In a world dominated by politics and economics, people are encouraged to believe that success, social status, power, money, and property are all-important in themselves. Often to the detriment of the weakest and most vulnerable, individuals, groups, and nations are out to assert their superiority, sometimes very aggressively, and prove that they are the best or strongest. While the competitive system of life enables many to prosper materially, the hopes and dreams of millions are left unfulfilled, often due to the extreme greed and selfishness of others better equipped to meet material demands, spurred on by a blind belief that this present life is their only one. In a world where the greedy and selfish appear to prosper whilst over a quarter of the world's population — our brothers and sisters — cannot get enough to eat each day, across the globe 40,000 children, under the age of 5, die of malnutrition and common diseases. This does not reflect well on present day civilization. And we do not just lack wisdom in the conduct of our affairs — our lives have reached a high pitch of meaninglessness: drug addiction, vandalism, and breakdown of law and order are but outward signs of the emptiness of materialism.
One feels that the human race is struggling along in a world crying out for genuine spiritual leadership. But where will this come from? How can a "new world order" be accomplished without a radical change in attitudes and a moral and spiritual approach to the problems which must be faced and solved if civilization is to progress? If it is to emerge, there has to be a general raising of our level of consciousness away from money and property to people.
The story of evolution is the story of consciousness. A growing awareness gave us the necessary impetus to commence our search for truthful answers to some of the profound mysteries of life: Who am I? Where have I come from? What is my purpose for existence? What is my ultimate destiny? The story of consciousness started with Adam and Eve, representing infant humanity, in the Garden of Eden. From this Biblical story arose the idea of original sin; but far from being a fall from grace, it was a fall into expanded experience. On our descent into matter we became conscious thinking human beings with intelligence — the thinking, reasoning faculty which we are still in process of developing. It has a dual function, being capable of gross bestiality and of high spiritual aspiration. All thoughts, good or bad, are transmitted through the brain, our instrument of expression, and we are able to raise or lower our level of consciousness at will.
An understanding of consciousness plays an important part in grasping our divine nature. The higher part of the dual mind is associated with intuition, which reveals to us that we are divine beings coming into incarnation periodically for experience on the material plane, struggling through a multitude of vicissitudes designed to help us find our way back to our divine source. This is reminiscent of the story of the prodigal son who left his father's home to undergo the travail of life, eventually to overcome the pull of matter.
As a result of expanding awareness, we have made contact with our indwelling spiritual consciousness, a consciousness which is at the root of everything. We may not know what this consciousness is. We know there is something, a seeming nothingness from a material point of view, yet it is the most vitally alive part of us, without which there would be no life at all.
There are those who sometimes feel this inner consciousness very strongly and are stirred into action by a desire to do good for goodness' sake, without thought of self or of any kind of reward. In such beings the divine spark is being fanned into flame. They have been stirred into action by their inner spiritual consciousness inspired by deity. When as human beings we can cast aside earthly passions and desires, devoting our lives to humanity as did the Master and teacher Jesus, we will then have arrived at an evolutionary stage where we are in complete harmony with our inner divinity. Although we still have a long way to go before reaching such a state of perfection, living an unselfish existence is the highest form of spiritual consciousness on this plane of being and the stepping stone to yet higher forms of spiritual awareness.
The ancient teachings of reincarnation and karma can make sense out of human misery and suffering, disease and poverty, and the many contrasts of human life. Together they are doctrines of hope and justice, giving us chance after chance to evolve in accordance with the divine plan. In the Western world we try to make everything fit into one life. In so doing we arrive at the conclusion that there is no sense to be made out of the world in which we live because Western religion, science, and philosophy have nothing to offer us as a key to unlocking our minds. For some, life comes with every comfort and convenience, with every prospect of a bright and happy future; others are so poor that they barely exist, or are born deaf, blind, or crippled.
It all seems so unjust, a sheer mockery of living! For those unable to make any sense out of life, a study of reincarnation and karma could set their minds free and at rest. Although at one time embodied in Christian doctrine, the 6th-century Council of Constantinople struck all reference to reincarnation from future Christian teaching. Since then, due to the closing minds of the Church Fathers, the Western world was denied access to the two doctrines which explain human suffering and misfortune. It would seem that the Council wished to retain blind belief in an anthropomorphic God at all cost because it strengthened the influence of the clergy acting as intermediaries between such a God and mankind. The only mediator between the individual and divinity is his own spirit-soul, which is a spark of that same divinity and is the one link which can bring him into direct contact with his divine parent.
In leaving their spiritual well-being in the hands of the clergy, people have tended to become spiritually lazy and, unable to see any real justice in life, have become skeptical and have moved away from the Church to concentrate their attention wholly on fulfillment of their personal ambitions. Although having experienced pleasure and suffering, the majority view these with resigned acceptance as though there were little or nothing to be done about it since everything that happens, in fact, is God's will. Perhaps we cannot change things to any great degree in this life, but we ourselves can here and now begin to shape our future. With a knowledge of reincarnation and karma, we begin to appreciate that our fortune and misfortune are the result of our own past efforts and that, far from being on earth for the first time in the present life, we have been here many, many times before, sowing seeds of good and evil to be reaped in future lives.
Reincarnation means that we keep on returning to earth after a suitable period of recuperation for the soul in its spiritual home. Our education continues through a long series of lives until the final lesson is learned and we have perfected ourselves as human beings and earned freedom from the wheel of rebirth — if we so choose.
Through the operation of karma — the law of cause and effect the amount and type of experience in any one earth life are assessed in accordance with past actions, good and bad. The degree and type of happiness and suffering depend on the way in which we have conducted ourselves previously on earth. Perhaps one of the most revealing things — and a source of comfort and encouragement — is that with our newly found but ancient knowledge we can understand what is taking place and how we affect one another's lives for better or worse. Karma becomes our guide and teacher. We see divine justice at work, even though it may seem like the greatest injustice because with each new birth we have a new brain with seemingly no remembrance of the past.
Understanding karma is to appreciate that we are makers and masters of our own destiny, materially and spiritually, and that any suffering which we may have to endure in any one incarnation is entirely due to our own decisions. If we live wrongly, we must be prepared to face the consequences. Nature, having no favorites, reacts with impartiality, whatever our station in life. We cannot turn to any being outside ourselves for salvation: to tell a person that what he has done wrong can be forgiven by a belief in an external savior is to woefully mislead him. Unless we find out the truth of this for ourselves, we are destined to go on suffering until the lesson has been well and truly learned. It is for us all a cycle of necessity in preparation for our graduation to a higher plane of life and consciousness.
With the grasp of reincarnation and karma, we no longer see injustice everywhere, but divine justice at work in and through everything. We also gain a completely new outlook on life and a firm foundation on which to reconstruct our own lives and in so doing to rebuild the world.
In these critical times, our problems go much deeper than politics and economics; what is most needed today is a universal spiritual awakening. If we ignore the signs, then civilization has to face up to the possibility of destruction. What can we do about it? What can we contribute, individually and collectively, towards a new world order based not on material goals but on the realization that each person is a potential god?
Because we are an integral part of the whole, in transforming our own lives we transform our environment. Do we regard the Sermon on the Mount as a beautiful ideal to be put on the shelf and worshipped from a distance — to dream about as a possibility for us in some remote future? If we are going to live up to it, we have to begin by being honest with ourselves and others. It means selflessness and purity in daily living; it means divine love in all circumstances for everyone, whether we like them or not. These four ethical keynotes — honesty, love, unselfishness, and purity — would seem a firm enough foundation on which to build a new world order, yet something more is needed to bring people together in lasting and undying brotherhood, something that will stem the tide of materialistic thought threatening our civilization. A moral approach to our problems today is not enough; it has to be a moral and spiritual approach. Creeds and dogmas have made it difficult, if not impossible, for many people to recognize their own divine nature, each a spark of the divinity that links us all. We can talk about God all we like and religiously go to church, but it doesn't make us spiritual. Spirituality refers to that inner urge which is constantly impelling us to seek contact and union with the divine. The desire for such contact and union is there because a part of that universal divinity is present within the nature of each and every human being.
Recognition of the divine in our nature will result, ultimately, in bringing us out of our present mental and spiritual darkness, and chaos will be replaced with order. If we are ever going to handle our individual and national affairs, there must be a spiritual basis for living. As a civilization we have at considerable cost neglected the spiritual part of our nature. Our inability to handle the affairs of nations successfully, principally because of a lack of true inner spirituality and vision, continues to plunge the world repeatedly into economic chaos and disaster. While there is still every need for social and economic reforms, if we are going to solve the world's mounting problems, spiritual needs must take precedence over material needs. To look for human salvation through material gains and rewards, as most do today, can but lead to disaster.
Only a return to spiritual values as a starting point for living can save present-day humanity. Although we cannot conquer ourselves overnight, we can, inadequate as we may sometimes feel, make ourselves instruments for the passing on of divine wisdom as old as the hills, thus inspiring people to change their lives and helping them to a recognition of their divine nature. With an understanding of and acceptance that "man cannot live by bread alone," our task is to play our part in rebuilding the world and transforming it so that spiritual values play a more prominent role.
(From Sunrise magazine, August/September 1994. Copyright © 1994 by Theosophical University Press; condensed from a lecture given March 7,1992, Liverpool, England, at the William Quan Judge Branch of The Theosophical Society, Pasadena.)