Hold Your Horses, Just Try Deconstruction

K S Ram

He could resist almost anything except temptation, said Oscar Wilde. Another wit thought the best way to deal with temptation is to submit to it! In humour or in seriousness, ways to tackle temptation have engaged all kinds of minds down the ages. Didn’t Adam and Eve get banished from the Garden of Eden because of Eve’s failure to resist temptation? Jesus Christ had to wrestle with it. M K Gandhi’s experiments with temptation stretched to the very last days of his life. Before we discuss Adi Shankaracharya’s approach in this regard, it would be pertinent to address a logical question: Why at all should one try to resist temptation? What is wrong in just being ‘natural’ and surrendering to it when temptation beckons? Isn’t an attempt to resist temptation an attempt to counter nature?

It might be undesirable to manipulate nature.However,nature has two levels: gross and subtle. Life is a process of evolution from the gross to the subtle. You may, if you choose, live only at the gross level, or you may rise to experience higher levels. At the gross level you cannot appreciate the prospect of the subtle level, but at the subtle level you can have the best of both levels. Evolution implies acquiring better control, which affords fuller scope to exercise choice. The classic example often cited is that of a charioteer having good control over his horses.

Pratyahaara is the technical term for a person acquiring the ability to steer his senses at will, towards the objects of senses or away from them. This comes through regular mental exercise. Pratyahaara enables a fuller life, where the physical and the spiritual are integrated into a positive whole. Temptation, on the other hand, does the opposite of pratyahaara. If pratyahaara can be visualised as the exercise that takes you steadily up, temptation is the slippery condition where you rise one step and slide back. Whereas pratyahaara opens new prospects for you, temptation always bogs you down. You are thus doomed to a life woefully under-lived. Hence the emphasis in all religions to overcome temptation when faced with it. This is easier said than done. Different teachers have therefore mooted different ways towards this end.

Adi Shankaracharya has a novel approach. This may be termed as the deconstruction technique. In Bhaja Govindam, he tells young pupils: “At sight of a maiden’s buxom bust and the comely navel zone, do not fly into beguiling urgencies. Instead, ponder over it (vichintayam) repeatedly (vaaram vaaram) that these are ‘but forms of flesh and fat’ (etan maams’avasa-adi vikaram)”.

The pupil is in effect advised to deconstruct the object of temptation. The very process, done again and again (vaaram-vaaram) should help him beat temptation to keep his hot horses under control. The idea is not to suppress every desire but rather to overcome fitful desire through an adjustment of perception. The idea is to hold the strings in your hand in the face of temptation.

Deconstruction should not be mistaken for cynicism. Deconstruction is a technique to be employed whenever and wherever necessary. In the above example, for instance, the idea is not to insult the female form. The idea is to tide over one’s own fit of passion (moh’avesha) when it threatens to unbalance the mind.

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