Desire and Knowledge – Two Blazing Fires in Advaita Vedanta


Fire was of great importance
in ancient Hindu culture, so it’s not surprising that Sanskrit provides many words
for fire in addition to the common term, agni. Some words for fire are highly descriptive, like dahana, burning, jvalana, shining,
and saptarchi, having seven tongues. Other words are based on fire’s many roles, roles like pavaka, purifier,
jatavedas, the sacrifical fire, hutashana, consumer of sacrificial offerings,
and vahni, that which conveys blessings. In addition to these, an important symbolic meaning
is expressed in the very first words of the Rig Veda, om agnim ile purohitam, I worship fire, agni, as the purohitam,
as the priest or mediator who consumes sacrificial offerings with
its flaming mouths and conveys them to the heavens, to the deities being worshipped. In the Bhagavad Gita,
fire is given other important symbolic meanings. The Gita famously refers to fire as jnanagi,
the fire of knowledge, the blazing spiritual wisdom that burns away
or destroys ignorance of one’s true nature. The Gita also refers to fire as kamagni,
the fire of desire, which represents one’s passionate craving
for pleasurable experiences of all kinds. In chapter three, Sri Krishna tells Arjuna, aavritam jnanam etena jnanino nityavairina,
kamarupena kaunteya dushpurenanalena ca Knowledge of your true nature is hidden by desire, kama,
the enemy of the wise, as insatiable as fire. Here, the word used for fire is analam. Alam means enough. So analam means, that which never has enough,
that which is never satisfied. Analam is a perfect word to describe
fire’s insatiable appetite for fuel. No matter how much wood is thrown in, this fire
will quickly consume it all and be eager for more. Our desires are like that. No matter how many cravings we satisfy,
we’re always eager for more pleasure. New desires arise as quickly
as old ones are satisfied. For example, after eating a splendid lunch
at your favorite restaurant, you’ll feel hungry again
in just a few hours. The same is true for all desires. After satisfying a particular desire,
your appetite for pleasure is only temporarily appeased. Before long, you’ll want something else. Such is the fire of desire. A never-ending succession of desires
dictates many of our daily activities and molds our lives to a surprising extent. Here, it’s important to distinguish such desires
from others that lack the power to compel us. Consider a little girl
who goes to the kitchen at breakfast time, looking forward to enjoying a bowl
of her favorite cereal, Fruit Loops. Inside the pantry, she finds
many other boxes of cereal, but no Fruit Loops. She cries because she couldn’t fulfill her desire. But, suppose her mother
also wants Fruit Loops for breakfast. When she finds none in the pantry,
she’ll simply chose another box of cereal. She won’t feel upset, because her desire for Fruit Loops
was completely different from her daughter’s. She merely WANTED the Fruit Loops,
whereas her daughter felt a NEED for them. This difference between wanting and needing
helps us distinguish simple preferences from compelling desires. When a preference goes unfulfilled,
there’s no problem, but when a compelling desire goes unfulfilled,
it’s a different matter altogether. We are driven to fulfill our desires. In some sense, we’re like slaves to them. So, how can we break free
from being compelled by our desires? Is there any way to satiate them all? Suppose I try to satiate this fire’s appetite for fuel
by throwing in a huge heap of wood. As a result, the fire will grow larger, engorged by all that fuel, and it’ll consume the wood even more ravenously than before. This describes what happens
when we overindulge our desires, when we pamper ourselves to excess. Overindulgence can turn luxuries into necessities. For example, an occasional luxury,
like a special coffee from Starbucks, is a nice treat
you might enjoy now and then. But, if you indulge in this treat too frequently,
it can become a necessity that compels you to drive to Starbucks
every single morning for that coffee. So, what’s the solution
to the problem of desire. Since satiation won’t work,
abstinence is sometimes suggested as a solution. Unfortunately, abstinence doesn’t work either. Consider a person who drives to Starbucks
every single morning, compelled by the desire
for his favorite kind of coffee. If he wants to overcome that desire
and break free from its compulsion, he might simply refrain
from going to Starbucks the next morning, but how will that affect him? What will he be thinking about all day long? Coffee! He can abstain from drinking coffee,
but that won’t remove his desire for it. If no more wood is added to this fire,
it won’t simply go out; its burning embers will continue to smolder
for a very long time. In the same way,
if you merely abstain from satisfying desires, they won’t simply disappear. They, too, will continue to smolder
for a very long time. And, long before the fire of desire
finally dies out, you’re likely to succumb
to its insistent demands and kindle it again. So, how CAN this burning fire of desire
be extinguished once and for all? The solution is found
by going to the root of the problem. The root cause for desire, as taught by Vedanta,
is ignorance, specifically, ignorance of your true nature. If you truly knew your divine inner self
to be innately full and complete, then, you’d always feel content,
and compulsive desires wouldn’t bother you any more. But, failing to recognize your innate fullness,
you’ll naturally feel like something is missing; you’ll feel insufficient, incomplete, inadequate. And as a result, you’ll desire anything
that can help you feel better. In this way, desires arise because your divine nature
is covered by a veil of ignorance that prevents you from recognizing it as the true source
of happiness, contentment and peace. To remove that veil of ignorance,
knowledge is required, knowledge of your true nature, knowledge that can burn away the veil of ignorance
and reveal the vast fullness within. That very knowledge can be gained through
the teachings of Vedanta. In chapter 4 of the Bhagavad Gita,
Sri Krishna refers to this knowledge as jnanagni, the fire of knowledge; yathaindhansi samiddho ‘gnir bhasmasat kurute ‘rjuna,
jnanagnih sarvakarmani basmasat kurute tatha, O Arjuna, like blazing fire reduces wood to ash,
so too, the fire of knowledge destroys all actions, specifically, actions that are compelled
by our desires. The fire of knowledge,
kindled by the teachings of Vedanta, can eliminate the fire of desire by burning away the ignorance that causes desires
to flare up in the first place. When the ignorance covering
your true divine nature is removed, you’ll recognize your innate fullness
and you’ll feel perfectly content. You will have broken free
from being compelled by desires. So, Vedanta fights fire with fire
in a manner of speaking; the fire of desire, kamagni,
is reduced to ashes in the fire of knowledge, jnanagni. That’s truly wonderful, but jnanagni
can often be difficult to kindle, and until it blazes brightly,
the problem of desire will continue. Have you ever tried to start a fire
in a pile of wet wood? Dry wood catches fire fairly easily; but if wood is wet, you can strike match after match
to light the wood, and yet fail to kindle a fire. We are all a bit like this pile of wet wood,
especially at the beginning of our spiritual journeys. Wet wood isn’t ready to burn,
and we might not be ready for the teachings of Vedanta. Even though you listen to Vedantic teachings
again and again, jnanagni will not be kindled
unless you are fully prepared by undergoing the preliminary training
needed to grasp the essence of those teachings. A mature, prepared student is like dry wood,
and jnanagni is easily kindled. But most of us begin our studies lacking
the full measure of spiritual maturity needed, and that prevents the fire of knowledge
from being ignited. Fortunately,
the teachings of Vedanta themselves help us gain the necessary spiritual maturity
and preparation. Let me explain. If you try to light wet wood,
it won’t catch fire, but each match
helps dry out the wood a little bit. By lighting many matches, the wood gradually
gets dried out and will eventually go up in flames. In the same way, repeated listening
to the teachings of Vedanta helps you gain the necessary degree
of spiritual maturity, slowly but surely. And when you are sufficiently prepared,
jnanagni will blaze forth, effortlessly, destroying ignorance
and revealing your true nature. Fire symbolizes spiritual knowledge
in several ways. For example, these robes
traditionally worn by sannyasis, ordained monks, are dyed orange, the color of fire. Sannyasis cover themselves, so to speak,
with the fire of knowledge. And, those who burn with the fire of knowledge
can ignite others, like using one candle to light another. Just like this flame can be passed
from one lamp to the next, the fire of knowledge has been passed on
from teacher to student for many, many generations. Each pair of lamps represents teacher and
student, guru and shishya, and the entire line of lamps
represents our parampara, our lineage of teachers. Seeing this, you’re likely to ask,
how did the first lamp get lit? How did jnanagni
get kindled in the first place? As you may know, the teachings of Vedanta
began with the rishis, the sages of ancient India, who were uniquely blessed
with the ability to gain this knowledge independently, without being taught. They were the first to discover these truths. Three hundred years ago,
no one taught Sir Isaac Newton about the principles of motion and gravity. He discovered those principles on his own, and he passed his knowledge on
to later generations of scientists. In the same way, the truths first discovered
by the rishis were passed down through the ages. The last of these lamps represents those gurus
who are alive today. And the next lamp to be lit
could represent you, eager for the fire of knowledge
to be ignited. For students who are relatively mature, just a little spark or flame may be all that’s needed
to ignite the fire of knowledge within. But for students who lack
the complete degree of preparation needed, there’s a special benefit in studying Vedanta under the guidance of a great teacher
who burns especially brightly. Wet wood dries out quickly
if it’s stacked up right next to a blazing fire. In the same way, students who associate
with a wise, skillful, caring guru, will quickly be prepared for jnanagni
to burst forth in flaming glory.


12 Responses

  1. Sanat Bakshi

    November 1, 2018 3:01 am

    The series of videos released by Arsha Bodha Center invariably give us immense pleasure and knowledge that only Swamiji Tadatmanandaji can impart in his inimitable way and always with such utter clarity of expression. We are indeed blessed by having such a great teacher in the true Vedantic lineage in our midst. My desire is to visit his Ashrama and listen to him in person, which I hope will someday be fulfilled. A thousand salutations to our Swamiji…

  2. Bishwa Prakash Subedi

    March 14, 2019 11:44 am

    Your example of kindling the wet wood with the help of match sticks one after another is not a good example. What in actuality we used to do in villages was that we collect dry wood sticks and dried grass sufficiently and burn them putting underneath the thick woods so that the their fire and heat gradually dried down the wet wood pieces and kindle eventually.

    The same analogies can be made in spiritual journey of sanatana dharmma where the helping traditions, conventions, rituals, festivals, etc. along with the dharmik stories, contexes, puran, saptahas, guru sermons, etc. help kindle the very 'wet' conditions in the case of knowledge-worthiness of ours.

  3. Peter Koussoulis

    March 20, 2019 12:00 pm

    Wonderful – what a brilliant video. I really appreciate the clarity and sincerity of your explanations. Thank you for all the effort 🙏🏻😁

  4. Eamon Holley

    May 22, 2019 11:07 am

    Synchronicity at work here – just this morning I decided not to go to Starbucks for my "treat" because it was becoming a habit!

  5. konstantinNeo

    June 2, 2019 7:50 pm

    Does vedanta teaches the relationship between desire and the value assigned to the "object" of desire? Would one desire something that has no value for him?

  6. Julio Rosales

    July 15, 2019 8:38 pm

    How do I get there swami?? I like your videos. Keep them coming. More teachings and practices. I feel like the teacher is finding his student or the other way around. Please I beg of your blessings. I want to dry my wood and light the fire. Namaskar.


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