Virtue is a greater hindrance to spiritual progress than vice.
This is not a statement that is meant to encourage licentious behaviour and hedonistic indulgence. However, the one redeeming feature of vice is that the person indulging in it is often aware of its destructive consequences and anyone who is sincere and steadfast in spiritual pursuit is sure to shun vice as an obstacle on the path. And one cannot disagree with that decision. It is not purely a moral decision either. It’s indispensable to conserve physical, vital and mental energies and redirect them to greater workings of thought and will and pursue that singularly absorbing goal. As Sri Aurobindo puts it:
“Sin is that which was once in its place, persisting now it is out of place; there is no other sinfulness.”
“There is no sin in man, but a great deal of disease, ignorance and misapplication.”
When this decision to shun vice seems so natural, a no-brainer, why do we not feel the same way about shunning virtue when the time comes? It doesn’t even roll off the tongue well, “shun virtue”!? If someone said to you that one day on your spiritual path you may need to do so, you would think him mad. Some puritanically moral religions would say he is under the influence of Mephistopheles (euphemism). But we won’t get into that at this time. Let’s pursue that line of thought some other day.
“I was much plagued by Satan, until I found that it was God who was tempting me; then the anguish of him passed out of my soul forever.”
According to Sri Aurobindo, even sin has its use and self-righteous virtue can blind you to your own sins.
“The sense of sin was necessary in order that man might become disgusted with his own imperfections. It was God’s corrective for egoism. But man’s egoism meets God’s device by being very dully alive to its own sins and very keenly alive to the sins of others.”
Virtue is a hindrance due to the corrupting presence of self-righteousness which is its other face. It’s so also due to socially acceptable standards of morality and goodness of human origin, imparted through religious teachings over several centuries. But one has to realise that it does not apply when one ascends or is ascending to planes of thought that are of a supra-human nature.
It was only in the ancient social system of Aryavarta (ancient India), which was one of the few cultures in the world that was aeons ahead of its time in thought, where scope was given for the natural development of man from his most basic individuality to super-individuality. In the ashrama system one went from Brahmacharya (simply, bachelorhood, although there is a deeper meaning to it), Grihastha (householder), Vanaprastha (the recluse in the forest) and Sanyasa (the super-social wandering monk, to paraphrase Sri Aurobindo).
The last two are of special interest to us in our present discussion as they were stages when individuals that became aware of a higher path in life and realising that it cannot be pursued within the encumbering walls of society, left society in favour of the wide world outside (in this case a forest); to walk the path that is sharper than the razor’s edge towards liberation, perfection and immortality. Once they go a step further and achieve that deep inner liberation (mukti), they may ‘decide’ (or rather, ‘will’) to wander the earth, sometimes coming back into society but this time transcending society whilst in it. As advisers, healers, guides or wise-men, their souls free instruments of the Divine and their outer personality-shell blown by the breath of God or forces of nature. They serve as living, breathing examples of a truly liberated soul that by realising its true nature, realising its oneness with everything, its primordial freedom, has now become one without grief or care. They have become free in the truest sense.
Social standards or norms of social acceptance tend to massage and aggrandise the ego of the virtuous because he has been told he’s right for a long time by a large number of people. He will now refuse to give up the pleasure that comes from the constant reaffirmation of one’s own ideas, beliefs and view of life. When such a person turns to spirituality, which challenges and often breaks every norm, tradition, custom, habit, prejudice, preconception and puritanical notion, he is filled with utter disbelief as to how it disregards moral viewpoints and how one is asked to rise up not only above vice, but also above virtue. For someone who has always defined himself in relation to vice or sin, used that as the reference point to tune his moral compass, so to speak, fears arise of an utter loss of identity (ego), a shattering of everything he has ever known and is.
Instead of surrendering to that ultimately liberating yet immediately painful revelation, he reverts back to his comfort zone. He takes the easy way out and takes bits and pieces from the greater knowledge and augments his own thoughts and beliefs as he sees fit within the realms of convenience and ease. He creates a very powerful delusion both for himself and his loyalist followers with half-baked minds. For the greatest delusions are those which are formed by mixing droplets of truth with the poison of ignorance drunk from a golden, bejewelled goblet. To put it in less dramatic language, ignorance and falsehood mixed with a hint of Higher Truth can prove to be more potent that falsehood on its own because that ounce of truth adds credibility and leads inevitably to confusion and chaos. All the while the self-righteous, virtuous man believes he is doing good, doing ‘God’s work’.
“Selfishness kills the soul; destroys it. But take care that your altruism does not kill the souls of others.”
“Very usually, altruism is only the sublimest form of selfishness.”
And an ego-personality that is wilful enough to present it as absolute truth with an uncanny ability to charm the masses of men into believing it, is usually the root cause of fanatical, puritanical, narrow-minded, militant religions and cults of which there is no shortage in human history.
“When I hear of a righteous wrath, I wonder at man’s capacity for self-deception.”
True spirituality on the other hand, leads one to the realms of the infinite, the timeless, the spaceless, and the causeless Absolute. Sri Aurobindo declares,
“Virtue and vice were made for thy soul’s struggle and progress; but for results they belong to God, who fulfils himself beyond vice and virtue.”
This is in direct opposition to the jealously guarded ego-individuality which is like our Gollum’s “precious“. It defines us and destroys us at the same time. It is something we don’t want to let go (our ego-based individuality) yet it deludes us and eventually makes our lives soul-less and takes us to a dark, lonely cave and keeps us there (the Puranic ‘patala’, which could be an allegory for tamasic darkness once the kinetic energy of Rajas has exhausted itself).
This is not to say that we must shun virtue entirely. But all in good measure.
“Let not thy virtues be such as men praise or reward, but such as make for thy perfection and God in thy nature demands of thee.”
Guiding the virtuous and convincing them to sacrifice and surrender their moral beliefs and rid them of self-righteousness is a greater challenge than converting an asura to a Divine cause.
“To exalt one virtue, compassion even, unduly above all others is to cover up with one’s hand the eyes of wisdom. God moves always towards a harmony.”
“The contributions of evil to the good of the world and the harm sometimes done by the virtuous are distressing to the soul enamoured of good. Nevertheless be not distressed nor confounded, but study rather and calmly understand God’s ways with humanity.”
The taint of self-righteous virtuosity is especially visible in the modern-day standard for ‘goodness’ and ‘decency’ – philanthropy. It is held as the highest good that man is capable of in today’s world, which is a world run by the Plutocratic Vaishya. But one only need look at those involved in these magnanimous acts of charity to see the sham for what it really is. Billionaires and tycoons donating over 90% of their wealth to cure cancer and educate children in the third world! If you truly believe that is what is being done then you’re deceiving yourself. Getting tax cuts is the least of their motivation. Here once again, the socially accepted standards of ‘good’ and ‘right’ have played such a strong role in shaping how the world has started to think.
“It is easy to distinguish the evil worked by sin and vice, but the trained eye sees also the evil done by self-righteous or self-regarding virtue.
These values of philanthropy and altruism are driven by the West which has a Christian past (and present) and is driven by Christian values of charity. Even India, a nation with such a rich spiritual heritage has forgotten its higher values and leaned on charity alone due to the external, visible poverty that has plagued the nation in the last century and a half. But how did we go from one of the richest nations to having one of the largest populations below poverty line in the first place?
“The existence of poverty is the proof of an unjust and illorganised society, and our public charities are but the first tardy awakening in the conscience of a robber.”
After robbing us blind for two centuries, the West finally grows a conscience and out of a very Catholic/Christian guilt tries to make up for it by giving us our own money back though not all at once nor with interest but through a trickle-down effect. And while giving it back they display contempt and disgust at our impoverished state as if we deliberately put ourselves in this state. So-called charitable organisations and NGOs used as a front to give the poor masses a false account of history, blame the country’s government and politicians (not to say no fault lies with them) and turn them against their own motherland and further use the occasion as an opportunity to perform mass religious conversions. Mask of a saviour, worn by the thief.
Sri Aurobindo expresses this truth in strong words in his Essays Divine & Human and his Renaissance in India & Defence of Indian Culture:
“Asia now stands, not only by choice of her ascetics, but by economic compulsion for the simple life, and the ostentation of wealth which was once depreciated as a sign of oriental barbarism now parades itself, much vulgarised, at least to our barbaric eastern notion of aesthetics as the splendid face of occidental civilisation.”
“The splendour of Asiatic and not least of Indian prosperity, the wealth of Ormuz and of Ind, the “barbaric doors rough with gold”, barbaricae postes squalentes auro, were once stigmatised by the less opulent West as a sign of barbarism. Circumstances are now strangely reversed; the opulent barbarism and a much less artistic ostentation of wealth are to be found in London, New York and Paris, and it is the nakedness of India and the squalor of her poverty which are flung in her face as evidence of the worthlessness of her culture.“
And one of the hardest truths for the reformist-activist modern man is this,
“To find that saving a man’s body or mind from suffering is not always for the good of either soul, mind or body, is one of the bitterest of experiences for the humanly compassionate.”
No one can take care of you more than the Divine can take care of you. That all-seeing Wisdom has already chartered our course and in the causal world, paradise is already won. Therefore every step we take, every blessing and curse, every stumble and fall is leading us to our apotheosis. One must not think that just because a person is suffering physically that his soul is suffering too. Soul is untainted and merely goes from birth to birth gathering every possible experience so that it eventually has developed a multitude of facets, enough to at least reflect the infinite qualities or gunas of the Divine, the anantaguna. For that is what we are destined to become, the cosmic man, the transcendent superman.
We must not confuse our own weakness and shrinking from someone else’s pain and use the pity that arises from it to justify ostentatiously flinging alms or ‘ending’ pain by euthanasia. Both acts are self-regarding and self-serving with a selfish intent of quelling one’s own inability to handle with strength the pain of another. It is not true Divine compassion.
“Altruism is good for man, but less good when it is a form of supreme self-indulgence and lives by pampering the selﬁshness of others.”
“By altruism thou canst save thy soul, but see that thou save it not by indulging in his perdition thy brother.”
The true comfort and solace is in one’s own Self and soul and not be found in any other transitory solutions. And to follow the Divine guidance found there, to worship the unworshipped God within will be the sure path to salvation and bliss.
I will leave you with a few more quotes from Sri Aurobindo that sum up more concisely what I’ve been ranting about.
“To hate the sinner is the worst sin, for it is hating God; yet he who commits it, glories in his superior virtue.”
“Logic is the worst enemy of Truth, as self-righteousness is the worst enemy of virtue, for the one cannot see its own errors nor the other its own imperfections.”
“Sin and virtue are a game of resistance we play with God in His efforts to draw us towards perfection. The sense of virtue helps us to cherish our sins in secret.”
And then on a supernatural level,
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“The Titans are stronger than the gods because they have agreed with God to front and bear the burden of His wrath and enmity; the gods were able to accept only the pleasant burden of His love and kindlier rapture.”