The Theosophical Forum – October 1943


Theosophists, in explaining the doctrine of Reincarnation, often state that man merely does what the whole universe does; and that as the universe is subject to periods of alternate rest and activity, so is man. But this should not imply, as it might to the untrained mind, that man is carried on an ever-whirling wheel which automatically brings him in and takes him out of incarnation by turn. Rather is it that he adapts the universal process to his own inherent needs and urges. Just as the universe is born and dies and is born again through self-generated power, so man is impelled into repeated earth-existences by forces generated within himself.

Now it is obviously not the personality of man that generates this power, for the personality has no persistent life; it is dissipated at the close of each earth-period. But there is a Self in man that persists; it carries over from life to life, consciously following the wheel of karmic law, linking up cause in one life with effect in another, and working unwaveringly towards a definite end. Yet seldom are we, as human personalities, aware of this. Seldom do we feel, except perhaps as a vague and unaccountable uneasiness that will not quite let us alone, the pressure of the inner Ego impelling us onward.

Hidden deep within this Self of every man is a sense of the fitness of things: a sense of harmony, balance and justice, which is reflected in our human consciousness. Our very rebellion against injustice is a proof that the concept of justice is natural to us, that it appeals to us as inherently sound. We rebel because we recognise injustice as a departure from the ideal right, an infringement of a universal law, a violation of our deepest intuitions.

This sense of justice is one of the great forces impelling us to reincarnate. How so? Are we not forever committing acts of injustice, wronging others, incurring moral and psychological debts? We are. And the Self takes note. Not one act escapes its vigilant eye. It recognises, though "we" do not, that accounts must be squared soon or late, that if we wrong someone in this life, we have to right that wrong, and that no amount of "forgetting," concealing, or delaying will suffice in the end to keep us from paying to the full. Thus the urge to adjust, to redeem, to make restitution, comes from within ourselves, not from outside. Karma is no outside avenging fury. It is our inner Self, that will not allow us to go "scot free." By some occultists it is even believed that this Self provides, or helps to provide, the opportunity in each new life for the fulfilment of our obligations. Sometimes such opportunity is veiled, to be sure. Often those things we least like in our life and that we consider our stumbling blocks to happiness and freedom are in reality our opportunities. Until we recognise this, they bar our path and we rebel. But when they are reviewed as representing obligations unfulfilled, old karmic debts which hold us back, we are ready to prepare ourselves to pay these debts, and then the way is clear.

No one life can be taken as an isolated thing. In the unfinished story of a single incarnation, there often is no justice at all, because the chain of cause and effect extends both ways, into the past and into the future. Ignorance of this one principle, i. e., of justice worked out through reincarnation, is a great handicap to writers of fiction, it would seem. They cannot work out a life-story in its complete pattern, so they stop short and leave the reader with a sense of unfulfilment. Their tale is only a fragment, and sometimes a meaningless one. A hundred threads are broken off, which lead — where? The great writers suggest a sequel or manage to work out the fulfilment in the one life. But only too often the ending itself precludes the only possible just conclusion.

An instance of this is the story, told in Dostoievsky's The Brothers Karamazov, of a man who in his youth had murdered the woman he loved through jealousy of a rival lover. By a series of amazing circumstances his crime was undiscovered and, since his life thereafter was most exemplary, not the slightest suspicion attached itself to him. Even the memory of it seemed to have completely left him. He later married, was the center of a happy family, held a high position in the town in which he lived, and was looked upon with respect and esteem. He was very generous too: not only did he subscribe large sums to the almshouse and orphan asylum, but he often gave secretly to the needy.

Then one day, in the midst of this virtue and security, he met a holy man in whose presence the picture of the crime he had committed came back to him in vivid horror. First he felt himself impelled to tell the holy man everything, and gradually it came to him that in order to expiate his sin he must make a public confession.

No writer knows better than Dostoievsky how to describe such mental torture as this man endured as his nature swung from indecision to fixed purpose; from loathing of the holy man who had awakened his conscience, to loathing of himself who had allowed that conscience to sleep for so long; from fear of laying bare his past, to fear of the spiritual consequences of not confessing. At last his conscience wins. He makes a public declaration of his guilt at a fine birthday party held in his honor, and — heaven is assured to him. His death soon follows as the result of the terrific strain, and, fortunately for him, his family and friends all feel that he has been the victim of some lesion of the brain.

Magnificent as the story is from the standpoint of the art of narration, it leaves one unsatisfied. Not a word is said for the woman whom he had murdered, nor for those whose lives were perhaps ruined because of the act. To whatever state of bliss his soul may have gone, would it never be haunted by the face of the murdered one? Has his responsibility to her ceased because of his confession and death? How, even in a mystical sense, could his confession help the lot of his victim? Was her soul automatically saved also? Apparently he did not think of the fate of her soul. In his soliloquies and prayers, he never asks divine grace for her.

There is a similar episode — yet in actuality a very different one — told in Victor Hugo's Les Miserables. Jean Valjean, the convict, has become the respected, indeed revered, Monsieur Madeleine, Mayor of a small French town. Buried in the past is his crime of theft and his years as a galley-slave. It will be remembered that by a sudden awakening after a revulsion of feeling following upon a second theft, he rises out of his old self of ignorance, bitterness against social injustices, rebellion and slavery, to assume the proportions of a man transfigured. His whole life-energy is focussed in a succession of deeds of mercy and benevolence. But Jean Valjean, the convict and thief, is still being sought by the representative of the law, Javert. It had seemed that he was unassailable and inaccessible in this obscure little town. All he longed for was to conceal his name and sanctify his life. Having supposed he had done both successfully, he was to find that, as for the first, the law could still overtake him; and as to the second, that he who seeks purification is tested for the sincerity of his desire with the implacability of apparently inexorable fate.

The story is well known: a half-wit is spotted by Javert and is arrested as the missing Jean Valjean. How simple a thing it will be to let this poor misfit slip quietly out of life. Forever after, his (the real Valjean's) identity would be safe. Everything is working in his favor. Even a group of convicts assert that they recognise in the poor broken fool their fellow-in-chains. Is not Monsieur Madeleine's life of greater value than this one's? Is not his past all behind him? Is he not a changed man? Who can compel him to give himself up? — Thus he struggles with himself. Who can compel him? His own inner Self does compel him. That inner voice of justice will not be stilled. It follows him everywhere. Locked doors cannot keep it out. It keeps vigil with him in the night and will not let him sleep. And in the end it prevails. He declares his identity; proves it conclusively when at first none would believe him; and the wretch who had been mistakenly apprehended is allowed to go free. All this may seem foolhardy to those who believe that to throw away one's chances of happiness in this life is to lose them forever. But to those who understand something of the working of the laws of reincarnation and karma, this was no melodramatic gesture. His act carries over nothing to be undone in another life, no restitution to be made. He resists the temptation to steal the poor wretch's right to liberty. He accepts, nay more, he seizes, the karma of his own past, embraces it, and by means of it is liberated. He is liberated out of the narrow circle of mere earthly security into the free land of the spirit. Such acts are the essence of liberation. Paying one's debts to the full leads one gradually from life to life out of the "tangled net of sorrow" that we all knot about ourselves, into a state where the karma of pain, bereavement and agony for oneself are no longer known.

Dostoievsky's hero, on the other hand, for all his noble confession, must come back into life with the burden of a karmic debt to pay. We do not say that his change of heart is of no avail. May it not be that this transformation in him, this breaking down of the barriers behind which he has hidden his guilt, and his utter surrender of his name and fame and all he holds dear — may it not be that all this will tend to remove the act of restitution from the plane of punishment to that of a splendid opportunity to do benign service to the one he had formerly wronged? And is not this a saner way of viewing this aspect of karma than thinking of the one wronged as being the agent of punishment in another life? The doctrine of karma, we are told, is a very difficult and obscure one in its details, but we shall find it more appealing to people generally if we can see in it not an avenger but a healer of woes, and that we ourselves gladly, in our inmost nature, bear the responsibility of righting the wrongs we have inflicted on others.

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