Two Concerns About the Basis For Action By the Liberated Soul

Sri Aurobindo reminds us of various issues or difficulties that arise when we recognize the existence of a Soul separate from Nature. While classical Sankhya simply accepts that when we free ourselves from the illusion of reality created by Nature through the action of the Gunas, we then identify ourselves with the unmoving, unattached Soul which is calm and blissful in its uninvolved status. The question arises then, if action is located with Prakriti (Nature), on what basis does the uninvolved Purusha relate to the action called for by the Gita; and second, if all action is free, why should anyone undertake the kind of ultimately violent action represented by the battle of Kurukshetra?

Sri Aurobindo describes the first concern: “If we say with the Sankhya that the will is in Nature and not in the Self, still there must be a motive in Nature and the power in her to draw the soul into its workings by interest, ego and attachment, and when these things cease to reflect themselves in the soul consciousness, her power ceases and the motive of works ceases with it. But the Gita does not accept this view, which seems indeed to necessitate the existence of many Purushas and not one universal Purusha, otherwise the separate experience of the soul and its separate liberation while millions of others are still involved, would not be intelligible. Nature is not a separate principle, but the power of the Supreme going forth in cosmic creation. But if the Supreme is only this immutable Self and the individual is only something that has gone forth from him in the Power, then the moment it returns and takes its poise in the self, everything must cease except the supreme unity and the supreme calm.”

“Secondly, even if in some mysterious way action still continues, yet since the Self is equal to all things, it cannot matter whether works are done or, if they are done, it cannot matter what work is done. Why then this insistence on the most violent and disastrous form of action, this chariot, this battle, this warrior, this divine charioteer?”

These are questions which have troubled thinkers, philosophers and theologians throughout history and the Gita has to provide us solutions in order to justify its position.

Sri Aurobindo, Essays on the Gita, First Series, Chapter 24, The Gist of the Karmayoga, pg. 245


Growing Into Our True Self

As long as we remain rooted in the mental consciousness, which functions on the basis of separation, division and fragmentation, we are bound within the actions of Nature working through the Gunas. As we undertake the process of the Yoga, we begin to experience the calm, wideness, stillness, unity of consciousness which begins to create a new platform for our experience and our action. This experience puts us into touch with our wider and truer Self, the Self that is ONE with all existence, and which is not limited by the specific ego-personality that we experience when we are fixed in the mental consciousness.

Sri Aurobindo describes the experience and the process: “When this Self is revealed within us, when we feel its peace and stillness, we can grow into that; we can transfer the poise of our soul from its lower immergence in Nature and draw it back into the Self. We can do this by the force of the things we have attained, calm, equality, passionless impersonality. For as we grow in these things, carry them to their fullness, subject all our nature to them, we are growing into this calm, equal, passionless, impersonal, all-pervading Self.”

The result: “All things we see in this self which we have become in ourself; and we see this self in all; we become one being with all beings in the spiritual basis of their existence. By doing works in this selfless tranquility and impersonality, our works cease to be ours, cease to bind or trouble us with their reactions. Nature and her Gunas weave the web of her works, but without affecting our griefless self-existent tranquility. All is give up into that one equal and universal Brahman.”

We experience the two great Truths expressed repeatedly in the Upanishads: “One Without A Second.” and “All This Is the Brahman”. These are not intended to be intellectual statements or philosophical dicta, but a living experience of Oneness achieved through identification with the consciousness of the Self which takes over our seeing and acting as we continue to grow into that and shift our standpoint more and more toward the view of Oneness.

Sri Aurobindo, Essays on the Gita, First Series, Chapter 24, The Gist of the Karmayoga, pp. 244-245

Attaining Freedom From Desire

We see that the Gita repeatedly cautions that one must be free of the action of the Gunas, and move the standpoint of consciousness to one which is calm, equal and not affected by the play of the Gunas or the action of desire that runs after the objects of the senses. It is easy to conceptualize, but hard to accomplish! In the Mahabharata there is a famous story about the education of the Pandava and Kaurava princes by their preceptor Drona. The lesson of the day was “not to become angry” and every day Drona inquired of the 100 or more princes whether they understood the lesson. Everyone said “yes, not to become angry”. Until he got to Arjuna’s eldest brother Yudhisthira, who repeatedly indicated he did not understand the lesson. After this went on for some days, Drona became upset with the royal prince and struck him across the cheek. This was a mortal affront to the future king and emperor. But at that moment, Yudhisthira replied that he now understood the lesson. He was able to experience the provocation that could lead to anger, and recognize how to manage and control it!

We are all subject to the force of desire and the running of the mind and the senses after the objects of the senses that results therefrom. Sri Aurobindo takes us through the sequence and steps necessary to address this issue: “…we have to live inwardly and be able to hold back the natural running of the senses after their external objects.”

“…it is desire, the principle of all our superficial life, which satisfies itself with the life of the senses and finds its whole account in the play of the passions.”

…since we have still to live and act in the world and our nature in works is to seek for the fruits of our works, we must change that nature and do works without attachment to their fruits…”

The method: “…by dissociating works from ego and personality, by seeing through the reason that all this is only the play of the Gunas of Nature, and by dissociating our soul from the play, by making it first the observer of the workings of Nature and leaving those works to the Power that is really behind them, the something in Nature which is greater than ourselves, not our personality, but the Master of the universe.”

The problem and solution: “But the mind will not permit all this; its nature is to run out after the senses and carry the reason and will with it. Then we must learn to still the mind. We must attain that that absolute peace and stillness in which we become aware of the calm, motionless, blissful Self within us which is eternally untroubled and unaffected by the touches of things, is sufficient to itself and finds there alone its eternal satisfaction.”

Sri Aurobindo, Essays on the Gita, First Series, Chapter 24, The Gist of the Karmayoga, pp. 243-244

The Modes of Nature and the Ego Personality

The normal experience we have as human beings leads us to believe that we are exercising our own will and thereby exerting control over our actions and responsible for our destiny. Of course, the normal human experience also holds that the sun rises in the East, rotates around the earth and sets in the West–proving thereby that the normal human perception does not always capture the actual reality of the situation because of the limitations of our standpoint.

When one delves deeper into the question of our exertion of will, one finds that the decisions we take, the actions we engage in are actually part of the elaborate mechanism of Nature working through the three Gunas, or modes, Tamas, Rajas and Sattva. In fact, a close examination shows us that what we believed to be “free will” is very much being determined by the interaction and play of these Modes, and that to find free will one must achieve an independent standpoint outside the action of Nature.

Sri Aurobindo describes the relationship between the predominant Guna and the action of the ego-personality: “It may be a tamasic action, and then we have an inert personality subject to and satisfied with the mechanical round of things, incapable of any strong effort at a freer action and mastery. or it may be the rajasic action, and then we have the restless active personality which throws itself upon Nature and tries to make her serve its needs and desires, but does not see that its apparent mastery is a servitude, since its needs and desires are those of Nature, and while we are subject to them, there can be for us no freedom. Or it may be a sattwic action, and then we have the enlightened personality which tries to live by reason or to realise some preferred ideal of good, truth or beauty; but this reason is still subject to the appearances of Nature and these ideals are only changing phases of our personality in which we find in the end no sure rule or permanent satisfaction. We are still carried on a wheel of mutation, obeying in our circlings through the ego some Power within us and within all this, but not ourselves that Power or in union and communion with it. Still there is no freedom, no real mastery.”

Sri Aurobindo, Essays on the Gita, First Series, Chapter 24, The Gist of the Karmayoga, pg. 243

The Status of the Soul’s Subjection to the Natural Being

The Gita distinguishes between our natural being in the ordinary human existence, focused on the objects of the senses and the fulfillment of the desires that arise therefrom; and our spiritual being, free and unattached to the forms and forces of the manifestation. The liberation of the Soul from its subjection to the natural being’s focus and attachments is the effort toward which the Gita continually points.

It is important to understand the mechanism of the subjection we experience in our normal human state of consciousness. Sri Aurobindo explains the process: “In our natural life the first dominating fact is our subjection to the forms of material Nature, the outward touches of things. These present themselves to our life through the senses, and the life through the senses immediately returns upon these objects to seize upon them and deal with them, desires, attaches itself, seeks for results. The mind in all its inner sensations, reactions, emotions, habitual ways of perceiving, thinking and feeling obeys this action of the senses; the reason too carried away by the mind gives itself up to this life of the senses, this life in which the inner being is subject to the externality of things and cannot for a moment really get above it or outside the circle of its action upon us and its psychological results and reactions within us. It cannot get beyond them because there is the principle of ego by which the reason differentiates the sum of the actions of Nature upon our mind, will, sense, body from her action in other minds, wills, nervous organisms, bodies; and life to us means only the way she affects our ego and the way our ego replies to her touches. We know nothing else, we seem to be nothing else; the soul itself seems then only a separate mass of mind, will, emotional and nervous reception and reaction.”

To the extent that we widen our circle to include family, friends, or affinity groups, such as religious brethren, community or country, we do not actually break out of the hold of the ego, but simply widen its scope.

Sri Aurobindo, Essays on the Gita, First Series, Chapter 24, The Gist of the Karmayoga, pp. 241-243

The Relationship Between the Soul and Nature

The Gita takes a somewhat different approach than classical Vedanta on the question of the reality of the manifestation and our action in the world. It does not treat the world as in illusion, or something to be rejected; rather, it accepts a basic reality to that manifestation, but at the same time points out that our existence is not limited by that reality, and that we are more than the complex of mind-life-body that we normally accept as the frame of our existence.

The issue then, for the Gita, is how we can shift our stance to the true inner Self and from there, how we can relate to the manifestation of Nature. The Gita accomplishes this by accepting the distinction between the Soul and Nature and showing that the Soul has multiple standpoints, one of which is involved in and bound by the actions of Nature; another which is independent of Nature, separate and aloof, and a third which recognizes both of these other two stances as aspects of its Oneness.

Nature, then, according to the Gita, is more or less a machinery operated by the three Gunas and consisting of the principles of Sankhya, the elements of matter which create outer forms, the senses that perceive and interact with them, the mind, the Reason and finally the spiritual consciousness. These are involved in the mechanical process, but evolve out as “…the soul in Nature becomes aware of itself by an upward evolution of each instrument…” as Sri Aurobindo indicates.

The Reason (Buddhi) disentangles itself from an exclusive preoccupation with the mechanical forms of the manifestation of Nature eventually, and begins to distinguish the higher spiritual principle as well. Sri Aurobindo describes the process: “In Vedantic language, it sees the spirit, the being; it ceases to identify itself with the instruments and workings of Nature, with its becoming; it identifies itself with its true Self and being and recovers its immutable spiritual self-existence. It is then from this spiritual self-existence, according to the Gita, that it can freely and as the master of its being, the Ishwara, support the action of its becoming.”

Sri Aurobindo, Essays on the Gita, First Series, Chapter 24, The Gist of the Karmayoga, pp. 240-241

The Justification of Karmayoga As a Means of Spiritual Realisation

We can now see and appreciate the Gita’s approach to spiritual development. The Gita does not ask the seeker to abandon life, or any of the elements that constitute the human being,– mind, life and body. The actual work or actions to be carried out, in fact, may remain the same before realisation and after. The Gita points out that the important change is the status of the consciousness from its normal basis in mind-life-body to the uninvolved consciousness that is outside and independent of the individual ego-personality.

Sri Aurobindo describes it thus: “This upward transference of our centre of being and the consequent transformation of our whole existence and consciousness, with a resultant change in the whole spirit and motive of our action, the action often remaining precisely the same in all outward appearances, makes the gist of the Gita’s Karmayoga. Change your being, be reborn into the spirit and by that new birth proceed with the action to which the Spirit within has appointed you, may be said to be the heart of its message.”

The issues that remain, as Sri Aurobindo points out, are then “…the way to the change, to this upward transference, this new divine birth, and the nature of the work or rather the spirit in which it has to be done…”

By virtue of a change in standpoint of the consciousness, one automatically develops a new spirit of the action undertaken. Instead of being fixated on the desires, ambitions, fears, and other motivations of the egoistic personality, the individual acts from a disinterested view for purpose of carrying out the intention of the divine manifestation. With this change comes about a release from the attachment to either a specific form of action or a specific result. There is also a release from the internalization of the action as being “good” or “bad”, “virtuous” or “sinful”.

Sri Aurobindo concludes that “…the soul in us develops itself by life and works and, not indeed so much the action itself, but the way of our soul’s inner force of working determines its relations to the Spirit. This is, indeed, the justification of Karmayoga as a practical means of the higher self-realisation.”

Sri Aurobindo, Essays on the Gita, First Series, Chapter 24, The Gist of the Karmayoga, pp. 239-240

Living In Our Spiritual Being Is the Meaning of Yoga

The Gita, having denied the possibility of solving the contradictions of human existence at the normal mental level, bound within the action of the lower nature and the play of the Gunas, presents another solution. This solution is in line with modern philosophical understanding as well, which states that one cannot fully understand and “see” the elements of one’s situation so long as one is fully involved in a particular frame of action; rather, we must find a way to step outside or above that frame to be able to truly observe it and act upon it without distortion. The Gita’s proposal in this regard is that the practice of yoga should be done to experience and eventually shift one’s standpoint of action to the spiritual divine consciousness above and outside the mental framework of the lower nature, and from that place one can observe, act and master that lower nature.

Sri Aurobindo describes this process in more detail: “The Gita’s solution is to rise above our natural being and normal mind, above our intellectual and ethical perplexities into another consciousness with another law of being and therefore another standpoint for our action; where personal desire and personal emotions no longer govern it; where the dualities fall away; where the action is no longer our own and where therefore the sense of personal virtue and personal sin is exceeded; where the universal, the impersonal, the divine spirit works out through us its purpose in the world; where we are ourselves by a new and divine birth changed into being of that Being, consciousness of that Consciousness, power of that Power, bliss of that Bliss, and, living no longer in our lower nature, have no works to do of our own, no personal aim to pursue of our own, but if we do works at all,–and that is the one real problem and difficulty left,–do only the divine works, those of which our outward nature is only a passive instrument and no longer the cause, no longer provides the motive; for the motive-power is above us in the will of the Master of our works.”

This is not to be realized by an intellectual exercise: “We can only know this greater truth by living it, that is to say, by passing beyond the mental into the spiritual experience, by Yoga. For the living out of spiritual experience until we cease to be mind and become spirit, until, liberated from the imperfections of our present nature, we are able to live entirely in our true and divine being is what in the end we mean by Yoga.”

Sri Aurobindo, Essays on the Gita, First Series, Chapter 24, The Gist of the Karmayoga, pp. 238-239

The Ultimate Limitations of Mental Solutions to Human Problems

Throughout the history of human civilization, humanity has grappled with basic and essential questions of how to apply principles, whether moral or ethical, to the situations that arise both in one’s individual life and in one’s relation to society and social norms and expectations. For the most part, our solutions proceed from the normal human standpoint and represent some accommodation between various conflicting duties or principles as defined by the society within which we live and act.

The Gita goes through the ethical and practical considerations with Arjuna when he declares that what he is about to do is a sin, and concludes with “I will not fight.” Arjuna responds to each of these values with a conflicting value, and thus, reaches a stage of paralysis of action where he feels trapped in a wrong decision regardless of what he decides to do. He is illustrating the ultimate stage of the mental consciousness where it recognizes that both sides of a logical statement may be valid in certain circumstances. He finds it a sin to fight and kill his relatives on the opposing side; and it is also a sin to let the forces of injustice and oppression triumph and kill all those fighting on his side!

Each of the mental arguments reaches this point of balance where there is and can be no solution within that framework. This is the sign of the need to migrate outside the mental framework to a new standpoint and level of consciousness that provides the solution which can reconcile both of the opposing viewpoints in a higher and more comprehensive understanding. It is this toward which the Divine Teacher is pointing, and from Arjuna’s questions it becomes clear that he is ready to make this leap.

Sri Aurobindo points out that there is no final solution in the intellectual approach toward problem solving at this level: “And this is so because it proceeds from the normal mind which is always a tangle of various tendencies of our being and can only arrive at a choice or an accommodation between them, between our reason, our ethical being, our dynamic needs, our life-instincts, our emotional being and those rarer movements which we may perhaps call soul-instincts or psychical preferences. The Gita recognises that from this standpoint there can be no absolute, only an immediate practical solution and, after offering to Arjuna from the highest ideals of his age just such a practical solution, which he is in no mood to accept and indeed is evidently not intended to accept, it proceeds to quite a different standpoint and to quite another answer.”

Sri Aurobindo, Essays on the Gita, First Series, Chapter 24, The Gist of the Karmayoga, pp. 237-238

Overview Summary of the Gita’s Teaching

Sri Aurobindo pauses here to review the Gita’s teaching through the first six of the eighteen chapters that comprise the entire work. He points out that these first six chapters represent in outline form, the major elements of the teaching, but they leave a lot of details to be explained, worked out and understood in the later chapters. In any teaching as broad-based and with the complexity of the Gita, it is important to recognize that there is a process involved in the understanding and implementation. The initial “top line” overview we have received provides us a general guideline for the major principles, issues and goals of the teaching. It then becomes necessary to take up each of these and work them out in detail, in the light of practical experience and through the modality of time, to achieve the actual result.

Sri Aurobindo points out some of the many questions that remain unresolved at this stage in the mind of Arjuna: “…you have also spoken of rising above the Gunas, while yet one remains in action, and you have not told me how the Gunas work, and unless I know that, it will be difficult for me to detect and rise above them. Besides, you have spoken of Bhakti as the greatest element in Yoga, yet you have talked much of works and knowledge, but very little or nothing of Bhakti. And to whom is Bhakti, this greatest thing, to be offered?….Tell me, then, what you are, who, as Bhakti is greater even than this self-knowledge, are greater than the immutable Self, which is yet itself greater than mutable Nature and the world of action, even as knowledge is greater than works. What is the relation between these three things? between works and knowledge and divine love? between the soul in Nature and the immutable Self and that which is at once the changeless Self of all and the Master of knowledge and love and works, the supreme Divinity who is here with me in this great battle and massacre, my charioteer in the chariot of this fierce and terrible action?”

These and other questions remain to be taken up in the balance of the Gita, with a sufficient grounding in both concept and practice so that an actual sadhana can take place and lead to realisation and fulfilment over time.

Sri Aurobindo, Essays on the Gita, First Series, Chapter 24, The Gist of the Karmayoga, pp. 236-237