In Bhagavad-gita (5.22) Krishna says this about enjoyment of the senses:
ye hi samsparsha-ja bhoga duhkha-yonaya eva te
“The pleasures that arise from contact between the senses and their objects are in truth the sources of all suffering.”
The Sanskrit word bhoga (with the long ‘a’ of the plural) means ‘pleasures’ or ‘enjoyments’. What kinds? The pleasures born (ja) from samsparsha, ‘the bringing into contact’—implicitly, the contact of the senses with their appropriate objects.
This is what we mean by “sense gratification”: enjoying the pleasures that arise when the eyes, or nose, or tongue, the hands, skin, or genitals comes together with their particular objects.
Krishna says something about those pleasures startlingly counter-intuitive: the enjoyments thus obtained (te) are the birth places or origins (yonaya) of suffering (duhkha).
There seems to be an allusion to sexual enjoyment contained in this line.Yonaya literally means “vaginas,” or “wombs,” a word that connects with the word ja, birth, earler in the line. The allusion would be appropriate, for sexual pleasure is, as Freud pointed out, “the prototype of all pleasure.”)
All such sensual pleasures, Krishna asserts, are the causes of suffering.
As if anticipating the immediate denial of his hearer, Krishna fortifies his laconic utterance with two words of emphasis: hi (surely, certainly) and eva (truly, really). I’ve tried to convey the force of these with the words “in truth” and with the word “all” modifying “suffering.”
The word duhkha is often used to indicate the generic suffering of material existence itself. Buddha used the word in this way in the first of his “Four Noble Truths:
This is the noble truth of suffering [duhkha]: birth is suffering, aging is suffering, illness is suffering, death is suffering; sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief and despair are suffering; union with what is displeasing is suffering; separation from what is pleasing is suffering; not to get what one wants is suffering . . . .
The second Truth declares that the origin of this suffering is desire or craving (trishna).
(By the way, we can see that these statements of Buddha mirror the Bhagavad-gita’s teaching. It is well known that Buddha rejected the authority of the Vedas, yet we see here that he clearly retained some fundamental principles of Vedic teaching. Interestingly, early in the Gita, Krishna rejects those who, bewildered by the “flowery language” of the Vedas, devote themselves exclusively to Vedic rites in order to obtain worldly opulence and enjoyment. In other words, Krishna rejects the same understanding of the Vedas that Buddha does. Yet Krishna, still accepting Vedic authority, expounds what he considers the ultimate Vedic teaching, making open in the Gita what was previously exclusive or hidden knowledge.)
But here there is no disagreement: “Those pleasures that arise from the contact of the senses with their objects are in truth the sources of all suffering.”
Krishna reveals that the world actually works in precisely the opposite of the way we suppose. From our very birth we began to enjoy sense pleasure. Finding delight in every such experience, we naturally assume that the path of happiness—obviously— lies in multiplying, perpetuating, and intensifying those pleasures as far as possible.
Yet the world misleads us. And so, our worldly experience as a whole is described as a kind of maya or illusion.
The illusion is all-pervading and ever-deepening. Krishna’s warning has been issued by many saints and sages of the past, like Lao Tzu, Confucius, Buddha, Moses, Plato, and Plotinus, but nowadays we dismisses their teachings.
Caught in that sensual music all neglect
Monuments of unageing intellect.
(from W.B. Yeats, “Sailing to Byzantium”)
Why then should we heed those traditional religions and moralities, with their negations and restrictions imposed by those decrepit, youth-hating, life-denying patriarchs, their lips curled in disgust? There is such a thing as progress. It has liberated us from the guilt and inhibitions inherited from the past; let us fully explore and exploit all the potentials of the world. So the illusion grows deeper, lays the very foundation of our modern culture.
In 1851—in the early days of the modern project—Mathew Arnold composed the celebrated poem “Dover Beach.” There, where the waves loudly pound the pebbled shore beneath the chalk cliffs, the sound of the ebbing tide reminded the poet of the “melancholy, long, withdrawing roar” of the once full “Sea of Faith.” Contemplating our new condition, Arnold concluded:
. . . for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.
Did Arnold nail it? After so many more years of progress, we can watch on hi-def, large-screen satellite TV the current clashing of the current armies of the night, and the current brilliant talking heads analyzing the current global economic collapse and the current unchecked advance of man-made global climatic disaster. All of this news comes richly larded with—and paid for by—expensively produced commercial messages that urge us to spend and enjoy more and more and more.
What could have gone wrong?
Or what if the television commercials miraculously told the truth? Enjoy Cancun or Paris, enjoy Schlitz or Heinekens, enjoy Toyota or Lexus—and you will really suffer!
Of course, some total marketing lies have been famously exposed, and products have fallen into disgrace. Enjoy Luck Strikes, Camels, and Chesterfield—we know you will suffer. You will suffer chronic obstructive lung disease, heart disease, stroke, and lung cancer, and die.
What Krishna is telling us—what the consumers have yet to realize—is that all sense gratification is a cigarette. Sense gratification is the cause of death.
Next week: A closer look at sense gratification