Lust is defined as an inordinate desire for sensual pleasure. All religious traditions, in some way, affirm the importance of sexuality. However, this affirmation is always bounded by a concern that sexual desire not become an exclusive and all-consuming focus. Lust is sexual desire that exceeds its proper context in relation to other legitimate human desires and responsibilities. In addition to distorting sexuality, lust also leads to other transgressions and for this reason is a particular focus in diverse ethical systems of the world’s religious traditions.

Judaism has always affirmed the importance of sexual pleasure apart from procreation. Nonetheless, there have been countervailing themes within the Jewish tradition that have emphasized various forms of sexual countenance to combat inordinate attachment to sensual pleasure. Temporary renunciation of sexual relations among scholars of the Talmud, or among members of the Zionist movement, represented an awareness that the power of sexual desire needed to be either subordinated or channeled to other goals. Within some forms of Judaism, there also appears a distrust of sexual desire that perhaps stemmed from the influence of Stoic elements in Hellenistic culture or even Pauline elements within Christianity. For example, the philosopher Philo understood the result of circumcision to be a reduction in sexual pleasure and thus necessary for the control of lust. The medieval philosopher and jurist Maimonides understood matter itself to be something that needed to be quelled.

Touch, then, is the most dangerous of the senses and the one most strongly connected to lust. As David Biale observes, Maimonides departed significantly from traditional Talmu-dic teaching that understood sight and hearing as the senses that most obviously led to lust and illicit expressions of sexuality. Within the Jewish tradition there is an understanding of an “inclination to do evil,” or yester ha-ra. While yester ha-ra should not be confused with Christian understandings of “original sin,” the inclination to do evil in the form of lust and sexual transgression is most fully contained within matrimony.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church defines lust as the inordinate attachment to or enjoyment of sensual pleasure. Lust is particularly sinful because it focuses on sexual pleasure for its own sake and thus severs the necessary connection between sexuality, procreation, and human intimacy. Indeed, lust is considered to be a capital sin because it leads to other sins such as fornication, adultery, and rape.

However, within the Catholic tradition, lust is not understood to be exclusively sexual. Besides lust of the flesh, there is lust of the eyes and “pride of life.” While lust of the flesh leads to the violation of the ninth commandment against “carnal concupiscence,” lust of the eyes and pride of life would lead to a violation of the tenth commandment—against envy and avarice. In the Catholic tradition, lust is a consequence of original sin, and caused by Adam and Eve’s disobedience toward God in the Garden of Eden. With original sin, sexuality becomes lustful because it is disordered and not easily amenable to human control. To combat lust, the Catholic Church recommends modesty, temperance, and cultivation of “purity of heart.” Although these qualities can be gained by a life of prayer and service, Catholic asceticism has often embraced more radical means to combat lust. For example, celibacy, poverty, fasting, and self-flagellation are practices that, in part, are designed to tame the appetites and thus overcome lust in its many forms.

Protestantism is also concerned with lust in its various forms, but generally does not counsel the extreme forms of asceticism that are found in the Catholic tradition. Interestingly, according to some commentators, lust played an important role in Luther’s understanding of salvation through faith alone. Erik Erikson, for example, argues that Martin Luther’s obsessive struggles with lust and “concupiscence” led him to doubt the ability of the human will to control the effects of original sin: Salvation was a divine gift, since humans could never justify themselves before God.

With regard to lust, the Protestant tradition has often emphasized the necessity of modesty and the importance of marriage. But unlike the Catholic tradition, Protestantism, especially the evangelical tradition, has encouraged a great deal of creativity within martial sexual expression. Exploring a range of sexual possibilities within monogamous marriage is thus understood to dissipate lustful desires that undermine the marital bond and lead to other kinds of sinful behavior.

In the Islamic tradition, lust is also a central concern. The Islamic worldview affirms an equilibrium of forces and passions. This equilibrium is guaranteed by following the divine law and the example of the prophet. Lust is a passion that causes imbalance and leads to a corruption in the individual’s predisposition to conformity with divine will. The Qur’an advises believers to keep their eyes on the countenance of Allah lest they be deceived by the “pomp” of life in the world. The necessity of a contract before marriage, as well as a gift of property from the groom, is understood to counteract lust by emphasizing the responsibilities inherent in the married state. The practices of veiling (hijab) and of the seclusion of women (purdah) are also understood to be protective measures against lust. “Al-Ahzab,” the thirty-third chapter of the Qur’an, advises the wives of the prophet to be soft in their speech and not to display their beauty lest they incite the lust of men. In contemporary Islamic discourse, the veil is sometimes understood to be a feminist statement against the male tendency to judge women on the basis of appearance. Within the Islamic tradition, there is also a “concealment” or “purdah of the eyes” that men must observe so that they do not gaze upon women with lust.

The status of desire within the Hindu tradition is complex. On the one hand, desire, particularly lust or kama, leads to a dynamic of action and reaction (karma) that binds humans to the cycle of existence. On the other hand, desire is understood to be an inescapable part of life and should be controlled by adherence to dharma, responsibility. In Hindu texts that advocate renunciation of all worldly ties, lust is understood to be one of the primary threats to the ascetic life. An extreme example of this position can be found in the Yajnavalkya Up-anishad that labels women “fuel for hell-fire” in the desire that they provoke. The Laws of Manu, however, take issue with the condemnation of desire in all its forms by observing that everything proceeds from desire.

However, lust is considered to be dangerous during the celibate student stage of life, and strong prohibitions are applied to shedding semen out of lust. Desire such as homosexuality or intercaste intercourse that leads to illicit sex is likewise strongly prohibited. Desire thus becomes lust when it endangers necessary social boundaries. Perhaps the Hindu understanding of lust is best captured by the story told of the god Shiva who destroys the god of desire (Kama) and then realizes that he must recreate him again in a disembodied form.

Buddhism has a rich and extremely sophisticated understanding of desire and its effects. The Second Noble Truth asserts that craving or “thirst” leads to suffering. This craving is then subdivided into three specific forms: craving for renewed existence, craving for liberation from existence, and craving for sensual pleasure. The craving for sensual pleasure is especially pernicious because it creates the imaginative or mental framework for perpetuating a whole series of actions that enmesh the person within a false sense of selfhood. Because the challenge of lust to the ascetic life has been seen to be so serious, various extreme remedies are often recommended. For example, although the Buddha strongly advised against the practice, the trope of castration sometimes appears in Buddhist-inspired literature such as the Chinese novel The Carnal Prayer Mat. Of course, such radical views concerning lust are associated with classical Buddhist understandings of the monastic life as the path to salvation. Other forms of Buddhism, most notably those influenced by Tantra, understand desire as something that may also bring salvific benefits once its power is harnessed.

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