The Vendor of Sweets

by R. K. Narayan

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What does “Conquer taste, and you will have conquered the self” mean in The Vendor of Sweets?

Quick answer:

The meaning of the statement is that if you can control the senses, you can control yourself. Jagan looks upon the senses as enemies that need to be conquered to lead a life that is free from sensuous desires.

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In the first few pages of The Vendor of Sweets, we are introduced to the philosophical maxim by which Jagan tries to live his life:

Conquer taste, and you will have conquered the self.

What Jagan means by this is you have to keep your senses and the desires they elicit firmly under control if you're to lead a meaningful, fulfilling life. Jagan clearly believes that the senses can lead you astray and make you their slave. This is no kind of life for anyone, so it is essential to exert some measure of control over the senses as a means of thwarting their potentially deadly power.

Jagan comes across as more than a little full of himself, smugly self-satisfied with what he believes to be his moral superiority over others. Other people may succumb to their senses, but not Jagan. He looks down on them, safe in the knowledge that he at least knows the importance of controlling and conquering one's senses.

And yet, ironically, Jagan runs a sweet shop, whose products cater to his customers' sense of taste. That he is able to do this without succumbing to the seductive power of the senses simply confirms Jagan in his belief that he is not like other people, that he can rise above the mere rabble, all of whom are slaves to their sensory desires.

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Who says "conquer taste, and you will have conquered the self" in The Vendor of Sweets?

In The Vendor of Sweets, the protagonist Jagan is a strong advocate of moderation in one’s appetites. He applies this philosophy literally to his diet. "Conquer taste, and you will have conquered the self” is a maxim that he says guides his life. Jagan associates restraint in what one eats with the ability to maintain a detached attitude. If one does not exercise self-restraint, one may be unduly swayed by physical desires and thus become unable to resist related temptations. His ideas draw on Hindu teachings, including adherence to a vegetarian diet, especially those associated with the practices that Mohandas Gandhi advocated during the struggle for Indian independence from Britain.

Jagan’s ideas about taste go beyond food, however. As he nears retirement, he also anticipates withdrawing from the practical responsibilities of running a business. His stated preferences are for a simple life, away from even minor luxuries associated with middle-class lifestyle. A contemplative approach that allows him to further pursue his religious studies is what he envisions for his senior years. The problem with Jagan’s philosophy is that he believes he can apply it to himself even as he promotes the opposite attitude and behaviors in others. As he operates a confectionary, his entire livelihood depends on cultivating a sweet tooth in others.

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