The Karma of an Idea

W. T. S. Thackara

"Sow an idea," it has been said, "and reap a habit. Sow a habit, and reap a character. Sow a character, and reap a destiny." In this simple chain of cause and effect we can easily see how a destiny begins with a small seed. If we like an idea — whether true or false, ennobling or destructive — we will inevitably attract more of a similar type, and before long our actions will shape themselves accordingly, until they become set in a pattern and create a habit. If we follow a habit over a period of time, we remold our character, which ultimately will be responsible for our destiny. As an idea becomes attractive to a growing number of people, expanding its sphere of influence, we can discern some of the causative factors behind the destinies of nations and the human race. Undoubtedly, our present was created by thoughts harbored in the past and the future depends on those we entertain now.

Perhaps Plato had this process in mind when he taught that Ideas rule the world — humans being but the active and voluntary agents which give ideas a field for expression. And here may lie also the justification for his consequent remark that the life without inquiry is not worth living. For if we are to evolve to a better condition, how are we to progress without modifying our thoughts about ourselves and our world? The task of inquiry demands strong search: reassessing those concepts which have brought about our present conditions, laying aside the false and ineffectual, and exploring the new — those which appear on the frontier of the unfamiliar, sometimes strange or bizarre.

"A new idea the people at first abhor, then mock, then consider, and finally embrace," is an old truism. Even though this of course does not always apply to every new idea, it is significant that most of the thoughts which have brought greater light to the world have been subject to this characteristic pattern of development. The history of scientific discovery provides some of the most readily recognizable illustrations. Where, for example, would we be, had not the notion of a flat earth been discarded as ships sailed over the edge to unknown worlds and to uncharted concepts regarding the planet and the universe? Yesterday's heresies have become today's dogmas, and often vice versa. The unusual becomes the commonplace. But should we not consider whether today's acceptances may well prove to be tomorrow's superstitions?

It is curious, even paradoxical, that in spite of the necessity to expand our horizons of awareness, we often find ourselves resisting new thoughts, though they may possess intrinsic merit. This is particularly the case with those which challenge our basic worldview — assumptions about ethics, afterlife, the infinite, and so on — those which have the most profound and pervasive influence in the shaping of our habits, characters, and destinies.

Consider a concept that may still be new to many, since its present formulation is of Hindu origin: karma. Being a Sanskrit term, the average Westerner has few clues to its depth of meaning, and more often than not it is defined in unfamiliar contexts. When literally translated as "deeds" or "action," the word gains little in the way of understanding; but there are several equivalents which may improve our comprehension and receptivity: providence, fate, kismet, reward, justice, retribution, or as Emerson has essayed — compensation. Though it has been said that in its details karma is the most difficult of doctrines to fully comprehend, its principle has been lucidly phrased in the Christian New Testament: "God [in the sense of cosmic justice] is not mocked; that whatsoever a man sows, that will he reap" (Gal 6:7). Each human being, individually responsible for every idea sown through action, destines himself to reap a like quality of reaction, and to learn through this process "the life worth living." The consequence of this idea of consequences would be immense — if embraced. But before it can be embraced it must be considered.

Inquiry therefore stands at a pivotal point of progress. Before an idea can truly elevate mankind, it seems destined to pass through the downward arc of "abhorrence and mockery" until immobilized by ignorance; then only, when we choose to consider it seriously, is it capable of inspiring, thus moving, us to change our lives. Inquiry — the life with examination which requires determination, courage, effort, patience, discrimination, and a large measure of compassion — is that point of upward ascent where we begin our reach from the finite toward the infinite, from that within our grasp and comprehension to that beyond. We start with an idea and, as the words of T. S. Eliot in "Little Gidding" suggest, we may end with something greater:

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

(From Sunrise magazine, February 1973; copyright © 1973 Theosophical University Press)

Coming home one day last spring I found a neighbor's child busily winding string among my shasta daisy plants. Annoyed yet speechless, I watched as she cut, wove, tightened and tied each strand with careful intent. Then looking up, her eyes like stars: "I'm fixing up the spider's house. We broke it with a ball."
The smile this brought, the surge of joy, I'd never felt before. Those daisy plants have now expired, her tangled web collapsed, yet in my mind it is taut and strong, shimmering gold, with diamonds strung. For in her Simple act of care I saw compassion which, thinking not of gain or end or self, unites all life, all kingdoms and species, in one great web of love.
As we're concerned and minister to the welfare of other men, of animals and plants, who knows what lofty hosts befriend our kind, who touch and teach, would we but heed, with just such simple benedictions. The warmth of sun, the colors of dawn, the sounds of thunder, of wave and wind, yes, the intriguing wonders of the stellar orbs, are these not the blessings of Those who "fix up our house" and in mysterious ways unknown inspire, protect and lead us on? — Eloise Hart

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