[Note: page numbers cited for The Esoteric Tradition are to the 2-vol. Second Edition and do not correspond to the 1-vol. 3rd & Revised Edition.]
Of all the fascinating and suggestive paradoxes involved in the Occult Teachings, those implied in the matter of free will are supreme. We must begin, if we are to understand the subject, by distinguishing sharply between free will and self-will, or what in children is often called wilfulness. And in order to get the basis of the distinction we must know something of the relation between the psychological or emotional and the spiritual sides of our composite nature.
Free will inheres in man's spiritual individuality: self-will is the energy of the personality allied with the animal nature, this alliance of the two having produced kama-manas, the human soul. It is by indulging in the freedom of this human will — its power to set itself in opposition to the good or the rights of others and the world around it — that we become the bond-slaves of Karman. And this is the first paradox: a freedom that leads to bondage is surely a mirage.
We can imagine how it was ages ago, in the early days of the Atlantean Race, when man had already passed out of the quasi-godhood of the Third. He now first began truly to realize himself as a separate self-conscious being, and the adventure of using his new power to exploit environment and relationship for his own ends was irresistible. And particularly was this the case because the manasic ray linking his spiritual and animal parts was still undeveloped by use and his perceptions were dim, not only to the difficulties and dangers of the psycho-material world about him but also to the spiritual goal towards which evolution had begun to urge him. For at that time man had not reached the bottom of the Arc of Descent into matter. Matter itself was inconceivably more dense than at present. Thus it is not surprising that early Atlantean humans with their immense and gross bodies and with the powerful personal wills inhering in the psychological-kamic nature were led astray by the wonder of their new power of self-conscious freedom of choice.
So then we see man still on the Descending Arc, weaving around himself denser and denser 'Webs of Destiny,' building into himself with terrible industry the dark energy-substance created by self-will, all of which culminated in the catastrophe of Atlantis. H. P. Blavatsky tells us in The Secret Doctrine (Vol. II, p. 303) that "many of us are even now working off the evil effects of karma made by us in Atlantean bodies." We are still staggering under the burdens incurred by our own early ignorance and enthusiastic weaving about ourselves of the dense webs of material destiny.
And are we not still at it? Self-interest, my desires, what I want and ought to have — these remain today the dominant urges of individual and national life. Even the East is beginning to forget its ancient lore of spiritual-psychological wisdom and, following the example set by the West, it begins to pursue the fata morgana of self-interest.
It is these trammels of ancient karman now affecting most of us that are partly responsible for the contradictions in human life that puzzle us so. One of the chief of our enigmas is that of the virtuous man laboring along under a load of 'injustice,' but working off in a good fortune that we are not wise enough yet to recognise, the karmic impediments in suffering and tribulation brought over from an old past. Yet this karman is working out well in two ways. He is forming the character founded upon struggle with odds which nothing can take away from him because he is building it into himself; and he is not only busy ridding himself of karmic burdens, but is thereby increasing his own strength and accumulating daily a store of karmic merit which will help him still further forwards in the future.
On the other hand, the moral weakling who is born into 'good fortune' is reaping the reward of past striving for merely material success instead of struggling for moral ends; and just because of such a mistaken aim he was and is increasing his weakness of character and piling up difficulties for himself in the future, although happily those very difficulties will eventually force his spiritual growth. This whole subject is magnificently expanded in the two chapters, 'Webs of Destiny' in The Esoteric Tradition by G. de Purucker, Vol. I.
The time has come when humanity has earned the right to occult knowledge. The Archaic Wisdom-Science, the only system which expounds the knowledge of self-redemption through impersonal wisdom; imagination, and will, is being restored to our mental life. And so we encounter the second, the most magnificent, paradox of Occultism, that freedom is the fruit of obedience. Out of the consciousness of a world gone mad upon the subject of individualism the conception of cooperation for universal good has begun to emerge. It is still but a sketchy outline, like the first delicate filaments in a saturate crystalline solution. Still, it is beginning to take actual, definite shape. Knowledge of the Esoteric Tradition is spreading and its truth is being more fully demonstrated and corroborated by present scientific research and by those of its findings which are unassailable. So the spiritual nature of man and his oneness with all other beings is being recognised if only unconsciously. This will eventually open our eyes wide to the unmorality and the folly of anything in either thought or action, individual or national, that opposes the harmonious working out of the best interests of the whole.
Let us look more closely into the Theosophical conception of obedience upon which true freedom is founded. The word 'obedience' alone is perhaps misleading because, as commonly understood, it suggests the imposition of the will of another. 'Voluntary impersonal obedience' will imbody the idea more accurately. No one can exact obedience of an adult. We are free to act as we please; to do right or to break the moral or civil law, but — we must take the consequences. A man can direct his own thoughts and actions if he be normal, but he cannot direct their ultimate reactions, and it is through these reactions that Nature educates him. But what a heart-breakingly tedious process this can be! Even the average good man would muddle along across the ages, learning through the ups and downs of his successes and failures so slowly that his gain per incarnation might not be more than an inch or so along the interminable evolutionary track.
But man, fortunately, has always had Spiritual Teachers. Wherever any man or group of men begins to seek desperately for a spiritual remedy, there the Buddhas of Compassion and their Adept-helpers focus a light. And after a Teacher has been sent always there are a few who are strong enough, through training and concentrated devotion, to pass through the gates of initiation and become Adept-teachers in their turn. And every such achievement spreads a wave of spiritual vitality through the inner natures of all beings, even to the very kingdoms of the elementals. Especially it awakens and stimulates the aspirations of man himself in his search for freedom.
These results are brought about by voluntary impersonal obedience — beginning first with obedience to the demands of humble human duties; expanding gradually into impersonal love for our dear ones, a love that gives without demanding and asks no reward for service. It broadens then into impersonal love for enemies as well as friends. It forgives those who injure and blesses the persecutor. And so within the heart buds the luminous flower of Christhood — the sleeping Buddha awakens to power. Then the human will, subordinating itself in glad obedience to the beneficent urges of that Supernal Presence, enters upon the path to the creative freedom and responsibility of godhood.