The Theosophical Forum – August 1942


A synopsis of the Theosophical teaching of Karman, the Doctrine of Consequences: that man is responsible for what he is and for what comes to him. This was given by Miss Inga Sjostedt last May 1lth in the series of weekly Theosophical talks sponsored by herself and Miss Elsa-Brita Bergqvist, over station XQHB, Shanghai, China

Good evening, everybody:

Last Sunday the speaker explained the teaching of Reincarnation as it has been taught from immemorial times by our Elder Brothers, the Adepts, spiritual Teachers, or Initiates. This evening we must examine its twin-doctrine, Karman. As the speaker said last Sunday, Karman is the law of cause and effect, of action and reaction. The word "karman" is Sanskrit and means action, literally, but it is action which returns in the form of results to the actor. It is therefore the law of retribution, for Nature is essentially harmonious, and any disturbance of its equilibrium must be adjusted sooner or later. Therefore a man must always reap what he has sown, whether he like the harvest or not. According to the occult wisdom of the ages, nothing we think or do, nothing we feel or say, is lost, but forms the material out of which we build our future lives. The doctrine of Karman is a key to happiness, success and achievement. It gives us far greater responsibility than the Western idea of forgiveness of sins through prayer and repentance, which latter throws all responsibility on God — an illogical doctrine, if we give it any thought, for if a man, for instance, maims another man for life, or ruins him financially, or through some deliberate course of action causes him to commit suicide, not all the repentance in the world or the assumed forgiveness of God can undo these things. They have happened; they cannot be changed. Nature's law of harmony has been violated, and according to the Secret Doctrine the man responsible must restore the equilibrium in this or another life on earth.

Karman explains the seeming inequalities of life. We are born poor or rich, according to our merits — in a favored or suppressed nation, as we deserve and whither our affinities draw us. We are born into the family, race, locality and age, to which we are psycho-magnetically attracted through our sins and virtues of many previous lives. Every thought we think today affects our future incarnation, because thoughts are energies, and no energy can be lost in the spaces of the universe — it must go somewhere — and where more naturally than back to ourselves who first sent it forth?

The doctrine of Karman has been wrongly understood by many superficial students of Theosophy. Some people, for instance, say: "If all that happens to an individual is just, and all his sufferings and misfortunes are his own doing, I need not help those who are in distress, because it is, after all, the just laws of Nature working." Such a heartless attitude is unforgivable and also reveals an ignorance of natural law, because compassion is a divine attribute and permeates all nature, and also because all living creatures are interdependent. No creature can live by itself and unto itself alone. Man depends for his life on the different elements — air, water, earth, etc. He derives his nourishment from the earth, and all the comforts and conveniences of life are created by communities of men like himself, who build cities and ply different trades so that the members of the community must depend on each other. If, then, life depends on a constant give and take among all the different creatures and elements that make up the world, how wrong it is to say that human suffering should not concern us because it affects strangers and because it is the law of justice in operation! Each time we help someone in distress, each time we improve unfortunate conditions in the lives of people less fortunate than ourselves — our personal Karman adds to its store of good things for the future; but lest anyone think that there is merit in mere conventional duty, let me add that the most important element in a charitable act is the motive. As said before, thoughts are energies, and therefore motives are energies also, and as such they color our actions, making them noble and unselfish or cold and indifferent. Many a helpful gesture loses its potency for good because the motive is selfish and calculating — not generous and kind. The motive is of prime importance, and Karman acts accordingly.

Karman is not a special law governing human affairs only: it affects all creatures — atoms, elements, plants, animals, men, planets, gods, and supergods — all according to their various development and state of consciousness. Even the life of a man is governed by different kinds of karman. For instance, a man may suffer evil physical karman because he abused his body in his former life; he may be afflicted with an unfortunate psychic karman because he did not attempt to control his passions and impulses in his former life; he may be quick-tempered and psychically unbalanced, always torn by conflicting emotions and moods, and we are told about such a man that he was born "with an unfortunate character" — only the Theosophist would add, "with an unfortunate self-created character." At the same time such a man may have an excellent mental karman, because in his previous incarnations he applied his intellectual powers to deep studies and was eager for knowledge. In the present life, therefore, this man would have an exceptional mind and be given many opportunities to use it for some useful purpose, such as science, literature or mathematics.

Karman acts on different ranges. There is such a thing as individual karman — that is, each individual is affected by his former thoughts and deeds in a purely personal way. Then there is family karman, where a certain group of individuals is brought together through affinity and former bonds, and these individuals are all affected by the karman of the family to which they belong. There is the karman of a city or a village; there is also national karman which affects the group of people which constitute a nation, and finally there is the karman of all humanity, which no man can escape as long as he forms part of our earth-humanity.

National karman is effected when the same individuals who lived in the same nation thousands of years ago are reborn together, and through certain characteristics in common form the so-called national or racial idiosyncracies. Others, who were not of the same race in their former life, may be reborn into the new race because their natural tendencies and character are like those of the new race. And so, because of what a nation as a unit does in one life, that race must atone for or be rewarded for the next time the identical individuals are reborn together. This constitutes national karman, and so wars, revolutions, famines, conquests and successes in legislation are but the results of that nation's former activities. A soldier dying in the field of battle may not have a personal karman which pre-destined him to die before his time, but it was through his personal karman that he was born into the nation which was involved in a war, and because he formed part of this nation, his personal karman was overshadowed by the national karman which brought about his untimely death. And so it is with famines, commerce, different forms of government, and other things that affect a country, and through the country its individual inhabitants. Therefore, not only the thoughts of the individual, but the collective thoughts of a nation result in peace or war, wealth or poverty, for the country.

The doctrine of karman must not be mistaken for fatalism. There are certain things which are brought to us through our past actions, but we can neutralize evil karman through personal effort and by changing our attitude.

An understanding of this doctrine, while loading a greater responsibility on the individual than the dogma of repentance and forgiveness of sins, at the same time opens up to our inner vision a vista of possibilities ordinarily undreamed of, for we can make ourselves what we will — beings of spiritual power and wisdom, conquerors of circumstances and personal weaknesses, or, if we so will, we can degrade ourselves to the level of the beasts. Because there is a center of divinity in us, no heights are unreachable, and because we live not one life but hundreds of lives in human form, karman is the doctrine of "another chance."

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