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Principles of Life

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The principles basic to the psychology of life may be stated as:

The Principle of Evolution

An evolution of the instruments of the spirit in a medium of Matter is the whole fundamental significance of the values of the earth-existence. All its other laws are its values of operation and process...this spiritual evolution is its own pervading secret sense...The history of the earth is first an evolution of organized forms by the working of material forces....There follows on this initial stage an evolution of life in the form and organization of a hierarchy of living forms by the working of the liberated life-forces. The next step is an evolution of mind in living bodies and an organization of more and more conscious lives by the process of developing mind-forces.[1]

The primary law of all earthly life is evolution--evolution of physical form, evolution of living organisms and groups, evolution of mind and mental forms. This means that all movements of life have this motive as their underlying direction and it should be possible to discover the evolutionary nature of life’s movements.

All the principles or laws which may be formulated to describe the psychology of life are values of operation and process of this basic law. In identifying life’s characteristic movements this fact of evolution should always be kept in mind. This being the very broadest principle of life, we may expect it to be most easily identified in a historical perspective.

The Physical Life

Though man is mental he still shares in the traits of his animal ancestors and his life bears the stamp of that heritage. “The characteristic energy of bodily Life is not so much in progress as in persistence, not so much in individual self-enlargement as in self-repetition....Self-preservation, self-repetition, self-multiplication are necessarily, then, the predominant instincts of all material existence”[2]. These three movements of preservation, repetition and multiplication apply not only to the animal but can be seen to play a fundamental role in the life of man and society. Extracted from their physical base we can see that each of these movements represents a fundamental law of life forces.

Interaction of Life and Mind

The quotation on evolution cited above reveals another basic fact of life. The growth of life into higher, more organized and complex forms are made possible by the development of mind and mind’s interaction with life. “The characteristic energy of pure mind is change and the more it acquires elevation and organization, the more this law of Mind assumes the aspect of a continual enlargement, improvement and better arrangement of its gains and so of a continual passage from a smaller and simpler to a larger and more complex perfection”[3]. As mind develops, we may expect life to express this tendency towards increasing size, organization, complexity and perfection.

This principle is quite obvious when applied to the evolution of mental man from the vital animal and equally so when referred to the evolution of man’s social existence towards more complex and civilized forms. But we must extend it a step further to apply it to the general character of life movements. In other words, as mind evolves on earth in man, not only do animal forms, individual behavior and collective life change, but the very quality and character of life movements and events change as well. We shall return to this point further on.

The Expression of Life in Man

In the field of human consciousness, the most important channel through which life forces express is the behavior of the individual man. “All life is the play of universal forces. The individual gives a personal form to these universal forces. But he can choose whether he shall respond or not to the action of a particular force. Only most people do not really choose, they indulge the play of the forces....It is only when one can make oneself free of them that one can be the true person....”[4]. That is, life forces flow through the channels of man’s physical, vital, emotional and mental character and expresses as human behavior. But the resultant expression depends not only on the nature of the force but also on the nature of the person through which it passes. In other words, the expression of life forces is a function of human personality.

For example, the force of anger or rage in the animal is very short-lived and directed towards whatever is in proximity. Whereas in man the force of anger can flow through the channel of jealousy which is a perverse mental attitude applied to life. In doing so, the force gains longer life, the capacity for fine discrimination and initiation of complex actions. Or it can meet up against a strong idealist will which refuses to give it scope for expression at all.

Human personality is composed of innumerable elements of which physical habit and vital traits are the lower forms; feelings and sentiments, beliefs and understanding the higher. In normal everyday existence the physical and vital are the customary channels through which life expresses. The greater proportion of mankind lives almost exclusively in this realm and gives no higher direction to these forces than that of habitual living. Where heart in man is developed, the emotions and feelings provide a higher direction through which life forces are channeled into relationships of personal affection and group loyalty. Where mind is developed they find a still higher direction and expression. Mental thought, understanding and idealism gives direction to these forces. The mental will, which is the highest point in human evolution, commands them into action and is influenced by the understanding. It is only when these emotional and mental components are mature and active that we can rightly speak of individual character. In their absence it is only the social custom or behavior that expresses. When individual character is refined, unselfish, idealistic, etc., we have a cultured individual. “...as more organized forms of life appear, this grows into a life-mind and vital intelligence largely mechanical and automatic in the beginning and concerned only with practical needs, desires and impulses....But slowly mind starts its task of disengaging itself; it still works for the life-instinct, life-need and life-desire, but its own special characters emerge, observation, invention, device, intention, execution of purpose, while sensation and impulse add to themselves emotion and bring a subtler and finer affective urge and value into the crude vital reaction....When human intelligence adds itself to the animal basis, this basis still remains present and active, but it is largely changed, subtilized and uplifted by conscious will and intention....[5].

Even in a mature character, it is normally the lower channels that are active though the higher may lend color or refinement to their activity. The higher elements of character usually come into play only in times of stress or crisis where man’s will is fully active to meet the demands of life. In these situations even the half-developed character of the lesser man will reveal itself. When the demands of life, the forces to be dealt with, are beyond the strength and capacities of man’s character, we see a disintegration of personality or inability to act and find man the passive object of forces greater than himself. Here it is not the man’s character that is determinative but the general conditions in which he is placed. The process of channeling the life forces into higher and more complex patterns of behavior is the process by which personality and character develop in the individual.

To take the process one step further, we can briefly consider the evolution of man beyond the mental level. When the mental will becomes fully developed and consents to spiritual growth, it can do so only by surrendering itself to the Divine Will. By this act it reverses the process of concentration and expression of life forces through its character channels onto life. Instead it concentrates the life forces on the Divine and gives up the prerogative of choice in their expression. By contact with the Divine behind the heart or above the mind these forces are transformed. In their place a higher spiritual force descends and expresses through man’s personality in life.

The Nature of Life Forces

Before proceeding further with the expression of life forces through man we must consider some of the characteristics which govern their behavior. The essential quality of these forces is summed up in the statement, “Life is Force and Force is Power and Power is Will”[6]. The life forces are powers of effectuation with an intention. “The struggle of limited forces increasing their capacity by that struggle under the driving impetus of instinctive or conscious desire is therefore the first law of life”[7].These forces interact through struggle and conflict. The stronger grows by domination over the weaker. “It is, moreover, the nature and claim of any Force in the manifestation to be, to survive, to effectuate itself wherever possible and as long as possible, and it is therefore that in a world of Ignorance all is achieved not only through a complexus but through a collision, struggle and intermixture of Forces[8]. The basic qualities of the bodily life--preservation, repetition and multiplication--are merely the physical expressions of these tendencies of the life force.


The Nature of Action

Human action is the expression of life forces and it has their character. Each action is in the nature of a struggle or intermixture of forces. Each act creates and generates a force which is strengthened by repetition. Each act tends to repeat itself, to multiply and increase in intensity by repetition. We can imagine life as a virgin forest. Each original action is like a pioneer forging a new path. Once he has cleared the way, others can easily follow and make the path more clear and well established as they do so.

The life of the individual and the society can be similarly viewed. Each act by the individual generates a force for that act to repeat in himself or in others. If the force behind the act is strong, he continues to repeat it and others follow. If it is weak, the act may be successfully opposed by other forces and negatively fall back on him. The unspoken word, the unexpressed will or emotion can also go out as forces and produce their effects.


The Results of Action

The result of an act is determined by the type, quality and intensity of the forces expressed. “...all energies in Nature must have their natural consequence”[9]. “As is the nature of the energies so must be the nature of the results”[10]. By this statement we do not refer to a moral system of reward and punishment, an evaluation of each act in terms of good or bad, right or wrong, etc. Each act has a quality of its own and brings a corresponding result in its own plane. Ethical and moral results pertain only to acts in their own sphere.

“Action is a resultant of the energy of the being, but this energy is not of one sole kind...there are inner activities of mind, activities of life, of desire, passion, impulse, character, activities of the senses and the body, a pursuit of truth and knowledge, a pursuit of beauty, a pursuit of ethical good or evil, a pursuit of power, love, joy, happiness, fortune, success, pleasure, life-satisfaction of all kinds, life-enlargement, a pursuit of individual or collective objects, a pursuit of the health, strength, capacity, satisfaction of the body...all these differences in the nature of the energy have to be taken into account and each must have its appropriate consequence”[11].

The life forces passing through the channel of human character result in action and the strength of the action determines the strength of the result. If a man acts in relation to an inanimate object, the strength of his action depends on the strength of his body, the enthusiasm and energy of his vital available for the action, the interest and determination of his will to implement and the knowledge of his mind to guide. For instance, a man digging a pit in the ground may dig faster and deeper if he is hunting for treasure than if he is a slave laborer. When man acts in relation to other living beings or other men the factors influencing the intensity of his action become more complex. In the social life of man there are, in addition to character traits, some other major determinants of the strength for his action such as health, wealth, position and education.


The Actor and the Results

“Each being reaps the harvest of his works and deeds, the returns of the action put forth by the energies of his nature, and those which are not apparent in his present birth must be held over for a subsequent existence. It is true that the result of the energies and actions of the individual may accrue not to himself but to others when he is gone; for that we see constantly happening. It happens indeed even during a man’s lifetime that the fruits of his energies are reaped by others; but this is because there is a solidarity and a continuity of life in Nature....”[12].

This principle states that not only are the results of an action determined by the nature of its energy but that these results accrue to the human instrument through which these energies express and also to those related to him either through physical heredity and proximity, vital association, emotional attachment or mental idealism. For present purposes, we leave aside the influence of actions from past lives.


Correspondence of the Inner and Outer Life

“Man’s being, nature and circumstances of life are the result of his own inner and outer activities, not something fortuitous and inexplicable”[13]. This principle is an essential key to the mystery of life’s character. The relation of outer action and inner condition is obvious. But in addition to this there is a direct relationship between man’s inner condition and the movement of life events around him. “Circumstances are, without exception, the objective projection of what is inside yourself”[14].In the context of normal social man, it means that the outer conditions and events surrounding and impinging on his existence are a direct expression of his personality and character traits and the movements which issue out of them. The principle of correspondence dismisses the influence of chance and fate by revealing what we see as chance in life to be an outgrowth of what we are inside. It must be understood that this system of correspondence is highly complex as it is based on the complex activity of man’s physical, vital and mental beings with all their interrelationships.

The mechanism by which this principle acts is the “Invisible Forces in Life-Nature that belong to the same plane of Consciousness-Force as this part of our being, Forces that move according to the same plan or the same power-motive as our lower vital nature”[15]. These forces are attracted by corresponding forces or traits within man and their action on him and his environment reflects the status and dynamics of his own nature. From this we can understand that there is a deeper truth in the phrase “Character is destiny” than that propounded by the psychologists. Character is the channel for life forces flowing through the individual which directs and alters them according to its own nature. It is also the determinant of how life forces outside the individual express themselves in what we normally consider the circumstantial, fortuitous and accidental movements of life.


Moral Retribution

In discussing the principle determining the results of an action (VII), we stated that this concept does not imply an ethical, moral or religious conception of karma whereby good is rewarded by prosperity and long life, or evil punished by their opposites. From the evolutionary view, the appearance of an ethical or religious conscience in man marks the rudimentary beginnings of man the mental being with its dual sides of will and knowledge. In animal nature, justice plays no part. The law is survival of the fittest. But man is not moved only by instinct or impulse. He possesses the capacity to choose, will and act. He perceives a relationship between the act and what comes back to him. At the level of consciousness this principle is invariably true. It is the law of Karma. But with the birth of religion, law and ethics, man sought to simplify the equation and set it to his immediate needs. Out of this emerges the principle that moral right is rewarded and moral wrong is punished though in many cases the reverse proved to be the case in the context of earthly life.

Nevertheless, there are occasions when life results do appear to follow a law of moral retribution, where “There intervenes a strand of connection or rather interaction between vital-physical good and ill and ethical good and ill”[16].This is possible because man’s energies, desires and movements are mixed together in their working. “...Our vital part does demand substantial and external rewards for virtue, for knowledge, for every intellectual, aesthetic, moral or physical effort; it believes firmly in punishment for sin and even for ignorance”[17].The demand or belief acts as a channel through which life forces flow fulfilling man’s expectation. “Nature takes us as we are and to some extent suits her movements to our need or our demands on her”[18]. It is often seen that an individual’s sense of guilt or sin is quickly followed by his downfall or punishment. The result is determined not by an ethical law of nature but by the individual’s own insistence, whether conscious or subconscious, that such a law be operative.

There are other occasions when the results of action seem to obey a moral law. “It can be often observed that when a self-assertive vital egoism goes on trampling its way without restraint or scruple all that opposes its will or desire, it raises a mass of reactions against itself, reactions of hatred, antagonism, unease in men which may have their result now or hereafter, and still more formidable adverse reactions in universal Nature...the very forces that the ego of the strong vital man seized and bent to its purpose rebel and turn against him, those he had trampled on rise up and receive power for his downfall”[19]. When human will misuses the limited forces at its disposal, the greater forces of life eventually react against it and man “receives the adverse return in the guise of defeat and suffering and failure”.[20]


The Expression of Life in Society

As we have considered the means by which life forces express through the behavior of the individual man (IV) we must now examine its counterpart in the human collectivity. As in the individual, this expression is a function of individual personality, so in the collectivity it is a function of the social character of the group. In its lower forms this character is the social custom and habit of the people. In its higher forms it is their civilization and culture. This social character represents the channels through which life forces can express themselves in the collective life of the people. Earlier we have stated that in an unformed man of predominantly physical and vital nature, life forces are able to flow virtually free from distortion or direction by the human will and express as general human behavior. But where mind or heart is well developed, the life forces flowing through the individual are given direction by the human will and their expression bears the stamp of individual character. The same principle applies to the collectivity. For example, in a primitive society the position of leader goes to the most powerful physical-vital man. If a stronger man kills the leader, the people will naturally accept the new man without hesitation. The force of life will have its free play without interference from higher planes. But when a society has developed a civilized moral order, the anointed king is invested with sovereign respect and his murder will be met with moral indignation and social outrage. Rather than quickly returning to equilibrium, the forces of life may enter into prolonged conflict and strife until the outrage has become subdued or the act been avenged.


The Expression of Social Character in Life

Not only does life express itself through man (IV) but the movements of life in the environment are determined by the character of the individual (IX). Then we may ask to what extent the movements of life in society are determined by the character of the society. Let us examine this principle from an evolutionary perspective.

The movement of physical elements such as water is fully determined by physical laws. Water flows according to the principles of gravitation, friction, etc. When we turn to the animal which is vital, we see a similar determination at the vital-physical level, e.g., reproduction, respiration, digestion, etc. But at its own level of vital life, there is little coordination among the animals, or organization of the life around them. In other words, the vital animal is fully organized at the next lower level but only partially so on its own level.

Coming to man, there is the gradual emergence of mind. The power of mind expresses itself by organizing the next lower plane, i.e., the social life of the group. As mind develops and society matures, becomes civilized, the life or the society becomes more organized (III). The activities of its members are subject to social and legal restraints in the form of custom and law. Behavior is limited to well-defined grooves expressive of the social character. The instrumentation for this organized expression is chiefly the social members themselves. Frequently it is conscious and intentional, e.g., the policeman apprehending a criminal or the father preaching ethical behavior to his son. But in many cases it is subconsciously transmitted through the habits, traditions, sentiments and values of the social group, e.g., the reverence of the people for the monarch is an effective bar against rebellion as is the moral condemnation of adultery.


The Law of Correspondence in Social Life

There is a correspondence between the inner character of man and the movements of life which touch on his personal sphere (IX). The same principle holds true for the society except that in this case the “inner being” which is reflected in outer life is a composite of the ideals, thoughts, sentiments, emotions, desires and activities--what we have called the social character--of the group members in their common social existence. This character expresses itself through the seemingly ‘chance’ interactions of its members and the ‘accidents’ of physical nature within the society and around it. It is often in these cases that the true social character of life most clearly reveals itself.


Moral Retribution in Society

The concept of moral retribution has been considered earlier (X). Here we need only refer to one aspect in its larger social context. As an individual’s moral, ethical or religious beliefs may tend to be self-fulfilling, so also the collective beliefs of the society. Where a particular fear, emotion, attitude or idea is shared in common by the social group, it becomes an effective channel through which life forces can flow. For example, we may take the idea of auspicious hours. In some parts of Indian society there is a very strong belief in the significance of auspicious and inauspicious times of day. A foreigner may ignore their indications as a mere superstition and never notice any difficulty. But if a man with this social upbringing suddenly decides to stop referring his acts to the prescribed time of day, he may find everything going wrong for him. The channel for this result may be the remnants of belief in the practice in his subconscious or the social expectation of those around him disapproving of his action. Even when others are unaware of his activity it may be a response from the deeper layers of character in the society which have cherished the tradition for thousands of years.


The Social Atmosphere

There remains one other major conception to be mentioned--what is sometimes referred to as the “atmosphere” surrounding or pervading a society from time to time, for example the atmosphere of evil portrayed in the opening scenes of Macbeth. As with individual behavior and life events, the sources of atmosphere are not singular. Normally the social atmosphere is an expression of the social consciousness of the collectivity. But at critical times in the life of a society there may be abnormal stirrings of deeper tendencies in the subconscious or subtle-vital consciousness of the community which erupt on the surface as foreign war, horrible acts of inhumanity or natural calamities.

The principles outlined above are rough formulations in mental terms of some of the major characteristics of life events. But it must be kept in mind that “the many-sided dynamic truths of all action and life”[21] cannot be “perfectly classified, accounted for, tied up in bundles by the precisions of our logical intelligence in its inveterate search for clear-cut dogmas”[22]. The art of seeing and knowing life in all its subtlety and complexity requires more than simply a few principles. But what can only be suggested by a principle can become living and even familiar when applied to the facts of life itself.

  1. Sri Aurobindo, The Hour of God.
  2. Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga, p. 16
  3. Ibid.
  4. Sri Aurobindo, Letters on Yoga, p. 318
  5. Sri Aurobindo, The Life Divine, p. 614
  6. Ibid., p. 191
  7. Ibid., p. 197
  8. Ibid., p. 9421
  9. Ibid., p. 806
  10. Ibid., p. 807
  11. Ibid., p. 810
  12. Ibid., p. 806
  13. Ibid.
  14. The Mother
  15. Sri Aurobindo, The Life Divine, p. 813
  16. Ibid.
  17. Ibid.
  18. Ibid.
  19. Ibid.,p.813-4.
  20. Ibid., p. 814.
  21. Sri Aurobindo, The Hour of God, p. 34
  22. Ibid., p. 36.

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