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