This word has now crept so much into public use that it does not need much definition. Broadly stated, it is the doctrine that our experiences are determined by our acts; that the law of cause and effect prevails in the moral world, just as it does in the physical world studied by science. If this is not so, then what theory must we accept in its place? We must either say that our fortune is determined by the will and wisdom of Deity, or else that it is the result of mere chance. But chance is a word used to cover ignorance, and if we use it we are simply side-stepping the question. No thinking person can believe that the universe and the life of men are without law and order and purpose.
One wonders why people have given so little attention to studying the laws of cause and effect in the moral world, when science has worked out these laws so successfully in the physical world. It is partly due to the influence of long-held religious teachings, which often encourage a man to look upon himself as a helpless being, dependent on divine intercession; instead of realizing the teachings of Jesus and Paul, that man is made in the divine likeness and has within him spiritual resources which he can summon to his aid. Then again, science has concentrated attention too much on the surface of things, and has even gone so far as to represent man as merely an improved animal. It has sought to explain everything by the laws of mechanics and chemistry. But we live much more in our minds and emotions than we do in our senses, so that science has left out the most important part of human life.
Again, to understand the law of Karma properly, we must accept the doctrine of Reincarnation. It is obvious that we enter this life with a ready-formed character; children of the same parents differ greatly, and the innate character of each child soon asserts itself. This character is what we have brought over from previous lives on earth; and it is the fruit of our own actions. In short, we make our own destiny; we have made ourselves what we are, and can make our future by our own present thoughts and acts.
Still we can learn very much about Karma without taking Reincarnation into account. For, once you get the idea into your head you acquire a new sense of observation and begin to study the connexion between your thoughts, emotions, actions, and your experiences; so that the truth of the law begins to prove itself.
There is apt to be a tendency to regard Karma as a kind of supernatural agency, interfering with the course of Nature by poking in an arbitrary finger. This is an idea we have inherited from theology, and it may linger in our minds after we think we have discarded it. It is quite wrong. Karma is simply the working of Nature; effect follows cause as truly in the moral world as in the physical world. We sometimes hear people ask: "Was this event due to natural causes or to the operation of Karma?" An absurd question; every event is under the operation of Karma, and at the same time every event is due to natural causes. Theosophists do not believe in supernaturalism. If an experience seems the result of chance, that only means that we have been unable to trace the connexions; when we can see the connexions we call it law; when we cannot we call it chance. Is that reasonable?
The real teachings of Jesus tell us that every man has within himself, by virtue of his divine birth, the power to achieve his own salvation; for Jesus assures his disciples that, if they will but follow his behests, they can have the same powers as himself. Paul also in his Epistles insists constantly on the same theme; for him, the Christ is the immortal part of man, incarnate or "crucified" in an earthly body; but capable of being invoked so that a "new birth" takes place and the old Adam is mastered by the new. Theosophy, so far from being hostile to the teachings of Christ, champions them; and in so doing, Theosophy merely follows in the footsteps of many divines and Christian laymen who now take much broader views as to the meaning of the Christian Gospel. Many of these Christians are close to Theosophy in their beliefs, the main point of difference being that Theosophy recognises also the same truths as found in other religions.
As to science, it is surprising to see what great steps are now being taken by its leading minds towards a more logical view of Nature. This new view has been forced upon them by the recent discoveries, which cannot be explained on the old principles of physics. It is seen to be necessary to postulate a causal Nature behind the external physical Nature; and that the real secrets of natural law are hidden beyond the veil of the bodily senses, and must therefore be correlated with finer senses which men in general have not yet learned to use. We can trace the action of light-waves up to the retina, and beyond to certain chambers in the back of the brain; or we can trace sound-waves to the tympanum and beyond; but after that, all is mystery. How these mechanical actions become translated into vision and hearing, we cannot tell. Yet so all-important a part of experience can hardly be left unexplored by science which pretends to explain Nature.
How does Karma operate from one life to another across the gap of death and of rebirth in another body? The details of such a process we can hardly expect to know in the present limited state of our knowledge; but they are not unknowable. It is all a question of patient study in regions to which we have not so far given our attention. If we are willing to concede the existence of forms of matter other than the physical, the question becomes easier; and science has to admit such a possibility, for it is familiar with some ultra-physical form of matter which can transmit ether waves all over the earth and beyond. If it is said, therefore, that our actions, thoughts, feelings are somehow stored up in one of Nature's repositories — the Astral Light, let us say — it does not seem so marvelous after all. We cannot enter more fully into this question here, but any earnest student will find much in the Theosophical books that will convince him, if he enjoys an open and unprejudiced mind.
It is often thought that the law of Karma implies fatalism and that it rules out freewill, but this objection is due merely to confusion of thought. Karma determines our experiences, but does not dictate how we shall react to them. As sung in The Light of Asia:
If ye lay bound upon the wheel of change,
And no way were of breaking from the chain,
The Heart of boundless Being is a curse,
The Soul of Things fell pain. Ye are not bound!
The Soul of Things is sweet,
The Heart of Being is celestial rest;
Stronger than woe is Will: that which was Good
Doth pass to better — Best.
The delusion is based on a wrong idea of what is meant by cause and effect, based on notions derived from physics. In the first place we have no right to apply the principles of mechanics to a domain of conscious living beings. The links in the chain of causation are no longer masses of inert physical matter, but minds; and minds are endowed with choice and volition of their own, so that the chain of cause and effect cannot be rigid. But prominent men of science themselves are questioning the validity of cause and effect as a rigid process — "determinism," as they call it. In fact, it is seen that the law of cause and effect does not deny the action of freewill. Eddington says:
The relation of cause and effect involves a flow of power from the cause to the effect, and therefore a certain freedom on the part of the cause. But if every event is completely and necessarily determined, then how can any event be regarded as a cause, since it is absolutely determined from the start by prior events? It is not in that case the cause, but the cause is shifted back, and there is an infinite regress.
Christopher Caudwell says:
Into every effect all the previous events of the universe flow as a cause, and, lacking any one of them, the effect would be in some measures slightly different.
In fact, the law of cause and effect not only does not deny freewill but positively necessitates it. The idea that there is any such opposition is due to confusion of thought, and has no support either from science or logic.
As to human nature, its essence is the Divine Monad, a spark of Cosmic Light; and this manifests itself through a series of vehicles, so that its presence and influence are always active in greater or less degree. Man's real will (and destiny, which amounts to the same thing) is to fulfil the laws of Universal Harmony, and he achieves the highest freedom by self-identification with the SELF. Every moment is a beginning. Let us throw off this nightmare of determinism; let us act.
There is no such thing as dead matter anywhere: the universe is composed exclusively of living beings. It is common enough to say that plants are alive; but minerals are alive also, though not in the same degree as the kingdoms above them. In fact, the very atoms and electrons are instinct with life and movement, so that they also are living beings. In every living being there is some degree of intelligence and freewill, however small. Thus we find freewill at every point in the universe. All these countless wills and intelligences act in accordance with the eternal laws of the universe, just as our own wills must also act. Thus we find order in diversity.
Karma is the preserver of equilibrium, the restorer of disturbed balance. The ancient Greeks spoke of Nemesis as a deity who punishes excess in any individual or community. But he is not a punisher — merely an adjuster, calling to order whoever has wandered too far off the path of justice. Thus we bring penalty upon ourselves by over-indulgence, physical or mental, in pleasure; for our life is guided by a power wiser than our personal will; it is guided by our own Higher Self, and this will bring us back into order again for our own good.
We should avoid the tendency of always looking at the painful side of Karma, and remember that our good acts and thoughts bring their consequences, just as do our bad ones. The good seed which we sow may counteract the bad seed. What seems punitive experience may be changed into remedial action, if we assume the right attitude of mind towards it. Our judgments as to what is good for us are short-sighted and erring; there is a wiser law shaping our life; let us seek to co-operate and accept its decrees. Man has a spiritual will as well as a personal will.
Is there anything in the doctrine of Karma which stands in the way of our helping our neighbor in distress? Perish the delusion! It is our duty, our privilege, to help him; and all decent people, obeying the great law of Compassion, would act at once in a deed of mercy, without stopping to think about Karma. Besides, it may be part of his Karma that he should be helped. In refraining from helping him we wrong both ourself and him. We must obey the law of Compassion, without fear that we shall thereby interfere with Nature's laws.