The Theosophical Forum – June 1946

KARMAN — Lydia Ross and C. J. Ryan

"Each man is his own absolute lawgiver, the dispenser of glory or gloom to himself, the decreer of his life, his reward, his punishment."

Who has not, at some time in his life, asked why he should be the one to whom unforeseen and apparently undeserved sorrow or joy has come? Why should one person rather than another enjoy unfailing luck in life, without any effort of his own? Again, why should many years of misfortune or success suddenly come to an end, and entirely opposite conditions prevail? Science assures us that law and order rule throughout material Nature, yet it offers little but chance and accident in answer to such questions as the above. Orthodox theology asserts that all is due to the "will of God" — a mere evasion. Modern philosophy gives no satisfying answer. The Ancients, however, combined Science, Religion, and Philosophy in a working philosophy of life. They knew that, for humanity, Reincarnation gave room for the play of perfect justice — Karman.

Karman is a Sanskrit term which expresses, in one word, the idea of the universal law of Cause and Effect that operates always and everywhere. The word itself means "action," and it ever works to restore disturbed harmony or unbalanced equilibrium, whether this action prevails in human life or in any realm of Nature. Karman is the unerring Law of Consequences which, in man's life, makes him reap whatsoever he sows. Man, with his mind, soul and will, is a responsible being; he is neither the helpless subject of a personal god, nor the prey of fatalistic chances in a lawless universe. Karman may be defined as perfect justice in action. It is not the ruling of a capricious Law-Giver; it exists in the very nature of things.

Man being a thinker, his thoughts build his character and become the causes of actions which, in their turn, start new trains of effects. Moreover, the very way in which he meets his present conditions sets up a new chain of causes, whose effects appear sooner or later. Both good-and evil-doers reap whatsoever they sow, even if it takes many life-times before the harvest ripens. The apparent injustice often seen in the prosperity of the selfish and heartless and in the suffering of the good, would be, indeed, an unsolved problem, if there were no previous lives wherein the causes of these conditions had been set on foot.

The action of Karman upon us is not the verdict of a Supreme Judge carrying reward or punishment, compensation or retribution; whatever happens is simply the natural consequence of our own thoughts and deeds. Karman is as impersonal as the law of gravitation; and as it is unerring, constant and all-embracing, we can trust it and work with it. How fortunate that is, for who does not long for justice to be done? The existence of Karman in the vast Scheme of Things accounts for that innate sense of justice in every human heart, ever urging us to find it in action. The decrees of human law do not bear evenly on all concerned, because it is impossible to take into account all the conditions, past and present, seen and unseen. But the universal karmic law leaves nothing out of account. It balances all the causes and their effects, known and unknown, including thoughts and motives both in this and past lives, and it strikes a just balance, even after many days.

There is no favoritism in the action of Karman nor is there any possibility of escaping from it, any more than we can escape from our weaknesses except by rebuilding our character. The rebound of wrongdoing cannot be turned aside by prayer, nor by mocking at Nature's laws, nor by scheming to avoid them. Nor do the consequences of any loving or helpful thought or action fail to return, in full measure, to him who sent them forth.

Our character is the outcome, the offspring so to say, of what we were in our past lives. So that, looking backward, we see ourselves, each one of us, as his own ancestor, even as in this life each is a child of his own past. In a word, Karman and Reincarnation solve the problem of individual evolution; it is the incarnating spirit of man involved in and working its way through experiences in physical bodies and material forces, life after life.

It was said of old: "Be ye perfect," and again: "Work out your own salvation," which in scientific terms means "your own evolution," for, as H. P. Blavatsky says:

"The whole order of Nature evinces a progressive march toward a higher life. There is design in the action of the seemingly blindest forces. The whole process of evolution with its endless adaptations is a proof of this."

The "design" of the impersonal karmic law is to preserve the balance of all our forces — physical, psychic, mental, and spiritual. When we do work with the law we keep to the middle lines of progress and move naturally and steadily onward into a larger and better life. Unfortunately, too often our desires use our will to lead us far astray from the highway of progress. The wise waste no time in following profitless by-paths, but train themselves by controlling their desires. A few Great Souls have outrun the majority of men, and have become the world's Sages and Seers, many of whom are known to history, and whose teachings and examples are an inspiration to their fellow-men.

The karmic law is not only just but it is truly merciful, because absolute justice and mercy are one. Even its painful effects are natural reminders that we are, or have been, off the road to peace and power and the real joy of living. We can all learn much from the pain and suffering that befall us, more than from success and pleasure, which so often magnify our selfishness. We cannot gain sympathetic understanding merely by observing the suffering of others; only by having been through similar trials can we feel their needs and know how to give real help. If we refuse to help others in trouble under the plea that they brought it upon themselves and must take the consequences, our action is utterly mistaken and heartless. As Mme. Blavatsky says: "Inaction in a deed of mercy becomes an action in a deadly sin." When we succeed in lifting the suffering from another, it proves that we had the privilege of being the active instrument of Karman. We may be repaying an unknown debt we owe him.

Poverty, sickness, and sorrow are by no means always the result of ill-doing either in this or in a former life. Karman is not so mechanical as that! In many cases a strong soul chooses conditions of hardship and difficulty so as to gain strength and fortitude, and also to acquire a sympathetic understanding of the sufferings and limitations that fall to the common lot.

While it is the sacred obligation of the more advanced or more fortunate to help the less fortunate, what many persons need most is to be shown how to help themselves. They will gain strength by learning how to accept courageously what comes to them and to make the best of it. Self-knowledge gives us the understanding heart by which we can help wisely, because the study of one's own nature, in the light of Karman and Reincarnation, gives the key to the needs of others.

Karman acts on all planes, visible and invisible: physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual. Moreover, causes and effects react from plane to plane, so that selfish thoughts and emotions, like anger, jealousy, fear, and hatred, sooner or later react upon the health and mental outlook. Again, the unselfish impulse to help or to protect another in danger calls forth unsuspected power and a buoyant sense of spiritual resource equal to the occasion. As our different kinds of karman thus act and react upon the different parts of our composite nature so do its effects react upon other persons, as they, in turn, affect us. We see this plainly in family and other ties. The same rule holds good of our place and share in the general karmic conditions of the locality, the nation, and the race, to which we belong. If we suffer from retributive Karman, like wars and other calamities, we also reap the collective benefits that belong to organized society. Though we seem to have had no direct part in making the exact conditions — good or bad — into which we were born, yet we did make the causes which resulted in our being born into these conditions.

Karman accounts for the accidents and fatalities which befall some who are apparently well protected from danger, while others, unguarded, survive a series of hairbreadth escapes without a scratch.

Knowledge of Karman throws light on the mystery of good and evil. Man plans and creates causes, good, bad, and indifferent, and the just law returns to him equal effects in kind. If he metes out good, it is meted out to him in equal measure, though it may be in a future life. If he has done evil, there is no "remission of sin" by any external power, no atonement through shedding the blood of an innocent victim. He has wronged his own spiritual nature, and he alone can right the wrong against his better Self. He will suffer, sooner or later, until he has done himself justice. Even a man of good mind and morals may feel the effects of his past errors long after he has mended his ways. For instance, the final results of wrong thought and action in a past life may have worked down to the physical level on their way out, making him crippled or diseased, while at the same time he is also reaping and sowing good mental and moral karman. If wise, he will add remedial means to Nature's efforts to cancel the old score. If he unwisely uses his own will or that of another to dissipate visible disease by throwing it back on the mental plane, he is opposing the law of Nature. The retarded effects will appear later with added force in a worse way, physically or mentally. Of course, this does not mean that we should not try to prevent or to cure disease by a healthy mental attitude as well as by physical means. When we work with kindly Mother Nature we move onward with the mighty currents of the evolving Universe of which we are a vital part.

Nature works in cycles, of longer or shorter duration, so that karman may be delayed until appropriate conditions appear. For instance, an infant cannot suffer the mental trials or intellectual pleasures which, if due to appear in its present life, would be reserved for maturer years. We incarnate in the family, in the time, and in the surroundings where we belong. We create our own future.

We reap what we have sown; we never "gather grapes from thorns" or "figs from thistles," nor good from evil, wisdom from stupidity, nor health from wrong living. Like always produces like, in our unfolding human nature as well as in all the various realms of material Nature. Some seeds lie dormant for years, while others germinate quickly; so it is with the germs of thought and action, some remain latent for many lives, while others come to the surface very soon. Sometimes the general trend of life is markedly changed by sudden poverty or riches, by fame or disgrace, or by something else that seems wholly foreign to the individual or family character. These are cases where one kind of karman being exhausted, another kind follows. Then, again, a long-delayed account may find an opportunity to appear abruptly in the midst of a smooth current of events.

Karmic causes may so modify each other that the result, while unlike either cause, will be the just effect of both. Also, one cause may be so completely opposed to another as to neutralize its effects.

Knowledge of Karman invokes self-reliance. It appeals to man's innate power and dignity as an imbodied soul which, having reached man's estate, may naturally continue by "self-directed evolution" to bring out the best within himself and to unfold his spiritual nature in ever greater degree. With a divine birthright to draw upon, man is no mere "miserable sinner" passively waiting to be saved by an innocent sacrifice. Atonement really means at-one-ment with the Christos spirit "within." That inner Self well knows that "every man shall bear his own burden." No doubt the karmic record of our countless past lives is stained with many sins both of omission and commission; but the record is also illumined with ages of struggle and hard-won victories in self-control.

Karman is by no means fatalism, for it is the logical doctrine of "another chance." No wrong-doing can bind one for ever, because new opportunities are always presenting themselves. Even the painful effects of grievous past error can be met and endured so courageously and understandingly that the experience may count as gain. The real man can make these old stumbling-blocks serve as stepping-stones toward a finer manhood, a nobler character, and a knowledge of self "which is wisdom itself."

Karman is so far-reaching in action that it calls for deep study. It seems unfamiliar at first because before Theosophy was presented, we had been given only unrelated fragments of universal Truth. These fragments did not reveal the basic fact that it is the one Law of Cosmic Justice which regulates even our human life. Our minds are awed and strengthened by the majestic truth that man is an intrinsic part of the Great Plan, in which his welfare is dear to the very Heart of Being!


The Theosophical Forum

THEOSOPHICAL UNIVERSITY PRESS ONLINE