In a philosophical sense, the law of karma, meaning action and its consequence, is directly connected with free will, chance, good and evil, reincarnation, and evolution.
One idea forms the background of all others, including karma: that we are all part of universal and eternal nature in which everything is interlinked. Each one of us in his inmost essence is identic with the essence of the Whole, and therefore the fundamental essence of our being is the same as that of the universe. Its origin is ours, its destiny is ours, and its laws are ours. In fact, karma is the basic habit of universal nature, which works in such a way that an act is inevitably followed by a result, a reaction from the all-encompassing nature in which we live.
This process of karma works on all levels of life. Any act sets up a chain of cause and effect on every plane to which that chain of causation reaches. It is the inherent nature or quality of Cosmic Being to react against action upon it and, as we ourselves are part of cosmic nature, of universal being, karma works as a habit in us. Or, expressed in a different way: we are our own karma.
The doctrine of karma has two aspects, which are important to keep in mind. First, there is the karma we still have to work out: causes from the past which we cannot change, the results of which we have yet to meet. Second, we are making karma all the time now. And we can do something about that, for we have influence over our deeds and thoughts right now and can give them direction.
Some people connect karma with fatalism and determinism, doubting our free will and therefore rejecting the whole concept. Fatalism often goes together with an attitude of "I can't do anything about it, just let it happen." But karma is in no way fatalism nor does it imply a lack of free will. The essential thing is that if we are now the result or product of our action or thought in former times, then it rests with us to decide now how we shall be in the future. That is why karma is strictly just. No one is confronted with more than he has caused, and every aspect of life is an opportunity to evolve, to learn how to connect with the harmony in nature. On the other hand, when someone assumes a negative attitude, he misses an opportunity to try to bring back into balance the harmony he has disturbed.
For the sake of argument let us presume that karma does not exist, that there is no law of cause and effect. Then we are faced with the fact that nature everywhere shows us causes and effects all the time — direct effects that happen during our lifetime, and so we can connect them with their causes. At other times we cannot see both cause and effect, but just because we cannot see them, does that mean that they are not there? Or is it possible that only some causes have effects and others have none? We might think this would be the case were there such a thing as chance.
The Random House Dictionary defines chance as: "The absence of any cause of events that can be predicted, understood or controlled." Webster's Dictionary defines chance as: "Something that befalls as the result of unknown or unconsidered forces." Both definitions boil down to the fact that there is something unknown in the game, for when something cannot be predicted, understood, or controlled, it is unknown. So the cause is unknown, but the effect is there, or we wouldn't bother thinking about it. Our tendency is to deny things that we cannot see, measure, or control. We like to think of our senses and the knowledge we get from them as absolute. By doing so we may miss something, for there may be something else at work.
Imagine, for example, a flat surface on which two-dimensional beings live. They can experience only length and width, no other dimensions. Perpendicular to that plane is a huge wheel, the outside edge of which is of different colors. The wheel turns, and the two-dimensional beings see only a thin line that changes color now and then. For them the change of color takes place during a given period of time, first green, then red, then blue. They see it that way, but they don't know why the colors change; they don't know the cause. Now a three-dimensional being can see both the plane and the entire wheel with all its colors. He can understand why the two-dimensional beings see only lines of color following each other in time. His third dimension gives him an overview so he can see more causes and effects.
To us certain things happen in a time sequence and we observe an effect, but no cause. Perhaps a being of more dimensions than ourselves is able to understand why that event had to occur, because his consciousness is further developed than ours. Why should we limit reality only to our senses and our level of consciousness and exclude all other possibilities?
Orthodox religions often attribute the apparent injustice in the world to an Almighty God who arranges all things and that behind all is His inscrutable wisdom; therefore we should not question the mysteries of God. This is highly unsatisfactory to me — at the very least, it sounds like measuring with two standards. Why then do human beings have such an urge to investigate these things? It cannot be just because we want to do what is not permitted. This reduces the relationship between man and the Divine to the level of kindergarten, an insult to both divine and human intelligence.
It seems a lot more acceptable that we ask these questions because they come forth from the deepest part of our being, because we contain a spark of the Divine that seeks to know itself. And this happens by following the laborious path of life, by falling down and getting up again, by learning, by aspiration toward the higher or divine within us. The law of cause and effect here is a natural reaction of the Whole on the consciousness-centers that work within it, and these consciousness-centers continually choose bodies to express themselves.
Karma has also been described as "punishment and reward"— all the bad things that we have done will come back to us as reactions, and so will the good things. But what rewards and what punishes? Nothing outside ourselves. We are our karma. Before the divine tribunal of our higher self we shall be held to the strictest account. Some may ask, "Isn't this terribly harsh?" That depends very much on how we look at it. In reality, it gives us dignity, because it gives us responsibility. We create ourselves; there is no all-powerful Creator we can hide behind. It gives us opportunity to make up for our wrongs, to learn from our mistakes, and to restore the harmony we had disturbed. I don't think that is harsh. On the contrary it is very just — the only way to have justice in the universe.
These ideas also tell us there is no good and bad karma. Good and bad are relative terms and have to do with what we might think pleasant or unpleasant at any given moment. If something unpleasant happens, we say: "Oh, bad karma." Yet it may be fortunate that it happened, so we can straighten out a disturbance and learn from the ordeal. So-called good karma is all too often taken for granted, and we usually do not do very much with it.
If good and bad karma are relative, then good and evil are also relative. There can be no absolute good and absolute evil. What we call good is related to what we experience as harmony and what we call evil is related to what we feel as disharmony. Pain and suffering are a result of a lack of harmony. But how does this lack of harmony come about? Evil is simply the conflicting wills of imperfect beings.
So good and evil are always related to, not separate from, the kind and quality of consciousness that perceives them. They are certainly not personified in a God who is exclusively good and a devil who is exclusively evil.
In summation: every unworthy thought, deed, and word disturbs the harmony of the cosmic whole, and the whole reacts. The cosmic whole is formed of myriads of beings, each in its own place on the ladder of evolution. These beings are learning, trying to improve themselves, trying to become more and more perfect. The higher they are on the evolutionary path, the more perfected they are and the more their actions and thoughts will be in harmony with the cosmic whole. The lower entities on the ladder are less perfected and less harmonious, and the degree of perfection will express itself in how selfless one is. The more selfless we are the more we live for the benefit of all, and therefore the more will we be in harmony with the divine cosmic whole, and it is that divinity we should serve.
(From Sunrise magazine, April/May 1989. Copyright © 1989 by Theosophical University Press)