Pleasures conceived in the world of the senses have a beginning and an end and give birth to misery, Arjuna. The wise do not look for happiness in them. But those who overcome the impulses of lust and anger which arise in the body are made whole and live in joy. They find their joy, their light, and their rest completely within themselves. United with the Lord, they attain nirvana in Brahman. (5:22-24)
We’ll pause on this text for a couple of days, because there are some important parallels to the Sermon on the Mount. Anger and lust also feature in some of the most memorable parts of Jesus’s dialogue. They are the first two sins in what I call his Commandments for the Heart:
“You have heard that it was said to those who lived long ago, Don’t commit murder, and all who commit murder will be in danger of judgment. But I say to you that everyone who is angry with their brother or sister will be in danger of judgment.” (Matthew 5:21-22, CEB)
“You have heard that it was said, Don’t commit adultery. But I say to you that every man who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery in his heart.” (Matthew 5:27-28, CEB)
I think warnings against anger and lust feature in so many religious traditions because they are passionate feelings in which we lose ourselves and our perspective. They are some of our most primal emotions, and they can distort not only individuals and personal relationships, but also communities and policies.
I am quick to point out that there is both righteous anger and holy sexual desire. Anger can be a gift that alerts us to a healthy boundary being violated or to the presence of injustice. Sexual desire can bring more life into the world, both in terms of babies and in terms of pleasure and fruitful relationships.
But anger is more often a fragile ego’s response to being disrespected: someone cuts in line, or says something mean about me, or twists my words. Lust is likewise often a desire to possess, or an evaluative gaze that measures human bodies as objects of relative value: this one is an “8,” and that one is a “10.” This is why Jesus advises gouging out your eye or chopping off your hand to avoid it.
For primitive creatures, these emotions are about survival—this is why Krishna says “they arise in the body.” For humans in community, though, they are more about social status. We react so strongly because we feel our very survival is at stake, which is usually not true. They distract us from who we really are. We become attached to things that have no lasting value: getting revenge or satisfying our craving.
We have even come to institutionalize these passions. We can look at the news and see white supremacy, capitalism, and colonialism as anger (violence) and lust (greed) embodied in police brutality, mass incarceration, wealth inequality, and environmental destruction. Many fragile egos, struggling like crabs in a bucket, create harmful systems in which people and the planet cannot thrive.
God of Abundance, you fill our every need. Grant us the wisdom to know the things that make for lasting happiness.