This question arose when studying chapter three of Bhagavad Gītā in our online course, in reference to text 41.
Question: Why is it easiest or most efficient to correct selfishness through disciplining the senses FIRST, as opposed to the intellect or emotions? Intuitively, that seems backwards to me since everything flows from the mind.
My Reply: I agree it is backwards in a sense. And also seems to be directly at odds with something Krishna brought up at the beginning of the chapter.
At the beginning of the chapter (3.7) says, yas tv indriyāṇi manasā niyamyārabhate ’rjuna (“To control the senses you must begin by controlling the mind.”) At the end of the chapter (3.41) however, he says, tasmāt tvam indriyāṇy ādau niyamya bharatarṣabha (“[To reclaim control of your heart and mind] begin by controlling the senses”)
However, this contradiction arises only from an incomplete reading of 3.7. The complete text says yas tv indriyāṇi manasā niyamyārabhate ’rjuna (“To control the senses you must begin by controlling the mind.”), and the second half of the text says, karmendriyaiḥ karma-yogam asaktaḥ sa viśiṣyate (“The best way to control the mind, however, is to use the active senses for responsible, un-selfish work.”)
So, the first half of the 7th text admits that, as you noted, volition flows from the mind into the actions of the body, and therefore a self-disciplined mind will automatically result in self-disiplined body, senses, and actions. However, the means to transform the mind from undisciplined to self-disciplined is to regulate its freedom to flow into the body. The mind’s freedom to flow its desires into our actions meets resistance by our effort to discipline our actions, and this resistance (as in any exercise) is what causes things to change in us.
If done improperly, the desires of the mind become pent-up and soon burst through the attempts at restriction. This happens when the restriction is too strict, sudden and unrealistic. It’s like a person who suddenly takes to working out after being completely lazy, follows a very strict program, and gets a heart attack or at least wrecks all their muscles.
The proper way to do it is to let enough selfish energy through, releasing some of the “steam” in the mind, while also holding some back. This regulated resistance strengthens the “discipline muscles.” We gradually increase the force of the regulation.
The person Krishna described at the beginning of Chapter Three – the mithyācarī “pretender” – is a person who leaps into sudden and unrealistically strict disciplines. The mental energy of selfishness has not subsided or been subdued, and it simply builds up in frustration behind the ostentatious attempts to damn it up. Krishna denounces this type of “renunciation” as a fraud.
The person Krishna advises Arjun to become, at the end of Chapter Three – the karma-yogī – gradually drains the selfish energy from the desires of the mind by gradually advancing their discipline and restriction, replacing selfish deeds more and more thoroughly with self-less equivalents that serve others far more primarily than they serve oneself.
Why not just go directly to work on the mind’s desires? Because it is simply too mysterious, subtle and slippery for a common person like you or I to face in a one-on-one battle. We would never be able to win and bring that foe under our control. Therefore Krishna’s plan of attack at the end of Chapter Three is to start with easier targets, and from there advance into the enemy’s deeper strongholds. Our actions are the most tangible, practical, and visible parts of our personality, so this is the easiest target of attack for we who want to gain mastery of the more mysterious, deep aspects of our self.
Vraja Kishor das