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,