Power of Restraint

From the teachings of Swami Sivananda Saraswati

Ethics is the basis of spiritual life. Without ethics, philosophy is only wishful thinking and religion meaningless. The practice of ethical sadhana will help one to live in harmony with neighbours, friends, family members and other people. It will confer lasting happiness and final liberation by invoking God’s grace. The heart will be purified and your conscience will be cleansed.


The atman or Self is One, and the One vibrates in all beings. There is one common consciousness. If you hurt another person, you hurt yourself. If you help another person, you help yourself, and by serving others you purify your heart, which leads to the descent of divine light.

Universality is at the very root of ethics. Do not do any act which brings no good to others, which will make you repent later or be ashamed. Do such acts which are praiseworthy and which bring good to you and others. Due to ignorance, you may hurt another person or, thinking that other beings are separate, you will exploit others. If you are really aware that the One Self pervades and permeates all beings, and that all beings are threaded on the Supreme Self as rows of pearls on a string, how can you hurt or exploit another?

The right questions

Who is really anxious to know the truth about God or divine life? We ask questions like, “How much money have I got in the bank? Who spoke against me? How is your wife, how are your children doing?” We are not ready for questions like, “Who am I? What is freedom? Where have I come from? Where shall I go? What are the attributes of God? How do I attain moksha? What is the real form of moksha?”

The beginning of ethics is to reflect upon oneself, one’s surroundings and actions. Before acting one must stop to think. When a person earnestly attends to what he recognizes as his duties he will progress, and as a consequence his comfort and prosperity will increase. His pleasures will be more refined, his happiness and enjoyments will be better and nobler. Happiness is like a shadow. If pursued it will flee, but if one does not trouble oneself about it and strictly attends to one’s duties, pleasures of the best and noblest kind will crop up everywhere on the path.

However, an increase in happiness cannot be considered as the ultimate aim of ethics. The essence of all existence is the evolution or constant realization of new ideals. Therefore, the elevation of all human emotions, whether painful or happy, the elevation of one’s whole existence, actions and aspirations is the constant aim of ethics.

Reason and impulse

The Socratic formula, ‘Virtue is Knowledge’ is an adequate explanation of moral life. Knowledge of what is right is not identical with doing it, for while knowing the right course a person is still found choosing the wrong one. Desire tends to run counter to reason. Perplexed by the difficulty of reconciling two such opposites, the will tends to choose the easier course. Therefore, mere intellectual instruction is not sufficient to ensure right doing. There is a further need to straighten the crooked will and ensure its cooperation with reason in order to do what is right.

Pure reason urges a person to do what is best. The lower nature fights and struggles. The impulse of one who has not undergone ethical discipline runs counter to reason. Still, advice, rebukes and admonitions testify that the irrational part is amenable to reason.


The basis of good conduct is self-reliance. It is the last resort, rather than religious texts, other people or customs. Self-control is greatest in a person whose life is ruled by ideals and general principles of good conduct. The final end of moral discipline is self-control. It will enable the aspirant to know the truth, desire the good, win the right and thus realize the reality. The whole nature must be disciplined. Discipline harmonizes the opposing elements of the soul.

One must discipline not only the intellect, but also the will and emotions. A disciplined person will control his actions and is no longer at the mercy of the moment. He ceases to be a slave to his impulses and senses. Such mastery is not the result of one day’s effort. One can acquire the power by prolonged practice and daily self-discipline. One must learn to refuse the demands of impulse.

River Ganga

One hundred and fifty miles above the sannyasins’ colony of Rishikesh, in the Himalayan interior, there is an outpost called Chaumali. A sort of dam or barrier across the river Ganga had been built. One fine day something happened, and the flow of water was likely to get out of hand and burst in an excessive flow. At once, wires began to hum. A telegram was sent to all the lower regions warning them of a likely flood of the Ganga, and asking everyone to shift higher up the Ganga bank.

Ganga water was the very life. So long as its flow was within limits and its volume restrained to a safe margin, it was most beneficial, and desirable. When the natural and legitimate function of the dam, supplying water, was exceeded, the same water became dangerous and terrible. Excess rendered a blessing into a menace.


There is a similar state in human life, where the average person is a slave of the senses. However, when the quality and nature of the objects taken in through the senses is sattwic and does not excite, then a rhythm is established in life. This state of harmony is of immense help in maintaining restraint, which is dependent upon an inner strength. The greater the sattwic quality, the greater the development of this inner force will be. Likewise, habitual adherence to the principle of moderation keeps the body and mind light and free of toxins. In such a state of health and purity all faculties are keen and alert, facilitating the exercise of viveka and vichara, discrimination and enquiry, upon which wise selection and restraint depend.

Restraint is one’s greatest friend. It plays the important part of keeping the processes of consumption and indulgence within bounds. If one makes full use of this factor, one will reap a harvest of health, well being, progress and spiritual attainment. Restraint makes life worth living. Restraint makes one really the emperor of the three worlds and leads to realization of the Self.