A History of Indian Philosophy Volume 2

by Surendranath Dasgupta | 1932 | 241,887 words | ISBN-13: 9788120804081

This page describes the philosophy of sense-control in the gita: a concept having historical value dating from ancient India. This is the seventh part in the series called the “the philosophy of the bhagavad-gita”, originally composed by Surendranath Dasgupta in the early 20th century.

Part 7 - Sense-control in the Gītā

The uncontrollability of the senses was realized in the Kafha Upaniṣad , where the senses are compared with horses. The Gītā says that, when the mind is led on by fleeting sense-attractions, the man loses all his wisdom, just as a boat swings to and fro in deep waters in a strong gale. Even in the case of the wise man, in spite of his efforts to keep himself steady, the troubled senses might lead the mind astray. By continually brooding over sense-objects one becomes attached to them; out of such attachments there arise desires, out of desires there arises anger, out of anger blindness of passions, through such blindness there is lapse of memory, by such lapse of memory a man’s intelligence is destroyed, and as a result of that he himself is destroyed[1]. Man is naturally inclined towards the path of evil, and in spite of his efforts to restrain himself he tends towards the downward path. Each particular sense has its own specific attachments and antipathies, and attachment (rāga) and antipathy are the two enemies. The Gītā again and again proclaims the evil effects of desires and attachments (kāma), anger (krodha) and greed (lobha) as the three gates of Hell, being that which veils wisdom as smoke veils fire, as impurities sully a mirror or as the foetus is covered by the womb[2]. Arjuna is made to refer to Kṛṣṇa the difficulty of controlling the senses. Thus he says,

“My mind, O Kṛṣṇa, is violent, troubled and changeful; it is as difficult to control it as it is to control the winds[3].”

True yoga can never be attained unless and until the senses are controlled.

The Pāli work Dhamma-pada is also filled with similar ideas regarding the control of attachments and anger. Thus it says,

“He has abused me, beaten me, worsted me, robbed me—those who dwell not upon such thoughts are freed from hate. Never does hatred cease by hating, but hatred ceases by love; this is the ancient law....

As the wind brings down a weak tree, so Māra overwhelms him who lives looking for pleasures, has his senses uncontrolled, or is immoderate in his food, slothful and effeminate....

As rain breaks through an ill-thatched house, so passion will break through an undisciplined mind[4].”

Again, speaking of mind, it says,

“As an arrow-maker levels his arrow, so a wise man levels his trembling, unsteady mind, which it is difficult to guard and hold back....

Let the wise man guard his mind, incomprehensible, subtle, capricious though it is. Blessed is the guarded mind[5].”


“Not nakedness, nor matted hair, not dirt, nor fastings, not lying on earth, nor ashes, nor ascetic postures, none of these things purify a man who is not free from desires[6].”


“From attachment (piyato) comes grief, from attachment comes fear; he who is free from attachment knows neither grief nor fear.

From affection (pemato) come grief and fear. He who is free from affection knows neither grief nor fear.

From lust (rati) come grief and fear. He who is free from affection knows neither grief nor fear.

From lust (kāma) come grief and fear. He who is free from lust knows neither grief nor fear.

From desire (taṇhā) come grief and fear. He who is free from desire knows neither grief nor fear[7].”

It is clear from the above that both the Gītā and the Dhamma-pada praise sense-control and consider desires, attachments, anger and grief as great enemies. But the treatment of the Gītā differs from that of the Dhamma-pada in this, that, while in the Dhamma-pada there is a course of separate lessons or moral instructions on diverse subjects, the Gītā deals with sense-control as a means to the attainment of peace, contentment and desirelessness, which enables a man to dedicate all his actions to God and follow the conventional courses of duties without looking for anything in them for himself. The Gītā knows that the senses, mind and intellect are the seats of all attachments and antipathies, and that it is through the senses and the mind that these can stupefy a man and make his knowledge blind[8].

All the sense-affections of cold and heat, pleasure and sorrow, are mere changes of our sensibility, are mere touches of feeling which are transitory and should therefore be quietly borne[9]. It is only by controlling the senses that the demon of desire, which distorts all ordinary and philosophic knowledge, can be destroyed. But it is very hard to stifle this demon of desire, which always appears in new forms. It is only when a man can realize within himself the great being which transcends our intellect that he can control his lower self with his higher self and uproot his desires. The self is its own friend as well as its own foe, and one should always try to uplift oneself and not allow oneself to sink down. The chief aim of all sense-control is to make a man’s thoughts steady, so that he can link himself up in communion with God[10].

The senses in the Gītā are regarded as drawing the mind along with them. The senses are continually changing and fleeting, and they make the mind also changeful and fleeting; and, as a result of that, the mind, like a boat at sea before a strong wind, is driven to and fro, and steadiness of thought and wisdom (prajñā) are destroyed. The word prajñā is used in the Gītā in the sense of thought or wisdom or mental inclinations in general. It is used in a more or less similar sense in the Bṛhad-āraṇyaka Upaniṣad, iv. 4. 21, and in a somewhat different sense in the Māṇḍūkya Upaniṣad , 7. But the sense in which Patañjali uses the word is entirely different from that in which it is used in the Gītā or the Upaniṣads. Patañjali uses the word in the technical sense of a specific type of mystical cognition arising out of the steady fixing of the mind on an object, and speaks of seven stages of such prajñā corresponding to the stages of yoga ascension.

Prajñā in the Gītā means, as has just been said, thought or mental inclination. It does not mean jñāna, or ordinary cognition, or vijñāna as higher wisdom; it means knowledge in its volitional aspect. It is not the kriyākhya-jñāna , as moral discipline of yama, niyama, etc., of the Pañca-rātra work Jayākhya-saṃhitā. It means an intellectual outlook, as integrally connected with, and determining, the mental bent or inclination. When the mind follows the mad dance of the senses after their objects, the intellectual background of the mind determining its direction, the prajñā is also upset. Unless the prajñā is fixed, the mind cannot proceed undisturbed in its prescribed fixed course.

So the central object of controlling the senses is the securing of the steadiness of this prajñā (vaśe hi yasyendriyāṇi tasya prajñā pratiṣṭhitā —II. 57). Prajñā and dhī are two words which seem to be in the Gītā synonymous, and they both mean mental inclination. This mental inclination probably involves both an intellectual outlook, and a corresponding volitional tendency. Sense-control makes this prajñā steady, and the Gītā abounds in praise of the sthita-prājña and sthita-dhl, i.e. of one who has mental inclination or thoughts fixed and steady[11].

Sense-attach-ments are formed by continual association with sense-objects, and attachment begets desire, desire begets anger, and so on. Thus all the vices spring from sense-attachments. And the person who indulges in sense-gratifications is rushed along by the passions. So, just as a tortoise collects within itself all its limbs, so the person who restrains his senses from the sense-objects has his mind steady and fixed. The direct result of sense-control is thus steadiness of will, and of mental inclinations or mind (prajñā). The person who has his prajñā fixed is not troubled in sorrows and is not eager to gain pleasures, he has no attachment, no fear and no anger[12]. He is indifferent in prosperity and in adversity and neither desires anything nor shuns anything[13]. He alone can obtain peace who, like the sea receiving all the rivers in it, absorbs all his desires within himself; not so the man who is always busy in satisfying his desires.

The man who has given up all his desires and is unattached to anything is not bound to anything, has no vanity and attains true peace. When a man can purge his mind of attachments and antipathies and can take to sense-objects after purifying his senses and keeping them in full control, he attains contentment (prasāda). When such contentment is attained, all sorrows vanish and his mind becomes fixed (buddhiḥ paryavati-ṣṭhate)[14]. Thus sense-control, on the one hand, makes the mind unruffled, fixed, at peace with itself and filled with contentment, and on the other hand, by making the mind steady and fixed, it makes communion with God possible. Sense-control is the indispensable precondition of communion with God; when once this has been attained, it is possible to link oneself with God by continued efforts[15]. Thus sense-control, by producing steadiness of the will and thought, results in contentment and peace on the one hand, and on the other makes the mind fit for entering into communion with God.

One thing that strikes us in reading the Gītā is that the object of sense-control in the Gītā is not the attainment of a state of emancipated oneness or the absolute cessation of all mental processes, but the more intelligible and common-sense ideal of the attainment of steadiness of mind, contentment and the power of entering into touch with God. This view of the object of selfcontrol is therefore entirely different from that praised in the philosophic systems of Patañjali and others. The Gītā wants us to control our senses and mind and to approach sense-objects with such a controlled mind and senses, because it is by this means alone that we can perform our duties with a peaceful and contented mind and turn to God with a clean and unruffled heart[16]. The main emphasis of this sense-control is not on the mere external control of volitional activities and the control of motor propensities in accordance with the direction of passions and appetites, but on the inner control of the mind behind these active senses.

When a person controls only his physical activities, and yet continues to brood over the attractions of sense, he is in reality false in his conduct (mithyācāra). Real self-control does not mean only the cessation of the external operations of the senses, but also the control of the mind. Not only should a man cease from committing actions out of greed and desire for sense-gratification, but his mind should be absolutely clean, absolutely clear of all impurities of sense-desires. Mere suspension of physical action without a corresponding control of mind and cessation from harbouring passions and desires is a vicious course[17].

Footnotes and references:


Gītā, 11. 60, 62, 63.


Ibid. iii. 34, 37-39; xvi. 21.


vi. 34.


Dḥamma-pada (Poona, 1923), 1. 4, 5, 7, 13.


Ibid. in. 36, 38.


Ibid. x. 141.


Dḥatnma-pada, xvi. 212-216.


Gita, 111. 40.


Ibid. 11. 14.


Ibid. 11. 61; 111. 41, 43; vi. s, 6.


ii- 54-56.


Gītā, ii. 56.


Ibid. 11. 57.


Ibid. 11. 65; see also 11. 58, 64, 68, 70, 71.


Ibid. vi. 36.


rāga-dveṣa-vimuktais tu viṣayān indriyaiś caran
ātma-vaśyair vidḥeyātmā prasādam adhigaccḥati.
11. 64.


Cf . Dhamma-pada, i. 2. All phenomena have mind as their precursor, are dependent upon mind and are made up of mind. If a man speaks or acts with a pure mind, happiness accompanies him, just as a shadow follows a man incessantly.

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