Saturday, July 27, 2013

Why do we do what we do?

Firstly, all "why" questions that investigate causality are tricky questions. Here is the reason for the same.

Consider the case of a simple road accident. Why did it happen? The usual answers are one or both parties were driving irresponsibly. This could very well be true. But these are not the only reasons. There could have been some bad roads that just a few seconds back for one party which may have disturbed the driver, causing hir to instantaneously loose concentration. Another possibility could be that one party just had a not very friendly conversation with someone else before starting the ride. All these certainly have contributed towards causing the road accident. So, causality is clearly a causal web of densely interconnected causes and effects. In addition, it is not a finite web. These causes usually extend very far back. So, in reality, causality is an infinitely complex web. Normally, we reduce this complex web to a finite few causes to suit our needs. For example, one driver will reduce the causal web to just the other driver. The onlooker may reduce it to both of them or the government contractors who laid the poor roads.

Now, I am not in any way saying this reduction is wrong or not needed. It is absolutely needed. But, I want to look out how we reduce that infinitely complex web into something more manageable by the intellect. The normal way is through the ego. The ego is in charge of the intellect and hence reduces the infinitely complex web into finite components to suit its need.This is exactly the reason why causality is tricky. If we can look through this and free ourselves from this tendency then we can understand causality better.

This is very important as without this we may be sub-consciously looking for certain answers. We may also interpret answers in ways that suit our needs. This could be dangerous. This is all the more dangerous because we are in the midst of situations that demand us to act and hence if we have trained ourselves to reduce the infinitely complex web based on some other sound dharmic philosophy instead of the unconsciously trained habit patterns of the ego, we can never act consistently and correctly. Thus, it is very important to continuously be aware of ourselves and the patterns of compulsory thinking we fall into to understand things clearly.

Now, lets come back to the original questions. Why do we do what we do? I am assuming you are asking about things we are free (external circumstances wise) to not do but still find an urge from within to do. There are many perspectives from which this question can be analysed. Of course, all of them being models of same reality, they are all connected. Different people resonate to different models.


One immediate manner is to try and understand the human nature. What are all the forces that drive the human nature from within. Maslow's hierarchy of needs or the traditional Indian Chakra model of a human being are wonderful starting points. These models do not go into the evolutionary causes of why things are the way they are. They just look at how it is now and that should be fair enough reduction for our purposes.

Maslow's hierarchy of needs

In these models, there are different kinds of innate needs in the human system and unless they are satisfied, they keep coming back to poke us to satisfy the need. If they are not recognised correctly and satisfied, they will change their shape and form and come again and again. For example, if the need of physical safety (and its manifestations at many levels due to not being met for many years) is not met, it may come out as constant bad / possessive relationships with people. This metamorphosis of needs makes the a little complicated to handle but if an individual wills, then he/she can certainly clear up all of them.

If all needs below level 'n' are satisfied fully, then one will experience needs only at level 'n' and above. So, this captures the reason why we do what we do. Consciously or unconsciously we are trying to satisfy these hierarchy of needs. If we can clearly observe this hierarchy of needs in us, we can go to them straight and satisfy them instead of letting the metamorphose into unrecognisable forms which make us do all sorts of stupid things. Instead, if we observe ourselves well enough, we will deal with these healthily and operate at the highest need level that one is capable of at a given time.


In another model, all of manifestation we see around us is a play of consciousness. This model is the basic philosophy of Yoga / Samkhya and it has a few basix axioms (meaning, they are assumed to be given). The basic postulate is that there are two entities: a.) Purusha (a singular consciousness; pure awareness as an approximation) and b.) Prakrti (all of manifested nature). The two are continuously interacting with each other for reasons beyond the human intellect. This interaction produce the various elements and all of life. As a consequence, different life forms are born with certain tendencies. 

Samkhya model

Since all forms (including you and me) have come out of the interactions of Purusha and Prakrthi, one must be able to separate them out experientially. But, this is obviously very difficult for most people. Then there comes the third entity these philosophies postulate. c.) Ignorance. Life forms are not aware that they are Purusha within but Prakrti outside. Instead life forms are caught up in the belief that they are only prakrti. Through practices suggested in Yoga the following evolution in our understanding happens:

I am Prakrti -> I am both Purusha and Prakrti -> I am purely Purusha

Samkhya / Yoga clearly state that the purpose of life (including all the urges to act) is so that life can evolve in the above mentioned direction. This is the reason why we act. But, normally we are not aware of this and hence we are all over the place acting in all sorts of directions. But, if we notice the above clearly, we will act in a much more focussed manner.


This is basically equivalent to the above with minor differences in terminology. In this Purusha and Prakrti are not two different entities. They are a continuum. Or, even better, prakrti is a result of purusha in action. Nataraja for example is Purusha and his dance is Prakrti.

While there may be some minor differences between this and the previous explanation, for most practical purposes, these two are identical. In this the world is the leela or dance of the divine. This of course includes all our urges to act. Hence, all one needs to do is to take care of them dharmically and surrender to the divine.


The last one is the view from modern understanding of evolutionary science. Here every urge is related to some kind of survival instinct (individual or group) in some hoary past. For example, the desire to earn more money is there because in the formative days of social groups, organisms at the top had better chance of reproducing. So, we have the instinct to climb the social ladder. These days, having more money is somehow equated to climb up the social ladder. Hence the instinct to work and earn more money. This is the explanation of modern science.

Of these three, I find the first two deeper than the third. I am not saying the third is wrong. It is simply not deep enough. To me, it is like saying marriage are about having sex. It is of course true that (at least in India), most individuals have sex for the first time after marriage. Hence, an alien who does not look at things deeply, may conclude that people marry to have sex. While the statistic cannot be denied, the explanation is not deep enough.

Understanding oneself through 1 and 2 above is like concentrating "rasa anubhavam". In music / dance (and other art forms) for example, one tries to concentrate naturally occurring human emotions. This way, one experiences the emotion in a more concentrated manner. This is referred to as "rasa anubhavam". Likewise, through 1 and 2 above, we accelerate the naturally occurring process of evolution by understanding the subtlest direction of evolution.

Likewise, biological evolution is quite undeniable but from my experience, it is not deep enough. The first two, in my opinion, are deeper and are not in contradiction with the third option. I suggest you explore yourselves deeply to figure out the truth for yourselves. All the best :) 

PS: This is a mail I wrote to a friend after his question (title of the note). Thought it would be useful to share it here :)

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