Sense Gratification: An Essay in Pathology

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



Filed under Sense Gratification

4 responses to “Sense Gratification: An Essay in Pathology

  1. All religions teach sexual restraint: to be concerned with things of the spirit rather than the flesh.

    Srila Prabhupada writes in The Path of Perfection:

    “Yoga does not mean going to some class, paying some money, engaging in gymnastics, and then returning home to drink, smoke, and engage in sex. Such yoga is practiced by societies of the cheaters and the cheated…If one tells you that you can indulge in sex as much as you like and at the same time become a yogi, he is cheating you. If some so-called guru tells you to give him money in exchange for some mantra and that you can go on and engage in all kinds of nonsense, he is just cheating you. Because we want something sublime and yet want it cheaply, we put ourselves in a position to be cheated…if we want perfection in yoga, we have to pay for it by abstaining from sex. Perfection in yoga is not something childish, and Bhagavad-gita instructs us that if we try to make yoga into something childish, we will be cheated. There are many cheaters awaiting us, waiting to take our money, giving us nothing, and then leaving.”

    With regard to Christians, the apostle Paul taught his followers to bless their persecutors and not curse them (Romans 12:14), to care for their enemies by providing them with food and drink (12:20), and to pay their taxes and obey all earthly governments (13:1-7). He mentioned giving all his belongings to feed the hungry (I Corinthians 13:3), and taught giving to the person in need (Ephesians 4:23). He told his followers it was wrong to take their conflicts before non-Christian courts rather than before the saints. (I Corinthians 6:1)

    Paul taught that “it is good for a man not to touch a woman,” i.e., it is best to be celibate, but because of prevailing immoralities, marriage is acceptable. Divorce, however, is not permissible, except in the case of an unbeliever demanding separation. (I Corinthians 7) Paul repeatedly attacked sexual immorality. “This is God’s will–your sanctification, that you keep yourselves from sexual immorality, that each of you learn how to take his own wife in purity and honor, not in lustful passion like the gentiles who have no knowledge of God.” (I Thessalonians 4:3-5) Paul told his followers not to associate with sexually immoral people (I Corinthians 5:9-12, 6:15,18). He condemned homosexuality (Romans 1:24-27) and incest (I Corinthians 5:1).

    “Make no mistake,” warned Paul, “no fornicator or idolater, none who are guilty either of adultery or of homosexual perversion, no thieves or grabbers or drunkards or slanderers or swindlers, will possess the kingdom of God.” (I Corinthians 6:9-10 [NEB])

    Paul condemned wickedness, immorality, depravity, greed, envy, murder, quarreling, deceit, malignity, gossip, slander, insolence, pride (Romans 1:29-30), drunkenness, carousing, debauchery, jealousy (Romans 13:13), sensuality, magic arts, animosities, bad temper, selfishness, dissensions, envy (Galatians 5:19-21; greediness (Ephesians 4:19; Colossians 3:5), foul speech, anger, clamor, abusive language, malice (Ephesians 4:29-32), dishonesty (Colossians 3:13), materialism (I Timothy 6:6-11), conceit, avarice, boasting and treachery. (II Timothy 3:2-4)

    Paul told the gentiles to train themselves for godliness, to practice self-control and lead upright, godly lives (Galatians 5:23; I Timothy 4:7; II Timothy 1:7; Titus 2:11-12). He instructed them to ALWAYS pray constantly. (I Thessalonians 5:17)

    Paul praised love, joy, peace, kindness, generosity, fidelity and gentleness (Galatians 5:22-23). He told his followers to conduct themselves with humility and gentleness (Ephesians 4:2), to speak to one another in psalms and hymns; to sing heartily and make music to the Lord. (Ephesians 5:19; Colossians 3:16)

    Paul wrote further that women should cover their heads while worshipping, and that long hair on males is dishonorable. (I Corinthians 11:5-14) According to Paul, Christian women are to dress modestly and prudently, and are not to be adorned with braided hair, gold or pearls or expensive clothes. (I Timothy 2:9)

    My problem really isn’t with Christians unable to follow Paul, but with the hypocrisy of saying “I believe” and ignoring the rest of what their religion dictates when it suits them. Why not just be secular, like everyone else?

    It’s my contention all of us (Christians included!) really live in a secular society. People merely pay lip service to religious ideals.

  2. Not sure what you mean by using the word “secular”. Is it a society where all bona fide spiritual paths are given equal paramount importance beyond the mundane affairs of state?
    But if it is what that term is generally used today, here is what Bhakti Siddhanta Sarawati Thakur says:
    It is not denied that a person who is not theistically inclined may be possessed of more than average skill in certain forms of secular activity. He may be a great general, a great scholar, a great sportsman, etc., etc. But he must not be allowed to have intimate connection with other members of the society having the spiritual objective. And then he quotes the six kinds of social intercourses from Upadeshamrit.

    But then he also adds – The direction of secular affairs is left to a society which follows the lead of the Brahmanas in regard to its spiritual objective, which is paramount.

    Reference: The Harmonist, Vol, XXIX.No. 1

  3. The Mathew Arnold poem – loved it.

    “…the world actually works in precisely the opposite of the way we suppose,” that’s profound.

    Was fascinated by the concept of sexual pleasure as the prototype of all pleasure. Gave it some thought and it really is true – great anticipation, laborious scheme and exertion and then fireworks, a fleeting thrill followed by a disillusioned sense of emptiness and indifference. The pleasure does not bring permanent satisfaction, and soon the cycle of arousal and discharge begins all over again and the more it is fed the greater the craving for it becomes. And so what began as an act of “freedom and hope” comes to show its true face as oppression and domination, duhkha-suffering. The pattern truly applies to every other pleasure in life.

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