by Swami Krishnananda
Last time I concluded with the thought that self-restraint, which is so pre-eminent in spiritual practice, is ultimately dependent on our reliance on God. Humanly it is impossible for an independent approach to this technique of self-control. As the self is entwined with many other factors in the world, it is almost an impossibility to try for an independent technique of self-restraint. It is like a person who has borrowed from so many people in the world that he cannot show his face to anyone. We owe so much to the various parts of creation. We are indebted to them to such an extent, and there seems to be so much demand from us on the part of the various things of the world, that to attain independence by self-restraint would be like a person freeing himself from the demands of several creditors whom he has to face in the world.
We are born with various kinds of debts, say our scriptures – so many kinds of rinas, as they are called. Sometimes these rinas are boiled down to deva-rina, rishi-rina, pitri-rina, etc.; but in fact, we owe rina, or a kind of obligation, to everything in this world, and no one can save us from these obligations.
Our debts to the world are of such a nature that they are incapable of repayment. Our dependence on the abundance of God’s creation is such that we cannot repay this debt, so it would be futile on our part to stand independent to all our relations to things.
Therefore, absolute self-restraint would not be possible merely on the basis of individual human effort. This is perhaps one of the reasons why we read in our Puranas, Epics and other scriptures the difficulties which even great Rishis faced in their penances, tapasyas, or processes of self-restraint. Sages of indomitable will such as Visvamitra, Parashara and others whom we hear of in the Epics and Puranas practised tapas, which is a single term that we use for self-restraint. Tapas is a term which I explained on earlier occasions, into whose details I do not propose to go now. Suffice it to say that tapas is the generation of that internal heat of the totality of energy in our system that rises up, focussing itself on its target.
The problems that the tapasvins in ancient days faced in the practice of self-restraint were the very same ones that we face today. While the questions seem to vary because of the various languages used, really the question was one and the same: the subdual of the forces that emanate from the human personality, tending towards the objects of sense. This was the problem, this is the problem, and this shall be the problem forever and ever because a human being is a specimen of all mankind, and the problem of one person should be the problem of every other person, truly speaking.
While to a certain extent we can exert our will, this power of will cannot always work because, as I mentioned last time, it has its own limitations. Many times our will tries to enter the enemy camp and make friendship with the enemies themselves. When we cannot fight the enemy, the best thing would be to become friendly with the enemy. The will oftentimes does this, and we do not know what tricks it plays. The stories we read of such sages as Durvasa, Visvamitra, Parashara, etc., are instructive in the sense that they do not merely teach us of the magnificence, the glory and the greatness of tapas, but also its difficulties and the hardships which one has to undergo in its practice. While it seems to be resplendent like the distant heaven, it is also equally inaccessible.
Now, the main question at hand is that the problem does not really lie in the extent of our performance in the act of self-restraint, but in the very initial tuning of our mind itself. Many times we are unprepared for the test, and we embark upon large responsibilities. This is one of the mistakes of most seekers on the path. We are incompetent in the very beginning itself. We have no strength to take even the first step, and yet our ambitions soar so high that we would not take on anything less than all that God has created. The difficulty in our taking the initial step is the difficulty in parting with our prejudices, particularly our prejudiced way of thinking. I am not talking of emotional prejudices here, but pure general psychological prejudices. We may call them logical prejudices of a general character – our weddedness to particular ways of thinking, and the incapacity to think in any other manner.
Previously, I tried to point out how we are entangled in the meshes of psychological relations with the many things of the world, due to which it should be difficult for us, perhaps impossible for us, to practice self-restraint in its completeness. But there is one recipe which seems to work wonders, to the surprise of our understanding, our will and all our learning. Sometimes a very unexpected, small drug will work miracles in curing an illness, though we may have tried many injections, tonics and such other things. Many big things may have not worked, but a simple thing may work a miracle. Likewise, a small thing seems to work a miracle in the practice of spiritual sadhana; and to ignore this small thing which plays such an important role in our sadhana is our folly.
We always try to count how many doors and windows there are in Buckingham Palace rather than know how many doors and windows we have in our own home. Our learning today is of such a nature. We know many things of the world, but we do not know how many steps there are in our own premises, and who is our next-door neighbour. Sometimes, we do not know who is living next door, but we know many things about other countries by reading newspapers. We make some fundamental mistake. ‘Fundamental’ is the only word for it – something hidden beneath our own self which wreaks havoc and spoils all our effort, whatever be the number of years we have spent in our so-called meditations and attempts at self-restraint. To our surprise, we realise years later that our achievements are nothing. We have been sweating and toiling, spending a lot of time, no doubt; but if we weigh the result, we will find that it is almost nothing. We have been sowing seeds, but not a single seed has germinated. When we have been working hard in the heat of the sun, perhaps watering the fields, and so on, why do they not germinate? Likewise seems to be our personal problems in spiritual practice.
While from one point of view the spiritual ideal is supremely universal, applicable to each and every person and everyone in the world equally in all respects, from another point of view spiritual life is purely personal. It is meant for you, and you alone, and no one else is concerned with it. It is difficult to understand the relation between this Supreme Universality and supreme individuality, in which the spiritual task seems to be involved. This is the reason why mystics say it is the flight of the alone to the Alone. It is one alone flying to One Alone. Neither in the beginning nor in the end does the question of another arise. We are one in the beginning, and we are One in the end. It is a purely personal attitude of the deepest consciousness in us, which is the beginning of the spiritual way of living, which effloresces later on into spiritual universality of experience.
Self-restraint, therefore, is again a personal matter, though it has a relationship with God Himself and the Supreme Reality. It is a gradual ascent of the consciousness from its lower strata to the higher and higher reaches of its being, until it reaches its Supreme manifestation as Absolute Being. All yoga may be defined as different stages of self-control. Yogaḥ cittavṛitti nirodhaḥ (YS 1.2). Nirodhah is control, while chitta may be defined as mind, or mind stuff. It is our empirical self which we have to subdue in all practices of yoga.
Now, in this mysterious process of the ascent of the soul, in this difficult task of the practice of yoga, in this act of self-restraint which we are called upon to do every day, if we are dispassionate enough, we will realise that we have many a difficulty to face in this attempt. We will be pulled in ten different directions when we try any kind of self-restraint. The Srimad Bhagavata says it is as if a person has many consorts who try to catch him from different directions. If we are pulled from every side, from which direction are we to restrain ourselves?
The world pulls us because the world is in every cell of our body. Every part of our personality seems to belong to creation. This concept is elaborated in the great teaching that every part of our personality has a presiding deity. There is an adhidevata ruling over every part of our body, every limb, every sense organ, even the mind, intellect and so on, so that everything in us seems to belong to somebody else. Therefore, there is every reason why we should be pulled from different directions by the forces of the cosmos.
Our personality is a composite structure, not an indivisible something. It is made up of parts. We are composite in the sense that we are made up of parts – not merely in the physical system, but also in our psychological body. Our physical and psychological bodies are made up of parts. It is this fact that is conveyed to us by the instruction that there are adhidaivas ruling over our personalities, and the body is made up of the five elements, and the subtle body is again made up of the tanmatras, and so on. What are we, then, independent of what belongs to the cosmos?
We seem to be nothing independently. From this point of view, it would be difficult for a person to stand alone, in the strictest sense of the term. Therefore, to restrain oneself, in the literal sense, is impossible. But there is a spirit behind this letter, which we should not miss. There is always a great difference between the spirit and the letter. While the letter of the argument seems to make out that we have to extricate ourselves individually from the clutches of each and every force which constitutes the cosmos outside, the spirit of the teaching is something different.
If we merely follow the letter, we would be a failure. We cannot stand independent of the world because everything in us belongs to the world. But the spirit of the teaching is that in the act of self-restraint, what we are called upon to do is not so much an individualistic withdrawal from something which is real outside in the world, but a kind of attunement of ourselves with it. Yoga is attunement, setting oneself in harmony, bringing about a balance. Samatvaṁ yoga ucyate (Gita 2.48): The yoga that we are striving to perform is the striking of a balance in our personality in terms of the forces of the world.
We cannot wrench ourselves from the world. That is impossible. There is no such thing as running away from the forces of the world. No one has done it, and no one can do it. So, self-control or self-restraint, or prathyahara, withdrawal, is not a possibility if it is to be taken in its literal sense of physical isolation or segregation from the realities of the world, and those who have attempted it have failed. They never succeeded. They appeared to succeed in the beginning, but later on the senses began to revolt and worked so vehemently in the reverse order that they found themselves on levels lower than those from which they tried to rise. When they fell, they fell with a thud, and perhaps broke their limbs because they tried to climb too high in an artificial manner without knowing the art of climbing.
The spirit of the teaching on self-control must be grasped properly if we are to succeed in it. We should not try any kind of foolish method in the control of the senses. Indriyāṇi pramāthīni haranti prasabhaṁ manaḥ (Gita 2.60). Jñānināmapi cetāmsi devī bhagavatī hi sā; balādākṛṣya mohāya mahāmaya prayacchati (Devi Mahatmayam 1.55-56). Thus says the Devi Mahatmayam: Even the wise person is likely to be distracted by the powers of sense. Balavān indriya-grāmo vidvāṁsam api karṣati (Bhagavatam 9.19.17): Even a vidvan, a learned person, perhaps even a wise one is likely to be led astray by the impetus force of the collective activity of the senses.
Like the sultans of the Bahamani Kingdom, when the senses attack, they will all be together, though they are against one another. The senses join together if they want to set up a revolt. Hence, in our practice of yoga or sadhana, we must have always with us the result of a positive element, with which I concluded the last discourse. We should not always be on the negative side of what we call withdrawal, isolation, segregation, vairagya, etc., and should not always harp on avoiding something. It is true that scriptures tell us that we have to avoid certain things, but the avoiding is only a preparation for the development of a positive aspect in our own life.
We must always have something substantial with us to lay hands upon, to lean on in times of emergency. We cannot live on emptiness. If we go on withdrawing from everything, then what remains in us? The positive element in us is the spiritual element. Therefore tapas, or self-restraint, should be a spiritual element and not merely a practice of the will or a psychological exercise. Self-control, kshama, dhama, and uparati, whose nature we have been discussing, is not merely a feat of the will. It is not a circus of the understanding or any of the faculties in us. It is a very magnificent and graduated manifestation of the soul force in us.
While it is the restraint of the self from one side, it is the manifestation of the Self from the other side. While we free ourselves from the false self from one side, we gradually reveal the true Self in us from the other side. The more is the manifestation of the real Self in us, the easier is the practice of the control of the lower self in us. And, at every step that we take in the process of self-control, we have to take the help of the higher element in us, which is always with us, in us, and which we are.
Now, this brings us to the concept of God, with which I concluded last time. It appears that without some sort of devotion to God, whatever our concept of God may be, we cannot hope to succeed in spiritual life. We cannot get on merely with do’s and don’ts in life. Mere ethical or moral mandates will look all right in the beginning, but they all become insipid later. We do not know what these do’s and don’ts are, and what they are for. A time comes when we begin to search for some meaning in life. This meaning is the God element, the principle of Reality in things, the meaning of all meanings, we can say. Unless we have a permanent background of thought in our mind, to which we can withdraw incessantly like a tortoise in time of danger, we are not going to be happy.
There are many difficulties that we may have to face in life. When we are intensely agitated by forces that we cannot confront, we must have some home to which we can retire. If that is absent, we would be simply tossed into the winds by the forces of the world; we would be nowhere. It is very essential that every spiritual seeker should develop a background of thought which is permanent – strongly built, not built on quicksand – and this can be nothing less than our concept of God. Our concept of God is a very important aspect to consider in our discussion on the nature of spiritual practice.
Every one of you has some notion of God and perhaps worship God in some form or the other, yet there are some people who deny the existence of God because God is not visible to their eyes. He is not a sensory object. We cannot think Him through the mind, we cannot understand Him, we cannot feel His presence. There is nothing that we can do with this so-called God. We want something which we can see with our eyes, smell with our nose, taste with our tongue, hear with our ears, touch with our hands, etc. But God is something which cannot be dealt with in this manner.
“Does God exist at all?” is a very valid doubt in many minds, but the question is wrongly put. Our question should be not whether God exists, but whether anything exists at all. If anything exists, then what is it? It is not very important to discuss whether God exists, because in our talks on the existence of God, generally ‘God’ means something which exists in this world. That is why we can dispense with Him if we like. We can take Him or not take Him. To us, God is a kind of commodity. It is on account of this concept of God, wrong as it is, that there have been people who have denied the existence of God. But God is not any such thing as they think. We cannot afford to either want Him or not want Him. There is no question of discussion about Him because it eludes all approaches to the human mind.
In the Eighteenth Chapter of the Bhagavadgita there are three verses which give us some hint of the various ways in which people have tried to approach the concept of God. Very few people might have thought over the implications of these verses, but they are very significant if they are properly told.
Yat tu kṛtsnavad ekasmin kārye saktam ahetukam, atattvārthavad alpaṁ ca tat tāmasam udāhṛtam (Gita 18.22). The lowest concept of Reality is mentioned here. To take an effect for the cause, to take the part for the whole, would be the tamasic concept of Reality. Ahetukam: Untenable is this concept. Atattvārthavad alpaṁ ca: It is finite and devoid of substantiality. That would be the tamasic, or the lowest form, of the concept of Truth. But all people, perhaps 99.9%, conceive Reality in this way. For us, Reality is the world and its contents, scattered in space and time. It is because of this tamasic concept of Reality that our senses run towards the objects.
The senses run to realities. They do not run to phantoms. Nobody likes a phantasmagoria to be presented. When the senses want objects from the world, they go for them by convincing themselves that they are realities, truths. So the sense world presents the tamasic form of Truth. The god of the senses is perhaps described in this verse of the Bhagavadgita. The senses also have their gods, and all these scattered particulars of the world are the gods of the senses, and also the gods of all those people who live according to the dictates of the senses, who think in terms of the senses, who live a sensory life. For them these are the gods, the objects of sense.
If we interpret this verse metaphysically, the lowest concept of Reality is to regard isolated particulars as final entities in creation. We have examples of Vaisheshika metaphysics and the Nyaya. In certain theological schools, where bheda or distinction is regarded as final, it is regarded as one of the real categories. The Vaisheshikas tell us that there are nine padarthas, nine dravyas or substances, and so on. They think that the segregated particulars constitute independent realities themselves – the Atman being one of the entities of creation. It is one of many things, not the only reality. So to think in this way, to imagine that Reality is manifold, multitudinous, variegated, scattered, unrelated in its parts, and with this notion run towards them for possessing them, enjoying them, etc., would be one type of philosophy. But there is a higher concept of Truth, which another verse of the same chapter tells us.
Pṛthaktvena tu yaj jñānaṁ nānābhāvān pṛthagvidhān, vetti sarveṣu bhūteṣu taj jñānaṁ viddhi rājasam (Gita 18.21). There is a higher concept of Truth where we feel an inter-relatedness of things; things are not so isolated as the senses tell us. While the senses give us a report that everything is cut off from each other, there is only nanatva or variety. Reason rises higher than sense and tells us that there is mutual relationship of things, and it is not true that each is cut off from the other. There is a kind of mutual dependence of the entities that constitute creation. There is a correlativity and mutual dependence of things in the cosmos, and we cannot say which is the cause and which is the effect here.
When I pinch you and you pinch me, who pushes whom? There is a game where each one pinches the one nearby, and so there is a circular pinching. Well, in this game there is someone who starts pinching, but in this world of causality, we do not know where the beginning is. Which is the first pinch? In a world of related mutually coordinated elements, we cannot say where it begins. To give an example, we have our own physical body. It is so very organically related in its parts that we cannot say where the body begins. Where does body begin? At the foot? At the fingers? At the nose? Well, it can begin at any part; it is all equally good. So is this mysterious inter-related cosmos.
Thus, from the notion of the particularity of Truth, we come to the inter-relatedness of it, a higher concept. But still higher is what is proclaimed in another verse of the same chapter in the Bhagavadgita: sarvabhūteṣu yenaikaṁ bhāvam avyayam īkṣate, avibhaktaṁ vibhakteṣu taj jñānaṁ viddhi sāttvikam (Gita 18.20). To visualise a single element in all these particulars as well as in this interrelated system would be to tumble on Reality. It is the report of the senses that everything is isolated, everything is disconnected: You have nothing to do with me, and I have nothing to do with you. That is one sort of philosophy of the senses, the lowest of philosophies. The higher philosophy is that there is some kind of cooperative principle moving amidst us. There is an interrelatedness of things. But this interrelatedness of things implies that there is a Universal Absolute element behind all relations.
What is relation? It is the consciousness of one thing being connected with another. This consciousness should be above this connection. It goes without saying if ‘A’ is here and ‘B’ is here, and I am conscious of ‘A’ and ‘B’ simultaneously, my consciousness of ‘A’ and ‘B’ should transcend the difference between ‘A’ and ‘B’; this is simple logic. So if there is to be an interrelatedness of things in mutual relation of everything in the world, the universe should be animated by a single Reality.
Ekatvena pṛthaktvena bahudhā viśvatomukham (Gita 9.15) says the Gita in another place: “I am adored as one, separate and manifold.” The approach is manifold in the beginning, distinct later on, and as one ultimately. A similar type of statement is also made in the Srimad Bhagavata where we are told that God is conceived in many ways: He is Brahman, Paramatman and Bhagavan. All these are various ways of putting the same truth in different styles: that we live in the beginning in a world of isolation, separateness, and a consciousness of distinction of things. Then we slowly rise to the higher consciousness of the immanence of Reality in this variety, and in the highest reaches of our consciousness we realise its Absoluteness, a word which is difficult to define. So in the practice of spiritual sadhana, we rise from one concept of God to another.
Psychologically this is an effort, and spiritually it is an achievement. Inwardly taking sadhana as a personal exertion, an effort, a will directed in a particular way, it is a function of the psychological organs; but this function is connected to a positive Being, which seems to speak to us both inwardly and outwardly. God is within us as well as without us, and when we move in the path of spiritual sadhana, we live and move and have our being in God. So the more we advance in sadhana, the more also are our thoughts clarified in regard to our notion of God. We do not any more search for God as an object in creation, and we have nothing to say about Him, for or against.
But God becomes an indispensible something, without which existence itself has no sense. It is only a word, an appellation that we have used to describe That Which Is, as St. Augustine calls Him. We cannot say that nothing is. Something is. Even the atheist cannot say that something is not. And so, if something is, that something is God. The question is, what is? The materialist and the atheist may accept that something is, but what is it?
As I stated earlier, the scriptures seem to be a guide for us in our ascent from the lower concept of what is, to the higher and higher concepts of it. In the beginning we think that only sense objects are. For a child, what is? Whatever is in front of the child, that is, and that is all. This is the baby’s philosophy of concrete objectiveness, where it takes the physical substantiality for reality and considers it, at the same time, to be absolutely disconnected from other things.
As long as we are wedded to the senses, we are all materialists. We may be spiritualists in our arguments and thinking, but in practical life we depend on matter for our existence. Hence, we are all materialists. Our body is material, the objects of sense are material, the food that we eat is material, the air that we breathe is material, the water that we drink is material, the earth that we walk upon is material. We cannot get out of the clutches of matter, so in practice it seems to be all materialism. This is a sense world. It only proves that we are still in the sense world, and we cannot get out of this interpretation of Reality in terms of matter.
Deep manana, thought bestowed on this situation, enables our consciousness to see a different meaning in this very thing called matter. It is not that matter is not there; it is there, but what is it that we call matter? There is no point in abhorring matter as being not there, and so on. What we are expected to do is to understand what really is there in what we regard as matter today.
Sometimes the mother may put on a mask of a tiger or a ghost and try to terrify the child in play. She makes a kind of sound. Sometimes she covers her face with a cloth and then slowly creeps near the child to terrify it, and then the child cries out and runs away. When the mask is lifted, it is the mother. That from which the child cried and ran, now to that very thing the child runs in affection.
In spiritual sadhana also, the same thing will take place. That from which we have to withdraw in self-restraint and prathyahara will be the very same thing to which we have to run when we realise what it is. Therefore, it is essential that we sift our thoughts properly, both objectively in our notion of God and subjectively in our concept of sadhana and self-control.
We are walking on slippery ground, both ways. We are likely to fall down both in our attempt at grasping the meaning of what God is, and in our practice of self-restraint and yoga, because they are interrelated. Krishna and Arjuna go together. The concept of God and spiritual practice in its personal sense are inseparable. They are like the two birds perched on the same tree, as the Upanishad tells us, the two heroes seated in a single chariot, Ishwara and jiva working in unison.
This is why the Kathopanishad says that in this practice, we must be extremely diligent. Apramattastadā bhavati yogo hi prabhavāpyayau (Katha 2.3.11): We cannot just walk carefree in this world, thinking that everything is all right. What is death? Death is heedlessness as to our welfare. If we cannot know what our true welfare is, we will be heading towards doom. There is no other destruction or doom in this world.
Tām yogam iti manyante sthirām indriya-dhāraṇām, apramattas tadā bhavati, yogo hi prabhavāpyayau (Katha 2.3.11), says the Kathopanishad: Yoga, to put it concisely and precisely in one sentence, is the adamantine restraint of the senses in tune with the Self within, and an extreme watchfulness of this condition, because yogo hi prabhavāpyayau: Yoga will come and go. It will not always be there at our beck and call.
So difficult is the practice of yoga; so difficult it is even to entertain a correct notion of God; and so difficult again is the understanding of the processes of our own minds in relation to the objects outside, and ultimately in relation to the Supreme Reality.