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.