by Swami Krishnananda
We know one would not deliberately drink poison, even if one were very thirsty. But by mistakenly taking it for something else, one may drink it. The senses are like unintelligent but obstinate children who do not know what they are after. Like moths flying into the flaming fire, taking it for a source of beauty, the senses go for the objects. It is not destruction of any kind or a catastrophe that the senses want, but it is a misjudgement of values that takes them to the objects of sense, for their own repentance later on. The senses are not sufficiently wise in their analysis of the nature of the objects acting as their counterparts. The senses are bad guides for us in this world. They cannot see properly, so how can they guide us in this world? It is unfortunate that we take the senses as our guides in the world, and even a master scientist takes the senses alone as the directive agency. This is the reason why there is a relative inconclusiveness as regards scientific discoveries; and every day there is a new discovery, so that we never come to any final conclusion because we never reach the last point of our destination. The senses see the world in a way that does not really correspond to the true composition of things. The structure of the universe is of one kind, and the senses behold the world in a different way altogether.
We know very well that action is always guided by a kind of knowledge or understanding. The activity of the senses is totally dependent on the way in which they behold the things of the world. As we see, so we act, and if our seeing is not proper, our action is incorrect. Based on that incorrect perception, our action would lead us to difficulty. “Oh, I never thought it would be like this, and I have got into trouble.” This is our complaint many a time in the world. The thing is that we cannot understand the situation properly, and yet we rush headlong into it and go deeper into the mire, from which we cannot easily get out.
The senses are misdirected agencies of the human being, and they behold the world in a way which is compatible with the structure of their own internal organism—but it is not correspondent with reality. The structure of the senses need not necessarily correspond to the nature of reality outside, and there is no correspondence between the inner constitution of the senses and the nature of reality. This is why many people have thought that the world that is seen by the senses is an appearance or a phenomenon. There are many philosophers who have concluded, after a careful analysis of the situation, that the world of sense perception is phenomenal and not reality. Immanuel Kant of the West is one, and in India we have got the Vedantic philosophers who have come to a similar conclusion, namely, that the world that we see with our senses is constituted of phenomena rather than the things in themselves, or objects or realities in their own essences.
The reason why we are in a world of phenomena and not in a world of realities is that we see things in the context of a world of sensations. The world of our experiences is a world of sensations. The world of our experience is a world of senses. What reacts upon our senses is the counterpart of sensations rather than the actual objects themselves. We are generally told by materialist psychology that the objects are seen by the senses as they are in themselves. We come in contact with reality, according to behaviourist and materialist psychology. But the sensations which are responsible for our perceptions of the objects are as important a factor in our knowledge in the world as our hasty conclusion that we actually are coming into contact with the things of the world as they are in themselves.
What really happens to us seems to be that we experience a kind of reaction of sensations rather than the objects themselves. As a boomerang may turn back upon the thrower, the sensations react back upon us. For example, what impinges on the retina of our eyes in visual perception is not an actual contact of the eyes with the objects as they are in themselves, but the reaction produced by something present outside, something—we don’t know what it is—which sends our sensations back to us. This is a world of reactions set up by sensations or psychological actions. Action and reaction constitute this world. We are not in a world of objects in themselves—we are in a world of sensations which are psychological actions setting up a reaction. The reaction is brought about by the sensational activities on account of the incapacity of the sensations to contact reality.
Just as a ball may rebound back to us when it is cast against an impenetrable wall because it cannot pass through the wall, the sensations come bouncing back to us and bring with them an illusory conviction of having discovered something in its reality. They have touched something, no doubt, but they cannot tell us what it is. A blind man may touch something—he is no doubt touching something factual—but he cannot fully describe what he has touched. Likewise are the senses. They contact reality in some kind of blindfolded fashion, but they cannot describe to us what they have touched, just as we cannot know what has happened to us in a state of deep sleep. The senses are under a misapprehension in the waking condition similar to the misapprehension found in a state of deep sleep.
While rajas is the cause of our misapprehension in waking, tamas is the cause of the misapprehension in deep sleep. We are in both the conditions of waking and sleep in a comparatively similar state of misapprehension. The sensations cannot contact reality, though they seem to be floating on the surface of something which must be real. Reality should presuppose appearance. It is quite intelligible and reasonable to suppose that. If there were no reality, there could not even be phenomena. Why is it that phenomena seem to be alone the content of our experience rather then reality? ‘Phenomena’ is a name that we give to the sum total of the reactions produced by sensations of all people everywhere in creation. This understanding takes us to the difference between subjective idealism and objective idealism, but that is not our subject today. The essence of the matter is that reactions set up by sensations come upon us carrying with them a kind of erroneous message concerning the objects they have contacted. They have contacted something, but they tell us something wrong about it. They tell us, “We have touched something real,” but we know there is a difference between sensation and actual contact with the reality. Physicists would tell us that reaction is nothing but an electrical repulsion produced by the contact of two poles of electricity. The positive and the negative seem to be responsible for this electrical repulsion which is caused by sensations.
Sensations are of five kinds, as we know—visual, auditory, tactile, olfactory and gustatory. Now these can be explained in terms of a simple phenomenon of contact with objects, and are nothing but a kind of repulsion of the atoms that constitute objects—subjectively as the body, objectively as that which we seem to touch. When we touch a table, a stone, a wall or any kind of hard matter for example, what seems to be taking place, according to our physicists at least, is a kind of repulsion between the two constituents in the form of the object touched and the fingers that touch. The fingers are constituted of electrical forces, and the object touched also is constituted of a similar force. There is a kind of repulsion taking place between two sensations, and it is this repulsion that goes by the name of tactile sense. When we say, “I have touched an object,” what we mean really is that electrical repulsion has taken place in our fingers on account of its coming in contact with something which the senses cannot ultimately discern. This phenomenon of repulsion is actually our touch. Incidentally, if a particular nerve centre is stimulated in our body, we may feel the similar sensation of touch, even if our fingers are amputated. Biologists and physicists will corroborate this fact. We need not have any hand at all—it may be amputated—and yet we will have a sensation of touching something if the particular nerve centre is stimulated. It is this stimulation of the nerves that is telling us that we have touched an object—whether we have really touched an object or not.
We may feel pain after having hit our heads against a stone in the dream state—though there is no stone in the dream condition and we cannot hurt our heads by hitting against the dream stone. Yet, we can feel a sensation of trauma, bleeding and agonising pain in the dream, which is nothing but a sensation that is produced in our minds. A sensation, which is merely an abstract occurrence in the mental realm, can create an experience of a hard reality. We can appear to come in contact with it and suffer agonies as well as pleasures. If this can happen in dream, this can happen in the waking state also. This is what we learn on a very strict and impartial analysis of the process of perceiving through the senses.
The senses cannot understand all this. They are deluded creatures. They are hypnotised by the continuous action and reaction produced by sensations—continuous in the sense that they take place from birth to death. From the very time of our entering this physical realm after our birth till our passing away from this world, we are in a realm of these sensations, and we cannot know anything else. Inasmuch as we have never been initiated into any kind of knowledge different from this sensational one, we think that the sensory world is the true world, and we mistake sensations for realities.
”There are no objects,” our analytical thoughts may proclaim, but the senses cannot believe it. They say, “We touch, we taste, we see. How do you say that there is no world?” Well, what have we touched truly speaking? As I said, according to this present analysis, we do not touch anything—we have only sensations. We do not see anything—we have only visual sensations. We do not hear anything—we have only auditory sensations, and so on. A fivefold network of sensations is what we call the sensory experience. It is this that we are so attracted to in this world, and this is our so-called world experience. How can the senses understand this when they are hypnotised by this totality of sensory reactions? Yoga psychology goes deep into this analysis and tells us that we are deluded, we are madcaps, and we do not understand what is happening to us. There is a great famous verse of Bhartrihari: “Having drunk the liquor of deludedness, the whole world has gone mad.” The whole world seems to be filled with crazy people, because they do not know what is happening to them as they are so much wedded to sensations, and sensations are mistaken for contact with reality. We want this, we want that, this object, that object, this person, that person, this thing, that thing—all through an interpretation of the senses. The mind acts like a handmaid to the senses, and whatever report comes through the senses, erroneous or otherwise, is taken for granted by the mind, and we are led further into delusion.
If our ministers and our heralds misguide us, what knowledge can we truly acquire? There cannot be proper administration if the heralds we have employed in the form of the senses daily tell us things that are false. We are misguided totally and we are fooled—one could even say that we live in a fool’s paradise. The world deludes us, and we are never happy. How can we be happy in a world of misconceptions? Here commences the philosophy and the analytic psychology of pratyahara, which is our object of study. Why should we withdraw our senses? Well, the senses are fools, and it is better that we withdraw them. This is a simple answer. The senses are not proper guides for us. Why do we employ them to do our work in this world? They will try to harm us, and they have already done enough harm. Now it is high time that we draw them back.
Ambassadors in foreign countries can sometimes act wrongly, in which case they will be recalled by their governments. “That is enough—come back. We will replace you.” These ‘ambassadors’ that are the senses are unfortunately not true friends of ours, and it is high time now that we withdrew them. This is pratyahara. Now we know what pratyahara is and why we should do it. Why should we withdraw the senses? Earlier I posed the question, and now I am giving the answer. It is better that we withdraw them; otherwise, there will be more difficulties. What we have lost is gone, but at least we need not further be at a loss. The senses cannot help us because of this difficulty inherent in themselves. They are in difficulty, and how can we be helped out of a difficulty by them?
Yoga psychology is very broad, very deep and very interesting in its study. These are not things to be studied in a few days. One will drink this psychology like nectar if one comes to know it fully, and one would never leave it afterwards. The search will become very delicious if one goes very profoundly into its depths. Well, the point to understand is that the process of pratyahara is necessary as a requisite in truly understanding ourselves. Else, we will be in a fool’s paradise—which this world is. The psychology of yoga is described by Patanjali in a few aphorisms as an implication of what I have said just now. Though he doesn’t go into such detail and he uses a cryptic language, it is plain that he teaches that we mistake the unreal or the untrue for the real and the true.
Buddha, the great teacher of phenomenology in India, came to a similar conclusion. “The whole world is on fire,” said Buddha. It was a Buddha alone who could declare this. “The whole world is on fire, and I cannot step foot on it even for a few seconds. It is a burning pit of coals,” he said. Buddhist psychology is very interesting, but we cannot easily understand why he says this. I would like you to read some of the books of Rice-Davis which give very good English translations of some of the dialogues of Buddha. “The whole world is fire,” said the Buddha, which means to say, fire of sensations. Some people think that Buddha’s philosophy is a philosophy of the momentariness of things. All these are nomenclatures for a simple teaching of the transitoriness of things, as Buddha taught. So transitory, tantalising and shifting are the senses that we cannot rest on a single aspect of this experience as being permanent. “Never for two consecutive seconds can we step in the same water in a river,” said Buddha. For two consecutive seconds we cannot step into the same water in a river, because it moves.
The flame of a lamp is of a similar nature—it moves. Though there is the appearance of a steadiness in a lamp, there are countless individual events which make it look like a continuous motion. It is similar to a motion picture—so is a flowing river, and so is this world. Though we have the illusion of looking at a continuous object as it is in a cinematographic film, we never see a single picture. It is rather a continuous motion, and we cannot catch up with the speed of the frames through our mind or our eyes. We mistake motion for stability. That is what Buddha taught. “My dear friend, we are mistaking motion for a solid substance. This world is all in motion.” This is what the ancient Greek philosopher Heraclites also taught. In one sense, the Heraclitian philosophy of the Greeks is similar to the Buddhist psychology and the philosophy of the East. The fire principle came in Heraclites also. “The whole world is cosmic fire,” said Heraclites.
The whole world is fire, the fire of motion. They call it fire merely as a kind of analogy to tell us what actually is the situation. We know what a fire is—something intolerable which we cannot bear even for a second, and so undesirable when it becomes a conflagration. The momentariness of things, as Buddha taught, is not so simple a matter as to be just laughed away or ignored. It is a very serious matter. The transitoriness of things is such, says Buddha, that we cannot exist as a being even for two continuous seconds. It is all becoming—a process and a process and a process, running and running with tremendous speed. There is no fixed stable object which we can call our own, so when can we catch an object in this world?
There is another wonderful philosopher by the name of Alfred North Whitehead, who came to a similar conclusion as Buddha. What Buddha called “momentariness” or “transitoriness”, Whitehead called “process”, which means to say that the world is in a state of universal ingression. One thing enters into another like waves in the ocean—even more powerfully than waves would do. With tremendous vehemence one thing rushes into another thing, one thing moves into another. There is a flood, as it were, of the cosmic forces, and we cannot find a single static object here. In the movement of the universal flood, can you tell me where there is one static wave? Nothing is static. In a moment, a wave has rushed into another wave, and there is a dashing of the two together to form a third, and we do not know where anything is in this flood of universal force. Such is the transitoriness of things that we cannot know which thing is where. In a world of this nature, we still want an object for enjoyment. Can we get one? We are fooled again, as Buddha says, and as all the great metaphysicians of the world say. This is also what we are learning through Einstein’s theory of relativity. There is no such thing as a solid object—it is all ultimately a relativity of perception. Where there is a relatively of things, there is no solidity of an object.
Yet, the senses tell us that there are things. There is a good meal, there is a beautiful object, there is a friend, there is a bank balance, there is a house, and there is this and that—so many things are witnessed to by the senses. Well, we are not going to be wise people through this knowledge. We will be taught a lesson one day, if we are going to believe the senses when they tell us something, when it is not really there. Without saying exactly what pratyahara is, I am once again describing its preconditions. We would then understand what pratyahara entails and why it should be done. The world is deceiving us every moment, and it cannot do anything else. It cannot be our friend, because it cannot be stable. How could an unstable friend be called a true friend? Every moment he changes his mind—can we then truly call him a friend? Such is the network of objects in the world. We may say that something exists for a few seconds, for a few minutes, for a few days, sometimes for a few months and years it may be so—we may see it as a stable concrete object. Someone may ask then, “Why do you say that everything is transitory?” For this, the answer comes only from Whitehead—nobody else has given the answer to it. Why is it that we see a solid object, even if it is not there?