Understanding Buddha and Colonial Consciousness

“How do we understand the idea that an enlightened person has no wants?” Before we understand what the idea says, it would be good to find out what it does not say. Understanding this would also allow us to appreciate the depth and extent of colonial consciousness.

If you look at the way the Buddha was portrayed in the middle-class text books you studied (that is also how he was more or less portrayed during my period), it appears as though he gave up or renounce all his desires. In other words, he became an ‘ascetic’ man. Yet strangely enough, if we read about the Buddha’s road to enlightenment, we find something else: he did take to and practice asceticism, but, he says, it did not help him to get enlightened! That is, even though some people do practice asceticism and can get enlightened (after all, every path can lead to enlightenment), this was not the Buddha’s way. The Buddha, then, did not become enlightened by ‘giving up’ his desires. Almost in a similar vein, Purandara Dasa also says in his “Eenu Maadidareenu Bhava Hingadu” that “punishing his body” did not help him.

So, while it is indeed true that the Buddha said that “desire is the reason or the root of sorrow”, he did not say that one should therefore renounce or give up desires. This ‘popular’ interpretation of ‘Buddhism’ has to do with who popularized Buddhism in India in the last centuries, namely, the British. Two things are integral components of Christianity (in both Protestant and Catholic versions): a deep suspicion of bodily cravings and desires and a concomitant asceticism. The first attitude exists because it is the work of the Devil to incite a human being into desiring and also because having the body is an expression of the punishment of being thrown out of Paradise.  The second is praiseworthy because ‘purity’ lies in renouncing these cravings. When the British interpreted Buddhist ‘teachings’, they did do through these prisms and we have repeated their interpretations ever since.

If we realize that relating sorrow to desire is not merely Buddhist but also Upanishadic, we face a strange problem. When human beings want to be happy (or strive to find happiness), they want to find happiness in their daily life. Consequently, a call to ‘give up their daily lives’ and practice asceticism cannot be an answer to their query. They are not seeking some abstract good called ‘happiness’ but they want to be happy in their lives. Consequently, only those who teach them how to be happy in their ordinary, day-to-day life have any chance of being heard by them. Such teachers could hardly say ‘give up desires’ and still hope to be heard by the majority. In other words, whatever the answer to the question, “In what sense can we say that an enlightened man shouldn’t or doesn’t have wants?”, the following is not an answer: the enlightened man (except those who follow asceticism) has not given up or renounced his wants or desires.