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

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