For most people, the moral and ethical standards of the society within which they are raised are fixed and basic principles that govern action. For those who have had the opportunity to travel and meet people from different cultures, it becomes clear that these standards actually vary from one society to another. Similarly a review of the historical role of such standards over time will also reveal the changing nature of these rules even within one social order over time. Things that were immoral 50 years ago may be normal behavior in today’s world.
For the spiritual seeker, this question takes on an entire additional dimension. Whichever standards of conduct we follow based on the society’s moral and ethical code, they represent the framework developed by the mental consciousness attempting to bring about some kind of harmony and balance in the life of the individual within the society. These rules are an enormous benefit as humanity grows from a reactive animal consciousness to a mature human consciousness, but eventually they too must be overpassed in order to bring about the true freedom of action of the Spirit.
Sri Aurobindo describes the issue: “To form higher and higher temporary standards as long as they are needed is to serve the Divine in his world march; to erect rigidly an absolute standard is to attempt the erection of a barrier against the eternal waters in their outflow. Once the nature-bound soul realises this truth, it is delivered from the duality of good and evil.”
Sri Aurobindo redefines “good” and “evil” within the context of this discussion: “For good is all that helps the individual and the world towards their divine fullness, and evil is all that retards or breaks up that increasing perfection. But since the perfection is progressive, evolutive in Time, good and evil are also shifting quantities and change from time to time their meaning and value. This thing which is evil now and in its present shape must be abandoned was once helpful and necessary to the general and individual progress. That other thing which we now regard as evil may well become in another form and arrangement an element in some future perfection.”
Going beyond even these distinctions, from the spiritual plane of vision, both what we consider to be “good” and that which we consider to be “evil” are part of the Divine manifestation: “…for we discover the purpose and divine utility of all these things that we call good and evil. Then we have to reject the falsehood in them and all that is distorted, ignorant and obscure in that which is called good no less than in that which is called evil. For we have then to accept only the true and the divine, but to make no other distinction in the eternal processes.”
Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga, Part One: The Yoga of Divine Works, Chapter 7, Standards of Conduct and Spiritual Freedom, pg. 180