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Control of the Senses – Pratyahara Definition and Meaning

Control of the Senses - Pratyahara Definition and Meaning

What is Control of the Senses or Pratyahara?

Pratyahara is a Sanskrit word which means to withdraw, to disregard, to dissolve. In yoga, it refers to the withdrawal of the senses, the fifth stage in Ashtanga Yoga of Patanjali.

In Yoga sutra, it defines a process of introspection of consciousness leading to a withdrawal of the senses.

The withdrawal of senses inwards is a very important stage in meditation which marks the limit between the “outside” and “inside” stages of this technique. In the stage called pratyahara, the mind retreats from the influence of the outside world. In usual modes of consciousness, the mind knows the outside world through the senses.

After the consciousness retreats from the outside, it may continue to know the objects of meditation through contemplation. Beyond this stage, the meditation practitioner will not be distracted by the sensory activity.

Sutra 54 of the second chapter states: “When consciousness retreats inwards, separating from external objects, the senses follow it.

This is pratyahara.” The next sutra states: “Thus the senses are perfectly controlled.” Therefore control over senses, which precedes concentration. It is actually an introspection, an orientation of attention to the inner reality that entails an introspection of the senses.

In the Upanishads (an assortment of texts central to Hinduism), pratyahara is linked to the revelation of own nature and the revelation of the Spiritual Heart, Atman. It is even emphasized that it is not about a blockage of the activity of senses (which can be achieved relatively easy in cases of sensory deprivation), but their return to the source.

In yoga, the process of knowledge involves three components: the object to be known, the means used for knowledge and the subject, the knower.

Ordinarily, citta, the individual consciousness, seems to assume the role of the subject, the sense organs are the means and the outside world is the subject. In reality, however, the only one who can be the “observer”  of the whole Universe is Atman and when this knowledge is achieved, senses recognize its presence in everything there is.

This is also the definition by Aparoksha Anubhuti in sutra 121: “Absorption of the mind in the Supreme Consciousness knowing Atman in all objects is known as pratyahara, which must be practiced by those seeking freedom.”

This is also the definition by Aparoksha Anubhuti in sutra 121: “Absorption of the mind in the Supreme Consciousness knowing Atman in all objects is known as pratyahara, which must be practiced by those seeking freedom.”

A plastic image, presented by Abhinavagupta in his hymn Deha aştadevata stotra, shows Atman in the center of a lotus whose petals are the eight means of knowledge (besides the five senses, there are also three components of the “internal organ” antahkarana included, which are buddhi – the superior, discriminative intellect or the higher mind, ahamkara – the self’s tool or the ego and manas – the inferior intellect or the mind). All these bring their offering of knowledge to the center of this lotus, showing that in reality the “one who sees” is the Self.

It is shown that ultimately pratyahara is not a retreat of the knowing subject from the world, but a non-dual knowledge manifested through the senses when the knowing subject is the Self.

The withdrawal of the senses from their objects as a result of introspection is actually a retreat from duality. At first, the world seems to disappear into the inner reality. The eyes stop seeing, the ears stop hearing, the whole attention is focused on the discovery of our true nature.

Because of this introspection, the mind now free of the contact with objects that disturb it, begins to calm down becoming a mere object of inner vision. The center of perception is thus changed, which is not the “mind” anymore but the “heart”.

Any man who has accomplished something that captured his mind has experienced a form of pratyahara. Whenever the mind is absorbed into an action, it “shuts the doors of the senses” to everything that is not part of its field of interest. Walking the streets absorbed in thoughts you have passed a known person being “blind” or when reading an interesting book you haven’t heard until very late the one who called out from the next room.

Introspection is an integral part of spiritual practice, whether it is acquired by getting out of stimulus’ way (in a room, in a cave) or by educating the mind, teaching it to be so intensely present in the act of observation that senses willingly participate in discovering the inner reality.

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