“As Ye Sow, So Shall Ye Reap”?

Sri Aurobindo brings up the phenomenon that has been so frequently the basis of the idea that there is a moral order in the universe that manages responses to our actions in some kind of relatively precise way. “For there can be distinguished in Nature a certain element of the law of the talion or–perhaps a more appropriate figure, since this action seems rather mechanical than rational and deliberate–a boomerang movement of energy returning upon its transmitter. The stone we throw is flung back by some hidden force in the world upon ourselves, the action we put out upon others recoils, not always by a direct reaction, but often by devious and unconnected routes, on our own lives and sometimes, though that is by no means a common rule, in its own exact figure or measure. This is a phenomenon so striking to our imagination and impressive to our moral sense and vital feelings that it has received some kind of solemn form and utterance in the thought of all cultures…”

At the same time, Sri Aurobindo cautions that we cannot simply adopt this rule as “sufficient evidence of a moral order.” While such dramatic incidents impress us, they are neither universally occurring nor generally applicable. “If it were a regular feature, men would soon learn the code of the draconian impersonal legislator and know what to avoid and the list of life’s prohibitions and vetoes. But there is no such clear penal legislation of Nature.”

This retributive action, when it occurs, is more illustrative of the more general principles of the lines of energy having their own effect, and eliciting forth both forces that respond to such action and those that oppose and deny that line. Thus, those who “live by the sword” will tend to “die by the sword”, not by some moral imperative of the karmic order, but because the energy they create and the efforts they make put them in the way of a response in kind.

Sri Aurobindo, Rebirth and Karma, Section II, Chapter 15, Mind Nature and Law of Karma, pp. 135-136, http://www.lotuspress.com/item.php?item=990117

Cosmic Law and Karma

The powerful imagery of the human transgressing limits and then being struck down by a force of cosmic justice has permeated our response to life’s setbacks through the ages. We need only look to the famous ancient Greek tale of Oedipus or the story of the house of Atreus, or even tales such as Hamlet or Macbeth by Shakespeare to recognise that we have imbibed these concepts and accepted them at some level of our consciousness as “the way the universe works.”

It is at this point that we generally assign a moral or ethical component to this universal action, but as Sri Aurobindo point out, the response is not strictly to moral failings but actually a response to any form of weakness, insufficiency, imperfection at whatever level it manifests. The human striving is to exceed our limits, to achieve success in life through expansion, extension and enjoyment. We push ourselves to and beyond the normal limits. To the extent we have truly understood and implemented the universal laws we achieve that success; but wherever we have any imperfection in our energy, the universe takes that into account in the response and in the result. The inter-relationship between all manifested beings and forces in the universal eco-sphere and bio-sphere is a very sensitive mechanism so our attempt to aggrandise ourselves in any way sets up waves of action that both push forward and create feedback and various forms of resistance.

Sri Aurobindo summarizes this action: “The law it represents is that our imperfections shall have their passing or their fatal consequences, that a flaw in our output of energy may be mended or counterbalanced and reduced in consequence, but if persisted in shall react even in excess of its apparent merits, that an error may seem to destroy all the result of the Tapasya, because it springs from a radical unsoundness in the intention of the will, the heart, the ethical sense or the reason. This is the first line of the transitional law of Karma.”

Sri Aurobindo, Rebirth and Karma, Section II, Chapter 15, Mind Nature and Law of Karma, pp. 134-135, http://www.lotuspress.com/item.php?item=990117

The Jealousy of the Gods

As we exercise our mental powers and will to achieve vital success in the world, we not only have to face the resistances stemming from our physical and vital nature, and the response of others with whom we interact and the social organization within which we move, but we also have to face a universal or cosmic force of evolutionary intention and development. This force essentially maintains the basic principles or laws of the universal manifestation, whether we understand or recognize them or not. While we may experience this in our lives, and talk of it as “luck” or “fate” or “necessity”, we do not often focus on or pay attention to this force and its operation.

Sri Aurobindo points out that the ancient Greeks had a great appreciation for this force and its operation on our lives and our destiny. It is “a Power that is on the watch for man in his effort at enlargement, possession and enjoyments and seems hostile and opposite. The Greeks figured it as the jealousy of the gods or as Doom, Necessity, Ate. The egoistic force in man may proceed far in its victory and triumph, but it has to be wary or it will find this power there on the watch for any flaw in his strength or action, any sufficient opportunity for his defeat and downfall. It dogs his endeavour with obstacle and reverse and takes advantage of his imperfections, often dallying with him, giving him long rope, delaying and abiding its time,–and not only of his moral shortcomings but of his errors of will and intelligence, his excesses and deficiencies of strength and prudence, all defects of his nature.”

This force tends to moderate the extremes. As we become more successful we tend to become arrogant and exercise our power in ever more extreme manifestations–until this force brings us back into balance and forces us to achieve the balance that our own striving and ambition blinded us from seeing. The Greeks held this to be the action of the gods. Today we may recognise a basic law of equilibrium or homeostasis that maintains the order of the universe and only permits change and development if it adheres to the universal principles and meets with the needs of the time spirit. Individual effort and success must be tempered by a sense of the Oneness and a balance in our proceeding. That is why “the Greeks held moderation in all things to be the greatest part of virtue.”

Sri Aurobindo, Rebirth and Karma, Section II, Chapter 15, Mind Nature and Law of Karma, pg. 134, http://www.lotuspress.com/item.php?item=990117

The Foundations For Development of Morality and Ethics as Powers In Life

As the mental power works to gain control over the vital energy, there has to be a shift from the instinctive action of the vital to a more free exercise of the will. This provides both more scope for development and more need of discipline and restraint in order to direct and manage the energy effectively. The mental power includes morality and ethics as one of its lines, but these are not sole and fully determinative as there are actually a number of factors involved in achieving result in the world of action, and the moral force is just one of them.

Sri Aurobindo explains: “The moral is not the sole element: it is not entirely true that the moral right always prevails or that where there is the dharma, on that side is the victory. The immediate success often goes to other powers, even an ultimate conquest of the Right comes usually by an association with some form of Might.”

The concept of morality does play a part, especially in the interactions in society where we need the cooperation and good will of others, and the support of the framework of organisation of the nation and machinery of government in order to succeed. In this instance, any willful disregard of the moral aspect can lead to opposition and cross-currents that would inevitably weaken, or even defeat the goal of the effort. As a result there are automatically checks that make it difficult for someone to use the mental power to gain control over the vital and physical life to an extreme degree.

“Moreover, man in the use of his energies has to take into account of his fellows and the aid and opposition of their energies, and his relations with them impose on him checks, demands and conditions which have or evolve a moral significance. There is laid on him almost from the first a number of obligations even in the pursuit of vital success and satisfaction which become a first empirical basis of an ethical order.”

Sri Aurobindo, Rebirth and Karma, Section II, Chapter 15, Mind Nature and Law of Karma, pp. 133-134, http://www.lotuspress.com/item.php?item=990117

Morality and the Vital Force

The mental force interacts with the physical world and the vital force to create a “mixed” action. This action can enhance the results achieved by the vital force. It can also interject mental principles into the action that can begin to add a moral or ethical element to the striving of the vitality. Morality is not a principle of the vital force, per se. As has been discussed previously, the fruits of success in the vital action go to those who have the best understanding, strength and conditions for that success. The advent of mentality adds another condition or element to the striving for success, by creating moral or ethical rules which create a framework within which the vital force is then permitted to operate. This does not mean, however, that the distinction between the mental force’s action and the results on the vital level can be blurred or glossed over. The mixing of the mental and vital yields a much more nuanced and complex result.

Sri Aurobindo delves into this issue: “At first sight, if success is the desideratum, it is not clear what morality has to say in the affair, since we see in most things that it is a right understanding and intelligent or intuitive practice of the means and conditions and an insistent power of the will, a settled drive of the force of the being of which success is the natural consequence. Man may impose by a system of punishments a check on the egoistic will and intelligence in pursuit of its vital ends, may create a number of moral conditions for the world’s prizes, but this might appear, as is indeed contended in certain vitalistic theories, an artificial imposition on Nature and a dulling and impoverishment of the free and powerful play of the mind force and the life force in their alliance. But in truth the greatest force for success is a right concentration of energy, tapasya, and there is an inevitable moral element in Tapasya.”

Sri Aurobindo, Rebirth and Karma, Section II, Chapter 15, Mind Nature and Law of Karma, pp. 132-133, http://www.lotuspress.com/item.php?item=990117

The Current Notions of the Law of Karma

As the mental force begins to make itself felt and tries to develop a law or rule of life, it starts out with the demands, needs, desires and fears of the dynamic life force as the primary controlling factor with which it has to grapple. Rather than being able to impose, therefore, a reasoned moral and ethical code, it resorts to attempts to modify and upgrade the vital impetus through offering a system of rewards and punishments, a “carrot and a stick”, for following the basic lines set forth in the moral doctrines. On close examination it can be seen that even the goals set forth at this point are mostly driven by the vital drive for success, achievement and prosperity and the fear of loss, suffering and pain.

It is thus at this point that the most common ideas about the law of Karma appear and take center stage. The moral principle, the ethical ideal is tied to the concept that the “good” will achieve worldly success; or if not worldly success, then at least a success in a life hereafter. The influence of the vital power is clearly seen in the fact that “right” has to be tied to “success” in order to be something to be attempted.

Sri Aurobindo describes this situation as follows: “It is these notions, this idea of the moral law, of righteousness and justice as a thing in itself imperative, but still needing to be enforced by bribe and menace on our human nature,–which would seem to show that at least for that nature they are not altogether imperative,–this insistence on reward and punishment because morality struggling with our first unregenerate being has to figure very largely as a mass of restraints and prohibitions and these cannot be enforced without some fact or appearance of a compelling or inducing outward sanction, this diplomatic compromise or effort at equivalence between the impersonal ethical and the personal egoistic demand, this marriage of convenience between right and vital utility, virtue and desire,–it is these accommodations that are embodied in the current notions of the law of Karma.”

Sri Aurobindo, Rebirth and Karma, Section II, Chapter 15, Mind Nature and Law of Karma, pp. 131-132, http://www.lotuspress.com/item.php?item=990117

The Development of the Concept of Moral and Ethical Law

As the human mind develops beyond its first focus on purely vital success and fulfillment, we see the next stage as the attempt to abstract out of the life experience some basic principles or rules which get framed into the concept of “right”, which became in the ancient Indian philosophy, the concept known as “Dharma”. We see here a more characteristically mental framework developing an independence from the needs for vital success in life, and a corresponding attempt to control life based on these abstract principles.

Sri Aurobindo describes the evolutionary position of the concept of Dharma: “The idea of Dharma is on the contrary predominantly moral in its essence. Dharma on its heights holds up the moral law in its own right and for its own sake to human acceptance and observance. The larger idea of Dharma is indeed a conception of the true law of all energies and includes a conscience, a rectitude in all things, a right law of thought and knowledge, of aesthesis, of all other human activities and not only of our ethical action. But yet in the notion of Dharma the ethical element has tended always to predominate and even to monopolise the concept of Right which man creates,–because ethics is concerned with action of life and his dealing with his vital being and with his fellow men and that is always his first preoccupation and his most tangible difficulty, and because here first and most pressingly the desires, interests, instincts of the vital being find themselves cast into a sharp and very successful conflict with the ideal of Right and the demand of the higher law. Right ethical action comes therefore to seem to man at his stage the one thing binding upon him among the many standards raised by the mind, the moral claim the one categorical imperative, the moral law the whole of his Dharma.”

We see here a real transition from the non-moral law of the vital world, and the first mental developments focused on supporting and achieving success in the world of life and action, to a more purely mental framework that seeks to modify life, and impose itself regardless of the vital desires and fulfillments. Of course, this starts out as a mixed action still highly colored by the desires, demands and needs of the vital being of man, and thus, the ideals and goals set in this initial stage are very much vital goals.

Sri Aurobindo, Rebirth and Karma, Section II, Chapter 15, Mind Nature and Law of Karma, pp. 130-131, http://www.lotuspress.com/item.php?item=990117

The Mind’s Impact on Vital Existence

In order to understand the mental energy as it manifests in the world, it is essential to look at its varying types of effort and impacts. The first, and most familiar to us, is the impact, influence and control the mental energy exercises on the physical and vital life. The power of mentality is at work, but the purpose, goal and focus is on achieving the aims of the vital life force. If we look at the characterisation made by ancient seers and sages, this would encompass the first two of the four goals or aspects they attribute as meaning to human existence, namely, artha and kama, the seeking and attainment of profit and fulfillment of desire.

The powers of mind concentrated on the achievement of these aims can be extremely powerful and can lead to tremendous success along these lines, but it is a success that remains quite limited and does not represent the power of mentality carrying out its own native lines of action. It is an important step for the transformation away from the purely animal existence, but it does not represent the true larger role that mentality is intended to play.

Sri Aurobindo discusses this aspect of mentality: “The mind no doubt feeds its powers on the effort and its fullness on the prize, but it is tethered to its pasture. It is a mixed movement, mental in its means, predominantly vital in its returns; its standard of the values of the return are measured by an outward success and failure, an externalised or externally caused pleasure and suffering, good fortune and evil fortune, the fate of the life and the body. It is this powerful vital preoccupation which has given us one element of the current notion of law of Karma, its idea of an award of vital happiness and suffering as the measure of cosmic justice.”

Sri Aurobindo, Rebirth and Karma, Section II, Chapter 15, Mind Nature and Law of Karma, pp. 129-130, http://www.lotuspress.com/item.php?item=990117

The Evolution of the Mental Power and Its Manifestation

It is man’s destiny to represent and carry out the establishment of the force of mentality into the world, as man is characteristically a mental being. While the mental power takes up and thereby influences and modifies the action of physical forces and vital forces, the essence of mentality can be seen when we exercise the truly mental powers, independent of their specific impact on physicality and vitality.

Sri Aurobindo discusses this: “There is a higher law of mental being and nature of which he is bound to become aware and to seek to impose it on his life and his action. At first he is very predominantly governed by the life needs and the movement of the life energies, and it is in applying his mental energy to them and to the world around him that he makes the earliest development of his powers of knowledge and will and trains the crude impulses that lead him into the path of his emotional, aesthetic and moral evolution. But always there is a certain obscure element that takes pleasure in the action of the mental energies for their own sake and it is this, however imperfect at first in self-consciousness and intelligence, that represents the characteristic intention of Nature in him and makes his mental and eventually his spiritual evolution inevitable.”

The initial preoccupation with the physical and vital levels, to satisfy the needs, desires and demands of life, focused on survival, enjoyment, growth and success in life, seems to be the primary function carried out by the mind. This viewpoint dismisses or devalues the “seeking for knowledge, mastery, beauty, a purer emotional delight for their own sake….”

“But the finer and more developed mind in humanity has always turned towards an opposite self-seeing, inclined to regard this as the most characteristic and valuable element of our being and been ready to sacrifice much and sometimes all to its calls or its imperative mandate.”

This represents a reversal of seeing that takes the animal being out of the center of our universe and reorients our viewpoint toward the longer evolutionary cycles and the systematic development of higher forms of energy in the successive manifestation. “Then life itself would be in reality for man only a field of action for the evolution, the opportunity of new experience, the condition of difficult effort and mastery of the mental and spiritual being.”

Sri Aurobindo, Rebirth and Karma, Section II, Chapter 15, Mind Nature and Law of Karma, pp. 128-129, http://www.lotuspress.com/item.php?item=990117

The Multiple Strands of the Mental Being

Before we begin our review of the lines of Karma related to the mental being, it is essential to gain a clear perspective on the various aspects that make up our mental functioning. There is the practical mind that involves itself with the physical and vital levels of existence and works to manage and utilize them to best advantage; there is also a higher mind of thought and concept, as well as an aesthetic and an emotional aspect that weave the complex fabric that we consider to be mental functioning.

Sri Aurobindo explains: “The mental energy divides itself and runs in many directions, has an ascending scale of the levels of its action, a great variety and combination of its dynamic aims and purposes. There are many strands of its weaving and it follows each along its own line and combines manifoldly he threads of one with the threads of another. There is in it an energy of thought that puts itself out for a return and a constant increase of knowledge, an energy of will that casts itself forth for a return and increase of conscious mastery, fulfilment of the being, execution of will in action, an energy of conscious aesthesis that feels out for a return and an increase of the creation and enjoyment of beauty, an energy of emotion that demands in its action a return and a constant increase of the enjoyment and satisfaction of the emotional power of the being. All these energies act in a way for themselves and yet depend upon and are inextricably accompanied and mingled with each other. At the same time mind has descended into matter and has to act in and through this world of the vital and physical energy and to consent to and make something of the lines of the vital and physical Karma.”

It is not simply the complexity of these different energies and levels of action that we have to contend with; we also have to take into account the varying concentration and intensity of the energy put forth within each of these lines. A weak force will soon be deflected, drowned out or watered down by the myriad other active forces around it and with which it needs to contend.

Sri Aurobindo, Rebirth and Karma, Section II, Chapter 15, Mind Nature and Law of Karma, pp. 127-128, http://www.lotuspress.com/item.php?item=990117