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