Vedanta: The Five Kleshas

Every spiritual tradition contains, at its core, profound human truths.  Indeed, I learned this as part of my religious education in Catholic schools, as the curriculum included exploration of many religions.

Buddhism, in particular, reduces the complexity of human suffering to the Four Noble Truths, and its Eight-Fold Path offers an elegant prescription to escape suffering and attain enlightenment.

For the past two years, I have found myself drawn to the philosophy of Advaita Vedanta.  Vedanta and Buddhism, incidentally, are both schools of Hindu philosophy: the former being one of six orthodox schools; and the latter, one of five heterodox schools.  Of course, these very branches have further sub-branches.

Vedanta, as its name would imply, pertains to the Vedas, sacred Hindu texts.  The term Advaita means “non-dual.”  Advaita Vedanta illuminates a path to a powerful and transcendent experience of the world.

Like Buddhism, Vedanta has an elemental framework for understanding suffering.  The Five Kleshas, or poisons, explain how suffering comes about.

The first of the five, Avidya, ignorance, represents a failure to understand the true nature of reality.  The second, Asmita, denotes self-absorption and an individual’s misconception of who and what he or she is.  Raga, or attachment, causes us to crave or grasp for things that are ultimately only transitory.  Conversely, Dvesa, represents aversions to things that we fail to understand as insubstantial and impermanent.  Finally, Abinivesah is a dread of death.  Many teachers of Vedanta add the fitting coda that the latter four kleshas are merely particular manifestations of the first.

Without doubt, many complexities lie beneath the simplicity of this list, as well as in our very nature as human beings.  Still, we can associate nearly every negative feeling–every unnecessary strain on our being–to these five concepts.  Our capacity to transcend suffering comes directly from our ability to understand the underlying reality of everything, including ourselves.

An important clarification helps here: suffering and pain are not the same phenomenon.  Pain is a natural and necessary part of life.  Suffering, however, is a harmful spiritual response to pain.  An author and teacher who is local to me, Swami Tadatmananda, aptly explains that we feel pain when we watch sad movies, but we do not suffer for this experience because we are detached from–but clearly not indifferent to–the action we witness on the screen.  Similarly, a proper understanding of our own nature and of our world facilitates a detachment that enables us to experience pain without suffering.

While I am not trained nor even well read in the teachings of Vedanta, I see the Five Kleshas as a gateway to a faithful conception of our reality and a healthy empathy with everything in it.

4 thoughts on “Vedanta: The Five Kleshas

  1. Seeking to understand the underlying reality of everything? Including ourselves? I don’t know Paul. That sounds like a journey that could end in a padded room or an opium den. (Which, come to think of it, may also be padded.) I still have such a problem with this philosophy. No matter how much I read about it, I always get stuck with this “detachment” idea. I still don’t know how you do this with the people you love, and the movie analogy only highlights it more. And to call one feeling “suffering” and label it bad and another feeling “pain” and call it good – it just sounds like semantics to me.
    This is not to say I dismiss the ideas at all. I’m very open and hopeful for enlightenment and will definitely keep reading about it. (I certainly don’t want to keep reincarnating down here on Earth. I’m so done with this place.) But so far I still think George Harrison and the Beatles have brought me the closest to God.

    1. I agree that language is a poor vessel for the concepts. And the movie illustration threatens to trivialize an important point. I have, however, come to understand that “detachment” does not mean “disengagement” for this context. Losing my father was probably what got me there. It threatened to do serious harm to me. Now, I feel the sadness every day–perhaps more than I still ought to–but his memory sustains me, and I know I am now out of harm’s way.

      As for the padded room, would it truly surprise you if I ended up in one?

      I always benefit when you read my work. I appreciate it.

  2. Thanks for another enlightening post Paul. I, like you, was raised Catholic. I’ve have seen my life go back and forth in pursuing spiritual traditions. At 41 years old, I am in another valley of exploring Catholicism. I have found the work of Matthew Kelly to be inspiring in that he talks about being the best version of yourself. Regardless, the teachings of Eastern traditions still resonate. I think there are silent rivers running through all religious traditions which keep working to help us find the best versions of ourself. Thank you as always for sharing your thoughts!

    1. Thanks, Dan, for reading and commenting. I had never heard of Kelly and just looked him up. Despite my misgivings about the institutional component of Catholicism, I have never let go of its core. I plan to investigate this author further. Great tip.

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