Universal Brotherhood – January 1898

KARMA — G. A. Marshall

This subject is in itself one of the most simple and intelligible of all those which constitute the body of Theosophical philosophy. It expresses the thorough-going character of the law of action and reaction — the rule that effect invariably and inflexibly follows cause. It is accordingly sometimes called the law of cause and effect — and this is a very correct version of karmic law. In applying this definition, however, we are exceedingly liable to stumble at the very start, owing to the indefinite and manifold meaning and use in our language of the word law. The idea of law as a rule of conduct prescribed by the supreme authority in the state is so thoroughly ingrained into our modes of thinking, that we can with difficulty free ourselves from it. We thus habitually think of law as something that may be evaded in various ways, as for instance by the negligence or ignorance of state officers, by the fallibility or venality of courts and juries, or by the clemency of the chief magistrate through the pardoning power. Accustomed from our earliest youth to look upon God as merely the executive head of the universe, omniscient indeed, but approachable through appeals for favor, Divine law comes to be regarded as a rule of conduct which is only enforced through the Divine Will, and hence as a code whose penalties may be evaded by taking advantage of the Divine clemency, if not even by Divine indifference to trivial matters. Nay, this notion of the uncertainty of law is carried by us into our conceptions of the physical world; for we have been taught that by miracles God sets aside the laws of material nature. Thus the term law does not in any of its applications call up in our minds the idea of an inflexible sequence between cause and effect. To this misapprehension of the meaning of law — a misapprehension of which those who suffer most from it are no doubt unconscious — may be charged much of the confusion and lack of clearness that prevails in a great deal that is written upon this topic. We read about "good Karma" and "bad Karma," as if a moral quality could attach to that which is literally and strictly inevitable. We find Karma discussed as if it were a personal entity that dispenses rewards and punishments, thus making the word merely a synonym for the Jehovah of the Jews and the personal God of popular Christianity. All this might not be objectionable, if it could be kept constantly in mind that the personification is only a literary device; and that rewards and punishments mean only agreeable or disagreeable consequences. But the language used does not convey this impression to the average reader, and there is certainly danger that Karma may become only the name of a new deity to be feared and cajoled.

Karma is defined by more than one able writer as the law of ethical causation. As the word in Sanscrit means action, and is taken over into English to denote the law of action, there is no serious objection to limiting its application to actions which have an ethical or moral character or quality. The difficulty is that it will not stay limited; language is a thing of growth, and no man who imports a new word can determine its signification when used by others than himself; and there is no hard and fast line between actions which have a moral bearing and those which have not. Still, as a practical question, we are most concerned with the ethical aspects of karma and karmic law.

Here comes to the surface the old question of fate and free will; if effect invariably follows cause, we are the result of former causes, and cannot change our nature or our destiny, says the fatalist. It is not necessary now to thresh over this old straw. We recognize no such thing as dead matter or blind force. Everything emanates and evolves from Spirit, and we trace our heredity to this One Life as the source of our being. This source is beyond our comprehension; we do not know clearly the nature and power of that faculty of the individual spirit which we call Will; it becomes us therefore to accept as the basis of our responsibility the practical fact that we seem to ourselves to have ability to direct our conduct. We learn from the Secret Doctrine that evolution proceeded on unconscious lines (as we know consciousness), and that the factors and products of evolution were and are irresponsible and without moral quality, up to the time when Manas began to be developed in man, when self-consciousness dawned in him, giving the power of reflection and the power to help or hinder in his subsequent progress. With the dawn of self-consciousness comes the sense of moral responsibility; the man has eaten of the tree of knowledge, and discovers that he is naked — that he must use his faculties for his protection and advancement. He can no longer hide himself among the trees of the garden — he is no longer, like them, irresponsible. His conscience — the voice of God within him — tells him what to do and what to avoid. Karma, or the law of cause and effect, has carried him forward and upward to a plane where he has found himself endowed with a faculty which to all seeming can originate new causes. He cannot thwart or prevent the working of forces already set up, but he can apply new forces that shall change their direction. It is a familiar law in mechanics, that when several forces meet, the resultant force takes a new direction, which is determined by the combined effect of the strength and direction of the meeting forces. The number, direction and strength of the forces which enter into and make up the sum of each individual life are practically infinite; the karmic threads which unite to determine our position and initial impulse are many and are intricately interwoven. Manas, the faculty or principle with which the Manasa Putras have endowed us, is an additional cause, which must be taken into account in determining all subsequent results. Man can no longer drift; he must exert his newly acquired power or sink into a worse condition than that from which he has emerged. With its use he can continue more effectually the upward trend that has brought him to this plane; and by its abuse he can turn back to the flesh-pots of Egypt, and increase his pleasure in mere animal gratifications. In this ability to choose lies the concepsion of Karma as the basis of ethics. By virtue of this endowment man is invested with divine attributes, and it lies with him to say whether he will accept his inheritance and enter upon its enjoyment, or will reject it and sink back into the oblivion from which he has just made his escape.

Universal Brotherhood