The Charioteer and his horses

The words denial, austerity and renunciation are all about giving up all worldly pleasures.

You may have noticed that my stories speak of enjoying the gifts of life. They do not encourage denial*, although for myself, I chose a life of austerity*, first as a young man and again later when my wife had died. In my country we have a tradition of renunciation* for those who wish to know God. However, it is well understood that ordinary people, who are not going to become spiritual teachers, have a place for God in their lives. Indeed they too are part of God in exactly the same way as the holy man, the sanyasin or the Sadhu. They are certainly not to be condemned for choosing a worldly life. Theirs is the more normal and natural choice. The question arises then, as someone who has not decided to renounce or give up everything worldly, ‘What should my attitude be towards the pleasures, gifts and talents in and of my life?’

In one of the Upanishads, the Katha Upanishad there is a story that goes like this:

A Lord is in his chariot. The question is, does he have control of his horses, or are they badly trained or wild? Is he a good horseman or a bad one? If he has trained his horses well he will reach his goal. If he has not he will be pulled hither and thither, the horses ever seeking greener pastures.

This is a parable to show us what we human beings are like. The Lord is the Self, or the person, the chariot is his body. The five horses are the five senses. The reins are the mind that controls the senses. If the mind is disciplined, the senses are under control and the self reaches his desired destination. An undisciplined approach results in these wild horses leading the man to seek to gratify or please his senses all the time. He wants to smell, touch, taste, see and hear beautiful things as much as possible and he finds he is out of control.

We have our senses in order to appreciate our surroundings and to help us to survive in the environment. They do a very good job. With regard to survival, the smell of burning immediately causes alarm bells to ring in our minds. With regard to enjoying our world, the joy of seeing and smelling a beautiful rose is well worth experiencing. The pleasure of eating a carefully prepared meal is well worth waiting for. The delight of feeling a lover’s touch, to see her face, to smell her perfume, to taste her lips is quite exquisite. The problem lies in what occurs when we are constantly thinking about gratifying our senses to the exclusion of almost everything else. This is a very common state of mind in many people. They are never satisfied. No sooner have they pleased themselves in one way than they are looking to gratify themselves in an other way. Their horses are wild; the charioteer is not in control of the chariot, which lurches this way and that chasing after experiences of the senses.

The soul is bewildered, something is missing from his life and he does not understand what it is. He begins to wonder if he should give up everything and become a holy man or a monk. These desires are driving him crazy or making him sick. There is nothing deep or substantial about his life, which is being lived on the surface of things. Finally his chariot breaks down and his body becomes ill. There are, of course, other reasons for a body becoming ill, but sense gratification is a very common one. People become diabetic, or get liver disease or lung cancer or a multitude of other complaints. Only then are they forced to take stock of the situation.

This is a sad state of affairs. If only they had applied some moderation. If only they had shown some consideration of their poor chariot. The disciplined charioteer understands that his horses need to be controlled. Sometimes they may be allowed to have full rein, but not every day, and not all the time because they will soon run out of energy. After the race, the resting period, the quiet time, abstinence, reflection, the building of strength for other purposes are needed. These other purposes will include one’s dharma, or one’s duty in life. Duty can be towards oneself and is certainly towards other people as well. When we are constantly running a wild chariot race of self-gratification, how can we be thinking about the needs of others in our life? We may have parents, brothers, sisters, a partner, and friends, all of whom are important to us and who need our time and attention, just as we need theirs at times. A disciplined person has enough time for himself and enough time for other people in his life.