Moving Beyond the Concept of Retributive Justice

It is easy for us to believe and hope that there is some kind of judge that metes out rewards and punishments to us on our merits, and that this judge keeps a scale or balance of account for each one of us and is able to precisely return to us our “just desserts”. Such a system, while satisfying to some part of our developed moral sense, does not actually work out in this kind of precise mechanical way, as the interactive forces are far too complex or this kind of simplistic model of the universe.

Sri Aurobindo has provided his insight into this question: “The mathematical precision of physical Nature’s action and reaction cannot indeed be expected from mental and vital Nature. For not only does everything become infinitely more subtle, complex and variable as we rise in the scale so that in our life action there is an extraordinary intertwining of forces and mixture of many values, but, even, the psychological and moral value of the same action differs in different cases, according to the circumstance, the conditions, the motive and mind of the doer.”

There have been attempts to mete out human ideas of justice in such a form as “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth”, but such attempts do not succeed in capturing the essence of justice nor in advancing the development of consciousness in humanity. Such a system superimposed on the universe would be bound to fail as well.

“And it is evident too that the slow, long and subtle purposes of the universal Power working in the human race would be defeated rather than served by any universality of this too precise and summary procedure.”

The instances of such apparent direct return of energies expended with energies returned, when they occur, are enduring and powerful examples that we like to point to, but they do not represent a universal mechanical system but more the confluence of a number of forces reacting and responding to a specific set of circumstances. Because we do not see such a definite “cause/effect” relationship in each individual’s life, we have then built up the idea of precise retribution or recompense coming to us in some future lifetime…without however the factual basis to support this kind of superstructure for the universal action. Who is it that would get the future result in that future lifetime? How would such an action carry itself forward in the complex universal energy? Would such a response have any benefit or meaning in that future lifetime? How would it “fit” into the framework of that future life? We leave all of these, and many more, questions without any answer when we shift the result of action into some future, undefined lifetime.

Sri Aurobindo, Rebirth and Karma, Section II, Chapter 15, Mind Nature and Law of Karma, pg. 136,