The Universal Sacrifice Integrates the Way of Works with the Way of Devotion

As the practices of Karma Yoga take hold, they inevitably lead to a deep devotion and sense of consecration that brings the Yoga of Love to its fulfilment. Sri Aurobindo points out: “…even if such a discipline is begun without devotion, it leads straight and inevitably towards the highest devotion possible; for it must deepen naturally into the completest adoration inaginable, the most profound God-love. There is bound up with it a growing sense of the Divine in all things, a deepening communion with the Divine in all our thought, will and action and at every moment of our lives, a more and more moved consecration to the Divine of the totality of our being.”

“The seeker who puts them into living practice makes in himself continually a constant, active and effective representation of the very spirit of self-devotion, and it is inevitable that out of it there should emerge the most engrossing worship of the Highest to whom is given this service. An absorbing love for the Divine Presence to whom he feels an always more intimate closeness, grows upon the consecrated worker. And with it is born or in it is contained a universal love too for all these beings, living forms and creatures that are habitations of the Divine–not the brief restless grasping emotions of division, but the settled selfless love that is the deeper vibration of oneness. In all the seeker begins to meet the one Object of his adoration and service.”

We can see that for those who sincerely take up the Yoga of works, the result eventually integrates the Yoga of love and devotion. The two paths, while they start from different aspects of the human nature, interweave and eventually join fully as the realisations deepen.

Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga, Part One: The Yoga of Divine Works, Chapter 4, The Sacrifice, The Triune Path and the Lord of the Sacrifice, pp. 103-104

Converting the Entire Life Into a Conscious Sacrifice to the Supreme

The concept of the sacrifice for the divine realisation reaches its ultimate conclusion when we no longer segment or separate the act of sacrifice from the rest of the life; rather, eventually all life is recognised as a manifestation of the Supreme, in Oneness, and every action then is converted into a conscious sacrifice.

Sri Aurobindo describes the process and the result: “Every moment and every movement of our being is to be resolved into a continuous and a devoted self-giving to the Eternal. All our actions, not less the smallest and most ordinary and trifling than the greatest and most uncommon and noble, must be performed as consecrated acts.”

This implies that we must overcome the limitations of the egoistic human consciousness: “Our individualised nature must live in the single consciousness of an inner and outer movement dedicated to Something that is beyond us and greater than our ego.”

The form of sacrifice also must be transformed: “No matter what the gift and to whom it is presented by us, there must be a consciousness in the act that we are presenting it to the one divine Being in all beings.”

Every action takes on this character: “…when we eat, we should be conscious that we are giving our food to that Presence in us; it must be a sacred offering in a temple and the sense of a mere physical need or self-gratification must pass away from us.”

Whatever we do, whatever projects we undertake should be done from a new spirit: “The workings and results of our acts must be put in the hands of that One in the feeling that that Presence is the Infinite and Most High by whom alone our labour and our aspiration are possible.”

“Even in those things in which Nature is herself very plainly the worker and we only the witnesses of her working and its containers and supporters, there should be the same constant memory and insistent consciousness of a work and of its divine Master. Our very inspiration and respiration, our very heart-beats can and must be made conscious in us as the living rhythm of the universal sacrifice.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga, Part One: The Yoga of Divine Works, Chapter 4, The Sacrifice, The Triune Path and the Lord of the Sacrifice, pp. 102-103

The Fruit of the Sacrifice and the Ultimate Result

Every action in the world receives a response, due to the nature of the inter-connectedness and interchange within the manifested universe. Therefore, every act of sacrifice, self-giving, evokes a response. People question whether prayer, offering, self-giving are “effective”. There is no doubt that each such act has an effect and causes something to occur in the universe. What is usually meant by this question is whether the individual ego-personality can demand, cajole, convince or manipulate the Divine to act under the desires and impulsions sought by the ego-personality. This of course, is not the case! The response comes in its own form based on a number of factors, and does not necessarily correspond to the desires of the seeker making the offering.

Sri Aurobindo describes these factors and the corresponding fruit: “And the fruit also of the sacrifice of works varies according to the work, according to the intention in the work and according to the spirit that is behind the intention.”

“But all other sacrifices are partial, egoistic, mixed, temporal, incomplete,–even those offered to the highest Powers and Principles keep this character: the result too is partial, limited, temporal, mixed in its reactions, effective only for a minor or intermediate purpose.”

In order to effect the ultimate result of identification with the Divine, a complete and total self-giving is required. “…it is that surrender made face to face, with devotion and knowledge, freely and without any reserve to One who is at once our immanent Self, the environing constituent All, the Supreme Reality beyond this or any manifestation and, secretly, all these together, concealed everywhere, the immanent Transcendence. For to the soul that wholly gives itself to him, God also gives himself altogether. Only the one who offers his whole nature, finds the Self. Only the one who can give everything, enjoys the Divine All everywhere. Only a supreme self-abandonment attains to the Supreme. Only the sublimation by sacrifice of all that we are, can enable us to embody the Highest and live here in the immanent consciousness of the transcendent Spirit.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga, Part One: The Yoga of Divine Works, Chapter 4, The Sacrifice, The Triune Path and the Lord of the Sacrifice, pg. 102

The Recipient and Mode of the Sacrifice

Just as we see throughout history the use of painful self-immmolation as a concept associated with sacrifice, so we also see that there was a diverse range of beings to whom the sacrifice was directed and for various purposes or fruits that were being sought. At a certain point in time, the conducting of sacrifices for achieving various worldly results was the dominant idea, and the Gita itself takes exception to this view of the matter, as it seeks to redirect the focus toward the divine realisation.

The true recipient of the sacrifice is not one of the lower forms of the gods, nor is a standardised ritual procedure the actual mode of sacrifice required to achieve the greater result envisioned by the Gita; however, all these forms, being forms of the Infinite, create an interchange and a response.

Sri Aurobindo discusses these issues: “The sacrifice may be offered to others or it may be offered to divine Powers; it may be offered to the cosmic All or it may be offered to the transcendent Supreme.”

The form of the sacrifice may also vary: “The worship given may take any shape from the dedication of a leaf or flower, a cup of water, a handful of rice, a loaf of bread, to consecration of all that we possess and the submission of all that we are.”

The underlying truth of Oneness implies that all sacrifice eventually is to the Eternal: “Whoever the recipient, whatever the gift, it is the Supreme, the Eternal in things, who receives and accepts it, even if it be rejected or ignored by the immediate recipient. For the Supreme who transcends the universe, is yet here too, however veiled, in us and in the world and in its happenings; he is there as the omniscient Witness and Receiver of all our works and their secret Master. All our actions, all our efforts, even our sins and stumblings and sufferings and struggles are obscurely or consciously, known to us and seen or else unknown and in a disguise, governed in their last result by the One. All is turned towards him in his numberless forms and offered through them to the single Omnipresence. In whatever form and with whatever spirit we approach him, in that form and with that spirit he receives the sacrifice.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga, Part One: The Yoga of Divine Works, Chapter 4, The Sacrifice, The Triune Path and the Lord of the Sacrifice, pp. 101-102

The True Meaning of the Idea of Sacrifice

After describing the common conception of sacrifice and the painful forms it has taken in practice, Sri Aurobindo turns his attention to the higher conception of sacrifice that is the essential teaching of the Gita in this regard.

“But the true essence of sacrifice is not self-immolation, it is self-giving; its object not self-effacement, but self-fulfilment; its method not self-mortification, but a greater life; not self-mutilation, but a transformation of our natural human parts into divine members, not self-torture, but a passage from a lesser satisfaction to a greater Ananda.”

What we see here is a shift from the human fragmented, isolated and limited personality to the divine standpoint, and the evolution and out-flowering of consciousness which is the central factor in the universal manifestation.

“There is only one thing painful in the beginning to a raw or turbid part of the surface nature; it is the indispensable discipline demanded, the denial necessary for the merging of the incomplete ego; but for that there can be a speedy and enormous compensation in the discovery of a real greater or ultimate completeness in others, in all things, in the cosmic oneness, in the freedom of the transcendental Self and Spirit, in the rapture of the touch of the Divine.”

By giving up the limitations of the ego, the soul gains the wideness, peace and joy of the Divine. “Our sacrifice is not a giving without any return or any fruitful acceptance from the other side; it is an interchange between the embodied soul and conscious Nature in us and the eternal Spirit. For even though no return is demanded, yet there is the knowledge deep within us that a marvellous return is inevitable. The soul knows that it does not give itself to God in vain; claiming nothing, it yet receives the infinite riches of the divine Power and Presence.”

The Taittiriya Upanishad hints at this when it proclaims: “…for when the Spirit that is within us findeth his refuge and firm foundation in the Invisible, Bodiless, Undefinable and Unhoused Eternal, then he hath passed beyond the reach of Fear.” (Sri Aurobindo, The Upanishads, Brahmananadavalli, Ch. 7, pg 271)

Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga, Part One: The Yoga of Divine Works, Chapter 4, The Sacrifice, The Triune Path and the Lord of the Sacrifice, pg. 101

Examining the Common Conceptions of the Idea of Sacrifice

Because of the built in conceptions about the term “sacrifice” that have come down to us, it becomes necessary to review what these are so that we do not respond to the term based on hidden assumptions.

Sri Aurobindo describes these conceptions: “The vulgar conception of sacrifice is an act of painful self-immolation, austere self-mortification, difficult self-effacement; this kind of sacrifice may go even as far as self-mutilation and self-torture.” We see through the history of religion and spiritual seeking, all over the world, that such conceptions arise. We have seen seekers punish the body, mortify themselves using whips or belts embedded with nails. We have seen those who starve the body, those who hold their arms in the air for decades until they wither away, and those who refuse to sit or lie down. Painful austerities are intended, in these instances, to focus the mind on the spiritual path.

“These things may be temporarily necessary in man’s hard endeavour to exceed his natural self; if the egoism in his nature is violent and obstinate, it has to be met sometimes by an answering strong internal repression and counter-balancing violence.”

These conceptions are however still focused and based in the ego-consciousness and still emphasize the separation and difference of the seeker from what is being sought.

“But the Gita discourages any excess of violence done to oneself; for the self within is really the Godhead evolving, it is Krishna, it is the Divine; it has not to be troubled and tortured as the Titans of the world trouble and torture it, but to be increasingly fostered, cherished, luminously opened to a divine Light and strength and joy and wideness.”

This reveals to us the view from the divine standpoint. If all is One, and if the body and life and mind are in reality the divine manifestation, then treating them with respect, without wallowing in the opposite extreme of raising up the life in the body as if it were a separate God to be pampered and fed without the balance of recognising the true divinity of all, and the need for harmony and balance, is a more appropriate way of treating the body.

“It is not one’s self, but the band of the spirit’s inner enemies that we have to discourage, expel, slay upon the altar of the growth of the spirit; these can be ruthlessly excised, whose names are desire, wrath, inequality, greed, attachment to outward pleasures and pains, the cohort of usurpin demons that are the cause of the soul’s errors and sufferings.” These are all the formations of the lower nature that bind us to the illusory sense of a separated and fragmented ego-personality and which attempt to aggrandise that personality at the expense of the rest of the creation.

“These should be regarded not as part of oneself but as intruders and perverters of our self’s real and diviner nature; these have to be sacrified in the harsher sense of the word, whatever pain in going they may throw by reflection on the consciousness of the seeker.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga, Part One: The Yoga of Divine Works, Chapter 4, The Sacrifice, The Triune Path and the Lord of the Sacrifice, pp. 100-101

Human Love and Divine Love

The other day I was asked why we cannot come up with a single word that could replace the word “sacrifice” without the baggage that word carries, particularly in the West. The answer was that we have such a word, and the word is “love”. As with any term, the word “love” also comes with its fixed associations. Love, in its human form, is an attempt by the ego-personality to expand beyond its limited boundaries, to give itself to someone or something “other than” itself, and thereby to recognise the law of interchange and oneness.

Sri Aurobindo discusses the concepts of unity and interchange that constitute the underlying essence of the law of sacrifice: “But it is only a divine love and unity that can possess in the light what the human forms of these things seek for in the darkness. For the true unity is not merely an association and agglomeration like that of physical cells joined by a life of common interests; it is not even an emotional understanding, sympathy, solidarity or close drawing together. Only then are we really unified with those separated from us by the divisions of Nature, when we annul the division and find ourselves in that which seem to us not ourselves.”

He discusses the increasing forms of unity: “Association is a vital and physical unity; its sacrifice is that of mutual aid and concessions. Nearness, sympathy, solidarity create a mental, moral and emotional unity; theirs is a sacrifice of mutual support and mutual gratifications. But the true unity is spiritual; its sacrifice is a mutual self-giving, an interfusion of our inner substance. The law of sacrifice travels in Nature towards its culmination in this complete and unreserved self-giving; it awakens the consciousness of one common self in the giver and the object of the sacrifice. This culmination of sacrifice is the height even of human love and devotion when it tries to become divine; for there too the highest peak of love points into a heaven of complete mutual self-giving, its summit is the rapturous fusing of two souls into one.”

Human love is clearly a weak and imperfect form, limited as to its object and the force of the energy involved, but it has its role as the human individual begins to learn the law of sacrifice–unity, interchange and self-giving for the greater whole. It may begin from the lower nature and the action of the force of desire, but as it is purified and refined, and redirects the focus towards ever larger and purer forms, it can approach the ideal of divine love. Devotion can bring us closer, but as long as we still perceive a difference between ourselves and the rest of the creation, we have not yet shifted to the divine standpoint and thus, cannot yet entirely speak of divine love. When we recognize the complete inter-connectedness of the entire manifestation, and that there is only that ONE being and existence, of which we are a part, then our self-giving to that manifested reality is transformed into the deepest forms of divine love, without the tarnishing effect of any self-reference or grasping being involved.

Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga, Part One: The Yoga of Divine Works, Chapter 4, The Sacrifice, The Triune Path and the Lord of the Sacrifice, pp. 99-100

Transcending the Limits of the Egoistic Consciousness Through the Divine Sacrifice

The principle of Oneness and interchange, the law of sacrifice, is something that occurs unconsciously and automatically for all creatures in the world. The development of self-aware beings provides the opportunity for this principle to become a fully conscious reality. In the first case, the limitations of the ego-sense and the fragmented individuality means that there can be considerable suffering and resistance, while in the truer, deeper sense, the sacrifice done with devotion and understanding can become a source of an ineffable joy in the being. This turns the human sacrifice into the divine sacrifice.

Sri Aurobindo explains: “Only when the heart, the will and the mind of knowledge associate themselves with the law and gladly follow it, can there come the deep joy and the happy fruitfulness of divine sacrifice. The mind’s knowledge of the law and the heart’s gladness in it culminate in the perception that it is to our own Self and Spirit and the one-Self and Spirit of all that we give.”

There is here a transitional phase as the being grows in its awareness and wideness. Every step beyond the limited ego toward a larger principle is a step along this path. “And this is true even when our self-offering is still to our fellow-creatures or to lesser Powers and Principles and not yet to the Supreme.”

“All true love and all sacrifice are in their essence Nature’s contradiction of the primary egoism and its separative error; it is her attempt to turn from a necessary first fragmentation towards a recovered oneness. All unity between creatures is in its essence a self-finding, a fusion with that from which we have separated and a discovery of one’s self in others.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga, Part One: The Yoga of Divine Works, Chapter 4, The Sacrifice, The Triune Path and the Lord of the Sacrifice, pg. 99

The Principle of the Divine Law of Sacrifice

It is a serious limitation of the language we use to express concepts that we use the term “sacrifice” to describe a basic and eternal law of the universal creation, while the word itself is loaded with limiting, negative connotations that tend to distort the actual intent dramatically. Sacrifice, particularly in the West, carries a connotation of giving up something and thereby suffering from that act.

Sri Aurobindo clarifies the meaning that he intends to convey through use of this term: “For this is the truth in Nature, that this ego which thinks itself a separate independent being and claims to live for itself, is not and cannot be independent nor separate, nor can it live to itself even if it would, but rather all are linked together by a secret Oneness. Each existence is continually giving out perforce from its stock; out of its mental receipts from Nature or its vital and physical assets and acquisitions and belongings a stream goes to all that is around it. And always again it receives something from its environment in return for its voluntary or involuntary tribute. For it is only by this giving and receiving that it can effect its own growth while at the same time it helps the sum of things.”

What Sri Aurobindo describes here, then is the truth of the Oneness of all creation, and the interconnectedness and interrelationship of all aspects of existence. There is one eco-sphere, one bio-sphere, one noosphere, within which all beings respond and share and support one another. A simple example is that plants take in the carbon dioxide that we exhale; meanwhile they exhale the oxygen we require to breathe. Each being obtains energy from some form of existence and in turn provides energy to other beings. Everything is part of a ‘closed loop” system and any impact we make through our actions affects the other beings that share that environment.

In its essence, this is the basic principle that the law of sacrifice is intended to convey, and it is the context within which we shall utilize the term as we proceed with the yogic implications of the application of the law of sacrifice for the evolution of our conscious being from the fragmented human consciousness, which fails to recognize this eternal truth of Oneness and relationship, to the divine consciousness, where we see, know and act from a state that lives within this Oneness.

“At length, though at first slowly and partially, we learn to make the conscious sacrifice; even, in the end, we take joy to give ourselves and what we envisage as belonging to us in a spirit of love and devotion to That which appears for the moment other than ourselves and is certainly other than our limited personalities. The sacrifice and the divine return for our sacrifice then becomes a gladly accepted means towards our last perfection; for it is recognised now as the road to the fulfilment in us of the eternal purpose.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga, Part One: The Yoga of Divine Works, Chapter 4, The Sacrifice, The Triune Path and the Lord of the Sacrifice, pp. 98-99

The Third Great Secret of the Gita’s Way of Karma Yoga

There are several central issues that arise when we take up the yoga of works as a serious discipline. The first of these is the question of transitioning from our normal mode of action toward the Divine action contemplated by this Yoga. The second brings us to the ultimate question of whether and how the human being can act without the normal motive force of desire, in one form or another, driving that action.

Sri Aurobindo addresses the first of these by referencing the various intermediate “strategies” and showing that they have their place during the transitional phase: “At first we have to learn to bear the shocks of the world with the central part of our being untouched and silent, even when the surface mind, heart, life are strongly shaken; unmoved there on the bedrock of our life, we must separate the soul watching behind or immune deep within from these outer workings of nature. Afterwards, extending this calm and steadfastness of the detached soul to its instruments, it will become slowly possibly to radiate peace from the luminous centre to the darker peripheries.” The movements of stoicism, resignation, or aloof detachment can be partial or temporary aids along the way. “In the end we must either discard or transform them and arrive instead an an entire equality, a perfect self-existent peace within and even, if we can, a total unassailable, self-poised and spontaneous delight in all our members.”

Having begun this process of eliminating the desire for fruits, and gaining a complete equality in our reactive being, the question of the motive spring of action comes to the fore:

“For ordinarily, the human being acts because he has a desire or feels a mental, vital or physical want or need; he is driven by the necessities of the body, by the lust of riches, honours or fame, or by a craving for the personal satisfactions of the mind or the heart or a craving for power or pleasure. Or he is seized and pushed about by a moral need or, at least, the need or the desire of making his ideas or his ideals or his will or his party or his country or his gods prevail in the world.”

Once all this desire-based impetus is removed, what is left? “The Gita replies with its third great secret of the divine life. All action must be done in a more and more Godward and finally a God-possessed consciousness; our works must be a sacrifice to the Divine and in the end a surrender of all our being, mind, will, heart, sense, life and body to the One must make God-love and God-service our only motive. This transformation of the motive-force and very character of works is indeed its master idea; it is the foundation of its unique synthesis of works, love and knowledge. In the end not desire, but the consciously felt will of the Eternal remains as the sole driver of our action and the sole originator of its initiative.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga, Part One: The Yoga of Divine Works, Chapter 3, Self-Surrender in Works–The Way of the Gita, pp. 96-97