Decoupling Karma From Suffering

Much of our view of the nature of Karma, and its inevitable link to the experience of suffering is due to the Buddhist explanation of this connection. The experience of the Buddha was a key step forward in our ability to begin to separate ourselves from the surface personality and begin to seek and, eventually, find a standpoint outside the limited human experience. The impetus for this seeking was the formula that all action creates karma, and that all karma ties us to the experience of suffering.

Sri Aurobindo points out that it is not sufficient to stop with this experience, as it does not encompass the entire realm of possibilities, the true freedom beyond the limits of human surface nature, wherein one finds not only peace and separation, but the true power and consciousness of the eternal Existence that founds and creates all existence.

“To find self is the cure of suffering, because self is infinite possession and perfect satisfaction. But to find self in quiescence is not the whole meaning of the spiritual evolution, but to find it too in its power of being; for being is not only eternal status, but also eternal movement, not only rest, but also action. There is a delight of rest and a delight of action, but in the wholeness of the spirit these two things are no longer contraries, but one and inseparable. The status of the spirit is an eternal calm, but also it self-expression in world-being is without any beginning or end, because eternal power means an eternal creation. When we gain the one, we need not lose its counterpart and consequence. To get to a foundation is not to destroy all capacity for superstructure.”

“Karma is nothing but the will of the Spirit in action, consequence nothing more but the creation of will.”

“When the will is limited in mind, karma appears as a bondage and a limitation, consequence as a reaction or an imposition. But when the will of te being is infinite in the spirit, karma and consequence become instead the joy of the creative spirit, the construction of the eternal mechanist, the word and drama of the eternal poet, the harmony of the eternal musician, the play of the eternal child. This lesser, bound, seemingly separate evolution is only a step in the free self-creation of the Spirit from its own illimitable Ananda. That is behind all we are and do; to hide it from mind and bring it slowly forward into the front of existence and action is the present play of Self with Nature.”

Sri Aurobindo,Rebirth and Karma, Section I, Chapter 10, Karma, Will and Consequence, pp. 91-92,

The Immeasurable Delight of the Liberated Being and Its Liberated Action

If there is one frequently recurring theme throughout human history with respect to our effort and its significance, it is that whatever we do on earth is a struggle, a form of suffering, a travail, and eventually we need to abandon this life and work to identify ourselves with the eternal and end the suffering. This theme we find in the illusionist philosophies of Mayavada, as well as in the Buddhist direction, and also in the Christian focus on other-worldly salvation or even the redemption and bliss found in the Muslim heaven. Whatever temporary role or significance our human life has is overshadowed by the eventual need to go beyond.

Sri Aurobindo, however, comes to a completely different conclusion. Since he recognizes the action of life as the expression of the unfolding of the creative energy and consciousness of the eternal Spirit, he does not find any need to deny a significance to the individual or the collective life, or to see it as an expression of the Spirit’s enjoyment of existence.

“The spirit we are is not only an eternal consciousness and eternal being; its characters are an eternal power of being and an eternal Ananda. Creation is not to the spirit a trouble and an anguish, but a delight expressed, even though in the entirety of its depths inexpressible, fathomless, endless, inexhaustible. It is only the limited action of mind in the ignorance straining after possession and discovery and unable to find the concealed power of the spirit that makes of the delight of action and creation a passion or suffering: for, limited in capacity and embarrassed by life and body, it has yet desires beyond its capacity, because it is the instrument of a growth and the seed of an illimitable self-expression and it has the pain of the growth and the pain of the insufficiency of its action and delight. But let this struggling self-creator and doer of works once grow into the consciousness and power of the secret infinite spirit within it and all this passion and suffering passes away into an immeasurable delight of liberated being and its liberated action.”

Sri Aurobindo,Rebirth and Karma, Section I, Chapter 10, Karma, Will and Consequence, pg. 91,

The Broader Implications Of Karma and Consequence

When we look at Karma through the lens of perspective, we can see that our usual interpretation of Karma and its effects, focused solely on its impact on our own lives or the most part, is just as faulty as our too narrow view of the role of the individual. Karma and consequence are not solely individual. Just as we are connected to both the universal manifestation through oneness, and our soul is part and parcel of the Eternal manifesting here, so Karma also takes on the aspect of acting on the individual and universal levels. We can find the meaning of karmic consequence not solely in its impact on our limited personality and limited life, but on the lives of others and the entire universal existence.

Sri Aurobindo describes the interaction thus: “At present we fix too much on the particular will and act of the moment and a particular consequence in a given time. But the particular only receives its value by all of which it is a part, all from which it comes, all to which it moves. We fix too much also on the externalities of karma and consequence, this good or that bad action and result of action. But the real consequence which the soul is after is a growth in the manifestation of its being, an enlarging of its range and action of power, its comprehension of delight of being, its delight of creation and self-creation, and not only its own but the same things in others with which its greater becoming and joy are one. Karma and consequence draw their meaning from their value to the soul; they are steps by which it moves towards the perfection of its manifested nature. And even when this object is won, our action need not cease, for it will keep its value and be a greater force of help for all these others with whom in self we are one.”

This opens the door to individual implications to the function of karma in the manifestation as well as universal impacts, and an ever-progressing development, both for the individual and the world within which he acts.

Sri Aurobindo,Rebirth and Karma, Section I, Chapter 10, Karma, Will and Consequence, pp. 90-91,

The Acts of the Moment Are Created By the Eternal Soul

There is a proverb about not being able to see the forest for the trees. The focus on the individual details makes us lose sight of the “big picture”, the sense or significance, the perspective. Impressionist painters such as Vincent Van Gogh conveyed this sense through their artistic efforts. Up close, their paintings overwhelm one with the incredible number of brush strokes, texture, and color. There is however a “tipping point” as one backs away from the canvas where one suddenly switches from the “detail view” to the “gestalt”, the idea being conveyed, and suddenly the “big picture” takes over and the brush strokes are seen for what they are, the technique or the “facts” by which a larger significance is expressed.

Similarly, we become so involved in and overwhelmed by the detailed acts of our day to day lives that we tend not to recognize the “big picture”, the significance of those lives or those acts.

Sri Aurobindo discusses this situation with a very insightful view about the relationship between the day to day details and the soul’s meaning in creating and carrying out those details: “To understand one must cease to dwell exclusively on the act and will of the moment and its immediate consequences. Our present will and personality are bound by many things, by our physical and vital heredity, by a past creation of our mental nature, environmental forces, by limitation, by ignorance. But our soul behind is greater and older than our present personality. The soul is not the result of our heredity, but has prepared by its own action and affinities this heredity. It has drawn around it these environmental forces by past karma and consequence. It has created in other lives the mental nature of which now it makes use.”

Just as we undergo a transformation in our view of life when we understand that the sun does not revolve around the earth, but the earth around the sun; and that the entire solar system is part of an enormous Milky Way Galaxy which is a part of a larger universe, we can begin to understand the soul’s action and the true meaning of the details of our day to day lives when we take a different standpoint outside the focus on each of the details and begin to view the “big picture”.

Modern psychologists point out that there are essentially two hemispheres to the human brain. Left brain activity tends to be fixated on details, analysis and “the trees” of our lives; while right brain activity looks at the “gestalt”, the “big picture”, “the forest” if you will. Both of these perspectives are valuable, but they must be integrated in order to give a true sense and meaning to what we experience.

Sri Aurobindo points out “To live in this knowledge is not to take away the value and potency of the moment’s will and act, but to give it an immensely increased meaning and importance….Our every thought, will, action carries with it its power of future self-determination and is too a help or a hindrance for the spiritual evolution of those around us and a force in the universal working. For the soul in us takes in the influences it receives from others for its own self-determination and gives out influences which the soul in them uses for their growth and experience. Our individual life becomes an immensely greater thing in itself and is convinced too of an abiding unity with the march of the universe.”

Sri Aurobindo,Rebirth and Karma, Section I, Chapter 10, Karma, Will and Consequence, pg. 90,

The Surface Personality and the Inner Person: Bound Will and Free Will

If we consider carefully the wellsprings of action in our surface personality, we find that there is no reality to the concept of free will, and that our actions are conditioned and determined by both our individual karmic chain of past consequences, and by the impact of the universal being of which we are a part on our action. We like to believe that we are somehow separate and distinct from this universal manifestation, and that we can thereby be free of its influence, but this is an illusion, not a reality. Sri Aurobindo discusses this issue: “The dealings of our will with Karma and consequence have to be envisaged in the light of this double truth of man’s individuality and man’s universality.” and “It becomes clear enough that our ego, our outward personality can be only a minor, a temporal, an instrumental form of our being. The will of the ego, the outward, the mentally personal will which acts in the movement cannot be free in any complete or separate sense of freedom. It cannot so be free because it is bound by its partial and limited nature and it is shaped by the mechanism of its ignorance, and again because it is an individualised form and working of the universal energy and at every moment impinged upon and modified and largely shaped by environing wills and powers and forces.”

The inner person, connected to the transcendent and the universal Being that is manifesting and unfolding the universal creation, partakes of the freedom of the Spirit and is one with the consciousness that directs and drives the manifestation.

“The inward will in the being which is in intimacy with that Power is the real will and this outward thing only an instrumentation for a working out from moment to moment, a spring of the karmic mechanism. That inward will we find when we get back to it, to be a free will, not armoured in a separate liberty, but free in harmony with the freedom of the Spirit guiding and compelling Nature in all souls and in all happenings.”

Sri Aurobindo,Rebirth and Karma, Section I, Chapter 10, Karma, Will and Consequence, pp. 88-90,

The Eternal Soul Of Man Acts To Carry Out the Eternal Will In Manifestation

Sri Aurobindo clarifies the balanced view that neither overstates nor understates the importance and role of man in the universal manifestation: “Man is a conscious soul of the Eternal, one with the Infinite in his inmost being, and the spirit within him is master of his acts and his fate.”

When we consider the question of Fate or Karma or any other idea that implies some externally determined result that is either pre-destined or at least guided to a specific result and conclusion, we should consider it from this standpoint. We are not separated from the Eternal and Infinite. We are not therefore simply victims of fate or controlled by Karma.

Sri Aurobindo in fact redefines the concept of fate: “For fate is fatum, the form of act and creation declared beforehand by a Will within him and the universe as the thing to be done, to be achieved, to be worked out and made the self-expression of his spiritual being. Fate is adrsta, the unseen thing which the Spirit holds hidden in the plan of its vision, the consequence concealed from the travailing mind absorbed in the work of the moment by the curtained nearnesses or the far invisible reaches of Time. Fate is niyati, the thing willed and executed by Nature, who is power of the Spirit, according to a fixed law of it self-governed workings.”

This obviously changes our view of our role in the universe: “But since this Eternal and Infinite, our greater Self, is also the universal being, man in the universe is inseparably one with all the rest of existence, not a soul working out its isolated spiritual destiny and nature while all other beings are nothing but his environment and means or obstacles,–that they are indeed, but they are much more to him,–which is the impression cast on the mind by the thought or the religions that emphasise too much his centre of individuality or his aim of personal salvation. He is not indeed solely a portion of the universe. He is an eternal soul which, though limited for certain temporal purposes in its outward consciousness, has to learn to enlarge itself out of those limits, to find and make effective its unity with the eternal Spirit who informs and transcends the universe.”

Sri Aurobindo,Rebirth and Karma, Section I, Chapter 10, Karma, Will and Consequence, pg. 88,

The Value and Significance of the Role of Man In the Universe

Our view of the role and importance of man in the grand scheme of things has gone through the entire gamut from the one extreme that holds that human beings are simply specks of dust in a vast mechanical machinery, essentially having little or no ultimate value, to the other extreme that places man at the center of creation as the most important of all beings (and many positions between these two extremes). While we may not be able to say, as some have said that “man is the measure of all things”, we can nevertheless appreciate that there is a real and significant role for a being that provides conscious awareness, self-reflection and an intuition and aspiration for further evolutionary development.

Sri Aurobindo describes this role in the following way: “The will of man is the agent of the Eternal for the unveiling of his secret meaning in the material creation. Man’s mind takes up all the knots of the problem and works them out by the power of the spirit within him and brings them nearer to the full force and degree of their individual and cosmic solutions. This is his dignity and his greatness and he needs no other to justify and give a perfect value to his birth and his acts and his passing and his return to birth, a return which must be–and what is there in it to grieve at or shun?–until the work of the Eternal in him is perfected or the cycles rest from the glory of their labour.”

Man’s will represents an action of the Eternal in the evolutionary schema and is part of the engine that drives forward the unfolding and expression of ever higher levels of consciousness in the material universe.

Sri Aurobindo,Rebirth and Karma, Section I, Chapter 10, Karma, Will and Consequence, pp. 87-88,

The Will of the Spirit Provides Significance to Existence

As we have determined in our review thus far, the material world is not the origin of existence, but the result of the Spirit’s involution of consciousness. It is not a mechanical world absent any deeper significance, but rather, all Matter is instinct with consciousness–there is a precise, highly-organized and intelligent order to Matter and Life. The systematic development of Life out of Matter and Mind out of Life is an unfolding of the Consciousness contained secretly therein. It is with this understanding that we begin to look at the relationship of Will, Karma and consequence in this new chapter.

Sri Aurobindo introduces the subject with a defining statement: “Will, Karma and consequence are the three steps of the Energy which moves the universe. But Karma and consequence are only the outcome of will or even its forms; will gives them their value and without it they would be nothing, nothing at least to man the thinking and growing soul and nothing, it may be hazarded, to the Spirit of which he is a flame and power as well as a creature.”

Sri Aurobindo points out that the meaning of this entire existence comes from the will of the Spirit: “But by itself and without the light of an inhabiting will this working is only a huge soulless mechanism, a loud rattling of crank and pulley, a monstrous pounding of spring and piston. It is the presence of the spirit and its will that gives a meaning to the action and it is the value of the result to the soul that gives its profound importance to all great or little consequence.”

“Spirit and consciousness and power of the spirit and Ananda are the meaning of existence. Take away this spiritual significance and this world of energy becomes a mechanical fortuity or a blind and rigid Maya.”

Sri Aurobindo,Rebirth and Karma, Section I, Chapter 10, Karma, Will and Consequence, pg. 87,

The Soul’s Assent and Mastery Over Nature and Karma

As long as we remain rooted in the surface consciousness, including body, life and mind, we are essentially the puppets of Nature and under subjection to the law of Karma. In order to achieve liberation from the bondage of Karma, it is essential that we find and establish our standpoint in the witness consciousness. Sri Aurobindo describes the separation of Purusha and Prakriti. This becomes more and more possible as we achieve higher expressions of consciousness in the evolution from Matter, to Life and then to Mind. “But thinking man who experiences increasingly from generation to generation and from life to life the nature of things and develops reflective knowledge and the sense of his soul in Nature, delivers in her a power of initiating will. He is not bound to her set actualities; he can refuse assent, and the thing inNature to which it is refused goes on indeed for a time and produces its results by impetus of Karma, but as it runs, it loses power and falls into impotence and desuetude. He can do more, he can command a new action and orientation of his nature. The assent was a manifestation of the power of the soul as giver of the sanction, anumanta, but this is a power of the soul as active lord of the nature, isvara.

There is an interim period while the soul establishes its poise as master of the Nature that the old actions continue or try to reassert themselves, but eventually they must give way to the new direction and impetus provided by the soul. “The mental being in us can be a learner in the school of freedom, not a perfect adept. A real freedom comes when we get away from the mind into the life of the spirit, from personality o the Person, from Nature to the lord of Nature.”

“But if man would have too a freedom of power, of participation, of companionship as the son of God in a greater divine control, he must then not only get back from mind, but must stand, in his thought and will even, above the levels of mentality and find there a station of leverage… whence he can sovereignly move the world of his being. Such a station of consciousness there is in the supramental ranges. When the soul is one with the Supreme and with the universal not only in essence of consciousness and spiritual truth of being, but in expressive act too of consciousness and being, when it enjoys an initiating and relating truth of spiritual will and knowledge and the soul’s overflowing delight in God and existence, when it is admitted to the spirit’s fullness of asset to self and its creative liberty, its strain of an eternal joy in self-existence ad self-manifestation, Karma itself becomes a rhythm of freedom and birth a strain of immortality.”

Sri Aurobindo,Rebirth and Karma, Section I, Chapter 9, Karma and Freedom, pp. 85-86,

Freedom Is Of the Soul, Not the Surface Personality

There remains within each of us a sense that we have “free will”. Close examination shows us that the actions of body, life and mind are conditioned by past causes. The sense of freedom belongs, not to the ego personality that we tend to fixate upon, but from the deeper soul sense that is part of the Spirit here in the manifestation. Sri Aurobindo describes this as follows: “…this freedom and power are influences from the soul. To use a familiar metaphysical language, they type the assent and will of the Purusha without which the Prakriti cannot move on her way. The first and greater part of this soul-influence is in the form of an assent to Nature, an acquiescence; and for good reason. For I start with the action of the universal Energy which the Spirit has set in motion and as I rise from the ignorance towards knowledge, the first thing demanded from me is to gather experience of its law and of my relations to the law and partly therefore to acquiesce, to allow myself to be moved, to see and to come to know the nature of the motions, to suffer and obey the law, to understand and know Karma.”

The famous image from the Upanishads comes to mind, wherein there are two birds sitting on a common tree. One of them eats the sweet fruit, while the other watches and provides assent. The bird which eats of the fruit is the Prakriti, the nature, consisting of body, life and mind bound together through the device of the surface personality, the ego, and this bird is bound by the law of Karma, cause and effect, through participating in eating the fruits of past actions. The bird which watches and assents is the Purusha, the deeper true personality which is free of the actions of Karma and is not bound by the fruits of the past.

Sri Aurobindo,Rebirth and Karma, Section I, Chapter 9, Karma and Freedom, pp. 84-85,