Copyright © 1977 by Theosophical University Press. All rights reserved.
Karma is a companion doctrine to reincarnation. The one without the other is meaningless. It is the law of consequences, sometimes called the law of cause and effect; yet more strictly speaking, it is the operation of effects or consequences, for karman is a Sanskrit word meaning "action" — as cause plus effect.
The originating cause is the consciousness of the individual who acts upon nature; nature reacts against that action upon it, and that reaction ensues immediately or at a later date, or even in a future incarnation of the original actor, or in a still more remote imbodiment of that actor in a garment of flesh. When the proper opening appears, when the links, so to say, are ready, when the doors open to the entrance of the forces of nature constituting that reaction, then it comes. And the individual may say: "My God! What have I done that I should suffer so? I know no reason for it." Or, on the other hand, he may exclaim: "Immortal Gods! What have I done that my destiny should be so great? I remember nothing in my life causing it! There is no consciousness in me of meriting this, or of seeing my fellow obtain that other destiny through demerit. Yet I recognize, since this is a universe of law and order, that it could have come to me not otherwise than as a reward for merit; nor the suffering of my unfortunate friend except as a just recompense for demeritorious action."
Our philosophic friend in this case would likewise readily recognize the fact that although his own karma is physically "good" it will not remain so if be selfishly live in it and take no thought of his brother's misery. The best karma that can possibly be made by any human being is that which follows on recognition, and consequent appropriate action, of the fact of his intrinsic kinship with all other men, this feeling and sense of unity urging him to work to alleviate suffering and sorrow wherever they are found.
Karma is in reality character. It is that which a man has made himself to become, not just in the one life, but throughout the succession of lives which the invisible entity, the man himself, undertakes in his progressive evolution. This process involves the working out of karmic effects and explains the problem of heredity as no modern biologic theory has been able to do.
Certain Western scientists in the last century have dealt vaguely with the exoteric Buddhist doctrines of reimbodiment and karma, believing them to be on all fours with the then latest teachings of biological science as regards man's physical nature and his destiny. This parallelism came about because they misunderstood just what the Buddhist doctrines were. Haeckel was chiefly responsible for this presentation, brought about as a result of one of his Oriental journeys and his contact with the Buddhist priest Sumangala, the head of the Southern school of Buddhism in Ceylon.
However, Haeckel gave to the Buddhist doctrine a meaning too limited, too restricted, applying its terms to man's physical body only; whereas these two noble old Buddhist doctrines of karma and reimbodiment apply to man's character, to his skandhas, which are his psychological, mental, emotional and physical attributes.
Again, Huxley, one of the greatest biologists of his time, perhaps one of the greatest that Britain has ever produced, in his book Evolution and Ethics, printed in London in 1894, appears to speak — champion of materialistic biology though he was — as a believer in reincarnation. But his words in no sense imply an acceptance of the doctrine of reimbodiment as theosophy outlines it. He says:
Everyday experience familiarizes us with the facts which are grouped under the name of heredity. Every one of us bears upon him obvious marks of his parentage, perhaps of remoter relationships. More particularly, the sum of tendencies to act in a certain way, which we call "character," is often to be traced through a long series of progenitors and collaterals. So we may justly say that this 'character' — this moral and intellectual essence of a man — does veritably pass over from one fleshly tabernacle to another, and does really transmigrate from generation to generation. — p. 61
Huxley is here speaking of the biological doctrine that a man passes on to his offspring his own characteristics, not merely of body but also his psychic tendencies, for these characteristics are supposed to lie latent in the germ plasm, in other words, in the reproductive cells which father and mother pass on to their children; and that it is in this something — what shall we call it? — in this "character" as Huxley calls it, in this purely materialistic aggregate of tendencies, that lie all that a man later becomes.
It is perfectly true that this aggregate of physical and psychical characteristics and tendencies actually does, as Huxley said, transmigrate from the parent to the offspring; and "transmigrate" is exactly the proper term to use here. We say that it is the life-atoms, or rather a portion of the life-atoms in a lower state of evolution, which do transmigrate from parent to offspring, for these particular life-atoms are they which inform and vitalize the transmitted germ plasm.
Yet all this comprises not even a tithe of what is implied in the theosophical doctrine of reincarnation.
In the new-born infant, the character of the stock lies latent, and the Ego is little more than a bundle of potentialities. But, very early, these become actualities; from childhood to age they manifest themselves in dulness or brightness, weakness or strength, viciousness or uprightness; and with each feature modified by confluence with another character, if by nothing else, the character passes on to its incarnation in new bodies. — Ibid., pp. 61-2
The biologists of Haeckel's and Huxley's day said, in effect: "We don't know how this transmission of physical and psychic tendencies is brought about, but we do know that it takes place; and this is what we call heredity. Heredity is a fact. The son and the daughter do resemble their parents to some extent at least, and even their parents still more remote than their immediate progenitors. This is what we know; and we must find out how this comes to pass."
Now the above is indeed a statement of a part of heredity, but only a subordinate part. It belongs to that aspect of it which involves the transmission of the vehicles preparing for incoming souls, and this is accomplished, as I have just said, by the passing of the atoms of life, the life-atoms of a lower grade, through their transmigration from parent to offspring.
Transmigration, I may say in passing, covers a field of thought much wider than this. (This subject is extensively dealt with by me in The Esoteric Tradition, chs. xxv and xxvi.) It has to do with the life-atoms composing the various vehicles in which man clothes himself — not merely his physical body. These vehicles are his sheaths of consciousness, the veils of his understanding; for remember that man possesses various bodies ranging from the spiritual to the physical, these bodies being on the different planes in which and on which he lives and moves and has his being and works out his destiny.
We are apt to think even in our day, on account of our continued subjection to the old materialistic doctrines of a bygone age, that when we speak of "man" the only meaning of the word is his physical encasement, his body alone. This body is a part of man truly, but the lowest, the most material part of him, the objective part. The real man is that spiritual entity, that sublime being, which is the root of his consciousness and which judges and intuits, has aspirations, and therefore aspires and has realization of things. In fact, it is his essential consciousness, what we call the spiritual soul.
To return to Huxley's comments: "The Indian philosophers called character, as thus defined, 'karma'" (ibid., p. 62). So they did; but Huxley's interpretation is but one small aspect of the great doctrine of karma.
The action of karma finds place on all the planes — most of them interior and invisible — with which man's inner constitution is linked: spiritual, intellectual, psychical, emotional, astral, pranic, and physical; including, in short, all the various encasements or vestures in which man lives on these various planes, and which ensheath the glory which man is in his spiritual nature. And of this glory, we in our physical brain-workings get but a faint reflection, somewhat as the moon gets a faint reflection of the glory of the sun and transmits it as moonlight to our earth.
Huxley, then, sets forth with graphic truth the biologic karma merely of the body, as transmitted as effect from parent to offspring, through the working of the aggregate of the lower life-atoms, in their preparing of vehicles for incoming souls of similar tendencies, of similar character.
Huxley adds the following note to his remark on karma quoted above:
In the theory of evolution, the tendency of a germ to develop according to a certain specific type, e.g. of the kidney bean seed to grow into a plant having all the characters of Phaseolus vulgaris, is its 'Karma.' It is the "last inheritor and the last result" of all the conditions that have affected a line of ancestry which goes back for many millions of years to the time when life first appeared on the earth. . . . As Prof. Rhys Davids aptly says (in Hibbert Lectures, p. 114), the snowdrop "is a snowdrop and not an oak, and just that kind of snowdrop, because it is the outcome of the Karma of an endless series of past existences." — Ibid., p. 95
Just so; the teaching concerning this tendency of a germ to develop into a certain specific type is nothing new. It is an old, old conception. The school of the Stoics in Greece and Rome expressed it as being the operation of what they called the spermatic logos, the logos spermatikos, that is to say, the "seed-logos," what we may call the character-logos, the consciousness-logos; in other words, that particular and individual part of the constitution of any entity which is its specific character. It is this logos spermatikos which makes the rose produce a rose always, and nothing but a rose; which makes the hen's egg bring forth a chick and nothing but a chick; which makes the kidney-bean seed grow into a kidney-bean plant.
Yet as Huxley interprets all these teachings, he is merely touching upon the heredity of the physical body; and true though his statements are they fail to take into account the astral directive matter-force of the incarnating entity. Taking this factor into account, we have as it were a thumbnail sketch of the whole doctrine of the process of reincarnation.
What then is heredity from the standpoint of the theosophical student? No clearheaded thinker will or indeed can feel satisfied with what the scientific theorists have written concerning it; and the proof of this statement lies in the fact that heredity is still under examination, and the question is still constantly asked: What, after all, is heredity? It is unquestionable that children take after parental and ancestral types. Nobody denies the fact. What we call heredity is simply the carrying on from generation to generation of certain traits or biases or peculiarities or deformities or symmetries from father to son to son to son. But when one examines all the scientific ideas about heredity one finds that the scientists are not giving any explanations; they are merely describing a procedure of nature. But what are the causes behind this procedure?
Admitting then that the studies of heredity have shown the coming together of similar types in a family milieu, the theosophist points out that such assemblings of similar individuals is brought about by psychomagnetic attraction. The facts of heredity as they exist are no mere fortuitous or chance happenings, nor are they merely a mechanical process, but they are the consequences of likes attracted to likes; and reincarnation is the means by which such aggregating similarities of character in a family are brought about. Thus ABC, GHI, XYZ, are all individuals with characters resembling each other, and consequently sympathy arises amongst these — what we call attraction. These egos, therefore, drawn by such psychomagnetic attraction to each other, incarnate or take imbodiment in the same family milieu; and thus we have a picture of what scientists call heredity passing on from generation to generation.
It is attraction which brings people together. When the entity is ready to reincarnate, it is drawn psychomagnetically, instinctually if you like, to the family, to the womb, most sympathetic to its vibrational rate. Thought and reflection, study and examination, will show you that the immense likelihood is that you will be attracted to the family milieu, to the family environment, which offers you the closest vibrational rate to your own. Your vibrational rate has less difficulty in synchronizing with the vibrational rate of that family than with some other. Characters, therefore, find imbodiment in families which are most like the character of the imbodying ego. And here we have the real reason for similarities of character types in families. It is not the parents who give the traits to the child. It is the child, bearing these traits within himself, that is attracted by sympathy of vibrational rates to the parents who will give him a body best fitted to express the character he already possesses in potentia; and thus the general family type of character is continued, though with constant modifying variations.
Thus it is the imbodiment in generation after generation of any single family strain, of egos already possessing similarities bringing these similarities into earth life, and carrying them in and through such family, which brings about the phenomenon called "heredity." And this is as true of physical heredity as of psychic heredity, the life-atoms in every case, under the dominant urge of the different imbodying egos possessing similarities, more or less slavishly following these communal egoic sympathies or character traits.
Being a bit more specific, one may point out that the psycho-astral fluid emanating from the ego of the reincarnating entity flows through, permeates, washes all the life-atoms which build the cells with the latter's stock of chromosomes, genes, etc. — to use the scientific terms at present in fashion. And the dominant psychic power of the reimbodying or already reimbodied ego forces these emanated cellular bodies in conformity with its dominant urges. Here we see what we may call the physical explanation of how it is that similar egos in a family will produce similar patterns on invisible planes, in their turn producing similar consequences or results in the developing ovum-plus-sperm, which in their turn transmit physically to their descendant these likenesses of type.
We have seen, now, that character is not something given to the child by the parents, but is carried over from life to life of an imbodying entity and brought with it into earth life. How is this carrying-over brought about? The answer is to be found in a study of the skandhas. When a man dies he takes with him into the invisible worlds the essence of that character which he had been building for himself in the life just ended and in other lives before that. These attributes are called his skandhas, and they remain as seeds of unfulfilled impulses lying latent until the time comes when they shall have an opportunity for further flowering in the field of another earth life. The reincarnating entity attracts them together again as it descends anew through the portals of birth, and as the child grows they gradually manifest themselves as his personality, his biases, his tendencies, his strengths and his weaknesses, in other words, the sum total of the character of his "personality," to use a technical theosophical term, which must not be confused, however, with the immortal individuality, the essential self or fecund root of himself on all planes.
Now then, if all the above is true, how is it that children born of the same parents sometimes differ not merely in small degree but even in very noteworthy degree? In every case it is character from other lives, to be sure, that is manifesting itself. But why does an ego sometimes find itself born into a family to which it is entirely antipathetic? It sometimes happens — and this is a paradox — that strong antipathies actually attract each other, it being an old saying of philosophically minded observers of nature that hatred has its attractions as well as love. So that in a single family we may see two or more children developing on the one hand most affectionate sympathies for each other, or on the other hand even violent antipathies. This is a fact of common human experience, and in every case the attraction is due to one or another type of vibrational rates set up in other lives by former association, which links certain individuals together by ineluctable karmic bonds.
It is an undoubted fact that in the small centers of nature's biologic group which we call the family, there is sufficient biologic urge for the children to resemble their parents, or it may be the grandparents, or the great-grandparents; yet think of the enormous differences that so often take place in one family — demonstrating the even more powerful individual biologic or hereditary lines of unfolding life!
This fact of the common human blood stream flowing in us all accounts also for the cases of those individuals not belonging to the same family who not only have psychological traits and emotional biases which cement them into a close friendship, but who may even look more like each other than either one of these with the members of his own family.
In the last analysis we see that man inherits from himself. Heredity is character and character is heredity. And even in the case of the purely physical heredity, it can be said that man makes his own body, the parents merely providing the workshop and to some extent the materials with which it is built. The incarnating entity is the directing power behind the scenes. And environment is simply the magnetic field that we have chosen in which we may best work out those aspects of character which are the "dominant" for that particular incarnation.
Man is an individuality. He has free will. He is changing from day to day, from year to year, from life to life. He is not static. He is building now what his character will be in his next incarnation, and when that next incarnation arrives he will bring himself with him into the new life. He is thus his own heredity, his own character, his own karma.
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