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“Dharma” is our duty to others, “Kama” is our duty to ourselves

Human beings prefer to take sides rather than try and understand the deeper causes of tragedy. There is no point speculating about the ‘whodunnit’ -that is a job for the police. Rather than apportion blame, it is more useful to focus on the nature of human desire, its ambiguous boundaries, and why it gets us into such trouble. The correct place to begin is empathy -it could have happened to you or me.


In the beginning was Kama – desire. Unlike the Judaic-Christian tradition where creation began with light in Genesis, the ancient Indian cosmos is born from Kama, the primal biological energy. Kama was the first seed in the mind of the One, whose ‘great desire’ led to the creation of the universe, according to the Rig Veda. But the One felt alone, and it split its body into two, giving rise to man and woman.
This primordial division, described in the Upanishads, suggests that the fundamental human condition is loneliness. To overcome it, primordial man copulated with woman and from their union the human race was born. Physical intimacy helps to overcome some of our feelings of isolation.
Hindu nationalists should remember our civilization’s roots before their next prudish outburst. Because Kama is everything – the source of life, the root of all activity – it was elevated to “Trivarga”, one of the three goals of life. Despite that, Indians have remained ambivalent. The reason is that desire can be blind, insane and infuriatingly hard to manage. Deception, betrayal, jealousy and guilt hover around it.
Because of its ambivalent nature, Kama has had its optimists and pessimists. The optimists focused on the other meaning of Kama – pleasure – believing it not unreasonable to expect some sort of pleasure in our short, dreary lives. This led to the Kama Sutra, erotic arts and love poetry which flowered in the courts of the Gupta empire. The pessimists were primarily renouncers and sanyasis, for whom desire was an obstacle to their spiritual project.
The confused householder oscillated between the extremes and sought answers in the Dharma texts. The Dharma Shastras accepted Kama’s positive qualities but decreed that it had to be confined to marriage and procreation. Although monogamy was integrated into the rules of Dharma, men and women found ways to transgress, giving rise to illicit love.
The epic poets grasped Kama’s three-fold nature – it is procreative; capable of ecstatic pleasure; and wildly uncontrollable. They saw its potential for fable. They saw its potential for tragedy because of an inherent conflict between Kama and Dharma. If Dharma is our duty to others, Kama is our duty to ourselves.


Dharma usually trumps Kama in the epics because we recognize that it is wrong to hurt another in pursuit of pleasure. A woman is generally more vulnerable to tragedy because of patriarchic inequality, as Draupadi would have testified at her disrobing in the Mahabharata. It is not easy to navigate between one’s duty to oneself and the duty to another. Even if one doesn’t transgress physically, one does so in one’s heart. Desire is infuriating and this, alas, is the bewildering human condition.



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"Great minds discuss ideas; average minds discuss events; small minds discuss people."
Eleanor Roosevelt