by Swami Krishnananda
The act of self-control in spiritual sadhana needs not merely great understanding, but also power of will. The force of volition that is exerted in self-restraint is really like the dynamo that generates the power, without which the vehicle of spiritual practice will not move. Though we have heard a lot about the power of will and its importance in every activity of life, when we come to spiritual practice, we realise that it constitutes not merely a psychological function but something deeper, and seems to reflect in itself a power which cannot be equated with mental activity.
In Sanskrit we use the term buddhi-shakti to understand what generally goes by the name of will power. As a matter of fact, there is no proper equivalent in English to designate this particular force which, at a particular stage, reveals itself to be an agent of a deeper energy within us, rather than a reaction set up on account of the perception of an object. There is a great difference between the will which is merely a psychological function, and the will which is buddhi-shakti or the power of understanding. Our capacity to discriminate, understand and judge plays a dual role in every walk of life.
We have, as it is usually said, a lower nature and a higher nature. The lower nature is what may be regarded as the sum total or the cumulative effect of the sensations and the perceptions in which we are involved daily. The sensations and perceptions in terms of objects of the world get sifted in the act of intellectual judgement, and the essence of these sensations and perceptions crystallises itself into what we call understanding. From this point of view, human understanding is not independent of sensory reaction. We do not act as independent judges of the objects of the world if our judgement is based on the sensations and perceptions which are conveyed to us through the senses. But there seems to be within us something which is independent. Sometimes it is called the pure reason – not the ratiocinating power which plays second fiddle mostly to sensory reactions, but a pure, unadulterated capacity to understand which knows things directly in an immediacy, rather than indirectly through the mediate process of sensations and perceptions.
When we say we lack the power of will, that our will is weak, and so on, we generally complain of our incapacity to judge objects and situations independently. In other words, it is equal to saying that the objects control us, rather than our controlling the objects. The impressions produced by the processes of sensation and perception sit so heavily upon our understanding that they may be said to cloud it and prevent a larger understanding; and if our understanding is to work at all in terms of these reactions of stimuli received from outside, its function will be in terms of these impressions which are already embedded on its surface.
It is like the sun peeking through the clouds, to give an example. When the light of the sun passes through a thick layer of cloud, it appears to go through a transformation in terms of the quality of the cloud and the way in which they are arranged, and so on. In the same way, the understanding, which really is a kind of light within us, gets so influenced by the impressions heaped upon it that for all practical purposes it is only a handmaid or a tool of the impressions that seek expression.
The impressions which are produced in the process of objective sensation and perception bear an intimate relation to the objects of the world. The objects react upon our minds and produce these impressions, and the impressions, again, have a tendency to move towards the very same objects, or objects of similar character. There is a kind of vicious circle created in our process of perception: objects producing impressions, and impressions again tending to contact objects of the world. In this vicious circle, if our mind is to get involved, then naturally our will is weak.
Where is independence in this process of psychological functions? We are wedded to objects. The objects determine our thinking and feeling, and as long as we are restrained by the chains of objects of sense, so long we are in samsara, and so long also our will is incapable of working except as ordained by the objects of the world. But when we speak of the power of will, in spiritual sadhana particularly, we refer to something different and markedly distinct in its constitution because here in this spiritual activity of the exercise of the will, we utilise not the impressions produced in our mind through the processes of sensation and perception, but the light of the understanding directly.
There is a mistake that we commit when we contact objects of sense, on account of which it is that we become generally weak in our will – the mistake being our attunement with the objects, rather than with what we really are. The mind is midway between the objects of sense and what we truly are in our own subjective essence. We are not a description of merely objective references. What we call ourselves as the Self is something which cannot be equated with merely a bundle of sensations, perceptions, etc. There is something asserting itself within us, and this assertion is something which our understanding is unable to explain through its logic. It is this indomitable assertion within us which is responsible for all activities within us, psychological as well as physical.
The mind receives a push from a force that is behind it, and it is also pulled by the senses, so it receives an impact of a push and a pull, simultaneously. The force within pushes it forward for a particular purpose, and the objects outside pull it in the direction of the senses. Now, where comes the question of will?
What is will? The will would be that particular activity of the mind whereby it brings about a reconciliation between this push and pull and understands its true position, midway between an essence which seems to be its background and the temptations standing before it as the objects of the world. If the mind is to be interpreted always in terms of desires for objects, then there is no question of independent exercise of the power of the will. There would be only a yielding of the mind to the demands of the objects. To flow with the current of the river is easier than to run upstream. The senses naturally tend towards the objects because the objects and the senses are constituted of similar essences, called the tanmatras. In Sanskrit we call these tanmatras as sabdha, sparsha, rupa, rasa and gandha. It is difficult to know what these tanmatras are, but suffice it to say they are the subtle essences out of which the physical universe is constituted, and are subtler than even electric force. To these tanmatras, even the pranas are gross. Such are the tanmatras.
These subtle essences constitute the forces which subjectively form the sensations within us, and objectively constitute the physical objects. So there is a mutual friendship between the objects and the fivefold senses. When we live in a sense world, therefore, there is no question of power of will. Sometimes we appear to be exercising a kind of freedom of choice, while really that freedom is listening to the voice of the senses.
Hypnotised patients appear to have a kind of freedom. The patient acts exactly according to the instructions of the physician, who by the power of his will hypnotised the mind of the patient. The patient will move in a particular direction, do certain things, perhaps speak certain words, all with the notion that he or she is doing this independently out of freedom of choice, not knowing that all these activities are directed by the will of the hypnotist. The patient will not know what is happening.
Similarly, there is a likelihood of the mind getting hypnotised by desires for objects of sense, such that we are likely to mistake dependence for independence, slavery for freedom, subjection for exercise of independent power of will. This is exactly what is happening in the world. No man can be said to be absolutely free, though each one thinks he is free, to a large extent. The freedom is only to be dependent on others. That is all the freedom that one has. It is not possible to be truly independent as long as we work through the senses, as long as we live in a world of objects, and as long as we live in a relative world.
To be related is to be dependent. There is a mutual relation between the mind and the objects, one influencing the other, one determining the other, one being impossible without the other. So in this circular motion of the objects and the mind thinking the objects, there cannot be freedom. This circular motion is again what is known as samsara: movement in a whorl, being caught in the current of this vicious activity of subjective tendency in the form of mind, and objective form in the shape of the things of the world.
As long as we are caught up in this vicious circle, there cannot be independent judgement. Desires shall control us. For all practical purposes, what we call this ‘us’ or ‘we’ or ‘I’ is a bundle of these psychological functions. It is on account of laying too much emphasis on this aspect of individual personality that many Western psychologists do away with the notion of the Self, thinking that the self is all that there is, which is nothing more than a bundle of sensations. They cannot understand that there is an Atman, or can be an Atman, behind the groups of sensations and reactions of perceptions.
What do you see when you analyse your own self? You see only thoughts, feelings and ideas, and all these are in terms of certain things outside. What are you then, independently? The sceptic Hume of England concluded that, “When I look into myself, I see nothing but a bundle of these threads of thoughts, feelings, emotions and ideas; and if these threads were to be cast aside, rent asunder, there would be no self.” This was the conclusion of the master sceptic that the world has produced – as, for example, if you cast away all the threads of a cloth, there will be no cloth. What is cloth, independent of the threads; and what is the self, independent of the thoughts, feelings and these psychological functions? This is the empirical self that we try to analyse.
All human beings live in an empirical world. We are all empirical beings, whatever be our aspirations from the bottom of our hearts. We cannot get rid of the idea that we are bodies and, therefore, cannot free ourselves from the clutches of the objects of the world which bear a relation to the body in which we are encased. The body is pulled by the objects and vice versa, with a gravitational attraction, as it were; and the mind lodged in this body is again influenced in terms of these attractions.
This is why astrologers tell us that planets can also influence minds. You will be wondering how the mind can be influenced by planets. They indirectly influence the mind by the influence they exert on the bodies. If the mind were independent of the body, there would be no such influence of the mind, but the mind is so much dependent on the body that whatever happens to the body seems to also happen to the mind. So if there is a magnetic pull of the planets over the bodies, well, they should also have the very same influence on the minds, which are dependent on bodies.
But there is a great secret in the way in which the will is to be exerted in the practice of spiritual sadhana. We have to turn the tables round when we enter into the field of spiritual activity. It is as if we start looking at things through a new set of spectacles. We begin to see things in a new way altogether.
What is this new way, this novel method? This method is not to think in terms of objects, because to think in terms of objects is the opposite of self-restraint. Self-control is the attempt at thinking in such a way that the mind does not depend on objects for its thinking. It can think even without objects, and even if objects are to be there in front of it, it need not be interpreted in terms of objects. When we are constantly tempted from all sides by objects of sense, self-restraint is almost an impossibility because to restrain the self is to restrain the tendency of the mind to think in terms of objective description.
Every sadhaka should find a little time daily to think along these lines. “Do I think? Yes. But what do I think?” Questions should be very precise, incisive, and the answers should be to the point. “When I think, what do I think at any given moment?” And our answer would naturally be that we think something that is external to the mind, outside the mind – perhaps, in most cases, an object. “But why do I think this object?” may be our next question. First of all, our question was, “What do I think?” Now our question is, “Why do I think this?” which is a more difficult question to answer because we cannot know why we think an object.
Why do I think this call-bell in front of me? This question can only be answered if I know what thinking is. The analysis of the structure of the process of thinking would promise a kind of answer to the question of why the mind thinks objects at all. And on the basis of the answer that is obtained in this manner, we may gain some strength with which we can wield self-restraint; otherwise, self-restraint would be only talk.
We can restrain anyone or anything in this world, but we cannot restrain ourselves because we are made in such a way that we move towards objects of sense. We may wonder, “Do we really move towards objects?” Now, we are being seated here in the hall. Or, we may be in our puja room; we are not physically moving, so how could we be moving towards objects?
The physical body is not such a compact, localised substance as it appears. To give an example, the flame of the lamp is at one place, it is not everywhere, but the flame can shed its rays around to some distance. In this sense we may say the flame travels, though the flame really never travels. If we keep the lamp on a table in the centre of the room, for example, the flame is just there on a particular spot, occupying only one square inch of area, but it can reach up the walls of the room through the light that it sheds. But what is this light? It is the flame itself moving through its own constituents. The constituents of the flame move, and this movement of the very structure of the flame is called the movement of the rays of light.
Sunlight travels, we may say. Sunlight impinges on our body, touches the surface of the Earth, and the influence that is exerted by the Sun on the Earth is exactly a kind of contact subtly established between the constituents of the Sun and the body of the Earth. This process of physical contact continuously takes place through vibrations. Instead of a ray of light, we may call it vibrations. It is on account of the presence of what we call vibrations that we are asked to have a satsanga and not dussanga. “Do not keep bad company,” we are told. We should not even sit with an evil-minded person because we may be influenced, though the person might not speak at all.
Now, what is this influence? The influence is a kind of emanation, we may say, from the body and personality of another, which has an impact on our personality. There is a physical contact, perhaps even a psychological union. This is the rational reason behind the favour of satsanga and against dussanga. Well, this is by the way, to explain what dussanga is.
Now, when we are in the midst of objects of sense, there is an emanation mutually taking place between our bodies and the bodies outside us. The very presence of bodies stimulates our senses, and the senses become activated; they become alive. They rise up and gaze at the objects through an eye which is not physical. The senses have a peculiar way of contacting objects even without our consciously knowing what is happening in our mind. The way in which vibrations work is subtle; secretly, in the deeper recesses of our personality, activities may be going on when we are completely oblivious of what is happening. We may only return with a disturbed mind without knowing what the cause of our disturbance is. There are some people who are very sensitive and when they go to certain places, they immediately get influenced by the vibrations of the place.
If we go to a burial ground, we will be influenced in a particular manner, though we may not be aware that it is a burial ground. If we go to a holy place, the influence will be altogether different. It is said that Gauranga Mahaprabhu came in search of the real birthplace of Sri Krishna, and when he approached a particular spot which today goes by the name of Brindavan, he felt thrilled and said, “This must have been the place of the birth of Sri Krishna.” It is called Madhuvana, in ancient tradition. There was the receptive capacity in his mind to feel the vibrations subtly working in that atmosphere.
In this way, generally speaking, we should conclude that we are living in a world of vibrations. Though we appear to be living in a world of what are called objects, when we really go deep into the matter, we would realise that we are made up of vibrations. Our body is made up of a bundle of vibrations, and the objects of the world are also constituted of similar sets of vibrations moving hither and thither in search of their counterparts. The positive attracts the negative, and every set of vibrations attracts its counterpart. Hence, there is a pull mutually exerted by bodies and minds in the world. To restrain oneself from such influences would be real self-restraint.
“What is self-restraint?” may be another doubt that may occur to the mind. What is meant by the term ‘self’ used in the compound ‘self-restraint’? What are we going to restrain in self-restraint?
As I mentioned, the restraint is merely of the tendency to move towards an object. Everything is an object from the point of view of an observer. I am an object to you, and you are an object to me from my own point of view. I am a subject to me and you are a subject to you from your point of view. For you, self-restraint would be checking the tendency of the mind to think in terms of me as an object. And, likewise, self-restraint for me would be checking my mental tendency to think in terms of your personality as an object, and so on in terms of any object in the world. Again, there should not be any kind of involuntary tendency in our body because that would be slavery, not freedom. There should be no involuntary process in terms of objects of sense. Defining sense control and self-restraint in this manner, one would realise how difficult self-control is. No one can escape thinking in terms of objects.
Self-restraint is intended for Self-realisation. We restrain one kind of self and realise another kind of Self. The whole of sadhana is nothing but this dual process of self-restraint for Self-realisation. And the restraint of the self is nothing but the freeing of the true Self from the entanglements of the network of these relationships of vibrations.
When the true Self gets involved in the meshes of these involvements of forces called vibrations, then it is that it becomes a samsarin, a jiva. A jiva, or an individual, is nothing but this true Self getting limited in its functions to the localised activities of a group of vibrations called bodies. There are no bodies really; they are all vibrations, one moving towards the other, trying to enter the other, to commingle with the other and become the other. This is a world of forces, on account of which also we are said to be in a world of relativity.
This is the essence of the life of samsara, where we are caught up in the cosmic currents which take us outward, far, far away from our centre, and make us feel a sense of perpetual agony and grief, knowing not what is the cause. Spiritual sadhana therefore, in all its stages of practice, is a deliberate attempt of our understanding to appreciate its position in the midst of these sets of vibrations and free itself from their clutches – stand independent and think not in terms of them, but in terms of its own true being. When we can think in terms of what we are rather than in terms of what we would like to have, then we have gained one step in the ladder of spiritual evolution.
But all this would be next to impossible when understanding is lacking. Understanding is at the background of the power of will. If understanding is Siva, will is Shakti. They work mutually. One is the base, the other is the expression. In self-control, therefore, while on one side we have to exert hard by the use of our will in checking our tendencies to self-expression in terms of objects, on the other side we have to see that we are illumined through our understanding. And it is this light of illumination from within that has to help us to live a life of independence. Otherwise, we would be brooding over the objects of sense, though physically we are free from them. The Bhagavadgita calls such a person a hypocrite. To restrain oneself externally while brooding over the sense objects internally would be far, far away from spiritual sadhana because self-restraint is not physical detachment from other objects, but a psychological retention of oneself from contact with them. So if the psychological functions are always in their relations with objects, indulgence goes on perpetually.
Therefore, the karmendriyas are not as important as the jnanendriyas in the act of self-control. The karmendriyas may not be in actual contact with the objects, but the jnanendriyas may be again thinking of them alone, and so we are in contact with objects. What disturbs our personality is not physical contacts, it is the mind’s contact with things. When the mind is agitated, the whole personality is disturbed. Like milk becoming curd, the whole of our being may get dissipated by agitating forces emanating from objects of sense and influencing our mind. This is contrary to spiritual practice.
So in the understanding of what self-restraint is, and the appreciation of the extent to which the power of will has to be exerted here, the sadhaka has to leisurely ponder over the entire situation of his individuality, take into consideration all aspects of his quest, and not underestimate his desires. We should not say, “I have no desires,” because if we have no desires, then there is no need for self-restraint. There is nothing for us to restrain. The desires are the psychological contacts that we have established with the objects. It is these psychological contacts that are called desires, and they have a tendency to act independently without asking us. They take the law into their own hands, and we, many a time, or perhaps often, dance to their tune. This is life in the sense world. Hence, to restrain oneself would be to subdue one’s personality, to bring down the forces emanating from oneself in relation to the objects of the world, revert them inside, make them tend towards the centre, and sublimate them into a power which goes by the name of Soul-force, atma-shakti – something higher than buddhi-shakti or vishaya-shakti.
When this soul-force gets generated within us, a tremendously alchemic process also takes place simultaneously, which we have often read of in textbooks on Brahmacharya, for example: the conversion of bodily and psychic energy into what is called ojas-shakti. The energy of the body tends towards the objects as long as we think of objects. This is the purpose of Brahmacharya, to speak in general terms. All tendency of the mind towards objects is an expression of desire for objects, and a counter activity that is attempted within would be to divert the course of this energy back to its source so that it rises, as the hatha yogins and the tantric sadhaks, etc., say, to the sahasrara, or the crown of the head – which means to say, that energy becomes understanding. Shakti becomes Siva, says the tantrics, etc. Shakti becoming Siva, kundalini becoming one with the sahasrara – all this means the extroverted will getting united with the understanding, becoming one with Being, the world merging in God, man returning to the state of immortality, or whatever we may call it.
It is, therefore, fundamental in spiritual practice to free this dual application of the understanding and the will from any kind of emotional tangle because while it may look that the understanding functions well, it may be vitiated by an emotional tangle from within, secretly working at the bottom. We know very well that our contacts with the world are mostly emotional, they are not intellectual or volitional. And when emotional contacts cease, all other contacts also cease. It is this emotional contact that is called raga-dvesha, and in self-restraint, the tendency to raga and dvesha ceases.
As a matter of fact, there is only one tendency, raga. Even dvesha is a part of raga itself. There is no raga-dvesha, there is only raga. Dvesha is only a negative avoiding of factors which are contrary to the fulfilment of raga. So it is raga alone; the whole world is raga, desire. The strongest impulse of emotion is what is called raga, and this is our actual contact with the world. To free our emotion from objects would be to free oneself from raga, or attraction for things.
Here comes the role of understanding. We cannot free ourselves from affection for things as long as the understanding is weak. We have to understand the situation under which we have been tempted by objects of the world. Why do we love an object? The love is an emotional act, and we cannot sever the emotional relationship from the object unless we exercise the understanding simultaneously.
Thus, in self-restraint, understanding, will and feeling all work together. It is not merely one aspect or function of the psychological organ that works in self-restraint, but the whole of it taken collectively. It is the self that is being restrained by the power of the higher Self. The doctrine of this is very beautifully described in the Bhagavadgita: the higher Self restraining the lower self, and the lower self getting transmuted into the higher.
Evaṁ buddheḥ paraṁ buddhvā saṁstabhyātmānam ātmanā jahi śatruṁ mahābāho kāmarūpaṁ durāsadam (Gita 3.43): We cannot control kama before we know that Higher Being. Evaṁ buddheḥ: not before that. The lower self cannot help us because the lower self is a bundle of kama itself. The very tendency towards the objects of the world is kama, and the whole of this lower empirical self is made up of these threads of kama scattered in various directions. So the higher Self has to come to the rescue of the lower self.
This mahāśano mahāpāpmā (Gita 3.37), as the Bhagavadgita calls it, this terrible foe of man – the only foe of man perhaps – is raga for things, affection for the world, bondage to samsara. This contact can be snapped only by that higher understanding which is nothing but that light of the higher Self in us, God working. And no success can be achieved in this world unless we start interpreting our activities in terms of God. That is the only positive element in the world; everything else is negative. The whole world is made up of negative values. The only positive principle in creation is the God element. And only when we take resort to this supreme positivity of all creation will we be able to control ourselves and free ourselves from entanglements in these negative values we call worldly existence.
We live today a hopelessly meaningless life of negativity, and that is why we have sorrow. The whole of our life is one of sorrow, grief. Why? Because there is nothing positive in us – no substantiality in us. We are empty of content because the only content which is meaningful is God. So in all spiritual sadhana, particularly in this context of self-control, we should remember that great verse of the Bhagavadgita towards the end of the third chapter where we are admonished to take the help of the most positive of meanings, the higher Self in us, which is God, and subdue the lower self in such a way that it gets transmuted completely; then raga or kama, desire for external things, gets converted into aspiration for the Universal, and the pleasures of the world vanish into the bliss of God.
These considerations should give enough strength to the mind of man in spiritual sadhana. In self-restraint, vichara also should go side by side. Every day we should find a little time to do vichara in this way. The human being standing independently on his own legs cannot stand the onslaught of the oppositions of the worldly forces. Unless the Higher comes to the aid of the lower, the lower cannot win victory in this world. Lodged as we are in the lower self, we cannot hope to win victory in this battlefield of life unless the Eternal Krishna comes to our assistance and we surrender ourselves, as the Pandavas did, to the Supreme Radiance of the Eternal, which spoke the Bhagavadgita in the Mahabharata, which guided the destinies of those souls called the Pandavas. We all stand in similar positions, similar situations, and these epics are written for us as mankind in its completeness.
Thus, taking the examples from those lofty minds that lived before us, and using our higher understanding side by side with the will in its coordination with understanding, freeing emotion from its subtle subterfuges and relationships with longed-for things, the sadhaka should learn to live a life of dependence on the Self within and free himself from dependence on what is outside. When self-restraint gets deepened, it becomes meditation, and meditation deepened still is Realisation. These sum up the essence and the principle elements involved in spiritual practice.
It need not be added that caution should be the watchword of the seeker because it is easy to be duped by the forces of the world which take concrete shape as objects of sense, and we may become unwary and mistake the object for the subject, the thing for the Self, and things that we love as our own self. This mistake is again samsara. We do not know that we are in samsara; that is the very meaning of it. The very moment that we become conscious that we are in it, we also have the power to get out of it. Such inward consciousness should be generated within us by rightly directed understanding, will and emotion, and ultimately prayer to God.