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Self-restraint by The Mahabharata


From The Mahabharata
Santi Parva, Section CLX
Translated by Sri Kisari Mohan Ganguli


Yudhishthira said: O grandsire, O thou of virtuous soul, what, indeed, is said to be productive of great merit for a person attentively engaged in the study of the Vedas and desirous of acquiring virtue?

[Note: ‘productive of great merit’: The Sanskrit word Sreyas has a peculiar meaning. It implies, literally, the best of all things; hence, ordinarily, in such passages, it means beatitude or the highest happiness that one may acquire in heaven. It means also those acts of virtue by which that happiness may be acquired. It should never be understood as applicable to anything connected with earthly happiness, unless, of course, the context would imply it.]

(Yudhishthira continued): That which is regarded in this world as productive of high merit is of diverse kinds as set forth in the scriptures. Tell me, O grandsire, about that which is regarded as such both here and hereafter. The path of duty is long and has innumerable branches, O Bharata! Amongst those duties what are those few that should, according to thee, be preferred to all others for observance? Tell me, O king, in detail, about that which is so comprehensive and which is so many-branched.

Bhishma said: I shall speak to thee of that by which thou mayst attain to high merit. Possessed as thou art of wisdom, thou shalt be gratified with the knowledge. I will impart to thee, like a person with having quaffed nectar. The rules of duty that have been uttered by the great Rishis, each relying upon his own wisdom, are many. The highest among them all is self-restraint.

Those amongst the ancients that were acquainted with truth said that self-restraint leads to the highest merit. As regards the Brahmana in particular, self-restraint is his eternal duty. It is from self-restraint that he obtains the due fruition of his acts. Self-restraint, in his case, surpasses (in merit) charity and sacrifice and study of the Vedas. Self-restraint enhances (his) energy. Self-restraint is highly sacred. Through self-restraint a man becomes cleansed of all his sins and endued with energy, and as a consequence, attains to the highest blessedness. We have not heard that there is any other duty in the entire world that can equal self-restraint.

Self-restraint, according to all virtuous persons, is the highest of virtues in this world. Through self-restraint, O foremost of men, a person acquires the highest happiness both here and hereafter. Endued with self-restraint, one acquires great virtue. The self-restrained man sleeps in felicity and awakes in felicity, and moves through the world in felicity. His mind is always cheerful. The man who is without self-restraint always suffers misery. Such a man brings upon himself many calamities all born of his own faults. It has been said that in all the four modes of life self-restraint is the best of vows

[Note: The four modes of life are: Brahmacharyashrama, Grihasthashrama, Vanaprasthashrama and Sanayasthashrama. See Page ‘Ashramas’]

I shall now tell thee those indications whose sum total is called self-restraint. Forgiveness, patience, abstention from injury, impartiality, truth, sincerity, conquest of senses, cleverness, mildness, modesty, steadiness, liberality, freedom from wrath, contentment, sweetness of speech, benevolence, freedom from malice; the union of all these is self-restraint.

It also consists, O son of Kuru, of veneration for the preceptor and universal compassion. The self-restrained man avoids both adulation and slander. Depravity, infamy, false speech, lust, covetousness, pride, arrogance, self-glorification, fear, envy and disrespect are all avoided by the self-restrained man. He never incurs obloquy. He is free from envy. He is never gratified with small acquisitions (in the form of earthly happiness of any kind). He is even like the ocean, which can never be filled.

[Note: The sense is that such a man never sets his heart upon things of this world, and accordingly these, when acquired, can never satisfy him. His aspirations are so great and so high above anything this world can give him that the attainment of even the region of Brahma cannot, as the commentator explains, gratify him. At first sight this may look like want of contentment, but in reality, it is not so. The grandeur of his aspirations is sought to be enforced. Contentment applies only to ordinary acquisitions, including even blessedness in heaven.]

The man of self-restraint is never bound by the attachments that arise from earthly connections like to those involved in sentiments like these: ‘I am thine, Thou art thine, They are in me, and I am in them.’ Such a man, who adopts the practices of either cities, or the woods, and who never indulges in slander or adulation, attains to emancipation. Practising universal friendliness, and possessed of virtuous behaviour, of cheerful soul and endued with knowledge of soul, and liberated from the diverse attachments of the earth, great is the reward that such a person obtains in the world to me. Of excellent conduct and observant of duties, of cheerful soul and possessed of learning and knowledge of self, such a man wins esteem while here and attains to a high end hereafter. All acts that are regarded as good on earth, all those acts that are practised by the righteous, constitute the path of the ascetic possessed of knowledge.

A person that is good never deviates from that path. Retiring from the world and betaking himself to a life in the woods, that learned person having a complete control over the senses who treads in that path, in quiet expectation of his decease, is sure to attain to the state of Brahman. He who has no fear of any creature and of whom no creature is afraid, has, after the dissolution of his body, no fear to encounter (i.e., such a man is sure of attaining to a blessed end).

He who exhausts his merits (by actual enjoyment) without seeking to store them up, who casts an equal eye upon all creatures and practises a course of universal friendliness, attains to Brahman. As the track of birds along the sky or of fowl over the surface of water cannot be discerned, even so the track of such a person (on earth) does not attract notice. For him, O king, who abandoning home adopts the religion of emancipation, many bright worlds wait to be enjoyed for eternity. If, abandoning all acts, abandoning penances in due course, abandoning the diverse branches of study, in fact, abandoning all things (upon which worldly men set their hearts), one becomes pure in his desires, liberated from all restraints (such as distinctions of caste, of dress, of food, etc., etc.), of cheerful soul, conversant with self, and of pure heart, one then wins esteem in this world and at last attains to heaven. That eternal region of the Grandsire, which springs from Vedic penances, and which is concealed in a cave, can be won by only self-restraint.

[Note: A reference to the region of Brahman, which is supposed to be located within every heart. One reaches that region through penances and self-denial. The sense, of course, is that his is that pure felicity of the heart that has succeeded in driving off all evil passions therefrom.]

He who takes pleasure in true knowledge, who has become enlightened, and who never injures any creature, has no fear of coming back to this world, far less, any fear in respect of the others.

[Note: The word used here is ‘Buddhasya’ (genitive of ‘Buddha’]

There is only one fault in self-control. No second fault is noticeable in it. A person who has self-control is regarded by men as weak and imbecile. O thou of great wisdom, this attribute has only one fault. Its merits are many. By forgiveness (which is only another form of self-control), the man of self-control may easily acquire innumerable worlds. What need has a man of self-control for a forest? (to relinquish home-life for austere life in the woods or forest). Similarly, O Bharata, of what use is the forest to him that has no self-control? That is a forest where the man of self-control dwells, that is even a sacred asylum.

Vaisampayana continued: Hearing these words of Bhishma, Yudhishthira became highly gratified as if he had quaffed nectar. Again the king asked that foremost of virtuous men. That perpetuator of Kuru’s race (questioned by his grandson) once more began to discourse cheerfully (on the topic raised).



Published with the kind permission of www.hinduism.co.za.


Their ‘Understanding Hinduism’ website is an award winning site featuring a whole host of various articles promoting Hinduism. It truly is a wonderful, thoughtful and thought provoking work and a true beacon for the promotion of Hinduism and Vedic culture in the world today.


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This article was published on Wednesday 27 May, 2009.
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