Basic Principle of the Law of Karma

It is clear that we cannot encompass the entire complexity of the universe and the various forces at work within a definition of a law of Karma that fixates solely on an ethical or moral code of recompense or retribution. And yet it is also quite clear that there are certain laws operative in the universe that show that there is Intelligence at work. Each type of energy has its own pattern of action. In the physical world, we see that scientists have formulated physical energy laws under the principle “for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.” If we examine emotional energy, mental energy, ethical or moral energy, we find that there are corollary results that indicate that while the type of energy at work is different, and therefore the exact manner of its working varies, there is nevertheless a system of output of energy leading to a characteristic result.

Sri Aurobindo asks us to begin our understanding of the law of Karma by creating a formulation that is its most simple and universal principle, and to then utilize this basic principle as a foundational step for our deeper review and understanding of the action of Karma:

“And for a beginning it is best to phrase the law of Karma as generally and vaguely as may be and put it simply thus without any particular colour or content that according to the energy put forth shall be its return, not with any mathematical precision of conscious will and its mechanical consequences, but subject to the complicated working of any world forces.”

He goes on to clarify further: “The whole law of the cosmic action or even the one law governing all the others cannot well be the measure of a physical, mechanical and chemical energy, nor the law of a life force, nor a moral law or law of mind or of idea forces; for it is evident that none of these things by its single self covers or accounts for all the fundamental powers.”

Sri Aurobindo,Rebirth and Karma, Section II, Chapter 13, The Foundation, pp. 114-115,

Moral Law Is Not the Sole Significance of the Universal Manifestation

When we consider the law of Karma, the first thought is that it is some kind of moral or ethical framework for the universe. It is much simpler to try to understand our lives and the significance of life itself if we can find a way to boil it down to one dominant concept or principle. The reality, however, is far more complex than such an approach can actually resolve.

Sri Aurobindo comments on this issue: “The universe is not solely an ethical proposition, a problem of the antinomy of the good and the evil; the Spirit of the universe can in no way be imagined as a rigid moralist concerned only with making all things obey the law of moral good, or a stream of tendency towards righteousness attempting, hitherto with only a very poor success, to prevail and rule, or a stern Justicer rewarding and punishing creatures in a world that he has made or has suffered to be full of wickedness and suffering and evil.”

A serious review of the many-sided and multifarious manifestation in the universe makes it patently obvious that there are a variety of goals and principles at work, interacting and in some cases actually appearing to be in conflict with one another. We can even determine a hierarchy which helps us resolve apparent contradictions with the advent of a new power or term that needs to modify and upgrade the action of a prior line of development.

“The law of the world is not this alone that our good brings good to us and our evil brings evil, nor is its sufficient key the ethical-hedonistic rule that our moral good brings to us happiness and success and our moral evil brings to us sorrow and misfortune.”

We need to expand our view and understanding of the development of the universal manifestation to get a true sense of what the real goals and principles are. We can say that the moral and ethical law appears to be one, among a number of other principles, that has a role in the human development. This law, however, is constrained and modified by other principles and powers that need to be taken into account.

Sri Aurobindo,Rebirth and Karma, Section II, Chapter 13, The Foundation, pg. 114,

A Complex Interaction of Energies

The complex nature of the lines of Karma is in part due to the fact that there are numerous different forms and types of energy at work which each have their own separate working, impulsion and direction. These different forms of energy interact with one another and modify the pure action of the others so that the eventual result is mixed and diluted.

Sri Aurobindo describes the different types of energies: “There is in the world of birth an energy of physical being and nature, arising out of the physical an energy of vital being and nature, arising out of the vital an energy of mental being and nature, arising out of the mental an energy of spiritual or supramental being and nature. And each of these forms of energy has a law of its own, lines of its own action, a right to its own manner or operation and existence, because each is fundamental to some necessity of the whole. And we see accordingly that each in its impulse follows its own lines regardless of the rest, each in the combination imposes as much of its domination as it can on the others.”

Within each type of energy, too, there are sub-types. “The mental being is itself a most complex thing and has several forms of energy, an intellectual, a moral, an emotional, a hedonistic energy of mental nature, and the will in each is in itself absolute for its own rule and is yet forced to be modified in action by the running into it and across it of the other strands.”

The interaction and inter-relationship of all these different forms of energy creates a complex web of action that cannot be fully defined by any one specific term. We must be able to take account of vital attraction, physical action, as well as intellectual and emotional drives when we try to understand the full working of the law of “cause and effect”. It would only be from a consciousness that views and reconciles the entire complexity of the creation that we could hope to develop a complete understanding. Until that time, we must appreciate the fact that no one drive or impulsion can act uninfluenced and unimpeded by other drives, influences or powers of action.

Sri Aurobindo,Rebirth and Karma, Section II, Chapter 13, The Foundation, pp. 113-114,

The Fundamental Meaning of Karma

The characteristic action of the typal formation, or even the individual action within the type, is not the entire picture of the universal manifestation. There is also the evolutionary power of the will of the Spirit that manifests through Nature. There is a continuous unfolding and development and this lends to the individual soul, as representative and portion of the Spirit, the ability to change. While the action of Karma, as a law of energy in Nature, will bring results forward, the individual soul has the choice of action, reaction, response and development that can make an enormous difference over time in the ongoing process.

Sri Aurobindo describes this process: “His nature is what it is because he has so made it by his past; he has induced this present formulation by a precedent will in his spirit.”

“He has developed by his own long evolution of that humanity the character and law of action of his present individual being; he has built his own height and form of human nature. He may change what he has made, he may rise even, if that be within the possibilities of the universe, beyond human and to or towards superhuman nature.”

The result of past action, in the form of the present karmic circumstance the individual must experience, creates tendencies and, for an evolutionary process, obstacles to change. However, these obstacles can become opportunities for the conscious exercise of the will of the Spirit to modify results going forward and create a different formation than the one that would otherwise project itself forward in a static circumstance.

“This evolution and all its circumstances, his life, its form, its events, its values arise out of that urge and are shaped according to the past, present or future active will of his spirit. As is his use of the energy, so was and will be the return of the universal energy to him now and hereafter. This is the fundamental meaning of Karma.”

Sri Aurobindo,Rebirth and Karma, Section II, Chapter 13, The Foundation, pp. 112-113,

Individual Nature, Typal Nature and the Soul

Our individual nature and action represents a certain “uniqueness” within a larger framework of conformity to our “type” as a member of a species. Every species has what we may call a “typal” nature that provides a framework for the potentialities and development of each individual within that species. Thus, an ant will be seen to act in a way characteristic to ants, and this will be different than the way that a dog will act, although all dogs will act in a manner consistent with “dog-nature”. Similarly all human beings share the basic characteristics of “human-nature”.

Within this basic framework, however, individual human beings can express variances that provide an individuality to their representation of the human species.

The individual human being also embodies a soul which partakes of Divine Nature.

It is therefore the interaction of these three elements, the typal, the individual and the divine, that provides us the unique expression we recognize as a unique human being.

The concept of Swabhava expresses this idea that there is a “way of being” that is characteristic of each species and for each individual within the typal framework.

Sri Aurobindo describes the relation of Swabhava to Swadharma, the law of action of each being or type: “Man is at once himself, in a certain way peculiar and unique, and a depressed portion of God and a natural portion of mankind. There is in other words a general and an individual Swadharma or natural principle and law of all action for the kind and for the individual in the kind. And it is clear too that every action must be a particular application, a single result, a perfect or imperfect, right or perverted use of the general and within it of the individual swadharma.”

“The law of the action is determined generally by this swabhava of the species and individually by the swabhava of the individual but within that larger circle.”

Sri Aurobindo,Rebirth and Karma, Section II, Chapter 13, The Foundation, pg. 112,

Law of Nature and the Soul

To gain an understanding of the nature and action of the law of Karma, it is essential to distinguish the various elements involved. There is first, the law of Nature which expresses itself in the action of energy, of whatever type. Physicists tell us that for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction; that is, that Energy functions under certain laws in the material world, and in fact is subject to calculation and the ability to be harnessed for work. We may explore the question of Energy further into the realm of life, mind and spirit, and similarly find laws of action and reaction that determine the movement and result of that energy.

A question arises whether this is purely a mechanical, external law of Nature to which the soul is subjected, in which case, as Sri Aurobindo points out “it cannot have a mental, moral and spiritual significance” ; or if Nature is “…not itself the energy, the work of a Mind, a Soul, a Spirit.”

Next, the relationship of the soul to the action of Nature is a seminal concern for understanding the working of the law of Karma. “If the individual energy is that of a soul putting out action and receiving a return in kind, physical, mental, moral and spiritual from the universal energy, the universal energy too that makes the return should be that of an All-Soul in which and in relation to which this individual flame of the All-Soul lives.” This is necessary if we see that the universal Energy carries any higher significance than just a physical law.

We observe that the individual expresses the energy of the universal, lives according to universal law, and carries out the force of the universal movement of energy. “But if that were all the truth, then there would be no real individual and no responsibility of any kind except the responsibility of universal Nature to carry out the idea or to execute the force put forth in the individual as in the universal by the All-Soul, the cosmic Spirit.”

The individual acquires meaning and significance by virtue of its acting as an independent center of Energy capable of an individual response and return to the universal Energy. “But there is also this soul of the individual, and that is a being of the Infinite and a conscious and efficient portion of the All-Soul, a deputy or representative, and puts forth the energy given to it according to its own potentiality, type, limits with a will that is in some sense its own.”

It is the nexus caused by these two, the universal law of Nature and the reality of the individual soul, that provides us a platform for the action and meaning of the law of Karma.

Sri Aurobindo,Rebirth and Karma, Section II, Chapter 13, The Foundation, pg. 111,

The Complex Web of Karma

When we think about the law of Karma, we tend to look at it from the ethical or moral implications. This leads us to question providence when we see evil apparently prospering and good apparently suffering. We then try to justify this obviously incorrect result with the idea that there was something in that person’s past lives that justifies this “unjust” dispensation.

What we fail to consider is that different types of energy have different workings, and that to each type of energy the law of cause and effect provides its own type of result. To the strong belong the fruits of strength. If we reflect on it, dispassionately, without ethical preconceptions coloring our view, we would clearly find no grounds for disagreement. No one would expect that a person who embodies compassion or caring in their nature would be granted thereby a victory in the 100 meter dash in the Olympic Games. We naturally would expect that a trained athlete, focused on conditioning the body, and carrying out an intense programme of development of the physical capacity, would be the Olympic athlete.

Sri Aurobindo describes the interaction and relationship of these various types of energies, which in turn manifest based on stages, phases and appropriate times, to create a much more complete view of the working of the law of Karma, not as one immutable ethical or moral law, but as a subtle and highly complex standard which can actually provide us valuable insight as to the rationale for what are otherwise inexplicable results.

“If it is just that the virtuous man should be rewarded with success and happiness and the wicked man punished with downfall and pain at some time, in some life, on earth or in heaven or in hell, it is also just that the strong man should have the reward of his cultivated strength, the intellectual man the prize of his cultivated skill, the will that labours in whatever field the fruit of its effort and its works.” This view transcends the ethical view.

“But what is right working in this connection of will and action and consequence? I may be religious and honest, but if I am dull, weak and incompetent? And I may be selfish and impious, but if I have the swift flame of intellect, the understanding brain, the skill to adapt means to ends, the firm courageous will fixed on its end? I have then an imperfection which must impose its consequences, but also I have powers which must make their way.”

“The truth is that there are several orders of energy and their separate characteristic working must be seen, before their relations can be rightly discovered in the harmonies of Nature. A complex web is what we have to unravel. When we have seen the parts in the whole, the elements and their affinities in the mass, then only can we know the lines of Karma.”

Sri Aurobindo,Rebirth and Karma, Section I, Chapter 12, Karma and Justice, pg. 108,