The Mind: Good Servant, Bad Master
Dr R Neerunjun Gopee
We have all heard the saying that money is a good servant but a bad master. While discussing with a friend recently – an ex-teacher – he said that this could be said of the mind too. He went on to explain that we must obtain mastery over our mind, and that alone would allow us to make the right choices so as to live our lives properly.
That is what he had always done during his career as he imparted not only knowledge to but education for what he calls ‘character-building’ in his pupils. He did this by stressing the need for them to gain mastery of themselves through mastery of the mind. One cannot fault this simple truism.
Last week we celebrated the birth anniversary of Bhagavan Shri Krishna – Krishna Janmashtami, and on Friday comes Ganesha Chaturthi. Both Krishna and Ganesha are associated with symbolisms related to the mind, the one through the body-chariot analogy and the other through having as ‘vehicle’ the mouse. In Hinduism, all symbolisms are based on natural characteristics and phenomena, with examples drawn from daily life and the known environment for easy understanding.
There is no more powerful symbol than the sun, savitur, bestower of life and sustainer of the whole of existence, without which we would not be. Everyday we are reminded of this, if we care to be present to welcome the rising sun or to see it setting, both sights beyond compare, and moments that hush us into the silence of contemplation and communion with nature, with ourselves in fact, as we watch in awe of the unfolding spectacle.
I was witness to such a wondrous sight a couple of days ago, when the eastern skies gradually lit up with a golden orange hue in the cool air of the dawn, wetted by the rain that had passed by and left its freshness to enter our beings. The shining orb made its appearance on the horizon, even as the frilled edges of the clouds lit up and splashes of light orange brushed, paint-like, their way into the fading dark grey masses. The earth was being revealed by the spreading light of the sun, dispelling the darkness of the night and replacing the hidden, unknown with the known shapes, forms and colours. Hills, trees and shrubs, houses and other buildings came into view, a medley of things both live and inert but all adding to make up that of which we are part and participant. Kruger Park in South Africa and Jim Corbett Park in India come to mind, separated by years of distance…
At the birth of the day in both parks light had, instantaneously, swept darkness away. In much the same way, the light of knowledge dispels the darkness of ignorance – Tamasomajyotir gamaya… — and illumines our lives, bringing us the joy of living. Our rishis, the sages who at the beginning of human times tried to understand the human being, came to appreciate that the key to such understanding was gaining knowledge of both the external world and the inner world of oneself – also referred to as the Self — and that the instrument for this purpose was the mind. They came to the conclusion that it had four interrelated aspects in its functioning. These were: manasa: thinking; citta: memory; ahankar: ego also known as the sense of self or identification with the body; and buddhi: ‘intellect’ is the closest approximation (though it is actually somewhat more than mere intellect in its usual sense, but we will not go further into this in this article).
Briefly, the faculty of manasa refers to the collection and processing of data that come to the brain from the five senses of sight, smell, taste, touch and hearing. Based on analysis of such data there is decision-making, which is the function of the intellect. The added dimension of buddhi leads to wise decision-making, which is clearly based not merely on sensory data but factors in as well other inputs based on one’s experience and maturity, intention and vision amongst others. Such balanced decision-making would clearly lead us to make the right choices for living, and hence we speak of balanced mind, as opposed to a mind which is constantly at the mercy of the senses and thus agitated. In this state there is the likelihood of making wrong decisions which would then derail us.
Hence the body-chariot analogy of the Bhagavad Gita, the 700 verses of which are found in the Mahabharata, the epic narrative of the war between the Pandava and Kaurava clans, the struggle being that between righteousness (dharma) and unrightneousness (adharma). Bhagavan Shri Krishna is Arjuna’s charioteer, and as Arjuna gets confused about the right course of action, Krishna Bhagavan discourses on the issues, the context, the values and concepts, and the principles upon which to base our actions, and helps Arjuna to launch into the battle to establish dharma.
In the words of Swami Dayananda Saraswati, Spririual Head of the Arsha Vidya Grukulam in Coimbatore, South India, ‘Your body is likened to a chariot, your senses are the horses, the mind is the reins, and your intellect, buddhi, is the driver. You are the one who is seated in the chariot; in other words, you are the Swami, the master. If your buddhi is loose, if your understanding is not very clear, you can end up anywhere because your chariot, your physical body, will not take you to the destination. Where you take the driver depends on the driver and you. The driver, buddhi, educates you the swami. You are as good as your driver. Imagine if he is uneducated and drunk! On the other hand, if he is educated, sober, informed, he can take you anywhere you want to go.’
What we do with or what happens to our body, therefore, depends entirely on the decisions we make with our buddhi. If it is calm and balanced, it will take the correct decisions and our body is unlikely to be harmed. If it is troubled, agitated – as Arjuna’s was before he was guided by Krishna Bhagavan – then the body is at risk of harm. We have, therefore, through regular study and practice of the teachings in the scriptures, amongst others the Bhagavad Gita, to develop our buddhi – and this is an ongoing, lifelong process.
Likewise, the mouse at the feet of Ganesha represents the restless mind, which darts from one thought to the other – even when we sleep! Just as the mouse never stays quiet, so does the mind. And as the mouse gnaws away at things, so is the mind gnawed by its constant preoccupation with the messages it gets from the senses about the tempting things lying out there, and thus builds up desires which can overwhelm. Ganesha by trying to control the mouse symbolizes the control that we must exercise on our desires, restraining them from becoming excessive and thus harmful. This is the core message of Ganesha Chaturthi, and one that we must put into practice if we wish our lives to be peaceful and tranquil,
Aum Ganeshaya Namah…