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Sanjaya said: O Bharata, thus told by Gudakesha, Hrishikesha took the magnificent chariot between the two armies and stopping it facing Bhishma and Drona and other kings said, “Arjuna, see the assembled Kurus.”
The word used by Sanjaya here for Krishna is Hrishikesha, a word that means master of the senses – hrishika means senses and isha means master. What exactly does mastery over the senses mean?
The Katha Upanishad using the metaphor of the chariot calls our senses the horses that draw the chariot that is our body because it is the senses that lead us out into the world – indriyaani hayaan ahuh, says this ancient Upanishad that belongs to the Krishna Yajur Veda. These horses can be disciplined and trained, or they can be wild. How we live our life will depend on whether they are wild or disciplined.
Wild horses yoked to our chariot lead us to disaster and so do uncontrolled senses. To live a life led by uncontrolled senses is to be a slave to our senses and to our body. Such people live for the body, as though we are nothing more than the body.
Swami Vivekananda once said: “You may be the greatest philosopher, but as long as you have the idea that you are the body, you are no better than the little worm crawling under your foot! No excuse for you! So much the worse for you that you know all the philosophies and at the same time think you are the body!”
Look at this picture of extreme sense indulgence from our contemporary life. The middle aged man is lying on a recliner with his hand on the naked shoulders of a young, beautiful woman next to him whose services he has hired for the day. In the room the TV is on in front of him and not far from him a music player is loudly playing some fast music. He is watching the TV and listening to the music at the same time, while his hand is moving gently over the skin of the hired woman, softly caressing her. Every now and then he takes a sip of vodka from the mug he holds in his other hand and in the gaps between the sips, the girl picks up potato chips from the bowl kept in front of him and places them in his mouth, giving him a kiss along with the chip.
This is considered to be the very acme of sensual enjoyment for a man. While this picture is from our times, life in the past, for those who could afford it, was no different, except that in place of the TV and the music player they had live performers singing and dancing in front of them and in place of the hired woman each had a harem of women surrounding them.
Life of sensuality hasn’t changed, except in superficial aspects. A slave to the senses five thousand years ago was the same as a slave to the senses today.
The Mahabharata tells us the story of Emperor Nahusha, an ancestor of the Kurus, who was invited to the heaven to become its ruler while Indra had to go into hiding for the sin of killing the asura Vritra. In the heaven however Nahusha who was the greatest ruler on earth, soon fell a prey to a life of the senses. Every moment awake he started spending in the pleasures of the senses, listening to heavenly music, watching heavenly dances, enjoying heavenly food and drinks and indulging in sex with the apsaras, until he fell asleep exhausted only to continue his life of pleasure the moment he woke up. One day he was in the Nandana Gardens surrounded by his coterie when he saw an incredibly beautiful celestial woman passing by. Asked who she was, he was told that she was Indrani, the wife of Indra. “If she is the wife of Indra and I am Indra now,” Nahusha asked shocking even his coterie, “why has she not yet come to my bed?”
Terrified, the chaste Indrani sought the advice of Brihaspati, the guru of the gods, and of Indra himself and as asked by them, told Nahusha she would receive him in her bed if he came to her in a palanquin carried by the saptarshis, the seven divine sages. They agreed to carry him to Indrani but in his impatience he kicked one of them, Agastya, on his shoulder, asking him to hasten, saying sarpa, sarpa, meaning hurry, hurry. The sage in turn cursed him and turned him into a sarpa, a snake.
Nahusha’s son Emperor Yayati too lived a life of sensuality and his name became a synonym for lust, so deeply did he sank into a life of the senses. But towards the end of his life he realized that a life of the senses cannot satisfy man and said: na jaatu kaamah kamaanaam upabhogena shaamyati; havishaa krishnavartmaiva bhooya eva abhivardhate – “Verily, desire can never be satisfied by indulgence. The more you indulge in them, the more demanding they grow just as fire grows when you offer havis into it.”
Both emperor Shantanu and his son Vichitraveerya destroy themselves through slavery to the pleasures of the senses. In a moment of frustration, Pandu calls his father Vichitraveerya a kamatma, meaning a man whose very soul is lust.
That is slavery to the senses.
Today the world in general is living the philosophy of the setting sun, as the Tibetan teacher Chogyam Trungpa calls it in his celebrated classic Shambhala: the Sacred Path of the Warrior. The philosophy of the setting sun says there is only one life, it begins at birth and ends with death, and the way to live is to enjoy all the pleasures you can while you are alive, just as you try to visit all the places you can when you are on a short conducted tour, crowding your schedule without wasting even one moment. This is the ancient Indian philosophy of the Charvakas too, who said:
yaavad jeevet sukham jeevet rnam krtvaa ghrtam pibet
bhasmeebhootasya dehasya punar aagamanam kutah
“So long as you live, live merrily! Borrow and enjoy the best! Once the body is reduced to ashes, from where does it come back!”
Those who live for the senses seek the purpose of life in sense gratification, pursuing pleasure after pleasure, frequently several pleasures at the same time because you don’t have time enough to enjoy them all separately and you don’t want to miss any. Since such a life cannot give you any satisfaction or contentment, you end up filled with still more desire, longings, lust, anger, greed, delusion, pride and jealousy. Anxiety, hatred, depression, frustration, and disappointment become your very nature.
The Mahabharata speaks of Krishna as: 1. A great master of yoga, a yogeshwara; 2. An incarnation of the yogi Narayana, the friend of the yogi Nara; and 3. God incarnated in a human body. In whatever way you see him, he is someone who has realized that a life of sensuality does not give us lasting satisfaction. He is no more a slave to the hungers and thirsts of the senses. Instead he is a master of the senses, someone who uses the senses as their master: a Hrishikesha.
Mastery over the senses does not mean complete denial of the senses, suppressing them totally. The senses are very real, their needs are very real and we must give unto them what is theirs, taking care to see that they do not enslave us. A master driver of a car does not keep the break pressed down all the time, nor the accelerator. He steps on them when required, takes his foot off when required. Exactly like that you don’t suppress the senses all the time, but instead enjoys the pleasures they bring remaining their master. The world is prakriti and purusha dancing together and what an amazing dance it is! When we remain masters of ourselves and join this dance, life becomes a wonderful kreeda, an amazing leela.
What is criticized as disastrous is not sensual pleasures but slavery to them. Krishna calls those who suppress the senses but think of sensual pleasures in their mind all the time hypocrites:
karmendriyaani sanyamya ya aaste manasaa smaran
indriyaathaan vimoodhaatmaa mithyaachaarah sa uchyate BG 3.6
Those deluded fools who restrain the organs of action but continue to dwell on sense objects in the mind, hypocrites they are called.
Krishna is the most life assertive spiritual master known to man. He believes in living life in utsava bhava, in the spirit of festivity, celebrating every moment, enjoying everything we do, living life to the full, but as a master of the senses and not as their slave. He has no compulsions to wage a war with the senses, to suppress them, because they are always under his command, as disciplined horses yoked to a chariot are under the command of the master driver.
He is truly a Hrishikesha as Sanjaya refers to him. The way of life he teaches is neither of the denial of the world of pleasures nor of plunging blindly into sensual indulgence. His is the path of awakened living. As a master of yourself, as a master of your senses, as a master of your body, as a master of your mind. As a swami, and not as a dasa. And if you are a master, then samsara, the world of sense objects is not your enemy, they do not tempt you, do not enslave you, conquer you.
Ancient India talked of asidhara vrata and awakened masters practiced that path of the heroes. Asidhara means the edge of the sword and asidhara vrata is the vow of walking on the edge of the sword. It is living in the middle of all kinds of pleasures, enjoying them all and yet not being bound by them.
It is called the path of the heroes because it requires heroic courage and immense mastery over yourself to live it.
Greek mythology tells us the story of Odysseus and the sirens. Odysseus, the hero of the Odyssey, had to sail by the island of the sirens whose music was so hauntingly beautiful that no man who heard it could control himself. Men jumped into the rough sea trying to reach them and drowned. The island was surrounded by mountains of bones of men who had thus perished. Though warned of this danger by the sorceress Circe, Odysseus wanted to enjoy the music and yet not lose his life for it. So as they approached the island, he asked his sailors, who were also his friends, to tie him to the mast of the ship and not to release him whatever happened. He told them he would fight to get free, shout and yell at them, scream and threaten them, but if they loved him they should not release him until they were far away from the island. As for themselves, Odysseus asked them to fill their ears with bee wax so that the waves of the song of the sirens did not reach them.
As the ship approached the island of the sirens, Odysseus tied to the mast started shouting and screaming and threatening them, shrieking and bawling at them, ordering them as the captain of the ship to untie his ropes. He was going insane! But they loved their friend and captain and had more sense than to obey him. Soon they passed the islands and were away from the soul melting notes of the song of the sirens. It is only then that they released him. The story ends by telling us that Odysseus, also known as Ulysses, thus became the first man to listen to the song of the sirens and yet remain alive.
When India speaks of asidhara vrata, India asks us to do something even more difficult: Listen to the song of the sirens, expose yourselves to their temptation, and yet remain untempted, without the binding of the ropes, by retaining your mastery over yourselves. Of course, it is as difficult as walking on the edge of the sword, if not more.
Ancient India tells us of monks spending their chaturmasya, the rainy season retreat of four months, in the house of rich prostitutes who invited them and leaving at the end of the retreat with the prostitutes transformed into their monastic followers, bhikshunis.
But it is difficult indeed, almost impossible even for great masters, what to speak of ordinary people. In the Hindi movie Nishabd we have Vijay in his sixties, played by Amitabh Bachan, falling head over heels in love with the beautiful teenager Jiah, played by Jiah Khan, his daughter’s same age friend. The girl had come to his home to spend her school vacation with his daughter and he becomes obsessed with the temperamental, unpredictable, self-centered and at the same time irresistibly charming Lolita after spending a day alone with her in his sprawling tea estate among rows and rows of mountains of the High Ranges of Kerala. Reminded of who he is and who the young girl is, Vijay finally orders her to leave their home, but is never able to come out of his destructive infatuation with her that he considers true love. He contemplates suicide but does not do that only so that he can live with Jiah’s memory for some more time.
In modern industry, business, politics and other walks of life, there are endless examples for people failing in their mastery over themselves and losing everything, ending up as a shame for themselves and everyone else, the most famous of which being that of an erstwhile American President.
That is the reason why when the Mahabharata discusses leadership, which it does in great detail, one of the first thing it says is: atmaa jeyah sadaa raajnaa – a leader should always be a master of himself. Even if you have everything else, if you have no control over yourself, you will destroy yourself.
The best way to develop mastery over oneself is conscious living – mindful living, being aware of whatever you do. You could begin this with simple acts, like having a cup of coffee mindfully, and then slowly extend your mindfulness into everything you do, whether it is taking a walk, or whatever else.
We can also train ourselves in self mastery by following the 110% principle. The principle asks us to set targets for ourselves just outside our present limits, our comfort zone, and master it. Once the higher target is mastered, that becomes your comfort zone and you set a target just outside it. It is amazing what you can achieve using this principle.
Years ago when I used to teach a course called theatre in education, I tried an experiment based on this principle with my students using the game of ball bouncing as a challenge. Over time, my students were able to move from twenty bounces to a thousand and more bounces without dropping the ball or moving from their place.
A young lady I know was a chain smoker and it is through this principle that she quit smoking. She set a target for herself – she wouldn’t smoke for one hour. And the next target was not smoking for seventy-five minutes and then for ninety minutes and so on. Today she has quit smoking completely, and not only that, she has helped several others to quit smoking!
You can practice getting rid of other forms of addiction using this principle. You can practice mindfulness and self mastery itself using this principle. You can practice anger management using this principle. Endless are the possibilities. And every time you become a master of yourself, you become a Hrishikesha in your own right!
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