The ashrama system based on guna + varna was designed to fulfill the four basic categories of desires of human life:
1. Dharma, the desire to lead a purposeful life and to contribute to society according to one’s gunas.
2. Artha, the desire for basic needs [food, shelter, clothing] and material wealth/resources.
3. Kama, the desire for fulfillment of sense pleasures – art, music, beauty, sexual union and so on.
4. Moksha, the desire for liberation, and transcending the other three classes of desires.
These four categories simply describe the universality of desires and in the context of the spiritual path, refer to the “pull” or the hold of desires upon us. And what each of us desires is dependent upon our unique matrix of vasanas (conditioning).
Vasana literally means fragrance. Quite simply put, a vasana is an impression left by a particular action that drives future actions. As an example, if I have less than a positive experience interacting with a particular person, all my future interactions will be colored by the impression left by that first unpleasant encounter. Over time, this becomes a subconscious impression, associating a certain “type” of negativity with this “type” of person. And all our interactions with that “type” of person consequently become subtly colored. This type of coloring arises from the combination of: the faculty of memory plus the emotional component of feeling a certain way plus cultural/familial conditioning of what “should” or “should not” happen (“so-and-so should do such-and-such” and so on). Thus we go about our lives driven by likes and dislikes, love and hate, greed and generosity and such polar opposites, continually at the mercy of our vasanas – deeply embedded impressions. And these impressions do not reside only at the level of the mind – to understand this further, we will need to see about reincarnation, without which the understanding of vasanas is incomplete.
Vasanas are a result of impressions not only from this lifetime, but also of previous lifetimes. Death is applicable only to the physical body. At the time of death, the soul or Atman simply departs from the body that is no longer fit for it to inhabit (for various reasons). All impressions from this lifetime, which are “stored” in the causal body go into the pool or “bank” of impressions from all past lives. After a period of time spent in non-physical planes, the soul decides to take another birth (reincarnate). Why? To exhaust the vasanas that drive all desires. The soul decides what “set” of vasanas to exhaust in the next life, and along these lines, chooses the parents, the family, the culture and the community to be born into. If the chosen set of vasanas are exhausted in that life without accumulating new ones, there is no further reason to live in that body and death is the logical conclusion. And another set of vasanas is chosen to exhaust (from the very vast “bank” accumulated over innumerable lifetimes) and another life chosen..
The fruits (results or consequences, including the good, the bad and the ugly) of all actions and their associated impressions (vasanas) across all lifetimes makes up the “bank” of karma known as sanchita karma. What is picked out of this bank to work off in a particular lifetime is called prarabdha karma. Accumulation of more vasanas in a particular lifetime (instead of exhausting it all) results in agami karma, that gets added to sanchita karma. When does this end? When one becomes desireless. How? Through moksha.
Moksha or liberation is what gets us out of this endless loop of birth and death altogether. The result of moksha is the state of desirelessness. Moksha or liberation quite simply, is to know one’s true (divine) nature. This is not secular knowledge gained through books, but experiential knowing that is beyond the mind and intellect. With very few exceptions, moksha can be attained only during a human birth, which is why being born human is considered a great privilege and an opportunity not to be wasted. According to Vedic philosophy, human evolution mandates that all desires must be, and necessarily, are fulfilled in the particular order of dharma, artha, kama and moksha. For example, a person starving of hunger craves for food, not Van Gogh’s art or Mozart’s music. Yet, when one has fulfilled basic needs of food and shelter, there is a natural pull or drive for material success and recognition, and for gratification of sense pleasures. Thus, unless one’s basic needs are met, they cannot be asked to meditate or to desire transcendence. Similarly, someone driven by ambition to “make it” in the corporate world will find neither the time nor the interest to discover the deeper purpose of human life (moksha). Additionally, moksha cannot be attained unless one has experienced the other three to a certain degree.
Importantly, all vasanas must be exhausted within the context of one’s dharma in order to progress to moksha. Adharma results in further enmeshment in the continuous loop of vasanas, with moksha being lower and lower on the “list” of desires to be fulfilled. Desires also fall into categories of gunas; desires driven by a very dense matrix of vasanas tend to be tamasic and progressively become rajasic as the vasanas are exhausted. Following one’s dharma on a continuous basis results in a loosening of sorts from the vasana driven birth/death loop, the mind and psyche becoming progressively prepped for the sattvic desire of moksha. While this progression is something we must all go through, the timeline for this progression is different for each of us, occurring over many lifetimes. Thus, somebody extraordinary like Ramakrishna Paramahamsa or Ramana Maharishi may seem to have jumped right to moksha, but that is simply because they have been through the previous stages in previous lifetimes.
Arjuna (symbolizing us spiritual seekers) has come to this sacred battleground (Dharmakshetra) “ripe” for moksha. He has followed his dharma, has accomplished much in his life being a superb/decorated warrior with no wanting for wealth (artha), and has enjoyed all sense pleasures to his heart’s content (kama). At this juncture, it is clear that all his prior accomplishments were necessary but transient, and that they have not succeeded in erasing the war within. This inner conflict is the greatest gift of human life, that which can be harnessed to leave behind the drama of the birth-death cycle.