Living Gita: 49: Mastery over the Senses

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yadaa samharate chaayam koormo'ngaaneeva sarvashah
indriyaaneendriya-arthebhyas tasya prajnaa pratishthitaa // 2.58 //
vishayaa vinivartante niraahaarasya dehinah
rasavarjam raso'pyasya param drishtwaa nivartate // 2.59 //
yatato hyapi kaunteya purushasya vipashchitah i
indriyaani pramaatheeni haranti prasabham manah // 2.60 //
taani sarvaani samyamya yukta aaseeta matparah
vashe hi yasyendriyaani tasya prajnaa pratishthitaa // 2.61 //

The wisdom of that man is steady who withdraws his senses from sense objects as a tortoise withdraws its limbs. When you deny yourself objects of pleasure, only the objects leave you but not your longing for them. Longing leaves you only when you see the supreme. The senses that are turbulent carry away by force the mind of even a wise man who is striving to master them. The yogi should stay focused on me with all his senses under control. His wisdom is steady whose senses are under his control.


One thing that makes Krishna very different from other masters who teach spirituality is that Krishna does not say no to life. He is like the rishis of yore who found no contradiction between the life of the flesh and spiritual life.

As Dr Abinash Chandra Bose points out in The Call of the Vedas: “The Vedas accept life in its fullness. The malaise caused by the loss of balance between the primary biological instincts and man’s active and contemplative faculties is completely absent in them. There is no clash between the flesh and the spirit. Nor do we come across signs of repression or self-torture, accompanied by morbid sin-consciousness. No negative attitude to life, induced by disillusionment or frustration, no world-weariness. Instead what we find is a sense of festivity, the celebration of life.”

We will have to keep this in mind when we try to understand what Krishna says about the sthitaprajna, the man of steady wisdom. When Krishna says the wisdom of that man is steady who withdraws his senses from sense objects as a tortoise withdraws its limbs, he is not asking to say no to this world.

Krishna does not believe in life denial. To Krishna, as to the Vedic seers, life is beautiful, the world is beautiful. The mountains and rivers are beautiful, the sun and the moon are beautiful, the earth and the sky are beautiful, the plants, animals and birds of the earth and the sky are beautiful, everything is beautiful, even the smallest things that surround us have incredible beauty in them.

Years ago one of my friends used to specialize in photographing ordinary things. He would photograph a single drop of water hanging from the tip of a leaf, a leaf half eaten by a worm, an ordinary pebble, a broken twig, just any ordinary thing. Those were the days before the arrival of computers in India. So to magnify those images, he would make slides out of them and then project these slides on to a wall or a screen using a slide projector. I still remember how incredibly beautiful those ordinary things looked in those images.

There is beauty all around us. For instance, when we take a morning walk, we don’t look carefully at the grass on which we are walking. If one day we care to sit down and look at it carefully, we will find thousands of little flowers on the grass and the tiny plants, flowers in different colours. There will be blue flowers, yellow ones, red ones, white ones, purple, crimson, in every imaginable colours, each different from the others, all of them together creating a world of beauty. It is on this world of beauty that we have been placing each step.

Similarly, the sounds that surround us, especially the sounds of nature, create a magic world of their own, as do the smells, the touches and so on. If our senses are awake, the world that will come to us through them is a world of pure magic, pure wonder.

Religion should awaken our senses, spirituality should make each sense what it is meant to be, a door to the amazing world we call God’s creation. Krishna is not asking us to say no to this world.

There is a story about Pythagoras who was travelling to India to learn advanced mathematics and philosophy. He had to travel through Egypt to reach India and while he was staying in a monastery there, he noticed the monks in the monastery doing certain meditations. A committed seeker, he wanted to learn their meditation from them but they said they could teach it to him only if he underwent certain preliminary practices which would require forty days. Pythagoras said he was in a hurry to reach India and could not stay in the monastery for forty days. In that case, they said, they wouldn’t be able to teach him the mediation. Reluctantly Pythagoras agreed to stay back and do the preliminary practices for forty days, for which he was sent into solitude. When Pythagoras came out of the solitude after the completion of the preliminary practices, the first question he asked was, “What has happened to the world? Everybody seems to be walking in sleep, talking in sleep, eating in sleep, doing everything in sleep?” And the monks laughed and said nothing has happened to the world, the world is exactly how it has always been, but something has happened to him. People have always been walking in sleep, talking in sleep, living in sleep, but he had never noticed it because he too was like that. The forty days of practices had woken him up from his sleep and now when he looks at the world, he sees it as it really is: a sleep walkers world.

What spirituality should do is not to make us dead to the world but to awaken us to it. It should not make our senses dull but awaken them to their true potentials. Spirituality is a journey to awakening and not to sleep. Spirituality should increase out sattva guna and not our tamo guna. And one of the descriptions of sattva guna that Krishna gives us in the Gita is:

sarvadwaareshu dehesmin prakaasha upajaayate jnaanam yadaa tadaa vidyaad vivriddham sattvamityuta // 14.11 //

“When the light of intelligence shines through every sense organ in this body, then understand that sattva is predominant.”

As you grow spiritually, your senses become sharper and not dull. You become more open to the world and not dead to it. You don’t become insensitive to the beauty everywhere but become much more open to it. You are far more open to the beauty of sound, of sights, of touches, of taste and of smell. You become much more alive, your eyes become aglow with life, your skin become aglow with lifem you enjoy sound much more, sights much more, touches and taste and smell much more and not, as we often understand it, become dead to these.

Spirituality takes you closer to life and not away from it. It makes you sensitive to the world – to people, to their pains and pleasures, to their joys and sorrows, to their successes and failures, to their losses and gains, to the problems they are facing, to their difficulties, to the hidden hells within them, all. They become part of your life, you become part of their life, your lives blend and you start living not just your life but their life too, you live not just for you but for them too. You become so sensitive that even a tender leaf or a blade of grass assume importance to you and you think twice before plucking it or crushing it underfoot.

If spirituality is sensitivity and the more spiritual you are, the more sensitive you become, being insensitive is the sign of lack of spirituality. Just as spirituality makes you more sattvik, in its absence you become tamasic. A tamasic man is not sensitive to the world around him, to life around him, to the people around him, to animals and birds around him, to plants and trees around him.

I remember reading in my teens a novel centered on a very tamasic man. He sees two insects mating on the ground, watches them for a few moments and then crushes them underfoot – for no reason at all. That is insensitivity, that is tamas.

Paleri Manikyam is a famous Malayalam movie in which a landlord orders one of his serfs to be tied to one side of the plough in place of the bull to plough his paddy field. Now the plough is pulled by one bull and the man. The landlord then asks the man controlling the plough from behind to beat both the bull and the man hard to make both of them run fast dragging the plough. And it makes no difference to the man that the man managing the plough is the brother of the man tied to the plough in place of the bull.

A girl is taking a walk with her grandfather on the village road. They belong to the upper class. Suddenly a group of pariahs – who are among the lowest of the low in the traditional Indian cast system – sees them approaching and turn around and run, leaving the village road to them. The little girl asks her grandfather why the people are running away and he tells her they are pariahs and they are running away so that they do not pollute her and him. The little girl then asks her grandfather if he knows them and he says yes, they work in their fields. The next question from the girl is what the names of the pariahs are. He tells her they have no names, they are just pariahs, just as a mango tree is a mango tree, a jack fruit tree is a jack fruit tree, a guava tree is a guava tree.

That is how a society becomes insensitive and tamasic when it becomes unspiritual.

The sensitive man is just the opposite. He is open to the feelings of people, to their pains and sufferings, to their pride and honour. He loves them and makes sacrifices for them.

A beautiful story I have heard says once there was a saintly man who lived a pious life in a village. He neither ate nor drank while the sun was up in the sky. The story says soon the people of the village noticed a star shining in the sky above the nearby sacred mountain in daytime which they took as a sign of the man’s holiness.

One day the man decided to make a pilgrimage to the top of the mountain. A little girl from the village said she too would go with the man. Though the man tried to discourage her, she insisted and finally the man agreed. It was a hot day and the climb was difficult. The man knew the little girl should be thirsty and asked her to drink some water from the tiny stream that came down from the mountain. But she said she would drink only if he too drank, which the man wouldn’t because he had taken a vow not to drink or eat during the day. They continued to climb and the man realized the girl would collapse any moment unless she drank some water. He just did not know what to do – if he drank he would be breaking his promise and if he did not, the girl would collapse. After debating long inside him, the man decided to break his vow so that the girl could drink water.

When they reached the top, the man was reluctant to look up at the sky – he had broken a vow and maybe the star had disappeared. Eventually he gathered enough courage to look up. And he saw there were two stars shining brightly in the sky instead of one!

Insensitivity is not a spiritual quality, sensitivity is.

The spiritual man becomes friends with all existence because of his sensitivity – with trees and plants, with birds and beasts, with mountains, with rivers and oceans, with the planets and the stars, with the sky and the earth.

He is full of joyfulness. He is not happy because there is a special reason for him to be happy, like getting a good job or a promotion, like getting an award, buying a new house, getting a loan that you wanted. There are no reasons for his happiness. He is just happy.

The spiritual man develops in advanced stages what Zen calls mushin, the empty mind or the no-mind and in the initial stages what Zen calls shoshin or the beginner’s mind. With the beginner’s mind, it is as though your senses are fully awake for the first time, your intelligence and imagination are awake for the first time, and every time you look at the world, it is as though you are looking at it for the first time. It is as though you have for the first time fallen in love with the world.

When you are in love, the world undergoes a tremendous transformation.

The mornings are suddenly more beautiful than before, the evenings are more beautiful, the mountains and rivers are more beautiful, the flowers and plants are more beautiful, the wind and the rain are more beautiful, the sky and the clouds are more beautiful; the food you eat, the drinks you drink, the music you hear, the breeze you feel are all far more beautiful than before. Exactly in the same way, when you grow spiritually you find far more beauty and joy in everything.

In the tenth chapter of the Gita called Vibhuti Yoga, Krishna says whatever is glorious is divine:

yadyad vibhootimat sattwam shreemad oorjitameva vaa tattad eva avagaccha twam mama tejom'sha-sambhavam // 10.41 //

“Whatever is splendid, glorious or powerful, understand that to be a born of a part of my splendour.”

The glory of the world is the glory of God and when you say no to the glory of the world, you are saying no to God. This creation is the glory of God and when you say no to the creation, you are saying no to God. The world is not an obstruction in reaching God but can lead to him.

Vibhuti Yoga, as discussed by the Vedas and by the Gita, teaches us how to use God’s vibhuti, his glory, the creation, to reach him. The world could be the path to God. You don’t have to deny the world to say yes to spirituality. As the Vedic rishis taught, the world and God are not enemies of each other.

But for that you have to be a master of your mind and of your senses and not their slave. To use an ancient example, you should be able to use the horses of your chariot as you want to use them. They should pull your chariot the way you want them to pull it and not the way they want to pull it. The chariot should go in the direction in which you want it to go, not where the horses want to take it. The horses should be under your control and not you under their control. When you drive a car, you should be the master of the clutch, the gears, the break and the accelerator – they should function the way you want them to function. When you press the accelerator, the speed should go up and when you apply the break, the vehicle should stop. The car should obey you.


And that is what Krishna means when he says in these verses “The wisdom of that man is steady who withdraws his senses from sense objects as a tortoise withdraws its limbs. When you deny yourself objects of pleasure, only the objects leave you but not your longing for them. Longing leaves you only when you see the supreme. The senses that are turbulent carry away by force the mind of even a wise man who is striving to master them. The yogi should stay focused on me with all his senses under control. His wisdom is steady whose senses are under his control.”


The kind of spirituality that denies the world has done us a lot of harm and Hinduism a bad name as a life-denying culture whereas it is difficult to find a culture that is more life assertive than Hinduism. We worshipped wealth as the most beautiful goddess in the form of Lakshmi whereas many other cultures glorified poverty in the name of spirituality. We worshipped pleasure as something divine so long as it is not against dharma – speaking as God, Krishna says in verse 11 of chapter 7 of the Gita that he is desire in all beings so long as it is not against dharma – dharma-aviruddho bhootesu kamo 'smi. Krishna criticizes, again in the Gita, spirituality that is life-denying just as he criticizes over-indulgence in sensuality:

naatyashnatastu yogo'sti na chaikaantam anashnatah
na chaati swapnasheelasya jaagrato naiva chaarjuna // 6.16 //
yukta-ahaara-vihaarasya yuktacheshtasya karmasu
yukta-swapna-avabodhasya yogo bhavati duhkhahaa // 6.17 //

“Yoga is not for him who eats too much nor is it for him who does not eat at all. It is not for him who sleeps too much nor is it for him who always remains awake, Arjuna. Yoga which ends all sorrows is for him who is balanced in food and recreation, who is moderately active at work, moderate in sleep and wakefulness.”

Elsewhere in the Gita Krishna also criticizes those forms of tapas which involve self-torture, calling it tamasic tapas. He says:

moodhagraahena atmano yat peedayaa kriyate tapah parasya utsaadana-artham vaa tat taamasam udaahritam // 17.19 //

“Tapas which is practiced out of foolish notions, involving self-torture or for destroying another, is an example for tamasic tapas.”

If that is not enough, in Chapter 17 verse 6 he calls practices that involve cruelty to the body and the spirit as asuri, evil.

Moderation in everything is yoga for Krishna. Yoga is, spirituality is, neither sleeping too much nor sleeping too little, neither eating too much nor fasting too much, neither working too much nor not working at all. Neither over indulgence nor total denial – what the Buddha would later speak of as the middle path.

There is a beautiful story about the Buddha and King Udayana. Udayana was an extreme sensualist until he met the Buddha and became his disciple. After he became a disciple, like a pendulum he went to the other extreme and started living a life of total self-denial. One day the master was informed by monks that Udayana is near his death because of the excessive austerities. Buddha visited Udayana and asked him, “I have heard that you were a good veena player before you became a monk. Is that true?”

When Udayana admitted he was, Buddha asked him, “What happens if the strings of the veena are too loose?” Udayana answered there will be no music. “And if the strings of the veena are too tight?” Udayana answered the strings will break and again there will be no music.

“Remember this about your spiritual practices too,” said Buddha before he turned around and walked away.


Krishna stresses the middle path because of his deep insight into the human mind. Desire for pleasure is natural and universal. The search for pleasure is one of the many forms the search for one’s true nature, ananda, takes. The search would end only when we have experienced the bliss that we experience in samadhi. That is why Krishna says “When you deny yourself objects of pleasure, only the objects leave you but not your longing for them. Longing leaves you only when you see the supreme.”

Awakened living, then, is the path. Do not be a slave to objects of pleasure. We become slaves to objects of pleasure only when we live unconsciously. It is like our becoming slaves to anger – that happens only when we live unconsciously, when we let our instincts and impulses to take over us, when we react to situations mechanically rather than respond to them consciously. When someone tells us something insulting, we flare up in anger and explode if our reactions are unconscious. But if we take time, consider our reactions and then respond, we will not be slaves to the situation.

A very useful thing that is easy to practice is the five second delay technique. Consciously create a five second gap between what someone tells you and your response to it. In those five seconds, form a conscious response to what he has said and then speak. This way what you do will not be like a knee jerk reaction. Also, the speaker will feel you are listening to him carefully, giving him your full attention and then responding. He will feel respected and your interpersonal relations will improve.

You are in a shopping mall and tempted by a particular dress which you really have no need for and have no use for. The unconscious reaction is to go ahead and buy it. But if you take a few seconds and think if you really need it, if you have any use for it, you may be able to resist the temptation to buy it.

The Shiva Sutras from Kashmir Shaivism is one of the most advanced texts of spirituality in the world. One of the sutras tells us to be conscious in our waking, dream and sleep. Even if that is an instruction meant only for the most advanced practitioners, we can all be continuously conscious of whatever we do in our waking. When you talk to someone, be conscious of what you say. When you take a walk, be conscious of your walk. When you drink a cup of coffee, be conscious of it. Be conscious of whatever you do and whatever is happening to you. This is called mindfulness, practiced by millions of people across the world every day to their great benefit. You can practice it in your office, at home, in the market, everywhere and that will transform your life.

This conscious living is what Krishna asks us to do when he says “His wisdom is steady whose senses are under his control.”

Just as driving a car does not mean keeping the break pressed all the time, having the senses under control does not mean not using them at all. Instead, what is meant is using them consciously, mindfully. You step on the break when needed, you take your foot off the break when needed. Exactly in the same way, a master of the senses uses them as needed. He commands them, they do not dictate their terms to him. He is not a slave to his eyes or ears, he is not a slave to his sense of smell or to his sense of taste.

Try to live consciously all through the day. And spend a few minutes every day deliberately sitting and practicing mindfulness. During the practice, sit straight and relaxed, with your backbone erect but not tense, aware of your body, aware of your breath and aware of the thoughts in your mind. Do this at a fixed time every day, at a fixed place. This sitting down will be helpful in itself and will also help us in remaining mindful the rest of the day during the different things we do.

Yoga has a practice called pratyahara. It is one of the eight practices of yoga and is done as preparatory to meditation along with dharana. In this practice you withdraw your senses one by one from their objects and focus your entire attention on one thing in you – like your breath, or an image in your mind or something like that.

Control over the senses is important for all, whether you are practicing spirituality or not. One of the names of Krishna is Hrishikesha, meaning master of the senses. One who is a slave to his senses makes no achievements in his life. Mastery over the senses is an important requirement for achievement in any field. A student needs it, an executive needs it, a sportsman needs it, a dancer needs it, a painter needs it, an actor needs it, a model needs it, a singer needs it.

A slave to the senses dissipates his energy and reaches nowhere like a river that tries to flow in ten different directions at the same time. One of the secrets of achievement is mastery over the senses. And the senses are powerful, their pull is powerful, as Krishna says, so mindfulness has to be a constant practice.

With mindfulness you have a calm mind and a calm mind leads to inner stillness and awakening. You become a sthitaprajna.

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More by :  Satya Chaitanya

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