Karma In History: An Evolutionary Perspective-I-M.S. Srinivasan

[published in Shraddha, February 2010]

Karma, not scientific and technological progress, is the factor in human life that produces welfare and happiness or alternatively misery and sorrow.

Arnold Toynbee

The Indian theory of karma is a central concept of Indian philosophy and also one of the most misunderstood ideas of Indian thought.  This theory articulates an important aspect of the cosmic order which governs the world.  The law of karma has an individual as well as a historical or collective dimension.  While the individual aspect has been expounded with clarity by able exponent of Indian philosophy, the historical dimensions of karma has not been given as much attention by scholars and thinkers in Indian philosophy.  This article explores this historical and evolutionary dimensions of karma in the light of Sri Aurobindo’s thought.

Karma and Ethics

The law of karma, as we have indicated earlier is one of the most misunderstood concepts, especially in the West but also in the land in which it is born.  In the popular mind the law of karma is conceived as the inexorable law of Fate and as a system of punishment and reward for sin and virtue.  Even in the more enlightened religious minds, it is viewed as a system of moral justice which enforces the consequences of our action with an almost mathematical precision, like for example, as it is said in the bible “Those who take the sword perish by the sword”.

The major defect of this conception of the law of karma is that it gives the impression that the only purpose of the cosmic law or evolution is to enforce ethic or moral justice or the ethical development.  But Cosmic Law is not a moralist.  Nature is not a moral teacher.  The evolutionary aim of Nature in man is not the moralizing of the human but Growth, total development of the human organism.  Ethics is only one stage or aspect of this growth because the ethical being is only one part of our being.  The development of the intellectual, practical, aesthetic and spiritual being is also part of integral development of the human being.  The pre-human stages of cosmic evolution was infra-ethical and the future course of evolution in which human being will be called upon to raise beyond the present mental consciousness to his spiritual being, may probably be supraethical.  And if the integral development of the human being is the highest aim of human evolution then ethical development can only be part of the aim.  So the purpose of a great cosmic law as the law of karma cannot be solely ethical growth through a system of reward and punishment.  The wisdom or the law which governs the world cannot be a petty moralist.  So we need a deeper and a broader understanding of the law of karma and its significance for human progress.

Hence comes the importance of Sri Aurobindo’s original insights into the law of karma.     According to Sri Aurobindo there are three aspects to the law of karma: first is the law of consequences; second is the element of education or learning through experience; third is the aspect of evolution and progress.  All these three aspects applies not only to the individual but also to a collectivity like a civilization, nation or the organization.

The Law of Consequences

The first aspect of Karma is the law of consequences.  Every action has its consequences in our inner being and outer life.  Our present inner or outer condition is the result or consequence of our past inner and outer actions.  And our future condition will be the consequence of our present action.  There is nothing fatalistic here.  The Theory of karma says we forge our fate by our own action and if we will, we can change or neutralize our past fate and shape our future destiny by our present actions.

What are the factors, which determine the nature of the consequences? It depends on the nature and quality the energy released by our action.  Here comes the element of justice in the law of karma.  But it is not a moral justice but at once a pragmatic and spiritual justice.  The nature of energy released may be material, pragmatic, intellectual, emotional, ethical, aesthetic or spiritual.  Depending on the nature of energy, there are consequences in the corresponding level of the human being and his life.

We are brought here to a major flaw in the popular conceptions of karma which wants the ethical man to be rewarded with material prosperity and the unethical man to be punished with poverty.  But there is no true justice in such a conception of karma.  There is no reason why should an ethical man, who is lazy and inefficient in the material life be rewarded with material prosperity or someone who is efficient, hardworking and innovative in the material life be punished with poverty for his unethical action? The ethical and moral energies released by a saintly man, if it is sincere and disinterested, has its positive consequences for his ethical and inner being interms of greater ethical development and inner happiness which comes from a truly virtuous life.  If he is inefficient and incapable in dealing with material life he will be poor and low in his outer life.  Similarly energies of efficiency, productivity hardwork innovation, released by the pragmatic man has its positive consequences in his material and economic life interms of material prosperity and success.  If he is unethical it has its negative consequences for his inner being interms loss of inner peace or sinking into evil, darkness and falsehood.  As Sri Aruobindo points out:

“This is the ordinary disposition of Nature, if justice is demanded of her, this surely is justice  that the energy and capacity putward should have in its own kind its fitting response from her.  The prize of the race is assigned by her to the swift, the victory in the battle to the brave and strong and skilful, the rewards of knowledge to the capable intellect and the earnest seeker; these things she will not give to the good man who is sluggish or weak or skillless or stupid merely because he is righteous; if he covets these other powers of life, he must qualify for them and put forward the right kind of energy.  If Nature did otherwise she could well be accused of injustice.”

This is one aspect or principle of the law of karma which applies to every activity and energy of the individual and collective organism in all the levels of their being¾physical, vital, intellectual, volitional, ethical, aesthetic and spiritual.  An individual or the collectivity like a Nation or civilization reaps the karmic reward according to the creativity or capacity displayed in any line or level of energy or activity and the contribution it makes to human progress on that line or level of activity.  And since the aim of Nature in human development is not merely ethical but integral development of the potentialities of inner being and the outer life of man, a creative contribution to the material or outer progress of humanity brings corresponding karmic rewards in the physical, economic, social or political life of the human organism, irrespective of the ethical quality of the act or contribution.  Similarly, creative contribution to the inner development of humanity in the intellectual, ethical, aesthetic and spiritual dimensions brings corresponding rewards in the cultural life of the organism in philosophy, religion, art and literature.  But the individual or group organism which achieves cultural greatness, need not necessarily be successful in its outer life, if it doesn’t develop the capacities to survive and prosper in outer life.

We can see this happening in the life of civilizations.  The modern western civilization displayed great intellectual rectitude and creativity in scientific and pragmatic mind and made substantial contribution to the material progress of humanity.  It also brought some ennobling and progressive ideals like liberty, equality, fraternity, humanism; democracy and progress to the outer life of man.  For this contribution, modern western civilization was rewarded with prosperity, power, progress, expansion and dominion in the material economic and political life.  But the nations of the modern west also indulged in unethical practices like colonial exploitation, slave trade, racism and savage destruction of some of the native people and cultures.  But Nature did not punish these nations for their unethical practices with any immediate material failure.  On the other hand there are ancient cultures like India and Greece which displayed great creativity in the intellectual, ethical, aesthetic and spiritual fields and helped in establishing in the human consciousness these greater ideals and values which are essentials for the inner and higher evolution and progress of humanity.  For this contribution Nature rewarded these civilizations with cultural richness and greatness.  But these nobler civilizations were not always successful in the outer material life.  The ancient Greece, which provided most of the governing ideals of the west, was destroyed by barbarian invasion.  Ancient India, which was the source of true spirituality for the whole world, was subjected to two long, painful and humiliation foreign invasions and conquests, first the Islamic and then the British.

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