The conventional view of Karma is that of a rigid, ethical, mechanical and almost revengeful law of Nature which brings rewards for good deeds and punishment for evil actions. We are told that the individual who commits evil today will suffer in some future life while the good person is suffering right now because of some evil act done in a past life. This definition seems unconvincing at times because it does not explain the many anomalies seen in real life. In his works, Sri Aurobindo presented a more flexible and panoptic model of Karma. He observed that Nature is not rigid or revengeful but subtle and liberal in her application of law, working through multi-faceted principles to achieve her aims. This article is a distillation of his thoughts
For the rest of this article, the word ‘Nature’ should be read in the occult sense (Sanskrit:Prakriti) rather than the ecological sense.
The goal of the Divine working through Nature is evolution – individual as well as collective. The Divine has plunged itself into Creation for self-delight and self-finding through the play of multiplicity. The goal of evolution is advanced through the law of Karma, which binds the soul to the community of other souls as well as to Nature as a whole. Karma records the actions of individuals, communities and nations and then provides feedback in the form of obstacles and opportunities which further the developmental process. When the soul outgrows the physical form, it incarnates in another body, another family and milieu, even another race or nation to continue its psychic growth. By virtue of rebirth, the soul also acquiesces to the hereditary Karmic constraints of it’s new parents in the form of inherited diseases, predilections, etc. (see Subconscient inherited from parents). As the individual develops spiritually, he/she is able to choose the conditions of its next birth with sound wisdom and prudence. Commenting on the past Karma that we inherit and bring into play, the Mother Mirra Alfassa observed, “Outer circumstances are merely the reflection of who we inwardly are“.
Man may be born encumbered by the Karma of his past lives (weaknesses as well as strengths) but Nature has also endowed him with Free-will which he can use to choose wisely and overcome the shackles of past encumbrances. Free-will, as commonly understood, is a myth as explained in an earlier post(Illusion of Free will) because ninety percent of our actions are predetermined by our fixed personality as well as being secretly influenced by the Forces of Nature which whirl behind our thoughts and impulses. True Free-will matures when we evolve the power of self-awareness through Yoga or companion techniques, when we stand back from the chaotic habits of the personality to exercise consent with reserve, grace and full comprehension. We can change our reactions to difficult circumstances; we can turn the constraints of Karma to our advantage by accomplishing strenous tasks under demanding circumstances. In this way, we cultivate the qualities of equanimity and fortitude which define our soul and stay with us in future lives. The apex of Free-will is attained in the self-realized individual who acts in harmony with Nature, adapting to Her ways and acting through Her as a willing instrument of the Divine.
How does Karma really work? What are the hidden levers of its influence? As discussed in the page on human constitution, Man has, besides the physical sheath, four other subtle sheaths and it is through these sheaths that he remains in communication with Universal Nature on the inner planes of the Vital, Mind and higher occult worlds. Our thoughts and actions get recorded and broadcast in these inner worlds and that is why, unknown to us, we always attract the consequences of our works. The qualities and deficiences of our soul are chronicled in our psychic being which carries them across lifetimes. This recording of Karma continues until self-realization at which point one begins to spontaneously radiate the true power of Divine Love which inundates the hearts of others and sweeps away antagonisms. It is in relation to this power of the self-realized soul that Patanjali said : “Ahimsa Pratisthayam Tat Sannidhau Vaira Tyagah“ (The person who dwells in Ahimsa (non-violence) is protected by Nature itself.) (Yoga Sutras 2.35).
Layers of individual determinisms
There are three layers of the being – mind, vital(prana/energy) and physical and each of these is characterized by its own laws. On each of these three planes, three evolutionary modalities of operation can be discerned. First, Man is forced to submit to the law of each plane, then he evolves to coexist consciously and finally, he acquires the means to surpass the law of that plane.
Physical Plane: Man first tussles against the laws of the physical plane before consciously employing them to his advantage through good diet and physical exercise. On the physical plane, Nature functions mechanically; it exhibits no tendency of revolt against unethical use, the cruelties of science, or wickedness.
Vital Plane: Man must first strive to exist by effective utilization of energy, then he must check his desire for expansion and possession through self-control and finally gain transcendence over the vital laws by judicious application of mental powers.
Mental Plane: One can discern three ascending movements of mental energy in earthly life.
- The mind remains submerged in life, mired in the cycle of vital happiness and suffering.
- The mind becomes the ruler of life and adopts the principles of living using ethics, righteousness, or the dream of some heaven thereafter.
- The soul rises out of mind, turning away from the practical pursuit of earthly life to the greater pursuit of ideals. It begins to follow good not for the reward but for sake of good itself and it does so without fear of punishment. Only a few high-born souls live such a life guided by inner law or intrinsic Dharma.
All these different energies in Man struggle with each other and their complex combination is expressed through our will and brings about involved consequences. As Satprem explained, “good health and a given life-span in a person can be modified by the vital determinism of his passions or various psychological disorders, which in turn can be modified by the mental determinism of his willpower and his ideal, which can then be modified by the greater law of the psychic, and so on” . (For more, see Karma can be changed)
The highest mental development noted above also marks the beginning of the spiritual path. The soul discovers that sometimes it may elicit an immediate response as it grows closer to God. One may even feel a pain in the heart when one is about to undertake an action which is antithetical to the Divine within. Dreams can provide an indication that something is afoot, that some external power seeks to expand its dominion to the latent soul which sleeps within.
Action of the Cosmic Powers
But many-visaged is the cosmic Soul;
A touch can alter the fixed front of Fate.
A sudden turn can come, a road appear.
A greater Mind may see a greater Truth,
Or we may find when all the rest has failed
Hid in ourselves the key of perfect change.
Sri Aurobindo, Savitri – I: The Kingdoms and Godheads of the Little Mind
Sri Aurobindo observed that Nature keeps us guessing for a reason. She administers a seemingly inconsistent and variable law lest we master Her workings and discover the code of her operation prematurely, exploiting this knowledge to avoid pain and suffering thereby defeating the central purpose of evolution itself! The code of her operation remains concealed until one has discovered one’s true Self. He discerned the following modes of operation in the Forces of Nature.
Nature counteracts the egoistic excess in Man: In life, one often sees the tyrannical man, a patriarch or a dictator, mercilessly subjugating his fellow men, seemingly unstoppable in his march, ultimately becoming secure and overconfident in his limitless power. Nature lies fallow and unresponsive until the time comes when it arranges the Forces that exploit his weaknesses to bring him down swiftly. This aspect of Nature was personified in the Greek Goddess Nemesis who was tasked with exacting Divine Retribution for hubris. Sri Aurobindo expatiated that this is, in reality, the resistance of the Infinite against the claim of the imperfect ego of man who seeks to possess Nature without a commensurate expansion of consciousness. When the vital force in man is over-extended without any corresponding psychic expansion, when man lacks compassion for his fellow man, then such an individual may succeed temporarily but Nature brings about his downfall eventually. Nature works towards an all-encompassing harmony but as part of the evolutionary movement, it also allows deviations for long periods of Time.
Law of the Talion (boomerang, eye for an eye): There are times when the stone we throwis flung back at us as if by some hidden force of Nature. (He that uses the sword shall perish by the sword. – Mathew 26:52). This law, conventionally assumed to constitute the entirety of Karma, does exist in Nature but it is not a regular feature of life otherwise men would knowingly avoid certain actions out of fear, thereby inadvertently stunting their own evolutionary development! No exact penal code exists as can be adduced from the cases where the monarch who commits excesses dies without suffering while the country he ruled unfortunately bears the burden of his excesses for decades to come. The Divine wants us to choose wisely out of love rather than out of fear of punishment.
Like creates Like (good creates more good and evil creates more evil): If we are merciful to others, the collective movement may grow and create an atmosphere of peace. If we preach hatred, then the social environment may get polluted and spawn enmity, rancor and self-destruction. Fortunately, as Sri Aurobindo explains, this rule also breaks down beyond a point otherwise men would become morally perfect but end up remaining spiritually imperfect! The primary factor behind the breakdown is man’s egoism itself which disrupts any chance of accomplishing a superficial social peace. Furthermore, there are situations where even the reverse occurs; we see situations where evil comes out of good and good comes out of evil. For instance, excessive good can awaken a hostile reaction in an unrefined populace while the memory of excessive evil can ennoble the national consciousness and lead to an extended era of amity (e.g. Germany after Hitler). In conclusion, all that can be said is that good acts increase the total power of good while evil acts increase the total power of evil but it is difficult to unravel an exact correspondence.
Direct action of the Supreme itself: The three methods above were the indirect actions of the Divine through the medium of Nature. We may also encounter the direct action of the Divine acting through the nets of Karma to spur man upward and inward. This is illustrated in Leo Tolstoy‘s short story ‘What men live by’ in which the poor shoemaker Simon and his wife’s lives are saved because of their compassion towards the angel Michael who in disguise has sought refuge in their home.
At times, the Divine acts more directly, individually and irresistibly in the form of Grace, which may come in the form of an afflatus which suddenly seizes the individual and changes the course of his/her life irreversibly. We find innumerable such occurences in the lives of saints. The Swiss philosopher and poet Jean Gebser had such an experience, which he characterized as satori, in Sarnath in 1961. The Divine Grace can also channel itself through the Guru, who can exalt the disciples by annuling the seeds of their past Karma. (See How does a Guru act?)
Explaining Life using Karma
Sri Aurobindo, Essays Divine and Human: Karma
As discussed above, different energies in man tussle with each other and their resultant expressed through our will brings about complex returns. Nature, on its part, tolerates our imperfections, acting deftly through varied principles to provide multiple opportunities so we may develop every side of the personality in the right proportion. Suffering should not be viewed as the consequence of evil actions in some past life, but rather as a prod to progress, a reward for virtue, and a reminder that we are not yet reached the goal. Who can say what the trigger for the next phase of growth will be? The path of life gets steeper as we become more mature and come closer to the pinnacle of self-perfection. Karma cannot be judged by superficial reasoning because people are in different stages of evolution, subject to a multitude of inner and outer forces. With that caveat in mind, these are a few thoughts on how one may interpret the common situations in life using Karma.
- When a man nurses a hidden hatred, the day comes when the hatred boils over, the person suddenly loses his temper and commits an explosive act of violence that puts him in prison. The power of his thoughts have created the circumstances of his downfall.
- Innocent victims of mass disaster: One often wonders why innocent people have to perish in mass disasters. The answer has nothing to do with innocence per se but rather with unconsciousness. Those who have a well-developed psyche are kept away from the catastrophe by their awakened intuition.
Question: “The time and the way of death, are these not always chosen by the soul? In the great destructions of mankind by bombing, flood, earthquake, have all the souls chosen to die together at that moment?”
Mother Mirra Alfassa: The immense majority of men have a collective destiny. For them the question does not arise at all. One who has an individualised psychic being can survive even in the midst of collective catastrophes, if that is his soul’s choice. [Mother’s Agenda: March 7, 1967]
- A good but weak person: Such a person may suffer at the hands of others. He has to develop the power to resist and fight for the Truth.
- Disabilities: The individual with disabilities can transcend his/her deficits by developing the power of mind over body, the power to endure bodily pain and the subtle powers of the mind. Such powers are very valuable capabilities that even so-called normal individuals often lack.
- Born with a silver spoon; a Rothschild: Some people have chosen to be born in a wealthy family where their capability of enterprise and business can be developed. Then again, there are also cases where some dull, lazy person is born rich and lives an easy life that he doesn’t seem to deserve. How to explain such cases? I don’t know! (Update : see the comment below on this topic)
- Sensual excesses: Those who live a life of unchecked sensual indulgence have to endure pain after death because the vital sheath may not dissolve easily. This continues to torment the psychic being which needs to dissociate from the vital in order to rest. Their vital sheath may even dissociate and merge into some animal to exhaust the sensual urges.
Sri Aurobindo: There may be what seems to be retrograde movements (in reincarnation) but these are only like zigzag movements, not a real falling back, but a return on something not worked out so as to go on better afterwards. The soul does not go back to the animal condition; but a part of the vital personality may disjoin itself and join an animal birth to work out its animal propensities there. There is no truth in the popular belief about the avaricious man becoming a serpent. These are popular romantic superstitions. [Letters on Yoga – I: Rebirth]
- Loss of family: Sometimes a person may lose his entire family in some disaster. One has to learn the transience of life, and foster a greater and more mature love for the Divine itself.
- Loss of wealth: Those who cannot organize themselves often fail in life despite talent. One has to develop perseverance and shun emotional excesses.
- Poverty: Some are born poor so as to rise above the sense pleasures, while others squander away any opportunity that comes their way due to lack of consciousness. When there is paucity of resources, sometimes ingenuity can flower as illustrated by the case of William Kamkwamba of Malawi, Africa, who built a wind-mill from scratch.
- Infamy, Dishonesty and Betrayal: The individual must learn to perceive the crookedness of the world and begin to rely solely to the Divine.
- War: The individual has to gain the ability to sustain conflict without being traumatized and to fight without bearing hatred or cruelty. Incidentally, this is also one of the core messages of the Bhagavad Gita.
- Bad luck: Why do some people always attract bad luck and disasters ?
Mother Mirra Alfassa: how it was that people (who consciously, outwardly, would rather have pleasant things and favorable events) are constantly attracting and attracting unpleasant things, even terrible catastrophes. That’s what Sri Aurobindo explained so well: all those parts of the being are terribly tamasic (i.e. stupefied and slothful) and it is the violence of the shock that awakens something in them; and that is why they attract those things as though instinctively [Mother’s Agenda: July 24, 1965]
There is a purpose in each stumble and fall;
Nature’s most careless lolling is a pose
Preparing some forward step, some deep result.
Ingenious notes plugged into a motived score,
These million discords dot the harmonious theme
Of the evolution’s huge orchestral dance.
Sri Aurobindo, Savitri – II: The Dream Twilight of the Earthly Real
- Why bad things happen to good people?
- Are earthquakes due to Divine retribution?
- Karma can be changed. Your destiny is in your hands
- Gita Chapter 18, Verse 60-61: The illusion of free-will
- How to rise above the ordinary life?
- Sri Aurobindo and the Mother on Astrology
- The occult spirits which influence our actions
- How to make the right choice when faced with a serious decision
- Jnana Yoga : the ego blocks that have to be dissolved
- Is fear and awe of God necessary?
- Sri Aurobindo. SABCL vol 16. The Supramental Manifestation. (Most of this article is drawn from the section entitled The Problem of Rebirth.)
- Satprem. Sri Aurobindo or the Adventure of Consciousness. Sleep and Death, p 122. (amazon)