The Persistent Soul Is Not the Limited Individual Personality

When people conceive of a life after death and a subsequent rebirth, they almost invariably overlay their current life, personality and circumstances over that conception. They thus tend to believe that the same “I” that they recognise in this lifetime somehow is going to be consistent and identifiable in future lifetimes. “John Smith” today is “John Smith” in some future lifetime as well, carrying on a consistent story-line, with the one that we experience today. This however is not a realistic nor logical conclusion about the functioning of the process of rebirth, the law of karma, or the evolutionary cycle of development. Sri Aurobindo explains: “For the growth of the embodied being towards the full stature of its reality, not only a new experience, but a new personality is indispensable; to repeat the same personality would only be helpful if something had been incomplete in its formation of its experience which needed to be worked out in the same cadre of self, in the same building of mind and with the same formed capacity of energy.” If this were to occur, however, “Our life and rebirth would be always the same recurring decimal; it would be not an evolution but the meaningless continuity of an eternal repetition. Our attachment to our present personality demands such a continuity, such a repetition; John Smith wants to be John Smith for ever: but the demand is obviously ignorant and, if it were satisfied, that would be a frustration, not a fulfilment. It is only by a change of outer self, a constant progression of the nature, a growth in the spirit that we can justify our existence.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Life Divine, Book 2, Part 2, Chapter 22, Rebirth and Other Worlds; Karma, the Soul and Immortality


The Law of Karma Transcends Human Value Judgments

When we try to superimpose our limited human value judgments on the cosmic Intelligence, we wind up with a distorted view and understanding of the larger movements of energy of which the Reality consists. “In the action attributed to the law of Karma two values are selected out of the many created by Nature, moral good and evil, sin and virtue, and vital-physical good and evil, outward happiness and suffering, outward good fortune and ill-fortune, and it is supposed that there must be an equation between them, the one must be the reward or punishment of the other, the final sanction which it receives in the secret justice of Nature.” It is quite clear, however that the universal manifestation is not limited by nor bound to human terms of judgment and that there is no necessary linkage that would make the law of Karma a dispenser of Justice based on human desire or understanding. “Human beings have erected the rule of reward and punishment as a social necessity in order to restrain the doing of things harmful to the community and encourage what is helpful to it; but to erect this human device into a general law of cosmic Nature or a law of the supreme Being or the supreme law of existence is a procedure of doubtful value. It is human, but also puerile, to impose the insufficient and narrow standards of our own Ignorance on the larger and more intricate operations of cosmic Nature or on the actions of the supreme Wisdom and supreme Good which draws or raises us towards itself by a spiritual power working slowly in ourselves through our inner being and not by a law of tempation and compulsion upon our outer vital nature. If the soul is passing through an evolution by a many-sided and complex experience, any law of Karma or return to action and output of Energy, if it is to fit itself into that experience, must also be complex and cannot be of a simple and exiguous texture or rigid and one-sided in its incidence.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Life Divine, Book 2, Part 2, Chapter 22, Rebirth and Other Worlds; Karma, the Soul and Immortality

Luck, Fortune, Destiny and Karma

Many people attribute to the working of the law of karma the good luck, fortune or ill-luck that seems to have no specific root cause in the current lifetime. The argument goes that this is some kind of recompense or retribution for the good deeds or sins of a past lifetime. This argument, however, is too simplistic and boils down karma to some kind of mathematical justice-meting machinery across lifetimes, with the human judgment of “good” or “bad” acting as the “principle” upon which this karma supposedly operates.

Sri Aurobindo takes a more complex view of the matter: “There is indeed in our life a very large element of what we call luck or fortune, which baulks our effort of result or gives the prize without effort or to an inferior energy: the secret cause of these caprices of Destiny,–or causes, for the roots of Fortune may be manifold,–must be no doubt partly sought for in our hidden past; but it is difficult to accept the simple solution that good luck is a return for a forgotten virtuous action in a past life and bad luck a return for a sin or crime. If we see the rightous man suffering here, it is difficult to believe that this paragon of virtue was in the last life a scoundrel and is paying, even after his exemplary conversion by a new birth, for sins he then committed; nor, if the wicked triumphs, can we easily suppose that he was in his last life a saint who has suddenly taken a wrong turn but continues to receive a cash-return for his previous virtue. A total change of this kind between life and life is possible though not likely to be frequent, but to saddle the new opposite personality with the rewards or punishments of the old looks like a purposeless and purely mechanical procedure. This and many other difficulties arise, and the too simple logic of the correlation is not so strong as it claims to be; the idea of retribution of Karma as a compensation for the injustice of life and Nature is a feeble basis for the theory, for it puts forward a shallow and superficial human feeling and standard as the sense of the cosmic Law and is based on an unsound reasoning; there must be some other and stronger foundation for the law of Karma.”

In fact, it would not make sense when we have understood Karma to be the momentum and carrying out of the consequences of the movement of energy, as we would expect to see the positive actions of the saint continue to develop as the soul takes up its ongoing evolutionary progression, and similarly those wedded to desire and all kinds of vital impulsions would not necessarily enjoy the fruits of virtue in the next subsequent lifetime, but would likely be working out the attachments and residual results of that highly-focused and formed desire body of the past which impels itself onward until resolved.

Sri Aurobindo, The Life Divine, Book 2, Part 2, Chapter 22, Rebirth and Other Worlds; Karma, the Soul and Immortality

Subtlety of Karmic Results Based on Interaction of Forces of Energy

There is a risk or tendency from the discussion about the result of energy discussed in the prior post, to try to turn this into an “all or nothing” result; whereas the Spirit is not only free, but also extremely flexible and multi-faceted. Thus, when we say that success in worldly matters goes to those who focus on those affairs, not to those who focus on ethics or virtue, this is obviously not intended to be a rule with “blinders” on. Each type of energy is in fact interacting in the same pool of energy with all the others, so there are mixtures, interactions, and inter-relationships that prevent the pure single force from finding its fulfilment 100% in its own right. As an example, someone using cut-throat methods in business and not caring about ethical considerations might show some success in business, but at some point, there may be a reaction from the community of business, or business partners, or the society that turns the success into failure, or limits the “success”. In this case, an extreme one-sided concentration without concern for other principles of action can sabotage the “success” of the action. We see a similar type of admixture everywhere. A focus on physical health for instance may yield the strong, vibrant athletic success, but if done without consideration for development of emotional and mental balance and intelligence, can turn into an obsession, go beyond limits and eventually potentially lead to a breakdown of physical health at some later point in time. Similarly those who focus on sensual enjoyment of life oftentimes find that by not including other principles of energy, they actually wind up with physical, mental or emotional suffering along the way. As the mental development becomes generalised it begins to impinge upon the pure animal reactions on the physical and vital planes of energy and we see much more subtle, varied and mixed results that have to be understood as the usual case, rather than simply focusing on extreme examples of single energy development, although it is easier to appreciate the principle in the abstract pure form initially.

Sri Aurobindo, The Life Divine, Book 2, Part 2, Chapter 22, Rebirth and Other Worlds; Karma, the Soul and Immortality

Karma Is Nature’s Response to Energy Not Ethical Imperative

To continue the thought of the prior post, it is useful to follow up the concepts with some specific circumstances and instances. We often confuse results based on our moral or ethical overlay, and thereby become upset when we see people enjoying life who are “bad” or people who are suffering although they are “good”. Sri Aurobindo’s view quickly clears up this type of confusion: “An energy of seeking for truth and knowledge must have as its natural outcome,–its reward or recompense, if you will,–a growth into truth, an increase in knowledge; an energy used for falsehood should result in an increase of falsehood in the nature and a deeper immersion in the Ignorance. An energy of pursuit of beauty should have as its outcome an increase in the sense of beauty, the enjoyment of beauty or, if so directed, in the beauty and harmony of the life and the nature. A pursuit of physical health, strength and capacity should create the strong man or the successful athlete. An energy put out in the pursuit of ethical good must have as its outcome or reward or recompense an increase in virtue, the happiness of ethical growth or the sunny felicity and poise and purity of a simple and natural goodness, while the punishment of opposite energies would be a deeper plunge into evil, a greater disharmony and perversion of the nature and, in case of excess, a great spiritual perdition, mahati vinastihi. An energy put forward for power or other vital ends must lead to an increase of the capacity for commanding these results or to the development of a vital strength and plenitude. This is the ordinary disposition of things in Nature and, if justice be demanded of her, this surely is justice that the energy and capacity put forward should have in its own kind its fitting response from her. The prize of the race is assigned by her to the swift, the victory in battle to the brave and strong and skilful, the rewards of knowledge to the capable intellect and the earnest seeker: these things she will not give to the good man who is sluggish or weak or skilless or stupid merely because he is righteous or respectable; if he covets these other powers of life, he must qualify for them and put forward the right kind of energy. If Nature did otherwise, she could well be accused of injustice; there is no reason to accuse her of injustice for this perfectly right and normal arrangement or to demand from her a rectification of the balance in a future life so that the good man may be given as a natural reward for his virtue a high post or a large bank-balance or a happy, easy and well-appointed life. That cannot be the significance of rebirth or a sufficient basis for a cosmic law of Karma.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Life Divine, Book 2, Part 2, Chapter 22, Rebirth and Other Worlds; Karma, the Soul and Immortality

The Complex Interaction of Forces That Create Karmic Results

While most people try to boil down the “law of karma” to some kind of moral or ethical imperative, Sri Aurobindo points out that in fact, it is much more subtle and complex than that, and is in fact, not primarily a moral or ethical law, but a law of the movement, momentum and direction of energy. This leads to both a very “mixed” thread of results, and particularly if looked at from an ethical or moral standpoint, these results might be hard to accept. For instance, someone might be focused on carrying out certain high principles of morality, but at the same time, not take care of his personal physical health or economic well-being. You would then potentially see a “result” that provides moral benefit and satisfaction, but appearing in the person of someone who is hungry, ill, cold and homeless! The “moral” benefit would occur, but not as some kind of material “reward”.

“Action is a resultant of the energy of the being, but this energy is not of one sole kind; the Consciousness-Force of the Spirit manifests itself in many kinds of energies: there are inner activities of mind, activities of life, of desire, passion, impulse, character, activities of the senses and the body, a pursuit of truth and knowledge, a pursuit of beauty, a pursuit of ethical good or evil, a pursuit of power, love, joy, happiness, fortune, success, pleasure, life-satisfactions of all kinds, life-enlargement, a pursuit of individual or collective objects, a pursuit of the health, strength, capacity, satisfaction of the body. All this makes an exceedingly complex sum of the manifold experience and many-sided action of the Spirit in life, and its variety cannot be set aside in favour of a single principles, neither can it be hammered into so many sections of the single duality of ethical good and evil; ethics, the maintenance of human standards of morality, cannot, therefore, be the sole preoccupation of the cosmic Law or the sole principle of determination of the working of Karma. If it is true that the nature of the energy put forth must determine the nature of the result or outcome, all these differences in the nature of the energy have to be taken into account and each must have its appropriate consequence.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Life Divine, Book 2, Part 2, Chapter 22, Rebirth and Other Worlds; Karma, the Soul and Immortality

Karma, Will and Consciousness

Sri Aurobindo reiterates that it cannot be a fact that the soul is entirely subject to the mechanical working of an inflexible law of Karma. Thus, the law of Karma can only be part of a much larger process that includes higher laws that bring a certain amount of flexibility and conscious will into the actual working out of future lives and events. There is a secret Will which operates behind the law of Karma and provides the consent and support of the psychic being, the soul in manifestation, to the karmic mechanismus. “That secret Will is not mechanical, but spiritual; the guidance comes from an Intelligence which may use mechanical processes but is not their subject. Self-expression and experience are what the soul seeks by its birth into the body; whatever is necessary for the self-expression and experience of this life, whether it intervenes as an automatic outcome of past lives or as a free selection of results and a continuity or as a new development, whatever is a means of creation of the future, that will be formulated: for the principle is not the working out of a mechanism of Law, but the development of the nature through cosmic experience so that eventually it may grow out of the Ignorance. There must therefore be two elements, Karma as an instrument, but also the secret Consciousness and Will within working through the mind, life and body as the user. Fate, whether purely mechanical or created by ourselves, a chain of our own manufacture, is only one factor of existence; Being and its consciousness and its will are a still more important factor.”

Karma may be a strong factor in the result, but it can be modified or overcome by the spiritual Will, exercising forces operating on a different plane and with a different power than Karma. “Karma, then,–or at least any mechanical law of Karma,–cannot be accepted as the sole determinant of circumstances and the whole machinery of rebirth and of our future evolution.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Life Divine, Book 2, Part 2, Chapter 22, Rebirth and Other Worlds; Karma, the Soul and Immortality

Karmic Law and Spiritual Freedom

The law of Karma represents just one side of the manifestation–the side of process and system. It provides a framework and a mechanism, but not the significance or the inner reality or purpose of the manifestation. Sri Aurobindo discusses this as follows: “But all is not Law and Process, there is also Being and Consciousness; there is not only a machinery but a Spirit in things, not only Nature and law of cosmos but a cosmic Spirit, not only a process of mind and life and body but a soul in the natural creature. If it were not so, there could be no rebirth of a soul and no field for a law of Karma. But if the fundamental truth of our being is spiritual and not mechanical, it must be ourself, our soul that fundamentally determines its own evolution, and the law of Karma can only be one of the processes it uses for that purpose: our Spirit, our Self must be greater than its Karma. There is Law, but there is also spiritual freedom. Law and Process are one side of our existence and their reign is over our outer mind, life and body, for these are mostly subject to the mechanism of Nature. But even here their mechanical power is absolute only over body and Matter; for Law becomes more complex and less rigid, Process more plastic and less mechanical when there comes in the phenomenon of Life, and yet more is this so when Mind intervenes with its subtlety; an inner freedom already begins to intervene and, the more we go within, the soul’s power of choice is increasingly felt: for Prakriti is the field of law and process, but the soul, the Purusha, is the giver of the sanction, anumanta, and even if ordinarily it chooses to remain a witness and concede an automatic sanction, it can be, if it wills, the master of its nature, Ishwara.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Life Divine, Book 2, Part 2, Chapter 22, Rebirth and Other Worlds; Karma, the Soul and Immortality

Karma and Cosmic Justice

It is popularly held that the law of karma functions as a type of judicial system, meting out “good” to the “good” and “retribution” to the “evil”. When this is not obvious in a particular lifetime, the notion goes, then it will be served up in a subsequent incarnation. Karma is then seen as a type of divine providence or machinery of justice that is able to weigh up the good or bad deeds and mete out the required recompense.

While this notion has its apparent benefits to those in power in the world who would like to curb the impulses of the masses, it is clear that it is far too mechanistic and far too wooden in its construction to actually capture the essence of the true action of karma.

The question arises, can good lead to bad, or bad lead to good? We can see, in fact, that karma is a working of energy not a legal justice system, and thus, the energy will have its effects, regardless of the moral or ethical interpretation that we put on the actions from our own limited perspective. We can see, in fact, throughout the course of history that some actions that were interpreted as “good” led to negative consequences later; and those that were interpreted as “bad” actually led to a long-term positive result. And then there is the “law of unintended consequences” where the intention was good, but the energy that was put into motion had “side effects” that could be disastrous.

We face certain of these quandaries in our society today. In trying to heal people of various diseases we have developed antibiotics. These have relieved a lot of pain and suffering, but eventually, they are being used so widely that they are getting into the water supply, and breeding “super-bugs” that are antibiotic resistant and potentially capable thereby of creating a scourge far more deadly and wide-spread than the diseases that those antibiotics were intended to treat.

Removing our short-sighted ethical and moral judgments and simply looking at the energy and its impact, we can assert a “law of Karma”. The subtlety of this working and its significance is a subject that will occupy further posts.

Sri Aurobindo, The Life Divine, Book 2, Part 2, Chapter 22, Rebirth and Other Worlds; Karma, the Soul and Immortality

The Deeper Sense of the Law of Karma

Having critiqued the popular notions of the law of karma, Sri Aurobindo takes up the deeper meaning of the law of karma and points out that one way or the other, actions have consequences, and those consequences create results. He points out that “all energies in Nature must have their natural consequence; if any are without visible result in the present life, it may well be that the outcome is only delayed, not withheld for ever.”

The popular view does not often deal with more general consequences, but there is also a truth to the fact that the acts of a particular individual may in fact have consequences on and effects for others, both those tied to that individual through some direct relationship and through general impacts which we may call the “societal karma”, whereby the pooled focus and actions of a number of people may create a wide-reaching impact that can affect entire societies, civilisations and the planetary systems themselves. The concept of “climate change” for instance represents a collective action by billions of humans on the planet which is already visibly creating widespread suffering and destruction through drought, flooding, higher intensity storms, rising sea levels, wider territories for disease or insect vectors to operate, etc. The law of karma clearly carries out the effect of the actions and visits them to the degree that they impact the world and its beings.

Of course, there is also the “personal” working of the law of Karma which can and does create both the individual human being’s life and circumstances, as well as, through its momentum and direction, the impact on life after death and a subsequent rebirth. “Man’s being, nature, circumstances of life are the result of his own inner and outer activities, not something fortuitous and inexplicable: he is what he has made himself; the past man was the father of the man that now is, the present man is the father of the man that will be. Each being reaps what he sows; from what he does he profits, for what he does he suffers. This is the law and chain of Karma, of Action , of the work of Nature-Energy, and it gives a meaning to the total force of our existence, nature, character, action which is absent from other theories of life.”

The working of the law of karma is an inevitable and indisputable part of the cosmic machinery and it makes intelligible the way the development of human lives proceeds, providing an inner sense and significance to it.

Sri Aurobindo, The Life Divine, Book 2, Part 2, Chapter 22, Rebirth and Other Worlds; Karma, the Soul and Immortality