Love Can Also Be Turned To the Law of Strife

It would be incorrect to assert that the law of death and destruction, the process of devouring in order to live, is the sole power or that it universally rules everything. We can also see signs of collaboration, love, self-sacrifice for someone or some higher ideal that we accept, and these, while obviously meeting the terms set by the basic rule of destruction as a requirement for progress and growth, also show us that there are other principles at work.

Sri Aurobindo provides some notable examples: “The mother bird facing the animal of prey in defence of its young, the patriot dying for his country’s freedom, the religious martyr or the martyr of an idea, these in the lower and superior scale of animal life are highest examples of self-sacrifice and it is evident to what they bear witness.”

With a wider view we can however see and note that these sacrifices, while expressing a nobility of purpose, still pay homage to the law of strife. “Love itself has been constantly a power of death. Especially the love of good and the love of God, as embraced by the human ego, have been responsible for much strife, slaughter and destruction.” Even the noblest of impulses and acts have been turned into instruments of division, strife and destruction!

We also see that acts of self-sacrifice for a cause or principle do not necessarily lead to the result desired; rather, it is frequently the case that the end result is the opposite of what was intended. For example, religious martyrs are sacrificed for a religious principle, but the religion itself, when it comes to power, undertakes crusades, inquisitions, and burnings of heretics or unbelievers. Similarly, soldiers may go to war to defend a principle or protect their country from aggression; but their sacrifice helps that country go on to victory and then, in most cases, to oppress, colonize and control in their turn. In fact, we may see that historically enormous numbers of people have died and suffered through battles of religions, which promulgate, ostensibly, the rule of love and compassion.

This is an illustration of the complexity of human affairs and the fact that finding the right response to a situation is not as simple as we might wish it to be.

Sri Aurobindo, Essays on the Gita, First Series, Chapter 5, Kurukshetra, pp. 40-41,

Progress and Destruction

Having acknowledged and confronted the principle of conflict and battle on the plane of material and vital existence, it is also necessary to recognise that it exists at the moral and mental level as well. It is perhaps important for us to also confront these issues directly by recognising that inaction in various circumstances is also a form of action, and mobilising “soul force” against certain forces or movements also entails destruction and violence in the name of progress. One cannot so easily avoid the moral issue of perpetrating or condoning violence by simple abstention from physical intervention!

During the second world war, the whole world faced this issue. Some opted for the principle of non-violence, even in the face of aggressive, violent, overwhelmingly destructive acts with enormous negative consequences. Others felt it their duty to intervene and stand up to the forces of destruction to try to mitigate their impact, shorten their reign and bring the terrible events to an earlier end. We must reflect long and hard to determine that one or the other of these positions represents the “moral high ground” much less the superior end result!

Sri Aurobindo points out: “We will use only soul-force and never destroy by war or any even defensive employment of physical violence? Good, though until soul-force is effective, the Asuric force in men and nations tramples down, breaks, slaughters, burns, pollutes, as we see it doing today, but then at its ease and unhindered, and you have perhaps caused as much destruction of life by your abstinence as others by resort to violence; still you have set up an ideal which may some day and at any rate ought to lead up to better things. But even soul-force, when it is effective, destroys. Only those who have used it with eyes open, know how much more terrible and destructive it is than the sword and the cannon; and only those who do not limit their view to the act and its immediate results, can see how tremendous are its after-effects, how much is eventually destroyed and with that much all the life that depended on it and fed upon it. Evil cannot perish without the destruction of much that lives by the evil, and it is no less destruction even if we personally are saved the pain of a sensational act of violence.”

Sri Aurobindo, Essays on the Gita, First Series, Chapter 5, Kurukshetra, pp. 38-40,

The Battle of Life

What makes the Bhagavad Gita unique is that it speaks to the human condition, in this case, without the overlay of a moral or ethical pair of “rose-colored glasses”. The cultured and developed individual tries to avoid facing this direct confrontation with the process of the universe that creates while it destroys, that pits one creature against another in a pitiless battle for existence. Arjuna is brought face to face with this stark reality, and this is the initial cause of his confusion, his depression and his emotional collapse.

Arjuna’s realisation is however, relevant to the human condition generally. The battlefield of kurukshetra is the battlefield of all human life and action. The first two words of the Gita make this relevance crystal clear: “Dharmakshetre, Kurukshetre”….the field of Dharma, the field of the Kurus…. We see the linkage to man’s Dharma, his destined work to be done, the principles of his life, and the field of action that ties the principle to the reality.

Sri Aurobindo explains the battle in stark terms himself: “The outward aspect is that of world-existence and human existence proceeding by struggle and slaughter; the inward aspect is that of the universal Being fulfilling himself in a vast creation and a vast destruction. Life a battle and a field of death, this is Kurukshetra; God the Terrible, this is the vision that Arjuna sees on that field of massacre.”

We eat to live. The Upanishad says “The eater, eating, is eaten.” We find that all growth, all life builds upon the destruction and decomposition of other life. All new progress signals the death of a former existence. “Our very bodily life is a constant dying and being reborn, the body itself a beleaguered city attacked by assailing, protected by defending forces whose business is to devour each other: and this is only a type of all our existence.”

It is therefore appropriate, as we reflect on the teaching of the Gita, to remember the context. This teaching was given on a battlefield where all the values, principles, ideals and goals of humanity were engaged in a massive life or death struggle, and all the leading members of society were pitted against each other in a war that would yield enormous destruction, pain, suffering, death and the trampling of an entire social order and governing structure under the feet of a destroying force.

Sri Aurobindo, Essays on the Gita, First Series, Chapter 5, Kurukshetra, pp. 36-38,

Three Steps To Move From Human to Divine Action

As a progressive dialogue which systematically moves the disciple from the human standpoint to a new framework of consciousness, the Gita undertakes to teach in a series of stages. These stages happen to provide the basis of the three great paths of vedantic yoga, karma yoga, the yoga of works; jnana yoga, the yoga of knowledge, and bhakti yoga, the yoga of love and devotion.

Sri Aurobindo defines the three steps of the Gita’s progression: “First, by the renunciation of desire and a perfect equality works have to be done as a sacrifice by man as the doer…” This is not, as some hold, the final word of the Gita, but the initial stage of the development that needs to occur.

“Secondly, not only the desire of the fruit, but the claim to be the doer of works has to be renounced in the realisation of the Self as the equal, the inactive, the immutable principle and of all works as simply the operation of universal Force, of the Nature-Soul, Prakriti, the unequal, active, mutable power.”

“Lastly the supreme Self has to be seen as the supreme Purusha governing this Prakriti, of whom the soul in Nature is a partial manifestation, by whom all works are directed, in a perfect transcendence, through Nature.”

Through these 3 stages, the seeker moves from a sense of complete bondage to action and karma to a sense of a complete spiritual liberation and freedom in Oneness with the Supreme. The Gita provides this solution in stages so that we can grow and develop into this new awareness and new poise of action, starting from our limited human motives and desires, first by eliminating the desire, second by eliminating the sense of being the doer, and third, by acting from a transcendent standpoint that has true equality of soul toward both the action and the fruits of action.

Sri Aurobindo, Essays on the Gita, First Series, Chapter 4, The Core of the Teaching, pp. 34-35,

Achieving a Poise of Consciousness Beyond the Workings of Nature

The teaching of the Gita successively moves from the starting point of the egoistic human individual acting under the impulsions of desire and his vital nature within the framework of the society within which he lives, to one in which he acts without regard to the fruits of his effort, but carries out the “work to be done”. This is, however, still a transitional stage in the evolution of the individual’s awareness. A further stage is arrived at by the recognition that it is Nature, Prakriti, through its three interactive modes (sattwa, rajas and tamas, as they are called), that actually is carrying out all action. Even this however, is not the ultimate status to be achieved eventually.

Sri Aurobindo explains: “It is the Purushottama beyond the Self that acts not, beyond the Prakriti that acts, foundation of the one, master of the other, the Lord of whom all is the manifestation, who even in or present subjection to Maya sits in the heart of His creatures governing the works of Prakriti, He by whom the armies on the field of Kurukshetra have already been slain while yet they live and who uses Arjuna only as an instrument or immediate occasion of this great slaughter. Prakriti is only His executive force.”

“Reposing his mind and understanding, heart and will in Him, with self-knowledge, with God-knowledge, with world-knowledge, with a perfect equality, a perfect devotion, an absolute self-giving, he has to do works as an offering to the Master of all self-energisings and all sacrifice. Identified in will, conscious with that consciousness, That shall decide and initiate the action. This is the solution which the Divine Teacher offers to the disciple.”

Sri Aurobindo, Essays on the Gita, First Series, Chapter 4, The Core of the Teaching, pp. 33-34,

The Work To Be Done, and the Way To Do It

Keeping in mind the developing thought process sequentially set forth in the Gita, the early pronouncements about “the work to be done” and the manner in which we are to approach that work, need to be tempered by the later more comprehensive teaching that ensues.

Sri Aurobindo explains the psychological state of the individual who is asked to undertake work: “The equality which the Gita preaches is not disinterestedness….; it is a state of inner poise and wideness which is the foundation of spiritual freedom. With that poise, in that freedom we have to do the “work that is to be done”, a phrase which the Gita uses with the greatest wideness including in it all works…and which far exceeds, though it may include, social duties or ethical obligations.”

It is not up to the individual to “choose” the work or desire the result.

As another interim statement, Sri Krishna explains to Arjuna that he has the right to the “work” but not the “fruits” of the work. He is more or less saying at that point, that Arjuna needs to do his duty, but it is not up to him to determine the results or act on the basis of attaining a specific result. Some hold this to be one of the essential points of the Gita, and it certainly helps move the individual away from the purely egoistic position from which we basically all start.

Sri Aurobindo points out that even this teaching needs to be viewed in a larger perspective: “It is practically superseded at a subsequent stage. For the Gita goes on to affirm emphatically that man is not the doer of the action; it is Prakriti, it is Nature, it is the great Force with its three modes of actionthat works through him, and he must learn to see that it is not he who does the work. Therefore the “right to action” is an idea which is only valid so long as we are still under the illusion of being the doer; it must necessarily disappear from the mind like the claim to the fruit, as soon as we cease to be to our own consciousness the doer of our works.”

Sri Aurobindo, Essays on the Gita, First Series, Chapter 4, The Core of the Teaching, pp. 32-33,

An Overview of the Gita’s Process of Teaching

The Bhagavad Gita has become famous for one or another aspect of its teaching without giving due regard to the fact that in the course of its 18 chapters, it systematically takes up, explains, describes and then integrates into its greater whole, a number of diverse concepts and core teachings. It is more or less treated as a buffet where the seeker is asked to come and choose something while disregarding everything else that is available. Sri Aurobindo takes issue with this methodology of understanding the Gita and reminds us that it is one teaching, presented at one time, to one disciple by one teacher and must therefore be seen as one continuous, multi-faceted development.

Seen in this light, we need then to recognize that the Gita’s teaching, while starting at a place that Arjuna can potentially understand at the outset, must necessarily grow, develop and evolve as it moves through all the different issues, facets and levels of understanding from start to finish. We need to appreciate the limitations of the process of sequential development and expression of thought and have the patience and subtlety to follow its undulations to the eventual integrating conclusions.

Necessarily, any particular concept found along the way is not the sole, ultimate or final word, but a way-station or midway point intended to shed light on one issue and bring it along in the larger final harmonious resolution. We can find the way of works, the way of devotion, the way of knowledge, as well as the way of action and the way of renunciation of action within the scope of the Gita. Each of these in fact provides us an element of the teaching but not the entirety of it.

“The Gita can only be understood, like any other great work of the kind, by studying it in its entirety and as a developing argument.”

Sri Aurobindo, Essays on the Gita, First Series, Chapter 4, The Core of the Teaching, pg. 32,

Called To a Higher Duty

The Bhagavad Gita recognizes that there are various forms of duty, and that duty is defined for the most part by our relationship to the social order. We thus have varying duties to parents, family members, the society in which we live, etc. For the individual attempting to live a good and positive life in the world, following these duties on a consistent basis is the essence of morality and ethics.

At the same time, there are duties which can transcend those imposed by the social order. These can particularly arise from a growing moral sense or inner conviction based on an evolution of the individual’s consciousness. Sri Aurobindo describes some of these higher order duties: “…if the lawyer is awakened to the absolute sinfulness of falsehood, the judge becomes convinced that capital punishment is a crime against humanity, the man called upon to the battlefield feels, like the conscientious objector of today or as a Tolstoy would feel, that in no circumstances is it permissible to take human life any more than to eat human flesh…”

When this inner moral law comes in conflict with the outer law established by the relations of society, “…It is obvious that here the moral law which is above all relative duties must prevail; and that law depends on no social relation or conception of duty but on the awakened inner perception of man, the moral being.”

“The Gita does not teach us to subordinate the higher plane to the lower, it does not ask the awakened moral consciousness to slay itself on the altar of duty as a sacrifice and victim to the law of the social status. It calls us higher and not lower; from the conflict of the two planes it bids us ascent to a supreme poise above the mainly practical, above the purely ethical, to the Brahmic consciousness. It replaces the conception of social duty by a divine obligation. The subjection to external law gives place to a certain principle of inner self-determination of action proceeding by the soul’s freedom from the tangled law of works.”

The Gita represents a developing, undulating, manifold view of the relation of the awakened individual to the social order and the duties he is called upon to carry out. It requires patience to work through all the permutations to reach the final understanding which it expounds. The first step is the recognition of the conflicting duties and their sources. The next step is to reconcile them and find a way to act in accordance with the highest spiritual principle to guide our lives.

Sri Aurobindo, Essays on the Gita, First Series, Chapter 4, The Core of the Teaching, pp. 31-32,

Duty and Sin

One of the major issues that needs to be resolved in our lives arises when a duty we are called upon to undertake in service to the society or the social order comes into conflict with our internal sense of sin. This issue in fact became a major issue in the war crimes trials following the second world war and was eventually codified into international law that simply following orders that are abhorrent to the internal sense of right and wrong does not absolve one from the responsibility for the resultant actions. The modern interpretation is essentially that one must accept the personal responsibility to refrain even from a direct order if it is morally sinful or repugnant, and at whatever personal cost due to the power of the social order.

The underlying issues here were raised by Arjuna on the battlefield of Kurukshetra when he sought guidance from Sri Krishna. He recognized that it was his duty to conduct the war and overcome the opposing forces. He further was able to recognize that “right” was on his side in the conflict and that he was therefore justified by his duty and his obligations to the side he was supporting to carry this out. But he then recognized that the result would be the destruction of the social fabric, the killing of respected teachers and elders who were deserving of his love and respect, and who, out of a sense of their own commitments and duties, were obligated to fight on the opposing side. At this point, Arjuna saw the action as a sin, as something so repugnant that he could not obey the call of duty, and he declared that it was better to die unarmed and unresisting than to commit that sin.

The duty of society clearly objected to his view, but he was acting the role of the conscientious objector. The teaching of the Gita takes on this issue directly while proposing a solution that goes beyond the limits of either of the opposing principles.

Sri Aurobindo, Essays on the Gita, First Series, Chapter 4, The Core of the Teaching, pp. 30-31,

The Call of God Overrides All Other Duties

It is possible to interpret the teaching of the Gita as suggesting that one should find salvation by performing one’s duty in life as determined by one’s station. Sri Aurobindo makes it clear that this interpretation cannot be the Gita’s deepest sense and inner meaning. He points out that in fact, it is the very conflict of various duties in Arjuna’s life that have caused the crisis in the first place! “For the whole point of the teaching, that from which it arises, that which compels the disciple to seek the Teacher, is an inextricable clash of the various related conceptions of duty ending in the collapse of the whole useful intellectual and moral edifice erected by the human mind.”

We all face some circumstances where we find conflicting calls upon us, that seem to ask us to give up one value in order to attain another. Arjuna’s call is to find a way through these conflicts to a place where they can be reconciled or overpassed. Rather than being a gospel of “do your duty”, the Gita asks us to actually go beyond all these duties and live a life of and for the spirit. “The Gita does not teach the disinterested performance of duties but the following of the divine life, the abandonment of all Dharmas, sarvadharman, to take refuge in the Supreme alone, and the divine activity of a Buddha, a Ramakrishna, a Vivekananda is perfectly in consonance with this teaching.” Thus, the Buddha leaving behind the kingdom to find his spiritual salvation, and other great seers, yogis and sages who abandoned their family life and career to focus on the spiritual realization and call, are not at odds with the Gita’s teaching.

“Nay, although the Gita prefers action to inaction, it does not rule out the renunciation of works, but accepts it as one of the ways to the Divine. If that can only be attained by renouncing works and life and all duties and the call is strong within us, then into the bonfire they must go, and there is no help for it. The call of God is imperative and cannot be weighed against any other considerations.”

Sri Aurobindo, Essays on the Gita, First Series, Chapter 4, The Core of the Teaching, pp. 29-30,