A Gnostic's Notebook

What’s the Matter with Mind?

Bibek Debroy is chairman of the Prime Minister’s Economic Advisory Council
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A meditation on the nine-gated city and noble thoughts

कर्मेन्द्रियाणि संयम्य य आस्ते मनसा स्मरन्‌। इन्द्रियार्थान्विमूढात्मा मिथ्याचारः स उच्यते॥ This is 3.6 of the Bhagavad Gita. As I have done in the past, I will simply  
reproduce the Prabhupada translation. ‘One who restrains the senses and organs of action, but whose mind dwells on sense objects, certainly deludes himself and is called a pretender.’ We thus have an expression, कर्मेन्द्रिय or or karmendriya. Karmendriya is an organ of action and there are five karmendriyas— mouth, feet, hands, anus and genitals. Who am I? From everything we have discussed earlier, I know that I am not my karmendriyas. There is more to me than these five organs of action. Let me give you another shloka. As I have said before, the Bhagavad Gita is only one out of  several Gitas. One of the longer Puranas is the Padma Purana. This has a section known as the Shiva Gita, recited by Shiva. 10.15-16 of Shiva Gita states, नानाविध्यासमायुक्तो जीवत्वेन वसाम्यहम्‌ । पच्चकर्मेन्द्रियाण्येव पच्च ज्ञानेन्द्रियाणि च । मनोबुद्धिरहंकारश्चित्त वेति चतुष्टयम्‌ ॥ ‘I reside in living creatures in the midst of many kinds of ignorance.  There are five karmendriyas and there are five jnanendriyas. There are also the four known as mana, buddhi, ahamkara and chitta.’ The jnanendriyas are organs of sense and/or perception—that is, eyes, ears, nose, the tongue and the skin. I am not my karmendriyas and nor am I my jnanendriyas.

In 5.13 of the Bhagavad Gita, we find सर्वकर्माणि मनसा संन्यस्यास्ते सुखं वशी। नवद्वारे पुरे देही नैव कुर्वन्न कारयन्॥ As  before, I will give you the Prabhupada translation. ‘When the embodied living being controls his nature and mentally renounces all actions, he resides happily in the city of  
nine gates (the material body), neither working nor causing work to be done.’ The body is being described as an  entity with nine gates—two ears, two eyes, one mouth, two nostrils, the genital organs and the anus. This comparison of the body with a nine-gated city crops up in several texts, not just the Bhagavad Gita. It is there in the Shetashvatara Upanishad (3.18). For this, I will not burden you with the Sanskrit. Here is Swami Tyagisananda’s translation. ‘It is He who resides in the body, the city of nine gates. He is the soul that sports in the outside world. He is the master of the whole world, animate and inanimate.’ The image also figures in Buddhism and Sikhism. Perhaps I should state that Katha Upanishad (2.2.1) mentions a city with eleven gates, पुरमेकादशद्वारमजस्यावक्रचेतसः। The Katha Upanishad is both a major and a beautiful Upanishad, famous because of the  dialogue between Nachiketa and Yama. Structurally, it has two chapters, each sub-divided into sub-sections or vallis. 2.2.1 means 2nd chapter, 2nd valli and 1st shloka of Katha Upanishad. That small phrase I am quoting from Katha Upanishad 2.2.1 is simple enough. Even then, here is Swami Nikhilananda’s translation. ‘There is a city with eleven gates belonging to the unborn Atman of undistorted consciousness.’ I have mentioned the nine gates. What are the additional two? Before that, a word of caution. Since the Katha Upanishad doesn’t list out all the eleven gates by name, there is scope for interpretation. Interpreted purely physically, we already have nine—two ears, two eyes, one mouth, two nostrils, the genital organs and the anus. Add to that the navel and the top of the head/skull. (I am not going to digress into chakras now, but these respectively correspond to muladharaand sahasrara chakras) Alternatively, one can think of eleven gates as the five karmendriyas, the five jnanendriyas and the mind.

I used the word ‘gate’ and so did Swami Nikhilananda. That’s correct. The Sanskrit word is  द्वार (dvara), etymologically related to ‘door’. Other than gate or door, dvara means opening, aperture, passage, entrance. Most people have heard of the quote, ‘Let noble thoughts come to use from  all sides.’ Popular though the quote may be (it is the  motto of the Gujarat National Law University), that’s a slight mistranslation of what the Rig Veda states, at least so far as the ‘noble thoughts’ part goes. आ नो भद्राः क्रतवो यन्तु विश्वतः With a passage or entrance, it may not always be  noble thoughts, knowledge or energy. Noble thoughts, knowledge or energy can pass in and pass out. But so can ignoble thoughts, knowledge or energy. That’s the reason there is focus on controlling these gates.

The Bhagavad Purana is one of the 18 major Puranas (Mahapuranas). In its fourth skandha (canto), there is a beautiful allegory about a city with nine gates. Stripped to the bare essentials, here is the story. There was a king named Puranjana. His friend was Avijnata. We must pay attention to what the words mean. Puranjana means the life-principle or soul, Avijnata means someone who is unknown, not detected. The king and his friend wander around, searching for a place to live in. To the south of the Himalayas, they find a beautiful city with nine gates. Avijnata leaves. But Puranjana finds a beautiful lady there. She is the unmarried queen of the city and she is followed by eleven bodyguards and a five-headed serpent. Puranjana marries her and resides there, addicted to sensual pleasures. In the actual telling of the story in the Bhagavad Purana, you are told this right at the end, but I am telling you this right now. The eleven bodyguards are eyes, ears, nose, tongue, skin, hearing, sight, smell, taste, touch and  the mind. The five-headed  serpent represents the five aspects of the breath of life—prana, apana, vyana, udana and samana. My  stating the gist of the story is no substitute for actually reading it. For example, each of the nine gates is visited by Puranjana and each has a specific character. Time passes. The city is attacked by 360 Gandharvas and their female companions. The king of Gandharvas is named Chandavega, meaning someone whose force is irresistible. Chandavega is an allegory for time and the 360 Gandharvas and their female companions represent days and nights. The five-headed serpent fights the invaders for one hundred years (the life-span). Eventually, the invaders triumph. The city is destroyed. Puranjana and the five-headed serpent are taken captive. As Puranjana dies, he keeps thinking of his wife. In his next life, he is born as a woman. It is in his next life that he discovers the queen was his Buddhi and his lost friend, Avijnata, was his lost soul. This king realised the bonds of the city in his next life. But it is surely possible for others to try it in this life without waiting for the next.

I keep coming back to Adi Shankaracharya and this  reminds me of his निर्वाणषटकम् (nirvana shatakam). These are six crisp verses and since they are so beautiful, I should quote them in their entirety. But let’s stick to concepts we have already talked about. मनोबुद्ध्यहङ्कार चित्तानि नाहं ।न च श्रोत्रजिह्वे न च घ्राणनेत्रे। “I am not mana, buddhi, ahamkara or chitta. I am not the organs of hearing, taste, smell or sight.” न वाक्पाणिपादं न चोपस्थपायु । ‘I am not the organ of speech, hands, feet, genital organs or anus.’  पिता नैव मे नैव माता न जन्मः ।न बन्धुर्न मित्रं गुरुर्नैव शिष्यं । ‘I have no father or mother. I have no birth. I have no relative or friend. I have no teacher or disciple.’ I checked my impulse to instantly translate mana, buddhi, ahamkara and chitta, respectively, as ‘mind’, ‘intelligence/intellect’, ‘ego’ and ‘consciousness’.

Let me quote from some other parts of Swami Nikhilananda’s translation of the Katha Upanishad. ‘Know the atman to be the master of the chariot; the body,  chariot; the intellect, the charioteer; and the mind, the reins…The senses, they say, are the horses; the objects, the roads. The wise call the atman—united with the body, the senses and the mind—the  enjoyer…If the buddhi, being  related to a mind that is always distracted, loses its discriminations, then the senses become  uncontrolled, like the vicious horses of a charioteer…. But if the buddhi, being related to a mind that is always restrained, possesses discrimination, then the senses come under control, like the good horses of a charioteer.’ While the terms are clear enough, one must still be a little careful.

Bertrand Russell wrote something in his autobiography that is often quoted. ‘When I  became interested in philosophy—a subject which, for some reason, was anathema—I was told that the whole  subject could be summed up in the saying: ‘What is mind?—No matter. What is matter? – Never mind.’ At the fifteenth or sixteenth repetition of this remark, it ceased to be amusing.’ It is difficult to translate मन as anything other than mind, and yes, it is a serious matter. Swami Vivekananda translated and interpreted Patanjali’s  Yoga Sutras. In the introduction, he said, ‘The organs  (indriyas), together with the mind (manas), the determinative faculty (buddhi) and egoism (ahamkara), form the group called the antahkarana (the internal instrument). They are but various processes in the mind-stuff, called chitta.’   

This is not just taxonomy.