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,

Three Conceptions of the Nature of Existence

While there are many ideas about the nature of existence, there are three that seem to capture the primary directions, albeit with variances based on viewpoints of different perspectives. These three include an essential non-theistic approach of some kind of mechanical universal Necessity; a theistic approach of an infinite Being, a Creator who has essentially created and developed the universal manifestation, and then there is the concept of an Existence which develops the relations of the universe, populates it with aspects of itself in the form of souls, and allows their free interaction within the framework of the basic principles of existence.

Sri Aurobindo describes the nature of the first conception: “The nature of this Necessity would be that of a fixed processus bound to certain initial and general determinations of which all the rest is the consequence.” “…against or behind that nothing or some absolute non-existence.” This conception obviously does not explain very much, but responds to our physical sense of the world around us without delving deeper beyond the surface appearance.

The concept of an external Creator is of course extremely widely disseminated, particularly in the West. Sri Aurobindo describes this concept in the bigger picture of reviewing the nature of existence: “Then, there is the idea of a free infinite Being, God or Absolute, who somehow or othe creates out of something or out of nothing, in reality or only in conception, or brings out of himself into manifestation a world of the necessity of his will or Maya or Karma in which all things, all creatures are bound as the victims of a necessity, not mechanical or external, but spiritual and internal, a force of Ignorance or a force of Karma or else some kind of arbitrary predestination.” While this conception moves beyond the limits of a purely external mechanical universe, it does not yet imply any operation of free will in the universe.

The third conception is described as follows: “And, finally, there is the idea of an absolute free Existence which supports, develops and informs a universe of relations, of that Power as the universal Spirit of our existence, of the world as the evolution of these relations, of beings in the universe as souls who work them out with some freedom of the spirit as the basis,–for that they inwardly are,–but with an observation of the law of the relations as their natural condition.”

It is in this third approach that we see the possibility of free will entering into the relations of the universe.

Sri Aurobindo,Rebirth and Karma, Section I, Chapter 9, Karma and Freedom, pg. 81,

The Mental Consciousness Develops the Sense of Free Will

Even the most careful observation we can make of the physical world fails to show us the action of free will. While an innate and extremely precise and powerful intelligence clearly has developed the material world, everything seems to be acting under very specific laws. There is no room for any kind of innovative and unscripted action in the material field.

With the development of the life energy, as Sri Aurobindo points out, we begin to see some other principles of action emerge. We begin to see options, opportunities and a process of selection which seems to be less bound to inflexible and unchanging laws.

The development of the mental energy provides a further impetus to the concept of free will. “…Nature becomes there much more widely conscious of possibility and of choice; mind is aware of potentialities and of determinations in idea which are other than those of the immediate actuality or of the fixedly necessary consequence of the sum of past and present actualities; it is aware of numberless “may-be’s” and “might-have-been’s”, and these last are not entirely dead rejected things, but can return through the power of the Idea and effect future determinations and can fulfil themselves at last in the inner reality of their idea though, it may well be, in other forms and circumstances. Moreover, mind can and does go still further; it can conceive of an infinite possibility behind the self-limitations of actual existence. And from this seeing there arises the idea of a free and infinite Will, a Will of illimitable potentiality which determines all these innumerable marvels of its own universal becoming or creation in Space and Time. That means the absolute freedom of a Spirit and Power which is not determined by Karma. Apparent Necessity is the child of the spirit’s free self-determination. What affects us as Necessity, is a Will which works in sequence and not a blind Force driven by its own mechanism.”

This essential response of the mind to the opportunities for development is not necessarily a solution to the question of free will versus a larger determinism, but it provides us with the sense of intuition that may represent the working of a greater Truth beyond the limits that the mind can effectively grasp, and provides us substance for our further review in this direction.

Sri Aurobindo,Rebirth and Karma, Section I, Chapter 9, Karma and Freedom, pp. 80-81,

Finding Freedom of the Spirit in the World of Forms

If there is a reality to free will it must be placed in a poise or standpoint outside the operations of Karma. The freedom to participate or not in the world of cause and effect, which we have seen as a hallmark of the Buddhist and Illusionist understanding, provided us the clue that there must be some consciousness that exists outside the causal action. We may also find another clue in the extremely complex and subtle inter-working of the world of forms and actions, which clearly cannot have developed by “chance” or as the result of an “illusion”. The illusion results, not from the world of forms itself, but through our artificial division and fragmentation of the unified Whole and through our attachment to the things of the world rather than the much wider understanding that links us to the Spirit and the significance of the unfolding universe.

Sri Aurobindo sums this up with the following: “…some secret self-knowledge and wisdom there must be which guides the Energy of Karma in its idea and has appointed for her the paths she must hew in Time. It is because of their persistence of principle in all the transiences of particular form that things have such a hold on our mind and will. It is because the world is so real that we feel so potently its grasp on us and our spirits turn on it with this grip of the wrestler.”

Sri Aurobindo’s conclusion is that if we seek for liberty it is liberty of the spirit: “We shall do better then to fix on that other more generally admissible distinction, namely, of the world of Karma as a practical or relative reality and the being of the Spirit constant behind it or brooding above it as a greater supreme reality. And then we have to find whether in the latter alone is any touch of freedom or whether, as must surely be if it is the Spirit that presides over the Energy at work and over its action, there is here too some element or some beginning at least of liberty, and whether, even if it be small and quite relative, we cannot in these steps of Time, in these relations of Karma make this freedom great and real by dwelling consciously in the greatness of the Spirit. May not that be the sovereignty we shall find here when we rise to the top of the soul’s evolution?”

Sri Aurobindo,Rebirth and Karma, Section I, Chapter 9, Karma and Freedom, pp. 79-80,

Are Karma and Freedom Incompatible?

Sri Aurobindo’s approach is consistent in that he always seeks for the larger synthesis that reconciles apparently irreconcilable opposites into complenentary poles or aspects of one continuum. He is able to provide us a clue to the reconciliation of karma and freedom: “Buddhism and Illusionism too do not assert any external or internal predestination, but only a self-imposed bondage. And very insistently they demand of man a choice between the right and the wrong way, between the will to an impermanent existence and the will to Nirvana, between a will to cosmic existence and the will to an absolute spiritual being. Nor do they demand this choice of the Absolute or of the universal Being and Power, who indeed cares nothing for their claim and goes on very tranquilly and securely with his mighty eternal action, but they ask it of the individual, of the soul of man halting perplexed between the oppositions of his mentality. It would seem then that there is something in our individual being which has some real freedom of will, some power of choice of a great consequence and magnitude, and what is it then that thus chooses, and what are the limits, where the beginning or the end of its actual or its possible liberty?”

Once we acknowledge that there is something within the individual being that can exercise free choice, even if we, for the moment, limit that free choice to participation and non-participation in the cosmic action, we are able to escape the bonds of Karma and the impulsion towards a strict predetermined universal unfolding which would otherwise force itself upon us.

We may also go further, of course, and suppose that if we have the freedom to particpate, or not, and are thus able to establish some part of us which is independent of the law of Karma, the chain of cause and effect in action, then it may also be possible to find the standpoint within ourselves where the choice of participation or non-participation itself is no longer restricting our freedom.

In such an instance we would find that “freedom” and “Karma” are actually able to exist side by side, each fulfilling its role and purpose.

Sri Aurobindo,Rebirth and Karma, Section I, Chapter 9, Karma and Freedom, pp. 78-79,