and philosophies swings between two extremes – Vatsyayana’s sensuous poetry and Victorian middle-class morality. However, in a world where human sexuality and relationships are up for reinterpretation the chance that a deeper understanding of kama may help knock down the flawed human condition could indeed be a reality. Gurcharan Das is convinced that by repossessing the creative forces of kama can the classical balance between the four goals of life – Dharma, Kama, Artha and Moksha - be restored in our chaotic lives tossed between tradition and modernity.
That the essence of kama has been reduced to its sexual context has indeed been the cause for it not been seen as the force behind the life instinct. Vatsyayana understood it more than a natural energy, and sought it be cultivated as an art. The Upanishads found in kama the capacity to beget life, lying in it the origin of civilization. Das pulls leaves out of his own love life to suggest that by only cherishing desire can one attain to live life to its fullest. Nothing comes without pain though, as dangerous emotions such as jealousy, hate, and fear give company to desire. At the core of his thesis is that while dharma is a duty towards others, kama is duty to oneself. How one balances between the two is what differentiates the special from the ordinary!
Kama, The Riddle of Desire is an intense reading of the ancient scriptures and the western philosophies aimed at unraveling multiple strands of desire, the former offers an optimistic view of creation as the latter evokes feelings of shame and guilt. One might wonder if the ascetic and the erotic are two aspects of the same human nature. The ascetic, or the kama pessimist, seeks renouncement whereas the sybarite, or the kama optimist, favours indulgence. If the story and sub-stories of this part-fiction, part-autographical narrative is anything to go by, each desire springs from a feeling of incompleteness. The urge to own and the surge for acquisitions put one onto a never-ending cycle of desire, facilitated by emotional and economic capital.
Despite the twists and twirls of his journey in search of love, Das’ staying on the side of kama optimist may have been on account of most of his life spent inside the capitalist world, where controlling desire may merit limited consideration. Only by living life to its fullest can one ever realize the true potential of kama as a game change, argues Das, because to stop desiring and to perform desirelessly do not mean the same. If desire is indestructible, as Lord Krishna said, then desire should not be renounced but instead channelized towards greater public good, if at all.
It is a ground-breaking narrative that is engaging and enlightening, shedding new light on the irresistibility of desire. It pulls desire from the trap of guilt, and assigns new meanings to it. Das reminds us that kama is our duty to live every moment as though it were our last, because making creative use of kama serves higher purpose of life. It is only by becoming aware of the higher purpose of life, a duty to oneself, which can help reclaim our primordial humanity. Kama, the Riddle of Desire is a sensitive but ambitious undertaking on a subject on which lack of female perspective completes only half the story.
Kama: The Riddle of Desire
by Gurcharan Das
Penguin Allen Lane, New Delhi
Extent: 548, Price: Rs 799.
First published in the BusinessLine, issue dated Dec 10, 2018.
(It is perhaps uncommon for a reviewer to review a book twice, but one can surely have two views on the same title. I have attempted it, please scroll down to read the first review).