In the Light of Wisdom
by Swami Krishnananda


Chapter 15: The Laws of Proper Conduct

The moral code is the placement of oneself in the position of others. This, in one sentence, is the whole of the moral code. While this takes a purely psychological shape in the ordinary obedience of people to the moral law, it takes a little more difficult form when it becomes yoga morality. I have mentioned something about this distinction between ordinary morality and yoga morality on some other occasion. The moral sense which yoga requires of us is more personal than merely a conformity to social rules. It is not human society that we are taking with us when we enter into the portals of the practice of yoga; we take ourselves as representatives of humanity, as symbols of mankind as a whole. The whole human nature gets concentrated in us when we enter into the realm of the practice of yoga.

In the Srimad Bhagavad Gita for example, Arjuna represents mankind in its essence – not merely one individual in the historical past. The student of yoga is the quintessence of mankind, and he is not just one human being facing God. When we, as seekers of truth, students of yoga, stand face to face with the realities of the universe, we represent or symbolise the whole of mankind, and the entirety of human nature gets reflected in us. We become an exemplification of universal human nature and whatever be the final end of mankind will also be reflected in us at that time.

As a centre of humanity, in the practice of yoga we place ourselves before the mystery of the cosmos. It is not Siva Kiekens practising yoga, or Swami Shankarananda or Swami Krishnananda practising yoga – there is no such thing. It is a unit of concentrated human nature that faces the might of the cosmos, and here the whole of nature reflected in the microcosm gets related to nature in its macrocosmic aspect. It is nature studying nature. "The proper study of mankind is man," is a famous line of Pope, the great poet. When we study ourselves or try to know ourselves, we try to know the nature of that of which we are a symbol or a specimen. The study of ourselves is not the study of our individuality or of our personalities. "Know thyself" is the dictum, but what is this "thyself"? It is not a person who is studying himself. It is the nature behind the personality which becomes the incentive for study, as well as the object of study. The whole universe gets reflected in us in its aspect of microcosm. Thus, in yoga morality we find a necessity to rise higher than mere conformity to law and rule.

The Yamas and Niyamas

The yoga system has two layers of the practice of morality. These are called the yamas and the niyamas. While yama is a kind of restraint voluntarily imposed upon oneself – underline the word "voluntarily" – in order that one's personality may be set in tune with the regulations of society outside, niyama is restriction voluntarily imposed upon one's individuality, rather than the outer personality. While yama has a social connotation, niyama has a purely personal connotation.

The practice of the yamas becomes a necessity on account of inescapable relations with human society. We cannot but have some sort of relations with people. Even a saint has some sort of connection with the outer world, what to speak of a beginner in yoga. Our difficulty with the world, for all practical purposes, is our difficulty with people outside. The astronomical world does not trouble us so much; it is the human world that becomes our concern. Our pleasures and pains are more related to the people around us than the mountains and rivers or the solar system. The yamas then are a kind of adjustment of values of oneself in relation to human society outside.

There are various stages of the adjustment of oneself with reality. There are at least seven stages of preparation in yoga, at least seven stages of meditation and seven stages in the transformations that take place in the process of meditation. If we know all these, we will have studied the whole of yoga. The seven preparatory stages, especially according to the school of Patanjali and accepted by the other schools of yoga also with a slight modification of import, are respectively: adjustment of oneself with society which is yama; adjustment of oneself with the needs of one's personality which is niyama; adjustment of the body which is asana; adjustment of the pranas and the senses which is pranayama and pratyahara; adjustment of the mind which is dharana, and adjustment of the intellect which is dhyana. Then come the more complicated and the wider adjustments which we will look into a little later on.

Gradually, the mind is sublimated rather than withdrawn in these processes of self-adjustment. There is no such thing as a pure withdrawal in yoga. It is not a withdrawal of ourselves from society, or from the objects of the world that we are called upon to do in the practice of yoga. The question of withdrawal arises only when there is a connection. Most people, especially immature people in yoga, think that we are required to disconnect ourselves from human society. But something more than a mere disassociation is implied in these stages of adjustment. The connections which we have with the outer world are not merely mechanical links, such that we could snap them at our will. It is not an iron chain that connects one person with another person in the world. If that would have been the case, we would have snapped that link at one stroke, and there would have been no relation between us and the others.

However, the relation that we seem to have with people outside is not such a mechanical connection like one with an iron chain or a rope. Our relations with people and also with the other things of the world are a little more fundamental and vital. Hence, it is so hard for us to disassociate ourselves from society. Try to do it, and see how hard it is! If we are tied with a rope, we will easily snap that rope and go away, as there is no difficulty in doing it. But we cannot so easily disconnect ourselves from our relations with people around us, because we have certain personal relationships with various things in the world. If suddenly we were asked to snap these relations and go a thousand miles away from that place where we have things constantly with us, there will be a tremendous upheaval in our thoughts and feelings. We have been internally related to these things, and not merely outwardly. Our connections with people outside are internal, not outward. We are secretly related to things in a manner invisible to the physical eyes, and these relationships are purely personal. They cannot be seen from outside, except when they manifest themselves in concrete action. The yoga system has instituted a very methodical technique of not merely snapping ties, which would not be a wise step, but a sublimation of these ties.

The moral code of yoga is also a rule of sublimation of personal values. We know what sublimation is, as distinguished from disconnection or separation. To sever our affection from an object is different from not having affections for an object – we know the difference. Snapping affections, that is one thing, but having no affections is another thing altogether. Yoga wants us not to snap affections, but to have no affections. The foundation of psychological analysis has been laid already by carefully seeing that, because of the light of understanding, affections do not rise at all in the mind. Once they arise it will be difficult to get disentangled from them.

The affections can become harder than iron chains, because our personal ties with things are internal in nature and are a part of ourselves moving to the object, as it were, and to snap the ties would be like snapping a part of our own bodies. It is as if we were cutting our own limbs when we sever our affection for things. There have been uninitiated, untutored students of yoga in India , even in Rishikesh which is famous for the practice of yoga, who have not properly understood the implication of the moral involvement in the objects of the world and the emotional connections that people have with the outer world. These untutored students may live an isolated life in huts and caves, but there is no use living in huts or caves. We are not going to be freed like that so easily, because our bondage is within us and not outside. We carry our bondage into the cave and into the huts.

Affections are not always hidden from view, but they can be hidden. We cannot understand what affections we have for the things of the world because of our being habituated to certain formalistic ways of thinking. We have our usual meals every day, our chit chat, our good sleep, our recreation and our walks – what do we lack? In these circumstances of ease we cannot study ourselves, because the mind is accustomed to these normal ways of thinking and acting. Because of an enthusiasm for the practice of yoga, when we try to practise what we call detachment, we think that detachment should be a sudden stopping of all these routines. There are people who have made certain routines of daily life out of the canons of yoga morality. They will not speak for certain hours of the day, they will wear only one or two pieces of cloth, and they will restrict their diet and live in isolation. These are all very good and are even necessities, no doubt, but there is something more needed to make these routines meaningful.

We should study the lives of many students of yoga and even yogis and saints who have passed through this struggle. They had to undergo hard periods of internal upheaval because the mind was merely withdrawn but not properly sublimated. Withdrawal is another kind of suppression, and suppression and substitution are the methods that we usually employ, rather than sublimation. It is difficult to know what sublimation is, though we have heard this word very many times. We mostly substitute, if not suppress, but neither of these is going to help us much.

Sublimation, Suppression and Substitution

To suppress something is to act forcefully by the power of will, driving into the unconscious the impulses that seek manifestation outside in the world. To substitute would mean to give to the mind something quite different from what it is seeking, with the notion that the mind will forget the original longing. We know that children start crying because they want a toy, but when we give them a sweet, for as long as the sweet is there in the hand they will stop crying. But when the sweet is eaten, again they will remember the toy and start crying. With intervals the children start crying again and again for the same object. Though there is a temporary cessation of the crying, because some other thing has been given to them which has diverted their attention, the crying will not stop.

Likewise are our feelings. Sometimes they seem to stop their cry when we give them something else, and we have been trying to do this, without much benefit. What we need in our relations with our minds is not merely curtailment, but education, and yoga is a system of education. An uneducated person cannot be satisfied in any way whatsoever. This sort of person may look satisfied, but he will again be craving the same thing, and it is difficult for us to understand the ways of thinking of that person. The mind that is uninitiated is uneducated. An example of this sort of mind might be a coiled spring which when pushed down stays down, but once the pressure is released, the spring pops right back up again to its natural position.

The process of sublimation is a combination of analytical understanding and concentration of mind on higher values. The moral consciousness implies not merely an attempt at the weaning oneself away from the clutches of the lower nature, but also the regulation of the laws of the lower in terms of the laws of the higher. In every stage of the practice, the higher comes into play and exerts a tremendous influence. We live by hopes, we know very well. If hope is not present, we will not be able to live in this world. "The next moment will be better for me," is the feeling that we have in our minds, whatever be our suffering. Whatever be our agony and anguish, we always have a feeling that the next moment would be better than the present. Though there is no rational ground for this feeling, we are given this hope in our hearts. It is so deeply implanted in us that it is a fundamental belief that keeps us alive in this world. Otherwise we would have been dead and gone by this time.

The hope that we entertain in regard to the betterment in the future is an instance of the determination of the lower by the higher. This is the way of sublimation. It is so powerful that it is able to keep us alive. Suppose we know that we are definitely not going to succeed in this life and that we are going to fall down at every step and be crushed. In that condition we would not be able to live in this world. But we do not think like that. "That will not be my fate," is an unconscious feeling of every person. "I shall be better, for some reason or the other." This is the symbol of a higher determination in the lower aspects of life, and when it is consciously practised it becomes real yoga.

Therefore, yoga is a conscious determination of the lower by the higher, whether it is in the practice of morality or in the practice of meditation. The yamas therefore are certain restraints we impose purposely on our own selves and which are not imposed on us by someone else. The restrictions that we deliberately impose on our own selves, with an understanding of their necessity, are for establishing a harmony between ourselves and the world outside. There are certain avenues of thinking and action by which we come into conflict with people outside. We may speak certain things which may not be necessary, and this may bring conflict. Many a time not saying anything would be wiser than saying something. These are moral situations which people experience almost every day.

There are various avenues of this expression of thought and action by which social conflict is created, which should be obviated by the practice of the yamas. Love and hatred are the primary channels of self-expression through which we express our partiality to things. Partiality, we know, makes us small-minded. We are not respected in society if we are partial, because to be partial is to ignore some sections of society in preference to certain other sections. The ignored ones will not like that. “Oh, this is a partial gentleman,” which means to say he likes a section of society and he does not like another section. The ignored aspects will have a similar attitude towards him.

Love and Hatred

The strings of love and hatred which mean so much to us in our practical lives are primary obstacles in the practice of the sublimation of values. Love and hatred take certain peculiar shapes, and when they take a concrete form in the world outside, they may take the shape of pampering one thing and injuring another. Affection can get intensified and then harden into concrete forms. On one side there is pampering, on the other side there is the intention even to harm. Anything that is going to be a hindrance to our affection becomes an object of our hatred, and we take vengeance against it.

First, the vengeance is in the thoughts. “Let it die,” may be our feeling. “Let it be killed, destroyed, perish. Let it go, the earlier the better,” may be the prayer in our hearts if something is going to obstruct the expression of our longings. In our own minds we start internally cursing things which obstruct us, though we may not express the feelings outwardly. We may even admit to ourselves, “How rigid, how stupid, how nonsensical,” and all that, but when the feelings become more tamasic, we may pick up a weapon and attack. Thought, speech and action are the gradual expressions of both love and hatred. Where there is love there is an extremist attitude of over-pampering, and where there is the counterpart of it, namely hatred, there is an anti-social attitude.

By engaging these two strings of love and hatred, we end up cutting the ground from under our own feet. Such a person cannot live happily in society and becomes caught in suffering. There are various subtle as well as gross forms of the expression of this entanglement which are different for each person. These complications must be analysed in the context of the morality of yoga. Love and hatred are concerned with the extreme forms of self-expression, and they may become not only undesirable to human society but even injurious in certain cases. There are also other forms of conflict which arise on account of our peculiar attitudes toward people.

Uttering falsehood has also something to do with the emotions of love and hatred. We tell a lie on account of a false notion in our minds that lies will succeed. What we want is not truth or falsehood, but success. Truth and falsehood become only instruments for the achievement of success. “If truth succeeds, well, I shall tell the truth; if lies succeed, why not tell a lie? Because what I want is success.” The means is not so much important as the ends—that is what people think. The end is success, and to tell a lie is again to come into conflict with the well-being of others in society. It is a kind of deception that we practise. Deception means an action contrary to the good of certain people, in the interest of certain others. The interest may be our own personal pleasure or satisfaction, or the satisfaction of some people concerned with us or circumstances connected with us.

Personal love and personal hatred are one form of emotional conflict. The other side of it is the involvement of emotion, positively or negatively, in persons and things connected with oneself. Sometimes in villages two women may be taking water from the same tap. These village ladies are not usually properly educated and they may speak inappropriate words to one another, which creates a misunderstanding between them that can end in a big battle in the whole village. Using the water tap becomes an occasion for battle, and this type of situation is more common in villages, because the people are in closer contact. People start chatting as a diversion for their minds, and then someone says something inappropriate, and then the argument goes on intensifying itself into very undesirable forms. People who are related to these women end up fighting, while the women who started the argument return quietly to their homes.

Our emotions are not constrained within our own personalities; they take external shapes, move outside to other persons and things, and involve themselves in tremendous complexity. It is not that only things immediately concerned with our personality alone will disturb us—anything can disturb us. Anything that is happening will disturb us, though we are not really concerned with it. We will become so sensitive due to the wandering of emotion in this atmosphere.

These forms of love and hatred which extend their field of activity beyond the personality into the immediate society outside become the causes of the uttering of falsehoods as a normal routine of daily life. There are people who will never tell the truth. Whatever they utter is falsehood, and it becomes so natural that there is no prick of conscience anymore. The conscience gets accustomed to the uttering of falsehood, just as there are some people who are constantly sick and who take that condition of illness as a normalcy of their body. A little temperature is so normal that they do not know what a normal temperature is. This is especially the case in backward areas; people are always sick—they always have some headache and some slight temperature. They are never normal in health, and this is normal for them.

Likewise, we get accustomed to a kind of morbid attitude and we suffer internally on account of a subtle tension which these abnormalities create in our minds. While there are various injunctions given by the teachers of yoga to free ourselves from the entanglement in emotions with the objects outside, five at least are regarded as prominent. These are called the five yamas, mentioned in the system of Patanjali. These are elaborated into many more canons in other texts of yoga. We will not go into too much detail concerning these instructions, because all these elaborations finally boil down to these five instructions.

Our concern with society is fivefold, and so it is that morality is fivefold. The yamas are an internal adjustment of ourselves with the people outside in the world in a healthy way, and it is necessary that we should study the implications of all these five ways properly. Patanjali mentions that we are likely to injure people, we are likely to utter falsehoods, we are likely to be incontinent in our nature, we are likely to appropriate things which do not belong to us, and we are likely to accumulate unnecessary wealth. These are the things which are so normal to us—perhaps every one of us has seen this facet of life one day or the other and had occasion to ponder over it. We do not deliberately injure or harm people, but sometimes we feel it is inescapable or unavoidable if our interest is to be served. We harm people or have a tendency to injure the feelings of people on account of a feeling that, if that is not done, my interest is not going to be served. It is a question of accepting defeat or holding on to success.

Personal interest is the primal motive behind this retaliation of the ego in regard to people outside, which means to say—very important to remember—we want to make other people our instruments and use them to serve our own ends. “Other people should be the means, I shall be the one being served.” That is the meaning of self-interest. “The other people are nobodies to me. I am not concerned with them; they are not going to serve my interest. If they are indifferent to my interest, I will be indifferent to them, and if they harm my interests, I will take vengeance against them.”

This is the essence of self-interest. People may possibly be either indifferent towards us or against us, and we have a similar attitude towards them. From this it becomes clear that our relations with other people are purely a relation of give and take. “If you give, I will give. If you take, I will take.” It is a business affair that we establish with people rather than a proper understanding of human nature. We do not respect human life adequately and have no sympathy for people when we utilise them as instruments in our pleasures. This takes the form of slavery of servants, subjugation of employees, wars with nations of hideous proportions—all originating from this simple psychological fact of our desire to use others as a means for our own advantage. The attitude of using others as a means and oneself as an end is the cause of the breaking up of social rules.

We should remember three interesting tenets discovered by the philosopher Immanuel Kant in regard to ethical laws, which have so much in common with yoga morality as to be almost identical. The first tenet is: “Never use another as a means; respond to all people as ends in themselves.” The world is a kingdom of ends rather than of means. If we are an end, why should not others be an end in themselves? Is it not logical to conclude this? Please tell me in what way are one person is different from another person. What is the reason for regarding ourselves as different from another? In what way are we different? It is proper to regard another person also as an end, just as we regard ourselves as an end. If we regard other persons as a means, why should we also not be a means? We should never use the personality either of another or of ourselves as a means. We should not sell others or sell ourselves. We must use the personality of others respectfully—as well as our own, of course. One should not insult another person by making use of them as a kind of means to some ulterior selfish end. The world is a kingdom of ends. Use the personality of all human beings as an end rather than a means. This is one law.

The next law has to do with how to know what is right and what is wrong. Kant says, “It is very easy to understand. If we would like our attitude to be imitated by everybody in the world, then that attitude is all right.” Suppose we tell a lie, and we think it is all right to let everybody in the world only tell lies and to let no single person tell the truth. Will it be all right? Then lies will not succeed. Lies succeed because there are some truthful people in the world, and theft succeeds because there are some people in the world who do not steal. We must consider for ourselves whether our conduct can be imitated by everybody in the world without exception. If we say this same action by everyone is all right, then our conduct is all right. If we think it is not all right, then we are not all right. This is the way to judge our conduct, says Kant.

The third law states that morality does not come from outside—it comes from inside us. If we do not want it, nobody can give it to us. The moral sense is autonomous not heteronomous, meaning that it is not a mandate or an order from somebody else. It is something that we feel as a need in our lives. If we do not want the moral consciousness, nobody can give it to us, as it cannot come to us from any other source. We are the source of morality and not somebody else, and it is we who want to be moral and not somebody else—this is the third law. These are exactly the principles of the yoga morality, expressed of course in a different language and different style.

To use everybody as an end rather than as a means is put beautifully in a verse of the Mahabharata. “What is not good for you, you should not do to another.” It is another way of expressing the same truth of Kant. We should not use anyone as a means. As we are an end, others also are an end. That which is contrary to what you would like for yourself should not be done to another, and not only to people outside but also our own selves. The immoral attitude arises on account of wrong understanding or ignorance, which is called avidya in Sanskrit. Wrong knowledge which we entertain in regard to the world outside is the cause of our involving ourselves in this mess of moral confusion. Inasmuch as we have to live in human society for the practice of yoga, Patanjali and all the other teachers of yoga feel that it is necessary to maintain a harmony in our relations with people. The five canons of morality mentioned by Patanjali are five ways of establishing harmony with the external human atmosphere. Yoga is the system of a graduated establishment of harmony in the different levels of being. Social harmony, personal harmony, vital harmony, sensory harmony, mental harmony, intellectual harmony and spiritual harmony are the various levels of yoga practice.