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Unveiling the Inner Struggles: Insights on Spiritual Growth from the Bhagavad Gita

Our journey towards spiritual enlightenment is rarely a smooth ride. Chapter 3 of the Bhagavad Gita offers guidance on navigating the internal roadblocks we encounter. This blog explores these challenges, drawing insights from a lecture series [1] by Swami Sarvapriyananda on the Bhagavad Gita.

सदृशं चेष्टते स्वस्या: प्रकृतेर्ज्ञानवानपि |
प्रकृतिं यान्ति भूतानि निग्रह: किं करिष्यति || 33||


sadṛiśam ceṣṭate svasyāḥ prakṛter jñānavān api prakṛtim yānti bhūtāni nigrahaḥ kim kariṣhyati
"Even the enlightened one acts according to his own nature; all beings follow their nature. What will repression accomplish?"

The Challenge: Arjuna's Dilemma

The story of Arjuna, a warrior facing the agonizing decision of fighting against his own kin, exemplifies the influence of our inherent nature. Even seeking solace in meditation wouldn't erase the mental turmoil fueled by his attachments and sense of duty. This could lead to anger, frustration, and a thirst for revenge.

Taming the Waves: The Power of Awareness

So, how do we navigate these inner storms? The answer lies within us – the power to accept or reject our thoughts. However, this power has limitations. We can only truly influence our thoughts when they first arise. Once a thought takes root, controlling it becomes immensely difficult.

The Grip of Prakriti: Beyond Just Willpower

Our inherent nature, prakriti (shaped by desires, aversions, and past actions), significantly influences our behavior. Simply willing ourselves to overcome these ingrained patterns is often insufficient. This resonates with the concept of the id in Freudian psychology, a primal reservoir of urges that operates outside conscious control.


The Gita's concept of prakriti and Freud's theory of the id share striking similarities. Both explore the idea of a powerful subconscious force that shapes our thoughts, desires, and behaviors. However, it's important to recognize that the exploration of the subconscious mind in the Bhagavad Gita predates Freud's work by millennia.

Prakriti: The Foundation of Our Being

The Gita portrays prakriti as the fundamental building block of our being, shaping our experiences within Samsara, the cycle of rebirth. It encompasses both our conscious and unconscious mind, our emotional nature, and our ingrained behavioral tendencies. It's a complex web of conditioning woven from our past experiences, desires, and the karmic residue of our actions. These karmic imprints propel us forward in Samsara, shaping our future experiences based on our past choices.

Id: The Primal Reservoir

Freud's id, on the other hand, represents the most primitive and instinctual part of our psyche. It operates entirely on the pleasure principle, seeking immediate gratification of our basic needs and desires. The id is fueled by primal urges and operates outside the realm of reason or morality.


Repression: Burying the Unwanted

A crucial aspect of the id is the concept of repression. According to Freud, the id contains urges and desires that are deemed unacceptable by society or our own moral compass. These desires are not simply forgotten; they are pushed down into the unconscious mind through a process called repression.

The Connection: Prakriti's Unexpressed Desires and Samsara

Here's where the connection between prakriti and the id becomes intriguing. Our prakriti, shaped by past experiences and desires within Samsara, can harbor elements that we consciously suppress. These suppressed desires may not be as primal as those in the Freudian id, but they can still exert a powerful influence on our thoughts and behaviors, even if we're not aware of them.

For instance, imagine someone who grew up in a highly critical household. Their prakriti might be shaped by a deep-seated fear of failure, a fear accumulated over lifetimes (according to the concept of Samsara). This fear, though not consciously acknowledged, might manifest as procrastination or self-sabotaging behaviors. These behaviors stem from the repressed desire to avoid the potential pain of criticism, a desire potentially rooted in past experiences.

Beyond Freud: The Bhagavad Gita's Path to Liberation

The Gita, however, doesn't advocate for simply repressing our prakriti. Instead, it offers a path towards understanding and transforming it, ultimately leading to liberation from the cycle of Samsara. Through self-awareness, mindfulness practices like meditation, introspection and cultivating higher values, we can gain mastery over our prakriti and break free from the karmic patterns that perpetuate Samsara.

It's important to acknowledge the immense historical and philosophical context of the Bhagavad Gita. The text delves deeply into the workings of the mind and human behavior. The concept of prakriti is part of a rich tapestry of Indian philosophical thought that has explored the nature of mind and consciousness for centuries.

Several schools of Indian philosophy, including Samkhya, Buddhism and Yoga, predate the Bhagavad Gita and discuss the concept of the subconscious mind in detail. These schools proposed various models of the mind, recognizing the existence of layers beyond our conscious awareness. This exploration of the inner workings of the human psyche demonstrates a sophisticated understanding of the mind that predates Freud by thousands of years.



Connection to Subconscious Conditioning

Connection to Samsara

Prakriti (Bhagavad Gita)

- Fundamental nature shaped by desires, aversions, and past actions. - Encompasses conscious & unconscious mind, emotions, and behavioral tendencies. - A web of conditioning from past experiences, desires, and karmic imprints.

- Prakriti is shaped by subconscious conditioning accumulated throughout lifetimes (Samsara). - Past experiences, desires, and karmic residues contribute to our Prakriti.

- Prakriti is the foundation of our experiences within Samsara, the cycle of rebirth. - Karmic imprints from past experiences propel us forward in Samsara, influencing future experiences based on past choices.

Id (Freudian Psychology)

- Primal reservoir of urges operating outside conscious control. - Driven by the pleasure principle, seeking immediate gratification of basic needs.

- The id is a part of the subconscious mind. - It houses primal urges and desires deemed unacceptable by society or our moral compass.

- The concept of the id doesn't directly reference Samsara, but it shares the idea of innate, instinctual drives.

Subconscious Conditioning

- Past experiences, emotions, and societal influences that shape our thoughts, behaviors, and desires below the level of conscious awareness.

- Subconscious conditioning contributes to both Prakriti and the Id. - It shapes our ingrained tendencies (Prakriti) and houses repressed desires (Id).

- Subconscious conditioning can be influenced by past lives (Samsara) according to the Bhagavad Gita.

Samsara (Bhagavad Gita)

- The cycle of rebirth driven by karma.

- Samsara provides the context for accumulating subconscious conditioning. - Past experiences within Samsara shape our Prakriti.

- Prakriti, with its karmic imprints, is the foundation of our experiences within Samsara, creating a cyclical process.

Understanding the Influence of Prakriti

Going back to Gita, verse 33 emphasizes the influence of prakriti on our behavior. It is our fundamental nature, encompassing both our mind and body. It's shaped by our desires, attachments, and past actions (karma). A potential concern arises: If prakriti dictates our actions, what significance does self-control or spiritual practice hold?

The answer lies in our capacity to exert some influence over our prakriti. By acting before our desires and attachments become overwhelming, we can steer ourselves towards more positive choices.

The Limitations of Willpower: Why We Need More Than Just Self-Control

The limitations of willpower become evident when we explore verse 33. Simply willing ourselves to overcome negative tendencies often falls short. Let's delve into how this concept connects to psychologist Jonathan Haidt's observations about willpower and the common phenomenon of failed New Year's resolutions.

Beyond Brute Force: The Wiles of Prakriti

The captivating metaphor of the elephant and its rider aptly explains the struggle between our conscious mind (rider) and our subconscious conditioning (elephant). This metaphor aligns with the ideas presented by psychologist Jonathan Haidt in his book, The Happiness Hypothesis. Haidt proposes a similar model of the mind, where a rational rider (conscious mind) attempts to control a powerful elephant (automatic emotional and motivational system).

The Elephant and the Rider: A Metaphor for Our Dual Nature

Imagine a determined rider atop a mighty elephant. The rider represents our willpower, armed with the knowledge of what's "good" or the goals we set. The elephant, however, embodies our prakriti – our ingrained habits, desires, and emotional responses. Just as the elephant might be powerfully drawn towards tempting fruit, our prakriti can easily overpower our willpower, leading us to abandon our goals or make choices that contradict our conscious desires.


Knowing Alone Isn't Enough: The Pitfalls of New Year's Resolutions

This struggle between willpower and prakriti explains why so many New Year's resolutions fall by the wayside. We might intellectually understand the benefits of healthy habits, but when faced with immediate gratification, willpower often crumbles.

The Path Forward: A Multifaceted Approach

Overcoming this limitation requires more than just brute willpower. We need a multifaceted approach that includes:

  • Understanding our prakriti: By becoming aware of our ingrained tendencies and emotional triggers, we can anticipate the elephant's movements.

  • Developing healthy habits: Creating new routines and practices gradually strengthens new neural pathways, making positive choices more natural over time.

  • Mindfulness and Meditation: Cultivating a practice of awareness allows us to observe our thoughts and desires without judgment, giving us the space to choose a more conscious response.

Simply knowing what's good isn't enough. By acknowledging the limitations of willpower and understanding the influence of our prakriti, we can embark on a more holistic approach to self-improvement. This empowers us to make conscious choices that align with our values and aspirations, leading to lasting change and a more fulfilling life.

Shaping Our Prakriti: A Look Ahead

The Bhagavad Gita offers valuable insights into transforming our prakriti, not just understanding it. Verse 34 provides a crucial piece of this puzzle. This verse suggests that even though our prakriti shapes our desires and aversions, we have some agency in how we respond to them.

In our next blog post, we'll delve deeper into verse 34 and explore how we can shape our prakriti.


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