Sense Gratification: An Essay in Pathology

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Krishna reveals that the world works in precisely the opposite of the way we suppose.


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, nose, or tongue, the hands, skin, or genitals, come together with their particular objects.

Krishna says something about those pleasures startlingly counter-intuitive: the enjoyments thus obtained (te) are the birthplaces or origins (yonaya) of suffering (duhkha).

There seems to be an allusion to sexual enjoyment contained in this line. The word yonaya literally means “vaginas” or “wombs” and connects with the word ja, birth, earlier in the line. The allusion would be appropriate, for sexual pleasure is, as Freud pointed out, “the prototype of all pleasure.”

All 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 dismiss 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 manmade 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 Strike, Camel, 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.

“The pleasures that arise from contact between the senses and their objects are in truth the sources of all suffering.” So Krishna says in Bhagavad-gita (5.22).

Why is that? The next line of the text offers an answer:

ady-antavantah kaunteya
na teshu ramate budhah

“Such pleasures possess a beginning and an end, Kauteya. A wise person takes no delight in them.”

Having a beginning (adi) and end (anta) qualifies all pleasures in the material world. For that reason, one who is actually wise (budha) seeks no enjoyment from them.

It is a fact that in this temporal world we hold not title to, we have no actual possession of, anything we enjoy. Our lease here on happiness is fragile and fleeting.

Here Time reigns over all:
Since brass, nor stone, nor earth, nor boundless sea,
But sad mortality o’ersways their power,
How with this rage shall beauty hold a plea,
Whose action is no stronger than a flower?
O, how shall summer’s honey breath hold out
Against the wrackful siege of batt’ring days,
When rocks impregnable are not so stout,
Nor gates of steel so strong but Time decays?
O, fearful meditation!

So the Bard sings.

The wise know well that this world is itself a disaster area.

We fools of time are loath to hear this. We are “in denial.” As the Bhagavatam says of us, pashyann api na pashyati, although we have seen, we still don’t see. Our blindness is willful. We make ourselves stupid in order to be happy:

Yet ah! why should they know their fate?
Since sorrow never comes too late,
And happiness too swiftly flies.
Thought would destroy their paradise.
No more;—where ignorance is bliss,
‘Tis folly to be wise.
—Thomas Grey (1742)

So we seek happiness after the way of fools. We bring our senses in contact with their objects and relish and rejoice in the pleasure arising thereby. Yet sooner or later that contact is broken off, and our pleasure ends. It cannot be otherwise.

Now let me offer a self-survey, conducted by one’s self of one’s self:

Q. “When your pleasure came to an end, how did you feel?”
A. “I felt let down, miserable, depressed. I felt aggrieved, bereaved, bereft.”
Q. “And why is that?”
A. “Duh! Obviously, I didn’t want my pleasure to end. I wanted it just to keep on going.”
Q. “And how long did you want it to keep on going?”
A. “How long can I have? Forever?”

A little introspection uncovers our true desire: We seek happiness that does not end; we seek eternal pleasure. If we explore this desire we will find that it is stubborn and implacable.

So this is what we are doing; this is our absurd condition: We desire happiness that does not end, yet we seek it, obsessively, in a world where everything ends.

We are forced to conclude, then, that no satisfaction of our desires is to be found in the material world. Q.E.D.

The crude and cruddy anthem of a generation is nothing more than a lingering howl of disappointment at this intractable fact.

We want our pleasure to keep on going forever. That is the nature of pleasure itself.

Alle Lust will Ewigkeit—“All joy wants eternity”—wrote Friedrich Nietzsche. Will tiefe, tiefe Ewigkeit—“Wants deep, deep eternity.”

Every fleeting pleasure here bears a kind of remembrance or recollection of eternal happiness, of a paradise lost. Trying to find that paradise here, in the reflection, in the mirage, only takes us further from what we really seek. We secure further dissatisfaction and nothing more.

So the natural joy of childhood and youth gives way to the disappointment, bitterness, emotional numbness, and despair of age. We stop living long before we die. Arthur Schopenhauer, with characteristic lucidity, offers us this chilling observation: “Human existence resembles a theatre performance which, begun by living actors, is ended by automatons dressed in the same costumes.”

We seek life and joy in the world, and our very seeking produces for us death and misery. We attain just the opposite result. This is what Krishna tells us.

Now we live in a culture of sense gratification that turns all of us into automatons. Only a counter-culture of self-realization can deliver us, a culture to bring about “a revolution,” as Prabhupada puts it, “in the impious life of a misdirected civilization.”

About the Author: 

Ravindra Svarupa Dasa

Ravindra Svarupa Dasa (William H. Deadwyler, Ph.D.) joined the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON) in 1971 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where he served for most of his devotional career. He is an initiated disciple of His Divine Grace A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada.

Ravindra Svarupa Dasa earned his B.A. in philosophy from the University of Pennsylvania, and his M.A. and Ph.D. in religion from Temple University. He is an ISKCON initiating guru and an emeritus member of the Society's Governing Body Commission. He lives in Potomac, Maryland.