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,

Moral Acts Create Primarily Moral Karma

One of the confusions that tends to permeate the discussion about the law of Karma is the implication that because one is morally or ethically good, that one should therefore have physical pleasure or well-being. Sri Aurobindo exposes this confusion and points out that each type of action has its result primarily within its own sphere, and only secondarily will have effects of a different nature.

“…in the ordinary notion of Karma we are combining two different notions of good. I can well understand that moral good does or ought to produce and increase moral good and moral evil to farther and to create moral evil. It does so in myself. The habit of love confirms and enhances my power of love; it purifies my being and opens it to the universal good. The habit of hatred on the contrary corrupts my being, fills it with poison, with bad and morbid toxic matter, and opens it to the general power of evil. My love ought also by a prolongation or a return to produce love in others and my hatred to give rise to hatred; that happens to a certain, a great extent, but it need not be and is not an invariable or rigorous consequence; still we may well see and believe that love does throw out widening ripples and helps to elevate the world while hatred has the opposite consequence. But what is the necessary connection between this good and evil on the one hand and on the other pleasure and pain? Must the ethical power always turn perfectly into some term of kindred hedonistic result? Not entirely; for love is a joy in itself, but also love suffers; hatred is a troubled and self-afflicting thing, but has too its own perverse delight of itself and its gratifications; but in the end we may say that love, because it is born of the universal Delight, triumphs in its own nature and hatred because it is a denial or perversion, leads to a greater sum of misery to myself as to others.”

The direct impact of moral or ethical action is thus primarily in the field of moral and ethical result, with tangential and secondary effects in other forms of energy possible, but not necessarily supremely powerful in those other fields. Modern research shows, for instance, that strong emotions, such as love or hatred, release various biochemical reactions, such as stimulating hormones, which can indeed impact the physical body and its ultimate health, positively or negatively as the case may be, but such effects may be offset or overcome by specific direct actions taken to support physical health and well-being or not.

Sri Aurobindo,Rebirth and Karma, Section I, Chapter 12, Karma and Justice, pp. 104-105,

Laws of Nature and Moral Law

While we can recognize that the mental viewpoint that associates our actions with moral or ethical consequences does not appear to be entirely correct, it is nevertheless a fact that there must be some underlying truth to which our viewpoint is connected, however distorted or incomplete our current view may be. Sri Aurobindo undertakes a review of the laws of Nature as we can understand them to help sort out this underlying truth from the accretions of the mental and vital nature which may distort it.

“First, it is sure that Nature has laws of which the observance leads to or helps well-being and of which the violation imposes suffering; but all of them cannot be given a moral significance. Then there is the certainty that there must be a moral law of cause and consequence in the total web of her weaving and this we would perhaps currently put into the formula that good produces good and evil evil, which is a proposition of undoubted truth, though also we see in this complicated world that evil comes out of what we hold to be good, and again out of evil disengages itself something that yet turns to good.”

The complications we see here indicate a level of complexity that goes beyond the human mental view, and which also adheres to the larger universal manifestation and thus does not necessarily fit neatly into the framework that we want to fence around the laws of Nature. Further, it must be recognized that human mental considerations of good and evil are somewhat adaptable through time and circumstance. Finally we need to recognize that there may be some level of confusion of different orders of results in our view of the consequences of actions, karma. Each of these elements needs to be disengaged in order to gain a more true perspective of the laws of Nature in operation and to understand the relativity of our attempts to define moral law within our mental framework and then impose it on the universe.

“Perhaps our system of values is too rigidly precise or too narrowly relative; there are subtle things in the totality, minglings, interrelations, cross-currents, suppressed or hidden significances which we do not take into account. The formula is true, but is not the whole truth, at least as now understood in its first superficial significance.”

Sri Aurobindo,Rebirth and Karma, Section I, Chapter 12, Karma and Justice, pg. 104,

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,

Ethics, Desire and Karma

It is quite natural for the vital nature of man to desire success, well-being, vital fulfilment in our lives. This involves the achievement of pleasure and the avoidance of suffering. This actually acts as the motive spring or impulsion behind our actions in the vast majority of cases. We have framed our ethical concepts to incorporate the satisfaction of these impulsions, and thus have created a measure for our ethical framework that insists on such achievement.

Sri Aurobindo points out, however, that ethics as a conceptual principle can be seen, and should be recognized, in the absence of specific attainment of desire. In fact, an ethical framework tied to overt or subtle achievement of pleasure or avoidance of suffering is more in the nature of a bargain than a truly ethical act. “…true ethics is dharma, the right fulfilment and working of the higher nature, and right action should have right motive, should be its own justification and not go limping on the crutches of greed and fear. Right done for its own sake is truly ethical and ennobles the growing spirit; right done in the lust for a material reward or from fear of the avenging stripes of the executioner or sentence of the judge, may be eminently practical and useful for the moment, but it is not in the least degree ethical, but is rather a lowering of the soul of man; or at least the principle is a concession to his baser animal and unspiritual nature.”

Human law is tailored to more or less conform to the expectation of desire and mete out punishment for acts which cause pain and suffering, and reward those who act within the framework or who have been victimized by acts deemed worthy of punishment.

The law of Karma, as popularly conceived, “…is expected…to deal with man on his own principle and do this very thing with a much sterner and more inescapable firmness of application and automatic necessity of consequence.” Thus, we have created the cosmic law in the image of our human law, and turned it, in our normal view of the matter, into a system of meted out rewards and punishments.

Sri Aurobindo,Rebirth and Karma, Section I, Chapter 12, Karma and Justice, pp. 102-103,