Copyright © 2011 by Theosophical University Press
The Esoteric Philosophy rejects as philosophically untenable the notion prevailing in the Western world that chance or fortuity is the cause of either circumstances or environment, or of the directing impulses which beings have and follow while living in their environment. For a universe which contains chance or blind fortuity in any degree must be a universe which is lawless, and based on neither reason nor mind. What men popularly call chance is merely what knowledge or research has not yet brought sufficiently to light as being a link in the chain of universal causation.
Nature, or the universal cosmos, is an organism, built of innumerable minor beings and entities and things which individually are each one likewise an organism. Thus, nature may be viewed as an incomprehensibly great cosmic web, into which everything that is is woven, because forming a component part of the cosmic whole. Man, as an individual minor organism, is throughout eternity interwoven with the environing cosmic strands of the great web of life. Every thought he has, every emotion he experiences, and every action consequent upon the impulses arising from these thoughts and emotions is thus forming a most intricate web of destiny which man is constantly weaving around himself and which, in very truth, is from one point of view himself.
But this is not fatalism, which says that man is the mere puppet or will-less victim of an inscrutable destiny which tosses him hither and yon, whether he will or whether he nill. On the contrary, the teaching of the Esoteric Tradition is that man is a willing agent throughout his beginningless and endless course of destiny. He constantly exercises his modicum of free will, which will is free in proportion with the degree which he has attained in rising toward self-conscious reunion with his monad, the Self of his many human selves manifesting as reimbodiments in the spheres through which he passes.
The weaving of such webs of destiny, as man involves himself in by means of his own free will, is called by the Sanskrit term karma. Probably the general teaching has never been more graphically expressed than by H. P. Blavatsky in The Secret Doctrine:
Those who believe in Karma, have to believe in destiny, which, from birth to death, every man is weaving thread by thread around himself, as a spider does his cobweb; and this destiny is guided either by the heavenly voice of the invisible prototype outside of us, or by our more intimate astral, or inner man, who is but too often the evil genius of the embodied entity called man. Both these lead on the outward man, but one of them must prevail; and from the very beginning of the invisible affray the stern and implacable law of compensation steps in and takes its course, faithfully following the fluctuations. When the last strand is woven, and man is seemingly enwrapped in the net-work of his own doing, then he finds himself completely under the empire of this self-made destiny. It then either fixes him like the inert shell against the immovable rock, or carries him away like a feather in a whirlwind raised by his own actions, and this is — Karma.
. . . the closer the union between the mortal reflection man and his celestial prototype, the less dangerous the external conditions and subsequent reincarnations — which neither Buddhas nor Christs can escape. This is not superstition, least of all is it Fatalism. The latter implies a blind course of some still blinder power, and man is a free agent during his stay on earth. He cannot escape his ruling Destiny, but he has the choice of two paths that lead him in that direction, . . . for, there are external and internal conditions which affect the determination of our will upon our actions, and it is in our power to follow either of the two. — 1:639
It is evident enough that man's will is free precisely in proportion as he the more unites himself with the divine prototype within him which is his own inmost monadic Self. But as every individual is formed into a unitary being by the congruency of several monadic entities which thus compose his constitution, and which by their continuous interaction make him a complete being, it is evident that the ordinary human being or physical-astral man is often, as such a vehicle, the unconscious or quasi-conscious victim of karmic causes set in motion in other lives, and of which the present physical man is in no wise conscious, has in no wise willed, and of which therefore he is the "victim."
Thus there is "unmerited suffering," so called, in man's destiny, because the thoughts and acts of others are continuously at work helping to build the same web of destiny in which the man himself is enwrapped. We are continuously giving and taking to and from each other; and thus our individual webs of destiny are so intricately interwoven. Nevertheless, were we able to trace back to their ultimate causal sources the reasons why this or that mishap or suffering falls upon us, we would see clearly that even the entirety of all this so-called unmerited suffering is in its origins due to our own thoughts, emotions, or actions — long since forgotten and passed from our consciousness, but active just as effectually as if we remembered. As H. P. Blavatsky again writes:
Nor would the ways of Karma be inscrutable were men to work in union and harmony, instead of disunion and strife. For our ignorance of those ways — which one portion of mankind calls the ways of Providence, dark and intricate; while another sees in them the action of blind Fatalism; and a third, simple chance, with neither gods nor devils to guide them — would surely disappear, if we would but attribute all these to their correct cause. With right knowledge, or at any rate with a confident conviction that our neighbours will no more work to hurt us than we would think of harming them, the two-thirds of the World's evil would vanish into thin air. Were no man to hurt his brother, Karma-Nemesis would have neither cause to work for, nor weapons to act through. It is the constant presence in our midst of every element of strife and opposition, and the division of races, nations, tribes, societies and individuals into Cains and Abels, wolves and lambs, that is the chief cause of the "ways of Providence." We cut these numerous windings in our destinies daily with our own hands, while we imagine that we are pursuing a track on the royal high road of respectability and duty, and then complain of those ways being so intricate and so dark. We stand bewildered before the mystery of our own making, and the riddles of life that we will not solve, and then accuse the great Sphinx of devouring us. But verily there is not an accident in our lives, not a misshapen day, or a misfortune, that could not be traced back to our own doings in this or in another life. . . .
Karma-Nemesis is no more than the (spiritual) dynamical effect of causes produced and forces awakened into activity by our own actions.
An Occultist or a philosopher will not speak of the goodness or cruelty of Providence; but, identifying it with Karma-Nemesis, he will teach that nevertheless it guards the good and watches over them in this, as in future lives; and that it punishes the evil-doer — aye, even to his seventh rebirth. So long, in short, as the effect of his having thrown into perturbation even the smallest atom in the Infinite World of harmony, has not been finally readjusted. For the only decree of Karma — an eternal and immutable decree — is absolute Harmony in the world of matter as it is in the world of Spirit. It is not, therefore, Karma that rewards or punishes, but it is we, who reward or punish ourselves according to whether we work with, through and along with nature, abiding by the laws on which that Harmony depends, or — break them. — 1:643-4
The strictest and most impartial justice rules the worlds, for it is the result of the cosmic harmony permeant everywhere, and broken only by the exercise of the free wills of beings who foolishly, and in vain, attempt to sway this cosmic equilibrium. The very heart of universal nature is compassion or what many call infinite love, which means infinite harmony.
It is a non-understanding of the fundamental principle of this cosmic harmony which has been the rock on which have split the two main bodies of human philosophical thought concerning the character and nature of free will in man. One school, the fatalists, have denied it, whether its members belong to the class which invokes an almighty autocrat assigning unto man his lot in life, from which he has no escape; or whether it be the other class, the absolute materialists, who see no free will in man, but see him only as a plaything or bit of jetsam wholly subject to the rigid determinism of their school — the result of blind change or fortuity.
The other school is that of the autonomists or absolute free-willists, to coin a word, who seem to think that man is an entirely independent willing agent, different from the universe in which he lives so far as his will goes, and therefore possesses unrestricted voluntary action.
The Esoteric Philosophy rejects both these notions as being neither of them founded on fact, and takes the middle line: that the will of man is partially free and partially restricted by the karmic consequences; but that he can attain an ever-increasing measure of freedom in his will proportionately as he evolves an ever-increasing measure of the divine force which is at the spiritual root of his being, and by which he is linked to the cosmic consciousness, the cosmic will.
Indeed, this is clear enough when one considers the wide distances which separate the different kingdoms of nature. Thus, those monadic rays which are grouped in such enormous numbers in the simple unism of the rocks, and which are in consequence bound and limited in mind and action, nevertheless aspire to high things and essay to climb out of the mineral kingdom into the larger measure of intelligence and will in the vegetable kingdom. In turn they slowly climb out of these restricted fields of mind and will into the still larger measure of liberty and action offered in the animal kingdom; the members of which in their turn, possessing the dawn of mind and the beginnings of free choice, are striving to leave their relatively limited fields and to climb upwards into the human kingdom, where self-conscious voluntary action is accompanied with the exercise of a relatively free intelligence.
It is only a superficial study of karma which could induce anyone to believe that its teaching could ever bring about a selfish or cruel ignoring of the claims upon us which our fellow human beings perpetually have. Woven as we all are together in intricate and complicate webs of destiny, man with man and with all other things in the universe, it becomes an obvious philosophical and religious postulate that mutual help and the carrying of each other's burdens, and the refraining from evil-doing in any manner or guise whatsoever, is the first law of our own destiny. It is precisely upon this web of interwoven destinies that reposes our conception of ethics as being no mere human convention, but as founded in the primordial laws of the universe itself.
Whether we will or nill, we cannot avoid affecting others, and if we by means of the exercise of our self-choice or free will affect others to their injury, the majestic and unerring law of cosmic justice and compassion instantly moves into action, and we shall feel the inevitable punitive consequence upon ourselves in this or in some later life. This is karma.
Thus, in the life of every individual human being, there is "not an accident in our lives, not a misshapen day, or a misfortune," except what comes to one from one's own thoughts and feelings and actions in this or in some former life. There is no chance or fortuity in the universe, and if anything could happen to us that we ourselves were not in some manner, near or distant, concerned with, or that we did not originate, then there would be gross injustice, fortuitous cruelty, and ground for despair. We make our lives great or mean, because of what we ourselves think, feel, will, and therefore do. It is only physical man with his human soul which suffers "unmerited" karmic retribution for what the reincarnating ego did in other lives; but for this "unmerited" suffering, nature has provided ample recompense in the special devachanic interludes between lives.
When a man refuses to extend a hand of help, he is but a semi-fiend in human shape, and nature's retribution will search him out through the ages and reach him some day, and then he will say: "Why has this fallen upon me? I have done nothing to merit this suffering."
Finally, in connection with the nature or character of karma, H. P. Blavatsky writes:
we consider it as the Ultimate Law of the Universe, the source, origin and fount of all other laws which exist throughout Nature. Karma is the unerring law which adjusts effect to cause, on the physical, mental and spiritual planes of being. As no cause remains without its due effect from greatest to least, from a cosmic disturbance down to the movement of your hand, and as like produces like, Karma is that unseen and unknown law which adjusts wisely, intelligently and equitably each effect to its cause, tracing the latter back to its producer. Though itself unknowable, its action is perceivable.
. . . For, though we do not know what Karma is per se, and in its essence, we do know how it works, and we can define and describe its mode of action with accuracy. We only do not know its ultimate Cause, just as modern philosophy universally admits that the ultimate Cause of anything is "unknowable." — The Key to Theosophy, p. 201
Life itself is the great web woven by living beings, "creators" of those particular strands which each one in its own sphere brings as its contribution to the general whole. It is precisely these multitudes of living beings of all-various types which play so large a part in the web of destiny which every man weaves around himself. These multitudes of beings are not only those which exist on our small earth, but comprise likewise the almost innumerable series of hierarchies, visible and invisible, which in the large weave the cosmic web. For indeed the universe is filled with spiritual beings or gods, the angels and archangels of the Jews and Christians; the rishis and devas of the Hindus; the celestial buddhas and bodhisattvas of the Buddhists; or the theoi and dii of the ancient Greeks and Romans respectively. It matters not at all what term is given, as long as there abides the fundamental conception that these causal intelligent and quasi-intelligent forces form the roots and the hierarchical structure both of the noumenal and of the phenomenal universe, and thus provide for that universe the entirety of the causal forces and energies which infill and move and agitate it.
We humans are the offspring of these inner energizing forces, these noumenal gods, who exist in all-various degrees of evolutionary development and in hierarchical degrees or states. Therefore are we in our own highest parts also such gods — but "fallen gods," fallen into the material worlds, out of and through which we are slowly working our way back to our divine cosmic source.
All these multitudinous hierarchies forever do their work under the sway of that mysterious habit of nature, or power, which we call karma. This Sanskrit term meaning "action" or "working," imbodies the teaching of "the doctrine of consequences" — otherwise the universal "law of cause and effect."
Again, the Esoteric Tradition repudiates any idea of there being "chance," "fortuity" — whatever these words may really mean — in the boundless universe. Certainly nobody can give a satisfactory definition of chance or fortuity as a fundamental attribute or quality existing in nature herself. When carefully examined, the idea is seen to be a mere fantasy; and, as it has been said: "We use the word 'chance' in order to describe our ignorance of things that we do not yet understand causally." Things happen, the origins of which are unknown or not understood. Nevertheless, when the forces and energies flowing into this physical universe appear here, we see in them consistency and coherency throughout; we see that they appear in logical and connected sequences, apparently always the same if the circumstances and conditions be the same, and we therefore say "a law of nature."
But where is the lawgiver? A law presupposes a lawgiver. One sees in this term the influence of the old Occidental theology. Theosophy uses the phrase "the operations of nature." When we talk of "laws of nature" do we mean certain operations of natural forces that pursue always the same courses, and that these forces have been set in motion by some great supreme individual called "God"? Absolutely not, for were that the fact, then this great supreme individual would de facto be responsible for everything that takes place in the universe created by such a being and working according to the laws imposed and set in motion by this supreme lawgiver. This would reduce men merely to natural automata; and to ascribe to such the possession of a free will, which neither by origin nor nature they would have, is a mere petitio principii — a begging of the question.
Man is one of an innumerable host of beings, imbodied consciousnesses, who infill the universe. Nowhere do we find anything other than these hierarchies of beings, these consciousnesses active during the cosmic manvantara, and each individual of these hosts weaving its own web of destiny, its energies pouring out of its own inner being and directed by the intelligence streaming from its own spiritual and mental foci. It is the combination and incessant interaction and interweaving of all these intelligences and wills and their consequent activities unceasingly operative in the universe that account for the inequalities that we see around us: as much for the imperfections that we see and of which we are more or less sensible, as for the beauty and splendor and the order and law of which we are likewise conscious.
It has been said that the origin of evil in the world and its continuance form an unsolvable mystery. But what is evil? What is good? Are they things in themselves, or are they solely conditions or states through which entities pass? Evil is not an entity; it is not a power or an energy which flows forth from the heart of some being. Neither good nor evil as conditions exist apart from each other. There could be no "evil" things in the universe unless there were "good" things by which the former appear in contrast. Good is not spirit. Evil is not the nether pole of spirit, or what is called matter; because that would be saying that matter is essentially evil, which is not true.
It should be understood that evil, however wicked it may humanly be, is nevertheless the result of the misuse of man's relatively free will — a divine thing. Moreover, the Esoteric Philosophy does not teach that human beings become good only by deliberately choosing evil as a course of action and learning by it. Giving oneself up to evil by choice is the sure way to spiritual and intellectual and ethical degeneration. These words are a most emphatic warning to those who misinterpret and distort the simple but luminous philosophical teaching which fills human life with hope and brilliant promise, because it shows how man may rise out of the mire of worse things into better.
There is no "devil" in the universe, who is supposed to be the ever-active suggester of evil and the arbiter of its crooked ways. Equally so, there is no anti-polar god in the universe, who is similarly supposed to be the creator and suggester of good, and the arbiter of its working. Again, matter is not evil per se, as some schools have held in the past; spirit is not good per se. Neither possesses its condition or state absolutely, and for eternity. A spiritual entity is evolving just as much as any material entity.
It is so easy to say that "God is love"; but do we not immediately perceive that infinite love must include also what we call evil? Can infinite love exclude from its encompassing infinitude even the greatest erring creature which in its origin had flowed forth from its own heart? Infinite love is infinite compassion, and includes even the erring and the ne'er-do-wells everywhere. The universe is filled with all kinds of creatures, in all stages of evolution, but the heart of divinity includes them all, for it is their parent and their source, and is the ultimate goal toward which everything is evolving through innumerable ages on their return pilgrimage to Itself.
What is divinity? Is it "a big man up there," who makes good creatures and makes evil creatures? If one say that God is responsible for any evil and erring part of infinity, however small the part may be, if one say that God created such an entity, this is to make that God individually and eternally responsible for whatever the hapless and irresponsible creature may do in the future forever; for, ex hypothesi, eternal and infinite wisdom foresaw the infinity of the future, and "created" the creature for whatever pathway it is destined to follow. In such case is not the true evildoer the supposititious "God" himself?
The Church Father Lactantius, writing "On the Anger of God," quotes Epicurus, who puts the problem of evil in the following significant way:
Either God wishes to remove evil from this world, and cannot, or he can and will not, or he neither can nor will, or, to conclude, he both can and will. If he will and cannot, it is impotence, which is contrary to the nature of God; if he can and will not, it is wickedness, and that is no less contrary to his nature; if he neither will nor can, it is wickedness and impotence at once; if he both can and will (which alone of these conditions is suitable to God), whence comes the evil which exists in the world? — ch. xiii
Also to quote the Doctrine of Reprobation of the Westminster Confession of Faith, chap. III, 3-4:
By the decree of God, for the manifestation of his glory, some men and angels are predestinated unto everlasting life, and other foreordained to everlasting death. These angels and men, thus predestined and foreordained, are particularly and unchangeably designed; and their number is so certain and definite that it cannot be either increased or diminished.
Theosophy accepts no such god, for such is very truly man's own creation, created by man's weak and erring mind, when projecting its own imaginations on the background of infinity. Instead, the heart of the universe is the source of all life, intelligence, order, and of everything that in man's inmost heart and highest mind he aspires toward.
Every entity everywhere is pursuing its own pathway of destiny, weaving its own web, but not merely around itself, for it itself is that web of destiny, because it is a web of character, therefore composite of a mingling of forces and substances which belong to its sevenfold (or tenfold) constitution.
Whatever touches our own life originates in ourselves: we are our own parents and our own children; for what we now sow we shall reap, and we reap what we have sown in this or in another life and naught else. No outside god creates misery and unhappiness and destruction to come upon us any more than does an outside god surround us with unearned joy and fortunate conclusions of the acts that we undertake; for in either of such cases neither of these states would we ourselves then be responsible for. We ourselves build ourselves; and in doing so we cooperate with other hierarchies to build that particular portion of the universe in which we are.
Every force in the universe thrills through our being, and every substance in the universe has done its proportionate part in building us up and therefore has given to us somewhat of itself. Thus it is that all the ancient mystical schools have spoken of man as the microcosm or "little world" containing in itself portions of everything that the universal parent contains and is. Therefore, because we are all parts of one all-inclusive cosmic consciousness and its vehicle, the surrounding universe, we are all here together. This is why also the expenditure of a certain amount of its own native energy by any entity will instantaneously act upon surrounding nature, which in its turn automatically reacts thereto. This reaction, however, may be instant or it may be delayed even for aeons; but in all events the reaction will sometime occur, for it is inescapably determined by the factors involved in the equation itself.
The teaching that we are all parts of a greater being is not to be misunderstood to signify fatalism. Fatalism is the notion that man and all other entities, no matter where, are the blindly driven motes of a soulless cosmic mechanism controlled by some overdominating force: blind, soulless, involving aimless wandering, coming from nowhere, and all without any defined objective whatsoever. This is the fatalism of the old materialistic school — which happily is now a virtually abandoned belief. The other fatalistic view is that men and all other things in the universe are the puppets of an inscrutable cosmic force, which probably possesses intelligence and will, and exercises these attributes in producing the cosmic fantasy of Creation, and in which naught but itself has any true power of self-choice. There is but little to choose between these two schools, except for the ascription of names to the one which are not used in the other.
The theosophist can accept neither the "determinism" of the old materialism nor the "indeterminacy" of the modern scientific schools, nor again the various varieties of fatalism which have at different times prevailed among philosophers and religionists. None of these meet the needs of man's intellect, nor the intuitions of his spirit, nor the aspirations of his soul; nor do any one of them respond to the instincts of his moral sense. Neither "chance" nor "kismet" is satisfactory; although there are in both these views certain adumbrations of the cosmic reality — that never-erring, impersonal operation of nature — Karma.
Every act done by any being anywhere, and every thought or emotion felt, is the enchained effect of some preceding cause — in every case arising in the chain of causation in the being of some living entity. Moreover, universes, solar systems, nebulae, comets, planets, cosmic spirits, men, elementals, life-atoms, and matter are not merely the resultants of each one's preceding and individual aggregate of karmic causes. Each one for itself is originating new karmic causes constantly, from itself or in interconnection with all others.
What originates these causes operative in and building the webs of destiny? There never was a "beginning" of such origination. Every cause in the chain of causation which stretches from eternity to eternity is but the effect of a preceding cause which in its turn is but the effect of a cause preceding it, and so forth ad infinitum; just as, looking forwards into what men call the future, every cause produces its effect, which instantly becomes a "new" cause in turn followed by an effect, ad infinitum.
This does not mean that karma and its action in time is merely mechanical and soulless. All karma of whatever kind, class, and degree is guided and controlled and therefore directed fundamentally by cosmic consciousness, and secondly by the multitudes of interlocking hierarchies, each conscious in its own degree and manner, which compose space. Karma is thus essentially not only a "function" of consciousness but is consciousness itself in action. The human mind with its imperfect development and therefore necessarily restricted range of vision cannot follow the movements of cosmic consciousness because of the immense amplitude of its vital motion, so that the human mind at best can conceive of cosmic consciousness existent in cosmic space as a shoreless sea apparently immutable and incomprehensibly still.
It is like the inhabitant of an infinitesimal particle of the human body imagining to itself the time-interval between two human heartbeats which would be to it a quasi-eternity; the sevenfold denary number of heartbeats in a single minute would be to it of a rate inconceivably slow, and covering a time-period which would seem endless.
The truth is, however, that the cosmic consciousness during the cosmic manvantara is in unceasing motion and indeed throughout the cosmic pralaya likewise; but just because cosmic space is divided up in particular hierarchies forming worlds and planes, and these in turn are divisible into entities still smaller, we can perceive that as these amplitudes of movement or magnitudes in space become smaller, the stage finally is reached where human intelligence can begin to see these cosmically smaller groups and their movements. The various galaxies forming families in space, then a single galaxy, then the star clusters, then a solar system, then a planet, thus we can descend the scale in our thought and perceive the small encompassed within continuously increasing ranges of greatness, and the small enclosing continuously decreasing ranges of other magnitudes reaching the infinitesimal.
Throughout it all Karma is incessantly active; and it should be noted that each minutest point in cosmic space or in the cosmic consciousness may be considered to be a monadic center, itself participating in the karmic cosmic labor. Every entity, great or small, collaborates on its own scale in the ranges of karmic action, and therefore is an agent of this mysterious, and to us incomprehensible, operation of nature's own essence which we call the "law" of karma — through infinity guided by ineffable Mind.
In illustration let us turn again to man, a composite being. His highest parts are pure divinity, pure consciousness, therefore pure mind, will and force. Having these qualities aggregated into a unity, and thus being an individual composite of both force and substance, not only interacting but acting exteriorly and receiving effects from the outside world, he is, therefore, an "actor" — one who originates acts, because the core of him is this central divine mind-will-energy, which is by its very nature perpetually active and at work, cosmically speaking. This divine mind-will-force always is attempting to self-express its transcendent powers through the veils of matter which in man, just as in all other beings, enshroud it.
Moreover, this fundamental and supreme cosmic self at the heart of things is sometimes said to be "above karma," although indeed it is the source of all possible karma, and therefore naturally has its own karma which we may specify as being divine. Consequently it is never affected by such lower karma because this divine entity may be called itself the fundamental operative consciousness-mind-substance of the universe. It is the causal harmony of that universe, and of all beings and things included therein, and therefore it is the very root and source of all the operations of nature: the root of karma itself. To say just what karma is would be extremely difficult, because it is and involves the profoundest cosmic mystery — the nature and operative activity of the essential being of cosmic consciousness-mind-substance-force itself.
Acting incessantly throughout all manifested differentiations it encloses within itself all imperfect expressions thereof. But it is only these differentiations which work imperfectly. Obviously, it is only the previously involved which later evolves — evolution or unfolding follows involution or infolding — and that which by its very nature is the absolute perfection or divine unity of the universe is the causal root of every one of the so-called operations of nature — the "laws of nature." Thus we see why this divine part of man's composite constitution is causally unaffected by the lower natural operations which are nevertheless its own outflowings, except in so far as these are destined in future aeons to return unto itself.
When this supreme consciousness of a man can so self-express its own transcendent powers, then we have free will. In proportion as a man evolves forth these inner and transcendent powers, by so much does he possess in ever larger degree the faculty of free choice, free action, free will. For free will is one aspect or energy of that ever unbroken thread of consciousness-mind-substance-force which unites us with boundless Infinity. No man has free will ungeared from the universe, for this would mean that he is outside the universe. Man has free will in degree, depending upon his individual development, because his inmost core is literally infinity, or what the Vedic sages called — That. His free will, therefore, is the element or principle that links him with the cosmic ultimate, because his inmost Self is identical with the heart of Parabrahman.
Free will, therefore, increases both in power and freedom in proportion as man advances upwards on the luminous arc on the consciousness-side of the universe; and it likewise decreases as man recedes from the consciousness-side toward an ever greater descent or "fall" into absolute matter, which in the last analysis may be described as crystallized or passive monads, which move, as it were, in perfect automatism with nature's own operations there.
The student of ancient literatures, particularly of the Orient and their more or less modern commentaries, has doubtless met with observations to the effect that when a man has reached the status of mastership he is then "above karma," above karmic reaction, and thus has passed beyond its sway. Such statements need to be taken with great reserve. It is perfectly true that man may indeed achieve so high a status in spiritual evolution, that he thereby becomes a direct and self-conscious collaborator, in his own sphere of course, with the cosmic laws; and thus may be said to be "above karma" insofar as the term karma here applies to his own evolution and character and activity as a man — however high may be the stage thus attained by him.
Yet it is equally true that the universal karma of cosmic being is the ultimate background of activity of the karma of the individual, because any individual whatsoever is inseparable from cosmic being — from the universe. The highest god in highest heaven is as much subject to universal karma as is the humblest ant climbing up a sandhill only to go tumbling down again.
A man or any entity, whatever the high state of evolutionary development attained may be, passes beyond the sway of the karmic action of the hierarchy to which he belongs when he has become in complete unity with the loftiest part of such a hierarchy. For the time being, the glorified man has reached quasi-divinity, because he has allied himself with the divine-spiritual portions of his own hierarchy; and as all the movements of his nature are then entirely harmonious and in accord with that hierarchy, he is beyond the state where as a subject of the hierarchy he comes under the sway or "rule" of the general field of karmic action in that hierarchy. Hence that hierarchical karma has no further sway over him, for in that hierarchy he has become a master of its life, because he is an agent of its inmost impulses and mandates. His mind and consciousness have slipped into the Shining Sea.
Nevertheless, because hierarchies in the boundless All are numberless, the particular hierarchy in which he now finds himself a master of life is but one of hosts of other hierarchies, some of them far lower, and others far higher. As compared with the boundless All, his own hierarchy, however great, shrinks to the dimensions of a mere mathematical point, an aggregated hierarchical atom in the fields of universal life. As the evolution of such an entity progresses, the time comes when he leaves his own hierarchy for larger spheres in the cosmic life, wherein he finds himself on the lowest rung of a new cosmic magnitude on the ladder of life, and thereupon immediately falls under the "governance" of the still greater karma of this sublime hierarchical sphere.
Man's will, therefore, at any moment, may justly be said to be partly fettered and partly free — the "freedom" steadily increasing as the evolving individual becomes ever more at-one with the divinity at his core, which is his own higher self and which is likewise the source of the consciousness of mind which guides his will into action.
Thus it is in the spirit of a being, in his inner spiritual sun, that resides the source of free will, expressing itself always outwards through the ethereal veils of its sevenfold constitution. The more evolved the entity, the greater the freedom of its will and consequently of its chosen actions. Free will is one of the constitutional and therefore inherent powers that man has. It is a godlike quality, in its origin a truly divine attribute. Even though the entire forces of the cosmos impinge upon man on all sides continuously, as completely during earth-life as in the antenatal and postmortem periods, he nevertheless has his portion of developed free will with which he may carve his destiny as he wills it to be.
What a marvelous conception it is, when we reflect that although we are as individuals inseparable parts and component factors in the mighty whole, yet no such individual is an automaton or will-less puppet of an inscrutable fate; but that every individual, because of its participation in the being of the cosmic essence, has its own portion forever of that cosmic essence, and thus is a being with free will insofar as by self-devised efforts it has freed that will. Thus it weaves its own web of destiny about itself, which indeed is itself.
Karma thus is seen to be of the timelessness and essence of the universe itself, and every individual, revolving through the many spheres of the universe, is not only itself making its own individual karma by weaving its individual web of destiny, but is likewise aiding as an agent thereof in weaving the karmic web which the universe itself is engaged upon.
In studying these matters we are all too prone to fall under the psychological sway of the cosmic mahamaya, or world-illusion, which we ourselves help to form, and it is because of this psychological bias that we are apt to take a limited view of things instead of rising into the free spaces of our inner spiritual being and there cognizing truth at first hand — cosmic reality. As an illustration of this, one can instance our subservience to the ideas of time, which we divide into past, present, and future; whereas could we recognize the real facts in the case, we would instantly see that these time-divisions are but illusory presentments of the cosmic mahamaya, and that there is neither past, nor present, nor future, as existing realities, but solely and only an eternal now.
Is karma itself an aspect of this world-illusion — so real to us who are in it because partaking of its character, yet so unreal from the standpoint of Reality? Or shall we not more truly say that karma is of the very substance and essence of Reality, and that it is, therefore, the real cause of the cosmic illusion itself? It would seem obvious that if karma is the cosmic cause of the world-illusion and therefore of all the minor mayas which enfold us as evolving individuals, it is both precedaneous to and productive of and nevertheless involved in this world-illusion or cosmic mahamaya.
It is utterly erroneous to suppose that the past can ever be separate from either the present or the future; it is our illusion of time which brings this confusion about. To us, who are creatures of maya in a sense, it is very real, and it is therefore quite proper to take cognizance of the past as well as of the future in their bearing upon the present. But it is wrong to consider any one of these three as being independent of or ungeared from the others, for the three in reality are fundamentally one.
Karma is neither fate nor fortuitous action, but, being rooted in the Unthinkable, itself is of the very essence of cosmic mind and therefore is a function of cosmic mind. We may call it cosmic destiny; we may call it Necessity, provided that we ascribe to this word Necessity no erroneous attribute of blind fatality. The ancient Greeks understood clearly enough this concept of Necessity or inflexible destiny — under its name of Adrasteia, or Nemesis. The essential meaning was as follows: if a man sows wheat or barley, he certainly will not reap oats or maize or some other grain; he will reap only what he has sown.
Hesiod, the great Greek poet and philosopher, sang that the so-called Fates were three: Past, Present, and Future; and in common with other Greeks, he gave to these three aspects of karmic destiny the following names which he figurated as divinities: Lachesis, who presided over the past, which meant for any individual all that he had thought or felt or been and all that he had done. This word Lachesis comes from a Greek root meaning "to come about."
The second divinity represented the destiny or necessity of the present time called Klotho, derived from a Greek word meaning "to spin" — that destiny which a human being at any present time is spinning for himself; in other words, he is presently weaving the web of his future destiny.
The third of the divinities was Atropos, a Greek compound which means "that which cannot be avoided or turned aside" — the future destiny, derived from the present weaving, which web, again, is woven according to the lines of thought and action of the past.
The past is what has made the man what he now is; and according to that past he now spins in the present the web of himself, and this web presently in spinning will eventuate in that which cannot be turned aside or stayed in the future, and which therefore becomes Necessity, destiny, that which the man will reap as the fruitage of his own thoughts and feelings and actions — his own soul- and body-harvest of the future. This chain of causation and consequence is the pathway that we have trod in the past; and the pathway that we shall tread in the future will depend entirely upon what we now are making for ourselves. What is the future in itself? Is it something ahead of us? No; it is what we call the "past"; for, strictly speaking, there is nothing but an eternal now — another way of saying a functioning of the essence of cosmic consciousness.
We are continually altering the karma of every one we know; because no human being can at any time live unto himself alone. We are responsible to each other. Every time one person passes another in the street, in a infinitesimal degree each is affecting the mind of the other. Each may have changed the direction that the other first took in walking, which very change may involve one of them in an automobile accident; or, contrariwise, their passing in the street may make one of them change his direction and possibly save him from an accident.
Everything is a link in a chain of causation, in the making of which every individual, high or low, has its own part to play and therefore affects powerfully or weakly every other individual or unit. Some do it almost automatically, and others more or less with a self-consciously directed will; but however it may be done, it is always with consciousness and will behind it all. It is this action and interaction of individuals upon each other during the great manvantaric cycle, which produces the complex situations and conditions in which every evolving individual finds itself at any moment in time and space.
If actions, producing effects upon others, originate in or be motivated by impersonal thought and will, for the good of others or for the common good, ethically speaking such actions and their consequent effects produce "good karma." The reactive consequences upon the originator of such actions is often beneficial, and at the worst productive of a mild sort of what one may describe as "relatively bad karma" — the "badness" or unpleasantness arising in the fact that no human being is all-wise or all-good, and obviously therefore his judgment preceding any such action may be faulty because limited, and faltering because of weakness of will.
Yet no human being should ever hesitate to act and to act strongly for the benefit of others, where and when help is needed, and especially where appeal for help is made. It is his bounden duty to do so, to the best of his ability, judgment, and understanding. It is only a moral and intellectual coward who will refrain from rendering help when it is seen to be needed or who will turn aside in stony-hearted indifference. Such refusal to act is immediately productive of a chain of karmic consequences which some day will find him out and will fall upon him in direct ratio to the causative situations which gave them birth.
On exactly the same lines does karma act or react upon those who themselves act upon others for personal gain or who from selfish motives attempt to impose their will upon others. The motive in either case is what distinguishes the making of "good" karma or "bad" karma.
Just as it is the moral and natural duty of a human being in every set of circumstances impersonally and unselfishly to aid others for their good, equally so is it his duty to refrain from acting selfishly and for personal gain. The former case arises in motives which in their essence are divine; the latter in motives which in their essence we may qualify as diabolic. It is when we affect others to their detriment that there arise those frequent cases of "unmerited suffering" — the unmerited suffering of those who are thus the karmic "victims" of the selfish deeds of others. Nevertheless, karma and its manner of action — both in nature and in the complicate relations in which individuals are entangled — is always traceable back to some originating cause in themselves. Karma is caused and suffered by the original actor; not otherwise.
To set out consciously to interfere with the karma of another would be practicing what it has become popular to call "black magic," and this is so even if the motive be originally good. Every man should indeed do all in his power to prevent another man from consciously doing evil, and likewise to try to make him do better: not by imposing his will upon the other, but by precept and example. But if the mind of the other does not react to it from its own inner impulses and knowledge because of recognizing its moral worth; in other words, if the other does not react from choice, but is made to react because of another's will being imposed upon him — which is what a hypnotist does — this indeed is diabolic.
If a man loves another greatly, can he not save his friend from future sorrow by taking upon himself his friend's karma? The question is purely academic, because when the last word is said, the karma of the friend is the friend himself, and therefore the answer in general is comprised in an emphatic negative. Nevertheless, there is a possibility, not indeed of taking upon oneself the friend's karma, but of shouldering by means of a powerful will and a high intelligence directed to that end, a certain portion, be it large or small, of the consequences which in the normal course of nature, with heavy and perhaps crushing effect, would fall upon the friend. The secret in such a situation lies in allying one's own life intimately with the life of the one whose heavy karma it is thus hoped to aid in carrying or exhausting; but for the one who attempts such noble action there is a consequent and inescapable "making of new karma," which the one thus assuming the burden makes for himself.
Thus it is possible to involve oneself in the karma of another, and the doing of this is in every case fraught with either suffering or danger to the one who attempts it. As a matter of fact, it is constantly done by human beings blindly and often from selfish or ignoble motives; but there are cases, and they are relatively numerous, in which one does this with one's eyes more or less open to the perilous consequences that may ensue. If such action is taken solely for the benefit of the one it is desired thus to aid, the motive is both impersonal and sublime, and therefore the resultant karmic effects will be in no case stained by any tinge of a selfish originating cause. Where such noble and altruistic action is taken for the benefit of all that lives, it is buddha-like, it is christ-like. It is, however, a perilous procedure for those who have neither the wisdom nor the discrimination of a buddha or a christ; but the motive in all such cases is holy, and therefore of necessity in time redounds to ennoble and strengthen the character and to purify the intellect and moral nature of those who so act.
One of the noblest doctrines of the Esoteric Philosophy deals with the existence and nature of the work of the buddhas of compassion. It tells of their utter self-sacrifice for the benefit of the world, and how they deliberately renounce, for ages perhaps, their own evolutionary advancement in order to return into the world of men for the purpose of compassionate help. They not only by precept and example show us the path to the gods, but they actually live and work among men. Like the dhyani-chohans of compassion in their own sphere, out of their infinite care they reach downwards into our own sphere, and pass lifetimes, it may be, in this sphere of relative spiritual darkness.
Such action on the part of these great beings is in all cases voluntary and therefore self-chosen; yet in one sense their renunciation of individual progress may be called karmic. Yet, this does not involve the degradation of their lofty spiritual stature, nor the losing of the karmic compensation which at some time in the future will infallibly be their guerdon. While their action is voluntary, it is taken for the benefit of all that lives, and this being in character of the nature of the divine, the consequences flowing therefrom will be of corresponding type. Although greatly misinterpreted, the Christian church drew its doctrine of vicarious atonement from this source. The Esoteric Philosophy, however, does not admit that there is any substantial truth in the Christian dogma, for as it has been understood for centuries in the Christian church it is directly counter to and violative of the fundamental principle involved in karmic law — to wit, that no human being can escape either in whole or in part the karmic fruits or consequences of his actions, in their turn born of his thoughts and feelings.
Like many and perhaps all of the fundamental tenets of Christianity, it was born from a greatly misinterpreted teaching of the wisdom-religion of antiquity; but such misinterpretations are far more dangerous, because distorted, than are obviously untrue philosophical or religious speculations.
Any man can always search out ways and means of helping those he loves, as well as those who have not yet evoked his love but who may be equally in need of compassionate aid. He can do so without infringing upon their free will as individuals. We have no right spiritually, intellectually, psychically, or physically to attempt to control the free will or free action of another. Imagine for a moment that it is possible to take over the burden of another, perhaps by affecting the direction his own will takes — in such attempt, which actually is impossible of achievement, we deliberately interfere with the self-choice or free will of that other, and thus, instead of doing a service to him, we are in actual fact doing him a disservice. We are weakening his character throughout, instead of acting impersonally and indirectly, which both aids him in his trouble and strengthens his character, preparing him more easily to carry his own karmic burden as one should.
Compassion is nature's fundamental law. As H. P. Blavatsky says in The Voice of the Silence:
Help Nature and work on with her; and Nature will regard thee as one of her creators and make obeisance. — p. 14
The man who would stand idly by when another is in trouble, listening with stony-hearted indifference to the cries of misery and pain without stirring a finger to assuage the suffering, is acting directly contrary to nature's fundamental law, and is thus taking upon himself a heavy burden of karmic responsibility, which nature, in its reestablishment of harmony, will infallibly visit upon him to the uttermost of his fault.
It is an entire distortion of the doctrine of karma to think that because some human being is undergoing disaster, or is in a situation of distress, he therefore should be left unhelped and uncomforted on the fallacious and heartless ground that he is "merely working out his karmic desserts." This idea is monstrous, and runs directly counter to all the teachings of the great seers and sages. In The Voice of the Silence, one of the most beautiful devotional works of any time, we find these significant words:
Inaction in a deed of mercy becomes an action in a deadly sin. — p. 31
Deliberate and willful inaction, when action in a deed of mercy is humanly called for, runs so directly counter to nature's own structural and fundamental operations, that he thereby makes of himself a temporary point of opposition to nature's forces, and in doing so inaugurates for himself a stream of karmic consequences which will react upon him as powerfully and as positively as if he had with his own will and deliberate choice done some strong deed of evil.
The Buddha, the Christ, and other great ones have left behind them in no uncertain words the doctrine of our ethical responsibility to all others. Self-forgetful action in compassionate service teaches us how speedily to find the resources of our own hearts and minds; how most quickly to develop the finer parts of our spiritual and intellectual faculty. Benevolence running to beneficent action in service to others may truly be described as the royal road of discipleship:
Let thy Soul lend its ear to every cry of pain like as the lotus bares its heart to drink the morning sun.
Let not the fierce Sun dry one tear of pain before thyself hast wiped it from the sufferer's eye.
But let each burning human tear drop on thy heart and there remain, nor ever brush it off, until the pain that caused it is removed. — Ibid., pp. 12-13
It is easy enough to go through life involved in one's own personal and purely selfish affairs, but the consequences of such a course of living turn to the ashes of death in the mouth. Such a course of life shrivels the character and bemeans it, because the sphere of action becomes more and more restricted and localized. A man cannot live unto himself alone; when he does try to do so, he begins to run foul not only of nature's laws but of human laws made by his fellow men. Fire such a man's imagination, and in a little while he begins to see that genuine spiritual, intellectual, and social cooperation for the common good is man's real work. A man is great insofar as he succeeds in doing this, and weak and ignoble in proportion as he separates himself from his fellow-men. It is lack of spiritual imagination which makes men selfish and which causes them in their blindness and ignorance to follow the left-hand path, the path of individual getting, almost always at the cost of others' welfare.
It is the great men who embark upon great courses because their vision is great, and it is the small men, because of their ignorance and restricted vision, who try to separate themselves off into a little corner of selfhood there to live for themselves in ignoble isolation. Nature will not long tolerate it. Consider the universe around us. Is there a single sun, is there a single atom, that can live unto itself alone? When any individual element tries to follow its own selfish path, all the other elements in the universe range themselves against it, and little by little it is forced by the immense cosmic pressure to come back into the order and harmony of the universe. A man who works with nature, who works for harmony, for compassion and brotherhood, has all nature's evolutionary stream with him; and the man who works for hate, who works for personal gain, who sets his puny will against nature's evolving river of lives, has all nature's incalculable weight pressing against him.
There is nothing so intellectually crippling and so spiritually blinding as a dwelling in one's own limited personal powers. Therein lie neither happiness, nor peace, nor wisdom. When men follow this path, it spells conflict, pain, and suffering. Yet it is mainly through pain and suffering, and the weariness of conflict and strife, that men learn to seek the sunlighted ways of wisdom and peace. Pain and suffering are therefore angels in disguise — the growing-pains of future achievement. They can stimulate our intellect, arouse our sleeping and often cold hearts, and thus teach us sympathy for others.
Whatever an individual does, not only he himself is responsible for it, but also other individuals are strongly affected thereby; often in such profound and mysterious ways that the original karmic cause leading such affected individuals into a sphere of contact with the original actor is extremely difficult to uncover. Usually these originating causes of the crisscrossing of any strands of the different webs of two individuals lie in the far past karmic history of both, whether it be in the last life, or, what is more likely, in another preceding life in the distant past. Thus we bring joy to others by our thoughts and feelings and their outflowing consequences as acts. In an exactly identical way we bring upon them pain and grief, for which they are only indirectly and inactively responsible, and thus bring upon them "unmerited suffering," for which the karmic law will hold us strictly accountable, but proportioned to the magnitude of our fault.
For there is indeed such a thing as "unmerited suffering," but this phrase must in no circumstances be construed to mean "unjust suffering," or, on the other hand, that such "unmerited suffering" has no karmic cause in the actor and his victim.
The truth of the matter is that what we with our imperfectly developed intelligence and lack of vision call "unmerited suffering" is but a minor aspect of the more fundamental law of karma: inflexible cosmic justice guided by cosmic wisdom and active throughout eternity. It would be wrong to suppose that a man's present karma could be independent of his past — which is equivalent to saying his past karma; and intimately connected with this is the other idea that the future, though to us apparently based on the past and the present, is in the cosmic view identic with the eternal now.
H. P. Blavatsky has written on the subject "unmerited suffering" in The Key to Theosophy:
Our philosophy teaches that Karmic punishment reaches the Ego only in its next incarnation. After death it receives only the reward for the unmerited sufferings endured during its past incarnation. . . . Some Theosophists have taken exception to this phrase, but the words are those of Master, and the meaning attached to the word "unmerited" is that given above. . . . the essential idea was that men often suffer from the effects of the actions done by others, effects which thus do not strictly belong to their own Karma — and for these sufferings they of course deserve compensation. . . . The whole punishment after death, even for the materialist, consists, therefore, in the absence of any reward, and the utter loss of the consciousness of one's bliss and rest. Karma is the child of the terrestrial Ego, the fruit of the actions of the tree which is the objective personality visible to all, as much as the fruit of all the thoughts and even motives of the spiritual "I"; but Karma is also the tender mother, who heals the wounds inflicted by her during the preceding life, before she will begin to torture this Ego by inflicting upon him new ones. If it may be said that there is not a mental or physical suffering in the life of a mortal which is not the direct fruit and consequence of some sin in a preceding existence; on the other hand, since he does not preserve the slightest recollection of it in his actual life, and feels himself not deserving of such punishment, and therefore thinks he suffers for no guilt of his own, this alone is sufficient to entitle the human soul to the fullest consolation, rest, and bliss in his post-mortem existence.
. . . At the solemn moment of death every man, even when death is sudden, sees the whole of his past life marshalled before him, in its minutest details. . . . But this instant is enough to show to him the whole chain of causes which have been at work during his life. He sees and now understands himself as he is, unadorned by flattery or self-deception. He reads his life, remaining as a spectator looking down into the arena he is quitting; he feels and knows the justice of all the suffering that has overtaken him. — pp. 161-2
. . . Reincarnation will gather around him all those other Egos who have suffered, whether directly or indirectly, at the hands, or even through the unconscious instrumentality, of the past personality. They will be thrown by Nemesis in the way of the new man, concealing the old. — p. 141
Enq. But, surely, all these evils which seem to fall upon the masses somewhat indiscriminately are not actual merited and individual Karma?
Theo. No, they cannot be so strictly defined in their effects as to show that each individual environment, and the particular conditions of life in which each person finds himself, are nothing more than the retributive Karma which the individual generated in a previous life. We must not lose sight of the fact that every atom is subject to the general law governing the whole body to which it belongs, and here we come upon the wider track of the Karmic law. Do you not perceive that the aggregate of individual Karma becomes that of the nation to which those individuals belong, and further, that the sum total of National Karma is that of the World? . . . it is upon this broad line of Human interdependence that the law of Karma finds its legitimate and equable issue. — p. 202
Turning now to The Mahatma Letters, we find the following brief allusion to the same matter:
. . . "the adept becomes, he is not made" is true to the letter. Since every one of us is the creator and producer of the causes that lead to such or some other results, we have to reap but what we have sown. Our chelas are helped but when they are innocent of the causes that lead them into trouble; when such causes are generated by foreign, outside influences. Life and the struggle for adeptship would be too easy, had we all scavengers behind us to sweep away the effects we have generated through our own rashness and presumption. — p. 310
The teacher points out that even the chelas, although chelas because of preceding karmic causes, are helped when they are "innocent" of the originating causes leading to trouble. This is because chelas are as it were entrants into a new world, into a new sphere of forces, all of them dangerous and some of them terrible, wherein these chelas are in a sense like little children unable successfully to meet and repel "foreign outside influences" which impinge upon them. Precisely so with the child who is born into a new world almost helpless, needing guidance and aid from its parents; yet if the little child pokes its finger into the fire, the finger is burned and the child's innocence is no protection to it. To prevent such catastrophes the parents watch over the child.
The parallel is exact where chelas are concerned. Born into a new world, of which the forces and influences are "foreign" and "outside," they are almost helpless, unable to protect themselves adequately, and in consequence are carefully watched over and guided until they grow accustomed to the new world. Yet if the chela ignores the master's warnings and deliberately "pokes his finger" into the fire, or willfully experiments with the dread forces and denizens of the new world, he must reap the consequences.
There is "unmerited suffering" in the sense of the imperfect personal man's suffering in the set of circumstances in one life what that particular "person," the "new man" of the present life, is not self-consciously conscious of having caused, who therefore suffers keenly from the apparently uncaused but nevertheless karmic events which befall him.
The above covers the case so far as the minor operation or "track" of karmic law is concerned. Turning now to the general statements of the law which is all-inclusive and therefore comprise likewise the minor track called "unmerited sufferings," it could not be better stated than in H. P. Blavatsky's own words in The Secret Doctrine:
. . . Karma-Nemesis, or the Law of Retribution. This Law — whether Conscious or Unconscious — predestines nothing and no one. It exists from and in Eternity, truly, for it is Eternity itself; and as such, since no act can be co-equal with eternity, it cannot be said to act, for it is action itself. It is not the Wave which drowns a man, but the personal action of the wretch, who goes deliberately and places himself under the impersonal action of the laws that govern the Ocean's motion. Karma creates nothing, nor does it design. It is man who plans and creates causes, and Karmic law adjusts the effects; which adjustment is not an act, but universal harmony, tending ever to resume its original position, like a bough, which, bent down too forcibly, rebounds with corresponding vigour. If it happen to dislocate the arm that tried to bend it out of its natural position, shall we say that it is the bough which broke our arm, or that our own folly has brought us to grief? . . . Karma is an Absolute and Eternal law in the World of manifestation; . . . for Karma is one with the Unknowable, of which it is an aspect in its effects in the phenomenal world. — 2:304-6
The difficulty lies in the unconscious idea that the masters and H. P. Blavatsky were guilty, consciously or otherwise, of "contradictions." This is not so; there are no contradictions, but we have here real paradoxes. Everything that happens to an individual is karmic, but as this individual is constantly evolving, thus changing its character, therefore its destiny, if the karmic retribution be not immediate — as it rarely is — its effects, light or heavy, fall upon the "later man" or "new man," who thus in very truth, being a larger incarnation or imbodiment of the soul-forces of the higher nature, can be said with justice to undergo "unmerited suffering"; but it is karmic retribution just the same.
Karma often is exhausted through its mysterious and inscrutable works by bringing about through the instrumentality of the reincarnating ego a purging of the latter, which the hapless "new man" — a ray-child of the reincarnating ego — has to suffer however as "unmerited" pain. His compensation is the long, even though illusory, bliss of the devachan.
Nothing whatsoever can touch us unless we ourselves in some manner, somewhen, somewhere, have so acted as to arouse the sleeping or active forces of nature, which thereupon sooner or later react upon us in proportion exactly with the cause originating in ourselves. Karma, therefore, and traced back to its origin, is the consequence of the action of our own free will. The free-willing entity thinks, feels, or acts, setting in motion thereby an inescapable train of consequences which, because we are essentially one with the universe, some day flow back upon us as karmic consequences. They could never have touched us unless we as entities, having free will, set those natural forces in action.
Karma is not something outside of ourselves, in the sense of being apart from our inner essence. The cosmic karmic law, so far as the individual is concerned, is always quiescent unless aroused into action by the thoughts and feelings and consequent acts of the individual himself. Every man is weaving the fabric of his own being throughout unending time. He himself is therefore his own web of destiny.
Before the reincarnating ego reimbodies itself, guided by the divine-spiritual monad within it, because of its inherent faculty of relatively free will or power of choice, it has the capacity of selecting those congruent karmic causes which in the life then opening it can best work out as karmic effects. This is the same power of selection at the beginning of a new birth on earth that every normal man uses in his whole incarnation, when he chooses from day to day, from year to year, the course of action which seems to him to be preferred; and there are possibly a thousand million different choices that he might have made at each such moment of selection. We have an infinite number of karmic experiences behind us; and at each new life when we appear on the stage to play our new role, we do so strictly according to the karmic part that we have selected or chosen from the book of our then awakened vision and memory. Those karmic causes not then selected by us we shall have to choose or imbody in a subsequent selection, when in some future new life we shall begin a new career on earth. But as regards any one earth-life, there are invariable certain conditions, involving a certain selection and consequent path of action, lying before us, bringing us to certain civilizations, certain families — and the watching and waiting higher self oversees this general field of our choice. The only difference between the man making his choice and the higher self, is that the higher self has a forevision and a hindvision, which by comparison with the discrimination of the incarnated man are incomparably stronger and more sure.
The thoughts we think, the emotions we allow to sway us, and the consequent acts we do, all bear their fruitage in this life or in some succeeding life when their chance for manifestation occurs; then out they come, a rushing tide of energies — these latent forces which we have built into ourselves and which in the aggregate we call our character. When the environment is ready, our character then manifests correspondingly for our own weal or woe. It is thus that we atone finally for our misdeeds toward others, and indeed to ourselves; and the resultant of all this in the grand sweep of time and destiny, eventuates in a strengthening and developing evolution of the substance of our character toward a grander and ever-expanding destiny.
In The Secret Doctrine H. P. Blavatsky says:
But verily there is not an accident in our lives, not a misshapen day, or a misfortune, that could not be traced back to our own doings in this or in another life. If one breaks the laws of Harmony, or, as a theosophical writer expresses it, "the laws of life," one must be prepared to fall into the chaos one has oneself produced. — 1:643-4
Nevertheless, because of the extremely intricate nature of the webs of destiny in which we are all involved, causing us to act and react upon others, we often suffer dumbly and as it were unfairly, because we have no cognitional memory of the originating causes of our suffering. Yet because our characters have improved by the coming into us of new streams of spiritual energy, however feeble these may be, we have the strong feeling that the suffering and pain which we undergo are "unmerited" — and so they are for the "new man" which in the later incarnation we have become. It was not this "new man" which committed the deeds, lived the selfish and perhaps ignoble life of the "old man"; and consequently to the "new man" of the present life, with his changed character and more noble spiritual impulses and larger intellectual vision, the suffering that comes upon him is not strictly in the "new man's" karma — although it is strict karmic justice following upon the causal actions of the "old man" who was, but now no longer is because he has become the "new man."
Consider the following illustration: a young man commits a crime when he is twenty years old. He is successful in hiding it. As he grows in maturity, his reincarnating ego by a steady infusion into his brain-mind of a larger flow of its own monadic wisdom and intelligence, gradually changes his life greatly for the better, so that in his sixtieth year, let us say, he has already become known in his community as not only a good man, but an honorable citizen, an affectionate and faithful father and friend, and in general an example of upright manhood. This is because the "soul" of him is more largely incarnated.
But in his sixtieth year, due to some karmic causes, his crime becomes known. He sees crashing around him all that he held dear. His reputation is at stake. His friends and his family are seriously affected, and he himself suffers the tortures of the damned. One is reminded here of the case of Jean Valjean, in Victor Hugo's Les Miserables. Question: Is this man of sixty responsible for the crime of the wayward lad of twenty? Human law says Yes. The Esoteric Tradition says not entirely, for here the "new man" is undergoing "unmerited suffering" for the sin of the hapless and thoughtless "old man" of twenty. The point here is that the man of sixty is not the same as the man of twenty, albeit from birth until death the reincarnating ego is the same, and thus undergoes retribution, karmically speaking, through the sufferings brought about by the man of twenty.
Transfer the illustration to the reincarnating ego in its passage through several births. In one of its preceding lives, some crime was committed by the "man" of that life; its karmic causes endure and, let us say at the fourth reincarnation thereafter, the "new man" of this fourth rebirth finds himself suffering unaccountably from others' acts, and can see no causal justice in it all. His sufferings in this fourth life are indeed "unmerited" by this "new man"; but the reincarnating ego is the seat of the original causes of the "old man"; and thus although the "new man" suffers with unmerited trouble and grief, we see that the causes on the large scale were made several lives before.
Take the mahatma who is the karmic fruitage of the "old man" of far past lives. Should this "new man" undergo any suffering in his present life, due to the karmic consequences of the wrong doing of the "old man" now long past? Can we say that the mahatma has "merited" such portion of karmic retribution as now in nature's infinite justice he is working out? Certainly not; yet karmic indeed it is; nevertheless the mahatma did not commit the follies and wickednesses of this long-past karmic parent, the "old man" who was.
The illustration is exaggerated so far as the mahatma's undergoing as "unmerited suffering" those lower reactions of karmic destiny which are so common to the ordinary man; but not exaggerated or even understated when we take into consideration the unmerited and immense load of karmic responsibility which the entire Hierarchy of Compassion, headed by the buddhas of compassion, deliberately take upon themselves for the benefit of the world.
Of course, we are bound even here to ascribe this sublime choice to the spiritual and intellectual training of these great ones, extending over many past lives, and due to the accumulated karmic "merit" of many small choices made in those past lives to ally themselves with the light-side of nature. Thus this binding of a great soul unto the karmic responsibility, perhaps for many lives of repeated incarnations for the benefit of humanity, is karmic in its origin. Yet it is "unmerited" in the sense that the loss of all individual progress by the mahatma for the benefit of mankind is due to no fault or defection of character in him, but solely to the sublime instincts of infinite compassion. Here we see clearly the difference between the pratyeka-buddhas and the buddhas of compassion.
There are different kinds of karma. For instance, there is our own individual karma, and our family karma; there is our national karma and there is the karma of our globe; there is likewise the karma affecting our planet as one of the family of the solar system. The solar system again is a component part of our home-universe, called the galaxy, and so on ad infinitum — all a marvelous working of action and interaction.
Here is a key to what is meant by "partly unmerited karma." A man's individual karma draws him to incarnate in a particular nation at a particular time, and he is thereby subjected to all the intricate conditions and incidental happenings of the nation of which he composes a part, and by which he is swept into a larger course of destiny and action than perhaps would have been his karma or destiny had his individual karma been different, leading him to some other national sphere. He thus is swept on by the current of circumstances — although in the last analysis due to his own past sowing of karmic causes — along with the karma of the nation of which he now forms a part. A flood or a famine sweeps over this home or the country in which he lives. A tidal wave comes in upon the land and drowns twenty thousand human beings. Or again an earthquake shakes down a city and scores of thousands perish in the disaster. In every case the man who finds himself in such surroundings has put himself there as the consequence of previous karmic action in this or in another life.
The universe, precisely because it is an aggregate of literally innumerable webs of destiny, is composite of vast interacting, intermingling hierarchies both great and small, each one an individual by itself, but all karmically involved in and encompassed by the oversoul of the universe — our own home-universe in the present instance — and all in the last analysis karmically subservient and obedient to this oversoul's fundamental svabhava or characteristic cosmic "law" or web of "laws." Consequently, each one of us is in his inmost essence identic with the oversoul of the universe, i.e. the fundamental essence of the universe. Its origin is ours, its destiny is ours, and its "laws" are ours. We are thus conscious or unconscious collaborators with the universe, each one of us enjoying his own measure of free will, and yet subject to the grand sweep of its harmony and its cosmical impulses arising from the great fundamental tone and essence of our common being.
Hence the exterior or nature-aspect of karma is the always supreme and usually overriding activity of the oversoul as working through all things from within, and upon us from the outside, because of our eternal and intimate union and contact with all other beings. Thus it will be seen that "unmerited karma" is that which we suffer from the impact upon us of the forces and beings of the world in which we live; and on a larger scale from the impact of forces and beings of the surrounding universe.
Strictly on the hierarchical scheme, we live within the vital and ethereal as well as psychical, intellectual, and spiritual life-being of entities far greater than we; and, to a certain extent because of this fact, we must slavishly follow them in their own wide-sweeping cosmic thoughts and acts, exactly as the life-atoms composing my body must follow the mandates of my personal will, and hence must go with me when I go to another part of the world. The life-atoms in my body have no choice in the matter; yet this is in no wise fatalism. While this often brings about a great deal of "unmerited suffering" in life, the individual ego infallibly shall receive due karmic recompense in the devachan for the trials which it has experienced in the life just closed.
Moreover, because man is a composite entity, the bundle of forces and substances which compose him and form his constitution, often work in temporarily inharmonious manners which produce what in many cases can be called unmerited suffering. For example: There is in man a spiritual entity, call it the inner buddha or the immanent christ. There is in man likewise a human entity, call it the human soul. Now this christ-entity which works through the human entity will sometimes bring the human entity into situations of pain and suffering (so that the human entity may learn thereby) which the human entity nevertheless, partly consciously, partly unconsciously, helped to bring about by its selfless devotion and impersonal yearning to grow, but which it did not itself self-consciously choose. The consequences are in many cases unmerited by the merely human entity; nevertheless it could not have occurred to this human entity even by the immanent christ's or inner buddha's working through it unless the human entity had, like a child groping in the night, put itself into the place of the mediator or transmitter of the spiritual impulses arousing the action of the ever watchful and unerring karmic law. It is, on both sides of the matter, karma. Some people, seeing only one side of the equation, will say "unmerited" since the human entity suffers because of the god's working through it. Other people seeing only the other side, will say, no, fully "merited" because the human entity itself acted. The solution of the subtle problem is by combining the two — and discovering that they are both two sides of the one coin.
Now, reversing the illustration, which is on the foundation of the Christian theological scheme which has been so frightfully misunderstood, dating almost from the time of the death of the avatara Jesus: the man, by reason of his weaknesses and deliberate choosing of evil and of imperfect good, makes the immanent christ or the inner buddha within himself suffer continually, and undergo thereby "unmerited" suffering and pain. Yet the inner buddha or the immanent christ in its unspeakable beauty and desire for the greater good of the man, deliberately so acts as a plank of salvation for the best good of the imperfect human instrument which it oversees and through which it is working.
These two mysterious and wonderful processes are going on within us all the time; and here again we see one reason why our karma is so intricate, and why the philosopher of one school, catching only one gleam of light where there are numbers of rays, says fatalism; and the philosopher of another school, seeing only one facet of light, says utter free will, and an almost inactive cosmic law. Both are wrong, yet both are right, in some degree. Man is more than his single imperfect human will and intelligence, because he is a compound being. Through him, as the very core of his being, works the unfettered and majestic power of the Brahmic atman, involving relatively utter free will and wisdom, both of cosmic character.
The words "unmerited" and "merited," therefore, must not be taken too literally. The masters and H. P. Blavatsky taught the doctrine of karma from the Buddhist standpoint, because it is there perhaps best elaborated. The Buddhist teaching is that every human being at any instant of his existence is but the karmic fruitage of all preceding instants. Furthermore, that every instant, every new earth-life, produces a "new man," with "new" increments of intelligence, will and discrimination, of conscience as well as of consciousness, so that each new earth-life is a "new man" who is different from the "old man" of the last preceding earth-life, and yet is that karmic product of that last earth-life and of the preceding earth-lives. Thus it is that a man at any moment during the long series of imbodiments is strictly the karma of all preceding imbodiments, and in consequence the man at any moment in his long pilgrimage is his own karma.
In the words of the Lord Buddha, as imbodied in the old Buddhist scripture called the Dhammapada:
All that we are is the result of what we have thought: it is founded on our thoughts, it is made up of our thoughts. If a man speaks or acts with an evil thought, pain follows him, as the wheel follows the foot of the ox that draws the carriage.
All that we are is the result of what we have thought: it is founded on our thoughts, it is made up of our thoughts. If a man speaks or acts with a pure thought, happiness follows him, like a shadow that never leaves him. — 1:1-2
When an avalanche buries a man, the ignorant cry at once: What a sad and what an unmerited death! True enough from the standpoint of that body, because the body did not bring it about. But the reincarnating ego, as a chain of inescapable karmic cause and effect, running through and from all preceding lives, brought that body to be walking at the spot at that identical time; and the ego in its own sphere is quasi-omnipotent so far as this physical sphere of manifestation is concerned, and thus karmically brought about the death of its own body.
This illustration, however, should not be misunderstood to mean that the reincarnating ego joys in destroying a body through which it works, for such a misconception would not only be ludicrous, but what is far worse, it would be immoral. The spiritual monad working through the reincarnating ego is a servant of the cosmic law, and an agent of its mysterious and intricate workings, and acts strictly according to what is the ultimate best for anything within the sphere of its own operative action. In like manner any man may find it necessary of his own choice to have a limb amputated.
Karma is not fatalism, because in each instant whatever happens to a man is the strict karmic result of the reincarnating ego's own choice in this or some other life or lives. Karmic attraction drew us to our own milieu. We can truly call our sufferings "unmerited," because the present incarnation, the present astral monad itself, did not bring them about; but the reincarnating ego did originally initiate the causes, bringing the ego into this new milieu of birth on earth; and therefore, whatever we suffer in our present life in the last analysis is karmic because it is ourselves. If it were not our karma we could not experience pain or pleasure.
When we shall have evolved forth from within ourselves our own inner spiritual faculties and powers so that they become operative in our lives and become our self-conscious will, then we shall have reached the noblest part of the destiny before us — at least for this manvantara; for we shall have become then at one with the universe in which we move, and live, and have our being. But do we stop there? No, for there are ever other fields of destiny beyond, veiled in the magic light of the future, hiding still more splendors than the highest we can conceive of. The webs of destiny in their vast aggregate are the universe itself, and thus are in origin the same, and in destiny identic and essentially one with it. They give to the universe, itself expanding through evolution, the indescribable beauty of the ever-unfolding cosmic life.