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Yoga as a Universal Science
by Swami Krishnananda

Chapter 10: Brahmacharya – An Outlook of Consciousness

Among the various items of self-restraint constituting the yamas, we have discussed in some detail the principles of ahimsa, satya, aparigraha and asteya, namely, non-injury, truthfulness, non-appropriation of properties not actually belonging to oneself, and avoidance of possessions not essential for one's life under the circumstances in which one is placed. Another, the last one among the yamas, is brahmacharya, which actually means the ‘conduct of the Absolute'.

‘Brahman' is the Supreme Being; ‘Charya' is conduct, or behaviour. How God behaves—that is called brahmacharya, finally. It is a very difficult thing for us to understand, because we do not know how God behaves, how the Absolute conducts Itself. The attitude of the Supreme Being towards the universe and all beings is brahmacharya, and to the extent that we are able to participate in this attitude, it may be said that we are also following that canon. Our participation in the attitude of the Supreme Being may be infinitesimal, but there should be at least this ‘tendency' towards holding the same attitude, the same outlook as that of the Lord. So, brahmacharya is an integrated outlook of consciousness, an attitude of the personality, and an interpretation of things. These are the essential basic principles of brahmacharya. And minus these principles, the term brahmacharya will yield only a chaotic meaning which will not help us much. In the Anu-Gita of the Mahabharata, a similar broad and majestic interpretation of brahmacharya is given, as coming out from the mouth of Sri Krishna Himself, during his instructions to Arjuna. The idea behind this significant term brahmacharya, translated as the conduct of the Absolute, is that it is a gradual adjustment of the powers of one's personality towards larger and larger dimensions of impersonality, because, the Absolute or Brahman is the Supreme Impersonality conceivable and existent. There is no externality to the Absolute and, therefore, it cannot be pulled in any outward direction. It has no conscious relationship with anything, though it is related to everything in the world. It cannot be said that God is not related to the world, He is related even to the minutest of things; even to a grain of sand, God is related. Yet, in a way, He is not related to anything. The idea is that the attitude of the Supreme Spirit is of a generalised or universalised relationship with all things, free from particularised or specialised interpretations or evaluations in regard to any thing or any object.

How Our Energy Gets Diverted and Dissipated

Whenever there is a specialised outlook in any particular direction, along the channel of an object or a group of objects, living or non-living, consciousness moves in that direction. No matter what our interest is in that direction, our mind moves. When the mind moves, the prana also moves. When the prana moves, the energy also moves. So, one follows the other. Our mental interest in any particular direction draws the power of the prana in that very direction, and like a charge of electricity, our energies are diverted. Whenever we think of an object, especially when we do so with a particular interest, which process is called the klishta vritti in the language of Patanjali, we are drawn towards that object, a part of us goes to it. Any interest psychologically manifest in the direction of any particular object is a diversion of energy along that channel, and psychological or emotional interest is nothing but a way of transferring oneself, at least in part, if not in whole, to that particular centre wherein one's interest lies. So, in some measure, we cease to be ourselves for the time being when we admire something, love something, or are attracted towards something. Sometimes, we can be wholly lost to ourselves when the attraction is full and hundred-per-cent, as may happen when we are looking at a painting, or enjoying a beautiful landscape, or reading a piece of lofty literature. The object may be conceptual, visible or audible, it makes no difference; we get transferred. When we listen to an enrapturing melody, our being is transferred to the modulation of the voice which is the music or the melody. When we look at a beautiful form, a landscape, a painting or any other object, we are drawn in our consciousness, and we are drawn even in reading arresting literature. In all these processes of sensory or intellectual absorption, outside oneself, there is a channelising of force of which we are constituted and which forms our strength. As long as we do not sell ourselves to any outside object, do not participate in anything external, we stand by ourselves. Otherwise, in some percentage, we cease to be ourselves and become another. If one becomes another and does not continue to be what oneself is, A becomes B for the time being, and there is a cessation of the characteristic of A. The subject becomes the object in its evaluation of the object as something in which it has to take interest for some purpose which is in its mind. This should not happen, holds Patanjali, in essence, because if this happens, the energy that is supposed to be conserved for the purpose of meditation on the universality of the purusha will be spent out in other directions, and to that extent, we will be losers of our strength. The fickleness of the mind or the absence of memory about which we often complain, the distraction to which the mind is heir to the jumping of the feelings from one centre to another—all these are attributable to the fluctuation of energy in our system. It is like the torrential Ganga moving in force with her waves dashing up and down and not resting stable as a limpid lake without movement. When our energies are in tumult, the impact of it is felt by the mind. We are shaken up in our whole system, because of the desire of the personality to move outside itself. As milk gradually becomes curd by an internal shaking of itself, the subject can turn into the object. And love of any kind is nothing but the transference of the subject into the object in some measure, be that object perceptible or merely conceptual. The very thought of the object disturbs the mind. This is mentioned in a famous passage by Bhishma in the Shanti Parva of the Mahabharata.

As we have noted earlier, the thought of an object is of two kinds, called the aklishta vritti and the klishta vritti by Patanjali. We can think of an object through an aklishta vritti or we can think of it through a klishta vritti. When we open our eyes and look at a large tree standing in front of us in the forest, an aklishta vritti is formed in the mind. It is a modification of the mind, because the mind has transformed itself into the form of the tree which we are beholding. But, it has not upset our emotion. It has not drawn our attention largely. We just look at it and are aware that there is a tree. To the extent that we are aware that there is some object outside us, the mind has transformed itself; it has ceased to be itself for the time being, though it has not caused us any sorrow. The tree has not attracted us or repelled us. But if we see a cobra with its hood raised, the modification of the mind at that time is not merely aklishta, it is not merely a gazing at an object without internal association of emotion, because the emotion acts at the sight of a snake, while it will not act in that manner when we look at a tree or a mountain. Even as there is a particular type of emotional reaction at the time of the perception of an object like a cobra, there is another type of reaction of a similar intensity when we look at things which are highly valuable from our point of view. It may be a large treasure-chest or something else which we think is worthwhile. So, anything we like or dislike evokes a klishta vritti in the mind. A thing in which we are not particularly interested either way evokes an aklishta vritti in the mind. For the purpose of Yoga, both these vrittis have to be subdued. Neither the klishta nor the aklishta is a desirable thing from the point of view of mano-nirodha or chitta-vritti-nirodha, which is Yoga.

The objects of the world speak in a language which we understand in our own way. They get transformed into a meaning when they enter into the mind of individuals; and each individual has his own or her own reading of any particular object. Every object sings a song and we listen to this music, but its meaning is different for different persons. For instance, the same word may convey different meanings to different persons because of the association of those persons in different ways with the particular context in which the word is uttered. All objects in the world speak to us in a psychological language or with a philosophical significance. But, the association of each one of us with them is such that it reads a specialised meaning in this generalised evoking of reaction from us by those objects. This particularised interpretation by each individual in answer to the general call of objects is his love or hatred. Objects of the world are not intended for being loved or for being hated. They exist as we also exist. Just as we do not evince any particular emotional love or hatred towards ourselves, and our loves and hatreds are only in regard to things outside ourselves, we can extend this logic to other objects also. No one assesses himself in terms of love and hatred. His assessment is in regard to other things, other persons. So, studying things in an impartial manner, we find that loves and hatreds are outside the scheme of things. They are not in the order of nature. They do not exist in nature at all. But for us, they only exist and nothing else! We are immersed in this tumultuous chaos, or the clamours of the senses and the mind, which go by the name of likes and dislikes.

Conservation of Energy for Brahma-Sakshatkara

Here is the basic foundation of the great admonition by the Yoga teacher that we have to conserve energy. We generally understand brahmacharya to be celibacy, a very poor translation of the word, and a misdirected meaning also. By celibacy we mean abstinence from marriage, and we associate or identify celibacy with brahmacharya or continence in the light of the requirement of Yoga, especially as mentioned by Patanjali. But, nothing of the kind is brahmacharya. It is not non-marriage, and it is not celibacy in its popular meaning. A person who has not married need not necessarily be a brahmacharin. And a person who has married need not cease to be that. Because, what we have to be careful in noting in this context is the intention behind this instruction, and not merely the following of it in social parlance. The intention is the conservation of energy, and the directing of the whole of one's personality towards the great objective of universal consciousness. And the energy of the system is required for any kind of concentration, not merely for God-realisation or Brahma-Sakshatkara. We require energy even to solve a mathematical problem. Even to build a bridge across a large river, even to study the minute particles of nature in a physical research laboratory, one requires a tremendous concentration of mind. Even to walk on a wire in a circus requires concentration. So, wherever there is a necessity to hold one's breath and concentrate one's attention, as in walking on a very narrow passage, tremendous energy is required, concentration is necessary. A two-feet wide bridge without any protection on either side and spanning a stream flowing in a deep gorge below—we know how we will walk on that bridge, holding our breath and thinking only of that narrow passage and nothing else. Certainly we will not be thinking any other distracting thought in our mind. Like that, the fixing of the mind on the great ideal of Yoga requires a complete surrender of oneself, in every part of one's being, in the form of concentration. This cannot be done, says Yoga, if we have other interests.

So, a lack of brahmacharya means nothing but the presence of interests other than the interest in Yoga. The distracting object may be anything. If we have got a strong interest in something which distracts our attention, the energy goes. Any kind of leakage of energy in any direction, caused by any object or any event or context, is a break in brahmacharya. A burst of anger is a break in brahmacharya, though one does not normally think so. No one condemns a man because he is angry. We may even think him to be a wonderful person in spite of his burst of anger, but the truth is that he has failed utterly in his brahmacharya. He is broken down totally. Because most people are tradition-bound, they go by the beaten track of social tradition and custom, and think that religion is nothing but what society sanctions. But, it is not like that. Religion is not merely the requirement demanded by a Hindu society or a Christian organisation. It has nothing to do with these things. What the universe expects us to manifest from our side, in respect of it, is the great religion of mankind, the religion of God or the religion of the universe. Nobody is going to save us, merely because we are religious in the eyes of the people. In that case, we may well go to the dogs with all our religion. What will help us, what will guide us, what will take us by the hand and lead us along is the great law which we obey, in the manner in which we are required to obey it, under the circumstances of our relationship with all things in the universe. So, in every way, we have to conserve our energy without any kind of distraction.

The Individual—A Pressure Centre

The philosophers, the mystics, the saints and the sages have made a thorough analysis of the energies of the human mind, the psycho-physical organism in all its completeness. It would appear that we are centres of pressure or stress. Every individual is such a centre, which seeks to break down this pressure, overcome this stress, by adopting some means which it thinks is the proper one under the circumstances. But, the understanding of the way in which this stress is to be removed depends upon one's own stage of evolution. Everyone knows that stress and strain are not good, but everyone does not know how to be free from them, because the causative factors of stresses and strains are not properly understood or analysed. We may know that we are sick, but we may not fully know why we are sick. And unless we know the cause behind our illness in the form of psychological stress and strain, distraction of attention, like and dislike, we will not be able to handle this subject properly. The so-called desires of man are the outer expressions of his personality to relieve itself from the stresses and strains in which it finds itself shackled. We are perpetually in a state of mental stress and nervous pressure from childhood to doom, and the whole of our life is spent only in trying to find out ways and means of relieving ourselves of these stresses and strains, and we have our own way of doing it. The way in which we try to relieve ourselves of these stresses and strains—this way is called the expression of desires. What is called desire is the method we adopt to relieve ourselves of our tensions, nervous and psychological. So, each person tries his own method to relieve himself of his tension, according to the manner of his understanding. But, most of these ways are misdirected ways. They increase the tension on account of ignorance about the reason behind the arising of the stress or the strain.

Stresses and Strains—Their Cause and Cure

The stress or the strain has arisen on account of a separation of the individual from Nature. The world has cast us out as exiles. We have been thrown outside the realm of Nature as unwanted children. Our internal desire, finally, is to unite ourselves with Nature which is our mother or our parent. The relief that we are seeking from our stresses and strains is ultimately a desire or longing to become one with our parent, from whom we have been cut off or isolated. Our desire is to possess everything. And the desire to possess is called love. What goes by the name of love of any kind in this world is a desire to possess things, which are considered as instruments capable of relieving us of our stresses and strains. Whether we are right in this interpretation of the situation or not is a different matter. But, just as a little bit of scratching of an eczema patch will give the sufferer a little relief, a forgetfulness of the tension or the stress for the time being is imagined to be a way of relief from the stress itself. When a larger stress swoops down upon us, the lesser stress is forgotten. We are directed away from the lesser stress and the pain, we even forget it for the time being, when a larger stress or strain comes and sits on our head. Let us suppose that we have some worry and we are thinking about it. A larger worry comes and then we forget the lesser worry, because the higher thing has come. All our pains, sorrows and complaints vanish in a minute, in a trite, when we are about to be drowned in a river, for instance. We do not complain about anything at that time. Everything would seem to be all right if only we could be saved from possible drowning, because that is a problem larger than all the other little problems about which we are constantly complaining in life. So is the case with our asking for the fulfilment of our desires by contact with things.

The Havoc Wrought by the Externalising Senses

In one of the sutras, Patanjali tells us that sensory contact with things is not the way of relieving tension caused by desires, because desires cannot be removed by any kind of sensory contact. Our desire is not for the contact. That is the whole point, though it appears that the senses tell us to come in contact with various things in the world for the relief of our tension. We are not asking for things. Nobody wants anything in this world finally. But, it appears as if we are wanting them, due to a mischievous interpretation given to these circumstances by our senses, by externalising our internal anguish for a communion with all things. All loves, all desires, are urges for communion with things. While our urge within is a holy and pious impulse to come in union with all things, with Nature as a whole, this impulse is thrown in the direction of space and time and is externalised by the powers of the senses. What is the result? The longing of ours, which has its meaning in one direction, takes another shape because of its reflection through the senses. While our face is attached to our body, it looks as if it is outside us when we see it in the mirror. We are not outside ourselves, we are in ourselves. But, it appears as if we have gone out of ourselves, because of the presentation of the mirror in front of ourselves. The mischief is done by the mirror. Some such catastrophic activity takes place when our loves, likes, emotions and desires are cast into the mould of the senses. The senses have only one work to do, to externalise everything. So, even our desires are externalised, while really our desire is for something else. That is the reason why we are not satisfied; no matter what objects are given to us, we are always disillusioned in the end. Whatever be our possession, it is not going to satisfy us finally. Because we are asking for some particular thing, and we are given another thing by the dacoits of the senses. They are really thieves.

Very strange is this phenomenon that the mind spatialises itself and temporalises itself in its activity, when it affiliates itself to the activities of the senses, and its own desires for something which it has lost appear as desires for those things which are outside it. This is a highly significant situation in which everyone is finding himself or herself, something which escapes one's notice always, a very dangerous circumstance about which we need not talk much, because it is so clear. And one need not be told again and again as to why the ways in which we try to fulfil our desires are not the proper ways. Firstly, there is a basic blunder in the very attitude of the mind in imagining that what it seeks through the fulfilment of desires lies outside it. The other blunder is, that in its movement towards the so-called external things, it has lost its energies. It has weakened itself. The Self, when it becomes the non-self, becomes a corpse, becomes dead. So, a person who has desires is a weakling. He has no strength at all. He has neither physical strength nor mental strength. The more the unfulfilled desires, the greater is the weakness of the body and the mind. One cannot walk even. One cannot digest food. One cannot think, cannot remember anything. This happens when there are too many desires unfulfilled. But, what to do under the circumstances?

Desire—A Metaphysical Evil

As students of Yoga interested in the true welfare of our souls, we must be able to know what has really happened to us. We should not be wool-gathering, we should not be in a fool's paradise even in the name of religion or spirituality. Any kind of outward ritualistic movement of our personalities, even in the name of religion, is not going to save us, in the end, because this evil called desire is a metaphysical evil. It is not a social evil, it is not a physical evil. It is a metaphysical evil, as the philosophers call it. It is a cosmic catastrophe, and therefore, it requires all the analytical capacity that we are capable of to know what has happened to us, and know how we can gradually wean ourselves away from this impulse that is dragging us out from ourselves in the direction of the objects of sense. This weaning oneself away from objects is done very gradually. The fulfilment of desires is not condemned in the religion of India especially, though it is well known that desires have to be completely extirpated one day or the other; because, they are bondage which tethers the soul to the body and its physical associations. The great system of social living and personal living inculcated in India, and accepted by other great philosophers in other countries also, is known as the Varnashrama system, a highly scientific analysis of the human situation and the desires of man and the needs of man at different times. We have various kinds of needs, though all needs may be called desires, and all desires may be called undesirable things in the end. Yet, when they are there as realities to the senses and the mind, and not lesser realities than our own bodies and our personalities, we have to tackle them with great caution. We have to interpret them as realistically as we interpret our own selves. The objects are as real as ourselves and as unreal as ourselves. To the extent that we are real, the things connected with us are also real. And to the extent that we are unreal, to the same extent, they are also unreal. The subject and the object evolve simultaneously. The evolution is not just individualistic and subjective. So, this system of Varnashrama is a systematic procedure to adjust ourselves and adapt ourselves to the circumstances of life, horizontally in society, and vertically in our own personality. The horizontal adjustment is the Varna and the vertical adjustment is the Ashrama. We have to be complete in society, in our relationships with people, and we have to be complete in our own selves by a suitable harmonious alignment of the various layers of our personality. Such an adjustment is very effectively brought about by following the great canons of the Varna and the Ashrama.

Varnashrama—An Aid to Free Ourselves from the Grip of Nature

People generally think that Varna means caste, but it is not that. It means a class. The principle of the classification of society is called the Varna-Dharma. It is a classification, not a ‘castification'. To say that Varna means caste is to give it a wrong name and an erroneous interpretation. No man is complete in himself, and therefore, no man can be satisfied merely in his own self without the co-operation of other persons. Man is, among other things, intellect, will, emotion and energy. There are certain people with a tremendous physical capacity, but intellectually they are poor. There are others who are rationally and intellectually brilliant, but physically weak. The other two aspects, namely, emotion and will, are also distributed disproportionately among people. Everyone is not possessed of these characteristics in the same measure. Inasmuch as everyone's intention is the welfare of all human beings, the solidarity of mankind in general, it is necessary that we share among ourselves the commodities that we have. The commodities are not necessarily physical ones; they can be psychological ones also. If one has great intellectual capacity and spiritual acumen, which are necessary for the welfare of society, but not other facilities, he will share the knowledge and wisdom and the directing intelligence that he has, with others, for the facilities which he does not have. The mutual co-operative activity of society—spiritually, administratively, economically and manually—forms the essence of the Varna system. The classification into Brahmanas, Kshatriyas, Vaisyas and Sudras is not a categorisation of people into superior and inferior types, into bosses and subordinates, but it is a classification of the functions of individuals according to their knowledge and capacities, for the purpose of a complete co-operative organisation of humankind, with a noble intention and purpose. This is one way in which we can be happy in this world. Otherwise, we will be in misery every day, every moment. The desires of ours are classified in this manner, and they are given an opportunity of permissible satisfaction, by a mutual co-operation horizontally in this manner.

There is the other side, namely, the vertical side, which is the subject of the Ashrama-Dharma, or duties pertaining to the different Ashramas, or stages of life. Just as we have totally misunderstood the meaning of the Varna system, we have also misunderstood the meaning of the Ashrama system. Just as we condemn the classification of Varna as caste distinction, we convert the classification of the stages of one's life by way of Ashrama, into a kind of dead routine of religion. Neither Varna nor Ashrama is a routine. Varnashrama is a vital participation in the processes of life, externally as well as internally. Externally it goes by the name of Varna, and internally it goes by the name of Ashrama. The idea behind this is the fulfilment of the requirements of the human personality, in the way it would be required, for the purpose of a transcendence of all limitations, with the great goal of moksha, or liberation of the spirit, in mind. What a glorious psychological organisation this Varnashrama is! No item in this classification is unimportant, because nature catches us by the throat, with such a firm grip, that we cannot free ourselves from its compulsive pressure without the aid of the Varnashrama-Dharma. We are caught firmly by Nature socially, physically, vitally, psychologically, rationally and even spiritually. So, we have to free ourselves from these clutches or pressures by a gradual dissociation of ourselves from nature, as we untie its knots one by one.

If we tie a thread into a dozen knots, and then want to untie them and straighten out the thread, we do not go to the bottom knot first, but rather to the topmost one. The topmost knot is untied first, then the previous one or the eleventh knot, then the tenth, then the ninth and so on, till at last we come to the very first knot. We cannot touch the last knot in the very beginning. Similarly, in spiritual life, the first problem is treated last, and the last problem is taken up first. Because, the first is more subtle and more proximate to the realities of things than the later ones which are the evolutes of the causes. The effects have to be taken care of first, and the causes later on. So, outwardly as well as inwardly, these systems of organisation known as Varna and Ashrama, are procedures enjoined upon every person, for untying the various knots of entanglement in life, engendered by one's needs which are social, physical, vital, emotional, intellectual and so on.

Such a vast involvement is associated with this little thing called brahmacharya, by the practice of which we do not merely put on a conduct personally and socially, but establish ourselves in a status of strength, where we are so tuned to things that our energies do not move at all in any direction, but are held up in such a way that there is no urge within ourselves to transfer our energies to outside things for the fulfilment of our desires. Desires have to be fulfilled, and also, they are not to be fulfilled. Both these statements are correct statements. But, the statements must be understood in their proper meaning. For instance, hunger has to be appeased, though hunger is a disease of the body, though it is a canker that eats into every man's vitals and compels him to remember always that he is a body. Can anything be worse than this that one should be made to feel always that one is a prisoner? One may be a captive in a prison, but why should one be made to think every day that one is a prisoner? But, that is precisely what hunger does. All the time it makes you remain body-conscious. Such an evil thing it is, but how can one get out of it? By meeting the demands of the body, while exercising very great caution simultaneously. That is why we put on clothes when we feel chilled; we go to sleep when we are tired; we eat a meal when we are hungry. We go for a walk and we do many things. Now, all these activities are so far removed from the goal of our life, as the north pole from the south, and yet they are taken as necessities. We may call them necessary evils, if we like. They are evils, no doubt, but they are necessary evils. So, they have to be befriended first, in order that we may sever ourselves from them ultimately. The intention behind the practice of the canons of Varna and Ashrama in a graduated manner is not the indulgence of desires, but their graduated, scientific, systematised and cautious fulfilment in a measure that is permissible and required under the circumstances for the purpose of freeing oneself from them finally. So, we do not eat because we want to eat, but because it is necessary to reach a stage where we need not eat at all. There is, therefore, a deep background behind the psychology of the canons known as the yamas and a clear understanding of this background will help us to practise these canons better.