Karma is both merciful and just. Mercy and Justice are only opposite poles of a single whole; and Mercy without Justice is not possible in the operations of Karma. That which man calls Mercy and Justice is defective, errant, and impure. — William Quan Judge
Though karma often does not appear merciful to us, it is the most compassionate and effective way to restore balance and teach the soul. However painful to the individual, karma is the greatest aid in clearing the way for the self-directed evolution which leads to the open spaces of freedom, and finally makes of man a god. Man has made mistakes because he has not always followed the highest voice within him, thus causing suffering to others and to himself. But he has never been left without sufficient light to find the way: there is the voice of conscience; there are the results of right and wrong action as lessons for the future; there is mind to interpret these, and free will to choose. Karma is too often emphasized as something "bad," but even when unpleasant circumstances occur, we owe the fact that we are still happy and healthy in many other respects to karma as well. Despite misfortune, we may simultaneously have much good fortune which is also the fruit of what we ourselves have sown.
Disease is one of the strongest motivations to begin asking about the deeper meaning of life. We seek an explanation for our suffering, and ask ourselves why God or the gods, or nature which is otherwise so full of beauty and compassion, allows such suffering to exist. Do disease and disaster in some sense belong to the compassionate ways of nature? The law of karma means that nothing can happen without a cause, and that an inharmonious cause brings unpleasant results. But is it a punishment? Certainly punishments designed by human beings, either out of pure revenge or the formalized justice of our legal system, can hardly be regarded as divine. All religions teach compassion and forgiveness, but our legal system in many cases remains unresponsive, unless the hardships inflicted on those convicted are meant to better their inner being, to promote inner growth so they may reach a stage where they will never commit the crime again — not from fear of legal punishment, but from awakened insight. Such is the way divine justice works: it always seeks the best for the soul, the part of us which does not perish at death but continues to grow incarnation after incarnation.
So it is with disease. It is "punishment" only in the sense that it is brought about by nature's laws in order to restore harmony in the most compassionate way. Within this theosophical framework the best response, if disease or disaster comes, is to be grateful, because our deeper self, our inner god, is compassion by its very nature, and intelligence guides events to happen at that particular moment and situation. Neither our inner god, nor any other being which has reached self-conscious divinity — such as mahatmas, bodhisattvas, or the many gods of religions worldwide — can interfere with karma, because it is a universal habit of nature. In fact, these divine beings are inseparable from karma because in essence all in nature is unity and harmony, except when an individual seeks gain for isolated benefit. Karma is indeed universal justice, but compassionate, wise, intelligent justice, because all beings that guide nature are naturally endowed with these qualities.
Disease is brought about through elemental beings, the invisible and almost automatic subordinates of the higher forces in the cosmos. The elementals form kingdoms of nature that are at a lower stage of evolution than beings in the mineral kingdom, but nevertheless they represent forces too strong for us to destroy or reject once we have made a connection with them. Every thought or feeling we have can be viewed as an elemental we have invited into our being. Sometimes we experience them in our consciousness in a negative way: every time a person flies into a passion, whether of greed or anger, fear or hatred, he has lost control of himself and at that time exemplifies the characteristic and power of some undeveloped elemental being under whose influence he has fallen. These elementals have a strong affinity for mankind. They look on us much as we look on the gods, but when a human being thinks or acts selfishly, then destructive elementals have their chance. They act automatically and instinctively, as impersonally and without conscience as does an electric current.
In theosophical literature diseases are said often to originate from such a loss of self-control, either in this or a past life. This causes a harmful elemental to enter our vital aura, and if we do not immediately oust it with our will and aspiration to better things, that seed will grow, and disease or other grievous consequences result. Using our will at the moment the negative impulse tends to rise is an entirely different thing from suppressing a disease by will power when it manifests. For a person "can indeed apparently cure certain diseases of the body, if he can use certain psychological faculties that he has," but the results
are not good. All disease is a purging, a purgation, a cleansing. Nature's law is that the poison should come out. If it remains within, it poisons the body, the constitution, still worse than before; and the physicians of the future will know perfectly well how to lead disease out of the body so that the body shall not be injured at all. But be very careful about damming it back, throwing it back into the stream of consciousness, for one of these days the trouble will come out despite your best efforts and it will have gained strength and power . . . — G. de Purucker, Questions We All Ask, Series 2, no. 11
Pushing a disease back by mental power is especially inadvisable because it will produce its result in our mental and psychological nature, a process which will only temporarily postpone the working of karma. The results will inevitably come back at a time which can only be a "second choice" of the forces of compassion. The second appearance of a disease which has been unnaturally suppressed is usually under more difficult circumstances than the first. Healing of disease should therefore always seek to help the body to cope with the problem in the most natural and peaceful way — but let the body do it. To not accept disease and become emotionally upset is, apart from the unpleasant state of mind itself, also a cause of future problems.
Karma, it is said, begins where responsibility lies, which is in the mind. Unpleasant karma begins with inharmonious thinking, even if the thoughts do not result in acts. This mental cause then runs its own course, and its manifestation on the physical plane is the final throwing off when a particular karma has reached the last stage. While modern doctors and psychologists recognize that diseases can have psychological causes, such causes themselves result from mental activity for which we are responsible. All the psychological conditions we find ourselves in — and which we tend to blame on others — have originated in ourselves, even though others may, to our dismay, provide opportunities for creating such states. For this reason the great teachers of mankind did not instruct us in psychotherapy, but rather in right thinking based on right philosophy resulting in right ethics and action. Genuine ethics is both a preventive agent against disease and accident, and the way to become godlike ourselves.
As every thought and action has a beginning and an end, and a particular measure of energy, every karmic result in its manifestation has a beginning and an end. Thus sooner or later a disease or disastrous situation is over, in some cases concluded by the compassionate hand of death. Through our efforts to handle the situation, past disharmony is transformed into valuable lessons unless we cling to frustration with hatred, complaint, lack of forgiveness, or fear. We may then live under a further, self-inflicted burden even when the original situation is long over. A better attitude would be gratitude to the divine when illness comes, gratitude when it is gone. Let us not create new causes for disaster through having thoughts and doing things which our inner sense of truth and harmony tells us are not right. This inner sense is the silent voice of the inner god of compassion. There are no wrathful gods in heaven or elsewhere who inflict suffering on us according to their will. Nor is there any forgiving God who takes away the sins we have committed, because even our mistakes and failures, though we must suffer their painful consequences, result in our good. Purucker encourages us to "Bless the karmic stimulus; be not afraid of it. Look to the essential divinity within. Remember that everything that happens is transient, and that you can learn from everything, and in learning you will grow — grow great, and from greatness pass into a larger sphere of greatness" (ibid., series 1, no. 34).
Some may think: All this is very beautiful and lofty, but if I have a toothache it is little consolation that I must bear the pain and accept the karma, believing that my soul will grow. The higher part of our mind recognizes the beauty of karma and compassion, but the personality in which we live our everyday life suffers and does not understand the sense of it. It just wants to get rid of it; it wants help. Fortunately nature is full of such assistance. And softening the burden of pain need not be contrary to the acceptance of karma. Nature is full of means to help cure disease or make it bearable, that is, to help our system work through the process of purgation. Thanks to the laws of analogy, the human system, plants, stars, and minerals all have fundamental analogies of vibration. Therefore certain minerals or plants can focus the characteristic vibrations of planets or stars and thus help to restore harmony.
There is no tribe of people on earth, not even the smallest and most remote, that does not possess knowledge of medicinal plants. This knowledge is based on experience as well as on ancient knowledge given by divine teachers to early mankind. Thus great systems have been developed, such as the Ayurveda of India, the tremendous Chinese knowledge of herbs and of restoring energic balance through acupuncture, and in the West the system of homeopathy developed by Paracelsus and Hahnemann. Modern Western medical science is very successful in certain fields, but usually views the physical system as independent of the more subtle aspects of the human constitution. It addresses the physical results rather than their inner causes. If a disease is destroyed by killing its servants, the bacteria and viruses, it may reappear somewhere else in the body because the cause has not been removed. Ayurveda and other such systems also include knowledge about diets that various individuals should observe according to their characteristic type and daily activities. If we maintain a healthy physical and psychological balance, most diseases do not arise, and if they do, we are strong enough to cope with them. Applying such knowledge is not suppressing or damming back disease.
Nature is full of beauty — buddhic splendor or spiritual light is the essence of every manifestation — so may we not use the means she offers to lighten our burden and soften our pain? Should we not allow her to be our teacher and helper? Practical compassion is all around us, but we ourselves are responsible for our mental and emotional attitudes. As Gertrude van Pelt said: "We attain what we ardently strive for. The infinite potentialities of the universe are before us, but only he whose note chimes with that of the over-mastering law — the law of compassion — can hold his victories!"
(From Sunrise magazine, December 2001/January 2002; copyright © 2001 Theosophical University Press)