On self-mastery: Fight the archer, not the arrow
jaḍās tapobhiḥ śamayanti dehaṁ budhā manaś cāpi vikāra-hetum
śvā muktam astraṁ daśatīti kopāt kṣeptāram uddiśya hinasti siṁhaḥ
jaḍāḥ — fools; tapobhiḥ — through austerities; śamayanti — try to pacify; deham — the body and senses; budhāḥ — the intelligent; manaḥ — the mind; ca — and; api — also; vikāra-hetum — the original cause; śvā — dog; muktam — thrown; astram — arrow; daśati — bites; iti — thus; kopāt — out of anger; kṣeptāram — hunter; uddiśya — tracing out; hinasti — kills; siṁhaḥ — lion;
“Fools try to pacify the senses by subjecting the body to austerity, but the wise focus on dealing with the mind, which is the source of desire and distress. Dogs angrily bite the arrow that has been hurled at them, but lions search out the arrow’s source, the hunter, and finish him off.” (Subhāṣita-ratna-bhāṇḍāgāra, Vicāraḥ, Verse 238)
This Subhashita illustrates the futility of seeking self-mastery solely through sense mastery. It uses artistic license to represent someone foolish through a dog and someone intelligent through a lion. A foolish animal may bite the arrow that has pierced it, imagining that it is thus getting back at whatever is hurting it. But a wiser animal searches for and deals with the source of the arrow, the hunter.
Our lower desires are like arrows that pierce our consciousness. By inducing within us a tormenting sense of deprivation, they goad us towards indulgence. Frequently, we give in to those desires, not so much to get pleasure as to get relief from torment.
If we become wiser, we recognize that indulgence doesn’t mitigate the torment but aggravates it. Indulgence reinforces the desire, which then goads us with greater intensity. By our indulgence, we unwittingly sharpen the arrow that is then used to torment us further.
When we understand the folly of indulgence, we strive for resistance, for saying no to desire. However, if we are not discerning, we presume the senses to be the source of desire and try to starve them through rigid self-abnegation. Some world-rejecting paths take this presumption to extreme degrees. Seekers on those paths sometimes become masochists – they whiplash their bodies, hoping to thereby kill the desires of the flesh. Such self-torment may weaken desire temporarily, but can’t eliminate it permanently. Why? Because the body is not the source of desire; it is merely the channel for desire. Srimad-Bhagavatam (6.1.13-14) compares such self-abnegation to the burning of weeds – as the roots remain underground and unharmed, the weeds re-appear in due course of time. Similarly, the desire that seems to have disappeared during self-abnegation re-appears, sooner or later. As masochistic self-abnegation entails self-inflicted misery, it can be compared to a dog’s biting the arrow that has pierced it.
Wiser people seek to know the source of the arrow of desire. Significantly, this Subhashita indicates that the shooter of the arrow is the mind, not the sense object we desire. Consider alcoholics, for example. The desire for alcohol doesn’t come from the alcohol bottle; after all, seeing it doesn’t induce desire in non-alcoholics. Alcoholics feel desirous on seeing it because the desire is already present in their own mind – the bottle merely triggers that desire. The bottle is not the source of the desire; the mind is.
That the senses are not the source of desire doesn’t mean that controlling them is unimportant. Just as alcoholics need to stay away as much as possible from stimuli that trigger their desire for alcohol, we too need to avoid as much as possible those sensory stimuli that trigger desire within us. Sense control is important, essential even. The mistake is to consider sense control as the sole solution, and tormenting the body as the way to sense control is a blunder.
Just as a lion focuses on getting rid of the hunter who is shooting the arrow, we need to focus on getting rid of the mind, or more specifically, the lower desires present in the mind. The best way to get rid of those desires is to crowd them out by filling our consciousness with something higher, something much more meaningful, something far more fulfilling. The highest, most meaningful and most fulfilling object is the supreme spiritual reality, God, Krishna, who is the reservoir of unlimited happiness.
Bhakti-yoga enables us to connect with Krishna not just through contemplation, but also through practical engagements of the senses such as chanting, honoring sanctified food and taking darshan of the Deities.
When we diligently practice bhakti-yoga, focusing on saying yes to Krishna through service and remembrance, we gradually get a profound inner fulfillment that enables us to say no to sensuality automatically, firmly and permanently.