Individuals become famous as great philanthropists. Some pledge their wealth to a great cause, such as solving the climate crisis, others undertake to build hospitals or feed large numbers of people. These individuals are looked up to and used as examples of selfless individuals. Yet, a deeper examination generally finds that in most cases there is a vital motivation that prods the individual into this line of action and takes advantage of it for some form of vital fulfillment or satisfaction.

Many people confuse charitable activity and philanthropy with spirituality. While an individual practicing a spiritual discipline may be called to undertake work of this sort, as a form of karma yoga, there is no direct equivalence between the two. It is not the outer form of the work that makes it spiritual, but the inner truth behind it that matters. In the Bhagavad Gita, Sri Krishna responds to Arjuna by advising that there is no outward action that defines the spiritual purpose and intention; rather, the truth lies in the inner relationship of the individual to the work he is called to do in the world.

The vital motivations of wealth, fame, impulses of vanity, acquisition of worldly power of one sort or another, adulation all have a role to play, even in those works that appear to be most selfless and charitable in nature.

Vital motivations also lurk below the surface and until understood and removed entirely, they may leap out and catch the individual unawares at any point in time. Suppressed vital tendencies, whether through acculturation, education, community pressure or from fear of reprisal or retribution, retain their power. In fact, just as a spring increases its latent potency the more it is compressed, so also vital tendencies that are forcefully suppressed actually can acquire more power and can thereby erupt with vehemence under favorable (for them) circumstances.

The interaction of the vital nature with the mind must therefore be clearly seen and understood if the spiritual seeker is to find a way to master the external nature and transform it under the impulsion of the spiritual force.

Sri Aurobindo writes: “… there are many things in the ordinary man of which he is not conscious, because the vital hides them from the mind and gratifies them without the mind realising what is the force that is moving the action — thus things that are done under the plea of altruism, philanthropy, service, etc. are largely moved by ego which hides itself behind these justifications; in yoga the secret motive has to be pulled out from behind the veil, exposed and got rid of. Secondly, some things are suppressed in the ordinary life and remain lying in the nature, suppressed but not eliminated; they may rise up any day or they may express themselves in various nervous forms or other disorders of the mind or vital or body without it being evident what is their real cause. This has been recently discovered by European psychologists and much emphasised, even exaggerated in a new science called psycho-analysis. Here again, in sadhana one has to become conscious of these suppressed impulses and eliminate them….”

Sri Aurobindo and the Mother, Our Many Selves: Practical Yogic Psychology, Chapter 4, Becoming Conscious, pp. 125-126

Author's Bio: 

Santosh has been studying Sri Aurobindo's writings since 1971 and has a daily blog at and podcast at He is author of 17 books and is editor-in-chief at Lotus Press. He is president of Institute for Wholistic Education, a non-profit focused on integrating spirituality into daily life.