To the Western mind the doctrines of Karma and Reincarnation contain difficulties which while they seem imaginary to the Eastern student, are nevertheless for the Western man as real as any of the other numerous obstructions in the path of salvation. All difficulties are more or less imaginary, for the whole world and all its entanglements are said to be an illusion resulting from the notion of a separate I. But while we exist here in matter, and so long as there is a manifested universe, these illusions are real to that man who has not risen above them to the knowledge that they are but the masks behind which the reality is hidden.
For nearly twenty centuries the Western nations have been building up the notion of a separate I — of meum and tuum — and it is hard for them to accept any system which goes against those notions.
As they progress in what is called material civilization with all its dazzling allurements and aids to luxury, their delusion is further increased because they appraise the value of their doctrine by the results which seem to flow from it, until at last they push so far what they call the reign of law, that it becomes a reign of terror. All duty to their fellows is excluded from it in practice, although the beautiful doctrines of Jesus are preached to the people daily by preachers who are paid to preach but not to enforce, and who cannot insist upon the practice which should logically follow the theory because the consequences would be a loss of position and livelihood.
So when out of such a nation rises a mind that asks for help to find again the path that was lost, he is unconsciously much affected by the education not only of himself but also of his nation through all these centuries. He has inherited tendencies that are hard to be overcome. He battles with phantasms, real for him but mere dreams for the student who has been brought up under other influences.
When, therefore, he is told to rise above the body, to conquer it, to subdue his passions, his vanity, anger and ambition, he asks, "what if borne down by this environment, which I was involuntarily born into, I shall fail." Then when told that he must fight or die in the struggle, he may reply that the doctrine of Karma is cold and cruel because it holds him responsible for the consequences which appear to be the result of that unsought environment. It then becomes with him a question whether to fight and die, or to swim on with the current careless as to its conclusion but happy if perhaps it shall carry him into smooth water whose shores are elysian.
Or perhaps he is a student of occultism whose ambition has been fired by the prospect of adeptship, of attaining powers over nature, or what not.
Beginning the struggle he presently finds himself beset with difficulties which, not long after, he is convinced are solely the result of his environment. In his heart he says that Karma has unkindly put him where he must constantly work for a living for himself and a family: or he has a life long partner whose attitude is such that he is sure were he away from her he could progress: until at last he calls upon heaven to interpose and change the surroundings so opposed to his perfecting himself.
This man has indeed erred worse than the first. He has wrongly supposed that his environment was a thing to be hated and spurned away. Without distinctly so saying to himself, he has nursed within the recesses of his being the idea that he like Buddha could in this one life triumph over all the implacable forces and powers that bar the way to Nirvana. We should remember that the Buddha does not come every day but is the efflorescence of ages, who when the time is ripe surely appears in one place and in one body, not to work for his own advancement but for the salvation of the world.
What then of environment and what of its power over us?
Is environment Karma or is it Reincarnation? The Law is Karma, reincarnation is only an incident. It is one of the means which The Law uses to bring us at last to the true light. The wheel of rebirths is turned over and over again by us in obedience to this law, so that we may at last come to place our entire reliance upon Karma. Nor is our environment Karma itself, for Karma is the subtle power which works in that environment.
There is nothing but the Self — using the word Max Muller does to designate the Supreme Soul — and its environment. The Aryans for the latter use the word Kosams or sheaths. So that there is only this Self and the various sheaths by which it is clothed, beginning with the most intangible and coming down to the body, while outside of that and common to all is what is commonly known as environment whereas the word should be held to include all that is not The Self.
How unphilosophical therefore it is to quarrel with our surroundings, and to desire to escape them! We only escape one kind to immediately fall into another. And even did we come into the society of the wisest devotees we would still carry the environment of the Self in our own bodies, which will always be our enemy so long as we do not know what it is in all its smallest details. Coming down then to the particular person, it is plain that that part of the environment which consists in the circumstances of life and personal surroundings is only an incident, and that the real environment to be understood and cared about is that in which Karma itself inheres in us.
Thus we see that it is a mistake to say — as we often hear it said — "If he only had a fair chance; if his surroundings were more favorable he would do better," since he really could not be in any other circumstances at that time, for if he were it would not be he but some one else. It must be necessary for him to pass through those identical trials and disadvantages to perfect the Self; and it is only because we see but an infinitesimal part of the long series that any apparent confusion or difficulty arises. So our strife will be, not to escape from anything, but to realize that these Kosams, or sheaths, are an integral portion of ourselves, which we must fully understand before we can change the abhorred surroundings. This is done by acknowledging the unity of spirit, by knowing that everything, good and bad alike, is the Supreme. We then come into harmony with the Supreme Soul, with the whole universe, and no environment is detrimental.
The very first step is to rise from considering the mere outside delusive environment, knowing it to be the result of past lives, the fruition of Karma done, and say with Uddalaka in speaking to his son:
"All this Universe has the Deity for its life. That Deity is the Truth. He is the Universal soul. He Thou art, O Svetaketu!"
— The Path, February 1887