“Those who are demoniac do not know what is to be done and what is not to be done. Neither cleanliness nor proper behavior nor truth is found in them.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 16.7)
Due to duality in a material existence, there is constant conflict among various forces. Happiness goes against sadness. Heat contrasts with cold. Light dissipates darkness. As far as the way to enjoyment, there is both pravritti and nivritti.
In a verse from the Bhagavad-gita, Shri Krishna mentions both. Pravritti is translated as “what should be done” and nivritti as “what should not be done.” In comparing the different religions of the world, the focus is often on the latter.
Imagine the scene of attending a fair. The various religions each have their own booth at the venue. You can visit any one that you like. The person interested in religion goes up to the representatives and first asks, “Okay, what am I not allowed to do?” They want to know what restrictions will be placed on enjoyment.
One group says that you can’t eat meat during a specific time of the year. The restriction does not include fish and eggs. After doing a little research work it is discovered that the restriction from the institution was much more expansive just fifty years ago. There was no meat consumed every Friday of the year.
At another booth the representative says there is no alcohol consumed and that each member must pray five times a day. There are similar restrictions on this thing and that from the various booths. Upon reaching the representative of the bhakti path of transcendentalism, four restrictions are laid out. No meat eating, no gambling, no intoxication, and no illicit sex.
The representative explains that the Vedas, the original scriptural tradition of the world, actually incorporate much more into nivritti, but that in this present age of quarrel and hypocrisy, man generally avoids dharma, or righteousness. That is why the focus is on the four main restrictions. The explanation is that nivritti and pravritti are actually equal in bhakti, which is love and devotion. The disciplinary action brings just as much benefit as those things which you are supposed to do, like chanting the holy names: Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare.
1. Control over the senses
The animals cannot follow nivritti-marga, or the path of restriction. All they know is pravritti, or sense enjoyment. They cannot go on a diet unless forced to by the human being of superior intellect. Restriction is specifically targeted for the human birth.
Disciplinary action helps to control the senses, and that control brings a tremendous advantage. We can think of it like someone turning off that annoying car alarm outside. Too much sense enjoyment is a force distracting from the main objective of life.
2. Avoidance of nonsense activities
Intoxication doesn’t really do me any good. It is a cheap way to escape from the struggles of life. Illicit sex only leads to trouble. Gambling is a way to pass the time, and eating meat involves unnecessary violence. Disciplinary action in bhakti-yoga keeps me away from activities that have no long term benefit, which is known as shreyas. The restrictions are on activities that I know are of little value to me, but for some reason I am drawn to them. Shri Krishna explains the cause to be kama, or lust, combined with krodha, or wrath.
“The Blessed Lord said: It is lust only, Arjuna, which is born of contact with the material modes of passion and later transformed into wrath, and which is the all-devouring, sinful enemy of this world.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 3.37)
3. Sobriety of mind
Following the four regulative principles brings sobriety of mind. You wouldn’t want the pilot flying the airplane to be drunk. You wouldn’t want the person driving the car to be distracted. If sobriety is a requirement for successful operation of machines and vehicles, why wouldn’t it be assigned an even higher value when operating the machine known as the temporary body?
“The Supreme Lord is situated in everyone's heart, O Arjuna, and is directing the wanderings of all living entities, who are seated as on a machine, made of the material energy.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 18.61)
4. Ability to persevere through tough situations
If I am too addicted to sense gratification, I have a harder time coping with life. And life certainly brings many challenging situations. Loss, frustration, change, death, and not to mention the effects from the changing seasons. Disciplinary action in bhakti-yoga is something like creating a strong armor to shield from the different attacking forces.
5. The path cleared for sharanagati [surrender]
Of course the restrictions are not everything. Real pravritti is not sense gratification, but rather the pleasure of the master of all senses, Hrishikesha. This is but one of countless names for the Almighty, who is also known as Krishna due to His all-attractiveness. The disciplinary action helps to clear the consciousness so that it can focus on devotional activities like chanting, hearing and worshiping. The ability to practice bhakti-yoga is the true boon of the human existence, culminating in the bliss of full surrender.
Interested in religion are you,
First asking what not can do.
Is this or that thing allowed?
Or done in secrecy’s shroud?
Pravritti and nivritti in Vedas told,
Restriction for pleasure to behold.
Avoidance for from distractions free,
Then in surrender the Divine to see.