The Acts of the Moment Are Created By the Eternal Soul

There is a proverb about not being able to see the forest for the trees. The focus on the individual details makes us lose sight of the “big picture”, the sense or significance, the perspective. Impressionist painters such as Vincent Van Gogh conveyed this sense through their artistic efforts. Up close, their paintings overwhelm one with the incredible number of brush strokes, texture, and color. There is however a “tipping point” as one backs away from the canvas where one suddenly switches from the “detail view” to the “gestalt”, the idea being conveyed, and suddenly the “big picture” takes over and the brush strokes are seen for what they are, the technique or the “facts” by which a larger significance is expressed.

Similarly, we become so involved in and overwhelmed by the detailed acts of our day to day lives that we tend not to recognize the “big picture”, the significance of those lives or those acts.

Sri Aurobindo discusses this situation with a very insightful view about the relationship between the day to day details and the soul’s meaning in creating and carrying out those details: “To understand one must cease to dwell exclusively on the act and will of the moment and its immediate consequences. Our present will and personality are bound by many things, by our physical and vital heredity, by a past creation of our mental nature, environmental forces, by limitation, by ignorance. But our soul behind is greater and older than our present personality. The soul is not the result of our heredity, but has prepared by its own action and affinities this heredity. It has drawn around it these environmental forces by past karma and consequence. It has created in other lives the mental nature of which now it makes use.”

Just as we undergo a transformation in our view of life when we understand that the sun does not revolve around the earth, but the earth around the sun; and that the entire solar system is part of an enormous Milky Way Galaxy which is a part of a larger universe, we can begin to understand the soul’s action and the true meaning of the details of our day to day lives when we take a different standpoint outside the focus on each of the details and begin to view the “big picture”.

Modern psychologists point out that there are essentially two hemispheres to the human brain. Left brain activity tends to be fixated on details, analysis and “the trees” of our lives; while right brain activity looks at the “gestalt”, the “big picture”, “the forest” if you will. Both of these perspectives are valuable, but they must be integrated in order to give a true sense and meaning to what we experience.

Sri Aurobindo points out “To live in this knowledge is not to take away the value and potency of the moment’s will and act, but to give it an immensely increased meaning and importance….Our every thought, will, action carries with it its power of future self-determination and is too a help or a hindrance for the spiritual evolution of those around us and a force in the universal working. For the soul in us takes in the influences it receives from others for its own self-determination and gives out influences which the soul in them uses for their growth and experience. Our individual life becomes an immensely greater thing in itself and is convinced too of an abiding unity with the march of the universe.”

Sri Aurobindo,Rebirth and Karma, Section I, Chapter 10, Karma, Will and Consequence, pg. 90,

The Surface Personality and the Inner Person: Bound Will and Free Will

If we consider carefully the wellsprings of action in our surface personality, we find that there is no reality to the concept of free will, and that our actions are conditioned and determined by both our individual karmic chain of past consequences, and by the impact of the universal being of which we are a part on our action. We like to believe that we are somehow separate and distinct from this universal manifestation, and that we can thereby be free of its influence, but this is an illusion, not a reality. Sri Aurobindo discusses this issue: “The dealings of our will with Karma and consequence have to be envisaged in the light of this double truth of man’s individuality and man’s universality.” and “It becomes clear enough that our ego, our outward personality can be only a minor, a temporal, an instrumental form of our being. The will of the ego, the outward, the mentally personal will which acts in the movement cannot be free in any complete or separate sense of freedom. It cannot so be free because it is bound by its partial and limited nature and it is shaped by the mechanism of its ignorance, and again because it is an individualised form and working of the universal energy and at every moment impinged upon and modified and largely shaped by environing wills and powers and forces.”

The inner person, connected to the transcendent and the universal Being that is manifesting and unfolding the universal creation, partakes of the freedom of the Spirit and is one with the consciousness that directs and drives the manifestation.

“The inward will in the being which is in intimacy with that Power is the real will and this outward thing only an instrumentation for a working out from moment to moment, a spring of the karmic mechanism. That inward will we find when we get back to it, to be a free will, not armoured in a separate liberty, but free in harmony with the freedom of the Spirit guiding and compelling Nature in all souls and in all happenings.”

Sri Aurobindo,Rebirth and Karma, Section I, Chapter 10, Karma, Will and Consequence, pp. 88-90,

The Eternal Soul Of Man Acts To Carry Out the Eternal Will In Manifestation

Sri Aurobindo clarifies the balanced view that neither overstates nor understates the importance and role of man in the universal manifestation: “Man is a conscious soul of the Eternal, one with the Infinite in his inmost being, and the spirit within him is master of his acts and his fate.”

When we consider the question of Fate or Karma or any other idea that implies some externally determined result that is either pre-destined or at least guided to a specific result and conclusion, we should consider it from this standpoint. We are not separated from the Eternal and Infinite. We are not therefore simply victims of fate or controlled by Karma.

Sri Aurobindo in fact redefines the concept of fate: “For fate is fatum, the form of act and creation declared beforehand by a Will within him and the universe as the thing to be done, to be achieved, to be worked out and made the self-expression of his spiritual being. Fate is adrsta, the unseen thing which the Spirit holds hidden in the plan of its vision, the consequence concealed from the travailing mind absorbed in the work of the moment by the curtained nearnesses or the far invisible reaches of Time. Fate is niyati, the thing willed and executed by Nature, who is power of the Spirit, according to a fixed law of it self-governed workings.”

This obviously changes our view of our role in the universe: “But since this Eternal and Infinite, our greater Self, is also the universal being, man in the universe is inseparably one with all the rest of existence, not a soul working out its isolated spiritual destiny and nature while all other beings are nothing but his environment and means or obstacles,–that they are indeed, but they are much more to him,–which is the impression cast on the mind by the thought or the religions that emphasise too much his centre of individuality or his aim of personal salvation. He is not indeed solely a portion of the universe. He is an eternal soul which, though limited for certain temporal purposes in its outward consciousness, has to learn to enlarge itself out of those limits, to find and make effective its unity with the eternal Spirit who informs and transcends the universe.”

Sri Aurobindo,Rebirth and Karma, Section I, Chapter 10, Karma, Will and Consequence, pg. 88,

The Value and Significance of the Role of Man In the Universe

Our view of the role and importance of man in the grand scheme of things has gone through the entire gamut from the one extreme that holds that human beings are simply specks of dust in a vast mechanical machinery, essentially having little or no ultimate value, to the other extreme that places man at the center of creation as the most important of all beings (and many positions between these two extremes). While we may not be able to say, as some have said that “man is the measure of all things”, we can nevertheless appreciate that there is a real and significant role for a being that provides conscious awareness, self-reflection and an intuition and aspiration for further evolutionary development.

Sri Aurobindo describes this role in the following way: “The will of man is the agent of the Eternal for the unveiling of his secret meaning in the material creation. Man’s mind takes up all the knots of the problem and works them out by the power of the spirit within him and brings them nearer to the full force and degree of their individual and cosmic solutions. This is his dignity and his greatness and he needs no other to justify and give a perfect value to his birth and his acts and his passing and his return to birth, a return which must be–and what is there in it to grieve at or shun?–until the work of the Eternal in him is perfected or the cycles rest from the glory of their labour.”

Man’s will represents an action of the Eternal in the evolutionary schema and is part of the engine that drives forward the unfolding and expression of ever higher levels of consciousness in the material universe.

Sri Aurobindo,Rebirth and Karma, Section I, Chapter 10, Karma, Will and Consequence, pp. 87-88,

The Will of the Spirit Provides Significance to Existence

As we have determined in our review thus far, the material world is not the origin of existence, but the result of the Spirit’s involution of consciousness. It is not a mechanical world absent any deeper significance, but rather, all Matter is instinct with consciousness–there is a precise, highly-organized and intelligent order to Matter and Life. The systematic development of Life out of Matter and Mind out of Life is an unfolding of the Consciousness contained secretly therein. It is with this understanding that we begin to look at the relationship of Will, Karma and consequence in this new chapter.

Sri Aurobindo introduces the subject with a defining statement: “Will, Karma and consequence are the three steps of the Energy which moves the universe. But Karma and consequence are only the outcome of will or even its forms; will gives them their value and without it they would be nothing, nothing at least to man the thinking and growing soul and nothing, it may be hazarded, to the Spirit of which he is a flame and power as well as a creature.”

Sri Aurobindo points out that the meaning of this entire existence comes from the will of the Spirit: “But by itself and without the light of an inhabiting will this working is only a huge soulless mechanism, a loud rattling of crank and pulley, a monstrous pounding of spring and piston. It is the presence of the spirit and its will that gives a meaning to the action and it is the value of the result to the soul that gives its profound importance to all great or little consequence.”

“Spirit and consciousness and power of the spirit and Ananda are the meaning of existence. Take away this spiritual significance and this world of energy becomes a mechanical fortuity or a blind and rigid Maya.”

Sri Aurobindo,Rebirth and Karma, Section I, Chapter 10, Karma, Will and Consequence, pg. 87,

The Soul’s Assent and Mastery Over Nature and Karma

As long as we remain rooted in the surface consciousness, including body, life and mind, we are essentially the puppets of Nature and under subjection to the law of Karma. In order to achieve liberation from the bondage of Karma, it is essential that we find and establish our standpoint in the witness consciousness. Sri Aurobindo describes the separation of Purusha and Prakriti. This becomes more and more possible as we achieve higher expressions of consciousness in the evolution from Matter, to Life and then to Mind. “But thinking man who experiences increasingly from generation to generation and from life to life the nature of things and develops reflective knowledge and the sense of his soul in Nature, delivers in her a power of initiating will. He is not bound to her set actualities; he can refuse assent, and the thing inNature to which it is refused goes on indeed for a time and produces its results by impetus of Karma, but as it runs, it loses power and falls into impotence and desuetude. He can do more, he can command a new action and orientation of his nature. The assent was a manifestation of the power of the soul as giver of the sanction, anumanta, but this is a power of the soul as active lord of the nature, isvara.

There is an interim period while the soul establishes its poise as master of the Nature that the old actions continue or try to reassert themselves, but eventually they must give way to the new direction and impetus provided by the soul. “The mental being in us can be a learner in the school of freedom, not a perfect adept. A real freedom comes when we get away from the mind into the life of the spirit, from personality o the Person, from Nature to the lord of Nature.”

“But if man would have too a freedom of power, of participation, of companionship as the son of God in a greater divine control, he must then not only get back from mind, but must stand, in his thought and will even, above the levels of mentality and find there a station of leverage… whence he can sovereignly move the world of his being. Such a station of consciousness there is in the supramental ranges. When the soul is one with the Supreme and with the universal not only in essence of consciousness and spiritual truth of being, but in expressive act too of consciousness and being, when it enjoys an initiating and relating truth of spiritual will and knowledge and the soul’s overflowing delight in God and existence, when it is admitted to the spirit’s fullness of asset to self and its creative liberty, its strain of an eternal joy in self-existence ad self-manifestation, Karma itself becomes a rhythm of freedom and birth a strain of immortality.”

Sri Aurobindo,Rebirth and Karma, Section I, Chapter 9, Karma and Freedom, pp. 85-86,

Freedom Is Of the Soul, Not the Surface Personality

There remains within each of us a sense that we have “free will”. Close examination shows us that the actions of body, life and mind are conditioned by past causes. The sense of freedom belongs, not to the ego personality that we tend to fixate upon, but from the deeper soul sense that is part of the Spirit here in the manifestation. Sri Aurobindo describes this as follows: “…this freedom and power are influences from the soul. To use a familiar metaphysical language, they type the assent and will of the Purusha without which the Prakriti cannot move on her way. The first and greater part of this soul-influence is in the form of an assent to Nature, an acquiescence; and for good reason. For I start with the action of the universal Energy which the Spirit has set in motion and as I rise from the ignorance towards knowledge, the first thing demanded from me is to gather experience of its law and of my relations to the law and partly therefore to acquiesce, to allow myself to be moved, to see and to come to know the nature of the motions, to suffer and obey the law, to understand and know Karma.”

The famous image from the Upanishads comes to mind, wherein there are two birds sitting on a common tree. One of them eats the sweet fruit, while the other watches and provides assent. The bird which eats of the fruit is the Prakriti, the nature, consisting of body, life and mind bound together through the device of the surface personality, the ego, and this bird is bound by the law of Karma, cause and effect, through participating in eating the fruits of past actions. The bird which watches and assents is the Purusha, the deeper true personality which is free of the actions of Karma and is not bound by the fruits of the past.

Sri Aurobindo,Rebirth and Karma, Section I, Chapter 9, Karma and Freedom, pp. 84-85,

Partial Freedom Constrained By the Law of Karma

Our identification with the Mind, Life and Body, through the device of the ego-personality, ensures that we experience the limitations caused by the law of Karma. This is to some degree a protective device while consciousness systematically unfolds and manifests to ever greater extents in the world. Just as we stake a young tree to protect it from the wind, the law of Karma acts as a guiding factor while we act predominantly from the basis of Ignorance due to the deeply involved nature of Consciousness in the material world. Until we are ready for freedom, we are aided by the cause-effect nature of action in the world, and we thereby are able to test our understanding and fine tune our line of action, as we systematically learn and grow into a greater consciousness, and with it, a greater freedom.

Sri Aurobindo reviews the reason for this: “I appear to be bound by the law of an outward and imposed energy only because there is separation between my outward nature and my inmost spiritual self and I do not live in that outwardness with my whole being, but with a shape, turn and mental formation of myself which I call my ego or my personality.”

Since Mind also partakes of the nature of Ignorance, it cannot also act with untrammeled freedom: “An Ignorance cannot be permitted to have, even if in its nature it could have, free mastery. It would never do for an ignorant mind and will to be given a wide and real freedom; for it would upset the right order of the energy which the Spirit has set at work and produce a most unholy confusion. It must be forced to obey or, if it resists, to bear the reaction of the Law; its partial freedom of a clouded and stumbling knowledge must be constantly overruled both in its action and its result by the law of universal Nature and the will of the seeing universal Spirit who governs the dispositions and consequences of Karma. This constrained overruled action is in patent fact the character of our mental being and action.”

Sri Aurobindo,Rebirth and Karma, Section I, Chapter 9, Karma and Freedom, pp. 83-84,

The Free Individual Power of the Spirit Uses Karma As Its Instrument of Action

As long as we place ourselves within the framework of Body, Life and Mind, and identify ourselves with them, we have the perception that we are bound by the chain of cause and effect, the law of Karma. In order to escape from this bondage, the most frequently proposed solutions involve abandonment of the force of desire, and the consequent abandonment of the life and actions of the world. Whether this leads to “nirvana” or to an absolute, silent and unmoving identification with the eternal Brahman, the path is away from the world.

Sri Aurobindo proposes another solution, however. This solution assigns a real significance and purpose to the life in the world and the evolution of consciousness that we see as the defining thread running through the development we can observe or infer. He accepts the idea that the law of Karma is the instrument of this development. The idea of freedom from karma, which in the past has been based on abandonment of the life of action, needs to find a new meaning from this viewpoint.

Sri Aurobindo finds the answer to this conundrum in the idea that the eternal Spirit, which stands outside the action of Nature, and shapes, controls and utilizes it, has an element here within the framework, but nevertheless independent of it and partaking of the freedom of the Spirit. This is the individual soul. The mind, life and body, as instruments of Nature, are subject to the law of Karma.

Sri Aurobindo explains: “These things are subject to the action of Karma, but man in himself, the real man within is not its subject, na karma lipyate nare”. Rather is Karma his instrument and its developments the material he uses, and he is using it always from life to life for the shaping of a limited and individual, which may be one day a divine and cosmic personality. For the eternal spirit enjoys an absolute freedom.”

The Spirit is free, both outside the manifestation and within it. The action, the energy, the materiality does not bind the freedom of the Spirit. To the extent that we recognize that the individual soul partakes of the eternal Spirit, it too must be free.

“But if….there is any such thing as an individual power of spirit, it must, in whatever degree of actuality share in the united force and freedom of the self-existent Divinity; for it is being of his being.”

Sri Aurobindo,Rebirth and Karma, Section I, Chapter 9, Karma and Freedom, pp. 82-83,

Free in the Spirit, Subject to the Law of Nature in Action

When we review the 3 concepts of the nature of existence, it becomes clear that the first two have been widely explored in the past and leave us unsatisfied due to the apparent weaknesses in their positions. The third one, the free and eternal Spirit manifesting through individual souls within the framework of the action of Nature, and becoming ever more conscious as higher stages of evolution manifest, clearly requires a further review and deeper consideration.

In this instance, the fact that the law of Nature is being carried out and allowed to operate does not negate the inner or underlying freedom of the Spirit. Since the Spirit created this process, it is certainly reasonable to expect that it would abide by that process in its systematic evolution of consciousness in the manifestation. It is analogous to a business organisation setting up a series of procedures and having everyone in the organisation, including the founders and top management personnel, work within that framework. The decision is one of “choice”, but there is a benefit to working within the framework that has been developed.

Sri Aurobindo comments on this concept: “This law would be in phenomenon or as seen in a superficial view of its sole outward machinery an apparent chain of necessity, but in fact it would be a free self-determination of the Spirit in existence. The free self and spirit would be there informing all the action of material energy, secretly conscient in its inconscience; his would be the movement of life and its inner spirit of guidance; but in mind would be something of the first open light of his presence.”

The progressive development of new and higher powers of consciousness, unfolding successively through Matter, Life and Mind, would appear to be totally involved and bound at the material level, still bound but gaining a sense of more free action in Life and, while still bound in Mind, awakening to the higher possibilities of freedom by contact with the higher spiritual powers of creation.

This would yield a result “Free in the spirit within, conditioned and determined in Nature, striving in his soul to bring out the spiritual light, mastery and freedom to work upon the obscurity and embarassment of his first natural conditions and their narrow determinations, this would be the nature of man the mental being.”

Sri Aurobindo,Rebirth and Karma, Section I, Chapter 9, Karma and Freedom, pp. 81-82,