The Path to Freedom: Mastering the Art of Total Perception
by Swami Krishnananda

Chapter 12: Self-Restraint versus Self-Indulgence

In the context of our study of kshama, dhama and uparati as essential prerequisites in the practice of sadhana, we came to the issue of the nature of self-restraint and the role that it plays in all spiritual practice. This is perhaps the crucial point in all spiritual effort. It would not be out of place to expatiate on this subject a little more, because when we come to the essence of the matter, we will realise that all yoga is self-restraint, and one who does not understand self-restraint would not be able to practice yoga or be a student of it.

The restraint of the self is a subject which we have been trying to understand for the last few days. We have been also attempting to know what this self is which has to be restrained, and for what purpose, etc. Now, when we go a little deeper into the nature of the process of self-restraint, we will realise perhaps, to our surprise, that there is a deeper rationale behind this great instruction on self-restraint as a part of yoga—a cosmic significance and a universally inexorable law operating behind it. We seem to be a failure in the practice of self-restraint because of our incapacity to understand the law that is behind the world.

We will realise, on a careful scrutiny, that restraint of self is not merely a moral canon. It is not merely an ethical conduct that we are asked to practise as a kind of social etiquette. It is something profound and related to the very structure of the cosmos. It is on account of this inner implication that it is so important in our life, and also so hard to understand.

To be good and to do good is generally regarded as a virtue. Most people regard virtue as a kind of character that we exhibit in our outer conduct, which may be praiseworthy in the eyes of people. If everyone regards my conduct as wonderful, I may be regarded as a virtuous person. So most of the moral rules go perhaps by the votes, by the plebiscites, and if the majority votes for it, it may be regarded as a virtuous act. But this kind of virtue will not hold water because the judgement of society varies, and has to vary from time to time in the process of the evolution of the human mind.

If virtue is based on such a criterion, then there would be no such thing as a standard virtue. Righteousness would then become a kind of commercial value which changes from time to time under different circumstances, like the rates of goods or articles in a market which go on changing. If today the cost of one kilo of rice is accepted to be two rupees, to sell it at two rupees would be virtue on the part of the shopkeeper, and to sell it at five rupees would be a black market price; we call that a vice. But if tomorrow it is publicly declared that the cost of one kilo would be five rupees, then tomorrow that would become virtue at five rupees and eight rupees would become black market or vice.

So we know the nature of virtue. We can change virtue into vice and vice into virtue according to our convenience, if this is the standard of the judgement of morality. If this is the way we have to look upon yoga morality, then God forbid we should practise any yoga, because that would have no permanent value at all. Then one would be regarded as a restrained person in a tentative manner, not on any solid ground, and the character of self-restraint would compare to the virtue of the shopkeeper who is asked to sell articles or goods at the standard rate obtaining at a given time.

But this particular question which we are now trying to discuss, the nature of self-restraint as a great spiritual quality of a seeker, is not a moral value in this sense. It is not something with which we can play with our will, and we cannot say that we are self-restrained merely because it is certified by outer laws of human society. No such certificate can guarantee the virtue of self-restraint in its essential nature.

As I said, the yoga morality of self-restraint, which is the king of all virtues and moral qualities, has not merely a social grounding, as many of our virtues have, it has a cosmical significance in us and is endowed with a universal meaning. Hence, it cannot be handled or changed by times and circumstances in the course of human history. It is something outside the ken of ordinary standards of human virtue.

What is this significance? The moment we enter into the inner structure of the very makeup of things in this beautiful creation, we would be faced with many intricacies which do not really come to the surface of our perception. There are secrets and mysteries in Nature, as poets are wont to say. The whole creation is regarded as a mystery rather than a scientific formula. It is a mystery because it is constituted in such a way that the apparatus of our perception is incapable of fathoming it.

As it is given to us today, our knowledge of the world is such that it is really unconnected with the true nature of things. Inasmuch as the nature of the knowledge is so hollow, irrelevant to the inner structure of creation, our laws obtaining in society do not seem to be really based on a universally significant law. We do not seem to be friendly with the natural laws, and this is the reason why we are unable to cooperate with the rules and the regulations of Nature in her completeness.

This is also one of the reasons why we complain against the occurrences of the world, the events that take place in creation. We complain against seasons, wind and rain, heat and cold, etc., and we seem to be incapable of appreciating what is happening in Nature. This is our complaint against our creation of God. We cannot appreciate natural events and conditions because our laws seem to be such, and made in such a way, that they seem to have no coordination with the laws operating in Nature. There seems to be a gulf between man and Nature.

To come to the point, self-restraint is something which we have to do in the very nature of things, and not merely because we are someone in society. Here in this difficult endeavour of the human personality, human society is no help. Nobody is going to help us in the practice of self-restraint, and nobody can be of any help because here we are face to face with another law altogether.

Now, what is this law? What is this system with which Nature seems to be working, which we are supposed to follow and abide by, whose knowledge we are at present not provided with, and whose ignorance is responsible for all our sufferings? We live in a world of our own, unconcerned with Nature. We live in a psychological world. But the cosmos is not merely psychological; there is also a cosmological aspect of things. Or to put it succinctly, it may be stated that the universe reveals itself as cosmological and psychological values.

It is not merely man that constitutes the whole of creation. There are things other than man, and man should not forget this. The cosmological and psychological aspects of the manifestation of things come into high relief in our consideration of the nature of self-restraint and its necessity in human life.

Now, what do we mean by this distinction of the cosmological values and the psychological values? We need not go into the metaphysical intricacies of these themes, but when they are considered in a simple manner, they represent themselves as the object and the perceiver of the object. The representative of all that is cosmologically meaningful is the object of our perception, and the simple representation of what is the psychological world may be said to be the perceiving or the cognising subject, so we may say the whole of cosmology is summed up in the object, and the whole of psychology is summed up in the subject.

There seems to be some kind of misunderstanding between the object and the subject, and this expanded is the misunderstanding between man and Nature. We do not want to understand each other at all. Nature does not want to understand our whims and fancies, nor do we want to accede to her whims, and we also cannot understand Nature’s laws.

Nature has a representative, as a nation may send an ambassador to another nation, we may say. Here in this world of ours, the ambassador of Nature is the object in front of us. To speak to the ambassador would be to speak to the whole of Nature, which he represents. So to confront any particular object in this world would be to confront Nature, and to understand any particular subjective principle would be to understand the psychological world.

We are studying the nature of self-restraint, and in this study we feel a need to go into the details of the inner structure of our relation with the world; otherwise, we would not know what we are asked to do in the practice of yoga. Questions may arise such as why this self-restraint, what does this mean, and so forth.

Now you see the world is neither an object nor a subject. When we say there is an object and a subject, a kind of artificial difference has been created for the sake of understanding the nature of the consciousness of the world. When we take the world as it is, we cannot call it an object or a subject. We do not know if it is an object that is seen, or a subject that sees.

Can you for the time being place yourself in the position of Nature in its totality? Can you think in terms of Nature? Do not think in terms of a human being or a person. Just for a few minutes, try to think as Nature would think, or ought to think—as the universe is to think. Would Nature regard itself as an object? If it is an object, whose object is it? And if it is a subject, a subject of what?

Inasmuch as Nature is all things, obviously it cannot be either a subject or an object. Then from whose standpoint do we call it a subject or an object? That someone or something, from whose standpoint we may regard Nature as an object or subject, is again included in Nature. This would reveal the fact that this distinction between subject and object is erroneous, faulty and artificially made. Inasmuch as this is false and not acceptable to the true nature of things, it does not succeed. This distinction does not obtain always, and there is an urge from within to abolish it.

Satyam eva jayate nānṛtam (Mundaka 3.1.6) is our great motto, nationally and spiritually: Truth alone triumphs. If Truth is this incapacity of Nature to divide itself into the object and subject, it shall assert itself. The untruth of the apparent distinction of the subject and the object within its own constitution shall be abolished and rendered negatory. There shall be a struggle within Nature itself to set right this apparent error. This is a perpetual effort on the part of the universal law to bring the scale into equilibrium by withdrawing this apparent distinction of the object and subject, which do not really exist. This struggle within the body of Nature herself is the explanation of why we should practice self-restraint.

Now we come to a kind of philosophical rationale behind the practice of self-restraint—yoga morality of self-control. You may wonder what is the relevance between the two themes. It is like this: The effort of Nature to unite the subject and the object is finally responsible for the pull that the object asserts on the subject, and this pull is called kama, or desire. Our desire for things is ultimately caused by the effort of Nature to abolish this distinction between the subject and the object. It cannot bear this difference because it is really not there, and we are unnecessarily imagining it. It brings the two together into a fraternal embrace. The power exerted by the totality of Nature in this attempt at union of the subject and the object is such that nobody can resist it; therefore, no one can resist temptation, psychologically speaking.

This is the metaphysical explanation of it. We cannot resist objects tempting us. To resist it would mean to resist the whole of Nature. It is standing against Hanuman, as it were. We cannot stand before him, such power he has, and such power Nature has. While this is the meaning intended behind the pull of the object in terms of the subject, what happens ultimately is something else. The intention is not fulfilled. “The road to hell is paved with good intentions,” said a great poet. Our intentions may be good, but they should not lead us to hell.

The union of the subject and the object should be effected in order that there may be absolute experience. This is what Nature intends in her law. But what happens is that in this attempt at union, the union does not take place; there is only an agony created on account of the irresistible urge of the object. We are worse than we were before. Our intention is to unite ourselves with the object, because this unity it is that is satya, or Truth; but on account of a small difficulty intervening and interfering with our attempt, this unity is foiled.

No subject can become the object, and no object can become the subject. We have never seen one thing becoming another thing in this world. What you are, you are, and what anything is, it is; and yet, what is this pull? Why should the object pull us and tempt us?

As I said, the intention behind it is good, but behind this intention, or simultaneously with this intention, there is also a blunder committed. The mistake that seems to be coextensive with this attempt at the union of the subject and the object is responsible for all misery following affection for things. Love for things seems to please us because the intention is good, it has the sanction of Nature; yet what follows this love for things is sorrow because the attempt at union has not yet been achieved.

What is the obstacle in the attempt at union? The obstacle is something again which our minds cannot see. When there is a pull of an object, this pull being called desire or passion, we are completely oblivious of factors which are external to this pull; we are conscious of only the object for the time being. Like a horse with blinders that moves along the street and cannot see either way, the mind of the subject which is pulled towards the object runs towards the object with blinders, as it were, concentrating itself on the object alone, thinking that it can unite itself with the object by enjoying it, as it is generally known, not knowing that there are other factors limiting it and obstructing it from achieving this attempt at union.

The obstruction is kept from us always, and we cannot know what it is. When we are conscious of an object—like the story of Arjuna being conscious of only the eye of the bird which was his target, and not seeing even the branch of the tree on which it was perching—our mind when it runs to an object of attraction becomes so engaged in the consciousness of the object that it does not know there is a tiger in front of it, over which it has to leap before it reaches the object.

If a child is drowning and the mother runs to save it, the mother may not even be conscious of a tiger in the way; she may even jump over it without knowing it is there because her mind is thinking of only the child. Likewise is our mind defeated in its attempt at its so-called empirical union. ‘Empirical’ is the word we can use for it, for want of a better expression. What union is attempted is spiritual, not empirical. The essences of the subject and the object should unite. This is what Nature has intended and ordained for us in instituting this so-called pull of the object for the subject. But what happens? The essences remain covered by something else, and the forms try to unite. Nama and rupa try to get united into a blend of a single entity, but forms cannot be united. What are forms? If we know what a form is, we will know why one form cannot unite with another.

Only the essences can come together, but not the forms; the bodies, the structures which are visible to the senses, cannot come together, for obvious reasons. Obvious though they are, they are not perceptible to the senses or cognisable by the mind because these limiting factors of the formation of bodies are involved in the very structure of the mind and the senses. The mind and the senses, which are to observe the existence of these limiting factors, are involved in these factors themselves, and so they are incapable of perception.

As I told you the other day, you cannot see your own eyes. Though everyone has eyes, and the eyes are there to see, who can see their eyes? Likewise, it is the peculiar structure of form which is responsible for the body consciousness. And who can escape this limitation of form? The form, really speaking, is a name that we give to the way in which space and time operate. Physics students would understand what this means.

Space and time are responsible for the formation of an object, and if space and time are not to be, forms cannot be, bodies cannot be. Even your body and my body cannot be, if space and time are not to be there. And today, scientists tell us that the body, whether it is a human being or inorganic matter, is ultimately reducible to certain formations of space-time continuum. When a body comes in contact with another body, when one form collides with another, when one person wants physical contact with another person or object, what really happens is that one structural form of space-time tries to come in contact with another structural form.

What is the distinction between one structural form and another? Why should there be two forms? The reason given behind this is that a form is a whirl of force. One form is distinguished from another form. My body differs from your body, on account of which there are two bodies because the forces that constitute my body whirl in one direction and the forces that constitute your body whirl in another direction. They are poles apart, like positive and negative posts in electricity, perhaps, so they cannot unite. One body cannot unite with another body for these scientific reasons. They are repelled rather than attracted.

There is a repulsion of forces, and this repulsion of bodies on account of this peculiar constitution of force in the bodies is responsible for the sensations of touch. It is this sensation of touch that is responsible for the pleasure of touch. When we touch a pleasurable object, we feel elated. This pleasure is caused by the repulsion of the forces constituting the body, or object, and our body. So really, there is no union, and we have not obtained any real pleasure by the contact of the senses with the object. We are only fooled. We are repelled rather than united, and in this repulsion we feel pleasure. Even if we are given a kick, we feel we are adored and worshipped. This is what objects do—they kick us – but unfortunately, we feel they are embracing us.

In this befooled condition of the mind, the subject entertains itself and goes into raptures over the wonders of the objects which attract it, and then again runs after them. The more kicks we receive, the more is the love for the object. What can be greater foolishness than this?

Nature has been originally responsible for the pull of the object and subject because it does not tolerate this separation artificially created between them. With this intention of Nature to remove this separation, what has happened is that forms begin to collide due to the attraction. We are caught on the horns of a dilemma: on one side, we cannot resist the temptations of the object; on another side, we can get nothing from it and have to return like beggars. This is samsara. This is the suffering of mankind. This is the folly of the human mind, and nobody can save us from this folly. We are caught up in a current of force which pulls us and kicks us and pulls us and kicks us, alternately.

This unfortunate condition of the human being was studied very well by our ancient seers, and they tried to institute a method of freedom from samsara, this cycle of entanglement in forces of the world. This is the path of yoga, and I was explaining that yoga is self-restraint. Now coming to the point, where do we stand? And what is this self-restraint supposed to do in this circumstance of ours in this world?

Self-restraint is opposed to self-indulgence. Indulgence is the yielding of the mind to the pull of the objects. When we yield to the pull of the objects, we are supposed to indulge in the object. We cannot resist this object because it has the sanction of Nature, ultimately. This is why it is so attractive. Nature creates beauty in the face of the object. It is this beauty of the object that tempts us and pulls us. It is irresistible. But, what is the remedy for the suffering that seems to be consequent upon this attraction? We are not going to be given anything. We are returning with nothing.

The Yoga System teaches us that we are not to yield to the temptations of objects. Though the intention behind this is a universal unity of the subject and object, there is a blunder involved in it. It is like a foolish person making a good plan. Perhaps Mohammad Bin Tughlaq was a good example. They say his plans were all very good, but they were not practical. Likewise, an unpractical good-intentioned method will not work, so there is no use in there being merely a metaphysical meaning in our actions. There should also be a practical utility and feasibility. What yoga tells us is, “My dear friend, there is nothing wrong in the essential intention of this union between the subject and the object. But there seems to be something definitely wrong, and there can be nothing worse than that, in your attempt at union with bodies—one body trying to unite itself with another body.”

This is called self-indulgence, and is not practicable. This again is against the law of Nature. While separation of one thing from another is against the law of Nature, a bodily union is also against the law of Nature. That also will not work. Nature is an indivisible being, and not merely a contact of two objects. It is not samyoga sambandha that Nature attempts in this pull of the object, nor is it samavaya sambandha. Logicians know what this means. Samyoga sambandha is external contact, such as the contact of my finger with this table or, as logicians say, the contact of the stick with the drum that it beats. There is no real contact; there is only an external touch. Nature does not intend this kind of contact in its pull. Nor is it samavaya sambandha, or inherence, like the colour of the flower inherent in the flower. It is not Nature’s intention that the subject should inhere in the object which it pulls. Nature intends union absolute. It is because of this difficulty that the nature of self-restraint in yoga is hard to understand. We oftentimes make a mistake in it, and fail. The restraint of the self is really the control of the tendency of the mind to bring into physical contact the subject and the object, while in a higher sense it is the attempt at the union of the spiritual essences of all things.

Previously I mentioned it is self-restraint from one point of view and Self-realisation from another point of view. It is a restraint of the mental self, bodily self, the empirical self, the physical self, the spatio-temporal self, but it is the attempt at the union of the universal spiritual Self. This is Self-realisation, the realisation of the only Self that there is.

On a contemplation on this mystery behind the nature of things, we would realise what the practice of yoga intends, and what it really is supposed to convey to us. It is far, far from our ordinary notion of yoga practice. When we deeply consider over these implications of yoga, we realise our ideas or notions are far from the truth of yoga. We have a very poor notion of it and we are so far removed from it that we do not know how much time it would take us to come near it, let alone practice it.

Everyone is blindfolded, misguided, because of the weddedness of the mind to the perception of sense, and self-restraint in its spiritual connotation intends to free the mind from the clutches of sense and to restrain the mental tendency to bring the body in contact with other bodies. Sense indulgence is contrary to self-restraint. The urges of the lower personality are to be controlled. This is self-control. We have many an urge in our personalities, and these are the impulses or instincts, as they are usually called – the impulse to run after an object. Sometimes we run like an iron filing moving towards a magnet, without knowing that it is happening. To be under the control of an impulse is no wisdom. It is no understanding.

The pull of the object is to be overcome. This is the essence of the whole matter, and for that we have to understand where we stand in relation to the object. No person without understanding of the situation can be a true student of yoga. There is no use closing the eyes, plugging the nostrils and closing the ears, etc., in self-control. All these are of no avail. The impulses are not in the eyeballs, they are not in the nostrils, they are not in the eardrums, they are not in the sensations of touch; they are within you. You may be blind, deaf and dumb, etc., but may still have the impulses for objects. You may be craving for things, even if you cannot see them.

To give an example, what happens in the dream state? Are there any physical objects really? Why do we crave for objects? Where does the craving come from? How is it that we are running towards the objects of sense even in dream, when the objects are really not there? Where are the senses? The eyes do not function, the ears do not function, all the senses are sleeping, and yet why is it that we are so very restless in our rushing towards the objects of sense? Who is responsible?

The impulses are awakened there, though the external organs are asleep. So self-restraint definitely has something to do with the impulses, and it has only to do with them, and not with the organs of sense outside. So it is of no use withdrawing the physical limbs but contemplating the objects of sense mentally.

Karmendriyāṇi saṁyamya ya āste manasā smaran, indriyārthān vimūḍhātmā mithyācāraḥ sa ucyate (Gita 3.6): Far from yoga is that person who withdraws the external limbs in self-restraint but contemplates them in mental reveries and building castles in the air, and so on. Yoga is internal. It is not an outer demonstration of the physical body or outer moral conduct. It has something to do with what we are psychologically. So the attunement of our psychological personality to the law of Nature is essential in all attempts of self-restraint. It is difficult to understand what Nature is and what our role is in this process of evolution. We always make mistakes and it is difficult to understand Nature’s laws because ultimately, Nature’s laws are God’s laws.

Therefore, it is difficult to practice yoga. Let no one have the complaisance to imagine that yoga is an effort of three days. This is almost an impossibility. Sri Swami Sivanandaji Maharaj sometimes used to say jokingly, “He can practise yoga who can extract oil from his own flesh, and with that oil he burns the lamp and waves the arati before God.” This is an example given to show the difficulty of practising yoga. Gaudapada in his Mandukya-Karikas says, “It is easier to empty the ocean with a blade of grass than to control the mind.” We may empty the whole ocean with a blade of grass, but we cannot control the mind.

Control of the mind is self-restraint. Many examples are given to show the difficulty of self-control. The mind is like a wild elephant, they say. It is like a ravaging tempest; it is like a conflagrating fire; it is like a vast ocean; it is like space, and such other examples are given to tell what the mind is, what it is capable of doing, and how hard yoga is.

It sometimes looks that yoga is humanly impossible; it requires the grace of God. The great sage Dattatreya says, in the commencement of the Avadhuta Gita, Ishwara anugraha deva pumsam advaita vasana: It is perhaps Ishwara’s grace that brings us the tendency to think in terms of the unity of things. Who can bring us this consciousness? How can we say that it is our effort that has brought us this knowledge of God? Wherefrom comes this effort?

God’s grace is responsible, says even the Advaitan Sankara in one of his passages in the Brahma Sutras. “Who is the cause of the knowledge in the jiva?” is the question that Sankara raises in his commentary on the Brahma Sutras. We cannot say that it is the jiva, because the jiva is full of ignorance. How can ignorance be the cause of knowledge? Who causes the blossoming of the jiva into the experience of Truth? Can we say there is no cause? We cannot say there is no cause, and we cannot say that the jiva is the cause of the jiva’s illumination.

Sankara stumbles on the inescapable conclusion of accepting God is the cause. Some commentators say that here Advaita fails, and point out this mistake of Sankara’s acceptance of God’s grace in his scheme of Advaita. Well, it shows the difficulty in knowing anything in this world. It is not merely the difficulty in knowing God and His creation, but we cannot know anything completely, not even a grain of sand. We cannot fully understand even a flower that grows in the garden, because the poets tell us that to touch the petals of the lotus would be to touch the stars in the heavens, so intimately are the two related. These are the mysteries behind things, which speak the mystery of God in His creation.

So in our act of self-control and our attempt in the practice of yoga, we have to take a complete view of things. We should not be partial physically, socially, psychologically and spiritually. We have to weigh the situation, whatever the situation be. Every step that we take should be a kind of all-round step. Yoga is a kind of moving equilibrium. It is moving because it is rising from one step to another step, and yet it is an equilibrium at every stage. Every stage of yoga is yoga, just as every rung of the ladder is a movement on the ladder itself. It is not movement from partiality to wholeness. In all yogas it is rising from smaller wholes to higher wholes. So it is not movement from untruth to Truth; it is movement from lower truth to higher truth.

In the yoga of self-restraint, the difficulty that we usually face is the fact that we are oblivious of the meaning behind the practice and get confounded by the outer attraction of things, mistaking one thing for the other. Even advanced students make this mistake of thinking that they are well off in self-restraint, while they are really indulging in things. We may be terribly attached to a thing, and yet may have the notion that we are absolutely free because of a confoundedness of the mind—the reason being again, the incapacity to distinguish between the spirit behind the practice of self-restraint and the outer form it takes.

It is difficult to withdraw the mind from the form in which it is encased. The form and the mind are almost the same. How can we withdraw our thought from our body? It is difficult. It is like peeling our own skin, but yet it is said to be a feasible affair. When daily concentration on this is practised, we realise the distinction between the consciousness and the form with which it is entangled. Self-restraint is nothing but the withdrawal of consciousness from the form in which it is encased. The form, whether it is of the body or of the relation between one body and another body, or purely of another body, or again whether it is in the form of a social relationship—all these are bondages ultimately, from the point of view of spiritual aspiration.

Thus, in the practice of yoga, while teachers tell us that we have to practise self-restraint, we must be well up with kshama, dhama and uparati, equipped with the toughness within to concentrate the mind ultimately on the nature of the Absolute. To be initiated into this, ultimately we have to practice all the auxiliaries that are necessary for bringing about that condition of mind where it is prepared to accept this explanation of Reality. When we are in a state of passion, for example, when we are highly prejudiced for or against something, we will not listen to any logical explanation because there it is that instinct tries to play its role. We try to adduce specious arguments and rationalise our instincts, which are all dangers on the spiritual path.

Here comes the Guru, the guide, who weans us from such tangles and frees us from the clutches of sense. The objects may not physically catch us, but their urges may catch us. The forms of the objects produce such an effect on the mind that they remain in the mind even when the body is cast off.

In a famous passage in one of the minor Upanishads, it is said, poison is not poison; to contemplate an object is poison. Why? What is the reason? Ordinary poison can destroy one life only, but this other poison can destroy many lives, because the sensory impressions will be so embedded in the mind that they will be carried from birth to birth, from one transmigratory life to another. Therefore, it is dangerous to contemplate the objects of sense. It is not the objects as such that are dangerous, but the contemplation of the mind on their forms.

This is briefly the philosophical foundation of yoga and particularly self-restraint, a very important subject not only in our spiritual life, but also in our practical day-to-day existence. It is essential for us to live a successful life in the world, and ultimately, to attain God. Self-restraint is the word. That is the motto in any field of activity: self-restraint versus self-indulgence.