The desire to satisfy our senses is the essential mechanism of life. It is the force that drives us to act. Actions then bring about results. Results give us temporary satisfaction, but then we soon find ourselves where we began, again driven by renewed desires. Ultimately, we are left without having answered the fundamental question: Is there something beyond the quest to fulfill our sensual desires, or is this drive simply the natural survival mechanism that exists in both animals and humans? The answer to this question lies in understanding consciousness, the symptom of life itself, which in turn allows us to see what truly separates us from the animal kingdom.
All animals are driven by the need to gratify their senses. It is the necessity of life to carry out activities that grant pleasure. Anthropologists explain that this need is nature’s way of ensuring a creature’s survival—by creating a reward circuitry in the brain to signal when a desirable action has been achieved. The actions of animals can, to a large extent, be predicted by this programming.
Similarly, all human activities are based in some way around seeking to please our senses, whether that is simply in obtaining food to eat or indulging in sex pleasure. The palette of human sensory input—seeing, hearing, tasting, touching, and smelling—is the same as that of animals, and so although computers, cars and microwave ovens may afford us conveniences in day-to-day living, ultimately they serve to distract us or allow us more time for sense pleasure.
You may say that the physical sciences have led to many technological and scientific achievements in fields such as medicine, automation, and communication. Certainly, these achievements have eradicated deadly diseases and led to a far more convenient lifestyle (while also inflicting devastation and causing poverty). But how have they really set us apart from animals? Both animals and humans eat, sleep, mate, and defend themselves, but our scientific achievements merely facilitate our ability to carry out these four activities. Whether a family of carnivores hunts prey once every few days to satisfy their hunger or a country seeks to expand its borders and protect its people, the desire to satisfy the senses is the underlying goal. So why are we using our intellect in technological advancement to oversupply ourselves with what the animals already have?
The answer lies in the misconception that we are this body. Krishna explains in the Bhagavadgita that we are units of consciousness inhabiting a material body:
“O son of Bharata, as the sun alone illuminates all this universe, so does the living entity, one within the body, illuminate the entire body by consciousness” (B.G. 13.34)
When we believe that consciousness is a symptom of the temporary material body rather than the eternal soul, we mistakenly believe that this body’s senses are an intrinsic part of us, just as the animals perceive. So it is natural that without leaving that mindset, we cannot leave the animalistic level. Understanding anything about ourselves requires understanding consciousness, for it is the most intrinsic part of our existence.
Ultimately, what separates us from animals is our ability to perceive something greater than ourselves. This perception is the most profound gift of human life, as it allows us to see beyond the cycle of sense gratification. No others have achieved this more than the yogis of ancient India, who held a greater understanding of the universe than any modern-day scientist. Like rivers flow from their source, the ocean, they meditated upon the source of creation known as Krishna, the all attractive one, and so fulfilled their ultimate spiritual quest. Through understanding Krishna we can elevate ourselves beyond the animal realm, bringing about the most meaningful achievement of humanity.