The Deeper Sense of the Gita’s Teaching on the Law of Works

Sri Aurobindo observes that the Gita is commonly interpreted to fix an individual’s works by the caste he is born into, his position in society, or other external factors, but that this does not represent the deeper sense that the Gita is trying to convey. The Gita expressly points out that all the external factors cannot be determinative, and that one must abandon all these external laws or Dharmas and adhere to the spiritual truth of the being, the inner soul-reality, to find the work to be done.

Taking up this theme, Sri Aurobindo states: “It is this deeper sense in which we must accept the dictum of the Gita that action determined and governed by the nature must be our law of works. it is not, certainly, the superficial temperament or the character or habitual impulses that are meant, but in the literal sense of the Sanskrit word our “own being”, our essential nature, the divine stuff of our souls. Whatever springs from this root or flows from these sources is profound, essential, right; the rest–opinions, impulses, habits, desires–may be merely surface formations or casual vagaries of the being or impositions from outside. They shift and change but this remains constant. it is not the executive forms taken by Nature in us that are ourselves or the abidingly constant and expressive shape of ourselves, it is the spiritual being in us–and this includes the soul-becoming of it–that persists through time in the universe.”

The rigidity of the external forms that have developed over the centuries is not the deeper sense of the Gita’s teaching on the law of works. When the Gita asks the seeker to give up attachment to the outer forms, laws, codes and standards and adhere to the inner spiritual truth of the being that is One with the Divine being in manifestation, it moves us immediately away from all these external interpretations. There may be various key developed talents and temperaments that the individual puts into practice, but these do not define the soul, nor limit the soul in its growth and evolutionary potential. They may be utilized for a time and then abandoned when the next stage of the development is prepared and ready to manifest. Rigid distinctions based on race, gender, birth, caste, religious background all must give way to the deeper inner truth of the soul.

Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga, Part One: The Yoga of Divine Works, Chapter 12, The Divine Work, pp. 261-262

The Action Of the Liberated Soul Spontaneously Fulfills the Spiritual Truth Of Our Being

We live in a world of rules, codes and standards of conduct. As long as we are still working within the physical-vital-mental framework of the ordinary outer life, these standards are essential to help both the individual to mature and the society to survive and thrive. When an individual reaches the point where he is prepared to go beyond the mental limitations and external rules, because he has embarked on a spiritual journey and quest, these outer rules can no longer be determinative for his action. The ideas of “duty” and “morality” and “societal expectation” are all relative terms based in the outer life, and do not take into account the higher spiritual impetus that occurs when the soul becomes liberated.

Sri Aurobindo takes up the discussion: “It is altogether from within that must come the knowledge of the work that has to be done. There is no particular work, no law or form or outwardly fixed or invariable way of works which can be said to be that of the liberated being. The phrase used in the Gita to express this work that has to be done has indeed been interpreted in the sense that we must do our duty without regard to the fruit. But this is a conception born of European culture which is ethical rather than spiritual and external rather than inwardly profound in its concepts. No such general thing as duty exists; we have only duties, often in conflict with each other, and these are determined by our environment, our social relations, our external status in life. They are of great value in training the immature moral nature and setting up a standard which discourages the action of selfish desire. It has already been said that as long as the seeker has no inner light, he must overn himself by the best light he has, and duty, a principle, a cause are among the standards he may temporarily erect and observe. But for all that, duties are external things, not stuff of the soul and cannot be the ultimate standard of action in this path.”

This is in fact the dilemma that Arjuna faced when he found all the principles, duties and expectations of his position in society coming into conflict and he could not determine the right direction based on his ethical, moral or social sense of duty. It was at this point that Sri Krishna asked him to “abandon all Dharmas” and act from the spontaneous inner sense that arose from complete surrender and identification with the higher spiritual truth of the Purushottama, the Divine Being manifesting the evolutionary development of the world.

“On the other hand, to love or have compassion, to obey the highest truth of our being, to follow the command of the Divine are not duties; these things are a law of the nature as it rises towards the Divine, an outflowing of action from a soul-state, a high reality of the spirit. The action of the liberated doer of works must be even such an outflowing from the soul; it must come to him or out of him as a natural result of his spiritual union with the Divine and not be formed by an edifying construction of the mental thought and will, the practical reason or the social sense.”

“But in the last state of the soul’s infinity and freedom all outward standards are replaced or laid aside and there is left only a spontaneous and integral obedience to the Divine with whom we are in union and an action spontaneously fulfilling the integral spiritual truth of our being and nature.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga, Part One: The Yoga of Divine Works, Chapter 12, The Divine Work, pp. 260-261

The Inner Rule of Conduct For the Karma Yogin

Once it is established that the practitioner of the Yoga cannot be bound nor judged by external rules or codes of conduct, the question naturally arises as to what guides the action of the Karma Yogin. One possible line of solution was developed by Nietzsche when he posited that the “superman”, the superior individual, was not bound by the moral or social codes of society, but had to make his own rules in the world. In practice, this approach can lead to the aggrandisement of the ego and the development of unrestrained fulfillment of desire. The practitioner of Yoga has already come to understand that he cannot act under the impulsion of desire. Thus, a new inner rule of conduct must be developed for the practitioner of Yoga to find and guide himself by.

Sri Aurobindo observes: “The Gita declares that the action of the liberated man must be directed not by desire, but towards the keeping together of the world, its government, guidance, impulsion, maintenance in the path appointed to it.”

Since the path of Mayavada, which holds the outer world to be an illusion has had so much sway in the past, a more or less cynical understanding of this directive has arisen; namely, that those who are liberated need to keep those who cannot achieve liberation “in line” by guiding and managing their actions.

Another approach is the one represented by the Bodhisattva vow and similar pronouncements, where the soul that is capable of liberation voluntarily chooses to remain in the world until all beings are fully liberated.

Sri Aurobindo’s approach, however, addresses the inherent underlying limitations of the approaches based on the “illusory” nature of the universe. He treats the world as real, and as a manifestation of the Divine in becoming, and thus, the work represented by the Gita’s injunction is actually a way to actualize the inner guidance of the Divine standpoint in the external life of the seeker.

“To participate in that divine work, to live for God in the world will be the rule of the Karmayogin; to live for God in the world and therefore so to act that the Divine may more and more manifest himself and the world go forward by whatever way of its obscure pilgrimage and move nearer to the divine ideal.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga, Part One: The Yoga of Divine Works, Chapter 12, The Divine Work, pp. 259-260

The Liberated Soul Cannot Be Judged By the Standards Of the Mind

It is a human characteristic to try to judge actions by the rules, standards and codes of conduct developed by the mind and framed into the characteristic judgments and laws of the society within which we live and act. While these judgments may vary somewhat due to cultural variation, the act of judging conduct based on the mental framework of the society is a universal trait. This framework of course is limited to what the mind can grasp with its understanding and its logical process, and thus, for someone from outside that framework, the judgment cannot necessarily apply. Even within the context of differing human social settings, this limitation becomes obvious. In one culture it is acceptable to do certain things which in another would be totally unacceptable. It becomes even more difficult therefore to address the actions of the liberated soul who acts from a standpoint beyond that of the mental realm.

Arjuna raises this question in the Bhagavad Gita when he inquires of Sri Krishna how he can recognise the liberated soul, asking essentially how does he dress, how does he act, what does he do, so that he can be seen and understood. Sri Krishna makes it clear that the liberated soul cannot be determined through any outer or external clue. ‘Howsoever he lives and acts,’ says the Gita, ‘he lives and acts in Me.’

Sri Aurobindo observes: “It is immaterial whether he wears the garb of the ascetic or lives the full life of the householder; whether he spends his days in what men call holy works or in the many-sided activities of the world; whether he devotes himself to the direct leading of men to the Light like Buddha, Christ or Shankara or governs kingdoms like Janaka or stands before men like Sri Krishna as a politician or a leader of armies; what he eats or drinks; what are his habits or his pursuits; whether he fails or succeeds; whether his work be one of construction or of destruction; whether he supports or restores an old order or labours to replace it by a new; whether his associates are those whom men delight to honour or those whom their sense of superior righteousness outcastes and reprobates; whether his life and deeds are approved by his contemporaries or he is condemned as a misleader of men and a fomenter of religious, moral or social heresies. he is not governed by the judgments of men or the laws laid down by the ignorant; he obeys an inner voice and is moved by an unseen Power. His real life is within and this is its description that he lives, moves and acts in God, in the Divine, in the Infinite.”

When we look back through the lens of history we see that Socrates was poisoned for “misleading the youth” of his time–his true worth only recognised by later generations. Similarly, Jesus was castigated by the social leaders of his time for associating with “publicans and sinners” and for his disruptive actions against the established ways of doing things, his breaking down of the walls of social status, his attempt to support and raise up the common people and his railing against the economic and power elite of his time for their lack of compassion and their greed. Their answer was to demand his crucifixion. Saint Francis was opposed in his acts of love and charity by the very religious hierarchy to which he belonged, and only afterwards was his sainthood recognized.

Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga, Part One: The Yoga of Divine Works, Chapter 12, The Divine Work, pp. 258-259

Escape From Attachment to the Desire For Individual Salvation

Overcoming the idea that individual salvation is an end-goal of spiritual practice, Sri Aurobindo cites various traditions for the call of a greater evolutionary purpose and the dedication of the soul to that higher purpose. These responses provide us an insight “…the essential character of the action the liberated soul must pursue.”

Sri Aurobindo observes: “It is that which is implied in the great legend of the Amitabha Buddha who turned away when his spirit was on the threshold of Nirvana and took the vow never to cross it while a single being remained int he sorrow and the Ignorance. It is that which underlies the sublime verse of the Bhagavata Purana, ‘I desire not the supreme state with all its eight siddhis nor the cessation of rebirth; may I assume the sorrow of all creatures who suffer and enter into them so that they may be made free from grief.’ It is that which inspires a remarkable passage in a letter of Swami Vivekananda, ‘I have lost all wish for my salvation,’ wrote the great Vedantin, ‘may I be born again and again and suffer thousands of miseries so that I may worship the only God that exists, the only God I believe in, the sum-total of all souls,–and above all, my God the wicked, my God the miserable, my God the poor of all races, of all species is the special object of my worship. He who is the high and low, the saint and the sinner, the god and the worm, Him worship, the visible, the knowable, the real, the omnipresent; break all other idols. In whom there is neither past life nor future birth, nor death nor going nor coming, in whom we always have been and always will be one, Him worship; break all other idols.’ ”

Sri Aurobindo underlines the sense of these various statements: “The true salvation or the true freedom from the chain of rebirth is not the rejection of terrestrial life or the individual’s escape by a spiritual self-annihilation, even as the true renunciation is not the mere physical abandonment of family and society; it is the inner identification with the Divine in whom there is no limitation of past life and future birth but instead the eternal existence of the unborn Soul. He who is free inwardly, even doing actions, does nothing at all, says the Gita; for it is Nature that works in him under the control of the Lord of Nature.”

“Therefore attachment to the escape from rebirth is one of the idols which, whoever keeps, the Sadhaka of the integral Yoga must break and cast away from him. For his Yoga is not limited to the realisation of the Transcendent beyond all world by the individual soul; it embraces also the realisation of the Universal, ‘the sum-total of all souls’, and cannot therefore be confined to the movement of a personal salvation and escape. Even in his transcendence of cosmic limitations he is still one with all in God; a divine work remains for him in the universe.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga, Part One: The Yoga of Divine Works, Chapter 12, The Divine Work, pp. 257-258

The Desire For Personal Salvation Is Not the True Aim of Yogic Practice

One of the prime motivations for undertaking the practice of Yoga has been the liberation of the individual soul from the cycle of birth and death, and the consequent release from any work to be done while one remains alive. For the soul enamoured of the life of the world and its attractions and fruits, this is certainly a step to disentangle oneself from the bondage of desire.

Sri Aurobindo observes, however, that this goal still represents the working of the ego, and eventually must be overpassed to align oneself with the higher Divine intention in the creation. “The aim of escape from rebirth, now long fixed in the Indian mentality as the highest object of the soul, has replaced the enjoyment of a heaven beyond fixed in the mentality of the devout by many religions as their divine lure….Undoubtedly a release from the limitations of the mind and body into an eternal peace, rest, silence of the Spirit, makes a higher appeal than the offer of a heaven of mental joys or eternised physical pleasures, but this too after all is a lure; its insistence on the mind’s world-weariness, the life-being’s shrinking from the adventure of birth, strikes a chord of weakness and cannot be the supreme motive. The desire of personal salvation, however high its form, is an outcome of ego; it rests on the idea of our own individuality and its desire for its personal good or welfare, its longing for a release from suffering or its cry for the extinction of the trouble of becoming and makes that the supreme aim of our existence. To rise beyond the desire of personal salvation is necessary for the complete rejection of this basis of ego.”

As long as we are framing the seeking within the logic of individual or personal salvation or liberation, the ego is at work. The Gunas are still at work, and in this case, one senses the strong presence of Tamas, the weariness, weakness, tiredness, and desire for escape from the trouble being the operative signs.

Sri Aurobindo provides the true rationale when he states: “The pursuit of liberation, of the soul’s freedom, of the realisation of our true and highest self, of union with the Divine, is justified only because it is the highest law of our nature, because it is the attraction of that which is lower in us to that which is highest, because it is the Divine Will in us.” The standpoint of the Divine is essential to overcome the limitations of the standpoint of the human soul. From this standpoint there is then no reason to abandon life, action and work in the world if that is the impulsion of the Divine Spirit for the soul.

Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga, Part One: The Yoga of Divine Works, Chapter 12, The Divine Work, pp. 256-257

The Freedom of Action of the Karma Yogin

The seeker who has succeeded in loosening the bonds of desire and ego, and who acts under the impulsion of the Divine cannot be recognised necessarily by the outer form of his life and action. There is no fixed rule that identifies the Karma Yogin externally. One may stay within the framework of the life to which he was born and raised, or alternatively may break with that life entirely and move in an entirely new direction. The work may be humble and practically invisible to others, or it may be framed on a large scale to open up new opportunities and vistas for humanity in a period of development and change. The choice is not that of the individual, but the impulsion of the Divine Spirit moving within him, as Sri Aurobindo describes:

“There is no narrow principle, no field of cabined action that can be imposed on the Karmayogin as his rule or his province. This much is true that every kind of works, whether small to imagination or great, petty in scope or wide, can be equally used in the progress towards liberation or for self-discipline. This much is also true that after liberation a man may dwell in any sphere of life and in any kind of action and fulfil there his existence in the Divine. According as he is moved by the Spirit, he may remain in the sphere assigned to him by birth and circumstances or break that framework and go forth to an untrammelled action which shall be the fitting body of his greatened consciousness and higher knowledge.”

“If such be the intention of the Supreme within him, the liberated soul may be content with a subtle and limited action within the old human surroundings which will in no way seek to change their outward appearance. But it may too be called to a work which will not only alter the forms and spheres of its own external life but, leaving nothing around it unchanged or unaffected, create a new world or a new order.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga, Part One: The Yoga of Divine Works, Chapter 12, The Divine Work, pp. 255-256