What is Knowledge
by Swami Krishnananda

Chapter 8: Control of the Instruments of Knowledge

Now we are on the border of certain vital issues in the practice of yoga, and everything that we have considered up to this time is a sort of preparation for the quintessential essence of the whole matter. The control of the senses is the principal issue involved here. It is said everywhere, in practically all the religions in the world, that the senses have to be restrained, and should not be given a long rope. They should not be permitted to act wildly, according to their own whims and fancies.

Why should the senses be controlled? What is wrong with them? We know very well that the senses are our great friends that bring us immense satisfaction in the form of enjoyments of every kind. All our joys are sensory, sensuous. If life is a happiness, for all practical purposes it appears that this happiness comes through the sense organs. Thus, life would be meaningless if the senses were not to be operative in their own fashion.

Now we are being told the opposite, as if we are not to exist at all in the world, when it is said that the senses are to be restrained. The restraint of the senses would imply the diminution of all happiness in life, inasmuch as for us there is no happiness minus sense activity. This is a problem of the common man, and man in general.

The necessity to restrain the senses arises due to a fundamental feature which is characteristic of the universe as a whole. We have heard again and again that, finally, it is impossible to consider the universe as an object of the senses. The world around us is not really ‘around’ us. The world that we see is really not something that is ‘seen’, but is a little different from what it appears to us. The world is not an object of the senses; and if the world is not an object of the senses, and if the senses cannot think of the world except as an object, there is something seriously wrong with the senses – which would also mean, consequently, there is something seriously wrong with our idea that happiness is only sensory. One consequence follows from an accepted premise.

Is the world – or the universe, so to say – an object of the senses? Is it an object at all in any sense of the term? The structure of the universe as a completeness in itself, permitting no externality whatsoever, would not permit us to wrench ourselves from any kind of vital relationship with it and look at it as if it is a stranger in front of us. What we call earthly, worldly involvement, which is often called the bondage of samsara – this earth earthy existence, this turmoil and sorrow of life – is said to be ultimately traceable to the event of the inward segregation of the perceiving, knowing subject from that which it considers as its object. For us, the world is the object, and every object is part of the world; and, in a way, we may say there is only one object in front of us – namely, the world – whatever be the variety that it contains.

There is no need to repeat the reasons why the world cannot be and should not be considered as an object of consciousness. This has been said again and again, and we need not reiterate this point. If the involvement of ourselves as seeing, knowing, perceiving subjects in the very fact of the existence of the world or the universe cannot permit us to regard ourselves as totally isolated from the world, then the senses are not a good means of knowing the world as it is in itself. The world is not capable of being known correctly by the employment of the sense organs. This would bring us to the point as to why it has been held again and again that the world of sensory perception is relative and phenomenal, and it is not absolute, not noumenal. What we see with our eyes or sense with any other sense organ is a phenomenal world; it is not the real world. Hence, the joys of the phenomenal world are also phenomenal. They are not real joys.

The phenomenality, or the relative character of the world or the universe, becomes apparent due to the consequence that follows from a sensory interpretation of the universe. The interpretation of the object by means of the instrument of even the mind, much less the senses, is not a proper attitude either of the mind or of the senses in regard to the object. Nothing can be known by placing it as a total outsider to the consciousness that intends to know it. Knowledge, or the knowledge process, is a crucial issue in profounder studies in our educational career. This profundity involved in the very process of knowing anything is the secret of philosophical analysis and conclusions.

We take for granted that everything is clear to us the moment something is presented before our eyes; but it is not so clear. The presentation of an object – call it the world or the universe, if you so like – before our consciousness in the process of sensory perception is conditioned by invisible operations which go by the name of the space and the time factors. Space and time refuse to be regarded as objects of the senses. They somehow connive to remain independent of our idea of the object of knowledge, and secretly they manoeuvre a misconstruing of everything by the perceiving subject by interfering with every type of knowing – knowing in any way whatsoever. Space and time interfere with us inwardly as well as outwardly – perpetually, continually, unremittingly. But the interference of these principles, space and time, in our knowledge process is so subtle and invisible in every way that we cannot know that they are interfering with us at all. When we look at a thing while wearing spectacles, we are not conscious that there are spectacles on our eyes because if we begin to see the spectacles, we cannot see the object. We should not be aware that there are spectacles on our eyes – we should not look at the spectacles or the glasses that we are wearing – in order that the objects can be seen. If we begin to see the glasses, we will not see any object. Therefore, the spectacles should remain invisible conditioning factors in order that the perception may appear satisfactory and clear. Similarly, if we begin to cognise or perceive space and time themselves, we will be in a different world altogether.

Hence, the senses working together with the mind, and even with the intellect, do not present to us a correct picture of things as they really are. As philosophers tell us, things in themselves are never seen and never known; they cannot be perceived. What do we perceive? We perceive only a whitewash or a colour that is painted over that which really is, by the brush of the space and time factors. So, we see only a painting or a whitewash or a colourwash, but not that which is behind this painting or veneer that is smeared over its surface. But inasmuch as only the outer conditioning factors become the real objects of our perception or mental cognition, we mistake phenomenality for reality, relativity for absoluteness, temporality for eternity, and even pain for pleasure.

We regard a real sorrow as a joy. It is to be considered as a sorrow, because we are duped into the belief that our understanding in regard to its object is entirely untarnished and unblemished, and it is a safe guide for us in our knowledge of the essential substance of creation. The world is not an object, either of mental cognition or sense perception. That it appears to be such is really to be regretted very deeply. This world is a world of regret, basically, because we are involved in a state of affairs which refuses to be known in any way from the point of view of the instruments of knowledge available to us. Our sorrows are invisible things. They cannot be analysed, vivisected, or known in any way. What we know is, therefore, a peculiar presentation. Sometimes the world is compared to a mirage, which looks like water and recedes as we approach that reservoir of water. The more we try to touch the horizon, the further it moves from our reach.

No one can possess any object in the world, finally. Nobody has done it, and nobody will ever do it. The object cannot be possessed merely because of the fact it is not something that is expected to be possessed. Nobody can be subservient to another in the sense of an object, either of the senses or of the mind. There is a noumenal independence maintained by everything in the world, and it is not for nothing that we are told by the Upanishads, for instance, that the world is a ‘Self’ rather than a ‘not-Self’, an atman rather than an anatman, a pure universal subjectivity rather than anything that is of the nature of an object.

If the world is not an object, then so much the worse for our sense activity, because there is no function that is expected of the senses – there is nothing that they can do – if the world is not their object. If we are able to realise the reason why the object is not really outside the perceiving subject, and also why the world cannot be an object of the percipient, we will also know why the senses are to be controlled. It is because they are wild movements of consciousness, erratic activities of our mind, chaotic behaviour of our personality, and therefore we are entirely out of balance when we actively operate only through the senses. A disbalanced personality always overemphasises sense activity; and total dependence on the values of the senses is a dependence on what we call ‘a misguided existence’, finally. Who would like to live such a life?

Thus, yoga takes this question very seriously, and in the interest of introducing a wholesome, healthy characteristic into the personality of the human individual, it admonishes that no one can be really healthy if the senses are not restrained – because an overactivity of the senses is not a healthy condition of the personality. It is not healthy because it is a wrong way of thinking and acting. It is wrong because the senses are jumping on things which are really not there. This is a very interesting thing, indeed. Why should we control the senses? It is because the overwhelming activity of the senses acts like a screen over our internal vision. We have a blurred vision of things, as if mist is hanging between us and what we perceive, when the action of the senses is impetuous, overactive and uncontrollable. They come over us like a flood. They dash upon us like uncontrollable waves of power, desire and passion. The senses are actually repositories of desire and uncontrollable impulses which insist that we should go out of ourselves in order that we may be happy in the world.

Thus, dependence on the sense organs for obtaining any satisfaction or joy in this world is to accept that we have to be other than what we are in order that we may be happy. What a wonderful thing – that we have to be other than what we are in order that we may be happy. We have to sell ourselves to that which is not really there, and lose ourselves for nothing in order that we may enjoy a phantasmal satisfaction in the world.

It is really a work of opening our eyes in which the yoga system is engaged. In yoga parlance, ‘pratyahara’ is the principal word used for the restraint of the senses. Pratyahara usually means withdrawal of the senses. This is very difficult to understand and hard to achieve because, as we go wrong in understanding anything and everything in the world, we also go wrong in understanding the very meaning of sense control. We may imagine, like children, that not to be attracted by the visual objects of the world would be to physically close our eyes and not see them. This may be wrongly thought to be a sort of pratyahara; but it is not what is expected of us by yoga.

It is to be again emphasised that when we speak of the senses, we do not entirely mean the physical fleshy organs like the eyeballs, the eardrum, the tongue or the nostrils. The eardrum is not the ear, the eyeballs are not the eyes, and so is the case with the other sense organs. A sense, in the light of the system of the practice of yoga, is not the fleshy part which acts as a medium for the expression of this activity called the senses. What are the senses? From the point of view of a purely religious or spiritual outlook, or an outlook of yoga, the ‘sense’ that we are referring to is an impulsion of consciousness in a particular direction, and it is not the eyeballs or any such thing. These eyes, these ears, these other sense organs are the locations in the physical body for the expression of the internal impulses. The electric energy that is behind the working of an electrical gadget is different from the physical part of it, which is a material substance. The impulsion is a force, and it cannot be seen, heard of, touched etc. It is a vehemence of our consciousness; it is a flood-like push that is exerted by our own selves in a particular given direction. We urge ourselves in a particular way, and force ourselves to act in a particular manner. Basically, if we are consciousness proper, what we call sensory activity is also an activity of consciousness. The channelisation of our own true being through the avenues called the physical sense organs – this is actually sense activity.

Hence, the withdrawal of the senses is not to be equated merely with plugging the physical ears, closing the eyelids or shutting the mouth in a physical sense; because, while as a process of quarantining the impulses of consciousness we may, for some time, also be required to adopt these measures of physically abstaining from contact with objects, we know very well that quarantining is not the whole of the treatment that is called for. Treatment is a positive work that is required, while segregation is an external tentative measure that is adopted. It may be necessary for us to place ourselves – even physically and geographically – under circumstances in which the senses are not tempted. This we cannot rule out as a necessity. But this is not the whole of yoga because, as we know very well, the impulsion of consciousness we are referring to is principally what is called desire.

Desire, longing, passion, is the urge of consciousness for a particular contact which it expects from that which it regards as its object for the time being. Now, this impulsion of consciousness is certainly expected to utilise the sense organs for its expression, as a copper wire is required for passing an electric current, otherwise it cannot pass. The inner impulsion of consciousness requires the cooperation of the physical sense organs, no doubt; but electricity is different from the copper wire, and it can be vehement even with the absence of this means of expression.

Thus, while pratyahara should imply a sort of austere living even socially and physically, it is not enough, because the process of pratyahara, or restraint of the senses, is not shutting the mouth of the conscious impulse. “Don’t speak. Keep quiet.” If we say this to the conscious impulse, it may be frightened for the time being because of the orders that we have issued, but a frightened person is really not a subordinate person, because we cannot impose fear upon anyone and then get work done for all time. The result of such an order or a mandate that we issue by the power of our will may appear to be successful for a few days, or even for a few months or maybe even for a few years, as we can put a bund across a flowing river and prevent its flow further on, but we know very well what will happen to the restrained waters if they are held like that for a long time. They may break the bund, and go anywhere they like.

Therefore, the control of the senses also is a part of the educational process. It is a part of the psychology of real education. A spiritual seeker has to be a good psychologist in the sense that he has to understand the reason behind the way in which he conducts himself, the manner in which his mind operates, and the reason why anything at all happens to him. Why do we desire anything? It is not enough if we prevent the expression of this desire; it is also necessary to know why a desire arises at all. And we know very well why desires of any kind express themselves: it is the persistent asking of consciousness to feel assured that it is always right in its imagination that its object is outside it. It is telling us again and again that we have to certify, corroborate, and agree with its opinion that the world is outside it. If we say that the world is not outside, it is not going to listen to us. This is the reason why the desires cannot be easily controlled.

Now you know why the restraint of the senses is an education, and not a policeman’s action. It is an internal developing process by which we very tenaciously, but with immense patience, educate. Educating is the process of the automatic opening of a bud into a blossomed flower, and not breaking the bud in order that it may look like a flower. Just as a broken bud is not a flower, in the same way, a suppressed desire is not pratyahara. The wildness with which desires sometimes act in us would indicate how far we are removed from a real conviction of the ultimate nature of creation or the final order which the universe itself is. Our knowledge is utterly poor in regard to anything, for the matter of that. The poverty of our understanding and knowledge of anything, really, can be known from the extent of our desires. The strength of our desires tells us how poor our understanding is of anything.

What does yoga tell us? It has many things to tell us. The process of pratyahara is, again, a graduated endeavour on our part. It may take years for us to succeed, as is the case with anything that is educative. In the beginning, as the Yoga Vasishtha sometimes tells us, we have to accept what the senses tell us, and should not oppose them abruptly. There are people who rebut anything that is said to them: “I don’t agree.” This is not a healthy way of refuting an argument, because logic is not a sudden rebuttal; it is also a gradual educational process.

When the child cries for something undesirable, we say, “Yes, you will get it.” This is a satisfaction to the crying child, though we are not going to give it. The child may be crying for a sharp knife, and we know that we are not going to give it. But if we say “I am not going to give it to you”, it will cry still more. So what do we say? “You are going to get something better than this from the shop. Tomorrow I’ll get it for you, so keep quiet today.” Then, today the mind is keeping quiet under the impression that tomorrow the knife will come. It will not come, as we know very well, but meanwhile we adopt such measures which will prevent the child from asking for such a thing at all, by somehow or other channelising its interest in something very positive, very interesting, very attractive, which is pleasing to it. It is not a denial of what it asks for, but a substitute that we are giving in place of what it is asking for. Suppression of a desire is dangerous, and sometimes we are told that even substitution is not an alternative. Though substitution is not an alternative, it is one step beyond mere repression of the will or the force of desire by a mandate of the will power.

There are supposed to be three ways by which we try to deal with our longings or our desires. We fulfil them; whatever is asked for is given. This is the indulgent attitude. But often, for manifold reasons, we suppress the desire because we are in an atmosphere where it cannot be manifest with impunity. It is also possible to give it a substitute, which is another method that we can adopt.

A good psychologist will tell us that even substitution is not a real success in the restraint of the impulses. Sublimation is supposed to be the only way. But what is sublimation? Literally, it means melting down. We melt down the desire until it becomes liquid, as it were, and it is no more the solid, hard thing that was confronting us. But what is this melting down of the desire? How can we melt it? “I want this,” says the mind, the consciousness feels, and the senses argue – and it is said that sublimation is the way. What is sublimation, which is spoken of so much in psychology, psychoanalysis, and even spirituality?

This is precisely what yoga attempts. Sublimation is the melting down of the desire into the cause from where it arises. The effect is not merely driven back to the cause, but melted down to the cause, so that it is no more there except as the cause. It is not there as something outside the cause or the source from where it arises. It is no longer there. The ice has become water, and the ice is not there at all. It is not that we push a lump of ice into the water and allow it to maintain an individuality of its own in spite of its being immersed there. In the sublimation of a desire, the individuality or the impulse of the desire is not allowed to remain outside the cause or the source from where it arises.

Why do desires arise? Here is a moot question before us. Why do we ask for that which is really not there, finally? Why do we ask for a satisfaction which is really not a satisfaction? How is it possible for us to get deceived so profoundly and so intensely, so miserably, from birth to death? This is a deep philosophical question, and the life spiritual is at the same time the life philosophical.

We are now trying to discover what it is that the yoga is finally telling us. It tells us that we have to meditate, and we have to attain communion with the Ultimate Being. It may be possible for some of us to feel a discomfiture even when these things are told to us. “Why should I commune with that Ultimate Being? What is wrong with me now? What is the harm if I am just what I am now? I have a fat salary, I am a rich man, I have a huge bungalow, I am well-off. What is the use of this communion with that which you call the Ultimate Being?” Such peculiar difficulties may arise even now itself, and these difficulties will heap up further problems in the form of a terrible situation we will have to face in our attempt to control the senses, or even in our attempt to lead a good life. Therefore, great patience is necessary. Yoga is not a three month course; it is a three births course, so be prepared for it.