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,

A Higher Soul Nature and Law of Karma

While it is the first formulation of human motivation, the force of desire, attraction towards what is pleasant and avoidance of what is unpleasant, is not the sole motivating factor in our lives. We sometimes overrule physical and vital happiness to achieve results of another order. For instance, we may choose to forego the physical joys of food, sex or other pleasures in the pursuit of a mental or spiritual result. Similarly, many undergo extreme difficulties, privation and pain in order to achieve some goal, whether this be a goal of intellectual research or climbing mountains, or participating in extreme sports of various kinds. We see then, both the ability and the aspiration to move beyond the most basic law of attraction and repulsion, greed and fear, arising with the growth of the inherent powers that are our higher nature.

Sri Aurobindo discusses “our own greater motives of action”. “The pursuit of Truth may entail on me penalties and sufferings; the service of my country or the world may demand from me loss of my outward happiness and good fortune or the destruction of my body; the increase of my strength of will and greatness of spirit may be only possible by the ardours of suffering and the firm renunciation of joys and pleasures.”

This paradigm works not just in the present life but in whatever other lives the process of rebirth creates. “Happiness and sorrow, good fortune and ill-fortune are not my main concern whether in this birth or in future lives, but my perfection and the higher good of mankind purchased by whatever suffering and tribulation.”

The joy that comes about through these acts is a higher spiritual joy, eventually leading to the “highest spiritual Ananda which has no dependence on outward circumstances, but rather is powerful to new-shape their meanings and transform their reactions. These things may be above the first formulation of the world energy here, may be influences from superior planes of the universal existence, but they are still a part of the economy of Karma here, a process of the spiritual evolution in the body. And they bring in a higher soul nature and will and action and consequence, a higher rule of Karma.”

Once we admit the action of impulsions that defer the immediate seeking of joy or avoidance of pain, we develop a much more complex and subtle hierarchy of action and result of Karma.

Sri Aurobindo,Rebirth and Karma, Section I, Chapter 12, Karma and Justice, pp. 107-108,

Overcoming the Reward and Punishment View of the Law of Karma

We focus generally on the law of Karma in the light of our nature of desire. We seek pleasure and try to avoid pain. We want to be rewarded and we want to avoid punishment. This is the nature of the desire-soul in man that is based on the vital principles of attraction and repulsion, with an underlying principle of desire. We therefore tend to see the law of Karma as an external representation of this desire-soul’s focus, and thus, overlay our all-too-human tendencies on the universal Spirit.

While it may seem to operate this way for some time in our development, eventually we begin to recognize that the Spirit is beyond the limitations imposed by our vital seekings. The higher aspirations and deeper meaning of our lives can at that point no longer be held hostage to the desire-soul’s limited view.

Sri Aurobindo explains the transition to a new view of Karma, the spiritual view: “The universal Spirit in the law of Karma must deal with man in the lower scale of values only as a part of the transaction and as a concession to man’s own present motives. Man himself puts these values, makes that demand for pleasure and prosperity and dreads their opposites, desires heaven more than he loves virtue, fears hell more than he abhors sin, and while he does so, the world-dispensation wears to him that meaning and colour.”

This is however not the entire story: “The dependence of the pursuit of ethical values on a sanction by the inferior hedonistic values, material, vital and lower mental pleasure, pain and suffering, appeals strongly to our normal consciousness and will; but it ceases to have more than a subordinate force and finally loses all force as we grow towards greater heights of our being.”

Sri Aurobindo reminds us that there is more to existence than our daily grasping and avoidance routines: “But the spirit of existence is not merely a legislator and judge concerned to maintain a standard of legal justice, to dole out deterrents and sanctions, rewards and penalties, ferocious pains of hell, indulgent joys of paradise. He is the Divine in the world, the Master of a spiritual evolution and the growing godhead in humanity.”

As we transfer our view of the law of Karma to the larger evolutionary purpose of existence, we can begin “to develop a nobler spiritual law of Karma.”

Sri Aurobindo,Rebirth and Karma, Section I, Chapter 12, Karma and Justice, pp. 106-107,

Karma Is a Complex Interaction, Not a Mechanical Law

Our surface nature, impelled by the force of desire, wants to believe that the law of karma operates in such a way as to provide material prosperity and well-being in return for our good acts in the realm of moral and ethical conduct; and similarly, that our bad acts ethically or morally will yield to us concrete harm in some outwardly visible way. The law of Karma however appears to be much more subtle and complex than this simplistic view, however appealing to our sense of vital rightness, can explain.

Sri Aurobindo frames the question that arises: “But where is the firm link of correspondence between the ethical and the more vital and physical hedonistic powers of life? How does my ethical good turn into smiling fortune, crowned prosperity, sleek material good and happiness to myself and my ethical evil into frowning misfortune, rugged adversity, sordid material ill and suffering,–for that is what the desire soul of man and the intelligence governed by it seem to demand,–and how is the account squared or the transmutation made between these two very different energies of the affirmation and denial of good?”

We can see that effort made in one field primarily yields results in that field, although it is clear that there are influences from one to another. We may act in a morally positive or negative way and this has an impact in the world around us, in some cases causing joy or suffering in others affected by those acts. In some cases we can even see and recognize a response, more or less according to one of the basic laws of physics, that for each action there is an equal and opposite reaction. But it is difficult to see an exact balancing account, particularly when we are looking for a reaction of a different order or type of energy than that which was put out.

“But this mechanical rebound is not the whole principle of Karma. Nor is Karma wholly a mixed ethical-hedonistic order in its total significance, for there are involved other powers of our consciousness and being. Nor is it again a pure mechanism which we set going by our will and have then helplessly to accept the result; for the will which produced the effect, can also intervene to modify it. And above all the initiating and receiving consciousness can change the values and utilities of the reactions and make another thing of life than this automatic mechanism of fateful return or retribution to the half-blind embodied actor in a mute necessity of rigorous law of Nature.”

Sri Aurobindo,Rebirth and Karma, Section I, Chapter 12, Karma and Justice, pp. 105-106,