A spiritual aspirant works to transcend the illusions that the sense-organs perceive, to move from seductive sense-impressions into a more incorruptible truth-full state, like diving below ocean waves into calmer depths. Aside from desire and illusion, the senses or indriyas are Indra’s powers in another sense: they are protective of life.
Once we’d had a strong-smelling insect poison put down in the house during the daytime. With dinner that night were biscuits; I bit into one and spit it out, warning, “These taste like the poison smells.” My parents then tried them, and immediately the biscuits were thrown away.
Another time I lived in an apartment with faulty wiring, and a thick stench of smoke was the first sign of the problem. I called the fire department, and the firemen discovered a smoldering electrical fire in the wall.
In another instance there was threat of a huge storm. After viewing videos of past hurricanes, seeing the radar imagery of the approaching gale, and hearing the warnings of evacuation, I made the decision to evacuate.
In all of these cases, my senses preserved my life.
In restraining – retraining? – the senses, the sādhaka turns attention away from the physical life and towards the spiritual. Fasting is especially good for this as it sharpens the senses; I imagine this is an instinctive reaction to reduced intake, to help you locate food and protect yourself meanwhile. And because hearing and sight become more keen, scent preternaturally sharp, and touch more sensitive to cold, it’s more difficult to keep focused upon the Divine. Thus fasting gives great practice in silencing the clamouring indriyas, and grants a determination that is harder to shake.
Human life, human awareness, is an opportunity. We can work through the senses and, through refinement and withdrawal, realise increasing levels of existence. Or we can use the senses to chase after the worldly beauties and wishes. The higher path is ultimately better for us as ensouled beings, but it demands hard testing, and Indra gives it; the Lord of truth does not bow to idle whims. Before experiencing higher states that will change you forever, you need the preparation, determination, and certainty that come from focused sādhana. If you’re still distracted by temporal sensory delights, you’re not yet ready for eternal revelation. This is one meaning communicated by tales in which Indra sends Apsaras to distract meditating sages.
Speaking of which, the Purāṇic stories about Indra cloak many of his truths in allegorical form. One very popular plot point is the attack of Heaven and the Indra Sabha – Indra’s “council” of Devas – by Daityas/Asuras/demons/whathaveyou. Indra becomes terrified and discombobulated, the Devatās flee, the Daityas take over heaven, and only by beseeching the help of a greater Deva (usually Viṣṇu, but sometimes Śiva or Brahmā) can the demons be defeated and heaven’s ruler return.
Now, let’s reinterpret: Human life is ruled by the Divine Mind/Life Force (Indra). In the ideal state, the indriyas (Vayu as scent/air, Agni as sight/fire/light, etc.) are benevolently reigned (reined!) by surrender to the divine, and all is harmonious and well. But sometimes we allow the demonic forces of anger, ignorance, and malice entry, and they misguide the mind onto wrong and illusory paths. Then the senses become confused, the faculties descend into darkness, and only by withdrawing and contacting the all-pervading divine (Viṣṇu) can our right functioning be restored.
So we learn that sensory input is double-edged: in human life we can aspire to enlightenment, with the great and stern tests of that great goal, or else remain enmeshed in material existence, tossed between the forces of vidya and avidya. The senses can save our lives or save our souls, so to speak. Between these two we must choose.
Yet the number two – the fertile pairing which appears in many points of Vedic ritual – has importance because any duality can combine to create a third. Where desire and Māyā, and spiritual aspiration and transcendence, intersect is that they both share Indra as Lord.
Perhaps this explanation gives one reason why only Indra wields the two-sided, three-pronged Vajra. And why the power of lightning too is two-fold: on a higher plane it is the power of rapid inspiration, dazzling defense against darkness, and transcendence of ego to divinity, but on the material plane, it is only physical destruction and death.
I would keep writing about sense-pleasures, but I have just been handed a slice of cheesecake, because I swear there’s no magic more effective than the contemplation of austerity, to make some unexpected sense-pleasure appear. I guess my choice for today is dessert, with its attendant desert of unenlightened human existence. You see how insidious (and tasty) testing can be?
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