Ashtavakra Samhita, Chapter 3, Verse 07
aashcharyam kaamaamaka~nkshet kaalamantamanushritah
It is surprising that one who is already weak and approaching the last days of his life still desires sexual pleasure knowing well that it is the enemy of knowledge.
Sex and Spirituality
Sexuality or sensuality is the enemy (amitram) of knowledge (jnana). Why? Because it distracts and deludes the mind and prevents one from knowing oneself.
Sexual desire (kama vasana) is a powerful force. It is difficult to be completely free from it even in old age, unless one has practiced spirituality for a long time and subdued the mind and senses. Even then, one has to be careful, since the mind is designed to be unstable and vulnerable to sexual thoughts and desires due to the play of the Gunas. Sexual desire is one of the strongest latent impressions (samskara) which passes on from one birth to another and persists until they are fully burnt in the fire of austerity. Ordinary people cannot fully suppress their natural urges or the desire for physical pleasures and worldly enjoyment. Once they are accustomed a certain way of life and acquire habits that are difficult to overcome, they cannot easily pull away from the attractions and temptations of life. Since there is no end to human desires, there is no easy solution to overcome this problem.
The body needs comfort and pleasure, and the mind seeks peace and happiness. From a worldly perspective, these are simple physiological and biological needs of human beings, which are vital to their survival and wellbeing. We cannot judge people because they have appetite for good food, good life or sexual pleasure. It is not a sin to pursue simple pleasures of life. It is a sin only if that pursuit causes harm or suffering to others or interferes with the practice of Dharma. Our tradition gives permission to worldly people (householders) to pursue enjoyment (kama) through rightful means. Just as one needs water and air for survival, one needs some pleasures, peace and happiness to keep the life going and feel good about oneself.
Life is already difficult for most of us. It is full of suffering. Most people cannot afford luxuries, purchase expensive items, live in a clean environment or buy luxury homes. For most people, sexual pleasure is the easily and readily available enjoyment, with which they find a brief respite from the troubles of life. One may feel guilty for having sexual thoughts or desires because our scriptures say so, but from the perspective of commonsense it is not unnatural for anyone to have them. From the same perspective, what is unnatural is not to have any sexual desire at all.
Nature has built this powerful life force into all living beings so that the world can continue its forward course. Both the mind and the body are naturally drawn to sexuality, just as they are drawn to food and water. Even small organisms, which do not possess any consciousness or a well-developed nervous system, engage in sexual reproduction. It goes to prove that sexual urge is a primitive instinct, which is deeply embedded in each individual, and from which one cannot easily disengage. If a person feels hunger, he or she is bound to feel passion also, although it may not be with the same frequency.
Age brings some changes in our thinking and behavior and the way the mind and body work. However, sexual urge does not necessarily diminish with age. Some studies even suggest that the opposite may happen with aging. As people make progress in their lives and careers, they may become accustomed to their sexuality and begin to explore it with increased confidence. The ability to engage in sexual activity may diminish with age, but the desire itself may remain undiminished. Mahatma Gandhi tried to practice Brahmacharya (celibacy) in his old age, but he was not entirely successful. His writings reveal that even in his old age he had sexual dreams and occasionally suffered from dream emissions.
For spiritual people, sexual desire is the most difficult problem to overcome in their sadhana. It is a major impediment in engaging the mind in the contemplation of God or Self and pull it away from body centric orientation. Many spiritual people admit that in the advanced stages of spiritual practice they become assailed by sexual thoughts and imagery. It happens to even the most advanced souls. The Buddha was haunted by Mara’s maidens before he received enlightenment. Sage Viswamitra was enchanted by the beauty of Menaka when Indra sent her to distract him from his austerities, which he had been practicing for long to become an adept seer (brahma rishi). On many occasions, Indra used the mind’s vulnerability to sexual desire as a weapon to distract humans as well as demons from pursuing their spiritual goals to achieve perfection and the right to rule the heavens. Manmadha tried to use it on Shiva and became a target of his intense wrath. Lord Vishnu used it after the churning of the oceans to enthrall the demons and deny them their share of elixir.
Our scriptures are replete with instances where seers and sages, and even gods, lost their minds because of lustful thoughts and mind’s vulnerability to sexual desire. In recent times, we have seen a few prominent, Hindu spiritual gurus falling from grace because of their carnal desires and secret sexual involvement with some women in their care. Every time an incident of this nature happens, people may be surprised, but there is no real surprise in it. The soul and the body are two different realities. One may have centered oneself in the soul consciousness, but it does not mean that one is fully secure. Even if there is a little weakness or unresolved past karma, the mind and body will remain vulnerable. Hence, one cannot take anything for granted on the spiritual path.
In today's world, it is very difficult to practice celibacy or austerity. Our world is so driven by sensuality that people are constantly bombarded with explicit sexual images from multiple sources. Even if one wants to ignore them, it is difficult because a lot of those images become a part of our subtle memory. In quiet moments, they resurface and disturb the mind. There is a reason why Hinduism prescribes forest life (Vanaprastha) for people who want to lead a contemplative life, away from the din and distraction of worldly life.
The forest environment is conducive to stabilize the mind and experience peace and equanimity. There, the distractions are much less and the opportunities to engage the mind in contemplation are more. It was why our seers, sages and yogis preferred to live in forests to practice austerities and attain self-realization. Forest life suited their contemplative and austere lifestyles and helped them withstand the rigors of spiritual practice. It is still the most ideal environment to practice spirituality. However, in today’s world you may not find many forests which are safe and entirely free from people or worldly influence.
Thus, sexual desire is both a problem and blessing for humans. On the one hand it is necessary for the order and regularity of the world, but on the other, it is a major obstacle to attain liberation. Nature exploits it to draw the beings into the vortex of life and keep them bound to the cycle of births and deaths. Aurobindo suggested that the problem could not be overcome by individual effort only. Since vital forces were involved which were also responsible for the vitality and liveliness of the mind and body, one needed to surrender to the divine Mother and seek her help to sublimate the sexual energy. Only the Shakti could tame the raw passions that burn in the body, without causing sickness or mental disturbance..
Sexual desire seems to be the last barrier before one achieve perfection in the practice of Yoga. The Tantriks aim to conquer it by accepting it as a transformative force and letting it exhaust itself through controlled expression. The ascetics on the other hand want to battle it out by restraining their minds and bodies and withdrawing them from the sense objects. For worldly people, sexual desire is like any other natural urge. However, due to their social and religious conditioning, they may have an ambivalent attitude towards it and suffer from conflict and guilt. They inherently know how sexuality consumes the human mind and often forces even old people to succumb to sexual temptations. Therefore, they may not feel surprised to see old people engaging in sexual activities or marrying in the old age.
We live not only in the information age but also in the age of sexual liberation. People are now accustomed to accepting sex as an essential part of human life. Nowadays, sex or sexual imagery pervades every aspect of our civilization. It is there in the foods we eat, the clothes we wear, the products we purchase, the arts we appreciate, the music we listen, the movies we enjoy, the news we read, the things we cherish and the lifestyles we wish to pursue. For the current generation of people in the West and in many urban areas of the East, sex is no more a taboo or a matter of love, marriage or duty, or even pleasure, but a simple number to feel good about. They are accustomed to the idea of how many times and with how many people they may have done it, before they can even think of settling with anyone.
The surprise is for the spiritual people, like Ashtavakra, who have transcended their minds and seen the life and the possibilities that exist beyond. Truly, it is not surprise, but a kind of dismay or disappointment because they know the possibilities that the people are missing and the delay they are causing to their own salvation and spiritual evolution. Since they have seen both sides of life and know from experience what opportunities the world is missing in the pursuit of sexual pleasures, they express their concerns and try to caution those who want to progress on the spiritual path. We know that in the din of modern life, very few people even care to pay any attention and ponder over this subject. Such is the power of Maya.
Suggestions for Further Reading
- Om, Aum, Pranava or Nada in Mantra and Yoga Traditions
- Brahmacharya or Celibacy in Hinduism
- Atheism and Materialism in Ancient India
- Solving the Hindu Caste System
- How To Choose Your Spiritual Guru?
- Creation in Hinduism As a Transformative Evolutionary Process
- Wealth and Duty in Hinduism
- Do You Have Any Plans For Your Rebirth or Reincarnation?
- Understanding Death and Impermanence
- Lessons from the Dance of Kali, the Mother Nature
- Letting your God live in You - The True Essence of the Hindu Way of Life
- prajnanam brahma - Brahman is Intelligence
- Maslow's Hierarchy Of Needs From The Perspective Of Hinduism
- The Definition and Concept of Maya in Hinduism
- The Meaning of Nirvana
- Self-knowledge, Difficulties in Knowing Yourself
- Hinduism - Sex and Gurus
- The Construction of Hinduism
- The Meaning and Significance of Heart in Hinduism
- The Origin and Significance of the Epic Mahabharata
- The True Meaning of Prakriti in Hinduism
- Three Myths about Hinduism
- What is Your Notion of God?
- Why Hinduism is a Preferred Choice for Educated Hindus
- Essays On Dharma
- Esoteric Mystic Hinduism
- Introduction to Hinduism
- Hindu Way of Life
- Essays On Karma
- Hindu Rites and Rituals
- The Origin of The Sanskrit Language
- Symbolism in Hinduism
- Essays on The Upanishads
- Concepts of Hinduism
- Essays on Atman
- Hindu Festivals
- Spiritual Practice
- Right Living
- Yoga of Sorrow
- Mental Health
- Concepts of Buddhism
- General Essays
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