Indriyas, the Sense Organs


by Jayaram V

In Sanskrit, the senses are known as Indriyas, or the agents of Indra, the lord of the heaven. In Hinduism they represent the pleasure principle and considered divinities or gods in the microcosm of the body. The tradition recognizes 15 senses namely five organs of action (karmendriyas), five organs of perception (jnanendriyas) and five subtle senses (tanmatras). The mind is Indra, their ruler.

The number of senses

The karmendiryas are the anus (payu), the sexual organs (upasta), the legs (pada), the hands (pani), and the speech (vak). They are responsible for the bodily functions and movements. The Jnanendriyas are the eyes (chaksu), the ears (srotra), the nose (ghrana), the tongue (rasana) and the skin (tvacha). In many accounts, these ten constitute the sense organs (13.5. Then there is the mind, or the manas, which is also likened to a sense in the Bhagavadgita, "manahsasthani indriyani" (15.7). It is the controller of the senses, because the senses act according to its instructions and intentions. In symbolic terms, it is likened to Indra, the ruler of the heavens, while the gods are likened to the five senses.

Apart from the above, some accounts include the subtle senses (tanmatras) which are the sensations or the impressions created by the organs of perception by which we experience the objective world and make sense of it. They are the form (rupa), the sound (sabda), the smell (gandha), the taste (rasa) and the touch (sparsa).

The importance of the senses

The senses extend the body beyond its normal reach. With hands you can extend your reach to a limited distance. You can use the feet to walk for long distances, but still your reach is limited. However, with the organs of perception your reach extends far beyond. For example, you can hear the thunder from miles away and see the stars and galaxies which are situated billions of miles away from our planet. In the blink of your eye, you can see the sun and the moon. The eyes give us the ability to see the heaven and the earth. No wonder, they are considered the windows of the soul. Imagine how life would have been without the senses. The mind would not have adequately developed, and the intelligence would have remained underdeveloped.

The senses are our primary teachers. Without them we cannot learn about the world or know how to deal with it. Our scriptures say when there is light, the eyes act as our guides. When there is darkness, the ears become our support. When both are absent, other senses comes to our rescue. When all are absent, which is the case with the state of self-absorption, the Self becomes the sole guide and support. The senses also play an important role in the performance of our obligatory duties and thereby in upholding Dharma.

One of the most significant development in the evolution of life upon earth was the manifestation of the senses, especially the eye. Even today, our advancement in robotic technology is limited because we have not yet developed the perfect, perceptual mechanism for the robots. We have yet to create a perfect artificial eye with which the robots can see as we see. The same is the case with other senses. When we reach that stage, the growth in the robotic technology will be exponential as Artificial Intelligence would evolve beyond our imagination.

The Upanishads explain how lifeforms evolved upon earth by developing senses. The earliest lifeforms such as the microorganisms had no senses. Then appeared lifeforms, which had only one sense, the sense of touch. They were followed by entities that had two senses, three senses, four senses and five senses. Then, the mind appeared, the sixth sense, which reached its culmination in humans. Humans also developed intelligence (buddhi), which gives them the exceptional ability to transcend the senses and develop extrasensory perception or draw intuitive inferences even when things are clearly discernible.

The relationship between breath and the senses

Some earlier Upanishads describe the senses also as breaths or aspects of breath (prana). They are different from the five breaths, which are mentioned in them namely the Prana, Vyana, Samana, Udana, and Apana, named according to the direction in which they flow in the body. However, the senses are equated with them, because Breath is considered to be the lord of all the organs in the body.

The Upanishads also contain two allegories about it. Breath is the lord of the senses because he is impervious to desire. The organs are vulnerable to evil desires, while breath is involuntary and not subject to them. Hence, breath is a purifier like fire and just as the fire in the heaven he accepts the food offered to the body and distributes them among the organs according to their fair share. The body is alive, and the organs are active, as long as breath is circulating in them. Hence, he is also their support. When a person dies, the breaths along with the divinities who are present in the organs leave the body and travel to the mid-region, from where they return to their respective spheres.

The senses as the tattvas of Nature and agents of Death

The senses also constitute 15 of the 23 finite and dependent realities (tattvas) of Nature. They depend upon the Self or God for their survival in the field of Nature, which is the body in the microcosm and creation itself in macrocosm. They are subject to the triple Gunas namely sattva, rajas and tamas and other impurities of Nature such as Maya, egoism and delusion. Because of their inherent nature, the senses act as the agents of Maya and subject the beings to the dualities of life through attraction and aversion to sense objects. Hence, they are considered the chief agents of Maya who subject the beings to the cycle of births and deaths. The senses are also agents of Death (Kala) who is described in the Upanishads as the ruler of the world and the highest aspect of Manifested Brahman. The whole world is his food, which he enjoys through the senses. They also keep the beings bound to mortality by inducing them desire for sense-objects.

The senses as the cause of delusion and attachment

The senses are responsible for our clinging and craving and thereby keep us bound to the mortal world. Since they are subject to the gunas, they are not perfect and not very reliable to discern the truths of the world or the true nature of our existence. Indeed, they are chiefly responsible for our suffering, illusion and the mistaken belief that we are mere physical beings subject to death, which is the end of all.

According to the Bhagavadgita, they are also responsible for our mental instability and lack of discernment. By constantly dwelling among sense objects, they cloud our consciousness, creating the illusory notion that the world is made up of individual entities and realities, and we are responsible for our actions and fate, whereby we perceive the diversity in our existence but not its underlying unity. By repeatedly interacting with the sense objects they create in us attraction and aversion to them, which in turn lead to desires and attachments. From attachment arises conflicting emotions as ripples in our consciousness, such as anger, fear, anxiety, greed, envy and pride, resulting in bondage and suffering. When we experience them, we suffer from instability, suffering and delusion.

The limitations of our senses

We do not need much evidence to know the limitations of our senses and how far they are reliable in knowing the truths of our existence. The senses are reliable up to a point. They show you the visible or the surface reality, but not what is hidden in them or their subtle aspects. Even from the scientific perspective, we know that the world is not what it appears to be. The visible universe is just a fraction of what truly exists beyond our sense such as the quantum reality, which cannot be discerned except through other means.

There was a time when we believed that the earth was flat and our world was the center of the universe. People believed that the stars were like glowing lights in the sky and the sun and the moon were like lamps. Those who disagreed with such erroneous beliefs were mocked, burnt on stakes, persecuted or imprisoned. Today we know the reality and where we stand in the universe. Apart from perceptual errors, we are also subject to cognitive distoritions and self-induced illusions and see what we want to see. In the process, we miss a whole lot of information in our perceptual field.

The Bhagavadgita on the activity of the senses

The Bhagavadgita is aware of the problems that arise from the limitations of our sense organs and the role they play in creating suffering, mistaken identities and bondage to the cycle of births and deaths. The senses may fetch correct information about the material universe, but since the mind and the intelligence are subject to delusion, ignorance, desires, attachments, and numerous filters which are induced by the gunas, they cannot correctly process the information or discern the truths.

Therefore, it warns people to be wary of the role they play in our bondage and the need to control them to experience equanimity and the oneness of our existence. It declares that the dualities such as heat and cold, or pleasure and pain, are transitory. They arise from sensory perceptions. Hence, one should learn to tolerate them (2.14) and be wise enough not to indulge in them (5.22). Since they are responsible for attraction and aversion and thereby craving and clinging, a yogi on the path of liberation should not come under their influence at all (3.34).

In the second chapter of the Bhagavadgita, Lord Krishna explains how suffering arises through the activity of the senses. By constantly thinking of sense objects, a mortal being becomes attached to them. Attached thus, he develops various desires. When those desires are thwarted, a person experiences anger and frustration. From anger arises delusion, and from delusion confusion of memory. Confusion of memory leads to loss of intelligence (buddhi) or the ability to discern truths. When intelligence is lost, the breath of life is also lost (2.60-63) because one keeps making mistakes and remains bound to Karma and the cycle of births and deaths.

The control of the mind and senses or Samyama

The Bhagavadgita emphasizes the imperative to withdraw the senses from the sense objects and transcending them through austerities and self-purification to experience equanimity, peace and supreme happiness. Since the senses are responsible for the instability of the mind and thereby delusion, they need to be actively disengaged from the sense objects to which they go habitually so that the mind can be fully concentrated upon the inner Self. Just as the winds blow away a boat floating on the waters, the senses also drive away the intelligence of a person whose mind is constantly engaged with the sense objects (2.67).

Therefore, says the Bhagavadgita, a yogi should firmly establish his intelligence by controlling his senses from all directions (2.68). He should withdraw his senses from the sense objects, the way a tortoise withdraws its limbs, whereby a yogi gains mastery over his senses (2.58). Freeing himself from passion and dispassion, keeping the senses that are acting on the sense objects under firm control, and by following the dictates of the inner soul, he gains the love of God. (2.64).

Thus, in the words of the Bhagavadgita, a correct understanding of the true nature of the senses and their activities is the first step towards self-discipline and Self-realization. Without such awareness a seeker of truth cannot overcome the delusion of his mind and become free from the bondage to his physical and mental existence. By controlling his senses dutifully, he can become detached from the sense objects, and regain his freedom from the compulsion to act according to his desires.

What happens when a person engages in such a spiritual effort? The Bhagavadgita says that with the elimination of desires, he achieves equanimity of the mind, inner peace, freedom from fear, lust, egoism, anger and such other ungodly qualities. Firmly established on the path of self-realization (6.24-29), he becomes stable like the ocean that remains undisturbed although waters enter into it from all directions through various rivers (2.70).

The role of senses in the practise of Dharma

The senses are aspects of Nature, and instruments of God who play their dutiful roles in creation as divinities or aspects of God. In the body, which is the microcosm, they perform similar functions. Their essential purpose is to ensure the order and regularity of the world and help people perform their obligatory duties and uphold Dharma. In the body of an awakened person who is pure with the predominance of sattva and who engages in selfless actions (karmayoga), they become the instruments of truth and reflect the radiance of God. When they are rightly used, they radiate our minds and help us discern truth but when wrongly used they spread darkness and delusion and create confusion.

Thus, by nature the senses are not evil. They become evil in an impure person who has the predominance of rajas and tamas, but divine in a pure person who has the predominance of sattva and whose mind is engaged in the thoughts of God. The senses lead a deluded person astray and cause his downfall. In impure people who cannot control their desires or who perform their actions out of selfish desires, they perpetuate duality, ignorance and delusion and become barriers to self-realization. People who are egoistic, who are driven by selfish desires and demonic qualities and engage in selfish actions, the senses are a great source of misery and afflictions. However, they help righteous people to practise their obligatory duties and uphold Dharma.

When we become self-aware through knowledge and study, we can use those very senses to transcend our minds and bodies and become stabilized in the Self. Instead of engaging them in worldly objects, we can engage them to discipline the mind and body and to concentrate our minds upon the images of divinities and sacred objects.

For a devotee who has surrendered to God, who is engaged in spiritual practice and whose mind is drawn to him, the senses offer many opportunities to put them to right use and lead a divine centered life on the path of righteousness and in the service of god. He can use them to practise the various yogas which are mentioned in the Bhagavadgita to stabilize the mind and experience self-absorption.

By practicing withdrawal, self-control and self-purification he can cultivate detachment, dispassion, renunciation and equanimity. By mindfully observing how the mind and senses act and react and how desires arise and create disturbances or modifications, he can gain control over his habitual and emotional responses and natural urges. Through observation and discernment, he can become a friend of his Self rather than his enemy, practice self-discipline, understand the influence of gunas, and master his mind and body to experience sameness, oneness, equanimity and self-absorption.

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