Seeking a Standard of Conduct Beyond the Mind’s Limitations

The external, idealised standards of ethical and moral conduct represent progress for the human being seeking to evolve beyond the standards of self-interest and self-aggrandisement, whether for the individual or his social groupings. We see the limitations of these standards which are erected by the mind and tend towards a black and white rendering of rigid, inflexible rules, and which come into conflict with one another at the level of ultimate principles. At the same time we see that these ideals point us toward a higher principle upon which to organize our existence, and thus, we can see that what is required is a new spiritual viewpoint which will both realise these higher principles and reconcile them to one another in their application in the world of action.

Sri Aurobindo frames the issue: “Beyond the mental and moral being in us is a greater divine being that is spiritual and supramental; for it is only through a large spiritual plane where the mind’s formulas dissolve in a white flame of direct inner experience that we can reach beyond mind and pass from its constructions to the vastness and freedom of the supramental realities. There alone can we touch the harmony of the divine powers that are poorly misrepresented to our mind or framed into a false figure by the conflicting or wavering elements of the moral law. There alone the unification of the transformed vital and physical and the illumined mental man becomes possible in that supramental spirit which is at once the secret source and goal of our mind and life and body. There alone is there any possibility of an absolute justice, love and right–far other than that which we imagine–at one with each other in the light of a supreme divine knowledge. There alone can there be a reconciliation of the conflict between our members.”

It is the divine law, the divine standard of conduct toward which humanity is evolving, and these earlier standards, with all their limitations, each have their role and their time in the process. The divine law represents both the perfect expression of law and freedom, as it is not based on fixed mental precepts, but on spiritual insight to the larger movement of the universal manifestation. “It must be a law and truth that discovers the perfect movement, harmony, rhythm of a great spiritualised collective life and determines perfectly our relations with each being and all beings in Nature’s varied oneness. It must be at the same time a law and truth that discovers to us at each moment the rhythm and exact steps of the direct expression of the Divine in the soul, mind, life, body of the individual creature.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga, Part One: The Yoga of Divine Works, Chapter 7, Standards of Conduct and Spiritual Freedom, pp. 189-191

The Limitations of the Mind Lead to Conflicting Ethical Standards

In the Bhagavad Gita, Arjuna is faced with a situation where all his cherished moral and ethical standards, representing the highest and best codes that were available at that time, were found to conflict with one another. By supporting justice and right government, he had to overturn his natural devotion to beloved relatives and teachers and undertake to kill them. By supporting the goals of his immediate family, he was going to be instrumental in the destruction of a large swath of the leaders of the social order throughout his country. Faced with this conflict, his initial reaction was paralysis of action and despondency. The result of this was the teaching provided to him by Sri Krishna, on the battlefield, much of which was to overcome the rigid and mutually exclusive patterns of the mind and move into a more flexible understanding based on achieving the divine standpoint rather than living in the human standpoint from which he had been addressing the issues involved.

Sri Aurobindo points out that the development of moral and ethical codes of conduct, while in principle a progress for humanity striving to move beyond the promptings of desire and self-interest as the measure of action, have their own limitations, including both the attempt to narrowly define these principles, and the inevitable conflict of principles that occur when these various standards actually have to interface in the real world of action.

“Justice often demands what love abhors. Right reason dispassionately considering the facts of nature and human relations in search of a satisfying norm or rule is unable to admit without modification either any reign of absolute justice or any reign of absolute love. And in fact man’s absolute justice easily turns out to be in practice a sovereign injustice; for his mind, one-sided and rigid in its constructions, puts forward a one-sided partial and rigorous scheme or figure and claims for it totality and absoluteness and an application that ignores the subtler truth of things and the plasticity of life.”

“All our standards turned into action either waver on a flux of compromises or err by this partiality and unelastic structure. Humanity sways from one orientation to another; the race moves upon a zigzag path led by conflicting claims and, on the whole, works out instinctively what Nature intends, but with much waste and suffering, rather than either what it desires or what it holds to be right or what the highest light from above demands from the embodied spirit.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga, Part One: The Yoga of Divine Works, Chapter 7, Standards of Conduct and Spiritual Freedom, pg. 189

The Limitations of the Abstract Moral-Ethical Standard In the World of Life-Action

The development of the abstract moral-ethical code, while representing a progress for humanity from the ego-based individual and social codes of conduct, has its own limitations and issues. First, there is the enormous gulf between the abstract concept and the actual reality put into action by individuals and the society as a whole. While some of this may be posturing or hypocrisy, more likely there is simply the natural opposition between the law of survival and individual fulfillment, the law of society’s survival and operation and the ideal principle set forth by the mentally-based code of ethics. Justice as a concept, love as a concept, compassion as a concept have still not been fully implemented and tend to be compromised when survival or individual desire-will is at stake. The fact of there being a true aspiration for these higher principles is in itself an advance, and the ability of these principles to color and modify the action is certainly a progress, but we would be misleading ourselves to believe that these independent standards have acquired control over human conduct.

The second major issue is the fact that these rules are limited by their basis in the mind and tend to separate things into “black and white’ to such a degree that they become rigid and unforgiving, leading in some cases to inhumane results as the “moral code” takes precedence over the very real and necessary roles that the individual survival and growth instinct provides, as well as the beneficial aspects of the social organization in terms of human survival.

Sri Aurobindo explores these points in depth: “The moralist erects in vain his absolute ethical standard and calls upon all to be faithful to it without regard to consequences. To him the needs and desires of the individual are invalid if they are in conflict with the moral law, and the social law has no claims upon him if it is opposed to his sense of right and denied by his conscience. This is his absolute solution for the individual that he shall cherish no desirse and claims that are not consistent with love, truth and justice. He demands from the community or nation that it shall hold all things cheap, even its safety and its most pressing interests, in comparison with truth, justice, humanity and the highest good of the peoples.”

Of course, “No individual rises to these heights except in intense moments, no society yet created satisfies this ideal.” This remains a mentally constructed framework that has all the limits of the mind and thus, cannot truly work for the evolutionary framework and complexity of the divine manifestation that exceeds in all directions the mind’s limits. “Even it is found that it ignores other elements in humanity which equally insist on survival but refuse to come within the moral formula.” There remains an underlying truth and reality to the earlier standards which must be found and integrated, not suppressed or overturned in their entirety.

Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga, Part One: The Yoga of Divine Works, Chapter 7, Standards of Conduct and Spiritual Freedom, pp. 187-189

The Developmental Influence of the Evolving Individual on the Social Order

If we look upon the evolving individual as the engine of change to influence society, we begin to recognise the magnitude of the difficulty involved in the evolution of society. The individual may grow inwardly, recognise the inappropriateness or weakness of a particular aspect of the social code of his society, and yet, continually run into the opposition of society when he tries to implement his new, enlarged view of things from his inner standpoint. This is similar to the issue of trying to change the reactions of the physical body because of some mental or emotional inner recognition of a higher truth of physical life. The body has its own fixed and stable methods, developed over many millenia, and it does not change easily or quickly. The same can be said of the social order, the body of civilized society.

Sri Aurobindo weighs in on the issue: “For, long after the individual has become partially free, a moral organism capable of conscious growth, aware of an inward life, eager for spiritual progress, society continues to be external in its methods, a material and economic organism, mechanical, more intent upon status and self-preservation than on growth and self-perfection.”

Sri Aurobindo outlines what he considers to be the greatest result to date of individual evolution of consciousness impacting the society: It is “…the power he has acquired by his thought-will to compel it to think also, to open itself to the idea of social justice and righteousness, communal sympathy and mutual compassion, to feel after the rule of reason rather than blind custom as the test of its institutions and to look on the mental and moral assent of its individuals as at least one essential element in the validity of its laws.” While clearly this principle has not been fully integrated into society, we see at least the strong aspiration within the social order to bring this about, and we see attempts to embody these principles into the organizing actions, constitutions or rule of law of various social systems. The social order takes this inspiration and converts it into fixed principle and rule.

Sri Aurobindo recognises that this is an intermediate step and that “The greatest future triumph of the thinker will come when he can persuade the individual integer and the collective whole to rest their life-relation and its union and stability upon a free and harmonious consent and self-adaptation, and shape and govern the external by the internal truth rather than to constrain the inner spirit by the tyranny of the external form and structure.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga, Part One: The Yoga of Divine Works, Chapter 7, Standards of Conduct and Spiritual Freedom, pg. 187

The Role of the Individual In the Development of Moral and Ethical Standards of Conduct

The initial law of existence, “survival of the fittest” sets each individual against everyone else and the environment. This law, as we have seen, is modified by the social group’s efforts to integrate the individual into the larger grouping and modify the purely ego-centred behavior through expansion into the group setting. This leads to the development of social customs, mores, and interactions that govern and mitigate the purely self-centred approach of the “animal-man”. The next phase beyond this is the development of the moral and ethical ideal that is independent of the specific desires of an individual or even the social groupings within which he acts. The attempt to set up these independent standards is the influence of the mental evolution overlaying and guiding the vital-physical being.

Sri Aurobindo reminds us that this mental development and progress in the moral-ethical field is naturally the action of individuals, who represent the nexus of mental activity. It is not “society” that “thinks”, but individuals who develop these ideas and begin to communicate them to others. To the extent that the ideas are able to be communicated and adopted, they eventually bring about changes in the social structure where they then get processed, codified and embodied into laws, rules, customs and patterns of living.

“The moral striver is also the individual; self-discipline, not under the yoke of an outer law, but in obedience to an internal light, is essentially an individual effort. But by positing his personal standard as the translation of an absolute moral ideal the thinker imposes it, not on himself alone, but on all the individuals whom his thought can reach and penetrate. And as the mass of individuals come more and more to accept it in idea if only in an imperfect practice or no practice, society also is compelled to obey the the new orientation. It absorbs the ideative influence and tries, not with any striking success, to mould its institutions into new forms touched by these higher ideals. But always its instinct is to translate them into binding law, into pattern forms, into mechanic custom, into an external social compulsion upon its living units.”

This is essentially the process of bringing about new moral and ethical conceptions within a social order. It starts with the individual who conceives the idea. A process of communication and consideration, person to person, takes place, until sufficient influence is levied by the idea in society that it takes on a form in the larger structure, at which point, it becomes fixed and locked into place, essentially unchanging until the next process is able to wield its similar influence in the social order.

Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga, Part One: The Yoga of Divine Works, Chapter 7, Standards of Conduct and Spiritual Freedom, pp. 186-187

The Necessity and Development of the Moral-Ethical Ideal Code of Conduct

Both the individual fulfillment and the harmony of the social organization have their value. The inherent opposition between them has to be resolved in some form or fashion. Specific individuals have either rebelled against the social standard, or abandoned it entirely for an ascetic, other-worldly focus. These approaches do not represent a complete solution to the conflicting aims. Sri Aurobindo’s approach, when confronted with two opposing principles or ideas, is to find the higher standpoint from which the two can be seen as complementary aspects and thereby have their apparent differences reconciled.

“A new principle has to be called in, other and higher than the two conflicting instincts and powerful at once to override and to reconcile them. Above the natural individual law which sets up as our one standard of conduct the satisfaction of our individual needs, preferences and desires and the natural communal law which sets up as a superior standard the satisfaction of the needs, preferences and desires of the community as a whole, there had to arise the notion of an ideal moral law which is not the satisfaction of need and desire, but controls and even coerces or annuls them in the interests of an ideal order that is not animal, not vital and physical, but mental, a creation of the mind’s seeking for light and knowledge and right rule and right movement and true order.”

The reconciling principle, therefore, is the development of a mind-based standard of conduct which can overcome the force of the vital-physical principles that have ruled human life and interactions heretofore. “The moment this notion becomes powerful in man, he begins to escape from the engrossing vital and material into the mental life; he climbs from the first to the second degree of the threefold ascent of Nature. His needs and desires themselves are touched with a more elevated light of purpose and the mental need, the aesthetic, intellectual and emotional desire begin to predominate over the dmeand of the physical and vital nature.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga, Part One: The Yoga of Divine Works, Chapter 7, Standards of Conduct and Spiritual Freedom, pp. 185-186

The Importance of the Individual For the Evolutionary Development

While the development of the social order was an important step toward reining in the unrestrained impulses of the self-seeking individual, and at the same time helped the individual to overcome the narcissistic impulse of self-gratification above all other motives, it also remains true that an excessive control by the society over the individual has its dangers as well, which Sri Aurobindo has pointed out:

“There is here a serious danger to the integral development of a greater truth upon earth and a greater life. For the desires and free seekings of the individual, however egoistic, however false or perverted they may be in their immediate form, contain in their obscure cells the seed of a development necessary to the whole; his searchings and stumblings have behind them a force that has to be kept and transmuted into the image of the divine idea. That force needs to be enlightened and trained but must not be suppressed or harnessed exclusively to society’s heavy cart-wheels.”

The mental predilection toward “either/or” solutions tends to avoid the more complex, and more complete solutions that integrate both extremes without necessarily adopting either one entirely. Thus humanity tends to create black and white distinctions between individualism and communal life, and posit an irreconcilable opposition between the two, and then attempt to have us accept one or the other extreme as the truth. Sri Aurobindo, however, recognises that both of these positions represent a real truth of the manifestation and that we need to find a way to integrate them into an harmonious whole: “Individualism is as necessary to the final perfection as the power behind the group-spirit; the stifling of the individual may well be the stifling of the god in man. And in the present balance of humanity there is seldom any real danger of exaggerated individualism breaking up the social integer. There is continually a danger that the exaggerated pressure of the social mass by its heavy unenlightened mechanical weight may suppress or unduly discourage the free development of the individual spirit. For man in the individual can be more easily enlightened, conscious, open to clear influences; man in the mass is still obscure, half-conscious, ruled by universal forces that escape its mastery and its knowledge.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga, Part One: The Yoga of Divine Works, Chapter 7, Standards of Conduct and Spiritual Freedom, pg. 185

The Tension Between Fulfillment of the Individual and the Demand of the Social Order

A tension arises between the desire of the individual to achieve his own advancement and achievement of his goals and desires, and the focus of a society on subordinating the individual entirely to the goals and needs of the social order. At one extreme, the individual looks upon society as a support that is there solely to aid him in his own fulfillment; at the other, the society looks upon itself as the essential basis of continuity and progress, with individuals as the asset of the society. In the one, the benefit to the individual is paramount; in the other, the individual counts for very little while the benefit to the social order is the major factor. No society can actually embody either extreme, but there have been examples throughout history where one or the other perspective was in the ascendancy and we can see echoes of these differences in the historical perspective of the USA as favoring individual freedom and that of various communist states as favoring the collective progress. Of course, nowadays, these lines have been very substantially blurred as society the world-over becomes more complex and becomes more uniform in fact, if not in ideology.

Sri Aurobindo explores this question: “The ideal and absolute solution from the individual’s standpoint would be a society that existed not for itself, for its all-overriding collective purpose, but for the good of the individual and his fulfilment, for the greater and more perfect life of all its members. Representing as far as possible his best self and helping him to realise it, it would respect the freedom of each of its members and maintain itself not by law and force but by the free and spontaneous consent of its constituent persons.”

Inasmuch as the desires and drives of the individual needed to be tempered and widened in the evolutionary process of Nature, it is clear that a certain element of societal claim needs to be recognised. “A general but not complete domination of the society over the individual is the easier way and it is the system that Nature from the first instinctively adopts and keeps in equilibrium by rigorous law, compelling custom and a careful indoctrination of the still subservient and ill-developed intelligence of the human creature.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga, Part One: The Yoga of Divine Works, Chapter 7, Standards of Conduct and Spiritual Freedom, pp. 184-185

The Benefits and Limitations of the Social Moral-Ethical Code

When we are confronted with the raw animal instincts and reactions in our nature, it is easy to determine the benefit of an external code of behavior that begins to modify, regulate and control those impulses. In any social order, the basic framework of an external code of moral or ethical guidelines or laws ameliorates the worst abuses that occur through the workings of greed, desire, and the struggle for power or control of one’s life. Without this murder, rapine, theft, terms which have been defined through the development of codes of conduct, would potentially be prevalent, and we would come down to pure “dog eat dog” “survival of the fittest” behavior where the strong bully, manipulate and control those who are weaker or dependent. Even with all our social and moral laws, there remains a strong element of this kind of behavior residual in humanity. Sri Aurobindo comments on the benefit of this type of moral-ethical code in the society: “It is an advantage at first when man is crude and incapable of self-control and self-finding, because it erects a power other than that of his personal egoism through which that egoism may be induced or compelled to moderate its savage demands, to discipline its irrational and often violent movements and even to lose itself sometimes in a larger and less personal egoism.”

There have been proponents of the concept that certain individuals should be exempt from these rules based on their evolutionary status. Most of these invoked the idea of some kind of Nietzschean “superman” or ruling spirit who could disregard these rules. It is possible that the idea was mis-applied and thus gained substantial notoriety, particularly when it was used to justify mass killing, genocide or other incomprehensible acts of inhumanity.

Sri Aurobindo takes up this possibility as one of the future evolutionary stages that must be realised through transcendence of the mental framework overall in the transition to a truly divine action: “It is a disadvantage to the adult spirit ready to transcend the human formula because it is an external standard which seeks to impose itself on him from outside, and the condition of his perfection is that he shall grow from within and in an increasing freedom, not by the suppression but by the transcendence of his perfected individuality, not any longer by a law imposed on him that trains and disciplines his members but by the soul from within breaking through all previous forms to possess with its light and transmute his members.”

Nothing in this statement justifies thereby the lowering of the standard to justify the going back to the lower animal-human standard; rather it raises the idea of a higher standard that goes beyond the moral-ethical framework based on a much clearer, purer and higher action.

Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga, Part One: The Yoga of Divine Works, Chapter 7, Standards of Conduct and Spiritual Freedom, pp. 183-184

The Second Standard of Human Conduct

Man is not a solitary creature; rather he associates in groupings such as family, tribe, team, community, nation, society and civilisation, with numerous sub-groupings based on defined characteristics such as religion, political party, club, and various “affinity” groups. Once this is recognised, the human being modifies his behavior from the pure law of survival and self-aggrandisement to include and take account of the needs, wishes, desires, or norms developed by the social grouping(s) to which he belongs. This represents a widening of perspective and a clear evolutionary advance over the first standard of conduct.

Sri Aurobindo discusses this point: “Man, pressing after the growth of his separate individuality and its fullness and freedom, is unable to satisfy even his own personal needs and desires except in conjunction with other men; he is a whole in himself and yet incomplete without others. This obligation englobes his personal law of conduct in a group-law which arises from the formation of a lasting group-entity with a collective mind and life of its own to which his own embodied mind and life are subordinated as a transitory unit.” This does not imply that the individual is ENTIRELY subsumed within the group-entity as there is still a purpose to the individuality in the divine manifestation.

While it is clear that the group-life is first and foremost an extension of the individual’s own drive toward survival and growth, it does begin to take on forms that become unique to that grouping. “The satisfaction of personal idea and feeling, need and desire, propensity and habit has to be constantly subordinated, by the necessity of the situation and not from any moral or altruistic motive, to the satisfaction of the ideas and feelings, needs and desires, propensities and habits, not of this or that other individual or number of individuals, but of the society as a whole. This social need is the obscure matrix of morality and of man’s ethical impulse.”

There arises something of a tension, if not an outright conflict, between the first law aggrandising the individual’s life and survival and the second law modifying that drive by the needs of a social grouping. “Man has in him two distinct master impulses, the individualistic and the communal, a personal life and a social life, a personal motive of conduct and a social motive of conduct. The possibility of their opposition and the attempt to find their equation lie at the very roots of human civilisation and persist in other figures when he has passed beyond the vital animal into a highly individualised mental and spiritual progress.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga, Part One: The Yoga of Divine Works, Chapter 7, Standards of Conduct and Spiritual Freedom, pp. 182-183