The Path – September 1894

NEMESIS — Katharine Hillard

In a note to p. 305 of the second volume of the Secret Doctrine, Mme. Blavatsky points out the difference between the Greek idea of Nemesis and the Aryan Karma, which is often thought to be exactly the same thing. But the conception of Nemesis varied with different poets at different epochs, and from the purely abstract idea of the inevitable punishment of sin became anthropomorphised into a goddess to be worshipped and to be placated by prayer and submission. "If we would connect Karma with Nemesis", says Mme. Blavatsky in the passage referred to, "it has to be done in the triple character of the latter as Nemesis, Adrasteia, and Themis. For while the latter is the goddess of Universal Order and Harmony (who, like Nemesis, is commissioned to repress every excess and keep man within the limits of Nature and righteousness under severe penalty), Adrasteia — the inevitable — represents Nemesis as the immutable effect of causes created by man himself. Nemesis, as the daughter of Dike, is the equitable goddess, reserving her wrath for those alone who are maddened with pride, egotism, and impiety. It is, then, Adrasteia, or "the inevitable" who would answer best to the Eastern conception of Nemesis, or Karma, as Eternal Law working out its necessary consequences. "Every act rewards itself", says Emerson, "or, in other words, integrates itself, in a twofold manner; first, in the thing, or in real nature; and secondly, in the circumstance, or in apparent nature. Men call the circumstance retribution. The causal retribution is in the thing, and is seen by the soul. The retribution in the circumstance is seen by the understanding; it is inseparable from the thing, but is often spread over a long time and so does not become distinct till after many years. Crime and punishment grow out of one stem. Punishment is a fruit that unsuspected ripens within the flower of the pleasure which concealed it. Cause and effect, means and ends, seed and fruit, cannot be severed; for the effect already blooms in the cause, the end preexists in the means, the fruit in the seed."

Emerson was thoroughly in sympathy with the teachings of the Oriental philosophy, and nowhere more completely so than in this passage from his essay on Compensation. For he not only points out to us that a deed and its consequences are one, but seizes that more occult view that the real thing is in the soul, and is perceived by the soul. It is in what we are that the reality lies, and what we do is but the impress that the seal of our nature prints upon the world without. If that seal be as the head of a god, so much the better for the world, and, in reversion, for ourselves; but that seal has been modelled by the forces of our own soul, and we only are responsible for the image that it bears. No subterfuge will avail us, no shirking and no dallying alter the preordained result of the forces we have chosen to set in motion. "The world is full of judgment-days", says Emerson elsewhere, and we are continually being judged, not only for our sins, but for our blunders. "You should have known better", says stern Nature, when we transgress her rules and suffer the consequences and try to plead ignorance as an excuse. And deep in our inmost souls we know that she is right. "Nothing can work me damage except myself", says St. Bernard; "the harm that I sustain I carry about with me, and never am a real sufferer but by my own fault." And if the believer in only one life upon earth could realise this, how much more should those who have made the doctrine of reincarnation their own appreciate the idea of more remote causes for suffering than can be traced in one earthly existence! Far back in the mists of time, by some initial choice of good or evil, did we begin to create that Nemesis which surrounds us today, built up year after year and life after life the palace or the prison of the soul. For choice, within certain limits, we have always, and it is ours to weave the black thread or the white at will into the web of our future destiny. "Karma-Nemesis guards the good and watches over them", says the Occultist, "in this as in future lives, and punishes the evil-doer, aye, even to his seventh rebirth. So long, in fact, as the effect of his having thrown into perturbation even the smallest atom in the Infinite World of harmony has not been finally readjusted. For the only decree of Karma — an eternal and immutable decree — is absolute Harmony in the world of matter as in the world of Spirit." (S.D, I, 643).

So that we see that our Nemesis is no offended Deity, punishing with anger an infringement of his arbitrary decrees, but the striving of the universe to right itself, to repair the injuries that our heedless or wilful actions have effected in the harmony of the whole. If, then, the corner-stone of the universe is that spiritual unity which manifests itself in universal brotherhood, the more we can do to make that brotherhood a material reality, the more nearly we shall approach the harmony of the spiritual world, which is Life and Love, not Death and Selfishness. And as Emerson has shown us, the real thing is in the soul, the causal retribution there. Can any punishment that earthly justice can inflict upon a man be half so terrible as that which comes from within, the torments that spring from his own fear, his own remorse? Not long ago, Felix Adler gave a magnificent discourse on "The Penalties of Sin", every word of which might find an echo in all right-thinking-minds. The report I read (for I was not so fortunate as to hear it) said that he concluded by stating the difference between the present generation and its forefathers in respect to the doctrine of sin. "Our forefathers were haunted by the sleepless eye of God, which they believed to be ever fixed upon them, piercing every veil and wall. They believed that God would punish them, either immediately or at the last judgment. But now man has become his own accuser, and the judgment-seat is transferred to his own breast. In his own brain is the prototype of the universal laws. In the name of those universal laws he pronounces sentence upon himself. "The more our moral nature unfolds, the more difficult does it become to satisfy the awful divinity within our bosom. The most agonizing pain which the modern man can suffer, as many know to their bitter cost, is self-condemnation. The highest boon to which we can aspire is to be able to dwell in peace with the God within us."

Surely every Theosophist would re-echo these words of the great ethical teacher. And should we not agree with him also when he said that the true aim of punishment was reformation, not vengeance, and that the pangs of conscience were to be regarded as the beginning of a process of spiritual regeneration? For what is the voice of conscience but the voice of the higher Ego in man, of that diviner Self who is ever striving to reach the lower nature and bring it up into closer relations with the God within us? If we refuse to listen to that voice, if knowing the right we still the wrong pursue, we are knotting another mesh of that great net of Destiny in whose folds we shall some day struggle unavailingly, like captive birds. Our struggles will be all in vain, for the meshes of Nemesis hold fast, but neither Nemesis nor vengeance wove them, but we ourselves of our own free choice. The criminal sets in motion long years (it may be long lives) beforehand, the train of causes that one day lands him in a jail, but imprisonment will do him no good unless it go hand-in-hand with reform. What men call the vengeance of the law is but too often the right name for its punishments; it is the revenge of the community for its violated peace and order that is embodied in the verdict of the jury and the sentence of the judge, the strong arm of the law stretched out to slay and not to save. When the idea of universal brotherhood shall have become a more living reality, all prisons will be reformatories in the truest sense of the word, and the wrong-doer will be taught to listen to the voice in his own soul, and helped to obey its dictates and to struggle back towards the right. The way of the transgressor is hard, but how doubly hard when he has to retrace his painful footsteps with all the forces of his vitiated nature battling against him, all the demons of the sinful past rising up to oppose his progress! Byron was said to have had every gift but the faculty of knowing how to use them, and he has left an ample record of the torments inflicted by a misspent life. Could there be anything more terrible than the "Incantation" in Manfred, which summons the elements of his own character to be his torturers?

The Voice says to him:

From thy false tears I did distil
An essence which has strength to kill;
From thine own heart I then did wring
The black blood in its blackest spring;
From thine own lip I drew the charm
Which gave all these the chiefest harm:
In proving every poison known.
I found the strongest was thine own!

By thy cold breast and serpent smile.
By thy unfathomed gulfs of guile;
By the perfection of thine art
Which passed for human thine own heart:
By thy delight in others' pain,
And by thy brotherhood of Cain,
I call upon thee! and compel
Thyself to be thy proper Hell!

So much for Nemesis as "the just indignation of the gods". But justice has good gifts as well as evil in her well-balanced scales, and the soul can decree itself a nobler mansion as the swift seasons roll, and can lay the cornerstone today. Built up of lofty thoughts and noble purposes, founded upon the rock of steadfast resolution and unflinching courage, crowned with the fair white dome of love and truth, that edifice shall rise, a mansion not built with hands, but eternal in the heavens. And if we fashion our lives thus, Nemesis shall wear for us not the terrible aspect of the avenging Furies, but the smile that Wordsworth saw upon the face of Duty.

Stern lawgiver! yet thou dost wear
The Godhead's most benignant grace;
Nor know we anything so fair
As is the smile upon thy face;
Flowers laugh before thee on their beds;
And fragrance in thy footing treads;
Thou dost preserve the stars from wrong,
And the most ancient heavens thro' thee are fresh and strong.

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