The Theosophical Forum – September 1942

RESPONSIBILITY AND KARMAN — H. T. Edge

It is not so easy to change the habits of thought in which we have grown up; and if you adopt the Theosophical teachings in a short time, it may take longer before you can get rid of these old habits of thought. You may unconsciously keep the old ideas and simply change their names. Thus some people speak of the law of Karman as though it were a supernatural agency which intervenes among the workings of natural law, in the same way as Providence was supposed to intervene by miraculous aid or special grace. You may hear people wondering whether a particular illness was due to heredity or errors in living or Karman. This seems to show that they regard Karman as a sort of supernatural influence which comes into play whenever natural influences are found insufficient. But all influences are karmic, whether or not we can point to proximate causes for the happenings; a disease may be due to intemperance, but all the same it is karmic.

Karman is a general law which acts through many lesser agencies; it may act through bad habits or through heredity or any other of various proximate causes. It has been wisely said that acts build habits, habits build character, and character makes destiny. Here we see the links in the chain. People often confine the use of the word Karman to those effects which they cannot trace to any cause; but there must always be a chain of causation leading from act to consequence, whether we can trace this chain or not. Doctors say that a person may carry about with him for most of his life the germs of tuberculosis, encysted and so made harmless; and that the cysts may burst late in life and bring on the disease. Is not this a good illustration of karmic action?

This error as to the meaning of Karman turns about the word "responsibility." Shall we try to evade our responsibility by shifting the burden onto some outside power — some Providence, some Chance, some Fate, some law of Karman? There are actually people who seem to think that the law of Karman excuses us, or even prevents us, from fulfilling the promptings of love and sympathy towards our fellows, or from discharging the duties and services which we owe them. The fact that what they suffer is due to their own Karman is no concern of ours, and does not modify our duty towards them in the least; nor would anyone with a truly sympathetic heart stop to think about the matter at all. Besides, whether you help a fellow or abstain from helping him, you are equally engaging in action towards him; and if the law of Karman has any say in the matter, it is difficult to see why it should favor the one mode of conduct rather than the other. "Inaction in a deed of mercy becomes an action in a deadly sin."

The various philosophies and sciences have so accustomed us to believe in mysterious "laws," — laws of nature, laws of economics, laws of social evolution, and laws of this and that — that we have got into the habit of waiting passively for something to move us, instead of getting to work and acting on our own responsibility. If we could think less of the effect of our surroundings on our own fate, and more of the effect of our own actions on our surroundings, we should make a first step in learning the lesson of individual responsibility which Karman teaches.


The Theosophical Forum

THEOSOPHICAL UNIVERSITY PRESS ONLINE