Everyone talks of freedom. Perhaps there is no word more often on the lips of the leaders and would-be leaders of mankind. And even if those who are shouting it may not always be quite sure what they are shouting for, there is a real urge being expressed by them towards something which, however dimly apprehended, seems infinitely worth-while. But we should ask ourselves as rational men—freedom from what? Independence of what? It is easy to get a rough idea of what we mean.
No-one likes to be dominated, still less to be tyrannised over; no sane man prefers imprisonment to liberty. But tyranny comes in many forms and it often omits to declare itself openly to its victims! Civilisation has freed man to a great extent from the tyranny of Nature and its blind forces, and democracy has freed at least a part of mankind from the tyranny, not only of the physical environment, but of powerful, repressive and unrepresentative governments and from that subtler tyranny which tries to limit the individual’s freedom to think and speak his mind. But it has still not satisfied his inner unquenchable hunger for freedom.
We were confidently told by many latter-day pundits— and some of them are still saying it—that with the lifting of all social taboos and restrictions, men would be happy and carefree. When children are never told ‘not to’ and everyone is free to express his every whim, life will be like one long summer afternoon in the Elysian fields, the story went. The simple-minded souls who believe this fable soon discover that it is much less idyllic when other people leave fitter about or park outside their front door, or run off with their wife or seduce their daughter, and that life soon becomes intolerable under this system, and we are back at imposing social restrictions again, whether voluntarily or involuntarily accepted.
Evidently then, political freedom or social freedom is not the whole answer. The spiritual teachers too speak of freedom, but they tell us something quite different, and at first it does not seem at all clear what they could possibly be talking about.
What on earth did Christ mean, for instance, when he said: “Know ye the Truth and the Truth shall make you free”?
How can knowledge free one? Surely it can only tell a man where he stands, and if he is bound, he is not free.
Then there is that extraordinary statement in the Book of Common Prayer, when it speaks of service making a man free.
“O God, whose service is perfect freedom”. Now surely that is the most far-fetched statement, on the face of it, that one could possibly ask anyone to swallow.
How can becoming a servant of anything or anyone, still less of what is generally regarded nowadays as an outworn superstition, the Deity, confer freedom on a man?
It is something to have got as far as asking these questions, for, once asked, there is always a chance of answering them.
In outline, of course, the answer is (like all great truths) surprisingly simple. It is that man has to escape fundamentally and finally from the bondage of his own lower mind and this he can only do by invoking the aid of the spiritual element within his own personality. This is the central message of the Gita and of Yoga, but in this neither this classic nor this path are unique. You will find the same teaching in other quarters also. Indeed, I want to suggest to you that if we try and concentrate on essentials, we shall find a surprising unanimity, not only in the teachings of all the great spiritual traditions, but also among many of the philosophers, both ancient and modern—and that in many respects the consensus of what one might call “well-informed opinion” is surprisingly close to what we find in the Bhagavad Gita on this subject.
The first thing we have to determine is where the limitations to man’s freedom lie. Are they only outside him in the outer circumstances, or are they rather within his own personality?
We cannot do better than start with a real life situation, and one that perhaps uniquely poses this question in its most compelling and urgent form. What I am going to describe to you is not fiction. It is an accurate account of a very real scene.
A condemned man is awaiting his death in prison. He is innocent of any crime, but he is to die because he has ‘dangerous ideas’, ideas which are considered most inexpedient by the State. He has already had a long trial, with the inevitable result of all such trials where the verdict is predetermined before any witness has been called; and he has also had a long period bound in prison. This is not Eastern Europe in the twentieth century—though it might well be!— but Greece in the sixth century before Christ. And the condemned man is the philosopher Socrates, to whom, second only to Jesus of Nazareth, Western civilisation probably owes more than to any other single man.
As he awaits execution by judicial poisoning—in outer circumstances which are surely the very negation of freedom —his mind is undisturbed, so much so that he can engage without hurry or anxiety, in one of the greatest philosophical discussions of all time. The little group of friends who have come to the prison to visit him for the last time, are all feeling rather miserable and awkward, as Plato’s account tells us, and have not much heart for talking.
They do not want to touch on anything which might remind Socrates of his plight. But, gently and persuasively, he draws them into the argument and they discover that what they are debating is the nature of freedom itself and the immortality of the soul. And he gradually demonstrates to them that the real bondage of man is not in the outer circumstances, but in the mind itself, in the unpurified passions and prejudices, desires and hates, of man’s lower nature; that it is only by turning away from the stormy fife of sense-indulgence and passion and cultivating the love of reason and wisdom that man can free himself.
When we remember the outer circumstances in which these words were spoken, there can perhaps never have been a greater demonstration of inner freedom than the dialogue recorded by Plato in the Phaedo.
Bondage then is not necessarily an external imposition at all. It can be internal, a bondage imposed on man by his own mind.
Do you remember that when Christ spoke of the Truth being able to free man, they told him that they were already a free people and had never been in slavery to anyone?
And he replied: “Everyone that sins is a bond-slave to sin”.
Sin is not a fashionable word nowadays, and anyway it has the connotation of breaking somebody else’s laws, and since that somebody else is the Deity and may not exist anyway, there seems a reasonable chance of getting away with it.
But our teacher used to say: “Sin is not an offence against God, but a fresh bondage placed by the soul upon itself”.
And looked at in this light it seems a much less favourable proposition.
The Bhagavad Gita puts it more directly: “Desire, greedy and insatiable, covers wisdom, just as smoke envelopes and blots out the light of a fire, or as rust covers and obscures the surface of a metal mirror. Seated in the senses and the mind, it deludes the embodied soul, veiling wisdom. It forces man to commit sin, even though he is reluctant to do so, because it blinds him.”
Let us compare this with some words from a great contemporary thinker, who has no great sympathy with Yoga or mysticism:
“It is not the nature of most men to be happy in a prison, and the passions which shut us up in ourselves constitute one of the worst kinds of prisons. Among such passions, some of the commonest are fear, envy, the sense of sin, self-pity and self-admiration. In all these our desires are centred upon ourselves: there is no genuine interest in the outer world, but only a concern lest it should in some way injure us or fail to feed our ego”.
The words are Bertrand Russell’s. He goes on to ask: “What then can a man do who is unhappy because he is encased in self?”
His answer is that “the happy life is to an extraordinary extent the same as the good life”. Note the surprise with which it is reached”!
Russell also says that moral and intellectual courage, which are needed to live such a life, have been little studied, but that he believes that there is a technique by which they can be cultivated.
Some doctors are good at diagnosis but not all are equally good at treatment. They can tell you exactly what is wrong, but they are not much good at curing you. What they can do very accurately is to tell exactly how fast you are likely to go down-hill! But, strangely enough, the patient wants to be cured, not simply pigeon-holed.
The Bhagavad Gita is not like this type of doctor. It offers hope of a cure. It tells us that the delusive and dangerous part of the mind, which arises from the unpurified and unenlightened energy of man’s lower nature, can be transformed, and that the bondage to which it subjects the individual can be overcome by knowledge.
The lower mind, like Caliban in The Tempest is either a useful servant or a tyrannical despot. And there can be no real freedom for the man who allows himself to be subjugated by it. If you give it power, it will reveal its treacherous nature by threatening you as soon as you thwart it, just as Caliban, drunk on the stolen wine which the rogues Trinculo and Stephano had given him, tries to destroy Prospero. It was not for nothing that Spinoza spoke of ‘desire’ or ‘passion’ as ‘that in whose grip man is held powerless’.
What cure then does the Gita prescribe for this bondage of man to his unpurified mind?
A man can raise himself by himself, says the Gita. By the exercise of the faculties of the higher mind, he can free himself from the tyranny of the lower mind. And that freedom is achieved through knowledge—knowledge above all, of his own nature. This, indeed, is the whole topic of Adhyatma Yoga—the Yoga of Self-Knowledge. But this is itself, at first sight, a puzzling answer. For what does knowledge or wisdom mean? Is it just intellectual knowledge? Is reason the faculty which will finally guide man safely through to enlightenment?
This is a tremendously important question—perhaps the most important question that man has to face in the modem world. For in our world, we do reverence knowledge; we spend more and more on educating our children, and in innumerable ways—in the accessibility of books and libraries, in adult classes, in the provision of good television and broadcasting— twentieth century man has a chance to be more knowledgeable and better-informed than any previous generation of humanity.
And, by and large, he is much better informed. He knows more about what is going on and even about the past than ever before. Indeed, Professor Cherry was saying on television recently that we are seeing the beginning of a new Revolution more far-reaching than the Industrial Revolution, in which the development of modern methods of communication is leading to a vastly faster and wider dissemination of knowledge.
There is no doubt at all about how much time and energy we spend on educating the mind. Then why hasn’t this Age of scientific enlightenment worked out better than it has? Why is crime and anti-social behaviour increasing so alarmingly in a society where everyone has enough? Why are the ethical and spiritual values—even the humanitarian values—ignored and flouted to a great extent in the world at large?
The answer is simple, childishly simply. Because, though we educate the mind, we do not educate the feelings. Unless people have enlightened feelings it is no good expecting peace or social well-being. We shall have continuous conflict and friction and the clash of narrow self-interest.
Perhaps this is best illustrated in that symbol of modern technological achievement—the computer. A computer is the most logical machine in the world. Its powers of reasoning are logically impeccable and it is far faster and more efficient at what it does than the human brain. But it will work out with equal facility and complete indifference a programme for the most efficient use of the available poison gas chambers for the extermination of the aged and infirm or unwanted children, or the best way to distribute medical supplies to the under-developed countries. For the computer, there is absolutely no difference between these problems, except the incidental details and complexities of the calculations involved.
What is the moral of this undoubted and indubitable fact? That logic and reason are not enough. That intellectual ability, even the accumulation of intellectual knowledge are not enough. Incidentally, the computer is extremely good at accumulating information in its memory or store. It remembers exactly what it is told and everything that it is told perfectly, in a way that we must envy! In themselves, neither reasoning power nor massive knowledge of facts are adequate guides in life.
As Bertrand Russell says, there is a difference between knowledge and wisdom and wisdom has as much to do with enlightened feelings as with reason. Our values do matter in life; our ideals are vital to our own health and happiness.
If we think about it carefully, all our social ills arise from unenlightened feelings—crude selfishness, anger, lust; and we not only fail to teach ourselves to overcome them, we actually encourage these feelings by indulging in them. One does not need to have any puritanical spirit of repression in order to see that a lot of modem advertising and entertainment is wrong-headed. Far from helping man to reduce his desires or to overcome them, it encourages him to give them free rein and to have more.
It is no good going to the Marquis de Sade or to Casanova to educate our feelings. “Ah” some will say, “but can we not learn from them what to avoid?” Friends, this is nonsense. Why not avoid it in the first place? The argument is on a par with those sensational and selfrighteous exposures of vice that some of the more lurid papers offer their readers. We have so little time to fill our mind with the right thoughts. So why waste time filling it with the wrong ones?
One of the things which Yoga points out most clearly and definitely to man is that we overcome these wrong feelings, not by dwelling on them with disgust, nor by fighting with them, but by replacing them with something more worth-while.
We need enlightened feelings, clear-sighted feelings, not based on the myopic view of narrow individualism. The supposedly successful crook or dictator cannot be an adequate life-ideal. Let us take a real ideal, be it Christ or Socrates, Buddha or Shri Krishna, or even one of the great saints, and learn from them how to control and purify the mind through prayer and meditation.
The mind is the most delicate of our instruments and we have to know how to go about dealing with it—not using violence on it or fighting with it, but educating it.
The emotions are the raw material of life with which man can build, the energy out of which the soul can create something.
Yoga teaches, not outbursts of emotion, but the organisation of emotion. Then it becomes a great force. But man will only build wisely and successfully if he has vision. Unless we have vision our cry for ‘Freedom’ will be a mockery. Milton speaks of those “that cry for freedom in their senseless mood.
‘Licence’ they mean when they cry ‘Liberty’, For who loves that must first be wise and good”.
Therefore Yoga tells us that we need wisdom or clear vision, and in the light of that clear vision we have to choose an ideal and then to focus the emotions and the mind onto this well-determined goal.
We must determine our ideal under the light of reason, and then sustain it through thick and thin. It is no good having a mind which jumps like a monkey from one thing to another, we need to train our emotions and to focus them on a master- sentiment,—love of Truth or goodness, and to subordinate other likes and dislikes to this master-sentiment. This is one of the main themes of the Gita. We must have a resolute mind, established in wisdom.
But the spiritual teaching adds something more to this good secular ‘uncommon-sense’. Real freedom is only achieved when we can transcend the mind.
There is an element in man which is spiritual and it is untouched by the smoke of desires, even if it is hidden by it. Realise that element, act from that centre, and one is truly a freed man—this is the teaching.
Man’s lower self has ultimately to become a servant and instrument of this higher Self, hidden within his own being, and only in this service is perfect freedom. It is not, ultimately, a subservience to any outer authority, but a conscious realisation by the individual of the highest element in his own being. And it is achieved through the practice of Yoga.
By surrendering the mind to God, his own higher Self, man achieves sage-hood. Then, in the words of the Gita, he is “self-controlled and intent on the welfare of all beings . . . the sage who remains ever thus is verily liberated”.