Harsh from Nepal had a bunch of questions about Vāsanās – what are Vāsanās ? How are they defined? How does one know what one’s vāsanās are and how does one acquire them?. Definitely a topic worth an entire episode!
There is no English translation for the word ‘Vāsanā’, it means some sort of a strong tendency in a person formed by repetitive actions which influences the present behaviour of a person. These vāsanās could be from this lifetime or previous lifetimes.
We see evidence of this in our lives and that of others. The talent for music or any discipline in early childhood, the love of a language, the strong inclination towards some people, longing for something that you don’t have an explanation for – many of our strong inclinations in early childhood indicate us having dabbled in that area or having a strong rāga towards it.
It is interesting that the term Vāsanā does not appear in the major Upanishads nor the Bhagavad Gita. When the word Vāsanā is used in Hindi or other regional languages it is often referring to lust or a binding desire. The only Upanishad that I found the word ‘vāsanā’ abundantly used is Muktikopanishad which has about 76 verses and is a dialogue between Bhagavan Sri Rama and Hanuman. When asked by Hanuman, What is jeevanmukti (liberation while living) and how to gain it? Sri Rama explains that it is learning the 108 Upanisads by which kartratvam, the sense of doership and the resulting guilt and sorrow are removed. It has to be gained through – sarva vāsanākshaya, an exhaustion of all vāsanās. A vāsanā is explained as drḍha bhāvanayā tyaktapurvāparavicaraṇam – clinging to objects with intense longing without previous or later deliberation. Vāsanā is used in the sense of avidyā, ignorance and in some places, ragas, strong binding desires. Sometimes the word samskāra is also used but since it has other meanings also we keep it aside for now.
The Upanishad explains that whatever is dwelled on intensely one becomes that. This is reflected in the Bhagavad Gita verses – dhyāyato viśayān pumsah sangasteśupajāyate..In the person who dwells upon objects an attachment is born with reference to them. It goes on to say that from attachment is born anger and from anger comes confused thinking which leads to action not conducive to oneself or the other. These verses are not meant for us to reject desire or anger but to be aware of them.
All emotions are a part of the glory of Bhagavān and there is no need to reject any of them. We develop enough self mastery such that we are no longer slaves to them.
Swami Chinmayananda ji explains and I quote, ‘ Vāsanā means fragrance – the fragrance of what we have done and thought of. Whatever we do – karma – and whatever we think of, they all leave impressions on us, they pressurize to repeat yourselves. For five years, you drink a cup of coffee at 3 in the evening. After that you don’t need a watch. Whatever you may be doing at that time, you will crave for that cup of coffee. It is a pressure from the past. Unless these past pressures are eliminated we cannot rethink and review the world around us.’ The vāsanā creates a lens through which we see the world and hence through viveka we are able to create some space between me and the desire. This is a vāsanā of drinking coffee. It is not exactly an addiction but a strong karmic imprint because of repetitive actions or rather habit of drinking coffee which creates inner pressure in the person. It takes away the freedom to think independently of one’s patterns. Having a vāsanā of something leads to being conditioned by it. Dwelling on coffee and does not transform us into a cup of coffee but makes us so identified with it that drinking coffee becomes a part of the identity which limits and conditions us. One cannot do without it.
The Upanishad explains that vasanas are of two kinds – śuddha and malinah, pure and impure. The impure vasanas are of the nature of intense ajnāna associated with the ahankāra and hence lead to rebirth. Ignorance of one’s true nature leads us to identification and boxing ourselves into our little identities.
The pure vasanas are the destroyers of ajñāna. Any learning involves repetition be it – playing A chord on the guitar, chanting of the Vedas, courteous behaviour, performing our sacred duties towards the environment, learning a language, repeated śravanam and so on.
Any learning involves the use of the sukśma śarira, the subtle body which includes our sensory organs, organs of action along with our minds and prana. So, the learning creates karmic imprints but since the learning is pure vāsanās, conducive for our pursuits, they don’t really create a problem.
The secular presentation of vāsanās is the cultivation of habits which really shape the way we live every day and hence our lifestyle.
Vāsanās in our lives predispose one to particular patterns of behaviour. To explain the intensity of a vāsanā we give a few examples.
Example 1 – You take a cold piece of jelly on a plate, and you trickle very hot water onto the top. The water will run off onto the plate and leave behind a faint channel where the hot water melted the jelly. If you now pour more hot water, it will tend to run into the same channels as before. The new lines formed offer line of least resistance, and deepen the channels. If this is done repeatedly, very deep channels will form and it will become difficult to get the water to run anywhere else. Thus an entrenched habit or vāsanā has been formed.
Example 2 – Making patterns on the sand on the seashore. The patterns last only until the waves wash them away.
Example 3 – Try moving your fingers in a filled up bucket of water. As your fingers move through the water there is no pattern that gets formed.
Our ragas and dveshas are a form of vāsanā. The sense of kartratvam, doership and bhogtratvam, experiencership come from the fundamental vāsanā which is excessive identification with the body-mind. This fades away with the exposure to Vedanta. As one leads a life of karma yoga the intensity of our binding desires wear out such that the deep karmic imprints due to our identifications fade away. Events no more leave karmic imprints and we float through the rest of our life with a sense of fullness.
To know what one’s vāsanās are, look at your behavioural patterns. How do you relate to the objects of desire? What happens when you don’t have your object of desire? What happens to you when you finally get it?. Whether the object of desire is a person or a desirable situation there is obsessive thinking around how to get it, how one’s life will be when one has the object of desire and so on. Although these vāsanās stem from avidyā and rule our lives we obsess over them so much without enquiring into the root of all binding desires and flit from one desire to another to another. Punarapi jananam, punarapi maranam..Birth and death again and again…lifetime after lifetime.
Desire is a form of iccha shakti and there is nothing wrong about it. What happens to you when you have the desire is the key. Does the desire blind us that we throw all caution to the winds of adharma and allow ourselves to be consumed by it?
Some of our desires are so strong that we can see the limitation of the desire only by fulfilling the desire. A 30 year old student was very keen on getting married and would tell me often – I get what you say about projection of happiness onto desires. I can see this in everything except my intense desire to get married. Once I am married I will feel fulfilled. Sure enough a few months later she tells me – I have a great marriage. But it was not all that I had made it out to be. The restlessness has gone.
Some of our desires may be strong but with the help of our Viveka, clear thinking we see the need to not fulfill the desire. Another 30 year old married woman is very attracted to her office colleague. She revels in the excitement of the forbidden fantasy. Despite her attraction she is able to see the repercussions of the affair on herself, her colleague and also her own betrayal of her loving husband. Sure she comes up with arguments for and against having the affair. Eventually she tries to see the colleague ‘s limitations, focuses on enjoying a good working friendship and looks at deepening the connection with her husband.
It is important to be objective when it comes to our binding desires. We need to fulfill some of our desires for the sake of our emotional growth and fulfillment. Better still, we align all our desires with our deeper underlying priorities. Definitely we try to align our desires with dharma so that we can fulfill them. It is this honesty which contributes to our maturity. The desire to provide for your family, the desire to help someone..Adi Shankaracarya had the desire to bless everyone with the knowledge of Vedanta. There is nothing wrong with any of these desires. The desire to create, the desire to discover a vaccine for the Corona virus, the desire to find an innovation that will improve the qualities of the lives. There is nothing wrong with any of these desires.
There are some desires which we can be objective to and its pressure and sting fade away.
Given our vāsanā to be self judgmental, I am guessing that a lot of minds are racing wondering – what are my vāsanās? Much like modern psychology one could keep on coming with the what and how of one’s binding desires and get caught in the spiral of more judgment of oneself and sometimes even intense self dislike.
What will help us break the vortex of vāsanā are
Be aware and not judgemental of your patterns.
See that your behavioural patterns have come from repetition and choices made. Hence see how you sustain your behavioural habits – both positive and negative
Build habits that work for you. It is not easy to form good habits and so we try again and again and again. And finally, our habits serve us.
Systematic exposure to Vedanta alone can cut the roots of the fundamental vāsanā i.e. avidyā. Go straight for the root cause. Until then the disposition of karma yoga is the way to adopt – kauśalam and samatvam. Kauśalam is the aligning of your desire based actions to your priorities and definitely to dharma and samatvam is the gracious acceptance of the results of your and other’s actions. So then, kauśalam is an offering to Bhagavan, of your desire based actions. Samatvam is an acceptance of the order of Bhagavan which gives you the results of your actions.
We practice witnessing and see the play of these vāsanās in our lives. In witnessing meditation when we sit for a long time there might be pain or discomfort in the joints. Our inherent vāsanā is to avoid pain and seek pleasure. We witness even this. We don’t shift our position. We stay with the discomfort. It ‘s not easy. We do it and then we find that the discomfort does not overtake us.