(1) Email from me:
This is a old email thread. As I was re-reading these paragraphs (I had not yet read the attachment that came with this email – an error that I hope to rectify soon), a thought/question/confusion struck me. May be, it is a naive and silly question too.
If, as Shri. Aurobindo says,
To put away the responsibility for all that seems to us evil or terrible on the shoulders of a semi-omnipotent Devil, or to put it aside as part of Nature, making an unbridgeable opposition between world-nature and God-Nature, as if Nature were independent of God, or to throw the responsibility on man and his sins, as if he had a preponderant voice in the making of this world or could create anything against the will of God, are clumsily comfortable devices in which the religious thought of India has never taken refuge. We have to look courageously in the face of the reality and see that it is God and none else who has made this world in his being and that so he has made it. We have to see that Nature devouring her children, Time eating up the lives of creatures, Death universal and ineluctable and the violence of the Rudra forces in man and Nature are also the supreme Godhead in one of his cosmic figures.
violence, cruelty, evil and destruction are God’s creation, then why should we destroy them or fight against them? What gives us the right or what is that dharma that empowers us to act?
(2) Response from friend:
Not a silly but a huge question. For a proper answer I guess you would have to read Sri Aurobindo’s Life Divine. Note that the same statement is implied by Advaita Vedanta’s assertion that there is only Brahman and nothing else. In that case, despite attempts to wriggle out of the difficulty through the concept of Maya, all evil must also be Brahman. However classical Vedanta does not take us very far beyond this point, while I have found Sri Aurobindo’s view of an evolutionary world (and human being) much more satisfying as well as logical: we are all in transition, and transitions are necessarily imperfect. We cannot judge this creation by its present stage, but by its ultimate (if there is an ultimate) realization, which, in Sri Aurobindo’s view, can only be a full and therefore material manifestation of its latent divinity. In this perspective, evil is a powerful tool to speed up evolution towards this goal — and, in the human world, to compel us to call the divine forces down into this highly imperfect world. This is however a crude oversimplification and I can only point to Sri Aurobindo’s works if you wish to understand his “philosophy” (which he said was experience and not philosophy). I have often come across severe criticism of it by classical Vedantins or orthodox Hindus, but I have also found that they either could not understand the concept of an evolutionary, progressively manifested universe (the Puranic concept of endless cycles must be blamed here) or simply rejected his approach out of hand as being “confused” or worse. Of course it hardly matters in the end — what matters is where this creation is really going.
(3) Follow-up email from me:
Thank you, XXX. Very, very helpful. I shall reflect on them.
A first thought/question:
If it is true that there is a transition to the ultimate realisation of the latent divinity and in the process, evil has to be confronted and destroyed, then it necessarily follows that there is free will?
Am I on the right track?
(4) Response from my friend:
The question is too big, but I believe the answer is broadly yes. (Sri Aurobindo again wrote a good deal on fate and free will, some essays are brief and I could send them if you wish.) Of course every part of our being has a free will of its own, so it’s not as simple as we may think. Besides, karma as a cosmic mechanism (not the popular notion but a play of vibrations carried from the past) also has its say, which can limit the free will. There are also various non-human forces at work. And there is the divine grace beyond all determinisms which also acts of its own free will. Hence the cosmic mess we witness, or perhaps divine mess, clearly beyond our limited understanding. Even enlightened beings only glimpse a reflection of it through that part in them which received illumination, or only a moment of the manifestation. To understand it thoroughly, we need to grasp its full course in time and its play at all levels, all at the same time — which means becoming divine, I suppose.
(5) My response:
Thank you for this very enlightening message or ‘warning’. I fully grasp it. I did not want to convey the impression that I was using the term, ‘free will’ flippantly. I fully realise that it is loaded and hedged with the caveats such as the one you had expressed in your email below. Therefore, let me try to make my understanding and exposition of ‘free will’ clearer for the purpose of eliciting your feedback.
I quote a paragraph (few lines) from Shri. Aurobindo in an email you had sent two-three years ago:
“War and destruction are not only a universal principle of our life here in its purely material aspects, but also of our mental and moral existence. It is self-evident that in the actual life of man intellectual, social, political, moral we can make no real step forward without a struggle, a battle between what exists and lives and what seeks to exist and live and between all that stands behind either.”
What this paragraph suggests to me (and I would be grateful for your comments/criticism, etc.) is that ‘evil/war/destruction’ are also part of God’s creation but that they have been introduced to this world and they keep festering as ‘testing ground’ or obstacles for us to struggle and overcome (as Shri. Aurobindo notes above) and reach the plane of ‘what ideally should exist and live’ (paraphrasing the above).
So, that makes a few things clearer for me in my head:
(a) I accept them as God’s creation; so I do not question God for evil, unfairness or destruction and war and resent God for them. I see them as part of his ‘divine design’.
(b) I accept them as struggles to be overcome or milestones to cross to get to the other side (‘what seeks to exist and live’)
(c) So, to the extent that there is ‘free will’, it should b exercised and will work only in the pursuit of (b) with the mental acceptance of (a) above.
Any other thing that we consider as ‘free will’ is not exactly ‘free will’ and is merely a reflection of the Maya created by ego and false identities in our minds.
I shall also try to use a modern analogy here, to make my understanding clearer to you for you to tell me if I am on the right track or not.
As a plane flies through the sky, it can fly at an altitude where there could be turbulence (relatively more) or it could fly at a higher altitude where it is only blue skies and nothing else.
Both the turbulent sky and the blue sky are divine expression. The plane has the instrument and the pilot has the skill to fly amidst turbulent clouds or to take the plane to a higher altitude where the flying is smoother.
In that narrow sense, he has that ‘free will’. Of course, he cannot do other things with his ‘free will’. He can use his ‘free will’ and skills only to ‘elevate’ himself, his passengers and his plane. That is the circumscription of his ‘free will’.
So, I understand ‘free will’ in that sense here. If we exercise our ‘free will’ in that sense, with the humility that one is just a chosen instrument and hence engage with the moral purpose of overcoming war, destruction and ordinary or big evil to reach, what Shir. Aurobindo writes in that same paragraph, ‘the highest and best law of conduct based on the principle of harmlessness‘, then the ‘divine will’ will be with us.
Then, in such an activity, there is no conflation between ‘free will’ and ‘divine will’. In fact, both merge into one.
Does this make sense?