The Theosophical Forum – August 1937


The purpose of this article is to describe some of the difficulties which occur in our endeavors to understand the doctrine of Karman, to show why they occur, and to indicate the way out of them.

Karman is one of the doctrines of the Ancient Wisdom, as widespread as the lands of earth, as old as mankind; it is one of the Seven Keys of Knowledge. To grasp it in its entirety would require a mind of scope vast enough to transcend the limits of race and time; but, since the peoples of earth are restricted by race and time, the doctrine must be presented in forms adapted to their comprehension; a process similar to that of translation must take place. But, while the doctrine may be adapted to our minds, we must adapt our minds to the doctrine — the process must be mutual.

In the modern Occident we have inherited a cast of mind derived from the religion, philosophy, and science in which we and our ancestors have grown up. We are prone to interpret Karman in terms familiar to our modes of thought. When there is a clash, there are several things which we may do. We may insist on trying to make the doctrine conform to our familiar molds of thought. This may involve us in a dilemma like that between free will and predestination. Then either the doctrine is wrong or our logic is wrong. Perhaps we may seek to evade the difficulty by saying that it is a "paradox," or by laying aside reason altogether and falling back on "intuition." But the doctrine of Karman must be reasonable and logical; and if there is a clash between what we call logic and reason on the one hand, and the doctrine of Karman on the other, it is sure to be the former that are at fault.

Much controversy of course arises, as is bound to be the case in this as in other discussions, from the lack of precise definition of the terms used. This enables each party to base his arguments on different data, with the result that they must reach different conclusions; but neither of them attacks the position of the other, and the reader sees that both are right within their respective limits.

The word "Karman" itself is used in a variable sense: it may mean a principle of causation; it may mean an accumulated tendency. When we speak of a man having a lot of bad Karman to work out, we use the word in the latter sense; but when we say that Karman will cause an action to bear consequences, we use it in the former sense. This is all very well for ordinary purposes; yet, if we are to reason logically, it is imperative to distinguish these meanings. If this is not done, we may find a person using the word in one sense at one stage of his argument, and in the other sense at another stage; or two people using the word in different senses and disagreeing accordingly.

Another such vague word is "man." When we say that a man suffers the consequences of his action, we are apt inadvertently to assume that man is a unitary being. But we know that he is a compound unit, having many spheres of action and many fields of experience. This must be taken into account, otherwise there is bound to be confusion; and what right have we to blame any teaching or any teacher for what so obviously arises from our own neglect of elementary rules of logic?

Karman is usually defined as an extension of the law of causation (a law recognised in science) to embrace the entire universe of mind and consciousness, of events and living beings. Now what do we understand by this law of causation? We imagine a series of events, the one following the other, each link in the chain being supposed to be an effect of the preceding link, and at the same time a cause in relation to the link which comes after. In physics we have a similar arrangement, but with particles instead of events. Now the difficulty experienced in physics is this: if matter is composed of an assemblage of separate particles, how do these particles act on each other? We can only get over the difficulty by supposing that there is something that acts as a connecting link between the particles, transmitting motion from one to the other. But this is really no explanation, but merely an evasion; for if we inquire into the physical structure of this supposed medium we are faced with the same difficulty over again. The proper inference from this — an inference which we often fail to make — is that our original hypothesis about the isolated particles was wrong. Our difficulty was of our own creating. The properties of matter cannot be explained by assuming it to be merely an assemblage of particles; and the recent studies in intra-atomic physics have demonstrated the truth of this statement. Instead of any such ultimate particles, we can only discover flashes of living energy coming into manifestation from an invisible source; and in place of discontinuity, we see everywhere continuity and oneness. Physicists see the necessity of visualizing a new picture of the material world; it is difficult. In spite of ourselves we still try to construct a material world more or less on the old plan, and one scheme is suggested and then abandoned for another. But our conceptual powers are not static; we little realize how greatly those powers have grown since the days before Newton; such notions as we have about time and space, velocity, energy, force, inertia, are recent acquisitions; and surely we have the right to expect that we shall in due course acquire a new set of notions that will enable us to get a better idea of the physical world than the old atomo-mechanical ideas.

Taking this analogy from physical science, and applying it to the world of men, we find that we are apt to treat events as the physicists have treated atoms — that is, as separate detached elements, acting on each other by some unknown process, like a row of dominoes knocking each other down. We have transferred the mechanical way of thinking from physics to the moral sphere. Some philosophers, reasoning in this way, have been unable to find any connecting link between successive events, and so have denied any principle of causation, saying that all we can affirm is that events do actually follow each other in a particular way, and with a degree of probability amounting to virtual certainty. But events are not separate, except only in the sense that the leaves of a tree or the fingers of a hand are separate. They form the integral parts of a whole, not isolated units. Where is the necessity for trying to find links between things that never were separated?

Now let us see how this applies to the doctrine of Karman, so far as that doctrine concerns human conduct. It has been supposed that my acts or my states of mind or my experiences are detached units, separated from one another like a row of particles, and each one fully and solely determined by the ones before it. Thus a system of fatalism is set up; and when our instincts rebel against it, we blame the laws or the teachers, instead of our own faulty comprehension. But man is, as said above, a compound unit. Every external phenomenon is at all times connected with the central source, just as the leaves of a tree are all connected with the tree itself. If the law of Karman extends to all planes of manifestation, it must include elements going back to the very roots of my nature. The causes which determine a given act or a given experience must therefore be extremely complex; and to know what I will do, you must be able to know my whole nature to its utmost roots.

We have grown accustomed to regard the universe as a great clock, which, once started, will move with inevitable motion ever after. Has it occurred to those who propound such a theory to inquire how the clock was ever started? To explain this, it is necessary to postulate an initial act of will and intelligence; and why will and intelligence, if once operative, should thereafter be banished utterly from the universe, it passeth comprehension to understand. Man is not a clock; he is a living being; and at all moments in his life, causes may be operative from sources deep within his nature. The law of Karman is not contravened by this explanation; it is affirmed. What is contravened is our absurd mechanical ideas as to causation, our mechanical notions of human nature. My acts are determined by what I am; and what I am is my Karman. Is it not evident how confusion arises from using the word Karman at one time in a limited sense, and at another time in a universal sense?

The only kind of predestination which Theosophy can recognise is that by which the Divine Monad, which is Man, will fulfil its eternal destiny, will realize its essential nature. If in the viewless unimaginable ages of the past, at the dawn of a vast cycle of manifestation, certain laws were impressed upon every living Monad, to be fulfilled during the flowing cycles, should such a thing provoke me to grumble about my rights and my wrongs, my freedom and my restraints, or should it rather exalt my soul to the contemplation of sublimities that shrink personality to its appropriate pettiness?

In a word, this free will and necessity paradox is a jumble of bad logic, based on the attempt to interpret a universe of living conscious souls as though they were a row of dominoes knocking each other down.

As to the principle of causation in general, it may be said that of course Theosophy recognises this, if we may regard the term as meaning order and invariable sequence throughout the universe. But there is one great difference between the Theosophical philosophy and philosophy in general as understood in the West — that the latter deals with abstractions, such as Will, Consciousness, Mind, and the like; whereas Theosophy recognises only entities, living conscious beings, of which these abstractions are merely attributes. To speak of an act as determining an act is to deal with abstractions as though they were realities. It is a question of the action of living souls upon each other.

Our daily experience furnishes abundant examples of the combined action of freedom and law. The laws of nature, as recognised in physics, are inexorable and cannot be evaded; yet do they interfere with our freedom of action? Does the law of gravitation prevent us from walking or flying? Do the various mechanical and chemical laws prevent us from achieving marvels in construction and invention? These mechanical laws form a causal sequence, which, if left to itself, will pursue its way with the inevitability of clockwork; but which admits of the interposition of force from another plane — the will and intelligence of some conscious being. Yet such interposition in no wise abrogates any of the laws. Passing from physical phenomena to mental ones, we may imagine that there are people whose lives are mechanical, ruled by habit and by fixed ideas; and it is possible to predict with considerable accuracy what they will do under given circumstances. But the predictability is not so sure as in the physical world; and when we come to people of highly complex character, the problem of relating cause to effect becomes hopelessly complex. In short, man is relatively free, to a greater or less extent, according to the plane from which his motives proceed. The more highly evolved he becomes, the more free does he become, because he is able to stand apart from the workings of the lower planes. Yet, his doing so does not set aside the laws of those planes.

To theological writers, and to many philosophical ones, the problem of free will and necessity seems a hopeless dilemma. But when we reflect that they separate God from the universe, and man from nature, we can see the root of their perplexity. To the ordinary thinker, of pessimistic turn, a want of the knowledge of reincarnation is a fatal stumbling block. Intuitive minds among religious people have said that so vast are the purposes of God that he can afford to let man have the utmost free will without any fear that his (God's) purpose will not ultimately be fulfilled. And with necessary changes, this is the Theosophical view: man may wander far from the path of his true destiny, yet even his errors are made by the eternal wisdom to contribute to the fulfilment of Law. But let no one think this gives license for evil; we may incur evil, but we must not will it; "It must needs be that offenses come; but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh." (Matt, xviii, 7)

Perhaps the worst fallacy is that which leads some people to imagine that any doctrinal statement whatever about Karman can excuse us from our natural duty of rendering service. It is to be hoped that there are not many people who have any desire for such an excuse, or to be relieved of concern about their neighbor's affliction; but those, if any, who have such a desire, will find no justification for it in the doctrine of Karman. Nor will those who reject the doctrine because they think it justifies such an idea, or tends to breed such an idea, find justification. If a person cannot see that we act just as much by refraining as we do by executing, then indeed his mind must be sorely confused. It may be part of my neighbor's Karman that I should help him, or that somebody should help him. It may be in his Karman that my efforts to help him will prove futile. But who is to know this? How can I tell how the matter stands? Obviously I am left free to exercise my natural or unnatural instincts, and the law of Karman can be trusted to take care of itself.

Thus causation prevails throughout the universe; or, to use an equivalent word, one which pertains rather to morals than to science, justice prevails. Yet, while accepting this as a general truth, if we aspire to discern the details, it is evident that we are undertaking a vast project. The universe is very complex; and if I were to aver that I can fully work out such details, I should feel that I was claiming for my intellect much more than it merits. Nor should I have much respect for a law of Karman that could be expressed in so limited a scope. I should prefer to think that my difficulties were due to my own impatience and presumption, and I should go in for further study and reflexion. A knowledge of the law of Karman is of immeasurable help and comfort to the perplexed soul of the sufferer; it restores his sense of equity and teaches him where to look for help. It shows him his responsibility for his every act and thought. Those who try to make Karman a matter of adjusting personal accounts are sure to land in perplexities; for the law concerns our relations with each other.

The Theosophical Forum