By introducing this element of relativity, Indian ethics escaped the impracticality of an absolutist position. An absolutist view of morality is not only impractical; it also can lead to dogmatic and fundamental attitudes.
(2) The Indian tradition accepts that WHATEVER LEADS TO AN ELEVATION OF CONSCIOUSNESS, FALLS IN THE DOMAIN OF TRUTH. If that endeavor necessitates an infraction of certain values at a certain point in time, then that infarction is also serving the cause of Truth.
There is that famous story of a traveler being chased by bandits who were bent or killing the poor fellow. The traveler entered a hermitage where an ascetic allowed him to hide. When the bandits reached the hermitage and asked the ascetic about the traveler, the ascetic, in order to serve ‘truth’, disclosed that he had given shelter to the traveler. The result – the traveler was killed! This story was written to show that if ‘truth’ is ‘empty’, ‘devoid’ of consciousness, it does not serve any utility.
In Sri Aurobindo’s own case, an intuitive indication necessitated an escape from Calcutta to Pondicherry at a time when the British administration was on tenterhooks. He used a fake name to avoid arrest. He had no inhibitions to use a temporary falsehood to serve a greater Truth! Once, when one of his devotees was arrested during the freedom movement of India, a piquant situation arose. If the devotee told the truth, the false case that the police had fabricated would be proved right leading to conviction. When he sought guidance, Sri Aurobindo explicitly told him to take full advantage of the situation as Truth is to be taken as a whole and not in bits.
(3) The Indian tradition considered that the Ideal of Perfection does not depend on ethics alone but also on non-ethical factors (like aesthetics, knowledge, harmony, strength etc)
(4) The Indian tradition also envisaged that any moral value must be preferably special for the special person while remaining universally effective. Thus the conditionality of circumstances was taken into account.
SRI AUROBINDO’S METAPSYCHOLOGICAL PERSPECTIVE ON ETHICS
Sri Aurobindo forwarded three important seed-ideas:
(a) THE HUMAN BEING IS NOT BORN ETHICAL.
(b) MORAL VALUES ARE MAN MADE & TRANSITIONAL. Therefore ‘ethics’ cannot be applied to the total solution of the problem of the universe. It can be considered just as one element in that solution.
(c) There is a TRANSVALUATION of the ethical perspective that traverses these range of experience:
1. NON-ETHICAL (material and animal nature)
2. INFRA-ETHICAL (the barbaric, the titan, the Rakshasa representing the lower vital nature),
3. ANTI-ETHICAL (the Asura , representing the vital mind plane which is the matrix of ego-based conflicts)),
4. ETHICAL (the civilized human being guided by the rational ‘mind’)
5. SUPRAETHICAL (a futuristic Aurobindonian vision based on supra-rational perception).
These different levels of experience are not water-tight compartments but merge into each other. The ethical individual carries both in the individual subconscious as well as in the collective unconsciousness the non-ethical, infra-ethical and anti-ethical elements while the supra-ethical casts its glances at the higher ranges of experience.
In other words, with a progressive change of consciousness, newer values are being created while earlier values are taken up and transformed. Our present ethical values are transient and need to be surpassed en route a growth in consciousness.
How did ethics evolve?
Sri Aurobindo his chosen the chapter named ‘Delight of Existence’ to answer this question. Why?
We have seen that Reality is expressed through a SELF-EXISTENT DELIGHT (or Ananda or Bliss). Anything that threatens this delight produces a recoil in the individual’s emotional repertoire (after all, the individual emotional being is permeated by the universal delight of existence). Sri Aurobindo explains: THIS RECOIL OR DISLIKE IS THE PRIMARY ORIGIN OF ETHICS, BUT IS NOT ITSELF ETHICAL (The Life Divine, pg 105-106). With a development of the mental cognitive faculties, the emotional recoil is construed in cognitive terms like ‘repugnance, dislike, and disapproval’. ‘Disapproval of that which threatens and hurts us, approval of that which flatters and satisfies refine into the conception of good and evil to oneself, to the community, to others than ourselves, to other communities than ours, and finally into the general approval of good, the general disapproval of evil. But, throughout, the fundamental nature of the thing remains the same. Man desires self-expression, self-development, in other words, the progressing play in himself of the conscious-force of existence; that is his fundamental delight. Whatever hurts that self-expression, self-development, satisfaction of his progressing self, is for him evil; whatever helps, confirms, raises, aggrandizes, ennobles it is his good. Only, his conception of the self-development changes, becomes higher and wider, begins to exceed his limited personality, to embrace others, to embrace all in its scope’. (Ibid, pg106)
This is how ethics evolved.
What is the present problem with Ethics?
Ethics was necessary for the establishment of the civilized mind-set. The civilized mind had to have its own norms, had to be guarded by reason, had to construct ideologies, had to construct a foundation for the full flowering of man’s hidden potentials, and had to lay down the norms of a sound social order. Ethics was one of the important elements that helped in this endeavor. There were other elements too like aesthetics, metaphysics, and religion. But ETHICS with its emphasis on discipline and order overpowered all and itself become a sort of religion. To be more precise, it began to rule religion.
That reign of Ethics is now crumbling down.
Indeed, can a perfectly ethical man rule a country successfully today? Can even an ordinary god-fearing man get all the help from ethics in an increasingly complex world? Take a simple problem of a comatose subject under life-support system. Should he be allowed to have a passive euthanasia if he shows no sign of survival? The religious fundamentalist who has his own ethical norms will give an answer that that might sound dogmatic; the secular rationalist will try to stick to his own ethics by having a legal opinion or a socio-political consensus. Both demonstrate one thing is common – they have avoided the ‘reality’ of the dilemma.
Sri Aurobindo envisages an evolutionary growth of consciousness beyond the mental cognitive field. He conceptualizes higher planes of consciousness that will be embodied in future models of man. What we call ‘ethics’ developed to cater to the needs of the human collectivity that emerged with the evolution of mind. Once the mental plane is surpassed, something different and higher than the present ethics should manifest. This new ethics would provide a different perspective to solve dilemmas.
Sri Aurobindo reiterates… ‘ethics is a stage in evolution. That which is common to all stages is the surge of Sachchidananda towards self-expression. This urge is at first non-ethical, then infra-ethical in the animal, then in the intelligent animal even anti-ethical for it permits us to approve hurt done to others which we disapprove when done to ourselves. In this respect man even now is only half-ethical. And just as all below us is infra-ethical, so there may be that above us whither we shall eventually arrive, which is supra-ethical, has no need of ethics. The ethical impulse and attitude, so all-important to humanity, is a means by which it struggles out of the lower harmony and universality based upon inconscience and broken up by Life into individual discords towards a higher harmony and universality based upon conscient oneness with all existences. Arriving at that goal, this means will no longer be necessary or even possible, since the qualities and oppositions on which it depends will naturally dissolve and disappear in the final reconciliation.’ (Ibid)
How do we proceed to the supra-ethical poise?
As man is not born ethical, he is also not born rational. Rationality had to develop at one stage of the human mind, as our sensory perception was inadequate to impart to us the knowledge of the world. Inspite of that, the rational man is subject to his taboos, biases, superstitions, and misjudgments- all that Sri Aurobindo labels as the ‘irrationality’ of existence. The most rational scientist can be prone to anger and can have a most unhappy personal life. A diehard rationalist cannot necessarily sever his connections with his infra-rational and infra-ethical legacy and can swear ‘ son of a bitch’. (This abuse belongs to our infra-ethical past, which was incestuous in nature – the civilized man whose ethical values do not permit incest, can unconsciously, swear with an incestuous abuse!)
To cultivate a supra-ethical poise, man needs to cultivate supra-rational faculties of knowledge. For example, Intuition is one supra-rational faculty that can be developed through a ‘technology’ of consciousness. While Reason discovers the rational aspect of existence- the logically definable intelligent structure of the world, Intuition illumines the non-relational aspects of existence- the theologically indefinable non-verbal factor in the nature of things.
In case of ethical dilemmas, Intuition can help to guide from a supra-ethical poise. Actually, the supra-ethical view of things will be different from the ethical view. The nature of the problem will be viewed from an entirely different perspective and hence the solution will also be different. There might be different answers for the same problem in different cases but each solution will be based on the guidance needed for the growth of consciousness.
A perfect flowering of the supra-ethical poise will eventually come when a very high plane of consciousness, which Sri Aurobindo names as the Supramental consciousness, manifests in future models of man. Actually, this supramental plane has the power of transformation so that the infra-ethical element is removed even from our subconscious. (Short of that we may not be able to outgrow our atavistic past with certainty and our unconscious slips of tongue stop revealing our hidden beast).
The supra-ethical poise will resurrect the Delight of existence that we cannot feel at the level of mind because of ‘division, ignorance of self and egoism’.
Man the Enigma
A deep enigma is the soul of man.
His conscious life obeys the Inconscient’s rule,
His need of joy is learned in sorrow’s school,
His heart is a chaos and an empyrean.
His subtle Ignorance borrows Wisdom’s plan;
His mind is the Infinite’s sharp and narrow tool.
He wades through mud to reach the Wonderful,
And does what Matter must or Spirit can.
All powers in his living’s soil take root
And claim from him their place and struggling right:
His ignorant creature mind crawling towards light
Is Nature’s fool and Godhead’s candidate,
A demigod and a demon and a brute,
The slave and the creator of his fate.
(Sri Aurobindo, Collected Poems, Pg 151)
Date of Update:
- By Dr. Soumitra Basu