No one likes to be the bearer of bad news. Not only is it unpleasant; it can be dangerous. Kings routinely used to kill on the spot hapless messengers bringing word of defeat.
Even so, most people still acknowledge that truth, however unpalatable, is preferable to illusion, however cheering. This is, after all, only practical, for the facts as they affect us have a certain implacable stubbornness to which even the most compelling illusions must eventually yield. Facts always win-simply because they are facts.
You have probably gathered that I have some fairly unpleasant things to say.
Indeed, the illusion I want to destroy is perhaps the most deeply rooted and pervasive of all human convictions. It is the idea that we can achieve happiness through the enjoyment of our senses, especially through that prototype of all pleasure, sex and sexual love. Certainly no effort has been pursued as doggedly, and yet produced a record of such consistent failure, as this one. The wonder is that this history of universal defeat has in no way dampened the hope of imminent victory.
Certainly, with the disintegration of traditional religions and the official establishment of secular philosophies, this illusion has gained the force of an obsession. If we are no more than sophisticated animals, if our existence as individual conscious subjects is something haphazardly thrown up between two infinities of nothingness, then we would be foolish not to mine our allotment of durance for as much sensual bliss as possible. Since this is all we have, we had better give it our best effort.
Such sentiments have greatly contributed to the presently widespread movement toward a full sensual awakening through the liberation of sexuality. Given that the body provides our only access to happiness, we must extirpate those constraints upon our fulfillment, those internal impediments inculcated by discarded, life-denying religions and moralities—the repression of desires, the consciousness of guilt, the fear and hatred of the body. Now one cultivates a liberated and expansive life, free from all repressions; one aspires to drink deeply at the wells of pure pleasure, unpolluted by guilt or shame, healed and whole inspirit through a joyous acceptance and celebration of the body.
It shouldn’t take much experience of the actual conduct of sexual relations for an alert person to recognize that this vision of unrestrained, joyous sex is an unrealizable fantasy. Nevertheless, the fantasy still seems to exercise an irresistible fascination. I suppose’ that people must blame its disappointments on repressions still unpurged, residual guilt and shame, and a lack of trust in and surrender to the body itself.
But in fact none of us can wholeheartedly trust in and surrender to the body, because we know, beneath the bluff and the bravado, that our bodies are frail and weak and dying and that the greatest pleasure it gives us it heartbreakingly brief. We find ourselves bound within a complexity of muscle and vein that nature can dismantle at any moment, in any of thousands of horrible ways. Our strength and beauty leak away in daily increments. Our body disintegrates before our eyes and becomes itself a major source of our suffering, and then we die.
Therefore, no one can help but be horrified by his body (even though the mind must repress those feelings in self-defense). This horror is not an artificial hate or fear imposed by some life-denying religion. It is only a sensible reaction to a correct perception.
Our position is intrinsically divided. We are not whole. We are endowed with a developed consciousness that makes our incarceration in bodies like those of animals agonizing for us. We can imagine, abstract, generalize, range far beyond the narrow limits of local place and time. Our minds continually search for the first principles behind all things, for the one that underlies the many, for the permanent that persists through all change, for the eternal beyond the temporal. Meanwhile we struggle fitfully in a dying body. Our spirits reach for the infinite; our molars rot.
The consciousness that gives us such strong intimations of immortality also forces us to be acutely aware of our helplessness before nature, our fragility before the huge weight of the universe, and the constant threat of death under which we live. Even a small child draws the connection between the bleeding cut on his finger and the animals he sees exploded in gore upon the roadside.
All the same, we are possessed by an unremitting desire for pleasure, by the conviction that happiness is our right. This conflicts with the reality of our condition. Therefore, the mind represses with great power our perception of reality and our horror at our situation. Any person will verbally admit to you that he knows he is going to die, but the admission rings curiously hollow. It is as if he were talking about someone else. At heart, he refuses to believe it. This is how he lives a “happy” life-at least for a time.
We should recognize that most of human culture is a complicity to sustain our vital delusion, a skillful artifice to keep ourselves unconscious. We erect and vie for artificial or symbolic goals so that we can prove to ourselves our strength and power, our endurance and invulnerability; we have thousands of ways of patting ourselves and each other on the back. But of course, nature grinds relentlessly on and pays no heed to our fine and tender feelings, our banners and our flags, our list of conquests and victories. While we keep ourselves resolutely preoccupied and distracted, absorbed in our illusory enterprises, death comes, to our great surprise.
We dismiss death from our minds to be happy, but it doesn’t really work. On the contrary, since in this world life and death are bound tightly together, to retreat from death is to retreat from life. One cannot become selectively unconscious.
This explains the loss of that pristine and glorious vision of the world we knew as a child, a loss poets ceaselessly lament. Somehow we fall from grace, and thereafter we experience life with a deadened spirit and narrowed consciousness, a diminished capacity for feeling. Adulthood fully initiates us into the established system of illusions, into a life of intense effort toward makeshift goals whose real purpose is to keep us from thought. Such a life is necessarily thin, grey, tasteless, and it has an undercurrent of constant, nagging despair, for which most societies provide some sort of anesthetic—intoxicants, television, or the like. All the while, the wonder and splendor of the edenic world of our childhood lies shining all about us, but we have turned away from it in fear, for we have learned that it is a place of death.
This discovery begins early enough, but our retreat into organized unreality takes time. Yet there is one thing more than anything else that seals it. This is sex.
The Ultimate Failure
My assertion, of course, goes quite counter to the tenet of the sexual liberation movement that through surrender to sex we can gain a new innocence and thus enter a world radiant with intense and joyous experience. But such a liberated posture ignores that the body which is the vehicle of sexual pleasure is also the vehicle of pain and disease and senescense and death.
The initiation into sex, that experience of overwhelming subjugation to the body for pleasure, is precisely that experience which contributes most to the diminished capacity for living. This is not so hard to see. Our first sexual act precipitates a tenacious identification with the body, forges a fast bond to it. Thereafter, we are committed to the project of seeking happiness through the senses. At the same time, we awaken to a deep and abiding dread:
We have sealed our pact with mortality. As sex deadens the spirit, it quickens all the senses. It becomes the center of all material enjoyment. Yet sensual pleasures depend entirely upon the favorable arrangement of circumstances, and so the more a person is committed to pursuing these pleasures, the greater his anxiety. Most of all he needs money. Sex indentures him to ceaseless labor. Securing attractive sexual partners is at best an elaborate and troublesome pursuit, fraught with dangers to one’s self-esteem. As a person becomes older, the pursuit becomes harder and depends almost entirely upon his ability to maintain his social prestige and display his opulence and generosity. There is no end to worry and to fear.
On the other hand, we may try to withdraw from the anxieties of the sexual marketplace and take the advice of count-less popular songs by seeking the one we “love” and who “loves” us in return. Such a discovery is rare enough, but it hardly ends our sufferings. On the contrary, nothing can compare to our anguish when we lose the object of our love—or that one’s love for us. Love is no shelter. And we have discovered that as people increasingly demand sexual fulfillment from marriage, the less durable such relationships are becoming.
Our inability to sustain relationships is at the heart of our predicament. All our happiness and our achievement depend upon our successfully perpetuating relationships, and our ultimate failure to do so is called death. Small losses prefigure the larger one. We want to live, to expand our organism, to increase the power of our being—in short, to overcome death. As sex is the act of creation of life, we turn to it to commune with the energy of life itself and to prove our vital power. This power becomes embodied in offspring. Our family becomes the nucleus of a fortification composed of real estate, money, social connections, privilege, and power. We feed our vital force by competing with enemies and destroying them. In this way we prosper and gloriously expand. Yet all these activities have a desperate and driven character. We are trying to fool ourselves. For at heart we know very well that nothing can protect us, that all our powerful friends, aristocratic relatives, and sweet-faced children are fallible soldiers in the war, and that all of us are doomed.
Revolt Against Death
I think I have drawn an honest picture of our human predicament, and I am afraid that by now you must be thinking I am willfully obtuse. You may indeed be willing to admit that all of us have to settle for less happiness in life than we want (as Freud put it, the “reality principle” replaces the “pleasure principle”), and you might admit that sex never really does live up to its promise. All the same, it still gives us some pleasure, and with the pain and suffering we have to face, why shouldn’t we at least accept this pleasure?
Sex is a biological drive; it is fundamental to life itself. We cannot be free of it, and so even though it is not without difficulties, even worse are the difficulties of suppression and frustration. So what can we do? It is simply perverse to keep harping on the dark side of things, and all this bad news is pointless.
But there is, I assure you, a point. I would like you to consider the possibility that our revolt against the sentence of death imposed by the body, our intuitive consciousness that we are meant for more than casual destruction, may have a justification in dimly apprehended, obscured fact. Our developed human consciousness, which keeps us from being comfortable in an animal body, may indicate or symptomize a fundamental feature of existence.
To put it another way, consider the possibility that our involvement in sex, and in the whole frantic enterprise of sensual life that expands from it, constitutes a kind of intoxication or stupefaction of awareness that occludes our normal consciousness of our real nature—a nature that is in fact not subject at all to death. If this is so, there is a prospect for realizing, through the excavation of that eternal self, an inherent and inalienable happiness absolutely independent of the states of the body. One can achieve this, however, only if one can remove the stupefaction of consciousness by directing his energies away from the project of material satisfaction that centers on sex.
The project of uncovering the eternal self that I am proposing should not be confused with the repressive programs that have been propagated in the name of religion. The project of self-realization does not call for enduring a bleak life of frustration and deprivation to attain a future heavenly enjoyment. Nor does it propose that we seek happiness as a neutral “peace,” the mere absence of pain, through atrophy of the affections. On the contrary, I propose that our desire to possess an unending existence of uninterrupted, every-intensifying bliss is legitimate, and that there is a practical way we can fulfill it immediately, a way so natural, powerful, and attractive that all other engagements lose their allure.
You may be thinking, however, that if there were anything to this, it would have already been accepted by our intellectual and political leaders and embedded in educational policy. The problem is that a person’s knowledge is relative to his situation. When a person is habituated to sensual enjoyment and to sex, his instruments of perception malfunction, and so he is unable to comprehend or experience his own eternal nature, no matter how outstanding he may otherwise be. Such people are sunk in an ignorance so profound, so fundamental, that even their greatest knowledge is really a kind of advancement in ignorance. In spite of repeated failures, they perpetually put forward hopeless and quixotic schemes to bring happiness, and they seem to have an animallike obliviousness to the essential character of the world. Even though they mislead others, however, they are ultimately not worthy of anger or scorn: they suffer like everyone else.
Knowledge concerning the eternal self and the method of freeing it can come only from one who is himself free. This implies that if there is such a person there must have been a historical succession of them passing down the teaching. In fact, such traditions have appeared in many countries, and often enough—although the usual course is that it will flourish for a while, become compromised by the spirit of material enjoyment, and then look absurd and be rejected.
I was taught the science of sell-realization by His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, who follows from a historical tradition going back thousands of years in India. The teachings of that tradition, recorded in ancient Sanskrit texts like Bhagavad-gita and Srimad-Bhagavatam, recognize a variety of methods for self-realization, but recommend strongly, above all others, the method called bhakti-yoga.
To help explain this method of freeing the self, let me first set out a more detailed account of the self and its relation to matter and to other selves.
There are two categories of selves. All selves are eternal and of the nature of pure cognition and bliss, but one category contains numberless selves, and the other category contains one self alone. The one self is called the supreme self because it completely sustains the many. The one is infinite and self-sufficient; the many are infinitesimal and dependent. (You may call the many infinitesimal selves “souls” and the one infinite self “God,” but I have avoided these terms because speculative philosophy and theology have burdened them with such misinformation, controversy, and a general bad name that I would rather start here with a verbal clean slate.) You may compare the supreme self to the sun and the subordinate selves to the atomic particles of sunshine; so we can speak of the one supreme self as the energetic and of the multitudinous subordinate selves as the energy. Just as the atoms of sunshine are a part of the sun, though removed from it, so the individual selves are separated particles of the supreme self, and accordingly they are qualitatively identical with the supreme, even though they are quantitatively minute. Each fragmental self possesses a tiny allotment of all the qualities of the complete self.
The milieu in which the supreme self eternally dwells with the subordinate selves is called the spiritual, or internal, energy. In that atmosphere, the supreme self is the unwavering object of love for the subordinate selves because He is supremely attractive—for this reason, He is called “Krsna” (“the all-attractive one”). Each act of the subordinate selves expresses their uninterrupted, ever-increasing love for Krsna, who returns His own feelings in the same way. Thus each self is fully satisfied because he is fully absorbed in an eternal loving relationship with the supremely lovable person, the source of all beauty. Krsna returns the love of the subordinate selves without reservation, in a relationship that time cannot sunder. This is the natural condition of the selves.
As the origin of everything, the supreme self is the supreme enjoyer, and the subordinate selves derive their own sustenance and bliss by participating in His enjoyment. They cannot enjoy independently. Yet it happens that some selves want this one thing. Having everything, an eternal life of bliss and knowledge, they nevertheless want to controvert their own essential nature as subordinate, dependent beings. They want to become the supreme self. Instead of serving, they would like to be served. Thus they want to abrogate their relationship with Krsna; since they have a minute amount of the independence the supreme possesses in full, they can do it.
Krsna does not transgress the small independence of His fragmental parts, and He accedes to their desire. For them—that is to say, for us—He creates another milieu, called the material, or external, energy. Of course, it is logically impossible for the supreme self to grant subordinate selves their desire to be the supreme, for by definition there can be only one supreme. It is the essential nature of the subordinate selves to serve, to be controlled by, the supreme. That nature cannot be changed, but in the material energy the tiny selves can have the illusion that they are independent, that they are the supreme, that they are the enjoyers and the controllers. All the same, they remain inescapably under the control of Krsna’s material energy, which they cannot overcome.
Returning to A Pure Existence
Selves are beings that experience, centers of consciousness, subjects. Matter does not experience; it is without subjectivity; it is completely an object. Selves live; matter is lifeless. When the selves enter the alien, material energy, they acquire and animate bodies made out of lifeless matter. Driven by a desire to forget Krsna and their relation to Him, they identify themselves with bodies of matter. In this way the self becomes a divided being. Now the self thinks of itself as a product of nature, as an object created and destroyed in time. As the body is damaged by disease and injury, as it disintegrates with age, and as it dies, the self thinks, “This is happening to me.” Thus the self enters the interminable horror of material existence, a nightmare of carnage from which it cannot awake. As one body is destroyed, nature transfers him to another, to undergo a similar destruction.
The self moves blindly through these bodies, driven by an overwhelming appetite for enjoyment. In its original condition, the self is filled with a ceaseless love for the supreme, all-attractive self. This love is constitutional; it cannot be removed; it is the self’s very life. Therefore, when the self turns aside from the proper object of his love, that love is not annihilated but becomes transmuted or redirected. When the self contacts the material energy, his love for Krsna is transformed into lust, just as milk in contact with acid turns into curd.
So the erotic drive is indeed part of our essential makeup. But it is a transformation of what is in fact our love for Krsna. Desire, therefore, cannot possibly be annihilated, nor can it be successfully repressed or suppressed. However, it can be reverted to its original state.
Yet as long as we are impelled by the erotic drive, we take on a succession of bodies of matter. We move up the hierarchy of beings; in the lower stages of our evolution, in plant and then animal bodies, our consciousness is heavily covered. We are only dimly and fitfully sentient. When at last we acquire human bodies, our consciousness, that effulgence of the eternal self, becomes uniquely uncovered. This fuller manifestation of the eternal self in beings that still inhabit material bodies creates a problematical situation, full of the tensions of a divided nature, and provides a kind of suffering that ignorant animals do not experience. The gift of uncovered consciousness causes us to wonder: Who am I? Why am I here? What is my purpose? Why must I die? Such questions lead us toward self-realization. If we do not at least begin upon this course, then we must take another. The revelation of our spiritually conscious nature shows us the incongruities of our position in matter, and the proper response is to seek freedom from material entanglement and thus resolve the sufferings that arise from duality. Unfortunately, too many people respond to the illuminations of a higher consciousness by frantically trying to snuff it out by pursuing intense animal satisfactions that produce a narrow, excited awareness, and by seeking the oblivion of drugs. This course drops the self again into animal bodies, in which it will devour and be devoured, until it at last returns to human form and once more confronts its eternal nature.
If we seize the chance of human consciousness, we can solve the problem of existence by cultivating knowledge of the self, become freed from encagement in matter, and return to our pure existence in intimate, eternal love with Krsna.
Our return to our normal condition is engineered by Krsna. While we have forgotten Him, He has not forgotten us; He has remained close by our side through all our wanderings in darkness and in pain, waiting for us to show the first flicker of a desire to abandon our illusory project of becoming the supreme. When, in the hidden depths of our being, we start to yearn for Krsna and to regret our folly in turning away, Krsna immediately arranges for us to meet one of His self-realized representatives. This person tells us explicitly about the conditions of material existence, about our eternal nature, and about our relation with Krsna, thus reviving our latent knowledge. He also initiates us onto the path of spiritual restoration with direct practical instructions. We would probably think that freedom from material conditions was some unrealizable idea, if we did not have Krsna’s representative before us as a living testament to its factuality.
The Flavor of Natural Love
The essence of the program to return the self to its pure state consists of bringing that self into direct contact with Krsna. The simplest and most effective way of doing this is through sound. The sounds that name or describe Krsna are of a totally different nature from sounds that name or describe material things. This is because Krsna is absolute, or nondual. The duality of the material world entails that a substance and its name have nothing intrinsic in common. If, for example, I say “water, water, water,” my thirst is not slaked. On the other hand, if I say “Krsna, Krsna, Krsna,” or any other personal name of the supreme self, I come directly into contact with Him. By thus using our tongue to utter and ear to hear the names and glorification of the supreme, we are united with Him. That contact is potent. Krsna is the supreme pure, and His association is purifying. We are qualitatively one with Krsna, and His association revives that original character, reawakens our native consciousness. Quickly, then, we begin to experience our eternal nature and to taste the remarkable flavor of our natural love, and as we do so we lose interest in the material substitutes that used to attract us. Our lust begins to be transformed back into love again. Thus, the revival of pure consciousness is based not on the repression or suppression of desire, but on its respiritualization.
This is different from sublimation. Sublimation is an artificial replacement of a gross physical urge with a more refined substitute, and the satisfaction it affords is never as intense and absorbing as the satisfaction of the original urge. But when, by contrast, our love is returned to Krsna, it gains immeasurably in intensity and in power, for it has found its proper object, and it is now free from the fear of change and death that block its investment in material things. Our love for Krsna begins to flow effortlessly, unchecked and unimpeded. It exfoliates without limit. Since Krsna includes all other selves, our love expands to encompass them also. As one begins to live and breathe the atmosphere of unconditioned and uninterrupted love for Krsna, he sees the whole world in a new light, and his former attempts to exploit it for his own pleasure seem perverse.
From the very beginning of Krsna consciousness one gains the positive taste for spiritual existence, and so the addictions of the senses become relatively easy to give up. The four greatest impediments to spiritual life—illicit sex, intoxication, meat-eating, and gambling—can be abandoned with surprising ease. When one has the real thing, a real life of unceasing bliss and knowledge, there is no difficulty in putting aside the counterfeits.
Unconditional love for Krsna is manifest in unconditional engagement in the service of Krsna, in service that has no desire for reward and no interruption. This is the characteristic that distinguishes love from its perverted material transformation, lust, in which personal gain is the motive. Even the sexual union of a man and a woman can be used in the service of Krsna. It is extremely good fortune for a child to be born from parents engaged in self-realization, for from his earliest moments he lives in an atmosphere uncontaminated by lust and greed and he takes in the principles of spiritual life with his mother’s milk. Such children can be conceived only when the parents unite specifically for that purpose and insure the good qualities of their offspring through their own purification of consciousness. The first duty of parents is to be able to deliver their children from death, and family life dedicated to that purpose is conducive to self-realization and as such need not be artificially renounced.
But sex for any other purpose—sex to exploit the body for enjoyment, to fuel the delusions of the ego—is the cause of death. Sex more than anything else fixes our false identification of our selves with the body, rivets us into the flesh, and addicts us to material aggrandizement. Sexual desire can never be satisfied, for it grows by what it feeds on. This permanently frustrated desire causes a deep and abiding rage, which deepens our illusion. The twin delusions of desire and hate drive us on through interminable bodily incarcerations, hurtling us over and over into forms that fill us with fear, suffer the ceaseless onslaught of injury and disease, disintegrate while we still occupy them, and are destroyed. In reality none of this happens to us, but we have erroneously identified ourselves with the body and have thereby taken these torments upon us. Death is an illusion we have imposed upon ourselves by our desire to enjoy this world. Sex is the essence of that desire. Sex, therefore, is death.
It is only right that we struggle against the sentence of death. It is only proper that we seek a life of uninterrupted and unending pleasure uncompromised by shame or fear. It is only natural that we want to be whole and at one with ourselves, uncompromised by duality. The most deadly delusion is that sex is a way to these goals, for in fact it is the greatest single impediment. It is the cause of our disease, which we embrace as the cure.
The restrictions upon sexual activity enjoined by religions were originally meant to assist in overcoming this greatest block to human happiness. Unfortunately, now only the restrictions and negations survive, while the real reason for them has been forgotten.
But the viable path of self-realization is once again open. It may seem to you that, whatever good intentions you may have, the sexual drive is too powerful for you to overcome. It is true that it is too strong for artificial suppression. But I know from experience that if you simply begin by taking up the positive practices of bhakti-yoga, especially the reciting of the name of Krsna in the form of the Hare Krsna mantra, you will find that what seemed so formidable a barrier becomes easy to cross and that your authentic life, beyond the world of birth and death, is at hand.
RAVINDRA SVARUPA DASA holds a doctorate in religion from Temple University. Philadelphia. He has been a devotee of Krsna for nine years.