The Theosophical Forum – August 1941

TWO GREAT PLAYS — A STUDY OF KARMAN — Alice D. Peirce

The Theosophical teaching about Karman is of the utmost practical importance in these days when a question-mark seems to be the most familiar mental symbol of the future. At best our knowledge of a teaching so fundamental and so profound in its deeper reaches is limited. But without some degree of understanding of this indispensable key to the mysteries of life, we have little to explain the bewildering facts and events of our world.

Extending the etymological meaning of the word, which is action, possibly the most accurate definition of Karman is the Law of Consequences. This so-called "law', or operation of Nature, is the unerring adjuster of disturbed balance, well-known to physical science in the formula: action and reaction are equal and opposite. Perform an act, there is reaction: produce a cause, there is sequence. If it were possible to imagine a condition where perfect equilibrium prevails, there would be no such thing as karman. The pendulum would be at rest.

In the physical world the operation of karman is unmistakable. Break the laws of health; defy gravitation; ignore the natural properties of fire, water, gases, chemicals, and dire results are to be expected. These reactions upon us are automatic. No account is taken of ignorance, of motive, or of any other conditions. An impersonal, inescapable law operates. We have the choice whether to act in conformity with law and order, or suffer the consequences. To trace effect back to cause is comparatively easy in the material world.

In the realm of the inner man, however, it becomes more difficult. Here subtil factors are involved — thought, emotion, desire, and our intricate relationships with all other beings whom we contact. Tracing effect to cause in this domain is often too entangled for our limited vision to accomplish, and utterly impossible if it be confined to the compass of one earth life. Everyone has experiences for which there is no explanation on the basis of known causes. Only the correlative doctrine of Reimbodiment renders just or logical the fact that we suffer sometimes without the slightest notion of what brought it about. Realization that the thread of continuity is unbroken from life to life, brings the assurance that we suffer, justly, from our own past thoughts and deeds, and not, unjustly, from causes we had no part in producing. Appearing upon the stage of life at each rebirth with a definite character, built by ourselves in past lives, it follows that upon these innate characteristics depends our future destiny.

Karman is sometimes presented as though it were a ledger account, in black and red, of rewards and punishments. But it is much more than that and should not be conceived as so coldly mechanical. Compassionately, karman operates to educate and correct, rather than to merely balance an account. Hourly choices which we make with free-will, determine whether our accounts conform to the primary law of Harmony, or work against it. The ultimate dictum, let us remember, is that harmony must prevail throughout Nature. If disturbed, it shall be restored — it may be soon, or "after many days."

Therefore Karman denotes a deeply philosophical doctrine, and means an operation of Nature which is utterly impersonal and unevadable. It is not Fate, for that implies some outside power or agency beyond human control which predetermines our lot. Endowed with the divine faculty of free-will, we alone have that power over our fortunes. For we are our own karman.

As a spider spins his cobweb with filament issuing from his own substance, each of us is weaving, strand by strand, a self-made destiny. Man being a lesser organism within a greater, the sum of all individual destinies constitutes a vast and complicated Kosmic fabric, formed of interwoven strands. It is because these separate destinies interweave, act upon and react against each other, that Karman is so difficult to fathom in its details. Only the vision of a Seer could disentangle an individual thread of destiny, spun through ages of material existence, and trace each event to its originating cause.

The classic myth of the Three Fates shows that the old Greeks well understood that a continuous thread of destiny runs through every life. Clotho, the spinner; Lachesis who measured, and Atropos who clipped the thread with her shears, represent the whole cycle of life — Past, Present, and Future. Nemesis, the Greeks called the goddess of retributive justice. Without attributes and propelled into action by men and nations, she was made by them an avenging Fury or a rewarding Angel. Nemesis could never be appeased by prayers or sacrifices, nor deflected from the course automatically followed after some action produced a disturbance of harmony.

No lesson from the wisdom gleaned by older generations is so sorely needed today as this basic truth that, ultimately, justice will prevail. The baneful and utterly false idea that a man by last-minute profession of faith, and so-called repentance, or in any other way, can escape the just consequences of his actions, has undermined character and bred indifference to responsibility for wrongdoing. Knowledge of these inseparable laws of Karman and Reimbodiment must be extensive if we are to build a better world on sure foundations.

This teaching has been presented in many ways and from various angles during the more than three-score years since the mighty voice of Blavatsky proclaimed again these ever-rustless keys to the Temple of Truth. Effective in ancient days, as in modern times, is the use of dramatic presentations to drive home certain lessons. In the Mystery-Schools of many lands, and especially in the lower grades known as the Lesser Mysteries, the pupils witnessed and took part in mystery-dramas. These were designed as preparatory teaching, and dramatized experiences which later would be actually lived through by the candidates for initiation into the Greater Mysteries.

The value of drama as a teacher of Karman is the fact that we can see take place in a very short time the working out of causes to their appropriate sequences. For the true significance, of course, the action must be raised from the material to the psychological or mental plane, where man actually weaves his destiny — by thought.

Glancing back over the road our race has traveled, certain intellectual and spiritual giants stand out, as do mountain-peaks upon the horizon. These are the philosophers, poets, dramatists, patriots, with something unmistakable in the tone of authority with which they speak through their chosen medium. We recognise them as spiritual voices bringing a spiritual message from higher spheres. Some of these have pictured life as a drama, which is fitting, because life in these manifested worlds is indeed the drama of the soul — made up of melodrama, comedy, and tragedy. Few of the players have more than a vague idea of plan or plot, it is true; but that is for their finding out. The inner, spiritual man assumes new garments and plays new roles with each reappearance upon the stage of earth-life. Gradually we learn to use our inner faculties to break through the illusions, to find reality behind the seeming.

There is an old myth which pictures the gods as looking down upon this human drama going on in our lower sphere, and moved to peals of Olympian laughter, which vibrates throughout the upper regions. The cause of their merriment, so the story goes, was to see the antics of actors who had so identified themselves with, and been deluded by, the roles they played and the trappings of their assumed characters, that they mistook the illusion for reality. There is wisdom here. All too often we fail to realize the illusory and transitory character of our earthly roles, taking lines, gestures, and poses all too seriously. Sometimes we even fail to distinguish between the fictitious and the real actor behind the mask — that divine being out of Eternity, destined to learn the lessons earth has to teach, then return to that ancestral home wherein illusion has no place.

Among the Titans of thought we select Shakespeare and Aeschylus, who unfailingly drew their inspiration from universal fountains and proclaimed things which are eternally true. They depict the dual nature of man, good and evil, which are the opposite poles of his consciousness in conflict within him, and show convincingly how following the one leads to destruction; the other, to heights sublime.

They taught that destiny is made by man himself. Therefore Karman, not Fate is at work. Agents for working out consequences are shown to be his own thoughts and actions, in other words, his character. Men are "themselves the authors of their proper woe." Figures of the play are types representing the many aspects of a man, or they represent a principle. Therefore each drama may be said to be Everyman.

In Macbeth more clearly than in the other great tragedies of Shakespeare, we see the quick results following from a man deliberately choosing wrongly, setting his higher nature aside and letting the evil in him dominate. At first Macbeth appears to be an average man, a good soldier who is exceptionally brave, well thought of, and apparently loyal to his kinsman, the King. When the witches first hailed him as "King that shall be," it seemed incredible. Yet almost immediately we see the suggestion working in his mind and taking root there. Promptly he wrote of this incident to Lady Macbeth that she might share in the anticipation of this possible good fortune. Evidently he knew of her ambition to be called "Queen." In her soliloquy after reading the letter, she expresses fear that Macbeth's nature was "too full of the milk of human kindness to catch the nearest way"; and that he would not play false to gain an ambition. This shows Macbeth's nature inclined to honorable ways. Lady Macbeth had no scruples herself. Inflamed with ambitious hope, her mind worked fast with plans to bring about the consummation of her desire. Upon Macbeth's return home, she was ready with details of the plot to murder Duncan, the King, a guest under their own roof. With some difficulty she persuaded her lord. We have the speech wherein the struggle is shown between Macbeth and his conscience. He recognises that "even-handed justice commends the ingredients of our poisoned chalice, to our own lips," and admits to himself, "I have no spur to prick the sides of my intent, but only vaulting ambition, which o'erleaps itself. . . " Spurred to the deed by his wife's taunts of cowardice — the most galling to a brave soldier — he commits the murder of Duncan — his kinsman, his guest, his King.

Then follow the consequences. It should be noted here that the act itself was the sequence of other causes, which had built into Macbeth's character a destructive weakness. Not alone by external forces, but by still more powerful inner enemies collaborating, does Shakespeare show his tragic hero to be destroyed. Karman is at work, justly bringing about the doom which Macbeth brought upon his own head.

Macbeth had a conscience so stinging in its reproaches and so appalling in its remorse that his inward torment compels our pity. This very struggle between the two natures shows that up to that point he had not completely cut himself off from the god within him. The fact that he can see the right and knows the better way, doubles his sufferings when he chooses the evil path. Realizing to some degree the disintegration of his better nature, he is pursued by the memory of his guilt.

One fatal step which contributed to his final ruin was traffic with the supernatural, in the form of the witches on the heath. Herein there is a tragic warning that we can profit by in these days of growing interest in psychic things, when people ignorantly seek the counsel of clairvoyants, crystal-gazers, and so-called astrologers, who advertise to reveal the future and, for a price, give superhuman advice. By opening his mind and inner nature to the suggestions of the witches, evil influences from the lower astral world poured in upon Macbeth. This astral world by which we are surrounded, is the storehouse for the effluvium of human vice and crime. Once open the door, the evil emanations accumulated there, flood in and seize upon the weak spot in the nature of the foolish one who dares to enter unprepared, and fans it into flame.

We follow the rapid progress of Macbeth's downfall. The first crime calls for another and then another to make secure the position. There is the ever-present goad of Lady Macbeth's ambition, which matched his own, and made them partners in crime. "Infirm of purpose! Give me the daggers," she taunts him. Matter-of-fact and unimaginative as Lady Macbeth was, driven by overpowering desire for position as queen, she displays neither regret nor remorse. Later, Karma-Nemesis reaches her and we have in the "sleep-walking scene" one of the most dramatic pictures in all literature of retributive justice at work. Just as Macbeth, tormented by his guilt, heard a voice which cried, "Sleep no more! Macbeth does murder sleep. . .", so the guilty Lady Macbeth, walking in her sleep, rehearsing over and over the events of that fatal night, cries, "What, will these hands ne'er be clean?".

The monster within, fully aroused, all restraint gives way and Macbeth, no longer a normal man, becomes but a destroying energy . — covetousness incarnate. Hate and passion surge through him as through a hollow wreck, and everything that stands in his path is violently removed. Finally outraged Nature reacts against him. Catastrophe arrives and he meets his doom at the hand of Macduff, the man he had so cruelly wronged.

Aeschylus, often called the "ancient Shakespeare," belonged to that noble company of Greeks whose creative genius has nourished the thought-life of the world to our day. He was born towards the close of that wonderful sixth century b. c, which produced half a dozen or more of the greatest intellectual and spiritual supermen in recorded history. Pythagoras was still living and there is evidence that Aeschylus spent some years of his early youth at his school and was initiated into the Mysteries there. He received highest honors for distinguished military service and for many years won first place in the yearly dramatic competitions held at Athens.

He saw, more clearly than others, ominous signs that all was not well in the State; that the "glory that was Greece" was beginning to wane. The Mysteries were becoming corrupted; sacred institutions were being done away with. Athenian arrogance was growing, and the rights of lesser states were being trampled upon and their sufferings disregarded.

Aeschylus chose tragic-drama as the medium through which to sound warnings to his countrymen that Karma-Nemesis would mete out even-handed justice for every wrong inflicted. This is the theme of all the dramas that have come down to us — only seven out of nearly one hundred that he wrote. His well-timed message was, "Beware! Ill deeds bring forth offspring like to their parent stock." Especially in the Orestean trilogy did he drive the lessons of Karman home. It is interesting to note here that the plot of the tragedy of Orestes, up to a certain point, is almost identical with that of Hamlet. Of course Shakespeare has been called the arch- plagiarist. But there is nothing to show that he ever heard of Aeschylus and the trilogy.

Let us recall how Agamemnon led the Greek expedition against Troy and upon his return victorious, his wife, Clytemnestra, greets him with elaborate honors and makes honeyed speeches of welcome. While the fact of the matter is that she has been a faithless wife. Aegisthus, cousin of her husband, has become her lover, and together they have planned to murder Agamemnon so that Aegisthus might take his place as King and marry the queen. Clytemnestra has one bit of salve for her conscience in this, because she considers herself an agent of Nemesis. Agamemnon, in order to propitiate the gods and have fair winds for his undertaking, has supposedly sacrificed their daughter, Iphigenia. As a matter of fact she was saved by Artemis. By assuming this agency Clytemnestra has come under the ban of Karma-Nemesis as Agamemnon already was for the intended sacrifice of Iphigenia. The chorus chant their misgivings and are haunted by forebodings of dire results. Nemesis overtaking Agamemnon upon his return, he is murdered by Aegisthus and Clytemnestra.

Orestes, the son, absent from the city, returns at the behest of Apollo to avenge his father's death, which was then considered a religious obligation on the part of a son. The unnatural circumstances place Orestes in a deplorable position. He kills the guilty Aegisthus, and then with anguish of soul disregards his mother's pleas and tells her, "Thyself art guilty of thy death, not I." And, later, to the reproaching Chorus, "With Justice" sanction I my mother smote."

However, the guilt of matricide weighs him down and nearly unseats his reason. He realizes that he must be purified from this pollution in spite of the high authority upon which he acted. He sees rising in the background the Furies, or Erinyes, gathering to haunt him. "Gorgon-like they come, vested in sable stoles, their locks entwined with clustering snakes." He seeks refuge at the temple of Apollo, where the Furies follow him. Apollo tells Orestes that he cannot free him from their hateful presence, and suggests that only the goddess of Wisdom, Pallas Athena, can do that. So he hurries to Athens to lay his case before this final court of justice.

Then follows the trial of Orestes. With Athena as judge, Apollo defends Orestes. The Furies are the accusers and the ancient Court of the Areopagus is the jury. The twelve votes cast by the Areopagites are evenly divided, but Athena, who by divine right has the deciding vote, casts hers for Orestes.

The Erinyes, complaining to Athena about thus losing their prey, are then transformed by her into the Eumenides, goddesses of good fortune.

It may be objected that if Karma-Nemesis was at work, Orestes should have suffered the consequences of his evil deeds, as Macbeth paid the price. But Aeschylus is portraying the drama of the soul and its final victory over the furies of the lower passions in human nature. Athena, the symbol of Wisdom, considered the motive in relation to both crimes. That of Clytemnestra and Aegisthus, committed for purely selfish reasons to satisfy worldly ambition; that of Orestes in fulfilment of what he considered a religious duty to avenge his father's murder. This drama is depicting the soul's experiences in the school of life. Orestes, the inner spiritual entity, behind the mask of the outward personality, is the symbol of the soul. You cannot kill the soul.

The earth-spirits, or Furies, who haunt Orestes until he is freed by Athena, consider only the outward act and automatically exercise their functions in accordance with natural law. Wisdom takes motive into consideration and the whole character of the inner man. Free-will and moral power triumph over blind instinctive thirst for revenge. The transmutation of the Erinyes into Eumenides teaches not the suppression or annihilation of the instinctive tendencies, but their subordination to become servants of the higher faculties of the soul.

Orestes sought refuge with his Higher Self — Wisdom, or the Buddhi principle. Considering this tragedy as taking place within one human being, it suggests that when the lower, undeveloped part of a man appeals for guidance to the highest within him, help is invariably received. Justice is tempered with mercy. Even if the soul is led to wisdom through suffering, compassion adjusts the karmic load so that it does not crush. Sorrow and darkness and the dread furies of the lower nature are but incidental means to that end. As Aeschylus says in Agamemnon, "Against their wills, rebellious men are tutored to be wise."

So we learn, or have the opportunity to learn, one of the most important lessons of life; that the eternal order of Kosmic Nature is Harmony and that soon or late, we shall have to conform to this divine law which,

Knows not wrath nor pardon, utter true
Its measures mete; its faultless balance weighs;
Times are as naught — tomorrow it will judge —
Or after many days.

Such is the law that moves to righteousness,
Which none at last can turn aside or stay;
The heart of it is Love, the end of it
Is Peace and Consummation sweet. Obey!


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