[Published in Sraddha, February 2010]
Karma and the Law of Evolution
We have discussed so far an important aspect of the Law of Karma, Law of consequences, tracing it to its spiritual foundation in the Law of Unity. The traditional eastern conceptions of Karma consider this law of consequences as the sole principle of the cosmic law. But according to Sri Aurobindo, beyond the law of consequences there is the law of spiritual evolution and the guiding Wisdom of the Spirit. So Law is not all. Beyond the Law there is the Wisdom and Grace of the Spirit which uses the law and its consequences for the spiritual evolution of man and the world.
The beneficial and adverse consequences Karma are not a system of reward and punishment for virtue and sin or a system of motivation for the ethical development. Their purpose is not ethical growth but to provide the experience and learning needed for an integral spiritual development of humanity. So every experience like success and failure, good fortune or bad fortune, war and peace, prosperity or poverty come not as rewards and punishments for good or bad ethical behavior but as opportunities for evolutionary learning and growth. We may say that divine wisdom which governs the world arranges the consequences of karma in such a way that each human individual or the group is given the right opportunities and the experiences at the right time so that it leads to the integral development of the individual and the collectivity.
In this vision of karma adverse circumstances like wars, calamities and foreign invasions are not necessarily due to past negative karma. For such difficult circumstances help in developing certain parts, powers and qualities of the human consciousness in the individual and the consciousness. So it may be the part of providence or plan of Nature, in the evolutionary education of the human organism. In the life of the individual, the soul, the spiritual element in the individual chooses the type of experiences it would have in each birth. In a collectivity like a nation or civilizations, we may suppose, that Nature provides each collectivity, in the course of its historical evolution, the necessary opportunities, challenges and the experiences needed for its integral development. But how effectively these experiences are used or tackled for the evolution of the collectivity depends on the quality of the leadership and people of the collectivity. If the people or leadership of the collectivity is sufficiently alert and creative to make use of the opportunities and challenges thrown by Nature and learn the right lessons, then it progresses rapidly to a balanced and integral development of its potentialities. On the other hand, if the opportunities are missed, challenges are not effectively talked, and lessons are not learned, either due to laziness, cowardice, inertia or ignorance or lack of initiative, enterprise or creativity, then it creates negative karma for the group. This negative karma may take different forms. The same or similar circumstance may be repeated again but under more difficult conditions or else some major tragedies like for example a humiliating foreign conquest.
Let us take for example the history of ancient Indian civilization. Until the Islamic invasion in the medieval period, Indian civilization progressed satisfactorily using the opportunities and meeting the challenges more or less adequately according to her inborn spiritual genius. The rich and favourable material environment provided by Nature in the Indus-valley gave birth to a magnificent spiritual culture which contemplated and discovered the highest spiritual truths and laws of life and made a great attempt towards creating a civilization based on these highest truths. And in the later stages of its evolution, when it was exposed to external influences, both the opportunities and challenges offered by this opening were tackled effectively. The challenge of a Greek invasion through Alexandrian hordes were successfully contained and defeated by Chandragupta who founded a great empire. Later, the challenge of a more dangerous Huns invasion was again was successfully repelled by Gupta emperors. The opportunities provided by interaction with other civilizations like neighbouring Asian kingdoms or the more distant Roman empire was used for a creative expansion of trade, commerce and culture. During the Gupta age, India was a flourishing centre of intercontinental trade. The ideas of Indian thought, religion and philosophy travelled to distant lands. Whatever limited success or infiltration achieved by foreign invaders like the Greeks or Huns were assimilated and absorbed into the Indian society and culture. But when the Islamic invasion came, Indian civilization could not adapt and cope up adequately with the new threat.
In Nature’s management of human history, foreign invasions and conquest seem to serve two main purposes: first in a lethargic or peaceful community, it helps in developing the kshatria faculties of will, power, strength which are also essential for the integral development of the collectivity. Second, it acts as a goad to push a scattered and divided civilization towards the realization of unity, especially political unity. As Sri Aurobindo points out “when a people, predestined to unity, cannot accomplish its destiny, foreign rule is a provision of Nature by which the necessary compelling pressure is applied to drive its jarring parts to concord.” In India, repeated invasions from the Islamic marauders came as a warning for the loosely diversified and divided civilization to unite. But the leaders and kings who ruled India during that period, could not mashall the required political vision, strength and the adaptability to confront the aggressor with a united force. They were clinging to their narrow provincial patriotism and the lofty traditional Kshathria ideals of chivalry and generosity to the enemy when the new enemy has no such ideals.
Again, when the Mughal empire disintegrated, there was another opportunity to realize unity. But the leaders of the Maratha and Sikh empires, which were the dominant political powers of the period, again were unable to harness the strength and vision to unify the country and prevent the slow and insidious infiltration of the British colonizers. The British invasion helped India to achieve political unity and open her ancient and insular mind to the modern ideals of science, technology, humanism and democracy. But these foreign invasions have seriously disrupted and slowed down the cultural and spiritual evolution of India. Had the Indian leaders at the beginning and end of the Islamic interlude, displayed sufficient vision and ability to prevent these foreign invasions, unify the nation and felicitate her natural evolution towards a new India based on her inborn spiritual genius, by now India would have been a mighty spiritual superpower guiding the world triumphantly towards its evolutionary destiny.
This evolutionary vision of karma has some practical implications for collective development. If Law of karma and its consequences are not a system of reward and punishment, but, a mechanism for working out the progressive evolution of the human organism towards integral development of the human potential, then we have here a seed-idea for a new paradigm of development based on “learning”. The central idea or assumption of this paradigm is that every event experience or encounter in the history of a collective human organism, whether it is pleasant or unpleasant are opportunities for learning something new or developing a new capability or in other words for evolutionary progress.
There are some ideas, concepts and attitudes in the emerging paradigms in business which are very much in sync with the evolutionary paradigm of karma. For example, the new paradigm in business looks at failure in a very positive light as a source of learning. There are some companies in US which has this concept and practice of celebrating a failed project that has taught some crucial lessons as the “best failure”. There is also the concept of “learning organization” by Peter Senge which conceives learning “as creating and building the capacity to create that which you previously couldn’t create” and “learning organizations are organizations that are continually enhancing their capacity to create.” All these ideas are in harmony with the evolutionary laws of Nature. But to get the maximum inner and outer benefit from these ideas, they have to become part of a deeper and vaster spiritual vision of human development and integrated with the concepts we were discussing so far: Law of Unity, Karma, sacrifice, evolution and integral development.