Living a Spiritual Life
by Swami Krishnananda

Chapter 8: Handling Desires in a Dexterous Manner

Continuing from where we left the subject of our discussion last time, we observed that the nature of human desire is very intriguing, and it is hard to understand its operations. Indriyāṇi pramāthīni haranti prasabhaṁ manaḥ (Gita 2.60). The power of the senses is something like the strength of a tornado, whirlwind or tempest which can hurry the boat of the mind in any direction, and it will compel the mind to think and act in terms of the movement of these agitations of the sense organs.

The handling of the desires of the mind requires a dexterous and very careful process. There are two humorous anecdotes which will give us some indication as to how we have to handle our desires. These are well-known stories that can be applied in the process of the restraint of human desire and proclivity.

There was a person who owned a tiger, a cow and a bundle of grass. He had to ferry these items of his across a river, but the boat was so small that he could take only one item at a time—either the tiger, or the cow, or the bundle of grass. Now, as we know very well, it is not easy to handle this affair. Which one will he take first? If he takes the bundle of grass and leaves the tiger and the cow to themselves, it is dangerous for the cow. And if he takes the tiger first, the cow will eat the grass. So he thought of a plan, like a careful spiritual seeker.

After deep consideration, he adopted a technique. He took the cow first and left the grass and the tiger behind, because the tiger will not eat the grass. He dropped off the cow on the other side and came back. Then, he took the tiger across and left it there, and brought the cow back with him so that the tiger would not jump on the cow. He dropped off the cow, left it here, and took the bundle of grass to the other side and left it with the tiger. Finally he came back and took the cow, and all the three went. See the intelligence of that man. We cannot easily understand this technique. It is very hard to grasp.

There is another beautiful anecdote. An old man was about to die. He had seventeen horses, and told his three children to divide these seventeen horses among themselves in a particular proportion: one will take half, another will take one ninth, and the third will take one third. How will they divide the seventeen horses into half? Half of seventeen is eight and a half. As they cannot cut a horse like a vegetable or a banana, it is not possible to have eight and a half horses; nor is it possible to have one ninth, or one third. The children were struggling, but they were so obedient to the orders of their dying father that they were determined to divide the seventeen horses according to his wish.

While they were worrying about this difficult situation, another person happened to pass that way, riding on a horse. He got down from the horse and asked these children what they were worrying about. They said, “We have a difficulty. Our father, when he was passing away, told us that his seventeen horses have to be divided in this manner: one ninth, one third, and half.”

“It is no problem,” the man said. “I will arrange it. Where are the seventeen horses? Bring them.” The horses were all arrayed in a line. He tied his own horse along with these seventeen, and they became eighteen. “You want half,” he said. “Half of eighteen is nine; take nine. Now nine have gone, out of the eighteen. Then, one third is six; take six. Then, nine and six become fifteen. Then, one ninth is two; take two. Fifteen and two become seventeen, so the proportion of half, one ninth and one third is maintained. It is all right?”

“Yes,” they answered. He took his horse and went away. This is a peculiar mathematical genius, or an operation of intelligence, or a magical performance, or some kind of shrewdness, which we many times have to employ in our day-to-day activities.

We cannot engage ourselves in a frontal attack upon anything in this world, because nothing in the world will tolerate such an attack. Everything has to be handled carefully, in the manner of these persons who had tigers and horses. Every desire has to be taken by itself, and it should not be compared with any other desire. As is the case with this tiger, grass and cow, only one thing at a time was taken into consideration. When we are engaged in one desire, we should not think of another thing.

We should not think that some desires are strong and some are weak. There is no such thing as weak desires and strong desires; it all depends upon the occasion and the circumstances of their operation. Are snakes good or bad? A calmly coiled-up, sleeping serpent cannot be regarded as much safer than a moving serpent. The apparent weakness of a desire is oftentimes not because it is really weak. It has been waiting for an opportunity to manifest its real strength, as people lie in ambush in a battlefield and will not take action unless the time and opportunity for it come. The people lying in ambush are like simple sattvik sadhakas, sitting without uttering a single word, but when the time for it comes, they will jump up and attack with full force.

Every desire is equally strong. There is no such thing as an inefficient desire, or a powerful desire. The powerful desire is that which has found its opportunity for manifestation. The weak desire is that which has not found the opportunity suitable. A person who does not speak, and keeps quiet always, need not necessarily be regarded as a saint, because he may be a diplomat, a political expert, and a careful observer of things. The behaviour of a person, or of anything in this world—much more, the behaviour of desires and passions—have to be taken for what they are, and not for what they appear to be.

In one of the sutras of Patanjali, the various methods adopted by desires are briefly stated. Prasupta, tanu, vichhinna, udara are the terms used by the great master Patanjali. There can be a desire which looks like no desire at all—as, for instance, when we ask people what their desires are and they say: “I have no desires. I am a fulfilled man. I am completely satisfied. My children are settled; I have computed my pension. I have no desires.” It is not true that there are no desires. They are prasupta; they are sleeping, like a sleeping snake. That is one condition of desire.

Therefore, apparent absence of a desire should not necessarily be taken to be a real absence of the desire. Any desire can manifest itself in any person, at any time, if the conditions are favourable. All the desires are present in every being, from the atom to the cosmos, but they cannot always manifest themselves on account of the inefficiency of the physical body, the sense organs, the mental makeup, social conditions, and many other factors in life. This is why most of the desires of people in general are in the sleeping condition.

The other condition is tanu, in which the desire is very weak, thin, fine like a silken thread, occasionally raising its head, but mostly not visible at all. It looks as if that desire has no strength, but the silken thread can become a strong rope if the time for it comes.

I shall tell you a third story about this silken thread. There was a person caught in a prison, in a high tower. His wife was grieving very much over the pitiable condition of her husband. She wanted to see that he is somehow relieved of this prison life. What was the method?

An intelligent lady she was. Extraordinary intelligence is necessary to think of all these things. She caught hold of a beetle which had two tentacles on front, and then she smeared both tentacles with honey. Because of the smell of the honey, the beetle was under the impression that moving forward would take it nearer to the honey; but when it moved, the tentacles also moved forward, so it was continuously moving with the feeling that the honey was nearby. Then, she tied a fine silken thread to its tail and allowed it to climb up the tower.

It went up slowly because of the desire for honey. It took some time; it must have taken maybe several hours or even a whole day to reach the top. She told her husband to catch hold of the silken thread. To the silken thread she tied a thread which was slightly thicker. When he pulled the silken thread the other, thicker thread also came up. Then she tied a rope to it. The rope went up, and her husband came down the rope and escaped.

This is dexterous thinking. Will such thoughts generally occur to people? There is nothing that we cannot achieve in this world, if we adopt the proper method. Everything will come to us, if we know how to handle it. The world is neither our friend nor our foe. It is to be handled in a dexterous manner. It is a field of experience.

We have been mentioning again and again in our earlier discourses that the world is an object of perception. It is a field of operation for the purpose of certain given types of experience. The kind of world into which we are born is determined by the collective impressions of the longings, desires or requirements of all the constituents inhabiting that particular pattern of the world. The kind of body, the shape or contour of our physical personality, depends entirely on the total arrangement, intensity, and particular internal constitutional makeup of the cells of the body.

The world is necessary for those who are living in the world, just as this body is necessary for the particular types of cells that make up that body. So, when we make a complaint against the world, or anything in the world, we take a narrow point of view and judge things erroneously with restricted vision. The world is not merely a field of experience; it is also a society of varieties of individualities.

An individual is not necessarily a human being. A little particle of sand or an atom is also an individual by itself. It has something to say, as we have something to say. It has a right to speak for its welfare, as we have a right to speak for our welfare. Nothing is redundant in this world, just as no part of our body is redundant. Nothing is important, nothing is unimportant. Things have to be judged from their own point of view and in the context in which they are placed. To judge a thing out of context is irregular and unjust.

So is the case with this problem that arises before us when we handle the circumstances of our desires. No one should imagine at any time that one has no desires. In the same way, no country can sleep for a long time, imagining that every other nation is its friend. No ruler, administrator, king, or chief of the country will sleep like that. Although no war is taking place, it can take place. People prepare themselves with the readiness to meet the occasions of that kind, though for another fifty years, no battle may take place. But that it can, is an important point.

Nobody seated in this hall is angry at the present moment. But are we to say that any one of us is not susceptible to anger? All the calm and quiet people seated here can burst into anger under a given condition. Only the condition has to be provided.

Thus, spiritual practice, yoga sadhana, meditation, is to be taken as a study in the wholeness of the entire world setup into which we are placed, and in which context our desires manifest themselves in various fashions, according to the conditions under which they are placed. I mentioned one of the conditions of the desires is sleepiness—complete sloth, inactivity, and appearing to be not there at all. Another condition is thread-like, on account of which I mentioned the story of the silken thread.

The third condition of the desire is vichhinna: suddenly a desire arises, and tomorrow it is gone: “Yesterday I thought I would like to have this; well, now I feel I do not want it. I have given up that desire.” One feels like that, but it is a tactic adopted by the desire. When it knows that its method cannot work, it withdraws itself.

Desires are not dead corpses, they are living forces. They have life and vitality in them. If a desire has no vitality, it cannot be so strong. It has vitality because it emanates from our own mind. The mental consciousness charges every desire with necessary strength, and so there is intelligence behind the operation of a desire. Every thief is shrewd, intelligent and very cunning, like a fox in the forest. Hence, a third condition of the desire is that it can occasionally come, and also withdraw itself completely, as if it is not there.

Those who have not eaten for fifteen days develop a ravenous appetite, and every article of diet appears to be tasty. They can digest even hard food, due to the strength of the appetite. Starved desires looking thin like a silken thread, or sometimes sleeping on account of unfavourable circumstances, can rise up into action because desires never die. They can sleep, they can get thinned out, and they can come interruptedly now and then, which is the vichhinna-avastha mentioned by Patanjali.

The fourth condition is direct action. We will be simply inflamed with our desire and, like fire, it will rise up from every pore of the personality. Reason will fail at that time. Reason sleeps when desires become fiery in their action. There is no intellect at that time. One temporarily becomes insane when there is such a rampant desire operating through the whole personality. It may be for any particular thing, as the case may be. It is a raging fire of longing.

Each sadhaka, each spiritual seeker, has to examine himself or herself carefully: “In what condition am I?” The fact that under circumstances easily provided we can manifest any desire should make us a little careful about feeling that the desires have completely gone. When favourable circumstances manifest themselves, even a saint would like to have a television in his room. When unfavourable circumstances are there, he will say, “What is there in a television? It is a stupid thing. Have I come here for that?” But provide the facilities, and he will keep even an elephant inside his room.

All potentials of longing are present in every human being; everything in the universe is present in every person also. Inasmuch as the whole world is potentially present in us, there is nothing we are incapable of, rightly or wrongly. We can do the best thing and also the worst thing; we are capable of both. When we go centripetally, as they say, in the direction of the centre, we do better and better things, and are capable of doing the best of things. When we move centrifugally, away from the centre to the periphery or the circumference, far away from ourselves to the objects of sense, we do the opposite. Our actions are worse and worse, and perhaps even the worst possible thing.

Man is supposed to be a centre point where God and devil are crossed. A crossing of God and demon is the human individual. There is the power and the nobility and the magnificence of God in every human being; there is ugliness and the rapacity of the demon also, at the same time. In psychological parlance these two potentials in us are sometimes known as Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, the higher mind and the lower mind, the higher Self and the lower self. Apareyam itas tvanyāṁ prakṛtiṁ viddhi me parām, jīvabhūtāṁ mahābāho yayedaṁ dhāryate jagat (Gita 7.5). Ashta-prakritis are there, the Bhagavadgita mentions to us, but they are the lower nature, which comprise all the elements visible to the eyes—earth, water, fire, air, and ether—which make up all the objects of sense. The whole world of visible perceptibility may, therefore, be considered as lower nature. The higher nature is the charging force of consciousness.

The dexterity with which we have to take care of each desire independently, only one at a time, is illustrated by the story of the tiger, the cow and the grass. Take only one thing at a time and never bring two things into the forefront for understanding, as a judge in a court takes up only one case at a time and will not take up two cases simultaneously.

The story of the seventeen horses tells us how we can make a mistake and yet we can solve it. The mistake is the impossibility in understanding our relationship to things, as these three children faced in their relationship to the seventeen horses. These seventeen horses, which defy understanding, are the objects of the world and the society of people around us. However much we may struggle, we will not be able to understand our connection with other people. What connection have we got with them? We will find it difficult to define this situation. What is our connection with this world? We will not be able to answer this question. Are we connected with it?

We seem to be connected with the world because we are dealing with certain things in the world daily, which makes it clear that we are related. But are we really connected with it, or is it only an imaginary connection? It does not seem to be that we are really connected, because we came to this world alone and we seem to be living alone, to some extent; and when we pass away, we go alone, which may make us feel that there is no real connection with the world. But every day we are dealing with the world as if there is a connection.

So is the case with the relationship with people outside. How are we related to people? Have we anything to do with them, or have we nothing to do with them? We may say, “I have nothing to do with anybody here; I am independently sitting, and I will go to my room when the satsanga is over.” But it is a hasty statement. We have a connection not merely with the people here, but with even the walls and the very ground on which we are sitting, the sky, and the air that we breathe. We have a connection with all these, which we will realise when we probe into the situation properly.

We have social relations, personal relations, sensory relations, psychological relations, metaphysical relations, and finally, there is an indescribable spiritual relation. The eighteenth horse that the gentleman brought, which solved the riddle, is the consciousness element in us. Minus consciousness, it is all a bundle of seventeen horses only, and we cannot solve the issue. However much we rack the mind, the seventeen-horse problem cannot be solved, but it can be solved in an instant when the eighteenth horse comes, which is the inner consciousness.

We should not try to interpret things in the world through the sense organs or merely through the logical intellect, which is not going to be a success. People who depend entirely on their sense observations have not succeeded in understanding the world—not even the scientist, who depends mostly upon sensory observations and intellectual, logical decision, because he separates the objects of perception, scientific observations, from the consciousness which is doing this work.

The scientist’s consciousness is the observer of all the experiments that he is conducting in his laboratory. He is isolating the consciousness from all the things that are observed, which are all like a bundle of chaos; nothing seems to be clear. Science seems to be advancing every day, refuting the previous deductions and confronting a new thing altogether, arriving at no final conclusion because the eighteenth horse is missing, which is the consciousness of the scientist himself.

The scientist forgets that he is directly involved in the observations that he is conducting. The moment the scientist realises that his presence is as important as the presence of the objects of observation, he will find it impossible to isolate himself from the study of that in which he is engaged in the laboratory. Then he will realise that the study of the world is the study of his own self. Know thyself first, and you will know everything else.

Thus, these two analogies that I mentioned are illustrative of certain problems that we face daily in our spiritual practice. No sadhaka who is really, sincerely engaged in strenuous practice can forget this aspect. Our connections with the atmosphere in which we are living is to be understood carefully. Neither can we reject anything totally, nor can we covet anything entirely. Tena tyaktena bhuñjitha (Isa 1) is the word of the Isavasya Upanishad. On the one hand, we can have everything in the world; on the other hand, we can have nothing in this world.

We can experience the whole world, enjoy it, by renouncing it. Have we ever seen anyone renouncing an object and then enjoying it? They are two contrary processes. The true possession of an object is in the act of the renunciation of the form of the object. Objects cannot be possessed because they are outside us. The outsideness of the object is that which is to be renounced—tyaktena. When the outsideness of the object, the name and form aspect of it, is renounced, the tyaga aspect mentioned in this verse of the Isavasya Upanishad comes into the forefront. Then the object is ours in another sense altogether. A samapatti, or an equanimous establishment of relationship, gets established between us and the object: the object enters into us and we enter into the object.

This is another analogy in connection with our relationship with the objects of sense. When the name and form aspect of the object, which creates the externality of it, is renounced, we become the possessor of the object entirely. The whole world becomes ours; otherwise, not a particle of sand or even a broken needle can be called ours. So, on the one hand, nothing belongs to us; on the other hand, everything belongs to us.

Tena tyaktena bhuñjitha, ma gṛdhaḥ kasyasvid dhanam: Do not covet. Kasyasvid dhanam: whose is the property? To whom does the property of the world belong? The world is not a property. There are no such things as properties in the world, because one cannot belong to another in the external aspect that it maintains, so there is bereavement in every setup. Where a desire for things is developed, one loses what one possesses. Our dearest of relations dies and there is bereavement, and all property goes one day or the other because no one is a property of another, and nothing is a belonging of any person. Just as no limb of the body is a property of any other limb of the body and all the limbs belong to the total setup of the personality, all things belong to the Central Consciousness of the universe.

Everything belongs to One Person, if you call that Being a person. In religious parlance we call it Mahapurusha, Purusottama. In the Vedic style we call him sahasraśīrṣā puruṣaḥ (Purusha Sukta 1). The Mighty Being, the Central Consciousness, the God Almighty of the universe is the owner of all things, including our own selves. We are not the owner of anything, and no one can own us either.

Here are certain titbits of information as an introduction into the difficulty in understanding human desire. Never should one be complacent in this matter, as a defence mechanism is always ready to keep to its promise; it acts at the requisite moment and it never fails. There are defence mechanisms in the body which keep us alive, and there are defence processes in nations of the world. In every field of life, we will find a protective element operating.

This protective energy has to be developed from within us by not diminishing the potential of our personality, depleting the energies through the sense organs in terms of that which is really not there, under the impression that it is there. What we are craving in our longing for an object of sense is really not there. What is there is something else, which is hidden behind the perceptive faculty.

The tattva, or the true basic substance or substantiality of the object, is commensurate with our own being. There is an atmatva present in the object, the visaya-chaitanya, as they call it, as there is an atma-chaitanya in our own self. All the three processes of perception are called chaitanya or consciousness processes. The ‘within’ is called atma-chaitanya, the process of perception is called pramana-chaitanya, and the object itself is called visaya-chaitanya. Though it is a visaya, there is a chaitanya inside it. But if we catch the soul, the atma-tattva or the chaitanya of the object, we are establishing a rapport with it. It is called samadhi in yoga parlance. Then the whole world, all objects, dance around us as if a dance of the cosmic nature is taking place under the central sun of Universal Consciousness.

Otherwise, if we consider ourselves as puny individuals, pure physical subjects relating to physical objects, the tragedy of the world cannot end. Desires will rise up like waves in the ocean and dash down everything that goes near them. Spiritual practice is a hard job, therefore. It is not easy. Kṣurasya dhārā niśitā duratyayā; durgam pathas tat kavayo vadanti (Katha 1.3.14). One cannot know how a sadhaka moves. The track of sadhana is not visible to the eyes; it is like the track of birds in the sky or of fish in water. The birds follow a track in the sky. There is a road for them, but we cannot see that road in the sky. So is the movement of sadhana. It has a method of movement, but it cannot be seen with the eyes. Neither can we properly see it, nor can others properly see it. At one time, one step only can be seen. The entire future cannot be beheld by us.

All the three processes of perception are involved in the consciousness setup: atma-chaitanya, pramana-chaitanya, and visaya-chaitanya. If we can behold a person or a thing, or the world as a whole, as a centre of consciousness, it becomes ours. Then it is that we experience it and enjoy it. Otherwise, it is something to be renounced completely. Tyaga, renunciation, precedes the experience and enjoyment of an object.

Therefore, even to become a great master of yoga, total renunciation is necessary in order that we may be capable of total possession and total enjoyment. That is why a jivanmukta-purusha is called a mahatyagi, mahakarta, and mahabhokta: nobody can renounce as he renounces, nobody can work as he works, and nobody can enjoy as he enjoys. These are the secrets of self-perfection, self-restraint, which subject today is a continuation of what we started last time.