There is an unspoken assumption that human nature is unchangeable6 min read

III.33 People act in conformity with their own nature – even the wise man;

Beings follow their nature: what can forcible restraint avail?

‘It’s only human nature’ is an excuse often made. It rests on the unspoken assumption that human nature is unchangeable – an eternally boiling spring of desire, anger and other passions, which can be held down for a time, but must then burst out with redoubled force, perhaps in concealed form.

The Gītā analysis is quite different. Human nature is the latent deposit of dynamic seeds laid down previously; they include impulses to balance, peace and goodwill to all. If these last are encouraged, the seed-bed changes, and the impulses from it become lucid, well directed and calm.

At the deepest level of all, approachable through yoga practice, there is a drive to be free from all restrictions. On the superficial levels, the restrictions are most immediately felt as anger, sex-desire, and greed:

XVI.21 Threefold is the hell-gate leading to self- destruction:

The three are pleasure-craving, wrath, and greed, and they must be given up.

They must be given up because they become compulsive, blindly repetitive in the one whom they possess, regardless of the circumstances. Anger, which first had an object, becomes free-ranging; the slightest check or surprise, almost anything, makes him angry. The man of desire no longer enjoys the object: he simply cannot do without it. The man of greed accumulates more and more things out of habit; he has forgotten why he wanted them in the first place.

Anger should be looked at first, because it most directly harms others. Moreover, today it is realized that it is possible to control anger, and even dispel it, by a conscious attempt to recognize the common humanity in the other party.

It is understood that tribal or clan enmities, though ‘natural’ and found everywhere, can be changed into something like a cultural or sporting rivalry which leads not to hate but friendship. We dimly realize today that there need not always be some urge to kill buried under precarious self-control. Many countries which now feel themselves a unity once consisted of bitterly warring tribes. Others have not yet succeeded in doing this, but at least it is known to be possible. It is not ruled out on the ground that ‘you cannot change human nature’.

Friends, or nurses, who have to subdue someone in delirium, or even fighting drunk, feel a flash of anger when punched in the face. But it vanishes as they recognize the noble human being behind the contorted features. That humanity is temporarily overcast, but it is there. Admittedly force has to be used, but it is minimum force, and used without hate.

The yogin looks through the events of the world. He tries to find out, in meditation, what his self as an individual is to do for the clearer and clearer manifestation of the great Self as universal. Very hostile circumstances are like tempests: he battles against them while they last, but does not waste energy hating them.

Physical pleasure has become a sort of ideal to many people. But it is a frustrating ideal because it is inherently very short, depending as it does on change. To illustrate the traditional Indian analysis, Dr Shastri told his pupils to observe how after the second mouthful, the pleasure in the food progressively lessens.

Regulation of pleasure is essential for its continuance. Chinese art teaches the lesson that space is an integral part of the picture: it is not simply a blank. Similarly restraint in enjoyment is not frustration, but an integral part of it. Without restraint, what began as pleasure becomes first mechanical and then joylessly compulsive.

The Gītā was given to Arjuna, a married man, and celibacy is not enjoined on the karma-yogin. But a rather strict control is essential, to preserve physical vigour and prevent mental enslavement and depression.

There is a view today that frequent sexual intercourse, regular or casual, is a prime necessity for health and personal fulfilment. It claims the support of Freud, but is a travesty of his view. (He held that all culture is based on repression and sublimation, and that the reality principle must control the pleasure principle.)

The idea is based on a myth, comparable to the medieval European myth of meat-eating. The nobles took four enormous meals daily, of strengthening meat, with occasional fish. Dairy products and vegetables were held to be positively weakening. We estimate today that the lower classes, if not actually starving, lived on a far healthier diet than the nobles; there is some evidence that they lived longer.

The myth that meat diet is essential for martial virtue is baseless. In the Japanese age of clan wars, conspicuous bravery, and strategy, were shown by the non-meat-eating generals and their armies up to 20,000 strong. (Compare the 15,000 English at Agincourt.)

Today, good observation and experiment have shown that good health requires very much less food in quantity, and little or even no meat.

When the unquestioned sex-myth is subjected to observation and experiment, it is likely that similar conclusions will be reached in regard to compulsive addiction.

There is another myth, again without foundation, that it is in this that man demonstrates manhood. But, as Dr Shastri remarked half- humorously, a wolf can do as much. Man, the biped, on this occasion becomes a quadruped. He demonstrates manhood in development of the higher faculties. Dr Shastri often cited Goethe as one of the high- water marks of Western civilization, and Goethe wrote:

Let man be noble,

for that alone sets him apart

from the animals . . .

Those who undertake a serious attempt to realize the Self have to be prepared to give up excitement, and develop the deeper pleasure of inner tranquillity and then vision.

‘Aren’t I allowed to enjoy my cup of tea?’

‘You don’t enjoy your cup of tea, because as you drink it, your head is boiling with hope of this and fear of that, and what you’re going to do, and what you might have done. When your mind is clear and calm, you’ll enjoy the cup of tea. And you’ll enjoy just as much when it’s not there.’

Greed is not rated highly nowadays as a theoretical ideal. But it is still very powerful in practice. Fundamentally it is based on a deep fear of something unknown; possessions are felt to be a protective wall. Some few things are needed for life in the world, but greed piles them up mindlessly When envy is a motive, greed is specially compulsive. As a Far Eastern proverb has it: ‘Envious people are always counting the money in others’ pockets.’

© Trevor Leggett