Theosophical University Press Online Edition
Universal Brotherhood and the Divinity of Man
The Seven Principles of Man
Reincarnation or Reimbodiment in the Flesh
The Law of Karma
Man after Death
As the main objects of the Theosophical Movement are the spreading of knowledge of the theosophical teachings, we must consider them first.
Theosophy does not teach that brotherhood depends upon external conditions — social, political or even intellectual. Its root lies in the order of nature, in the organic unity of the human race, physically and, above all, spiritually. Universal brotherhood is not something to be constructed; mankind is really a great family, and it is only our blindness that prevents us from recognizing this and acting accordingly. Mankind is an organism; men are its constituent cells, and what injures one hurts all. Theosophy shows that the recognition of this in the life of each individual — with all that it implies — is the only basis on which a true civilization can be built.
The brotherhood of mankind, therefore, is not a sentimental theory, framed to ameliorate stern realities; it is a fact in nature, and nature will ultimately compel us to accept it, even if it takes ages of suffering to bring it about. Theosophy calls to all people of goodwill to discover for themselves that the fundamental law of the universe is love and harmony, and that he who breaks it is swimming against the stream.
Our inner self knows this, and tries to enlighten our outer personality that we mistakenly think is our real self. We can hasten our evolution by opening our hearts; our destiny is in our own hands, and we can learn how to make it a conscious working with the divine intelligence in the universe.
Intimately connected with the doctrine of human brotherhood is that of the divinity of man. This, also, is no vague or pious sentiment, but a very real thing, taught by the greatest spiritual minds throughout the ages — those with the penetrating intuition that knows. Reason also confirms it, as we shall see in considering the theosophical teaching of the complexity of the human constitution.
While science is inclined to admit the physical unity and common origin of all human beings, the belief that we are merely more intelligent animals, perishing after one life on earth, still obsesses the scientific mentality, especially that of the psychologist. How can a high ideal of brotherhood be built on such a basis! No doubt many theoretical materialists feel an impelling urge to sacrifice themselves for others, and their noble acts are a living proof of the influence of the higher spiritual self, however they may deny it.
Denial of the inner god is not confined to professed materialists; certain brands of Western theology still teach that man is inherently vile: "born in sin." But Jesus said, "The kingdom of God is within you" (Luke 17:21), and Paul proclaimed the "tidings of great joy": "Know ye not that ye are the temple of God, and that the spirit of God dwelt in you?" (1 Cor. 3:16). If the Spirit dwelleth in every one, brotherhood must be the fact that theosophy declares it to be, and separateness the great heresy.
The inner divinity is not a thing that can be "saved" or artificially fabricated; it must be realized, made a living power. "When the lamp is cleaned and the wick trimmed, then only can the light shine." We have to do this ourselves.
A true theosophist once said, "Every one that loveth is born of God," and "If we love one another, God dwelleth in us" (1 John, 4:7, 12). Theosophical teachers have all repeated the old, old doctrine as the fundamental on which to build — the doctrine that the real human ego is not the poor weak creature he too often thinks he is, and exhibits to others, but a wondrous spiritual being in the innermost recesses of his nature, a divine mystery, and that it is within his power to find himself. A theosophist once said that to be one is "to have an unbounded belief in the greatness of man," to which we would add, "and to have found the beginning of the way to turn this belief into knowledge."
When H. P. Blavatsky gave out the teachings about the nature of man, and delineated the seven human principles, she did not mean that these were six entities living in one house, the body. Some students have been tempted to look upon the seven principles from a rather mechanical standpoint, as if they were like the coats of an onion. H. P. Blavatsky selected the term as the best available, though she recognized that it was not quite satisfactory. It roughly expresses the concept of the compound nature of the human stream of consciousness, and, in default of better, we must continue to use it.
Few persons in the West have any conception of the real nature of their own constitution. Mr. A. and Mrs. B. regard themselves as — well, as beings who began to exist for the first time at birth and who will probably become extinct at death. They have a body with vital activities and more or less freedom of will besides their emotional and intellectual faculties. Some believe they "have" a soul and hope that their consciousness may bridge the gulf of death; but few have any certainty. Psychologists almost unanimously repudiate anything higher in human beings than the brain mind, which they study as a temporary product of the organism man, a specially intelligent animal. Some more intuitive thinkers regard man as a duality, consisting of "body" and "soul, mind, or spirit," the last terms being used in a very loose manner. The New Testament refers to three distinct aspects — body, soul, and spirit — a broad condensation of the ancient teaching of the sevenfold nature of man.
While it is possible to subdivide the aspects of human consciousness in several ways, and the septenary classification is not a hard and fast rule, it is the easiest for the beginner and it has the advantage of being in harmony with the sevenfold laws under which nature works in so many directions. We see the number seven in the primary colors of the visible spectrum familiar to all in the rainbow; in the periodic law of atomic weights, known as Mendeleyeff's Law; in the periods of gestation and disease; in the septenary octaves of sound; and in many other phenomena. As Plato says, "God geometrizes." The universal employment of this number in religious symbology has great significance, and the deeper side of the septenary working of nature receives much attention in more advanced theosophical studies.
The septenary human constitution was taught in ancient Egypt, India, and elsewhere as a known fact. Some presentations of the teaching condensed these aspects of man's constitution into three main divisions with minor subdivisions, though the fundamental idea was the same. For there has always been positive knowledge about the real nature of man, and certain Teachers who knew how to prove it scientifically have not been lacking. The sages of antiquity were not groping in darkness: they knew the facts from ages of experimentation.
The "principles" may best be regarded, perhaps, as various stages or points of contact between the permanent center in each individual and the "planes" or grades of substance and consciousness in the universe, which stretch from the most ethereal or spiritual downward to gross matter. The permanent center, the monad (from the Greek for "unit,") clothes itself, so to speak, in vestures or vehicles of similar nature to that of the planes into which it enters, until it reaches the physical body on the earth-plane, and a new personality is born.
This personality is so closely identified with the limited brain-consciousness that the illimitable fields of higher perception are shut off, only to be rarely glimpsed by the very few in their moments of spiritual inspiration.
Among the more difficult problems in theosophy is that of the actual relationship of the god-spark with its offspring, the "principles," and that of the imbodiment of the god-spark in the personality of an ordinary human being. We can study them and gain much profit thereby, but the full solution can be achieved only by those lofty souls who have, through initiation into the Greater Mysteries, penetrated behind the veil of seeming.
It would be misleading to regard the seven principles as separate entities in the ordinary sense, or as seven souls. They are interblended around the monadic individuality, gathered or collected in human shape in such a way as to constitute the complete human being, although in only the rarest cases is the combination perfectly balanced. Such people we call mahatmas or elder brothers of the race.
No better illustration of the perfect human being can be given than the seven rays of the spectrum, which blend into the pure white light when harmoniously combined.
In view of the difficulties, the reader will easily understand that no elementary presentation of the seven principles can be entirely satisfactory; the arrangement given below is rather an approximation than a final statement. In trying to simplify such an abstract and subtle subject there is serious danger of materializing it. With this warning in mind we may consider the following table, which has been used for many years by theosophical writers: the upper three divisions represent the more spiritual and enduring principles, the lower four the more fleeting.
The words on the right are taken from the Sanskrit and are commonly used in theosophical literature in preference to the English words, which are not entirely satisfactory equivalents.
Little need be said about the physical body, except that it is not composed of lifeless matter — nothing is. The concept of dead matter — dead in the sense of being inert unless activated from an outside force — is no longer a teaching of science: every atom is a focus of intense activity, and some eminent scientists even tell us that every point in space is throbbing with life — a quite theosophical doctrine.
Matter may be regarded as the universal life-essence considered in its passive or receptive aspect, and energy as the same in full activity. The human body is composed of a harmonious association of parts, all built of innumerable minute cells, each endowed with life and its own consciousness. Every cell is made of smaller life-elements, according to theosophy far more minute than our physical senses could detect even though aided by instruments more powerful than any microscope. The seemingly inert physical body is, then, a vast congeries of living beings of many orders and groupings, and is constructed on the principle of ascending hierarchies, which principle runs through the universe. An ancient philosophic aphorism says, "As above, so below," and even our lowest principle, the physical body, reflects the universe.
The astral or model-body is not visible to ordinary eyesight, but under special conditions, or by certain sensitives, it may be seen. Broadly speaking, it is a shadowy duplicate of the physical body, composed of a rather finer grade of substance. More correctly, it is the physical that is the duplicate of the astral, for the latter is the model or pattern into which the ever-changing material atoms come for a time, then pass out. Ethereal as it seems, it is exceedingly strong and cohesive and lasts throughout the entire incarnation. Without the backing of this semi-permanent astral model, the body could not maintain its shape or its individual peculiarities such as birthmarks, moles, etc. Ignorance of the existence of the astral body is one reason why psychologists find insuperable problems in their studies.
Knowledge of the astral double clears up the problem of the connection between mind and body; it is the link. It is a transformer, to use an expressive term in electricity, that can step down the higher to the lower vibrations. It is exceedingly plastic and sensitive, and responds instantly to thoughts and emotions. It transmits them to the physical body, upon which they produce visible effects. Everyone knows how extreme joy or rage can even kill, and the stigmata or marks of Christ's wounds developed on the persons of certain devotees are the results of impressions on the astral made by intense mental concentration. Experiments in hypnotism afford other examples. Cases are also recorded where injury to the astral when loosed from its protecting physical sheath, has left visible marks on the physical body. Inversely, the body can act on the mind through the astral link.
The astral body is formed before birth, and its character is strictly determined by causes created by the ego in past incarnations. Its plastic and sensitive constitution enables it to respond to the mental and emotional seeds coming to life in the new incarnation; in this way we are provided with a body in harmony with our deserts.
The term astral body is often loosely used to cover several divisions of the semi-physical inner body, and it includes psychomagnetic centers through which vital forces play. H. P. Blavatsky says very little about these details, but plainly indicates that attention to such matters is not advisable for those, like ourselves, who are striving in the earlier stages of spiritual development. Concentration upon the inner structure and working of the temporary astral or ethereal bodies is of no real service to workers for humanity and, indeed, it is not free from serious dangers. No doubt there is a place for such studies in the case of advanced disciples who are truly impersonal and free from the desire to satisfy a hankering for the occult, and who have been accepted for training by a high teacher.
The true student of theosophy is challenged, first of all, to purify his mind and desires and to work on spiritual lines by trying to show the path to a higher life to those who are in darkness. To dazzle them with psychic wonders only confuses them and increases the feeling of egoism.
After the death of the physical body the astral constituents gradually resolve into their elements, while the emotional-mental principles remain more or less conscious until the final separation called the "second death."
Prana is a Sanskrit word meaning "breath," the first necessity of physical life; but it has other related meanings. In the theosophical classification of the principles it means the vital force functioning through the astral, and in this respect it is a particular application of jiva, the ocean of life that permeates everything. The word element is more appropriate when speaking of prana, as it is not exactly a specialized vehicle of the monad like the linga-sarira. The physical and astral bodies are, of course, not made of inert or dead matter. Each life-atom is filled with its own energy, but, when acting through the formative principles, jiva or the universal life-force is specialized, so to speak, during the physical lifetime, returning to the great reservoir after death.
The physical body can be compared to a fabric, in the formation of which the astral is the warp and prana the shuttle that carries the thread; the interaction of the two weaves the fabric.
Prana, in one of its aspects, may be looked upon as constructive vitality, the driving force. Dr. de Purucker refers to it as the electrical veil or "electrical field" manifesting in the individual as vitality (see The Esoteric Tradition, 3rd & rev. ed., p. 433).
Kama means "desire," and Kama-rupa is the "body of desire." Kama is the balance principle in man, the fourth element counting from above or from below (see diagrammatic table). We share it with the animals, but in man the passional instincts are enhanced and intensified by the power of the imagination. The lower human nature, uncontrolled by the higher, is instinctual, self-centered, and inveterately attached to material, sensuous life. This desire for life, tanha, comes from kama; it brings us back to birth again and again. It is not a mere impulse of the "fleshly body," which is only a passive instrument. When controlled by the higher nature, however, and put to noble uses, desire is a great engine for good. Without some kind of desire we should simply vegetate.
Modern psychologists confound the human animal-soul with the higher principles, largely as a result of their identification of intelligent man with the perishable material brain and its nerve currents, and of ignorance of the real, immortal man behind the misleading appearances.
The desire element is universal, active on all planes. The worlds, visible and invisible, were brought forth "through the arising of desire in the Unknown First Cause" — desire, of course, of the most sublimated spiritual quality. In its highest human aspect it is aspiration and unselfish devotion; in its lowest, when centered on self, it degrades man below the beasts because he is then prostituting his reason to unworthy ends. It is the crucifixion of the Christos on the cross of matter. That which in the beasts is simple and natural because of the absence of the developed self-conscious mind, is debasement in man.
Manas or mind, the essentially human element commonly called the fifth principle, forms the link between the Intermediate triad and the overshadowing spiritual ray and its parent monad.
While not a hard and fast arrangement, this triple division is convenient and suggestive because it harmonizes with the most familiar fact in our inner experience. Everyone knows that we have an intermediate self-conscious personality which is constantly being pulled in opposite directions by higher or lower forces within ourselves. This conflict is the outstanding fact in life; it needs no argument. Painful though it may be, it is the only method by which we can find our way to wisdom and the path of liberation.
Future human evolution depends upon our ability to release the intermediate self-conscious ego from the limitations of personality and to lift it into unity with the inner divinity by self-discipline and the irresistible power of impersonal love. So manas is the link between the god and the animal in man. Intrinsically colorless as regards good and evil, it has the power of choice, which is exercised by the use of the will. Drawn in opposite directions by higher and lower desires — impersonal or personal — it becomes dual, and the term higher ego, as employed in theosophy, may be taken as a general expression for manas when illuminated by the spiritual soul, buddhi. The lower self is that part of manas which is under the control of the more animal impulses. The former is a state of wisdom, love, harmony, and intuition — impersonality, in short; the latter, one of calculating egoism, cold brain-mind reasoning, and devotion to sense-desire.
The problem of the higher and lower manas is perhaps the most difficult for the beginner in theosophy, yet it is most important, for it brings us face to face with ourselves in a very real way. In one sense manas is the battleground on which our future is decided; it may take many incarnations, but for those who ardently aspire to perfection the time is greatly shortened. For more light on this great problem of the dual manas, the student must consult advanced theosophical literature.
Manas is but faintly expressed in the animal kingdom, which does not possess self-consciousness, foresight, and deliberate reasoning choice, although a few of the higher animals show traces of advancement, particularly those in close contact with man. It is not wise, however, to force their intelligence prematurely because of the risk of injury to their natural process of evolution. There is a sharp distinction between the animal and human kingdoms: man is not just a more highly evolved animal in the Darwinian sense; the animal mind has not developed into the human self-conscious mind. Man has a light of his own which illuminated or entered him at a certain definite period of the evolution of his lower vehicles. Self-conscious manas is the distinguishing feature of mankind, and it is not an outgrowth from the beast by natural selection or in any other way. The real man, the higher manas, may be said to overshadow, or even stand apart from, his lower principles. As the manas becomes spiritualized and united with the sixth principle, buddhi, man becomes more than man — a self-conscious god. Manas may be regarded as a creative principle, a part of the cosmic creative mind.
Little can be said of these high themes, for few are prepared to understand the subtleties without long study and meditation. The divine atman or the monad, and the buddhi or spiritual soul, are the only abiding human principles, and properly speaking they overshadow us and do not manifest as part of the ordinary personality. Only in the perfected Adept is the buddhic principle fully manifested. We read in The Mahatma Letters to A. P. Sinnett:
The supreme energy resides in the Buddhi; latent — when wedded to Atman alone — active and irresistible when galvanized by the essence of "Manas" and when none of the dross of the latter commingles with that pure essence to weigh it down by its finite nature. — p. 341
The great teacher, Buddha, calls the sixth principle (buddhi) the fire that burns in the eternal light. It is the unshackled spirit that sees things of the divine world without a veil.
Speaking of Atman, the "One Reality," H. P. Blavatsky writes:
. . . Atman, is no individual property of any man, but is the Divine essence which has no body, no form, . . . It only overshadows the mortal; that which enters into him and pervades the whole body being only its omnipresent rays, or light, radiated through Buddhi, its vehicle and direct emanation. — The Key to Theosophy, p. 101
To make it more conceivable to the human intellect, when first attempting the study of Occultism, and to solve the A B C of the mystery of man, Occultism calls this seventh principle [atman] the synthesis of the sixth, and gives it for vehicle the Spiritual Soul, Buddhi. Now the latter conceals a mystery which is never given to anyone, with the exception of irrevocably pledged chelas [disciples of an initiate] or those, at any rate, who can be safely trusted. — Ibid., pp. 119-20
Atman is far beyond our mental possibility of comprehension, and the buddhic principle can only be very dimly imagined. We can try to picture the latter as a glorious radiance of spiritual illumination gradually penetrating the purified manas. Buddhi without manas is not self-conscious for us and cannot act on mental planes, but when the two have become united man becomes more than man. As the spiritual state thus attained infinitely transcends the limitations of personality as we regard it, it is clear that purification of the mind from every trace of egoism by long continued effort through many incarnations is essential.
Again we see why the real teachers tell us the same old story: "Love the brethren," and find the god within yourself. It is the only way to the heart of the universe, and that is why membership in the Theosophical Society is based on the belief in universal brotherhood and not on creed or dogma.
The principles or elements in man's complex nature are sometimes grouped in three interlocking divisions: upper, intermediate, and lower or mortal. See table below.
Atman — Spirit, the inner god, the divine monad.
Buddhi — Ray, proceeding from atman.
Manas — Human soul, in its higher aspect
Manas — Human soul, with its higher and lower aspects.
Kama — Principle of desire.
Linga-sarira — Astral or design body.
Prana — Vitality.
Sthula-sarira — Physical body.
The linga-sarira, the link between the lower and the intermediate triads, may be regarded as the soul of the lower or the body of the intermediate.
Reincarnation is a very ancient and worldwide doctrine. It is a particular instance of the general law of reimbodiment which applies not only to human beings but even to planets, suns, and universes.
When the Theosophical Society was founded reincarnation was a new and strange idea to the Western world, although almost universally known in the East. It was ridiculed in the popular press and confused with the crude notion of transmigration into animals, which theosophy rejects. "Once a man always a man," until a still higher state is attained, is the theosophical teaching. The work of H. P. Blavatsky has so enormously modified Western thought that reincarnation has been adopted by innumerable persons who recognize that it is the only rational explanation of the enigmas of life, especially of the inequalities of birth and opportunity. Reincarnation is now treated seriously in literature and by all advanced thinkers; it is a familiar theme in fiction and drama. The English Poet Laureate, Masefield, like so many famous poets, is a reincarnationist. Reincarnation brought a new outlook on life, a new key to the divine nature of man, a rational explanation of evolution, to the Occident.
Reincarnation is briefly defined as the doctrine that man lives many times on earth as a human being, the conditions of each incarnation being the natural result of the causes set in motion in former lives. Between incarnations the higher nature enjoys a blissful interval of rest and happiness in a subjective state. When his evolution has progressed as far as possible on this globe, man will advance to higher spheres.
This condensed definition would be misleading without a clear idea of what is meant by "man." It has been explained already that man is a compound, permanent in the higher elements, mortal in the lower. The higher spiritual part, when incarnated, creates, as it were, a false or temporary personality, endowed with the feeling of "I am I," having a vivid sense of separateness from others of its kind, and of identity with the body. In this personality it lives, forgetting its higher state, like a man suffering from amnesia or what science calls dual personality in which two utterly different intelligences alternately occupy the same body. (See Dr. Morton Prince's classic on the subject, in which examples are given showing that while one personality knew all that the second was doing, the latter was quite ignorant of the life and actions of the former.) In the normal person, flashes of the higher immortal consciousness pierce the veil in accordance with his advancement.
It is not strictly true to say that one's present personality, one's everyday consciousness of self, lived before or will live again. Nature is too wise, too merciful, to allow us to drag this personality around with us forever, with its limitations, its weaknesses, and above all, with its unhappy memories. Fortunately we are ever changing, growing, learning. The word "personality" (from persona, a "mask") well describes the temporary instrument put forth by the higher self to gain experience in this world. But the personality is not necessarily annihilated. As it strives and suffers and purifies itself, it receives more and more light from above, it becomes nearer the image of the "Father"; and even though the personality of any one life is far from pure, its nobler qualities and memories are never lost, but are withdrawn at death into the real man. All that perishes is that which is not worth preserving.
There are many who cannot accept the theory that man as he appears — the commonplace personality — is immortal, and yet who feel dissatisfied with the notion that such a marvelous being, with such powers of mind and heart, can perish without leaving a trace. Many earnest believers in the immortality of the soul also are troubled because of the lack of so-called scientific proof that their intuition is right and that the soul does survive. To both classes the concept of reincarnation, when fully understood, comes as a blessed relief, a complete solution of their problems.
Those who accept the idea of a future life of the soul are logically compelled to ask themselves what it was doing before birth. All admit that the body perishes, but if there is an immortal part, how can immortality (or infinity — the same conception) extend only in one direction? How can it have a beginning? This problem has never been logically answered except on the basis of pre-existence, and that carries with it the suggestion that if the soul has actually once descended into physical life from a more ethereal state, why should it not have done so before, in obedience to the universal law of periodicity or cyclic progression?
Human life is a continuum, and the breaks between incarnations when the soul returns to less material conditions are only a larger expression of what is familiar to us in the alternations of sleeping and waking. Reincarnation in bodily form is only a special case of the universal cosmic principle of periodic or cyclic law which runs through everything.
H. P. Blavatsky places cyclic law among the three fundamentals of the ancient wisdom: as she says in The Secret Doctrine (1:17):
This second assertion of the Secret Doctrine is the absolute universality of that law of periodicity, of flux and reflux, ebb and flow, which physical science has observed and recorded in all departments of nature.
And in the third fundamental proposition we read of
. . . the obligatory pilgrimage for every Soul — a spark of the former [the Universal Over-Soul] — through the Cycle of Incarnation . . . The pivotal doctrine of the Esoteric philosophy admits no privileges or special gifts in man, save those won by his own Ego through personal effort and merit throughout a long series of metempsychoses and reincarnations.
We are all familiar with the cycles of day and night; of waking and sleeping; the changes of the seasons and their effects; the rise and fall of nations; the fluctuations of trade; the lunar changes, the great astronomical cycles; and with many others in human, animal, and vegetable life. Man, as a soul, is no exception to the great law, and his progress through incarnations on earth, alternating with periods of repose in spiritual planes, is only a part of greater and grander cycles.
When the body is worn out, its particles dispersed for a while, and the higher purified part of the late personality withdrawn into the true self, the latter has by no means closed its connection with earth. It is responsible for the past, it has left many unfinished tasks, and it has not yet realized a fraction of its divine possibilities as an imbodied spirit. Humanity as a race — with a very few exceptions — is still in its childhood and will remain so until its real divinity is revealed in its fullness. The human personality as we know it today — the mask of the real person — is only a poor semblance of the glorious being to come. Reincarnation is the only possible method of such an evolution.
But after "life's fitful fever," rest and recuperation are needed, and the reincarnating ego, purified by the shedding of the lower elements in kama-loka, the region of desire, and free from all that can hold it to the earth's attraction, passes through the "second death" into the rest and bliss of devachan, leaving the passions, the mistakes, and the sorrowful memories to perish with the body. It remains in this state of high spiritual consciousness for approximately one hundred times the length of the last incarnation, more or less, according to the character of the individual; and then a fresh incarnation is entered on, in harmony with cyclic law. As Katherine Tingley often said, we are given "another chance" to redeem the past, until we learn our lesson of spiritual attainment.
The medieval notion of escaping from life's responsibilities to an eternal heaven of bliss is petty and selfish in comparison with the doctrine of reincarnation. Reincarnation provides for the needed rest and happiness, but it does far more, by giving the opportunity of working again for the welfare of the great human family to which we belong. It leads to the brotherhood of mankind. When a certain high stage of spiritual development is reached, no further incarnation is needed on earth; the inexpressible bliss of nirvana is in sight; the soul becomes free and incarnation a matter of choice. Nothing nobler can be imagined than the voluntary sacrifice of nirvana for the purpose of returning to help humanity on its weary way; and this is the ideal of perfect love offered by the sublime teachings of the ancient wisdom. The Great Ones make this sacrifice.
Reincarnation, the natural method by which the soul learns its lessons, logically implies that we experience the results of our actions in former lives. "Do men gather grapes of thorns or figs of thistles?" said Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount, when he was teaching the law of karma.
Karma is essentially the law of adjustment of causes to effects, the restoration of broken harmony, "even after many days." We cannot deny the law of cause and effect in the material world, but theosophy carries it farther than that for it shows that this law goes to the root of all being. It is just as unerring in regard to a deed of love or mercy, or hate and cruelty, as in the falling of a stone. It would be horrible to live in a world where nature could not be trusted to be consistent, where water sometimes ran uphill or the stars faltered in their courses! But, mercifully, the "divine custom" of karma is equally consistent in the adjustment of life in every aspect.
A most important aspect of Karma is that a period of apparently "bad" karma — suffering and trial — may not be really a misfortune, but a magnificent opportunity for an individual to develop noble capacities: "Gold is tried in the fire." W. Q. Judge says "good" karma is that which the soul requires for its evolution, even though it be distasteful. It is said that the inner self chooses the rough path at times to quicken its progress. Even the outer personality does this when it sees the need. The human will can always start new causes, and some of these may cancel previous ones, as one factor cancels another in a problem in mathematics.
Physical suffering may be unavoidable, but according to the way in which it is taken, so will be the effect on the character, good or bad. Then again, many devoted souls deliberately enter upon self-sacrificing work for others that will inevitably lead to exterior suffering; yet this pain is not produced by evil intent, but contrariwise. This subject leads to profound problems which are dealt with in larger theosophical works.
The doctrine of karma is one of the most difficult subjects that can occupy the reasoning mind, and only those who have advanced far on the path and have developed high powers of perception can properly follow its ramifications and complexities. There are, however, leading features that we can easily understand and which prove its superiority to any other attempt to explain the inequalities of life. We can consider only a few points here, chiefly those relating to reincarnation.
We all know that a person is practically certain to break a limb if he falls from a cliff, but what is not clear is why some persons will "miraculously" escape without injury. We all know perfectly authentic accounts of such escapes which the wildest fiction magazine would hesitate to publish. On the other hand, many persons have suffered from extraordinary "accidents" occurring under conditions in which no danger at all seemed to threaten.
It is strange indeed that people who accept the Christian teaching, "Be not deceived; God is not mocked; for whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap" (Gal. 6:7), can speak of "accidents" and fail to carry the Biblical doctrine of cause and effect to its logical conclusion — the pre-existence of the soul and reincarnation.
Science is very positive that physical causes produce equivalent physical effects, and common observation proves that sowing wild oats in youth produces a crop of trouble in old age — if the sower lives long enough. But if not? Does he then escape scot free?
Theosophy shows that compensation is meted out in another incarnation if necessary. Nothing can be more simple, more just. The harvest is reaped where the seeds were sown. By the suppression in the Western world of the teachings of reincarnation and karma, the natural intuition that has led mankind to believe that causes started during life must work out somewhere, here or hereafter, has been perverted to crude dogmas of eternal bliss and eternal damnation. These notions have at last been found so disproportionate to any reasonable idea of compensation that even the churches are dropping them. Hell is no longer popular, and Heaven is exceedingly vague. Yet there is compensation, and the key to the problem lies open to view in the very book, "esoterically so wise," whose teachings have so long been misunderstood by its professed followers. Reincarnation and karma are not only mentioned in veiled terms in the Bible, but are explicitly taught. This is discussed in a later chapter.
The apparent injustice of the allotment of opportunity in coming into this world has been the despair of the one-life thinkers who have dared to face the problem. Not only are we born into a certain family and nation and race, into good or bad surroundings, born healthy or sickly or crippled, but we start with a definite moral and intellectual character not easy to modify, even with great effort.
Some favored persons receive every possible assistance in leading a noble life; others are born in misery and crime, and get nothing but kicks. The popular and thoroughly unscientific view is that it is all a matter of chance or luck, which simply means that the problem is given up as hopeless. And it is hopeless on the one-life theory; it is worse, it is blasphemous, for it implies that the world is not governed by law, but is a crazy patchwork of "effects" with no adequate causes.
How the picture changes when we learn of reincarnation and karma; how beneficent and orderly life becomes! We have been looking heretofore on the wrong side of the tapestry and seeing nothing but irregular patches and loose ends. When we realize that our fate is in our own hands, that we are not only paying for or profiting by the acts of the past but that we are making our own future under the unerring divine law of karma and that we can rely upon absolute justice — which is truest mercy — being done, our whole attitude to life changes. Instead of seeing law and order in the physical world only, we find that nature is a unity and that the same principle acts throughout all planes, mental, psychic, and spiritual. It is as potent in the smallest events in our lives as in the falling of a stone or the action of the chemical elements. We repeat again that human life is a continuum and the link between incarnations is karma, the law of the equivalence between action and reaction. In Sanskrit the word means "action."
Another point about karma and reincarnation is the way they clear up problems in heredity, such as the appearance of great geniuses or of degenerates, from normal parentage. Scientists have offered no satisfactory explanation of these and other mysteries of heredity, as they freely admit. And no wonder, for they cannot be explained without introducing the factors of karma and reincarnation. The provision of a certain kind of personality by heredity is the natural method by which the real self gets the most suitable mental and physical apparatus for its next earth-life. It is naturally attracted to the conditions in which its karma can be most effectively worked out; but they do not necessarily cover the whole ground. Not all the crops sown in any one life can be reaped in the next; some have to wait till the appropriate time. But heredity, as ordinarily understood, is not the governing principle of our lives, for as H. P. Blavatsky says:
the law of Karma, racial or individual, overrides the subordinate tendencies of "Heredity," its servant. — The Secret Doctrine 2:178
The real governing principle is the person himself who determines his own future by every act and thought. Do not regard karma as an outside fate or something which we must put up with against our will. Our karma is what we have made for ourselves, what we have inbuilt into our own characters.
Above all, do not look upon karma as either punishment for sins or reward for virtues, doled out by some over-ruling Providence. It is the consequence that inevitably follows an action as "the wheel follows the ox," according to the Oriental simile. Whatever "forgiveness" of sins may mean, it does not imply the blotting out of their consequences. In The Secret Doctrine H. P. Blavatsky says:
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
The subject of karma in nature and man is as fascinating as it is profound, and the student will find many difficulties discussed and clarified in more advanced theosophical literature.
Death is not the King of Terrors, but a kindly liberator, a blessed release for the spirit; painless in itself, and the door to rest and unspeakable bliss. "Death is birth" in a very real sense. It is a perfectly natural process, necessary to human evolution through its cycle of earth-lives; it is as necessary as sleep, which it closely resembles in more ways than one. Death of the physical body cannot be transcended until mankind reaches a higher degree of development, when conditions and we ourselves will have changed.
Death, however, is not a final release; it is not what Eastern philosophy speaks of as crossing to, or reaching, the "other shore." That is a poetical term for attainment of the knowledge of the inner god, the result of striving through many deaths and births. It is the state of high adeptship.
Those to whom the inner planes of nature are like an open book, who, through spiritual development and initiation, have pierced the veil in full consciousness, have given us an outline of the stages of progress and liberation after death which is logical, scientific, and harmonious with our highest ideals.
Briefly put, the outstanding elements are these: the worn-out physical body having been laid aside, the semi-physical astral body rapidly disintegrates, and a process of preparation follows in which the human ego is gradually liberated from the lower, worldly, and common desires. The lower mind is passed, so to speak, through a process of sublimation like that of metal which is purified by heat from dross, leaving the desire principle with the lower memories of the late personality to fade out as an active force.
Sometimes that principle is so strong and coherent that it can remain a long time as a delusive or pseudo-personality, called the kama-rupa (desire body), but the true human ego passes onward, leaving the semblance or residue of the former personality destitute of its spiritual qualities, though it may temporarily retain a measure of consciousness and even memory.
The real human ego or monad, released from the lower passional elements, that is, having passed through the "second death," enters the devachanic state where it enjoys unbounded felicity in a "heaven-world," the subjective creation of its highest spiritual thoughts and aspirations "in the bosom of the divine monad."
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come. . . . — Hamlet, Act III, Sc. i
The purified human ego has in its own devachanic cycle a full awakening into spiritual consciousness, a culmination, and a decline into the lethargy that precedes the next incarnation on earth. The karmic seeds begin to sprout as the cycle completes its round, and then a new-born babe sees the light of common day.
At the moment of death, before the unconsciousness preceding the preparation for devachan, the ego sees a complete panorama of the events of the past life unroll before its inner sight. Every event is seen in its proper relationship, all acts and thoughts are self-judged, and even the smallest are shown to have been subject to the impersonal law of justice — karma. Before rebirth, also, a similar picture unrolls, that of the conditions the human ego will meet in the coming incarnation, what it has made for itself by its own past acts and thoughts. Everything is made plain, and thus in the coming incarnation, when the outer personality, which is ignorant of the past karmic causes, curses fate and protests bitterly against the ill luck that dogs his footsteps, the inner self has no complaint, for it knows it is the harvest of the old seeds. When we find the key to knowledge and learn to look within we shall all know it, and have peace amid outer tribulation. Those who do not repine at the buffetings of life have already an intuitive knowledge of this, though they may not be able to analyze their feelings.
Exceptional cases and modifying circumstances in post-mortem states cannot be discussed here, but we cannot omit to mention a very important process that takes place after the death of the body and during the devachanic state of the human ego, but which does not consciously affect it, for this pertains exclusively to the higher monad, the essential self, from which the human ego or monad issued forth when it took up its last incarnation and to which it returns for rest and spiritual refreshment.
This process, a very wonderful one, consists in the peregrination of the spiritual monad from planet to planet of the seven sacred planets so-called, as it follows the pathways known as the outer round. In this outer round the higher monad gains experiences of life and matter which are different from those it has had on our earth, but which are necessary to its own progress. Though the human monad or ego rests within the higher monad, it does not partake of these experiences, which are not available to it until it has reached a far higher stage. The human monad remains in its devachanic bliss while the spiritual parent sojourns for a while on each of the sacred planets. This sublime subject must in no way be confused with the inner round, the pilgrimage through the "seven globes" (not "planets") of the terrestrial chain.
Theosophy, in accord with the teaching of the great seers and sages of the ages, discountenances efforts to raise the shades of the departed, and protests strongly against the production of materializations or temporary simulacra of the dead body. Theosophy does not deny the reality of many phenomena of the seance room. In fact, H. P. Blavatsky began her public work with the Spiritualists because she knew they were more broadminded about psychic phenomena than the scientists or theologians of that day, and she hoped that they would welcome the light that Eastern philosophy throws upon the whole subject.
According to the ancient wisdom, the spiritual ego never by any possibility "materializes," and with the exception of a few suicides and victims of accident, the ordinary run of communications can be traced to the kama-rupa or pseudo-personality that still hankers for contact with the earth-plane, though it is but a shell from which the higher triad has withdrawn, like a butterfly from its abandoned chrysalis. Another confusion, and a very frequent one, arises from the pranks of nature-spirits, elementals, who can vivify the fading spectral shades and simulate the deceased personality, as they often mockingly boast.
It must be clearly understood that the astral world, particularly in its more accessible regions, is filled with subtle delusions, in which the untrained explorer, however intelligent, is quickly lost in a maze of error. The door once opened is hard to shut, as many have learned to their cost by ignorantly dabbling in the so-called occult arts or by attempting to develop the lower psychic powers, erroneously called spiritual.
The complex nature of the stream of consciousness that constitutes a human being is hardly suspected in the Western world, still less the geography of the invisible planes.
The sensible thing for us is to leave the astral plane to those whose duty compels them to investigate its delusions; to those who have passed through the necessary training in self-control and self-knowledge, who are not seeking for the satisfaction of mere intellectual curiosity, and who are protected by the strong armor of impersonal love. For us, our school of experience is here and now, in the events of daily life.
This, of course, does not imply that a philosophical study should not be made of the collected knowledge and teachings on the subject of psychism and the laws underlying the phenomena. W. Q. Judge says:
Our philosophy explains the facts already at hand, and shows distinctly how the virtues and excellences of character must be developed and realized before we are at all ready for practically touching the psychic forces. At the same time, by giving a sufficient analysis of man's composite nature it tends to prevent and do away with all superstition in respect to the many psychic phenomena that daily have place. . . . — The Theosophical Forum, August 1894
The temporary comfort given to the bereaved by alleged communications given at the expense of the mediums is more than off set by evils that are explained in theosophy. If we truly love our departed friends we shall not try to drag them back to this earth plane, from which they have ascended to the unspeakable peace of devachan. Even the kama-rupa, the shell, should not be revivified and given a semblance of life and intelligence. It is an outrage on nature's kindly process of disintegration. Let us leave our friends to their natural path onward and inward, with full faith that if we truly love them we cannot fail to meet again, for love attracts its own. In the Orient, the calling up of the shades is regarded as unseemly or worse, and the dangers inherent in mediumship are only too well known.
But we are not altogether separated from the friends we loved in life, even now. There is a possibility of a very real communion between our spiritual ego and theirs. This occurs in sleep when we are released from the limitations of the lower personality, and our better self, the higher manas, withdraws to high spiritual states. Very rarely can even a trace of such communion be recollected on waking, though a sense of having passed through some splendid experience may remain. Such experiences, however, are far removed from the commonplaces of the ordinary seance room or the astral explorations of psychical research.
The great teachers tell us that to know life we must know death, and that the adventure of life in its entirety includes the intervals between incarnations, for death of the temporary vehicle is only a door to new experiences for the true ego. But the adventures of the spiritual ego can be followed only by those who have advanced to high spiritual consciousness, who have passed beyond the veil through initiation. Others can touch only the outer fringe of knowledge.
The Adept and the medium are at opposite poles. The former cannot be dominated by unknown forces or entities; his training brings forth the positive, godlike qualities. He is a Master of life, not a passive agent ignorant of the laws of even the semi-material astral regions.