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Consciousness and health

In the Face of Error and Evil

Dr. Alok Pandey


The human journey starts from ignorance and hence errors and mistakes are an inevitable part of the journey. While learning from errors are quite a normal process of growth, these errors still become sometimes unwittingly the apparent cause of pain for others. This article explores the ways of dealing with such eventualities that bring inadvertent suffering and pain.


There is perhaps no species that is so much prone to error as man but also none that torments itself so much under the burden of sin and guilt. This is so because man stands somewhere in between the animal and the demigod. Man has lost the sure instincts of the animal kind through which the animal life is governed. The animal instincts are a reflex of intuition in the creature. It helps it meet the various challenges of life in a way that surpasses human reason in certain ways. The only difference is that the animal is unconscious of itself and the operations of life within itself, whereas man is born to become increasingly conscious of himself and the forces that govern his complex existence. A fully conscious human being who knows himself in totality and in the details of the operations of life and thus governs his life consciously would be nothing short of a demigod. The gods, it is said, act with an intuitive light that reason does not possess and hence their actions are often inexplicable to the human reason that works within a narrow range through the penumbra of a light that he fails to see. His life is a strange mix of light and darkness with many shades of grey and every image he creates of truth and reality casts a shadow below or around it. He has no certain light with which to walk, a predicament beautifully described in Savitri:

“Assailed on earth and unassured of heaven,
Descended here unhappy and sublime,
A link between the demigod and the beast,
He knows not his own greatness nor his aim;
He has forgotten why he has come and whence.
His spirit and his members are at war;
His heights break off too low to reach the skies,
His mass is buried in the animal mire.
A strange antinomy is his nature’s rule.
A riddle of opposites is made his field:
Freedom he asks but needs to live in bonds,
He has need of darkness to perceive some light
And need of grief to feel a little bliss;
He has need of death to find a greater life.
All sides he sees and turns to every call;
He has no certain light by which to walk;
His life is a blind-man’s-buff, a hide-and-seek;
He seeks himself and from himself he runs;
Meeting himself, he thinks it other than he.
Always he builds, but finds no constant ground,
Always he journeys, but nowhere arrives;
He would guide the world, himself he cannot guide;
He would save his soul, his life he cannot save.
The light his soul had brought his mind has lost;
All he has learned is soon again in doubt;
A sun to him seems the shadow of his thoughts,
Then all is shadow again and nothing true:
Unknowing what he does or whither he tends
He fabricates signs of the Real in Ignorance.
He has hitched his mortal error to Truth’s star (1).”

And yet he cannot rest forever in a half-light. There is in man an incorrigible thirst to know, an insatiable quest for knowledge, an aspiration towards unmixed truth free of all error, a search for the last outpost of Wisdom where he can rest in peace and silence, a final poise where all is known forever in all space and time. It is this quest that has led man so far from the early cave-dwellers to our present civilisation where we search for some inner cave where Truth dwells. It has led man to roam and wander upon earth to discover that idyllic spot where one can live in a perfect and harmonious way within and with his world around. It has led man to soar towards endless depths of space and read the scripts of time that has gone by and the future tread of yet unborn things.

And yet his journey is far from complete. At best, he has touched the boundaries of material creation and had some glimpses of the Truth that covers its head in the cape of error and ignorance. But the ultimate Mystery that can explain everything to him and give him the law of a perfect living still eludes him. This is so because the gap between the animal life with its modicum of necessities to the wisdom and splendor of the gods is too big a chasm for the evolutionary impulsion to cross in one single giant leap. Hence the necessity of many steps and stages. Hence the necessity of error and approximations until mankind gains sufficient momentum to catapault itself beyond the boundaries of ignorance into the utter unity and wisdom of Truth and Reality and God.

Dharma and the law

Seen thus errors are an inevitable part of human progress. Yet something in man intrinsically believes that he can be error-free from the very start or at least once he has reached a certain level of maturity. This belief stems from something deeper within him, a secret substratum where one is indeed free of error. This secret substratum or the soul within him is also the cause of man’s persistent seeking for an ideal and holding within himself the instinct of immortality even though he is surrounded by the shadow of death. The soul or the psychic being in man does carry an intuition of truth to which the rational mind is blind. Hence the instinctive belief that we can be right has its justifications. At the same time, since man is yet far from touching this fount of truth, hence he cannot be faulted for errors or castigated for mistakes and punished for ‘sins’.

Religion and science has both tried to solve this paradox of the secret sense of infallibility and yet the vulnerability to error exists by bringing in the idea of an external law. In religion, the law is given by the founder or the scripture. In science, it is given by the state and the constitution. Both provide an outer framework within which man must move. Both reinforce the law through fear, whether in other worlds or this one. Both try to maintain order and justice in the society by giving a certain bandwidth within which human beings are allowed to move. Both allow a certain margin of error as an inevitable and acceptable price of being human. Both use the law mainly as a means to avoid harm to others. Both also permit the possibility of forgiveness by modifying one’s behaviour and changing one’s ways. Yet neither religion nor Reason, neither philosophical belief-systems nor the gospel of scientific materialism has been able to solve the enigma that haunts human life with its stamp of imperfection and the proneness to error. In fact, conventional religion with its stress on outer law given in a scripture and a society organised by the authority of the state and the rule-book cannot solve this riddle. Both lack the deeper vision that would or could set the soul of man free and empower him within so that his choices are spontaneously free from error and the heavy limitations imposed by a life in ignorance. The ancient Indian conception came much closer to solving the problem by turning the eye inwards so that man can discover the true inner law that flows from his inmost core as rays from some inner sun. They called it Dharma, a thing very different from its modern interpretation.

“We must then, in order to understand the Gita’s description of the work of the Avatar, take the idea of the Dharma in its fullest, deepest and largest conception, as the inner and the outer law by which the divine Will and Wisdom work out the spiritual evolution of mankind and its circumstances and results in the life of the race. Dharma in the Indian conception is not merely the good, the right, morality and justice, ethics; it is the whole government of all the relations of man with other beings, with Nature, with God, considered from the point of view of a divine principle working itself out in forms and laws of action, forms of the inner and the outer life, orderings of relations of every kind in the world. Dharma is both that which we hold to and that which holds together our inner and outer activities. In its primary sense it means a fundamental law of our nature which secretly conditions all our activities, and in this sense each being, type, species, individual, group has its own dharma. Secondly, there is the divine nature which has to develop and manifest in us, and in this sense dharma is the law of the inner workings by which that grows in our being. Thirdly, there is the law by which we govern our outgoing thought and action and our relations with each other so as to help best both our own growth and that of the human race towards the divine ideal.

Dharma is generally spoken of as something eternal and unchanging, and so it is in the fundamental principle, in the ideal, but in its forms it is continually changing and evolving, because man does not already possess the ideal or live in it, but aspires more or less perfectly towards it, is growing towards its knowledge and practice. And in this growth dharma is all that helps us to grow into the divine purity, largeness, light, freedom, power, strength, joy, love, good, unity, beauty, and against it stands its shadow and denial, all that resists its growth and has not undergone its law, all that has not yielded up and does not will to yield up its secret of divine values, but presents a front of perversion and contradiction, of impurity, narrowness, bondage, darkness, weakness, vileness, discord and suffering and division, and the hideous and the crude, all that man has to leave behind in his progress. This is the adharma, not-dharma, which strives with and seeks to overcome the dharma, to draw backward and downward, the reactionary force which makes for evil, ignorance and darkness. Between the two there is perpetual battle and struggle, oscillation of victory and defeat in which sometimes the upward and sometimes the downward forces prevail (2).”

Error, bondage and the path to freedom

The difference between dharma and scriptural injunctions or the rights and responsibilities enshrined in a constitution is the shift of the locus of action from outward to the inner. Dharma is not a rule-book though one may express it in the form of a book as Dharmaśāstra. The difference is that rule-books often divide human life into black and white. They do allow the grey zones of human existence but as something inevitable and permanent. After all, it is only realism that no rule-book can ever contain a detailed injunction for each and every act. Yet much of mankind actually lives in these grey areas and where they blindly follow the state machinery or religious edicts, they have little scope of moving out of these grey territories because there is no real impetus to do so. Blind obedience to outer machinery takes away our intrinsic ability to judge and choose.

Fortunately, the evolutionary impulsion within creation is pushing through these grey zones ever reminding us of the imperfection of religion and science, ever pushing us to new challenges and dilemmas so that we may eventually discover the inner light to guide us replacing the insufficient lamps of belief in a book or the rules of the constitution. Dharma is precisely such a luminous guide that gives us certain general guidelines yet instead of enforcing them through a common code asks man to ultimately consult the inner guide in his own heart where the Truth resides. In fact, the purpose of dharma is not just to maintain law and order in society, — that surely is one of its functions, but to help man grow within until no rule-book or scripture is needed to help us navigate through life in a meaningful way.

Thus seen dharma is very simply the right law of living which helps the human soul and the collective life of humanity to grow towards and into Truth and Light and Freedom and Bliss and Immortality. It does not imprison man’s soul in outer machinery nor stifle it to live within the limits of the cage but allows us to soar towards infinite horizons. All law is in fact meant to curb our lower propensities that hurt and harm us in our individual and collective life. But they do not automatically bring us nearer to Truth, despite the religious injunction that if we behave according to the scripture, we shall be granted a place in heaven or arrive at some post-mortem salvation. It does not really set us free nor helps us to realise our own highest and deepest possibilities. This is so because this approach is born of a dualistic philosophy that sees man forever separate from God. Besides the fact that this is an illogical thing to say since nothing can ever be separate from the Origin, it leaves us forever dependent upon something outer and at the end gives us nearly the same or a similar reward (or punishment) that one pursues upon earth. Whether this worldly or other-worldly, it keeps us forever tied to the circle of pleasure and pain. Dharma however starts with duality but ends up with our utter identity with the Source and the Origin, sādharmya gati, which means growing into the likeness of God or the Divine Creator. Most importantly the seat of Dharma is within, in the heart and the soul of man, svadharma so to say.

Thus seen, we have these three standards of conduct that humanity has evolved so far out of its collective wisdom to deal with the problem of right action. The first two, as we have seen, are inadequate to give the perfect answer to the riddle of action. It is a reliance on external source, the obedience to a doctrine or slavery to outer mechanism and machinery. The third, that is dharma, is more intrinsic in nature but extends to the entire field of our outer nature and physical actions. But instead of looking at action mainly from outer deeds, it looks at it from the inner point of the motive and intent. But going still deeper touches the core from where all action must originate, the inner poise, the state of consciousness from where one acts but not without taking into consideration the level of consciousness at which the person who acts stands. Thus, there are different dharmas for different categories of humanity and even for different epochs of time. But it has within it an inbuilt mechanism for justice. If one acts according to dharma one is automatically pushed up the inner evolutionary ladder from the human to the Divine. If one deviates from it, then one moves away from the divine core and complicates the journey, making it fraught with struggles and sufferings.

But since not all may be able to perceive dharma, Indian thought opened one more possibility for action. It is through the power of discernment. If the seat of dharma is in the heart of man, the Power of discernment can be developed through the mind. Though a superficial understanding may conceive of discernment or buddhi as the power of judgment through the use of reason, buddhi or discernment is more subtle. Reason, as we have seen, has an outer locus. It judges and acts based on the outer consequences of one’s actions, from material and monetary losses and punishments at the lowest to injury and its attendant results at its best. It subordinates and disciplines the vagrant vital impulses of man taming the animal in him but it does not fundamentally change the nature of the animal. At best, it glosses over and paints the beast with colours of beauty, often acting as an advocate justifying and defending the indefensible to comfort our hearts and lull the deeper sense of ethics to sleep. At its darkest worst, it deceives with wisdom and the holy lore and slays with virtue at the altar of a lie.

Not so with discernment. The eye of discernment, buddhi, is turned inwards and upwards. It seeks to satisfy neither our own ego nor of the collective ego of mankind but to satisfy the natural love of the soul for truth and beauty and good, or for the Divine, or for the greater Self that one intuitively feels. It not only tames the beast in us but turns it into a vehicle for the soul, which can use its intensity and strength for greater and higher purposes. Discernment has to be cultivated and developed, dharma has to be discovered and uncovered. Discernment helps us make decisions that would draw us closer to the Divine essence of things. Dharma helps us fulfill God’s Will in the world.

Is this the highest to which human consciousness can uplift itself in its search for freedom from error? The Gita says that there is yet a last step, a radical step that man can take. A careful study of scripture to find the wisdom enshrined in it, separating it from the temporal, from the eternal laws, to a faithful following of the advice and counsel of reason, can lead us to the doors of Dharma and awaken in us true discernment. So too discernment and dharma can lead us to the doors of the Divine where we can take refuge in Him through surrender and, abandoning all standards of conduct, follow the direct Divine Impulsion, the Will of the Divine within us. Once we reach this point then we are truly free, freed from the ignorance and error that stalk us as a prey. We are released from responsibility of our actions and care of consequences since now a greater consciousness of Truth takes charge of our lives and saves us not only from actions that deviate from the law of Truth but also from the consequences that may ensue.

Compassion and forgiveness

If this is true about the way we should deal with our errors, as inevitable steps in the ignorance that moves towards Truth and Light, the same should apply in our dealings with the errors and mistakes of others. Instead of looking upon these things as units of social problems or with vengeance and hatred, we should look upon this layer of humanity as souls trapped in ignorance. One may chide them if needed, even restrain them, if that be the Will and Inspiration within us, so that they may be prevented from further harming their own journey as well as harming others. Yet there should be no place for hatred and anger. Forgiveness is often advocated but this term has many layers and it is important to distinguish them in our actual dealings. It is of course good to forgive but this should be born out of compassion and an understanding of the natural limitations of our journey through ignorance rather than from that superior sense or even of religious sense that smacks of the ego. There is of course, also the forgiveness of the cowardly who continue to act out of fear. Besides, forgiveness of personal offence is one thing and forgiving on behalf of the human lot is quite another. We may forgive a beast that has harmed us, or a criminal, as far as personal offence is concerned but there is the demand of justice and the need to rein in evil, that if left unchecked may bring much greater harm and evil upon others. Compassion is a much better word since wisdom is implied in it. With an equal compassion we may leave a person free or else stand in his way and resist him if such be the word of the wisdom within us. Hatred and cursing are no doubt harmful to both who hate and the one who is hated but equally, indiscriminate forgiveness may bring harm, not only to the one who forgives blindly and the forgiven who may continue his evil ways, but also to society at large. Imagine letting go of a serial killer out of forgiveness! Inner charity does not mean absence of outer action. Strength and Justice are as much godheads as mercy and kindness. It is understood of course that these actions must not be done under an impulse of personal grudge and hatred but only for the sake of a larger good.

Errors as steps on the evolving upward way

This is the journey of man or the ascent of man from a state of ignorance and its attendant error and suffering to a state of light and truth and wisdom and perfection. It passes through a number of stages, individually and collectively. It moves through errors and approximations, even blunders and disasters, through beautiful landscapes and sunshine and moonshine as well as through rough and rugged ascents and eddies and whirlpools. We are stuck and glued to one step in freeze time, but the rapturous dancer swiftly moves on to another and yet another tracing destinies with his steps. We get stuck at one point and suffer with guilt and depression looking back at a phantom past, we burn in the fire of repentance, observe penance, make confessions but these are not the methods to deal with what we yet may call as mistakes. The only way to get rid of the past is to move towards the future.

The only way to come out of the phantom ghosts that pull us backwards is to move towards the dreams of the future and the endless possibilities it brings. Guilt, confessions, repentance, apologies, even when sincere, are not the best way to deal with mistakes. The only way is to learn and grow and discover the source of evil and error and fill that corner with Light and flood that abyss with Love. True repentance is to understand the source of error, a thing that requires sincere reflection and discernment and to change what needs to be changed. Even if the change does not come immediately due to the long standing grip on habitual ways of life, yet the will must press in that direction rather than justifying it endlessly and engaging in self-reprimand and self-mortification.

Self-blame is another kind of egoism where we refuse the needed change and feel too satisfied with blaming ourselves as if by doing so we have done our duty. If blaming others is the sign of a dead conscience, blaming oneself is the sign of a troubled and disturbed conscience that cannot comprehend the truth of things. Instead of these movements we must move beyond conscience, which is the voice of the mind or a norm and construct to the still small voice of the soul where alone we can hope to find the authentic truth. Not that it is always easy to follow this voice because the soul does not follow the logic of the human reason or the conventions of the human social norms. It follows the lead of the Divine Will within it and trusts the Divine with regard to the consequences. Man’s ascension will lead him to this new social order where he subordinates both mental reason and the vital impulse to the guiding light of intuition in which alone he shall find his new sociology and principle of action. The sooner we find it the better it is for us. The more we delay this discovery the longer we shall always swing between right and wrong and be prone to error and subject to ‘sin’. Of course, by sin we do not mean the religious idea of these things but the original Vedantic concept that sin is nothing else but that action which deviates us from the straight path to the Light and the Right and tricks or lures us to follow the crooked deceptive lanes that slope down towards darkness and fall. The Iśa Upaniṣad summarises it in one of the prayers invoking Agni, the Divine Will in man that ever pushes us forward, burning down the impurities and releasing the hidden truth and building within us a state of perpetual felicity rather than the suffering that comes through error and ignorance.

“O god Agni, knowing all things that are manifested, lead us by the good path to the felicity; remove from us the devious attraction of sin. To thee completest speech of submission we would dispose (3).”


1. Sri Aurobindo. Birth Centenary Library, Volume 28. Pondicherry: Sri Aurobindo Ashram Trust; 1970, pp. 336-37.

2. Sri Aurobindo. The Complete Works of Sri Aurobindo, Volume 19. Pondicherry: Sri Aurobindo Ashram Trust; 1997, pp. 171-72.

3. Sri Aurobindo. Complete Works, Volume 17; 2003, p. 10.

Dr. Alok Pandey, an editor of NAMAH and a member of SAIIIHR, is a doctor practising at the Sri Aurobindo Ashram.

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Phantom ghosts