What is self-restraint?

ज्ञातव्यं तत्वतो ज्ञात्वा संयमी यो भवेन्नर: ।
महात्मनां गुणाज्ञानां कृपया स सुखी वसेत् ॥ (१२३)

If one exercises self-restraint with knowledge and intent, he will be counted among the wise.

Nearly every religion, every spiritual path speaks of self-restraint. One must wonder then, about why we have sense organs in the first place, if they have to be restrained. It seems like a pretty elaborate arrangement – having the eyes, the ears, the nose, the tongue and the sense of touch – such vividness in sight, such a vast range of tastes and the ability to feel sensations…why are they there if they have to be restrained all the time?

न जातु काम: कामानामुपभोगेन शाम्यति ।
हविषा कृष्णवर्त्मेव भूय एवाभिवर्धते ।।

na jātu kāmaḥ kāmānām upabhogena śāṁyati
haviṣā kṛṣṇa-vartmeva bhūya evābhivardhate

Desire cannot be quenched by the fulfilment of desire. Desire increases by its fulfilment, as when clarified butter is poured over fire it increases the ferocity of the flame; it does not make it cease.

The senses are present for a reason – to experience the world – it’s sights, the sounds, the tastes…kama is one of the Puruṣārthas, or four pursuits of human life. But anything in excess is dangerous. The problem with indulging our senses is that we don’t know when to stop, and this leads to an endless spiral of wants and desires that cannot be quenched, thus resulting in sadness and dissatisfaction.

śamaḥ,damaḥ,uparama – are three of the Shat-sampat, or six treasures.

Śama – keeping calm under any circumstance. 

A large part of life goes in experiencing pressure – the pressure of performance, the pressure of constant deadlines, the pressure of achieving something in life, and the pressure of maintaining a family. Learning how to keep calm is essential – for only a calm mind can think clearly.

Dama – The restraint of the sense organs. 

Śama is the inner restraint (of the mind), and dama is the external restraint. Our sense organs (sight, hearing, smell, taste and touch) are the means through which we experience the world. Every product that is sold out there, be it movie, or a device, or food, or clothes – they all in some way engage our senses. This is also why we find it so difficult to control ourselves – we always more more of everything. 

Practising dama is critical for self-discipline. When we engage in our needs, but are in control of our wants, we engage in dama.

रागद्वेषवियुक्तैस्तु विषयानिन्द्रियैश्चरन् |
आत्मवश्यैर्विधेयात्मा प्रसादमधिगच्छति || 64||

rāga-dveṣha-viyuktais tu viṣhayān indriyaiśh charan
ātma-vaśhyair-vidheyātmā prasādam adhigachchhati

But one who controls the mind, and is free from attachment and aversion, even while using the objects of the senses, attains the Grace of God.

Srimad Bhagavad Gita 2.64

Uparama – Upa is above, and rama – is enjoyment. Uparama is a consequence of śama and dama.

The Bhagavad Gita says that when the mind experiences something superior, it’s fascination for the inferior is automatically curbed. The experience of the inner self – the calmness, the joy, the peacefulness that comes with curbing our external senses and looking within – this experience is far superior to what we think makes us happy.

This is why the ancient scriptures, and Tirukkural as well, emphasise on restraining the senses. Not because they do not want us to enjoy…but because they want us to feel true enjoyment. The path may be long, the process tough, but the end would more than justify it.

Valluvar, through the analogy of a tortoise withdrawing its limbs and head into its shell, encourages us to become free of the external, and look within. A thought that has also found voice in the Bhagavad Gita – यदा संहरते चायं कूर्मोऽङ्गानीव सर्वश: – One who is able to withdraw the senses from their objects, just as a tortoise withdraws its limbs into its shell…experiences divine bliss.

And how do you go about it? स्वविषयासंप्रयोगे चित्तस्य स्वरूपानुकार इवेन्द्रियाणां प्रत्याहारः – When the senses withdraw themselves from the objects and imitate, as it were, the nature of the mind, this is pratyahara – which is the fifth limb of the ancient Indian science of Yoga.