Expanding Horizons — James A. Long

Karma: Law of Cause and Effect

Question — I would like to know more about karma, particularly with regard to the idea that we are responsible for our circumstances in life. Could we discuss this a little?

Comment — This is a subject that never loses interest. You will remember how the New Testament expresses the thought: "whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap." That is just what karma means — it is a Sanskrit term used in Hindu and Buddhist philosophy to signify "action" followed by reaction. Every religion has stressed the doctrine of moral responsibility. The Muslims speak of Kismet as representing one's individual portion or lot in life. The ancient Greeks had their Nemesis or goddess of retributive justice; they also personified past, present, and future as the three Moirai or Spinners of Destiny. So too those born in the Jewish faith are familiar with the Mosaic injunction: "an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth." All of these are different ways of describing the universal law of harmony and balance, which insures that every cause set in motion will, some time in the future, bring about its corresponding effect.

What first appeals to one in the study of karma is the potency of thought it stirs in us when we think of it in connection with its companion doctrine of rebirth, and the part that each of us has to play in the long drama of existence. The tendency to guard against is that of narrowing our thinking down to "me and my karma"; we can become so involved in our personal concerns that we fail to view our day to day experiences practically and intelligently in the light of the larger picture.

There are many aspects of karma, such as world, national and racial karma, family as well as individual karma. We can even say there is business karma, community karma, and so forth. In other words, in every avenue of experience, from the individual to the international, men are thinking and acting and hence setting certain causes in motion which are bound to have their effects. So there is no end to the ramifications of actions and reactions.

Question — Just how did all this begin?

Comment — To get a truer perspective of karma in relation to the present, we have to go way back, to the time of the Garden of Eden. We have been told that from the day when man tasted of the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil he became a self-conscious unit of the human kingdom, ethically responsible for his every thought and act. If this is so, then from that point on we have been the shapers of our character and the makers of our destiny, and that divine law of sowing and reaping has allowed us to create the very circumstances in which we find ourselves today — whatever their quality.

It is regrettable, however, that we in the West have been trained to think of the operation of this law with fear in our hearts: "If you don't live right, God will punish you; if you do wrong, you won't go to heaven." It is difficult to conceive of any God watching each individual, ready to strike him down if he errs; or if he is good, to reward him with specially contrived favors. Man may have been "fearfully and wonderfully made," but it does not follow that he was made in fear. The curse of dogmatic belief that we were born in sin has had effects both far-reaching and devastating. Man is wonderfully made, and with the qualities of the highest potential in his nature — qualities founded on a divine trust and not a divine fear. The almighty Intelligence which pervades every minute atom of our universe could not have allowed its essence to manifest without a complete trust that each such atom in time would become as that from which it sprang. To limit our concepts to a Deity who would on the one hand personally supervise this whole evolutionary unfoldment, individual by individual, and on the other hand relegate us to "sin" at birth, is to degrade the true purpose of life.

There is a vast amount of hidden truth involved in the allegory of the Fallen Angel. This story, so poorly conceived in the orthodox interpretation, is told by many ancient peoples. In the Hindu tradition it is symbolized by the descent of Manasaputras or "Sons of Mind" — godlike beings who lighted the fires of the human mind, much as in Greek mythology Prometheus brought the "fire" of the gods to men. So in the Bible, the casting out of Adam and Eve from Paradise signified humanity's transition from a childlike phase of growth into a state of conscious individual responsibility.

When we realize that you and I from that moment in our evolutionary cycle have been on our own, we begin to get a fuller picture of what this doctrine of karma implies. It means that we, being novices in the use of our free will, made many, many blunders. And every time we made a mistake we felt a reaction to it, attempting to point our thought in the direction of not falling into the same error again. We all learn soon enough on the physical plane, but it takes us much longer to learn lessons on the moral and spiritual levels. Nevertheless, nature's law of harmony operates always to restore equilibrium, sometimes in quite a potent manner, but it is in this way that gradually we attain discrimination.

It boils down to the simple fact that through the ages we have accumulated a lot of effects of former actions so that we are faced now with a collection of karmic responsibilities dating from the far past, from which the immortal element in us has chosen a certain portion for this lifetime. This portion is neither too heavy nor too light, as perfect justice rules throughout the entire cosmos.

People sometimes speak of good karma and bad karma, pleasant and unpleasant. To me there is no such thing as good or bad karma, for the results, the effects of our actions and thoughts, are nothing more nor less than opportunity. That is the key. Karma as opportunity gives everybody the same possibility of growth. Now I don't consider that a heavy load to bear. All we need do is temper our reactions to our circumstances and meet them with the right attitude. But if we are foolish enough to feel revulsion to the so-called unpleasant events of life, we extend the effects of wrong causes further and further until finally we wake up and realize that we are rebelling against nothing but ourselves.

It makes no difference how much suffering we may have in this lifetime — our karma will never be more than we can handle. Point out an individual with a heavy karmic load, and you will have pointed out a strong soul. The man who is going through real torment is a soul who has earned, by the strength of his inner aspiration, the right to test the metal of himself to the core.

Question — If we knew what we had done in the past that had brought on our present problems, wouldn't it be easier to understand them? I know I am responsible for whatever comes to me, both the pleasant and unpleasant things. But how can I handle all of this karma in the right way?

Comment — If nature in its highest sense is harmonious and kind and just, it seems to me it would not ask us to meet a responsibility without providing a key or a guide, and especially would this be true with one who is consciously aspiring. Nature does provide that key, though we are having a hard time finding it. But if we believe there cannot be a cause without an effect, or an effect without a cause, we must believe that nothing happens by chance. Every situation we are confronted with, then, is the result of something we thought or did or participated in in the past that has attracted to us the effects represented by the circumstances in which we now find ourselves. Do we need to know the exact cause? We cannot know it in detail, but we can and should try to discern the quality of experience that brought about our present situation.

At this stage of our growth, those who are actively trying to improve their character, to self-direct their own evolution, are beginning to sense the first faint glimmerings of a genuine intuition. We are not anywhere near the flowering of our present racial cycle, but we are at the same time being called upon to handle the early pushings of the seed of intuition in our consciousness. Therefore, when anyone begins to think about the doctrines of karma and reincarnation he is compelled, sooner or later, to recognize that he has a definite responsibility to meet intelligently the karma that is his. He will have to learn how to meet it, how to listen to the imploring of his immortal self, his intuition, if you please. It is the higher self that has selected the drama of this incarnation in which he is the actor, and it is this higher element that is endeavoring by and through the circumstances of life to guide him to meet with a proper attitude the challenges of each day.

Thus in our struggles toward a fuller understanding, we begin to realize we can develop the ability to read the unfolding karmic script of our lives. When we work with this, then we find ourselves better able to feel out the situations as they arise, and deal with them more intelligently. We can think of it as a Book — the Book of records as the Koran calls it — in which is inscribed in its entirety our individual life. Each of our days, representing a page of so-called karmic merit and demerit, will contain the signposts, the impellings and repellings, the conscience knocks, and even the intuitions that are there to be utilized. Once we are able even slightly to read the daily script of our experiences, we realize something else: that there is a direct relation between the quality of a reaction and the quality of action that brought it into being. This is not going to be spelled out, but if we keep in mind that our major task in the long run is to unfold fully the divine values within us, we will know that the process of transmuting the lower by the higher self must be accompanied by a continued effort to improve the quality of our attitude in every circumstance.

Question — In trying to improve our attitude toward our own karma, shouldn't we also take into account the karma of those around us? I am thinking especially of family and national karma.

Comment — If we believe in the natural working of this law, then those we meet each day we meet by karma, and either we receive something from them or they receive something from us, as the result of that contact. Neither party may be aware of any conscious exchange. It happens as simply as breathing, and may have only an infinitesimal effect, but all of it together helps make up the karmic balance, the karmic total of the day. When we maintain the best inner attitude we can, keeping our personal will as the servant, allowing the spiritual will or the intuition to have as free rein as possible, we begin to recognize what the other person has contributed toward the expansive elements available to us at any time.

Question — But isn't it presumptuous to assume that we could deliberately have any effect on the karma of nations? We are doing very well, aren't we, if we can deal intelligently with our personal lives?

Comment — Most of us cannot directly do anything about national or world karma. Nevertheless, we are part of humanity, and as we strengthen our character, so will our nation and the world at large benefit. The basic key is duty: we fulfill our destiny best by doing the duties that lie immediately before us. Should it happen that you or I by natural karma find ourselves a member of Congress or Parliament, then we would have the opportunity to contribute more potently and directly to our respective countries. What matters most is where we are today and what we are doing about it, for it is the quality of our thoughts and actions that will condition our influence in the future.

Don't you see what a marvelous opportunity we have? Reacting creatively and with a will to correct past errors, we will inevitably impress upon the consciousness of our fellowmen the quality of our endeavor and by so much give them added courage. Without fear but with full trust we can move forward from where we are, knowing that our right thoughts and right actions will in time have their due effects. It makes each moment an opportunity — a challenging opportunity to fulfill our destined responsibilities, not alone to ourselves but to all mankind.

Theosophical University Press Online Edition