The Return to Earth – Karma
The soul moves on from one body to another through the cycles of death and rebirth as do the karmas that stick as labels indicating the stage where we stand in our evolutionary journey. It is a kind of reminder of the things we have not yet experienced, steps we have not yet climbed. This label of karma goes and returns with us in the form of our true mental, the true vital, the true physical — the three purushas projected by the soul to front this world and relate with it. These three inner purushas are withdrawn inside the soul in its reconstituting sleep and put forward again with the new birth. The rest of our outer being is swallowed in the darkness of death.
“The soul gathers the essential elements of its experiences in life and makes that its basis of growth in the evolution; when it returns to birth it takes up with its mental, vital, physical sheaths so much of its Karma as is useful to it in the new life for further experience.
“There may be what seems to be retrograde movements 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.
“…the soul, the psychic being, once having reached the human consciousness cannot go back to the inferior animal consciousness any more than it can go back into a tree or an ephemeral insect. What is true is that some part of the vital energy or the formed instrumental consciousness or nature can and very frequently does so, if it is strongly attached to anything in the earth life. This may account for some cases of immediate rebirth with full memory in human forms also.
“Note that the idea of rebirth and the circumstances of the new life as a reward or punishment of puṇya or pāpa is a crude human idea of ‘justice’ which is quite unphilosophical and unspiritual and distorts the true intention of life. Life here is an evolution and the soul grows by experience, working out by it this or that in the nature, and if there is suffering, it is for the purpose of that working out, not as a judgment inflicted by God or Cosmic Law on the errors or stumblings which are inevitable in the Ignorance.”
In other words, there is little truth in the popular notion that the soul having taken a human birth can revert back to the animal form. The logic is very simple. There is a certain correspondence between the inmost soul and the outer and inner nature. The nature of a form originates and is supported by the individual soul. As the soul grows within towards its own perfection, simultaneously our nature also feels the pressure and develops along certain lines. Having developed beyond a point the individual soul or the psychic being cannot be held by an inferior nature. It is like trying to make a well built adult fit into a child’s clothing! The body and the form are instruments of the soul; the mental and vital nature its driving force. Karma and rebirth are means for the soul to develop. As the soul develops, it takes upon itself a better and higher nature. Of course this higher and better nature should not be confused with a brilliant intellect or a strong and robust vital (though these too may be there), but a certain sensitivity to truth and discrimination between the true and false light, an urge for higher, nobler things, a refinement of mind and heart, seeking for truth, beauty, harmony and good, and above all a certain degree of selflessness that marks out an inwardly developed being from an underdeveloped one. Moreover, this qualitative change is still not the end but goes further and further till one has found the very source of all beauty and truth and harmony and bliss and the ultimate eternal good. Thereafter, there is an unfolding happy progression to higher and higher degrees of the Infinite. Progression and not regression, as suggested by the populist notion of rebirth to lesser forms. While a temporary regression within a certain range of humanness is quite possible, a marked regression from the developed human to an animal would contradict the very logic of things. And like life and death, rebirth too is a machinery to assist the evolutionary process and not a crude system of reward and punishment. That may be our primitive human view since we like to see things according to our own nature, but that is not the Divine vision or plan. Such a God who is busy finding faults and punishing us will not be God but a human judge and perhaps hardly even that! It is not Justice but Love and Grace that sustain this world and it is Love and not Justice that will save it.
What exactly is the nature of this law of karma? In brief it consists of the following:
Every action (action includes not only physical but also emotional, mental, psychological, moral, and spiritual action as well) has its corresponding effect upon the consciousness.
The repercussion of action is not so much physical as it is psychological. A good action has the effect of making our consciousness grow in light and inner happiness (and not necessarily in outer reward). Again, a bad action binds the consciousness, making it dense and heavy. In essence the effect is of liberating or clouding the inmost soul. Having said that, let it also be clear that there may also be physical consequences.
The law is therefore essentially evolutionary and not punitive as is commonly misunderstood. Of course evolution is not necessarily synonymous with success and certainly not with the self-glorifying vain success that we often term as God’s reward for our good deeds! Evolution moves through pleasure and pain, joy and suffering, often more through apparent suffering than through apparent pleasure.
The law of karma also works at a collective level and may account for some of the collective tragedies that befall us. An army marches into another nation in one age but the roles are as if reversed in another epoch of time. In this regard, says Sri Aurobindo, “… every time we use soul-force we raise a great force of Karma against our adversary, the after-movements of which we have no power to control. Vasishtha uses soul-force against the military violence of Vishwamitra and armies of Huns and Shakas and Pallavas hurl themselves on the aggressor. The very quiescence and passivity of the spiritual man under violence and aggression awakens the tremendous forces of the world to a retributive action; and it may even be more merciful to stay in their path, though by force, those who represent evil than to allow them to trample on until they call down on themselves a worse destruction than we would ever think of inflicting.”
In another example the great and renowned Greek historian Herodotus while describing the war between the Greeks and the Persians describes how the Persian king, Xeres, led his army into Greece, invading Thrace and Macedonia, mowing down the swift and bold Athenians as well as the brave and courageous Spartans. But destinies reversed as Themistocles began to rout the Persian invaders and following hard on their heels occupied Persian cities including the last stronghold of Sestos. Throughout the tremendous narrative we get a feeling of conviction which serves as a reminder, that above the battle grounds there broods the spirit of Nemesis, a law of Providence against which even powerful monarchs are rendered powerless.
Even in recent times, could it be said that the instance of the American war against the Taliban government of Afghanistan following in the wake of the mutilation of the silent Bamiyan Buddha was a similar reaction at some occult collective level? We may never be able to say. But there is certainly more than what is revealed to the human eye.
“The ordinary theories are too mechanical — and that is the case also with the idea of puṇya and pāpa and their results in the next life. There are certainly results of the energies put forth in a past life, but not on that rather infantile principle. A good man’s suffering in this life would be a proof according to the orthodox theory that he had been a very great villain in his past life, a bad man’s prospering would be a proof that he had been quite angelic in his last visit to earth and sown a large crop of virtues and meritorious actions to reap this bumper crop of good fortune. Too symmetrical to be true. The object of birth being growth by experience, whatever reactions come to past deeds must be for the being to learn and grow, not as lollipops for good boys of the class (in the past) and canings for the bad ones. The real sanction for good and ill is not good fortune for the one and bad fortune for the other, but this that good leads us towards a higher nature which is eventually lifted above suffering, and ill pulls us towards the lower nature which remains always in the circle of suffering and evil.”
Finally, karma and its consequences are a learning experience for the growing soul. But what kind of learning? Not just the practical form of learning that we know of, but even discovering the truth of life and things, and developing the power to handle life and the materials it offers better and better with a greater and greater knowledge. The soul chooses the consequence and not some arbitrary judge outside us and when the learning is over and it has gone beyond the elementary stage of karmic schooling, then the previous level of karma need not apply unless it still needs it for developing some side of its persona. That is why every spiritual man worth his name has insisted that Grace can cancel karma. The very fact of entering into and walking the spiritual path begins to change the consequence of our karma. In other words, things are not as rigid as we make them out to be. Nor are they as ridiculously absurd as paying back the karmic debt incurred by accepting a friend’s gift and therefore having to pay him back in another life, with compound interest of course! Thus seen, the law of karma no more appears as an unchangeable, fatalistic doctrine. In fact, and on the contrary, it means that our present karma can change our future (therefore also the consequences of the past) for the better, or else there will never be any hope or scope for evolution and the human soul would sink down soon after a few lives into eternal perdition.
The complexity of the karmic law arises from the fact that man himself is a complex entity and physical actions are never physical alone. There is almost invariably a mental intent, a belief or an attitude, a vital motive, an emotional impulse, even our overall psychological constitution, and who knows how many other seen and unseen cosmic forces that push us to commit deeds beyond our conscious thought. It is not just a simple mathematical equation or a mechanical law of cause and effect that we have made it to be. It is the soul within and no arbitrary judge sitting above, that sees and learns and grows using the material from its own buried past to go through tragedies and falls even as it knows the taste of happiness and success. In all likelihood, the law of karma is a self-learning process with the Supreme Master and Teacher within each one of us.
To restate the law of karma, we may note the following: Karma is all outgoing energy (not just physical but all kinds of emotional, instinctive, impulsive, thinking, moral and spiritual efforts and energy) with which we relate to this world. The nature of consequences serve as a reminder as well as a pointer (among other things) that the world is essentially unified, held in a chain of oneness. Karma is an evolutionary mechanism. The soul grows from life to life in its elements of divinity and divine possibilities through the experience that ensues through karma.
Thus karma is not a source of bondage. The source of bondage is Ignorance and Ego. The nature of karma is only a reflector of our inner state. Yet even if we were to stop all action, as happens in a catatonic schizophrenic or a person in prolonged coma, it would not liberate us since the knot is in our nature and not in the action as such. Karma is not the original cause of birth and it is not what compels the soul to pass through rebirth again and again. The soul enters into the cycle of rebirth for an evolutionary adventure, something which is not possible in its unmanifest state. And it will continue to do so until its evolutionary purpose is over.
Also, there is no inexorable law of karma. Karma and its consequences can be dissolved in three main ways:
- By purushartha, that is learning what the consequences are trying to teach us, or in other words going to a higher level of our evolution. To take a very physical example, if one is a smoker, he is liable to suffer its consequences in the form of disorders of lung and heart. But the man may stop smoking after some time due to an inner change or realisation. Or else he may begin to exercise positive will and thought against illness. Such a person by learning or taking help from a higher plane of consciousness (using positive mental thoughts to intervene in physical mechanisms) changes the course of karma, so that the physical consequences may be entirely eliminated.
- By tapasya, that is exercising an inner will in the direction of an inner change. The logic here is that the roots of karma are within the tangled forest of our nature. It is these roots which need to change and not just their outer manifestations. The real knot of the problem is in wrong attachment and egoistic pride or perhaps an undue sensitiveness. First that needs to be tackled to dissolve the link, for after that the consequences become redundant. Let’s take the example of a robber. It is not enough for this robber to simply wake up one day and apologise for the harm done through him, unless it is accompanied by a genuine sense of change for the better. Such a drastic change may or may not happen in one life, and certainly not through the recourse of law. The propensity towards evil in such cases remains until it is gradually thinned out, its grip loosened in other lives, perhaps it is even turned to some good use and finally dissolved. Alternatively, the person may suddenly wake up to the need of a radical change due to some shock. Then the need for tapasya comes to shorten the course of karma and dissolve its effects. An example from mythology is the well-known conversion of Ratnakar the robber into Valmiki the seer and sage, in a single life, dissolving his karma through tapasya.
- By kripa, that is to say Grace can completely annul Karma. For that indeed is the highest secret. There is however one catch here. Grace is not a machinery dictated by any law. Yet one can open to it and ask for it in all sincerity. What is necessary here is an inner sincerity and faith. An inner sincerity which does not go on repeating the same mistake under the pretext of laziness of will and an inability or even an unwillingness to change. And an inner faith that spontaneously trusts the Divine Grace and whole-heartedly believes that the Divine will lift one out of all troubles and difficulties. Such an intrinsic faith when combined with the strength of an inner sincerity works miracles and wonders. It not only dissolves the karma but also liberates us entirely from all karma forever by taking the burden of the soul’s journey entirely upon itself.
Finally, cessation from the chain of karma and consequently the cycle of rebirth, called mukti or moksha, is not the goal. It is only a passage towards a higher evolution wherein a being that is free from Ego and Ignorance (and therefore of the chain of karma) continues to work and be consciously reborn so as to fulfill God’s purpose in humanity, that is the establishment of a Truth-Creation rather than a creation of Ignorance upon earth.
 Sri Aurobindo: Letters on Yoga, pp. 433-434, 445, 441
 Sri Aurobindo: Letters on Yoga, pp. 444-45