Conclusions Regarding Rebirth and Karma

We have completed our review of Rebirth and Karma by Sri Aurobindo.

The customary view of rebirth clearly leaves much to be desired. It is based, generally, on the idea that a specific personality will be reborn, and join up with the friends and family experienced in the current birth in another lifetime. It misses the inner rationale behind the entire process of rebirth, the growth, manifestation and evolution of the soul as a spark and “representative” of the Spirit involved in Matter for the expression of ever-greater forces of consciousness.

Similarly, the customary view of karma is also clearly flawed. The idea of either a machinery that metes out precise responses to an individual’s actions, or some high tribunal measuring actions and meting out justice, across this life and future lives, clearly is a distortion of the process that is truly taking place.

What we eventually see is that there is a vast intertwined movement of different forms of energies, physical, vital, mental and spiritual, each having their own characteristic power and action, but also impacting one another and creating a new result that represents the force of each line of action, but also takes into account the effect of the interaction. A cause and effect relationship exists within this framework, but not in the mechanically simplistic manner that we have tended to ascribe to it.

This process takes place, not solely on an individual basis, but also for the characteristic action of each species of being, and for the interaction between all life forms and the environment within which they live and act, and the movement of Time in the process of manifestation. We see, not a precise machinery, but a living, breathing Being manifesting through the Oneness of the universal life.

Rebirth is seen as part of a process of soul evolution. Karma as the cause and effect relationship between an output of energy and its result and the return it provides. The individual soul, as it grows and develops, through various forms and lives, is able to gain a deeper insight and understanding of the action of Karma, and thereby adjust its action to achieve the evolutionary goal of consciously integrating the spiritual consciousness into the world of mind, life and matter.

The benefit of understanding this deeper and more complex reality is that it points the way toward the spiritual evolution that is the true sense and meaning of our lives, and provides us a way to escape the artificial and limited perspectives of physical, vital and mental impulsions that hamper our growth. This viewpoint also helps us to understand and reconcile the apparently incongruous results that tend to mystify us, answering the questions of why do those doing evil prosper, or why do the good suffer, by providing the context and meaning that is secretly hidden in the entire universal life.

Sri Aurobindo, Rebirth and Karma,


Clarifications Regarding Purusha and Prakriti In the Understanding of Karma


There is a passage in the Upanishads, relevant to the discussion of rebirth and karma, which raised a question in the mind of one of the students of Sri Aurobindo’s text Rebirth and Karma. The Upanishad refers to “mind, leader of the life and body”. The student wonders how the mental being can take on this central role when it is part of the manifested lower nature of body, life and mind.

Sri Aurobindo clarified that the Upanishad referred to the “manomaya purusha” and not mind in the sense of the instrumentation of nature we commonly consider to be “mind”. There is a distinction of the concepts of “purusha” and “prakriti“. The first is the witness consciousness, not acting but providing support and sanction. The second is nature, which acts. In this case, the Upanishad is referring to the purusha. It specifically is referring to human beings as essentially being led by their characteristic as mental beings; while animals, for instance, would be led by their characteristic as life beings, in Upanishadic terms “pranamaya purusha“.

The Taittiriya Upanishad in the Brahmananda Valli goes through an extensive review of the issue, as it successively refers to a series of ever more subtle inner selves that inform and control the more external forms. There is a self of matter, which is then informed by a self of vital energy. This in turn is informed by a self of mind. The sequence continues beyond that inner self of mind. The issue here, however is not related to the matter, life energy or mind that makes up the instrumental being in nature, but an essential inner self that provides the basic “way of being” or characteristic of the being controlled by that “self”.

Sri Aurobindo discusses this issue: “It is described as manomaya by the Upanishads because the psychic being is behind the veil and man being the mental being in the life and body lives in his mind and not in his psychic, so to him the manomaya purusha is the leader of the life and body,–of the psychic behind supporting the whole he is not aware or dimly aware in his best moments.”

He goes on to explain that the manomaya purusha guides the human nature (prakriti) consisting of the instrumental mind, life and body. Similarly in the animal world, it would be the pranamaya purusha (the essential consciousness of the vital life energy) that would be the leader or guide for the animal nature consisting of instrumental life and body.

It is this level of subtlety and detail that has made a complete understanding of the processes and significance of Karma so mysterious and difficult to follow throughout mankind’s attempts to get an overview of it.

Sri Aurobindo, Rebirth and Karma, Appendix 2, Question and Answer: A Clarification, pp. 160-161, <a href=”; title=”Rebirth and Karma”></a&gt;

The Supramental Consciousness Is Key To Transcending the Limitations of Mind, Life and Matter

The mental, vital and physical levels of consciousness are fundamentally limited by their basis in division and fragmentation. They see and categorize their understanding in a way that emphasizes the separateness of the forces at work and the consequences. This makes it impossible to understand the action of Karma in any comprehensive way, as such an understanding requires an integrating vision that can both see the parts and the whole of which they are elements.

Sri Aurobindo elucidates this point: “The secret reason of man’s failure to rise truly beyond himself is a fundamental incapacity in the mind, the life and the body to organise the highest integral truth and power of the spirit. And this incapacity exists because mind and life and matter are in their nature depressed and imperfect powers of the Infinite that need to be transformed into something greater than themselves before they can escape from their depression and imperfection; in their very nature they are a system of partial and separated values and cannot adequately express or embody the integral and the one, a movement of many divergent and mutually non-understanding or misunderstanding lines they cannot arrive of themselves at any but a provisional limited and imperfect harmony and order.”

To the extent that we can develop any kind of harmony of interaction, it is based on the action of the secret influence of the higher supramental consciousness which holds the whole in its vision while simultaneously recognising the role and place for each of the disparate parts. “That force and knowledge is the self-possessed supramental power and will and the perfect and untrammelled supramental gnosis of the Infinite. It is that which has fixed the precise measures of Matter, regulates the motive instincts and impulsions of Life, holds together the myriad seekings of Mind; but none of these things are that power and gnosis and nothing therefore mental, vital or physical is final or can even find its own integral truth and harmony nor all these together their reconciliation until they are taken up and transformed in a supramental manifestation. For this supermind or gnosis is the entire organising will and knowledge of the spiritual, it is the Truth Consciousness, the Truth Force, the organic instrumentation of divine Law, the all-seeing eye of the divine Vision, the freely selecting and generating harmony of the eternal Ananda.”

And it is from this standpoint that the entire process of rebirth, and the action of Karma can finally be integrated and understood, both in the individual lines of action of each level of consciousness and in the complex interaction that provides the framework for the evolutionary journey of the soul through time, space and circumstance in the manifestation of the secret meaning of existence.

Sri Aurobindo, Rebirth and Karma, Appendix 1, The Tangle of Karma, pp. 158-159,

Interaction of the Physical, Vital, Mental and Spiritual Lines of Energy

It is not possible to fully understand the action of Karma solely by looking at the specific lines of energy of the physical, vital, mental and supramental levels. In the world we inhabit, these are always inextricably intertwined. While specific individuals may take their stand primarily within the framework of one or another of these levels, it is nevertheless obvious that they still must take into account the impact of the others. Focusing on the mental principles, for instance, does not absolve anyone from the demands and realities of the physical body or the vital impulsions.

It is therefore important to recognize the effects of this interaction and realize that we cannot truly understand Karma by analytical abstraction. The difficulties of the attempt to integrate the higher levels of consciousness into the world dominated by the physical and the vital forces has led the spiritual seeker to attempt to cut off or abandon that outer life of action. Sri Aurobindo describes the predicament: “The moment he tries to get at the absolute of the spirit, he feels himself obliged to reject body, to silence mind, and to draw back from life. It is that urgent necessity, that inability of mind and life and body to hold and answer to the spirit that is the secret of asceticism, the philosophical justification of the illusionist, the compulsion that moves the eremite and the recluse.”

The alternative is based on attempting to bring the higher forces of mind and spirit into life: “If on the other hand he tries to spiritualise mind and life and the body he finds in the end that he has only brought down the spirit to a lower formulation that cannot give all its truth and purity and power.”

This has led to the degradation of these higher energies, as the lower powers clearly water down the effect of the higher in action. “He has never yet spiritualised the body, at most he has minimised the physical by a spiritual refusal and abstinence or brought down some mental and vital powers mistaken for spiritual into his physical force and physical frame.”

Thus, we see the lines of Karma interwoven into a complex web of impacts that are not a straight, unbroken and direct line that can be teased out through mental process. The predominant lines must be seen, the intensity of the movement of that energy must be gauged, and the interaction with other parts of our being must be calculated to get at a more precise view of karmic action. These again must be taken in context of the larger movements of these energies across the entire world movements of energy.

Sri Aurobindo, Rebirth and Karma, Appendix 1, Chapter 17, The Tangle of Karma, pp. 156-158,

A New Understanding of the Action of Karma

The basic tendency and characteristic of the mind is to divide, analyze and classify. We use this power to great advantage in our attempt to harness powers of Nature, but we must also recognize that this power has its disadvantages, particularly when we try to address the meaning of life and our own spiritual development, things which require a unifying rather than a dividing intelligence.

We have used our fragmenting and characterizing capabilities to try to understand the working of the law of Karma, but we have now had to recognize that this has led to over-simplification and, at last, to a failure to appreciate the vast, manifold and flexible movement that actually is the basis for what we call Karma.

Sri Aurobindo sets about to re-set our understanding, and thereby move us beyond the limits of the mechanical view we have had of Karma to a much more dynamic view: “Let us then call Karma no longer a Law, but rather the many-sided dynamic truth of action and life, the organic movement here of the Infinite.”

“Action of Karma follows and takes up into its flexible sweep and surge many potential lines of the Spirit; it is the processus of the creative Infinite; it is the long and many-sided way of the progression of the individual and the cosmic soul in Nature. Its complexities cannot be unravelled by our physical mind ever bound up in the superficial appearance, nor by our vital mind of desire stumbling forward in the cloud of its own longings and instincts and rash determinations through the maze of the myriad favoring and opposing forces of the visible and the invisible worlds. Nor can it be perfectly classified, accounted for, tied up in bundles by the precisions of our logical intelligence in its inveterate search for clear-cut formulas.”

A true understanding of Karma can only come about when we are able to see with the vision of the integrating intelligence which Sri Aurobindo has called the supramental consciousness. This consciousness holds together all the apparently opposing and disparate parts in a complex, interacting, complete Oneness while simultaneously recognising the individual strands and streams of action and manifestation.

Sri Aurobindo, Rebirth and Karma, Appendix 1, Chapter 17, The Tangle of Karma, pp. 155-156,

Spiritual Truth Vs. Mechanical Law

The usual conceptions of the law of Karma revolve around either the sense that there is some machinery that metes out precise responses to our actions; or else, that there is some tribunal somewhere that weighs and metes out rewards and punishments to us based on those deeds. Sri Aurobindo, however, has indicated that the truth behind the action is far more complex, as well as far more flexible than the popular concepts would acknowledge.

“No rigid narrow ethical law bound down to a petty human significance is here, no unprofitable wheel of a brutal cosmic justice automatically moved in the traces of man’s ignorant judgments and earthly desires and instincts. Not these artificial constructions but a thing spiritual and intimate to the deepest intention of Nature. The ascending march of the soul’s consciousness and experience as it emerges out of subconscient Matter and climbs to its own luminous divinity fixes the norm and constantly enlarges the lines of the law or let us say rather since law is too mechanical a conception the truth of Karma.”

Insight into the workings of Karma requires therefore both a patient observation at the level of the physical world and the action of the life energy and mental energy and an insight based on our deeper spiritual being that is aligned with the inner sense and meaning of the universal manifestation. This in turn requires us to give up the popular framework that has acted as the definition of Karma in the past, and acknowledge that Karma is essentially the working out of the universal evolutionary energy within the limitations of each type of energy that successively manifests. It may take on the aspect of a mechanical cause and effect at the most basic levels of physical energy, but as it ascends in the scale of consciousness, it becomes ever more subtle, with actions across energy types possible, but limited by the interaction and intensity of that interaction.

Sri Aurobindo, Rebirth and Karma, Appendix 1, Chapter 17, The Tangle of Karma, pg. 155,

The Spiritual Justification and Intention of Nature

The solution to the riddle of rebirth and karma lies in understanding of the secret intention that is working itself out through these mechanisms. Sri Aurobindo reviews this intention: “At first she is physical Nature building her firm field according to a base of settled truth and law but determined by a subconscient knowledge she does not yet share with her creatures. Next she is Life growing slowly self-conscious, seeking out knowledge that she may move seeingly in them along her ways and increase at once the complexity and the efficacy of her movements, but developing slowly too the consciousness that knowledge must be pursued for a higher and purer end, for truth, for the satisfaction, as the life expression and as the spiritual self-finding of the soul of knowledge. But, last, it is that soul itself growing in truth and light, growing into the absolute truth of itself which is its perfection, that becomes the law and high end of her energies.”

Each of these stages has a characteristic type of energy that is expressed, and the return for that energy is correlated to that characteristic type. Thus, we see that the law of Karma varies in its expression depending on the type of energy. “At first there is the return of skill and effectual intelligence–and her own need explains sufficiently why she gives the rewards of life not, as the ethical mind in us would have it, to the just, not chiefly to moral good, but to the skilful and to the strong, to will and force and intelligence,–and then, more and more clearly disengaged, the return of enlightenment and the satisfaction of the mind and the soul in the conscious use and wise direction of its powers and capacities and, last of all, the one supreme return, the increase of the soul in light, the satisfaction of is perfection in knowledge, its birth into the highest consciousness and the pure fulfilment of its own innate imperative. It is that growth, a divine birth or spiritual self-exceeding its supreme reward, which for the eastern mind has been always the highest gain,–the growth out of human ignorance into divine self-knowledge.”

We can see in this schema that the confused ideas about the law of Karma prevalent in our normal line of understanding can be disentangled and put into a perspective which reveals a systematic, step-by-step development with the energies of the world precisely responding to the level and intensity of the energy that we expend in the world.

Sri Aurobindo, Rebirth and Karma, Section III, Chapter 16, The Higher Lines of Karma, pg. 154,

Karmic Consequence of the Soul’s Seeking For Knowledge

Every energy in the universe has its “cause and effect” aspect, and thus, we can expect that there is a karmic consequence to the impulse that turns the seeking for knowledge, light, truth, God, into an imperative of the soul. As we have seen in other instances, the karmic impact of each energy is primarily focused on the plane and to the type of energy that is involved, even if there are tangential or secondary effects that take place across other types of energy.

Sri Aurobindo focuses on this issue: “But the result that it brings on this higher plane of the seeking in mind is simply and purely the upward growth of the soul in light and truth; that and whatever happiness it brings is the one supreme reward demanded by the soul of knowledge and the darkening of the light within, the pain of the fall from truth, the pain of the imperfection of not living only by its law and wholly in the light is its one penalty of suffering. The outward rewards and the sufferings of life are small things to the higher soul of knowledge in man: even his high mind of knowledge will often face all that the world can do to afflict it, just as it is ready to make all manner of sacrifices in the pursuit and the affirmation of the truth it knows and lives for.”

One cannot expect that the intense drive that motivates an individual to place the pursuit of knowledge as the highest goal and aspiration is going to yield rewards of physical comfort, vital satisfaction or some kind of success in the world as its ordinary result. This illustrates the basic principle that Sri Aurobindo has described that untangles the normal view of karma to show that specific types of energy do not tend to provide clear results of another and different type. Just as the focus on vital success in life, the accumulation of wealth and material comfort is not tied, one way or the other, to moral or ethical focus in the being, so the “rewards and punishments” that are attendant on the seeking for pure knowledge must necessarily be primarily related to the mental and spiritual energies being put forth in that seeking.

Sri Aurobindo, Rebirth and Karma, Section III, Chapter 16, The Higher Lines of Karma, pp. 153-154,

The Scientist, the Philosopher and the Sage

There comes a stage when the mental being no longer focuses its efforts on achieving success or results on the vital plane in the physical world; rather, it is focused on a seeking for Truth, for Knowledge, for some higher Absolute that answers to its deepest inner calling, regardless of the result that may be achieved by the actual application or utility of the knowledge obtained.

We can see this type develop and take various forms. The pure scientist, with an inner drive to understand the workings of the universe is one such type. The pure thinker or philosopher represents another manifestation of this same higher seeking. The tradition of the yogin, the seer, the sage, abandoning material wealth and prosperity for a higher seeking of what is “beyond” represents yet another.

In his magnum opus, The Life Divine , Sri Aurobindo sets forth in the very first chapter the “human aspiration” for “God, Light, Freedom, Immortality.” This ultimate aspiration is a manifestation of the pure expression of the inner drive to obtain Knowledge.

The relevance to the question of Karma is that the return obtained by such a seeker has clearly nothing to do with reward or punishment in this life or hereafter, but with a return of greater knowledge and an experience of Oneness that results. “The lure of an external utility ceases to be at all needed as an incentive towards knowledge, just as the lure of a vital reward offered now or hereafter ceases on the same high level of our ascent to be needed as an incentive to virtue, and to attach importance to it under whatever specious colour is even felt to be a degradation of the disinterestedness, a fall from the high purity of the soul motive.”

There are various stages of this higher seeking, such as the scientist’s cold intellectual endeavor, or the inner drive or passion for an ultimate Truth. The common thread between them however is their lack of concern for the ordinary view of Karma and consequence. We see here the working of a higher order of the law of Karma, focusing on providing a return on the energy put out without an attempt at tying it to moral or ethical result or relevance.

Sri Aurobindo, Rebirth and Karma, Section III, Chapter 16, The Higher Lines of Karma, pp. 152-153,

The Evolution of Consciousness Involved In Life

Sri Aurobindo places the seeking for knowledge as a central aspect of the deeper intention of the universal manifestation: “The pursuit of knowledge for the sake of knowledge is the true, the intrinsic dharma of the intellect and not for the sake primarily or even necessarily at all for the securing or the enlargement of the means of life and success in action.”

For most people, still rooted primarily in the vital striving for growth, expansion, aggrandizement and increase of scope and power of the life energy, this seeking of the intellect is both somewhat foreign and more or less secondary. Any action of intellect that does not seem to have a “practical” purpose may be acknowledged and accepted, but it is treated as an ornament by these individuals, not as a central purpose of life.

There is however a deeper and more essential movement of consciousness at work here: “Nature sees and stirs from the first to a larger and more inward Will and is moved with a greater purpose, and all seeking for knowledge springs from a necessity of the mind, a necessity of its nature, and that means a necessity of the soul that is here in nature.”

Even when we are focused on and even preoccupied with the use of the intellect for purposes of life-aggrandizement, this deeper movement of nature continues to develop and grow. “….for if her first dynamic word is life, her greater revealing word is consciousness and the evolution of life and action only the means of the evolution of consciousness involved in life, the imprisoned soul, the Jiva. Action is a means, but knowledge is the sign and the growth of the conscious soul is the purpose.”

It is the seeking for knowledge that distinguishes mankind from the other beings in the evolution of life. “Man’s use of the intelligence for the pursuit of knowledge is therefore that which distinguishes him most from other beings and gives him his high peculiar place in the scale of existence. His passion for knowledge, first world-knowledge, but afterwards self-knowledge and that in which both meet and find their common secret, God-knowledge, is the central drift of his ideal mind and a greater imperative of his being than that of action, though later in laying its complete hold on him, greater in the wideness of its reach and greater too in its effectiveness upon action, in the returns of the world energy to his power of the truth within him.”

Sri Aurobindo, Rebirth and Karma, Section III, Chapter 16, The Higher Lines of Karma, pp. 151-152,