kāmaṁ param-iti jñātvā devo 'pi hi puraṁdaraḥ |
gautamasya muneḥ patnīm-ahalyāṁ cakame purā || 4.72
Knowing desire to be paramount,
Even the god Puraṁdara, “Cleaver of Strongholds,” for example,
Made love in olden times
To Ahalyā, the wife of the sage Gautama.
The liaison between god Indra, Cleaver of Strongholds, and the nymph Ahalyā also features at the top of Nanda's list in Saundara-nanda Canto 7:
With their way of being, their pride, their way of moving, their grace; with a smile or show of indignation, with their exuberance, with their voices, / Women have captivated hosts of gods and kings and seers: how then could they fail to bewilder a bloke like me? // 7.24 // Overcome by desire, the fire god Hiraṇya-retas, 'Golden Sperm,' succumbed to sex with his wife 'Oblation,' Svāhā, as did 'The Bountiful' Indra with nymph Ahalyā; / How much easier to be overwhelmed by a woman am I, a man, who lacks the strength and resolve of the gods. // SN7.25 //
In desiring to understand the intention (or desire) behind today's verse, the first question is what Udāyin thought Indra knew by kāmaṁ param-iti, and the second question is what truth might be expressed, unbeknowns to Udāyin, in the words kāmaṁ param-iti.
Udāyin seems to be referring again (see also 4.65) to kāma as the first of the four aims that brahmins of the past had identified as the purpose of human life, viz. (1) kāma, desire, pleasure, love, sexual love; (2) artha, acquisition of wealth; (3) dharma, doing one's duty; and (4) mokṣa, attaining final emancipation through ascetic striving.
Thus, kāmaṁ param-iti could be the expression of a hedonistic view – sexual pleasure is the highest aim. Hence, “Knowing that pleasure was the best of objects” (EBC). It could equally be the expression of the kind of romantic view celebrated in the Christian gospels, along with rom-coms and pop-songs – all you need is love. Hence “Knowing that love is the highest good” (EHJ). Again, kāmaṁ param-iti could be not so much the expression of a view as simply a recognition along the lines of that of Paul Whitehouse's exuberant character in the Fast Show who used to exclaim “Sex is great, isn't it?” PO's translation may come closest to conveying this sense -- “Knowing pleasure to be the best”. I think the latter recognition was in the back of the mind of ex-Ireland rugby captain Keith Wood who last week described a moment of individual brilliance on the rugby pitch as “rugby as sex.”
Is Aśvaghoṣa's intention, then, that as true Buddhists who reject brahmanism in favour of the true viewpoint of Buddhism, we should simply recognize that Indra got it wrong? Are we expected to understand that the highest aim is in fact arhathood, thereby rejecting false views which elevate or celebrate sex, and moving on to the next verse? I think not. I somehow supsect that Aśvaghoṣa desired us to dig deeper than that.
For example, might kāmaṁ param-iti, “sex is best,” be read as presaging the truth of Darwin's discovery of the role played by sex in the process of evolution through natural selection?
Again, might kāmaṁ param-iti, “desire is paramount,” be read as an insight into the 2nd law of thermodynamics? Is it possible to see desire, a conscious impulse, as a most miraculous manifestation of energy temporarily being prevented from spreading out. In that case, mightn't sitting in lotus in easy upright balance be the manifestation of desire in just about its purest form?
In the final analysis, is it our task to get sex into proper perspective, to establish what is the true Buddhist view on sex? Or is our task the abandonment of all views?
It very much depends on what we desire. If our desire is a religious desire to be right, then, yes, it is important to know the true Buddhist view on such matters as sex, love, pleasure, right posture, and so on. If our desire is to clarify the Buddha's teachings, by following those teachings, as works in progress, then the very first step on the path might be to give up the desire to be right.
After 30 years, I have not got very far at all. Most of the time I am going around desiring to be right, and worrying about being wrong, barely setting foot on square one.
I regret that I didn't grasp more fully the truth of science when I was at school. I wish I had taken science A levels, like my sons did, and gone on to study at university real truths like the 2nd law of thermodynamics.
Still, I am grateful to those Alexander teachers who at least woke me up to where square one might be, on the Buddha's game of snakes and ladders – not where I used to think it was at all.
kāmam (acc. sg.): m. desire; pleasure; love , especially sexual love or sensuality
param (acc. sg. m.): mfn. far , distant , remote (in space) , opposite , ulterior , farther than , beyond , on the other or farther side of , extreme ; previous (in time) , former ; ancient , past ; final , last ; exceeding (in number or degree) , more than ; better or worse than , superior or inferior to , best or worst , highest , supreme , chief
iti: “...,” thus
jñātvā = abs. jñā: to know
devaḥ (nom. sg.): god
puraṁdaraḥ (nom. sg.): m. " destroyer of strongholds " , N. of indra
pura: n. a fortress , castle , city , town
dara: mfn.( √ dṝ) cleaving , breaking
√ dṝ: to burst , break asunder , split open
gautamasya (gen. sg.): m. Gautama
muneḥ (gen. sg.): m. sage
patnīm (acc. sg.): f. wife
ahalyām (acc. sg.): f. N. of the wife of gautama or śaradvat
cakame = 3rd pers. sg. perf. kam: to wish , desire , long for ; to love , be in love with , have sexual intercourse with
purā: ind. once upon a time, in olden times