Ethics, Karma and Cosmic Law

The popular notion of the law of Karma implies that somehow our human conception of justice in return for our actions is expanded, extended and fulfilled in the cosmic law. We see however that in various cultures, at various points of time, there are different views about “right and wrong” and different implementations of justice. Clearly we cannot simply extrapolate our human notions and overlay them onto the entire cosmic existence.

We may see this tendency as another example of our anthropocentric tendencies; that is, we always try to place ourselves at the center of the universe and judge everything by our limited viewpoint. This tendency used to hold that the earth was at the center of the universe, and that the sun revolved around the earth. We now know that such conceptions are inaccurate and a reflection of the limitations of human perception and understanding, rather than a true representation of the working of the solar system. Similarly, our notions of ethics, justice, and Karma suffer from a similar limitation and it is time for us to shift our viewpoint and expand our understanding so as not to be caught in the fallacy of trying to create God in man’s image in yet another field of review.

When we observe the working of cosmic law, we can see that our human conception of reward for ethical or virtuous acts, and punishment for the opposite does not hold up universally as we would want and expect it to, another indication of the limitation of the attempt to overlay human, mental frameworks on the universal existence!

The idealised view of ethics, which sets up a standard of action that is not rooted in the fulfillment of desire, clearly does not lead to any universally observable truth of the cosmic action. Sri Aurobindo describes its role in such a viewpoint thus: “That more elevated action, it would almost seem, is an ideal movement of less use for the practical governance of life than as one part of a preparation for a fourth and last need of man, his need of spiritual salvation, and salvation winds up finally our karma and casts away the economy along with the very thought and will of life.”

The paradigm in this view is “Desire is the law of life and action and therefore of Karma. To do things above the material level for their own sake and their pure right or pure delight is to head straight towards the distances of heaven or the silence of the Ineffable.” In other words, ethics is not so much a rule for living out our lives as for abandoning the life of the world for a higher and other life of the Spirit. This view has in fact gained substantial adherence throughout the world’s religious and spiritual traditions. Sri Aurobindo asks us to consider, however, that there may be further, more complete formulations that do not abandon life, but fulfill it.

Sri Aurobindo,Rebirth and Karma, Section I, Chapter 12, Karma and Justice, pp. 103-104,