Introduction to Character of Life in Literature & Cinema

Entertaining literature enthralls us with suspense, humor and the intense action of an engaging plot. Superior literature transcends mere action. It presents to the reader the author's insights into human character and reveals the complex ways in which character and action interrelate to generate chains of consequences and results. Still finer literature reveals the complex interactions between action, individual character and the evolving character of the society in which the action takes place. The greatest literature goes still further. It reveals not only insights of individual and social character but of thecharacter of life itself.

Character of Life

Does life have a character of its own? When we speak of character in an individual, we usually mean the fixed and recurring pattern of traits that are associated with a person. Such and such behavior is characteristic of that individual. We may even divide people into broad categories or types, grouping them according to common tendencies such as ruthless aggressiveness and ambition, constricting selfishness and stinginess, or expansive cheerfulness, generosity and goodwill. Underlying the individual variations of human character, we recognize some common tendencies and characteristics of the entire human race that govern all human behavior. We refer to this common character as human nature. Individuals vary not only in the type of their character but also in the degree. Those whose lives are determined and directed by the prevailing habits, fashions, beliefs, attitudes, opinions and values of the society in which they live have at best a developed social as opposed to an individual character. Their conduct is determined by the expectations of society. They act and live within its norms, refusing to fall below the required social minimum, failing to rise above the maximum expected of a normal member of the group. On one extreme are those that do not even conform to the minimum standards, who fail to acquire the socially required behaviors, attitudes and values. They are unformed individuals, lacking even a formed social character. At the other extreme are those whose beliefs, attitudes and values are determined internally by the strength of their own convictions. These are individuals with developed minds and formed characters of their own. Individuals do not live or act in a vacuum. They exist and act in a human social environment of other people that constantly acts on them and reacts to their actions. They also live in a natural environment of physical objects and material forces such as the weather. And those familiar with occult and spiritual traditions recognize that there is also a subtle environment of other planes of existence, both higher planes of spiritual influence and lower planes of negative forces in universal nature seeking to act on the lives and express through the character and actions of human beings. All these levels or planes including the social, material and the occult constitute the field of human activity. Each of them functions according to its own laws or principles. Each of them has its own characteristic modes of action and influence on human life. When we speak of the character of life, we refer to those subtle laws and principles that govern the interaction between individuals and the world around them. This character reveals itself in many different ways. It has been observed and codified in countless forms by earlier, less scientifically minded civilizations, as auspicious signs, omens, symbols, superstitions, rules for action, social conventions, vital intuitions, mental insights and spiritual wisdom. Most of what remains of these earlier forms of knowledge is either unintelligible to our modern understanding or so mixed with superstition that it is of little use for modern life, no matter how valid or useful it was to societies in the past.

The Mental Being

The modern mental individual seeks a set of rational principles by which to understand phenomenon life, not a set of blind dictates and inexplicable tenets. Modern civilization has developed as a result and expression of man's evolution as a mental being. In the process, the physical and rational mind of humanity has become a powerful instrument for the observation and comprehension of material phenomena codified as the various branches of physical and biological science. But this unprecedented advancement in the material realm has not been accompanied by a corresponding growth in knowledge of human psychology and the more general field of life events. In fact it seems that with the growth of these mental faculties, man has for a time lost an earlier capacity to see and know life directly through his own vital being. Most scientists approach psychology as a branch of biological science which in effect delegates man to the same treatment as his non-mental ancestors in the animal kingdom. Where psychologists venture beyond these physical limits, they are always on precarious ground and most often end in constructing mental theories with little relevance to living realities. When it comes to a science of life itself, as opposed to a science of matter and material forms of life, science has simply refused to address the topic and has attempted to dismiss it by the premise that life movements are a combination of natural physical determinisms and chance events with no underlying principle of order or harmony.

But when we turn away from the sphere of modern science, we discover that knowledge of man and knowledge of life have been perceived and comprehended in great depth and clarity by mystics and yogis of different countries and historical periods. In Vedic India these truths were codified as scripture and institutionalized as the social customs of the community. As man gradually evolved his mental faculties to the fine pitch which they have now attained, this subtler perception of life and adherence to its laws has been lost in the same manner as he has lost many of the physical instincts of the animal. But this loss is merely a temporary one allowing the mind full freedom to develop its own mode of knowledge. What has been lost can and must be rediscovered through man's further evolution, no longer as mere vital instinct or subtle vital perception, but as a refinement of the mental faculties to their highest reach where the pure intellect shades off into illumined and intuitive vision.

The entire foundation and body of this knowledge is available in the writings of Sri Aurobindo and The Mother. They have revealed the basic principles of Consciousness applicable to all planes of existence and shown how these principles express themselves at each level of the evolutionary consciousness. Based on these principles, the objective of this portal is to explore the character of life in its manifold movements and expressions.


To aid in this Endeavour we may have recourse to a source of knowledge concerning the character of life which if not as pure, systematic, comprehensive and profound as the knowledge of the ancients, is yet more easily intelligible and acceptable to our modern minds. That source is the entire written literature of the human race and for our present purposes the modern literature of the English language. The greatest writers have always been recognized for their capacity to reveal truths of life as well as truths of spirit through the style, thought and imagery of their works. Sheer beauty of word, rhythm or imagination has never been sufficient to make literature great. Always these are combined with some deeper revealing vision of realities hidden from the outer sense and intellectual thought. A study of great literature reveals that life does indeed have a character of its own which at once transcends and expresses through each particular time and place, individual character and social circumstance. That character can be observed in the smallest as well as the most momentous events of our own lives.

Life Divine

What is this thing we so vaguely refer to as life? In Life Divine, Sri Aurobindo describes life as a universal force that expresses as the individual force maintaining each individual form or object in manifestation. It is the force that creates and preserves the form, defends its survival and energizes its growth. Although we view life in terms of many separate and individual lives, it is only one single, universal existence that we perceive as many. In its origin, life is the infinite, creative force that builds the worlds and inhabits them with forms of its own self-conception and creation. It is the conscious force of Sat, the Self-Conscious Being, the Pure Existence, the Divine Consciousness, the omnipresent reality. But here in the physical vital world we live and act in, Life does not appear to us either as consciousness or as force. We do not generally attribute conscious awareness or intention to life, even though we often find occasions that seem to indicate a secret will or fate or determinism governing our lives. We do not think of life as consciously or even unconsciously acting upon us in certain ways or subconsciously responding to what we think, feel or do. We do not generally think of life as a force either. We are aware only of many individual forms and forces acting around and upon us - the actions of other individuals, the influence of public opinion, the restrictive and protective action of social conventions, laws and social institutions, as well as the action of the material forces of nature - rain, wind, lightning, the hurricane or earthquake or meteor from outer space. Each seems to us driven by its own inner determinism or its own natural laws, but we do not normally perceive any master script or director or set of rules or unifying principle governing the whole play of life. An objective and in-depth study of life will reveal that it does exhibit all the attributes of a universal force with a pronounced character of its own. So vast is the scope and so great the complexity of life's character that it cannot be fully grasped by mental comprehension. Full knowledge of life reveals itself only to spiritual vision. Nevertheless, we can identify many of the general laws and principles by which it functions.

Science, Religion & Philosophy

Science, religion, philosophy, and art all strive in different ways to reveal the laws and principles of life, and the ultimate nature of reality. Science focuses primarily and most successfully on physical facts in search for the laws and principles governing the formation of material objects and material forces, though its researches have now taken it to the borderline where the material opens out into more subtler domains of reality. Religion in its most exalted forms of spirituality focuses on inner spiritual experience to reveal that reality directly to the consciousness of the spiritual seeker. In its more mundane forms, it provides a set of tenets to govern human behavior in a manner that appears most conducive to social harmony and moral development. Philosophy focuses on the construction of a rational mental framework for understanding reality. But since mind's linear mode of functioning rarely suffices to embrace the subtle and many-sided complexity of life movements, philosophy normally fails by abstraction to capture the object of its search. That leaves art, of which literature is the most important for present purposes. Literary fiction is an effort to capture the deeper realities of life by focusing not only on material facts, moral principles and mental ideas, but by portraying the chains of action and reaction among and between individuals, society, the forces of nature and in some instances the subtle forces of other planes. Thoughts, beliefs, opinions, attitudes, emotions, sentiments, impulses, desires, aspirations, anxieties, fears and cravings expressed in action are the stuff of literature. Literature focuses on the meeting point between inner subjective intention and material and social results in the external world of living beings, between thought and action, between cause and consequence, between human character and the character of life.

For the present purposes we cannot accept all literature as equally useful. Prose works appeal primarily to the intellect and aesthetic taste, not the deeper life sense or soul sense, as their judge. But among prose works there is an infinite gradation within this limited sphere. We may exclude from consideration those works which portray life according to a fixed moral or philosophical system of beliefs or ideas, for these mental constructions interfere with a true portrayal of its character. So also works that are chiefly subjective and imaginative, no matter how beautiful the expression or true the portrayal to some other plane of existence. In prose literature we will select authors and works that portray life in its objective reality, not the mere surface reality of external beings and movements, but the deeper truths of human behavior and human nature and the character of life events in which man participates and by which he is affected. In this category there is a large group of modern English novelists such as Austen, Arthur Conan Doyle, Dickens, Goldsmith, Hardy, Trollope, etc. as well as translations of other Europeans such as Balzac, Dumas, Hugo and Tolstoy who possess profound insights into man and life without penetrating the deeper realities of the spirit, which are beyond the scope of our present study.


While prose addresses primarily the intellect, poetry goes beyond the thought-mind and employs its images and rhythm to evoke sheer vision. Its aim is to make the thing presented living to the imaginative vision and spiritual sense. Poetry expresses the hidden and infinite meanings beyond the finite intellectual meaning carried by the word. For revelation of life's deepest secrets and for all expression of spiritual truths, poetry is the supreme artistic medium. As with prose, there is an infinite gradation of types and quality among the world's poets. Here we will be concerned neither with the poets of imagination and subjective emotional experience nor the mystic poets of the Spirit. Our interest is in the great revealing poets of life among whom Shakespeare is the supreme example. To quote A.C. Bradley, world-renowned Shakespearean scholar, "...Shakespeare almost alone among poets seems to create in somewhat the same manner as Nature. His portrayal of the minutest details of human character and life is true to life "and it is just because he is truthful in these smaller things that in greater things we trust him absolutely never to pervert the truth for the sake of some doctrine or purpose of his own." Sri Aurobindo more than confirms this view: " itself takes hold of him in order to recreate itself in his image, and he sits within himself at its heart and pours out from its impulse a throng of beings, as real in the world he creates as men are in this other world... It is this sheer creative Ananda of the life-spirit which is Shakespeare... He is not primarily an artist, a poetical thinker or anything else of the kind, but a great vital creator and intensely, though within marked limits, a seer of life."

These quotations reveal clearly not only the content but also the method of Shakespeare's revelation of life, and though we cannot expect other writers to compare with his genius, we can yet understand that which is true to life in their work as a momentary adherence to the same principles. The great artist of life does not see life through the mind and mentally translate his vision into understanding and understanding into literature. Rather he identifies with the force of life and lets it express itself through him. Mind comes in only to supply the outer form for this revelation, not the substance.

Records of Life

The task confronting us differs from that of the artist who sees and expresses. Our aim is to make life intelligible to the intellect and reason, to seek for the underlying order and purpose and harmony of life which has eluded modern science. For this purpose all life experience is proper raw material. Mankind possesses extensive records of life in its written literature and historical records, both of which are suitable for a comprehensive consideration. Literature focuses attention on the narrower field of the individual man in society and thereby portrays best the movements of life in their subtlety and detail. History focuses on the broader field of national and international activity and sees life's movements from an evolutionary perspective. Nevertheless, it is always life that is active regardless of the scale and we must expect the principles applicable on one level to be relevant to the other as well.

Literature as Life

The objective of this portal is to conduct a study of life in literature, drawing our material from the works of many great writers to bring out deeper truths of life. In doing so our task will compare with that of the literary critics. In the words of I.A. Richard, "Criticism is the endeavour to discriminate between experiences and evaluate them." Only in this case we shall not be considering the substance of literary work as artistic creation but as real life events. Our discrimination will be an attempt to identify and distinguish the various movements of life and our evaluation will be an effort to discover the underlying principles which describe and explain these movements.

Science of Life

Before turning to life experiences for validation, we must lay out the broad theoretical outlines of the science of life. Life is a manifest form of spirit existing as a plane of vital consciousness in the gradation of universal existence. On its own plane the substance of life is force. This force of life expresses itself on the physical plane on earth as the animating principle of matter which gives life and movement to inert substance.

Out of this living matter plants and animals have evolved, culminating in the appearance of mental man. In man there is a meeting of the three planes of earthly life--material, vital and mental. Human life is a complex interaction of physical forces, vital forces, higher vital or emotional forces and mental forces as well as spiritual forces. The field in which mental and emotional forces grapple with life is the field of human consciousness, which is the concern of the present study.

Life, as we have said, is a vibration or group of vibrations more rarefied than matter, which expresses itself as seeking for enjoyment, possession and expansion, and this force of life is constantly evolving into higher, more complex and more powerful forms. To understand the character of life in the field of human consciousness, we must discover the basic principles or laws which describe the way the life force expresses itself and the nature of its interaction with the other planes.

An analogy can be made between the laws of life and the laws of physical science. By the laws of physics (statics and dynamics) man can explain and predict the movement of ocean tides with very great precision. But 1000 years ago no one would have believed this was possible nor would they have accepted the existence of these immutable laws. Today the same precision is not possible for the psychologist because he does not know the laws governing human behavior and would deny their very existence as his great ancestors would have denied the laws of physics. The forces of life are more subtle and rarefied than physical forces and seemingly incapable of codification. But in actuality the laws of the physical plane are manifestations of laws on the subtle planes.

To carry the analogy further: as a number of factors determine physical movements such as material force, gravitation and friction, so also for life movements the corresponding factors are force, strength and intensity. What we call force of character or moral force can be reduced to its component vectors of strength and direction.

Certain physical phenomena are best explained by the laws of chemical reactions involving changes in substances and energy levels. These changes are decided by the nature of the substances, the temperature, pressure and conditions of interaction. The field of life is parallel to this; only the significant determinants are more numerous and less easily measured.

The principles describing the character or psychology of life fall within the category of natural or universal laws. Yet it is essential to bear in mind that by the term law we do not mean a fixed invariable rule without conditions or exceptions. Rather the term is used to indicate a general propensity of nature, a certain habit of behavior which repeats itself over and over in the greater and lesser movements of life, subject to a large number of variables and innumerable exceptions in the form of higher laws of the cosmos and interventions from other planes. Our attempt is to uncover the chain of causality concealed beneath the surface of chance, accident, fate and fortune in life without touching on the more profound depths and wider vistas of cosmic existence. These principles "belong to a middle region between the inmost or supreme Truth of things and the impartiality of material Nature." With this qualification we may proceed to formulate some of the basic principles of the psychology of life. It is true that all these aspects of life are much more directly known to us through our own personal experience, both internal and external. But the mind and human ego finds it extremely difficult to bring an impersonal objectivity and scientific disinterestedness to the study of one's own life. Therefore, it is in literature that we can most readily and objectively discover the nature of life. And based on the principles discovered and confirmed in the writings of the greatest authors, extract principles that can then be applied and reconfirmed in our own lives to achieve not only self-knowledge and knowledge of life, but mastery of self and life as well.