The Gunas Acting In the Animal Nature

We see in the emergence of the animal creation, the increasing operation of awareness, which occurs through the increased operation of Rajas within the basic framework of Tamas that governs the material creation and nature. We also see a somewhat increasing effect of the quality Sattva beginning to emerge, although clearly not in control.

Despite this increased consciousness, the animal creation remains clearly subject to the determinism of nature and does not exhibit “free will” in any sense that we would like to understand it.

Sri Aurobindo describes the limitations and conditions of the animal consciousness: “…no responsibility can be attributed to the animal for its actions. The tiger can no more be blamed for killing and devouring than the atom for its blind movements, the fire for burning and consuming or the storm for its destructions. If it could answer the question, the tiger would indeed say, like man, that it had free will, it would have the egoism of the doer, it would say, ‘I kill, I devour’; but we can see clearly enough that it is not really the tiger, but Nature in the tiger that kills, it is Nature in the tiger that devours; and if it refrains from killing or devouring, it is from satiety, from fear or from indolence, from another principle of Nature in it, from the action of the Guna called Tamas. As it was Nature in the animal that killed, so it is Nature in the animal that refrained from killing.”

“The animal like the atom acts according to the mechanism of its Nature, and not otherwise…., as if mounted on a machine….”

Sri Aurobindo, Essays on the Gita, First Series, Chapter 21, The Determinism of Nature, pp. 209-210


The Principle of Tamas In the Ascending Scale of Consciousness

The key to unlocking the solution to the issue raised by the Gita regarding determinism versus free will has been provided by Sri Aurobindo, who points out that there is an ascending scale of manifested consciousness. The more “involved” the consciousness is, the fewer characteristics of free will it is able to manifest; while the more consciousness has evolved, the more we see signs of the development of a free will. This in turn corresponds to the predominance of one or another of the Gunas of Nature at each stage.

Sri Aurobindo provides an analysis, starting with the level that predominates in Tamas. “How the passage from subjection to mastery works out is best seen if we observe the working of the Gunas in the scale of Nature from the bottom to the top. At the bottom are the existences in which the principle of Tamas is supreme, the beings who have not yet attained to the light of self-consciousness and are utterly driven by the current of Nature. There is a will even in the atom, but we see clearly enough that it is not free will, because it is mechanical and the atom does not possess the will, but is possessed by it.” “Tamas, the inert and ignorant principle, has its grip on it, contains rajas, conceals sattva within itself and holds a high holiday of mastery, Nature compelling this form of existence to act with a stupendous force indeed, but as a mechanical instrument….”

With the development of plant life, the quality of tamas remains primary, but we begin to see an increasing action of rajas and the initial responsiveness of sattva entering slowly into the picture. Once we move beyond the evolution of plants, we see tamas receding as first rajas, then sattva play a larger role, and as this occurs, we see the exercise of a more independent action than the purely mechanical action of the plane of Matter dominated by tamas.

Sri Aurobindo, Essays on the Gita, First Series, Chapter 21, The Determinism of Nature, pp. 208-209

Mastering the Lower Nature

After evaluating the distinction between the true essential nature and what Sri Aurobindo calls the “accidental” aspects of action, the seeker is faced with the need to address the workings of desire and gain control over the deviations caused by desire in the lower nature. Sri Aurobindo clarifies that there is “…a distinction implied too between coercion and suppression…and control with right use and right guidance, samyama.

The Gita takes issue with those who would perpetrate violent austerities or suffering on the nature in order to try to “discipline” the lower Nature. It points out that this type of extreme action tends not to succeed, but rather brings about a reaction that is retrogressive. “The former (coercion/suppression) is a violence done to the nature by the will, which in the end depresses the natural powers of the being…; the latter (right use and right guidance) is the control of the lower nature by the higher self, which successfully gives to those powers their right action and their maximum efficiency,–yogaha karmasu kausalam (“yoga is skill in works”).”

The Gita asks us to relate to the lower nature in a way that elicits its “cooperation” rather than “opposition” to the change in action being sought. “To the man is his self a friend in whom the (lower) self has been conquered by the (higher) self, but to him who is not in possession of his (higher) self, the (lower) self is as if an enemy and it acts as an enemy.”

The result is described: “When one has conquered one’s self and attained to the calm of a perfect self-mastery and self-possession, then is the supreme self in a man founded and poised even in his outwardly conscious human being….In other words, to master the lower self by the higher, the natural self by the spiritual is the way of man’s perfection and liberation.”

Sri Aurobindo, Essays on the Gita, First Series, Chapter 21, The Determinism of Nature, pg. 208

Confronting the Determinism of Nature

Confusion may arise when we look at the Gita’s statements about the control that Nature exerts over our actions, and its indication that trying to suppress or coerce the nature is a useless task (like trying to straighten out the curled tail of the dog!). The Gita repeatedly emphasizes this situation in multiple different ways and contexts, the idea being that Nature operates like a machinery of the three qualities (
gunas) and that thereby all human beings are basically determined in their actions and reactions. Sri Aurobindo cites several instances: “The Gita says, indeed, ‘All existences follow their nature and what shall coercing it avail?’ which seems, if we take it by itself, a hopeless absolute assertion of the omnipotence of Nature over the soul; ‘even the man of knowledge acts according to his own nature’ And on this it founds the injunction to follow faithfully in our action the law of our nature.”

At the same time, the Gita does not recommend a helpless surrender to any impulses of desire or action which want to take hold of us. Clearly there is a distinction being made here which needs to be sorted out and understood.

The difference appears to be one that recognizes that there can be a basic and essential “nature” that provides the overarching framework for the action of an individual, while at the same time, there can be specific items “overlaid” on this basic nature that are not essential to it.

In the science of Ayurveda, a similar concept holds that there is a “prakriti” representing the “born nature” of a person, and a “vikriti” which is the actual formations that have occurred to create short term propensities and imbalances. Using this conceptual framework, we can apply it to the larger question of determinism that the Gita raises.

The Gita moderates its seemingly “absolute” statements with the exhortation to control and manage the impulsions of desire and their effects: “In the object of this or that sense liking and disliking are set in ambush; fall not into their power,l for they are the besetters of the soul in its path.” The force that needs to be controlled “…is desire and its companion wrath, children of Rajas, the second Guna, the principle of passion, and this desire is the soul’s great enemy and has to be slain. Abstention from evil-doing it declares to be the first condition for liberation, and always in enjoins self-mastsery, self-control, samyama, control of the mind, senses, all the lower being.”

Sri Aurobindo, Essays on the Gita, First Series, Chapter 21, The Determinism of Nature, pp. 207-208

The Human Viewpoint and the Divine Viewpoint

When the Gita recommends that the spiritual seeker free himself from the ego-self and the force of desire, this obviously is not truly possible while we remain enmeshed in the operations of the Gunas of Nature and act from the mental/vital/physical standpoint. While we may systematically cultivate a sattwic poise of “non-attachment”, as long as we remain fixed in the human viewpoint we remain subject to the action of the modes of Nature and thus, the poise is both subject to change as well as subject to forms of illusion, such as self-deception. In order to achieve the liberation that the Gita speaks of, one must actually access and live in the standpoint of the divine consciousness.

Sri Aurobindo discusses the issue of standpoint in the following passage: “In fact, these higher truths can only be helpful, because there only they are true to experience and can be lived, on a higher and vaster plane of consciousness and being. To view these truths from below is to mis-see, misunderstand and probably to misuse them.”

The divine viewpoint is asked to rise above the dualities of good and evil, but this is not intended to justify anything that the mental or vital consciousness desires, but to establish a standpoint where the validity of the concept for the mental framework can be recognized, but the reconciliation of them both in the wider divine manifestation can also be seen and accepted.

Sri Aurobindo also cites the example of the debate between determinism of Nature and free will. From the mental standpoint, the concept of determinism implies that everything is “fixed” and thus, man has no way to overcome propensities so he might as well give in to them. A larger truth recognises that there is a truth of determinism, just as there is a truth of free will, and the law of Karma implies that there will be an inevitable response or reaction to what one does in the world; and that if one exercises the will toward the fulfillment of the ego and achievement of desire, one will gain that fruit, but also, through systematic effort one can change or overcome the force of the nature to which one is born.

The divine viewpoint reconciles these apparently conflicting concepts that seem so opposite and impossible to keep in balance from the human viewpoint.

Sri Aurobindo, Essays on the Gita, First Series, Chapter 21, The Determinism of Nature, pp. 206-207

The Issues Involved in Liberating Purusha From Prakriti

Sankhya explains our existence with the concept of Purusha and Prakriti, the one inactive, the other representing active Nature. Sri Aurobindo reminds us of the primary elements of this conceptual framework: “Purusha is inactive…; Prakriti is active…; Purusha is the being full of the light of consciousness; Prakriti is the Nature, mechanical, reflecting all her works in the conscious witness, the Purusha. Prakriti works by the inequality of her three modes, Gunas, in perpetual collision and intermixture and mutation with each other; and by her function of ego-mind she gets the Purusha to identify himself with all this working and so creates the sense of active, mutable, temporal personality in the silent eternity of the Self. The impure natural consciousness overclouds the pure soul-consciousness; the mind forgets the Person in the ego and the personality; we suffer the discriminating intelligence to be carried away by the sense-mind and its outgoing functions and by the desire of the life and the body. So long as the Purusha sanctions this action, ego and desire and ignorance must govern the natural being.”

The primary line of solution for many spiritual traditions has been to “cut the knot” of the ego by abandoning the active life in the world through withdrawal or renunciation. The Gita of course does not accept this as the only solution, or in fact the preferred solution. So a way must then be found that releases the Purusha from the identification with the ego-personality while at the same time, maintaining the sanction for the active Nature.

Sri Aurobindo, Essays on the Gita, First Series, Chapter 21, The Determinism of Nature, pp. 205-206

The Apparent Self and the True Self

The ego, as we will recall from our review of the principles of existence enunciated by Sankhya, is part of the machinery of Nature, and as such, it is subject to the action of the three Gunas, or modes, of Nature. Because of our identification with the ego in the normal human consciousness, we identify with the actions of Nature within us and are constantly driven by the force of desire which arises through the action of the Gunas.

The true soul is separate from the actions of Nature in its essence, it is associated with the concept of the Purusha. The Purusha is the witness, Lord and Master of Nature, and is unattached and unaffected by the actions of Nature. The Upanishadic verse that describes, two birds which sit on a common tree, one watching and sanctioning, while the other eats of the fruit of the tree, is a poetic description of the difference between the true soul and the apparent self that is part of the mechanism of Nature.

Sri Aurobindo describes this further: “It is really the ego which is subject to Nature, inevitably, because it is itself part of Nature, one functioning of her machinery; but when the self-awareness in the mind-consciousness identifies itself with the ego, it creates the appearance of a lower self, an ego-self. And so too what we think of ordinarily as the soul is really the natural personality, not the true Person, the Purusha, but the desire-soul in us which is a reflection of the consciousness of the Purusha in the workings of Prakriti: it is, in fact, itself only an action of the three modes and therefore a part of Nature. Thus there are, we may say, two souls in us, the apparent or desire-soul, which changes with the mutations of the Gunas and is entirely constituted and determined by them, and the free and eternal Purusha not limited by Nature and her Gunas. We have two selves, the apparent self, which is only the ego, that mental centre in us which takes up this mutable action of Prakriti, this mutable personality….and the true self which is, indeed, the upholder, the possessor and the lord of Nature and figured in her, but is not itself the mutable natural personality.”

Sri Aurobindo, Essays on the Gita, First Series, Chapter 21, The Determinism of Nature, pp. 204-205