The Limitations of the Ascetic Answer To Life

In The Life Divine , Sri Aurobindo sets forth in the early chapters the two primary strains of endeavor that bracket the aspiration of humanity. The first is what he calls the “materialist denial” which essentially focuses on the perfection of man in society. The second is “the refusal of the ascetic” setting forth the opposite appeal to reject the vanity and transitory nature of the life of the world, and focus solely on the realisation of the Eternal. Eventually Sri Aurobindo proposed a reconciling position which acknowledged that both the materialistic goals and the ascetic’s yearnings are founded in and have a fundamental truth in what he names “reality omnipresent.”.

This debate was foreshadowed in the Bhagavad Gita and the Gita came to a similar conclusion that a reconciliation and integral approach to life and its meaning is the true solution to the issues of human existence. The ascetic position as Sri Aurobindo describes it is: “Not only desire, but action also must be flung away; seated in the silent self the soul will then pass away into the motionless, actionless, imperturbable, absolute Brahman.”

The Gita acknowledges the higher level of truth contained in this formulation than in that of the normal outwardly directed, desire-driven actions of humanity, as it acknowledges a higher reality and seeks to achieve a consciousness that is more consistent with that higher reality; however, the Gita also cannot accept this as the complete and final statement: “The error of the kinetic ideal can only prolong the ignorance and retard the human advance by setting it in search of perfection where perfection cannot be found; but the error of the quietistic ideal contains in itself the very principle of world-destruction. Were I to act upon it, says Krishna, I should destroy the peoples and be the author of confusion; and though the error of an individual human being, even though a nearly divine man, cannot destroy the whole race, it may produce a widespread confusion which may be in its nature destructive of the principle of human life and disturbing to the settled line of its advance.”

Sri Aurobindo, Essays on the Gita, First Series, Chapter 14, The Principle of Divine Works, pp. 134-135


Overcoming the Limitations of the Active Nature of Man

The first inclination of the human being, when seeking after some higher perfection, is to look for it in the active nature of the mind, life and body. We thus see an almost endless variety of attempts to perfect the body, perfect the moral and ethical sense, perfect the artistic nature, perfect the mind and the intellect, perfect (as an extension of the individual human being) the society we live in and the social framework we erect in order to live together. Each of these represents a line of action that speaks to the nature of the externally focused human being.

The Gita does not deny the validity of the human being seeking to perfect himself and the life he leads; rather, it acknowledges its value, while at the same time, pointing out the limitations and the insufficiencies of such an approach. Sri Aurobindo describes this issue: “Yes, there is a truth in that, replies the Gita; the fulfilment of God in man, the play of the Divine in life is part of the ideal perfection. But if you seek it only in the external, in life, in the principle of action, you will never find it; for you will then not only act according to your nature, which is in itself a rule of perfection, but you will be–and this is a rule of the imperfection–eternally subject to its modes, its dualities of liking and dislike, pain and pleasure and especially to the rajasic mode with its principle of desire and its snare of wrath and grief and longing,–the restless, all-devouring principle of desire, the insatiable fire which besieges your worldly action, the eternal enemy of knowledge by which it is covered over here in your nature as is a fire by smoke or a mirror by dust and which you must slay in order to live in the calm, clear, luminous truth of the spirit.”

In order to understand and operate upon a system, one must be able to “stand outside the system” as otherwise we are caught in the definitions and assumptions inherent in that system. Sri Aurobindo’s response: “The kinetic side of your nature must first seek to add to itself the quietistic; you must uplift yourself beyond this lower nature to that which is above the three Gunas, that which is founded in the highest principle, in the soul. Only when you have attained to peace of soul, can you become capable of a free and divine action.”

Sri Aurobindo, Essays on the Gita, First Series, Chapter 14, The Principle of Divine Works, pp. 133-134

The Ideal of the Divinised Man

Starting from the fragmented human consciousness, we generally try to superimpose our own limitations upon the Divine Consciousness. We then determine that the Divine is either unlimited or limited, moving or unmoving, bound or free. And then, we look at our paths of realisation and determine that we either must accept being bound by the world of action, or find a way to liberate ourselves therefrom to partake of the freedom of the unmoving infinite.

The Gita, however, makes it clear that the Divine is not bound by our limited, circumscribed way of looking at things. Sri Aurobindo explains: “He is not bound by any mode of nature or action, nor consists, as our personality consists, of a sum of qualities, modes of nature, characteristic operations of the mental, moral, emotional, vital, physical being, but is the source of all modes and qualities, capable of developing any he wills in whatever way and to whatever degree he wills; he is the infinite being of which they are ways of becoming, the immeasurable quantity and unbound ineffable of which they are measures, numbers and figures, which they seem to rhythmise and arithmise in the standards of the universe.”

Similarly, the Divine is not bound by his “unlimited” status either! He can take forms (without being bound by them), and thus he is “…the perfect Personality capable of all relations even to the most human, concrete and intimate; for he is friend, comrade, lover, playmate, guide, teacher, master, ministrant of knowledge or ministrant of joy, yet in all relations unbound, free and absolute.”

So in our attempt to understand the consciousness of the individual who attains to the Divine Consciousness, it is necessary to leave behind our preconceived notions formed out of the limited human consciousness and start from the standpoint of the Divine. “This too the divinised man becomes in the measure of his attainment, impersonal in his personality, unbound by quality or action even when maintaining the most personal and intimate relations with men, unbound by any dharma even when following in appearance this or that dharma. Neither the dynamism of the kinetic man nor the actionless light of the ascetic or quietist, neither the vehement personality of the man of action nor the indifferent impersonality of the philosophic sage is the complete divine ideal.”

“…the complete divine ideal proceeds from the nature of the Purushottama which transcends this conflict and reconciles all divine possibilities.”

We see then that it is not dependent on what one does (or does not do), but on the state of consciousness from which those actions are undertaken. As with the Divine, the divinised man is not bound by inaction or by action of any type.

Sri Aurobindo, Essays on the Gita, First Series, Chapter 14, The Principle of Divine Works, pp. 132-133

Divine Nature and Divine Action

The doctrine of works of the Gita is based on a change of consciousness from the fragmented, human viewpoint to the divine consciousness, along with the corresponding change that comes with that from action rooted in desire for individual benefit to action done for the sake of the continuation and development of the divine creative manifestation.

Sri Aurobindo describes the Divine Nature as follows: “It is not entirely and solely that of the Akshara, the immobile, inactive, impersonal self; for that by itself would lead the liberated man to actionless immobility. It is not characteristically that of the Kshara, the multitudinous, the personal, the Purusha self-subjected to Prakriti; for that by itself would lead him back into subjection to his personality and to the lower nature and its qualities. It is the nature of the Purushottama who holds both these together and by his supreme divinity reconciles them in a divine reconciliation which is the highest secret of his being…. He is not the doer of works in the personal sense of our action involved in Prakriti; for God works through his power, conscious nature, effective force,–Shakti, Maya, Prakriti,–but yet above it, not involved in it, not subject to it, not unable to lift himself beyond the laws, workings, habits of action it creates, not affected or bound by them, not unable to distinguish himself, as we are unable, from the workings of life, mind and body.”

Those who seek liberation through abandonment of works do not follow the law of the Divine Action. For the Divine Action encompasses all the energy of manifestation in the universe. “…for it is he who works in the steps and measures of his power; every movement of it, every particle of the world of beings it forms is instinct with his presence, full of his consciousness, impelled by his will, shaped by his knowledge.”

Sri Aurobindo, Essays on the Gita, First Series, Chapter 14, The Principle of Divine Works, pp. 131-132

The Divine Example Supports the Continuation of Works

Sri Krishna, the Divine Teacher, wants Arjuna to reorient his standpoint in order to escape the bondage of the ego and the impulsions of desire. Rather than focusing solely on the traditional concept of liberation, which involves escape from the actions of life, he indicates that Arjuna should continue to do works, on the basis of non-attachment to the results, and for the purpose of holding together and guiding the peoples in their progression of life in the universal manifestation.

To illustrate this concept, he provides his own example. He does not “need” to do works, but he does them as part of the Divine Manifestation. “I am above the necessity of works, for I have nothing to gain by them; I am the Divine who possess all things and all beings in the world and I myself beyond the world as well as in it and I do not depend upon anything or anyone in all the three worlds for any object; yet I act.”

Sri Aurobindo describes the position that Arjuna, as the representative of the evolved man moving toward a new diviner standpoint, is asked to take by Sri Krishna: ” ‘The whole range of human action has been decreed by Me with a view to the progress of man from the lower to the higher nature, from the apparent undivine to the conscious Divine. The whole range of human works must be that in which the God-knower shall move. All individual, all social action, all the works of the intellect, the heart and the body are still his, not any longer for his own separate sake, but for the sake of God in the world, of God in all beings and that all those beings may move forward, as he has moved, by the path of works towards the discovery of the Divine in themselves. Outwardly has actions may not seem to differ essentially from theirs; battle and rule as well as teaching and thought, all the various commerce of man with man may fall in his range; but the spirit in which he does them must be very different, and it is that spirit which by its influence shall be the great attraction drawing men upwards to his own level, the great lever lifting the mass of men higher in their ascent.’ ”

Sri Aurobindo, Essays on the Gita, First Series, Chapter 14, The Principle of Divine Works, pp. 130-131

The Motive of Action of the Divinised Man

The Gita is setting forth a doctrine that was more or less a new line of thought for those seeking enlightenment or liberation. Until that time, liberation was set as the goal, and once achieved, the dissolution and dropping of the body and the ego personality was assumed. The Gita does not accept liberation as the “goal” but as a step along the way. Once attained, there is still “work to be done” and we therefore are forced to confront the question, which Arjuna himself asks of Krishna, as to what the motive of action will be for a realised soul.

Sri Aurobindo describes the issue: “…when the man is in the Brahmic status and sees no longer with the false egoistic vision himself and the world, but sees all beings in the Self, in God, and the Self in all beings, God in all beings, what shall be the action,–since action there still is,–which results from that seeing, and what shall be the cosmic or individual motive of all his works?”

“The motive cannot be personal desire on the intellectual, moral, emotional level, for that has been abandoned,–even the moral motive has been abandoned, since the liberated man has passed beyond the lower distinction of sin and virtue, lives in a glorified purity beyond good and evil. It cannot be the spiritual call to his perfect self-development by means of disinterested works, for the call has been answered, the development is perfect and fulfilled.”

The Gita characteristically answers this question from the universal, not the individual standpoint. There is a meaning and purpose to the manifestation and therefore, from the Divine standpoint, that manifestation should and must be supported and continued. It is up to those who understand this to act, not for personal benefit, but as part of that universal manifestation and for the purpose of keeping it moving forward in its intended lines.

“His motive of action can only be the holding together of the peoples…. This great march of the peoples towards a far-off divine ideal has to be held together, prevented from falling into the bewilderment, confusion and utter discord of the understanding which would lead to dissolution and destruction and to which the world moving forward in the night or dark twilight of ignorance would be too easily prone if it were not held together, conducted, kept to the great lines of its discipline by the illumination, by the strength, by the rule and example, by the visible standard and the invisible influence of its Best.”

Sri Aurobindo, Essays on the Gita, First Series, Chapter 14, The Principle of Divine Works, pp. 129-130

The Ideal of the Divinised Man

The ability of the human individual to grow and attain to new and higher states of consciousness has been at the center of the human aspiration perhaps since the beginning of humanity. This ideal has taken the form of the Shaman who could contact, mitigate or call forth the higher powers to act, and eventually developed into the seeking for God-men, individuals who could embody a higher divine principle. This has taken both forms of light and forms of darkness, depending on how this self-exceeding of the human powers was envisioned and presented. In some cases we see the ideal of the vital dominating “superman” of Nietzsche and in others, a governance of society by the Philosopher-Sages of Plato. In ancient India, this quest generally took the form of an individual who undertook a spiritual discipline or practice and thereby acquired powers. If the seeking were primarily vital in nature, it led to the asuric or demonic expression; but the highest ideal has always been the self-exceeding that led to a divinisation of the human individual, the raising up of the human to a higher level of consciousness who could then express a higher standard rather than simply aggrandise himself for the benefit of the ego and the fulfillment of desire.

It should be noted that this individual discipline, and the subsequent fulfillment, was not intended to minimize or do away with the needs of the social order and the need for individuals to participate and support that social order in general. Sri Aurobindo describes the Gita’s position on this point: “An Indian system of thought like the Gita’s cannot possibly fail to put first the development of the individual, the highest need of the individual, his claim to discover and exercise his largest spiritual freedom, greatness, splendour, royalty,–his aim to develop into the illumined seerdom and kingship, which was the first great charter of the ideal humanity promulgated by the ancient Vedic sages.”

In order to achieve this aim, while avoiding simply the accentuation of various human powers, for good or ill, it was necessary for the individual to transcend the bounds of the ego and the impulsion of desire in the seeking. The rule here is “…that of the man whose whole personality has been offered up into the being, nature and consciousness of the one transcendent and universal Divinity and by loss of the smaller self has found its greater self, has been divinised.”

Sri Aurobindo, Essays on the Gita, First Series, Chapter 14, The Principle of Divine Works, pg. 129

Beyond Altruism, Philanthropy and Social Service

The idea of overcoming the hold of the ego through works naturally leads one to the type of conclusions that have been the centerpiece of religious and altruistic works all through the ages. We see a succession of programs such as feeding the hungry, operating hospitals, humanitarian rescue operations or social service projects of various sorts including schools and counseling, etc. These all represent steps along the way toward loosening the ego’s hold, to be sure, but they are not the “works” that the Gita recommends, and do not represent the essence of the Gita’s teaching in this regard.

Sri Aurobindo defines what the Gita does, and does not, mean by its doctrine of works: “It is not the rule of a large moral and intellectual altruism which is here announced, but that of a spiritual unity with God and with this world of beings who dwell in him and in whom he dwells. it is not an injunction to subordinate the individual to society and humanity or immolate egoism on the altar of the human collectivity, but to fulfil the individual in God and to sacrifice the ego on the one true altar of the all-embracing Divinity.”

Sri Aurobindo acknowledges the temporary aid offered by whatever mechanisms help to loosen the grip of the ego: “Patriotism, cosmopolitanism, service of society, collectivism, humanitarianism, the ideal or religion of humanity are admirable aids towards our escape from our primary condition of individual, family, social, national egoism into a secondary stage in which the individual realises, as far as it can be done on the intellectual, moral and emotional level,–on that level he cannot do it entirely in the right and perfect way, the way of the integral truth of his being,–the oneness of his existence with the existence of other beings.”

It is only by a true change of standpoint, a reversal of consciousness, that starts from the Oneness and from there views and understands the multiplicity, that the true transcendence of ego can actually take place.

Sri Aurobindo, Essays on the Gita, First Series, Chapter 14, The Principle of Divine Works, pg. 128

The Gita’s Validation of Works

Whenever the question of Karma Yoga comes up, eventually the example of King Janaka comes up. He was a respected and much honored king in the time of the Avatarhood of Sri Rama and was the father of Sita, Rama’s wife who was the lynch-pin of the activity for which Rama and his 3 brothers took birth, the destruction of the 10-headed Ravana who gained enormous demonic powers and was wielding them to gain mastery over the three worlds.

King Janaka was known as someone who had achieved realisation through Karma Yoga and continued to occupy his position “for the good of the people”. He acted without personal motive of fame or fortune. This is a perfect example and is raised by the Gita to illustrate the ideal of action once realisation has been attained.

Sri Aurobindo underlines this point: “So Janaka and other great Karmayogins of the mighty ancient Yoga attained to perfection, by equal and desireless works done as a sacrifice, without the least egoistic aim or attachment…. So too and with the same desirelessness, after liberation and perfection, works can and have to be continued by us in a large divine spirit, with the calm high nature of a spiritual royalty.”

The third chapter of the Gita is particularly focused on this subject in verses 20-26. Sri Aurobindo quotes as follows: “As those who know not act with attachment to the action, he who knows should act without attachment, having for his motive to hold together the peoples. He should not create a division of their understanding in the ignorant who are attached to their works; he should set them to all actions, doing them himself with knowledge and in Yoga.”

Sri Aurobindo, Essays on the Gita, First Series, Chapter 14, The Principle of Divine Works, pp. 127-128

The Successive Stages of the Liberation Process

The Gita recognizes that the change of standpoint it calls for is something that occurs over time and through a series of steps. Therefore, we must be prepared to follow the Gita’s line of development to the end before trying to judge any specific step as the ultimate intention. In the early chapters, the Gita does not fully work out the concept of the Purushottama; rather it focuses primarily on what might be considered “next steps” to address the current need of Arjuna, and then systematically moves on to further developments.

Sri Aurobindo discusses the concepts: “He speaks as yet not at all in set terms of the Purushottama, but of himself,–‘I’, Krishna, Narayana, the Avatar, the God in man who is also the Lord in the universe incarnated in the figure of the divine charioteer of Kurukshetra. ‘In the Self, then in Me,’ is the formula he gives, implying that the transcendence of the individual personality by seeing it as a ‘becoming’ in the impersonal self-existent Being is simply a means of arriving at that great secret impersonal Personality, which is thus silent, calm and uplifted above Nature in the impersonal Being, but also present and active in Nature in all these million becomings.”

The next stage after achieving the impersonal consciousness, and thereby moving away from the standpoint of the egoistic individual, is to move beyond the silent, unmoving impersonality. “…we arrive finally at union with that supreme Personality which is not separate and individual, but yet assumes all individualities.”

This then moves the consciousness to the next standpoint: “Transcending the lower nature of the three Gunas and seating the soul in the immobile Purusha beyond the three Gunas, we can ascend finally into the higher nature of the infinite Godhead which is not bound by the three Gunas even when it acts through Nature. Reaching the inner actionlessness of the silent Purusha, naiskarmya, and leaving Prakriti to do her works, we can attain supremely beyond to the status of the divine Mastery which is able to do all works and yet be bound by none.”

The traditional goal of withdrawal into the silent, infinite, unmoving Brahman takes the seeker away from path path of action. Recognising the concept of the Purushottama, we can reintegrate action and inaction from the standpoint of one Being with the two mutually supportive aspects. “See the silent Brahman as the goal and the world with all its activities has to be forsaken; see God, the Divine, the Purushottama as the goal, superior to action yet its inner spiritual cause and object and original will, and the world with all its activities is conquered and possessed in a divine transcendence of the world.”

Sri Aurobindo, Essays on the Gita, First Series, Chapter 14, The Principle of Divine Works, pp. 126-127