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

Critique of the Popular Notions of Rebirth and Karma

Having described the prevalent ideas in the popular mind regarding rebirth, life after death and karmic consequences, Sri Aurobindo points out that these ideas clearly do not answer the many significant issues that need to be addressed if we are to truly understand the processes and the meaning behind them. He points out that the idea of undergoing the karmic consequences until such time as one can escape the process entirely does not provide any serious rationale for all of this manifestation to take place at all. “A vast world-system which exists only as a convenience for turning endlessly on a wheel of Ignorance with no issue except a final chance of stepping out of it, is not a world with any real reason for existence. A world which serves only as a school of sin and virtue and consists of a system of rewards and whippings, does not make any better appeal to our intelligence. The soul or spirit within us, if it is divine, immortal or celestial, cannot be sent here solely to be put to school for this kind of crude and primitive moral education; if it enters into the Ignorance, it must be because there is some larger principle or possibility of its being that has to be worked out through the Ignorance. If, on the other hand, it is a being from the Infinite plunged for some cosmic purpose into the obscurity of Matter and growing to self-knowledge within it, its life here and the significance of that life must be something more than that of an infant coddled and whipped into virtuous ways; it must be a growth out of an assumed ignorance toward its own full spiritual stature with a final passage into an immortal consciousness, knowledge, strength, beauty, divine purity and power, and for such a spiritual growth this law of Karma is all too puerile. Even if the soul is something created, an infant being that has to learn from Nature and grow into immortality, it must be by a larger law of growth and not by some divine code of primitive and barbaric justice. This idea of Karma is a construction of the smaller part of the human vital mind concerned with its petty rules of life and its desires and joys and sorrows and erecting their puny standards into the law and aim of the cosmos. These notions cannot be acceptable to the thinking mind; they have too evidently the stamp of a construction fashioned by our human ignorance.”

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

Popular Conceptions of Reincarnation and Karma

“Reincarnation is commonly supposed to have two aspects, metaphysical and moral, an aspect of spiritual necessity, an aspect of cosmic justice and ethical discipline. The soul,–in this view or for this purpose supposed to have a real individual existence,–is on earth as a result of desire and ignorance; it has to remain on earth or return to it always so long as it has not wearied of desire and awakened to the fact of its ignorance and to the true knowledge. This desire compels it to return always to a new body; it must follow always the revolving wheel of birth till it is enlightened and liberated. It does not, however, remain always on earth, but alternates between earth and other worlds, celestial and infernal, where it exhausts its accumulated store of merit or demerit due to the enactment of sin or virtue and then returns to the earth and to some kind of terrestrial body, sometimes human, sometimes animal, sometimes even vegetable. The nature of this new incarnation and its fortunes are determined automatically by the soul’s past actions, Karma; if the sum of past actions was good, the birth is in the higher form, the life happy or successful or unaccountably fortunate; if bad, a lower form of Nature may house us or the life, if human, will be unhappy, unsuccessful, full of suffering and misfortune. If our past actions and character were mixed, then Nature, like a good accountant, gives us, according to the pitch and values of our former conduct, a well-assorted payment of mixed happiness and suffering, success and failure, the rarest good luck and the severest ill-fortune.”

Sri Aurobindo has succinctly summarized the essence of the most popular beliefs about reincarnation and karma in this brief exposition. He further points out that there is actually a double penalty or double reward because not only does the soul ostensibly suffer or enjoy the worlds it inhabits between births based on this karmic system, but then it also takes a new human birth to further be afflicted or rewarded on earth for the same past deeds.

Obviously this view of things is overly simplistic and dramatised and may be more the result of perceived needs within the social order than an expression of any ultimate metaphysical truth. We shall explore the concept of karma in relation to rebirth and other worlds in subsequent posts.

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

The Dynamic Interplay of Forces of Consciousness in Manifestation

Sri Aurobindo affirms, along with the ancient Upanishadic seers of the Taittiriya Upanishad, that “man has within him not only the physical soul or Purusha with its appropriate nature, but a vital, a mental, a psychic, a supramental, a supreme spiritual being; and either the whole or the greater presence or force of them is concealed in his subliminal or latent and unformulated in his superconscient parts. He has to bring forward their powers in his active consciousness and to awake to them in its knowledge.”

There is a complex web of consciousness between the native planes or worlds of each of these powers of consciousness and their manifestation in the physical world. “For when we say that the soul on earth evolves successively the physical, the vital, the mental, the spiritual being, we do not mean that it creates them and that they had no previous existence. On the contrary, what it does is to manifest these principles of its spiritual entity under the conditions imposed by a world of physical Nature; this manifestation takes the form of a structure of frontal personality which is a translation of the inner self into the terms and possibilities of the physical existence.”

Each of these powers, manifesting in the being put forth by the soul in the world, is in communication with and interacts with its native plane from whence it derives its native strength and characteristic forms of action. The interaction is complex, necessarily, as we layer into the physical self, the successive powers of a vital world, a mental world, a spiritual and psychic world, each at various stages of development, each trying to bring about its own optimised realisation and each having to limit itself both by the limitations of the physical world, as well as by the limitations imposed by the other principles. The logic is “a dynamic logic of these finite workings of the Infinite.”

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

Assimilation and Preparation During the Inter-Natal Period

Between death and rebirth, there is an ongoing karmic impulsion that influences the direction and locale of the soul’s sojourn and can influence the next rebirth as well. But the development is not simply a straight-line carrying out of karmic forces, because the purpose of the soul and its evolutionary development requires the ability to exhaust certain tendencies, assimilate the results of the past lifetime, and then prepare for the needs of the next birth for the soul’s growth. Sri Aurobindo describes this process in more detail: “…for a new birth, a new life is not a taking up of the development exactly where it stopped in the last, it does not merely repeat and continue our past surface personality and formation of nature. There is an assimilation, a discarding and strengthening and rearrangement of the old characters and motives, a new ordering of the developments of the past and a selection for the purposes of the future without which the new start cannot be fruitful or carry forward the evolution. For each birth is a new start; it develops indeed from the past, but is not its mechanical continuation: rebirth is not a constant reiteration but a progression, it is the machinery of an evolutionary process. Part of this rearrangement, the discarding especially of past strong vibrations of the personality, can only be effected by an exhaustion of the push of previous mental, vital, physical motives after death, and this internal liberation or lightening of impedimenta must be put through on the planes proper to the motives that are to be discarded or otherwise manipulated, those planes which are themselves of that nature; for it is only there that the soul can still continue the activities which have to be exhausted and rejected from the cnosciousness so that it can pass on to a new formation. It is probable also that the integrating positive preparation would be carried out and the character of the new life would be decided by the soul itself in a resort to its native habitat, a plane of psychic repose, where it would draw all back into itself and await its new stage in the evolution. This would mean a passage of the soul progressively through subtle-physical, vital and mental worlds to the psychic dwelling-place from which it would return to its terrestrial pilgrimage.”

The next rebirth then would not be a straight line result of past lives, but potentially would have an entirely different character once the past formations had been discarded and assimilated, and the soul’s next stage of development determined.

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