“It’s my life and I’ll do what I want.” It is the rebel mantra of the human species. Freedom is the alluring promise that teenagers have faked ID’s for, eligible bachelor and bachelorettes remain single for, and nations have fought and died for. It doesn’t matter if it’s chocolate or vanilla, what matters is that I’m free to choose. Why bother with restrictions? Life’s short, you got to get all you can, while you can. It doesn’t matter if it’s chocolate or vanilla, what matters is that I’m free to choose. Why bother with restrictions? Life’s short, you got to get all you can, while you can.
The sad irony is how little we actually have to do with our choices. The Bhagavad-gita gives an eyeopening account of the many voices behind the “I” that makes a choice and the powers that influence them. You’re walking down the street when the smell of freshly baked bread tantalizes your nostrils. You can almost picture the crusty outside and the soft, warm center drizzled with butter. The first voice is so quick its almost imperceptible,”That smells so good.” A second voice goes, “I’m hungry. I need to eat.” You even feel your mouth watering. “Now,” a third voice pipes up, “breakfast was only an hour ago. What about that low-carb diet you resolved to follow for the new year?” The second voice responds, urgent and more forceful, “Forget it. I want it and I want it now. Just one piece wouldn’t hurt.”Half an hour later you are exiting with a couple of loaves and a bag full of other “baddies” that you never knew you needed. Was this your freedom to choose? Well, Yes. But which part of you? The first voice belongs to our senses which act as receptacles for impulses that the world throws us.
It feeds the second voice, our mind, which is a reservoir of lifetimes of impressions and has control over our thoughts feelings and desires. Now, this would not be a problem if our minds gave us sane advice. But for an uninhibited mind, what looks good, tastes good, feels good or sounds good, must be good. Not necessarily true. Just look at the rates of child pornography, drug addiction, heart disease and teenage pregnancy. Not good! The third voice belongs to our intelligence. The Vedas does not limit intelligence to the regurgitation of facts but our ability to act on the knowledge of what is inherently good for us. A weak intelligence is swayed by our powerful minds which the Bhagavad-gita terms our “worst enemy” if uncontrolled.
Suddenly, the “It’s my life and I’ll do what I want,” motto becomes significantly reduced. Amidst the cacophony of voices with us, like a mild form of schizophrenia, how can we claim to choose freely? The more we think we are free, the more we become enslaved by our sensory dictates, bound in the bar-less prison of our own desires.
For this reason restriction is not juxtaposed to freedom. To truly be free, from our own minds and its vices, restrictions are helpful. And even more so for one who wishes to re-identify with their soul. For the spiritual practitioner heeding our intelligence, strengthened by sastra, allows us to hear our true voice, our soul. It safeguards us on the path of devotion. For this, the sacrifice of restraint is needed. If asked not to eat your favourite bar of chocolate because it was laced with cyanide, one can hardly consider such advice restrictive, unless suicide is your aim. Externally it appears restrictive but in a much broader sense saying “no thanks” to the poison is a prerequisite for tasting real freedom – life.
The late Christian theologian and writer, Thomas Merton sharply assesses the nature of freedom by vouching that one must be able to say “no” on occasion to our natural b o d i l y appetites. “No man who simply eats and drinks when he feels like eating and drinking, who smokes whenever he feels the urge to light a cigarette, who gratifies his curiosity and sensuality whenever they are stimulated, can consider himself a free person. He has renounced his spiritual freedom and become the servant of bodily impulse. Therefore his mind and his will are not fully his own.”
The Bhagavad-gita lucidly explains that what while a regulative lifestyle may appear restrictive, it is actually governed by principles of freedom. Over the next five issues we will be introducing these principles to you. If you have met, heard about, or ever tried to entertain a Hare Krishna at your home, you would have discovered the seemingly peculiar ideals that they live by. Most widely known is that they are vegetarian.
They refrain from all forms of intoxicants and gambling. They also reserve the sacred act of sex purely for married couples with the intention of conceiving a child. We will explain how actions outside these principles are self-destructive and how by abiding these principles the qualities of compassion, austerity, truthfulness and cleanliness naturally emerge. True freedom, as defined by Paul Wonk, is having the courage and ability to say no to temptations and say yes to the noblest calling to be our best selves.
Published by ISKCON Durban. Used with permission