“Although at first it may appear that nothing can be more fatalistic than this doctrine, yet a little consideration will show that in reality this is not the case. Karma is twofold, hidden and manifest, Karma is the man that is, Karma is his action. True that each action is a cause from which evolves the countless ramifications of effect in time and space.

“‘That which ye sow ye reap.’ In some sphere of action the harvest will be gathered. It is necessary that the man of action should realize this truth. It is equally necessary that the manifestations of this law in the operations of Karma should be clearly apprehended.

“Karma, broadly speaking may be said to be the continuance of the nature of the act, and each act contains within itself the past and future. Every defect which can be realized from an act must be implicit in the act itself or it could never come into existence. Effect is but the nature of the act and cannot exist distinct from its cause. Karma only produces the manifestation of that which already exists; being action it has its operation in time, and Karma may therefore be said to be the same action from another point of time. It must, moreover, be evident that not only is there a relation between the cause and the effect, but there must also be a relation between the cause and the individual who experiences the effect.”

— William Quan Judge, from the article Karma (see below)

Click on any of the headings below to delve into the idea of Karma from a theosophical perspective:

From the writings of H. P. Blavatsky

H. P. Blavatsky on Karma (from The Key to Theosophy)


ENQUIRER. But what is Karma?

THEOSOPHIST. As I have said, we consider it as the Ultimate Law of the Universe, the source, origin and fount of all other laws which exist throughout Nature. Karma is the unerring law which adjusts effect to cause, on the physical, mental and spiritual planes of being. As no cause remains without its due effect from greatest to least, from a cosmic disturbance down to the movement of your hand, and as like produces like, Karma is that unseen and unknown law which adjusts wisely, intelligently and equitably each effect to its cause, tracing the latter back to its producer. Though itself unknowable, its action is perceivable.

ENQUIRER. Then it is the “Absolute,” the “Unknowable” again, and is not of much value as an explanation of the problems of life?

THEOSOPHIST. On the contrary. For, though we do not know what Karma is per se, and in its essence, we do know how it works, and we can define and describe its mode of action with accuracy. We only do not know its ultimate Cause, just as modern philosophy universally admits that the ultimate Cause of anything is “unknowable.”

ENQUIRER. And what has Theosophy to say in regard to the solution of the more practical needs of humanity? What is the explanation which it offers in reference to the awful suffering and dire necessity prevalent among the so-called “lower classes.”

THEOSOPHIST. To be pointed, according to our teaching all these great social evils, the distinction of classes in Society, and of the sexes in the affairs of life, the unequal distribution of capital and of labour — all are due to what we tersely but truly denominate KARMA.

ENQUIRER. But, surely, all these evils which seem to fall upon the masses somewhat indiscriminately are not actual merited and INDIVIDUAL Karma?

THEOSOPHIST. No, they cannot be so strictly defined in their effects as to show that each individual environment, and the particular conditions of life in which each person finds himself, are nothing more than the retributive Karma which the individual generated in a previous life. We must not lose sight of the fact that every atom is subject to the general law governing the whole body to which it belongs, and here we come upon the wider track of the Karmic law. Do you not perceive that the aggregate of individual Karma becomes that of the nation to which those individuals belong, and further, that the sum total of National Karma is that of the World? The evils that you speak of are not peculiar to the individual or even to the Nation, they are more or less universal; and it is upon this broad line of Human interdependence that the law of Karma finds its legitimate and equable issue.

ENQUIRER. Do I, then, understand that the law of Karma is not necessarily an individual law?

THEOSOPHIST. That is just what I mean. It is impossible that Karma could readjust the balance of power in the world’s life and progress, unless it had a broad and general line of action. It is held as a truth among Theosophists that the interdependence of Humanity is the cause of what is called Distributive Karma, and it is this law which affords the solution to the great question of collective suffering and its relief. It is an occult law, moreover, that no man can rise superior to his individual failings, without lifting, be it ever so little, the whole body of which he is an integral part. In the same way, no one can sin, nor suffer the effects of sin, alone. In reality, there is no such thing as “Separateness”; and the nearest approach to that selfish state, which the laws of life permit, is in the intent or motive.

ENQUIRER. And are there no means by which the distributive or national Karma might be concentred or collected, so to speak, and brought to its natural and legitimate fulfilment without all this protracted suffering?

THEOSOPHIST. As a general rule, and within certain limits which define the age to which we belong, the law of Karma cannot be hastened or retarded in its fulfilment. But of this I am certain, the point of possibility in either of these directions has never yet been touched. Listen to the following recital of one phase of national suffering, and then ask yourself whether, admitting the working power of individual, relative, and distributive Karma, these evils are not capable of extensive modification and general relief. What I am about to read to you is from the pen of a National Saviour, one who, having overcome Self, and being free to choose, has elected to serve Humanity, in bearing at least as much as a woman’s shoulders can possibly bear of National Karma. This is what she says: —

“Yes, Nature always does speak, don’t you think? only sometimes we make so much noise that we drown her voice. That is why it is so restful to go out of the town and nestle awhile in the Mother’s arms. I am thinking of the evening on Hampstead Heath when we watched the sun go down; but oh! upon what suffering and misery that sun had set! A lady brought me yesterday a big hamper of wild flowers. I thought some of my East-end family had a better right to it than I, and so I took it down to a very poor school in Whitechapel this morning. You should have seen the pallid little faces brighten! Thence I went to pay for some dinners at a little cookshop for some children. It was in a back street, narrow, full of jostling people; stench indescribable, from fish, meat, and other comestibles, all reeking in a sun that, in Whitechapel, festers instead of purifying. The cookshop was the quintessence of all the smells. Indescribable meat-pies at 1d., loathsome lumps of ‘food’ and swarms of flies, a very altar of Beelzebub! All about, babies on the prowl for scraps, one, with the face of an angel, gathering up cherrystones as a light and nutritious form of diet. I came westward with every nerve shuddering and jarred, wondering whether anything can be done with some parts of London save swallowing them up in an earthquake and starting their inhabitants afresh, after a plunge into some purifying Lethe, out of which not a memory might emerge! And then I thought of Hampstead Heath, and — pondered. If by any sacrifice one could win the power to save these people, the cost would not be worth counting; but, you see, THEY must be changed — and how can that be wrought? In the condition they now are, they would not profit by any environment in which they might be placed; and yet, in their present surroundings they must continue to putrefy. It breaks my heart, this endless, hopeless misery, and the brutish degradation that is at once its outgrowth and its root. It is like the banyan tree; every branch roots itself and sends out new shoots. What a difference between these feelings and the peaceful scene at Hampstead! and yet we, who are the brothers and sisters of these poor creatures, have only a right to use Hampstead Heaths to gain strength to save Whitechapels.” (Signed by a name too respected and too well known to be given to scoffers.)

ENQUIRER. That is a sad but beautiful letter, and I think it presents with painful conspicuity the terrible workings of what you have called “Relative and Distributive Karma.” But alas! there seems no immediate hope of any relief short of an earthquake, or some such general ingulfment!

THEOSOPHIST. What right have we to think so while one-half of humanity is in a position to effect an immediate relief of the privations which are suffered by their fellows? When every individual has contributed to the general good what he can of money, of labour, and of ennobling thought, then, and only then, will the balance of National Karma be struck, and until then we have no right nor any reasons for saying that there is more life on the earth than Nature can support. It is reserved for the heroic souls, the Saviours of our Race and Nation, to find out the cause of this unequal pressure of retributive Karma, and by a supreme effort to re-adjust the balance of power, and save the people from a moral ingulfment a thousand times more disastrous and more permanently evil than the like physical catastrophe, in which you seem to see the only possible outlet for this accumulated misery.

ENQUIRER. Well, then, tell me generally how you describe this law of Karma?

THEOSOPHIST. We describe Karma as that Law of re-adjustment which ever tends to restore disturbed equilibrium in the physical, and broken harmony in the moral world. We say that Karma does not act in this or that particular way always; but that it always does act so as to restore Harmony and preserve the balance of equilibrium, in virtue of which the Universe exists.

ENQUIRER. Give me an illustration.

THEOSOPHIST. Later on I will give you a full illustration. Think now of a pond. A stone falls into the water and creates disturbing waves. These waves oscillate backwards and forwards till at last, owing to the operation of what physicists call the law of the dissipation of energy, they are brought to rest, and the water returns to its condition of calm tranquillity. Similarly all action, on every plane, produces disturbance in the balanced harmony of the Universe, and the vibrations so produced will continue to roll backwards and forwards, if its area is limited, till equilibrium is restored. But since each such disturbance starts from some particular point, it is clear that equilibrium and harmony can only be restored by the reconverging to that same point of all the forces which were set in motion from it. And here you have proof that the consequences of a man’s deeds, thoughts, etc. must all react upon himself with the same force with which they were set in motion.

ENQUIRER. But I see nothing of a moral character about this law. It looks to me like the simple physical law that action and reaction are equal and opposite.

THEOSOPHIST. I am not surprised to hear you say that. Europeans have got so much into the ingrained habit of considering right and wrong, good and evil, as matters of an arbitrary code of law laid down either by men, or imposed upon them by a Personal God. We Theosophists, however, say that “Good” and “Harmony,” and “Evil” and “Dis-harmony,” are synonymous. Further we maintain that all pain and suffering are results of want of Harmony, and that the one terrible and only cause of the disturbance of Harmony is selfishness in some form or another. Hence Karma gives back to every man the actual consequences of his own actions, without any regard to their moral character; but since he receives his due for all, it is obvious that he will be made to atone for all sufferings which he has caused, just as he will reap in joy and gladness the fruits of all the happiness and harmony he had helped to produce. I can do no better than quote for your benefit certain passages from books and articles written by our Theosophists — those who have a correct idea of Karma.

ENQUIRER. I wish you would, as your literature seems to be very sparing on this subject?

THEOSOPHIST. Because it is the most difficult of all our tenets.

Some short time ago there appeared the following objection from a Christian pen: —

“Granting that the teaching in regard to Theosophy is correct, and that ‘man must be his own saviour, must overcome self and conquer the evil that is in his dual nature, to obtain the emancipation of his soul,’ what is man to do after he has been awakened and converted to a certain extent from evil or wickedness? How is he to get emancipation, or pardon, or the blotting out of the evil or wickedness he has already done?”

To this Mr. J. H. Conelly replies very pertinently that no one can hope to “make the theosophical engine run on the theological track.” As he has it: —

“The possibility of shirking individual responsibility is not among the concepts of Theosophy. In this faith there is no such thing as pardoning, or ‘blotting out of evil or wickedness already done,’ otherwise than by the adequate punishment therefor of the wrong-doer and the restoration of the harmony in the universe that had been disturbed by his wrongful act. The evil has been his own, and while others must suffer its consequences, atonement can be made by nobody but himself.

“The condition contemplated . . . . in which a man shall have been ‘awakened and converted to a certain extent from evil or wickedness,’ is that in which a man shall have realized that his deeds are evil and deserving of punishment. In that realization a sense of personal responsibility is inevitable, and just in proportion to the extent of his awakening or ‘converting’ must be the sense of that awful responsibility. While it is strong upon him is the time when he is urged to accept the doctrine of vicarious atonement.

“He is told that be must also repent, but nothing is easier than that. It is an amiable weakness of human nature that we are quite prone to regret the evil we have done when our attention is called, and we have either suffered from it ourselves or enjoyed its fruits. Possibly, close analysis of the feeling would show us that that which we regret is rather the necessity that seemed to require the evil as a means of attainment of our selfish ends than the evil itself.”

“Attractive as this prospect of casting our burden of sins ‘at the foot of the cross’ may be to the ordinary mind, it does not commend itself to the Theosophic student. He does not apprehend why the sinner by attaining knowledge of his evil can thereby merit any pardon for or the blotting out of his past wickedness; or why repentance and future right living entitle him to a suspension in his favour of the universal law of relation between cause and effect. The results of his evil deeds continue to exist; the suffering caused to others by his wickedness is not blotted out. The Theosophical student takes the result of wickedness upon the innocent into his problem. He considers not only the guilty person, but his victims.

“Evil is an infraction of the laws of harmony governing the universe, and the penalty thereof must fall upon the violator of that law himself. Christ uttered the warning, ‘Sin no more, lest a worse thing come upon thee,’ and St. Paul said, ‘Work out your own salvation. Whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap.’ That, by the way, is a fine metaphoric rendering of the sentence of the Puranas far antedating him — that ‘every man reaps the consequences of his own acts.’

“This is the principle of the law of Karma which is taught by Theosophy. Sinnett, in his ‘Esoteric Buddhism,’ rendered Karma as ‘the law of ethical causation.’ ‘The law of retribution,’ as Mdme. Blavatsky translates its meaning, is better. It is the power which

“‘Just though mysterious, leads us on unerring /Through ways unmarked from guilt to punishment.’

“But it is more. It rewards merit as unerringly and amply as it punishes demerit. It is the outcome of every act, of thought, word and deed, and by it men mould themselves, their lives and happenings. Eastern philosophy rejects the idea of a newly created soul for every baby born. It believes in a limited number of monads, evolving and growing more and more perfect through their assimilation of many successive personalities. Those personalities are the product of Karma and it is by Karma and re-incarnation that the human monad in time returns to its source — absolute deity.”

E. D. Walker, in his “Re-incarnation,” offers the following explanation: —

“Briefly, the doctrine of Karma is that we have made ourselves what we are by former actions, and are building our future eternity by present actions. There is no destiny but what we ourselves determine. There is no salvation or condemnation except what we ourselves bring about. . . . Because it offers no shelter for culpable actions and necessitates a sterling manliness, it is less welcome to weak natures than the easy religious tenets of vicarious atonement, intercession, forgiveness and death-bed conversions. . . . In the domain of eternal justice the offence and the punishment are inseparably connected as the same event, because there is no real distinction between the action and its outcome. . . . It is Karma, or our old acts, that draws us back into earthly life. The spirit’s abode changes according to its Karma, and this Karma forbids any long continuance in one condition, because it is always changing. So long as action is governed by material and selfish motives, just so long must the effect of that action be manifested in physical re-births. Only the perfectly selfless man can elude the gravitation of material life. Few have attained this, but it is the goal of mankind.”

And then the writer quotes from the Secret Doctrine:

“Those who believe in Karma have to believe in destiny, which, from birth to death, every man is weaving, thread by thread, around himself, as a spider does his cobweb, and this destiny is guided either by the heavenly voice of the invisible prototype outside of us, or by our more intimate astral or inner man, who is but too often the evil genius of the embodied entity called man. Both these lead on the outward man, but one of them must prevail; and from the very beginning of the invisible affray the stern and implacable law of compensation steps in and takes its course, faithfully following the fluctuations. When the last strand is woven, and man is seemingly enwrapped in the network of his own doing, then he finds himself completely under the empire of this self-made destiny. . . . An Occultist or a philosopher will not speak of the goodness or cruelty of Providence; but, identifying it with Karma-Nemesis, he will teach that, nevertheless, it guards the good and watches over them in this as in future lives; and that it punishes the evil-doer — aye, even to his seventh re-birth — so long, in short, as the effect of his having thrown into perturbation even the smallest atom in the infinite world of harmony has not been finally re-adjusted. For the only decree of Karma — an eternal and immutable decree — is absolute harmony in the world of matter as it is in the world of spirit. It is not, therefore, Karma that rewards or punishes, but it is we who reward or punish ourselves according to whether we work with, through and along with nature, abiding by the laws on which that harmony depends, or — break them. Nor would the ways of Karma be inscrutable were men to work in union and harmony, instead of disunion and strife. For our ignorance of those ways — which one portion of mankind calls the ways of Providence, dark and intricate; while another sees in them the action of blind fatalism; and a third simple chance, with neither gods nor devils to guide them — would surely disappear if we would but attribute all these to their correct cause. . . . We stand bewildered before the mystery of our own making and the riddles of life that we will not solve, and then accuse the great Sphinx of devouring us. But verily there is not an accident of our lives, not a misshapen day, or a misfortune, that could not be traced back to our own doings in this or in another life. . . . . The law of Karma is inextricably interwoven with that of reincarnation. . . . . It is only this doctrine that can explain to us the mysterious problem of good and evil, and reconcile man to the terrible and apparent injustice of life. Nothing but such certainty can quiet our revolted sense of justice. For, when one unacquainted with the noble doctrine looks around him and observes the inequalities of birth and fortune, of intellect and capacities; when one sees honour paid to fools and profligates, on whom fortune has heaped her favours by mere privilege of birth, and their nearest neighbour, with all his intellect and noble virtues — far more deserving in every way — perishing for want and for lack of sympathy — when one sees all this and has to turn away, helpless to relieve the undeserved suffering, one’s ears ringing and heart aching with the cries of pain around him — that blessed knowledge of Karma alone prevents him from cursing life and men as well as their supposed Creator. . . . . This law, whether conscious or unconscious, predestines nothing and no one. It exists from and in eternity truly, for it is eternity itself; and as such, since no act can be coequal with eternity, it cannot be said to act, for it is action itself. It is not the wave which drowns the man, but the personal action of the wretch who goes deliberately and places himself under the impersonal action of the laws that govern the ocean’s motion. Karma creates nothing, nor does it design. It is man who plants and creates causes, and Karmic law adjusts the effects, which adjustment is not an act but universal harmony, tending ever to resume its original position, like a bough, which, bent down too forcibly, rebounds with corresponding vigour. If it happen to dislocate the arm that tried to bend it out of its natural position, shall we say it is the bough which broke our arm or that our own folly has brought us to grief? Karma has never sought to destroy intellectual and individual liberty, like the god invented by the Monotheists. It has not involved its decrees in darkness purposely to perplex man, nor shall it punish him who dares to scrutinize its mysteries. On the contrary, he who unveils through study and meditation its intricate paths, and throws light on those dark ways, in the windings of which so many men perish owing to their ignorance of the labyrinth of life, is working for the good of his fellow-men. Karma is an absolute and eternal law in the world of manifestation; and as there can only be one Absolute, as one Eternal, ever-present Cause, believers in Karma cannot be regarded as atheists or materialists, still less as fatalists, for Karma is one with the Unknowable, of which it is an aspect, in its effects in the phenomenal world.”

Another able Theosophic writer says (Purpose of Theosophy, by Mrs. P. Sinnett): —

“Every individual is making Karma either good or bad in each action and thought of his daily round, and is at the same time working out in this life the Karma brought about by the acts and desires of the last. When we see people afflicted by congenital ailments it may be safely assumed that these ailments are the inevitable results of causes started by themselves in a previous birth. It may be argued that, as these afflictions are hereditary, they can have nothing to do with a past incarnation; but it must be remembered that the Ego, the real man, the individuality, has no spiritual origin in the parentage by which it is re-embodied, but it is drawn by the affinities which its previous mode of life attracted round it into the current that carries it, when the time comes for re-birth, to the home best fitted for the development of those tendencies. . . . . This doctrine of Karma, when properly understood, is well calculated to guide and assist those who realize its truth to a higher and better mode of life, for it must not be forgotten that not only our actions but our thoughts also are most assuredly followed by a crowd of circumstances that will influence for good or for evil our own future, and, what is still more important, the future of many of our fellow-creatures. If sins of omission and commission could in any case be only self-regarding, the fact on the sinner’s Karma would be a matter of minor consequence. The effect that every thought and act through life carries with it for good or evil a corresponding influence on other members of the human family renders a strict sense of justice, morality, and unselfishness so necessary to future happiness or progress. A crime once committed, an evil thought sent out from the mind, are past recall — no amount of repentance can wipe out their results in the future. Repentance, if sincere, will deter a man from repeating errors; it cannot save him or others from the effects of those already produced, which will most unerringly overtake him either in this life or in the next re-birth.”

Mr. J. H. Conelly proceeds —

“The believers in a religion based upon such doctrine are willing it should be compared with one in which man’s destiny for eternity is determined by the accidents of a single, brief earthly existence, during which he is cheered by the promise that ‘as the tree falls so shall it lie’; in which his brightest hope, when he wakes up to a knowledge of his wickedness, is the doctrine of vicarious atonement, and in which even that is handicapped, according to the Presbyterian Confession of Faith.

“By the decree of God, for the manifestation of his glory, some men and angels are predestinated unto everlasting life and others foreordained to everlasting death.

“These angels and men thus predestinated and foreordained are particularly and unchangeably designed; and their number is so certain and definite that it cannot be either increased or diminished. . . . As God hath appointed the elect unto glory. . . . . Neither are any other redeemed by Christ effectually called, justified, adopted, sanctified, and saved, but the elect only.

“The rest of mankind God was pleased, according to the unsearchable counsel of his own will, whereby he extendeth or withholdeth mercy as he pleaseth, for the glory of his sovereign power over his creatures, to pass by and to ordain them to dishonour and wrath for their sin to the praise of his glorious justice.”

This is what the able defender says. Nor can we do any better than wind up the subject as he does, by a quotation from a magnificent poem. As he says: —

“The exquisite beauty of Edwin Arnold’s exposition of Karma in ‘The Light of Asia’ tempts to its reproduction here, but it is too long for quotation in full. Here is a portion of it: —
Karma — all that total of a soul
Which is the things it did, the thoughts it had,
The ‘self’ it wove with woof of viewless time
Crossed on the warp invisible of acts.
* * * * *
Before beginning and without an end,
As space eternal and as surety sure,
Is fixed a Power divine which moves to good,
Only its laws endure.
It will not be contemned of anyone;
Who thwarts it loses, and who serves it gains;
The hidden good it pays with peace and bliss,
The hidden ill with pains.
It seeth everywhere and marketh all;
Do right — it recompenseth! Do one wrong —
The equal retribution must be made,
Though Dharma tarry long.
It knows not wrath nor pardon; utter-true,
Its measures mete, its faultless balance weighs;
Times are as naught, to-morrow it will judge
Or after many days.
* * * * *
Such is the law which moves to righteousness,
Which none at last can turn aside or stay;
The heart of it is love, the end of it
Is peace and consummation sweet. Obey.”

And now I advise you to compare our Theosophic views upon Karma, the law of Retribution, and say whether they are not both more philosophical and just than this cruel and idiotic dogma which makes of “God” a senseless fiend; the tenet, namely, that the “elect only” will be saved, and the rest doomed to eternal perdition!

ENQUIRER. Yes, I see what you mean generally; but I wish you could give some concrete example of the action of Karma?

THEOSOPHIST. That I cannot do. We can only feel sure, as I said before, that our present lives and circumstances are the direct results of our own deeds and thoughts in lives that are past. But we, who are not Seers or Initiates, cannot know anything about the details of the working of the law of Karma.

ENQUIRER. Can anyone, even an Adept or Seer, follow out this Karmic process of re-adjustment in detail?

THEOSOPHIST. Certainly: “Those who know“can do so by the exercise of powers which are latent even in all men.

See also: The Secret Doctrine: Cyclic Evolution and Karma

From the writings of William Quan Judge

William Quan Judge on Karma (from The Ocean of Theosophy)

Chapter 11: Karma

Karma is an unfamiliar word for Western ears. It is the name adopted by Theosophists of the nineteenth century for one of the most important of the laws of nature. Ceaseless in its operation, it bears alike upon planets, systems of planets, races, nations, families, and individuals. It is the twin doctrine to reincarnation. So inextricably interlaced are these two laws that it is almost impossible to properly consider one apart from the other. No spot or being in the universe is exempt from the operation of Karma, but all are under its sway, punished for error by it yet beneficently led on, through discipline, rest, and reward, to the distant heights of perfection. It is a law so comprehensive in its sweep, embracing at once our physical and our moral being, that it is only by paraphrase and copious explanation one can convey its meaning in English. For that reason the Sanskrit term Karma was adopted to designate it.

Applied to man’s moral life it is the law of ethical causation, justice, reward and punishment; the cause for birth and rebirth, yet equally the means for escape from incarnation. Viewed from another point it is merely effect flowing from cause, action and reaction, exact result for every thought and act. It is act and the result of act; for the word’s literal meaning is action. Theosophy views the Universe as an intelligent whole, hence every motion in the Universe is an action of that whole leading to results, which themselves become causes for further results. Viewing it thus broadly, the ancient Hindus said that every being up to Brahma was under the rule of Karma.

It is not a being but a law, the universal law of harmony which unerringly restores all disturbance to equilibrium. In this the theory conflicts with the ordinary conception about God, built up from the Jewish system, which assumes that the Almighty as a thinking entity, extraneous to the Cosmos, builds up, finds his construction inharmonious, out of proportion, errant, and disturbed, and then has to pull down, destroy, or punish that which he created. This has either caused thousands to live in fear of God, in compliance with his assumed commands, with the selfish object of obtaining reward and securing escape from his wrath, or has plunged them into darkness which comes from a denial of all spiritual life. But as there is plainly, indeed painfully, evident to every human being a constant destruction going on in and around us, a continual war not only among men but everywhere through the whole solar system, causing sorrow in all directions, reason requires a solution of the riddle. The poor, who see no refuge or hope, cry aloud to a God who makes no reply, and then envy springs up in them when they consider the comforts and opportunities of the rich. They see the rich profligates, the wealthy fools, enjoying themselves unpunished. Turning to the teacher of religion, they meet the reply to their questioning of the justice which will permit such misery to those who did nothing requiring them to be born with no means, no opportunities for education, no capacity to overcome social, racial, or circumstantial obstacles, “It is the will of God.” Parents produce beloved offspring who are cut off by death at an untimely hour, just when all promised well. They too have no answer to the question “Why am I thus afflicted?” but the same unreasonable reference to an inaccessible God whose arbitrary will causes their misery. Thus in every walk of life, loss, injury, persecution, deprivation of opportunity, nature’s own forces working to destroy the happiness of man, death, reverses, disappointment continually beset good and evil men alike. But nowhere is there any answer or relief save in the ancient truths that each man is the maker and fashioner of his own destiny, the only one who sets in motion the causes for his own happiness and misery. In one life he sows and in the next he reaps. Thus on and forever, the law of Karma leads him.

Karma is a beneficent law wholly merciful, relentlessly just, for true mercy is not favor but impartial justice.

“My brothers! each man’s life
The outcome of his former living is;
The bygone wrongs bring forth sorrows and woes,
The bygone right breeds bliss. . . .
This is the doctrine of Karma.”

How is the present life affected by that bygone right and wrong act, and is it always by way of punishment? Is Karma only fate under another name, an already fixed and formulated destiny from which no escape is possible, and which therefore might make us careless of act or thought that cannot affect destiny? It is not fatalism. Everything done in a former body has consequences which in the new birth the Ego must enjoy or suffer, for, as St. Paul said: “Brethren, be not deceived, God is not mocked, for whatsoever a man soweth that shall he also reap.” For the effect is in the cause, and Karma produces the manifestation of it in the body, brain, and mind furnished by reincarnation. And as a cause set up by one man has a distinct relation to him as a center from which it came, so each one experiences the results of his own acts. We may sometimes seem to receive effects solely from the acts of others, but this is the result of our own acts and thoughts in this or some prior life. We perform our acts in company with others always, and the acts with their underlying thoughts have relation always to other persons and to ourselves.

No act is performed without a thought at its root either at the time of performance or as leading to it. These thoughts are lodged in that part of man which we have called Manas — the mind, and there remain as subtle but powerful links with magnetic threads that enmesh the solar system, and through which various effects are brought out. The theory put forward in earlier pages that the whole system to which this globe belongs is alive, conscious on every plane, though only in man showing self-consciousness, comes into play here to explain how the thought under the act in this life may cause result in this or the next birth. The marvellous modern experiments in hypnotism show that the slightest impression, no matter how far back in the history of the person, may be waked up to life, thus proving it is not lost but only latent. Take for instance the case of a child born humpbacked and very short, the head sunk between the shoulders, the arms long and legs curtailed. Why is this? His karma for thoughts and acts in a prior life. He reviled, persecuted, or otherwise injured a deformed person so persistently or violently as to imprint in his own immortal mind the deformed picture of his victim. For in proportion to the intensity of his thought will be the intensity and depth of the picture. It is exactly similar to the exposure of the sensitive photographic plate, whereby, just as the exposure is long or short, the impression in the plate is weak or deep. So this thinker and actor — the Ego — coming again to rebirth carries with him this picture, and if the family to which he is attracted for birth has similar physical tendencies in its stream, the mental picture causes the newly-forming astral body to assume a deformed shape by electrical and magnetic osmosis through the mother of the child. And as all beings on earth are indissolubly joined together, the misshapen child is the karma of the parents also an exact consequence for similar acts and thoughts on their part in other lives. Here is an exactitude of justice which no other theory will furnish.

But as we often see a deformed human being — continuing the instance merely for the purpose of illustration — having a happy disposition, an excellent intellect, sound judgment, and every good moral quality, this very instance leads us to the conclusion that karma must be of several different kinds in every individual case, and also evidently operates in more than one department of our being, with the possibility of being pleasant in effect for one portion of our nature and unpleasant for another.

Karma is of three sorts:

First — that which has not begun to produce any effect in our lives owing to the operation on us of some other karmic causes. This is under a law well known to physicists, that two opposing forces tend to neutrality, and that one force may be strong enough to temporarily prevent the operation of another one. This law works on the unseen mental and karmic planes or spheres of being just as it does on the material ones. The force of a certain set of bodily, mental, and psychical faculties with their tendencies may wholly inhibit the operation on us of causes with which we are connected, because the whole nature of each person is used in the carrying out of this law. Hence the weak and mediocre furnish a weak focus for karma, and in them the general result of a lifetime is limited, although they may feel it all to be very heavy. But that person who has a wide and deep-reaching character and much force will feel the operation of a greater quantity of karma than the weaker person.

Second — that karma which we are now making or storing up by our thoughts and acts, and which will operate in the future when the appropriate body, mind, and environment are taken up by the incarnating Ego in some other life, or whenever obstructive karma is removed.

This bears both on the present life and the next one. For one may in this life come to a point where, all previous causes being worked out, new karma, or that which is unexpended, must begin to operate.

Under this are those cases where men have sudden reverses of fortune or changes for the better either in circumstances or character. A very important bearing of this is on our present conduct. While old karma must work out and cannot be stopped, it is wise for the man to so think and act now under present circumstances, no matter what they are, that he shall produce no bad or prejudicial causes for the next rebirth or for later years in this life. Rebellion is useless, for the law works on whether we weep or rejoice. The great French engineer, de Lesseps, is a good example of this class of karma. Raised to a high pitch of glory and achievement for many years of his life, he suddenly falls covered with shame through the Panama canal scandal. Whether he was innocent or guilty, he has the shame of the connection of his name with a national enterprise all besmirched with bribery and corruption that involved high officials. This was the operation of old karmic causes on him the very moment those which had governed his previous years were exhausted. Napoleon I is another, for he rose to a very great fame, then suddenly fell and died in exile and disgrace. Many other cases will occur to every thoughtful reader.

Third — that karma which has begun to produce results. It is the operating now in this life on us of causes set up in previous lives in company with other Egos. And it is in operation because, being most adapted to the family stock, the individual body, astral body, and race tendencies of the present incarnation, it exhibits itself plainly, while other unexpended karma awaits its regular turn.

These three classes of karma govern men, animals, worlds, and periods of evolution. Every effect flows from a cause precedent, and as all beings are constantly being reborn they are continually experiencing the effects of their thoughts and acts (which are themselves causes) of a prior incarnation. And thus each one answers, as St. Matthew says, for every word and thought; none can escape either by prayer, or favor, or force, or any other intermediary.

Now as karmic causes are divisible into three classes, they must have various fields in which to work. They operate upon man in his mental and intellectual nature, in his psychical or soul nature, and in his body and circumstances. The spiritual nature of man is never affected or operated upon by karma.

One species of karma may act on the three specified planes of our nature at the same time to the same degree, or there may be a mixture of the causes, some on one plane and some on another. Take a deformed person who has a fine mind and a deficiency in his soul nature. Here punitive or unpleasant karma is operating on his body while in his mental and intellectual nature good karma is being experienced, but psychically the karma, or cause, being of an indifferent sort the result is indifferent. In another person other combinations appear. He has a fine body and favorable circumstances, but the character is morose, peevish, irritable, revengeful, morbid, and disagreeable to himself and others. Here good physical karma is at work with very bad mental, intellectual, and psychical karma. Cases will occur to readers of persons born in high station having every opportunity and power, yet being imbecile or suddenly becoming insane.

And just as all these phases of the law of karma have sway over the individual man, so they similarly operate upon races, nations, and families. Each race has its karma as a whole. If it be good that race goes forward. If bad it goes out — annihilated as a race — though the souls concerned take up their karma in other races and bodies. Nations cannot escape their national karma, and any nation that has acted in a wicked manner must suffer some day, be it soon or late. The karma of the nineteenth century in the West is the karma of Israel, for even the merest tyro can see that the Mosaic influence is the strongest in the European and American nations. The old Aztec and other ancient American peoples died out because their own karma — the result of their own life as nations in the far past — fell upon and destroyed them. With nations this heavy operation of karma is always through famine, war, convulsion of nature, and the sterility of the women of the nation. The latter cause comes near the end and sweeps the whole remnant away. And the individual in race or nation is warned by this great doctrine that if he falls into indifference of thought and act, thus molding himself into the general average karma of his race or nation, that national and race karma will at last carry him off in the general destiny. This is why teachers of old cried, “Come ye out and be ye separate.”

With reincarnation the doctrine of karma explains the misery and suffering of the world, and no room is left to accuse Nature of injustice.

The misery of any nation or race is the direct result of the thoughts and acts of the Egos who make up the race or nation. In the dim past they did wickedly and now suffer. They violated the laws of harmony. The immutable rule is that harmony must be restored if violated. So these Egos suffer in making compensation and establishing the equilibrium of the occult cosmos. The whole mass of Egos must go on incarnating and reincarnating in the nation or race until they have all worked out to the end the causes set up. Though the nation may for a time disappear as a physical thing, the Egos that made it do not leave the world, but come out as the makers of some new nation in which they must go on with the task and take either punishment or reward as accords with their karma. Of this law the old Egyptians are an illustration. They certainly rose to a high point of development, and as certainly they were extinguished as a nation. But the souls — the old Egos — live on and are now fulfilling their self-made destiny as some other nation now in our period. They may be the new American nation, or the Jews fated to wander up and down in the world and suffer much at the hands of others. This process is perfectly just. Take, for instance, the United States and the Red Indians. The latter have been most shamefully treated by the nation. The Indian Egos will be reborn in the new and conquering people, and as members of that great family will be the means themselves of bringing on the due results for such acts as were done against them when they had red bodies. Thus it has happened before, and so it will come about again.

Individual unhappiness in any life is thus explained:

(a) It is punishment for evil done in past lives; or (b) it is discipline taken up by the Ego for the purpose of eliminating defects or acquiring fortitude and sympathy. When defects are eliminated it is like removing the obstruction in an irrigating canal which then lets the water flow on. Happiness is explained in the same way: the result of prior lives of goodness.

The scientific and self-compelling basis for right ethics is found in these and in no other doctrines. For if right ethics are to be practised merely for themselves, men will not see why, and have never been able to see why, for that reason they should do right. If ethics are to be followed from fear, man is degraded and will surely evade; if the favor of the Almighty, not based on law or justice, be the reason, then we will have just what prevails today — a code given by Jesus to the west professed by nations and not practised save by the few who would in any case be virtuous.

On this subject the Adepts have written the following to be found in the Secret Doctrine:

Nor would the ways of Karma be inscrutable were men to work in union and harmony, instead of disunion and strife. For our ignorance of those ways — which one portion of mankind calls the ways of Providence, dark and intricate, while another sees in them the action of blind Fatalism, and a third, simple chance, with neither gods nor devils to guide them — would surely disappear, if we would but attribute all these to their correct cause. With right knowledge, or at any rate with a confident conviction that our neighbors will no more work to hurt us than we would think of harming them, the two-thirds of the World’s evil would vanish into thin air. Were no man to hurt his brother, Karma-Nemesis would have neither cause to work for, nor weapons to act through. . . . We cut these numerous windings in our destinies daily with our own hands, while we imagine that we are pursuing a track on the royal high road of respectability and duty, and then complain of those ways being so intricate and so dark. We stand bewildered before the mystery of our own making, and the riddles of life that we will not solve, and then accuse the great Sphinx of devouring us. But verily there is not an accident in our lives, not a misshapen day, or a misfortune, that could not be traced back to our own doings in this or in another life. . . .

. . . Knowledge of Karma gives the conviction that if —
“. . . . virtue in distress, and vice in triumph
Make atheists of mankind,”

it is only because that mankind has ever shut its eyes to the great truth that man is himself his own saviour as his own destroyer. That he need not accuse Heaven and the gods, Fates and Providence, of the apparent injustice that reigns in the midst of humanity. But let him rather remember and repeat this bit of Grecian wisdom, which warns man to forbear accusing That which —

“. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .”
“Just, though mysterious, leads us on unerring
Through ways unmark’d from guilt to punishment . . .”

— which are now the ways and the high road on which move onward the great European nations. The Western Aryans had, every nation and tribe, like their Eastern brethren of the Fifth Race, their Golden and their Iron ages, their period of comparative irresponsibility, or the Satya age of purity, while now, several of them have reached their Iron Age, the Kali Yuga, an age Black with Horrors. . . .

. . . This state will last . . . until we begin acting from within instead of ever following impulses from without . . . Until then the only palliative to the evils of life is union and harmony — a Brotherhood in actu, and altruism not simply in name.

Karma (Pamphlet of 11 Articles)

Aphorisms on Karma


(1) There is no Karma unless there is a being to make it or feel its effects.

(2) Karma is the adjustment of effects flowing from causes, during which the being upon whom and through whom that adjustment is effected experiences pain or pleasure.

(3) Karma is an undeviating and unerring tendency in the Universe to restore equilibrium, and it operates incessantly.

(4) The apparent stoppage of this restoration to equilibrium is due to the necessary adjustment of disturbance at some other spot, place, or focus which is visible only to the Yogi, to the Sage, or the perfect Seer: there is therefore no stoppage, but only a hiding from view.

(5) Karma operates on all things and beings from the minutest conceivable atom to Brahma. Proceeding in the three worlds men, gods, and the elemental beings, no spot in the manifested universe is exempt from its sway.

(6) Karma is not subject to time, and therefore he who knows what is the ultimate division of time in this Universe knows Karma.

(7) For all other men Karma is in its essential nature unknown and unknowable.

(8) But its action may be known by calculation from cause to effect; and this calculation is possible because the effect is wrapped up in and is not succedent to the cause.

(9) The Karma of this earth is the combination of the acts and thoughts of all beings of every grade which were concerned in the preceding Manvantara or evolutionary stream from which ours flows.

(10) And as those beings include Lords of Power and Holy Men, as well as weak and wicked ones, the period of the earth’s duration is greater than that of any entity or race upon it.

(11) Because the Karma of this earth and its races began in a past too far back for human minds to reach, an inquiry into its beginning is useless and profitless.

(12) Karmic causes already set in motion must be allowed to sweep on until exhausted, but this permits no man to refuse to help his fellows and every sentient being.

(13) The effects may be counteracted or mitigated by the thoughts and acts of oneself or of another, and then the resulting effects represent the combination and interaction of the whole number of causes involved in producing the effects.

(14) In the life of worlds, races, nations, and individuals, Karma cannot act unless there is an appropriate instrument provided for its action.

(15) And until such appropriate instrument is found, that Karma related to it remains unexpended.

(16) While a man is experiencing Karma in the instrument provided, his other unexpended Karma is not exhausted through other beings or means, but is held reserved for future operation; and lapse of time during which no operation of that Karma is felt causes no deterioration in its force or change in its nature.

(17) The appropriateness of an instrument for the operation of Karma consists in the exact connection and relation of the Karma with the body, mind, intellectual and psychical nature acquired for use by the Ego in any life.

(18) Every instrument used by any Ego in any life is appropriate to the Karma operating through it.

(19) Changes may occur in the instrument during one life so as to make it appropriate for a new class of Karma, and this may take place in two ways: (a) through intensity of thought and the power of a vow, and (b) through natural alterations due to complete exhaustion of old causes.

(20) As body and mind and soul have each a power of independent action, any one of these may exhaust, independently of the others, some Karmic causes more remote from or nearer to the time of their inception than those operating through other channels.

(21) 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.

(22) Karma may be of three sorts: (a) presently operative in this life through the appropriate instruments; (b) that which is being made or stored up to be exhausted in the future; Karma held over from past life or lives and not operating yet because inhibited by inappropriateness of the instrument in use by the Ego, or by the force of Karma now operating.

(23) Three fields of operation are used in each being by Karma: (a) the body and the circumstances; (b) the mind and intellect; the psychic and astral planes.

(24) Held-over Karma or present Karma may each, or both at once, operate in all of the three fields of Karmic operation at once, or in either of those fields a different class of Karma from that using the others may operate at the same time.

(25) Birth into any sort of body and to obtain the fruits of any sort of Karma is due to the preponderance of the line of Karmic tendency.

(26) The sway of Karmic tendency will influence the incarnation of an Ego, or any family of Egos, for three lives at least, when measures of repression, elimination, or counteraction are not adopted.

(27) Measures taken by an Ego to repress tendency, eliminate defects, and to counteract by setting up different causes, will alter the sway of Karmic tendency and shorten its influence in accordance with the strength or weakness of the efforts expended in carrying out the measures adopted.

(28) No man but a sage or true seer can judge another’s Karma. Hence while each receives his deserts, appearances may deceive, and birth into Poverty or heavy trial may not be punishment for bad Karma, for Egos continually incarnate into poor surroundings where they experience difficulties and trials which are for the discipline of the Ego and result in strength, fortitude, and sympathy.

(29) Race-Karma influences each unit in the race through the law of Distribution. National Karma operates on the members of the nation by the same law more concentrated. Family Karma governs only with a nation where families have been kept pure and distinct; for in any nation where there is a mixture of family – as obtains in each Kaliyuga period – family Karma is in general distributed over a nation. But even at such periods some families remain coherent for long periods, and then the members feel the sway of family Karma. The word “family” may include several smaller families.

(30) Karma operates to produce cataclysms of nature by concatenation through the mental and astral planes of being. A cataclysm may be traced to an immediate physical cause such as internal fire and atmospheric disturbance, but these have been brought on by the disturbance created through the dynamic power of human thought.

(31) Egos who have no Karmic connection with a portion of the globe where a cataclysm is coming on are kept without the latter’s operation in two ways: (a) by repulsion acting on their inner nature, and (b) by being called and warned by those who watch the progress of the world.

Path, March, 1893



THE child is the father of the man, and none the less true is it:

My brothers! each mans life
The outcome of his former living is;
The bygone wrongs bring forth sorrows and woes
The bygone right breeds bliss. .

“This is the doctrine of Karma.”

But in what way does this bygone wrong and right affect the present life? Is the stern nemesis ever following the weary traveler, with a calm, passionless, remorseless step? Is there no escape from its relentless hand? Does the eternal law of cause and effect, unmoved by sorrow and regret, ever deal out its measure of weal and woe as the consequence of past action? The shadow of the yesterday of sin–must it darken the life of today? Is Karma but another name for fate? Does the child unfold the page of the already written book of life in which each event is recorded without the possibility of escape? What is the relation of Karma to the life of the individual? Is there nothing for man to do but to weave the chequered warp and woof of each earthly existence with the stained and discolored threads of past actions? Good resolves and evil tendencies sweep with resistless tide over the nature of man and we are told:

“Whatever action he performs, whether good or bad, every thing done in a former body must necessarily be enjoyed or suffered.” Anugita, Cp. III.

There is good Karma, there is bad Karma, and as the wheel of life moves on, old Karma is exhausted and again fresh Karma is accumulated.

Although at first it may appear that nothing can be more fatalistic than this doctrine, yet a little consideration will show that in reality this is not the case. Karma is twofold, hidden and manifest, Karma is the man that is, Karma is his action. True that each action is a cause from which evolves the countless ramifications of effect in time and space.

“That which ye sow ye reap.” In some sphere of action the harvest will be gathered. It is necessary that the man of action should realize this truth. It is equally necessary that the manifestations of this law in the operations of Karma should be clearly apprehended.

Karma, broadly speaking, may be said to be the continuance of the nature of the act, and each act contains within itself the past and future. Every defect which can be realized from an act must be implicit in the act itself or it could never come into existence. Effect is but the nature of the act and cannot exist distinct from its cause. Karma only produces the manifestation of that which already exists; being action it has its operation in time, and Karma may therefore be said to be the same action from another point of time. It must, moreover, be evident that not only is there a relation between the cause and the effect, but there must also be a relation between the cause and the individual who experiences the effect. If it were otherwise, any man would reap the effect of the actions of any other man. We may sometimes appear to reap the effects of the action of others, but this is only apparent. In point of fact it is our own action.

…None else compels
None other holds you that ye live and die.

It is therefore necessary in order to understand the nature of Karma and its relation to the individual to consider action in all its aspects. Every act proceeds from the mind. Beyond the mind there is no action and therefore no Karma. The basis of every act is desire. The plane of desire or egotism is itself action and the matrix of every act. This plane may be considered as non-manifest, yet having a dual manifestation in what we call cause and effect, that is, the act and its consequences. In reality, both the act and its consequences are the effect, the cause being on the plane of desire. Desire is therefore the basis of action in its first manifestation on the physical plane, and desire determines the continuation of the act in its karmic relation to the individual. For a man to be free from the effects of the Karma of any act he must have passed to a state no longer yielding a basis in which that act can inhere. The ripples in the water caused by the action of the stone will extend to the furthest limit of its expanse, but no further; they are bounded by the shore. Their course is ended when there is no longer a basis or suitable medium in which they can inhere; they expend their force and are not. Karma is, therefore, as dependent upon the present personality for its fulfillment, as it was upon the former for the first initial act. An illustration may be given which will help to explain this.

A seed, say for instance mustard, will produce a mustard tree and nothing else; but in order that it should be produced, it is necessary that the co-operation of soil and culture should be equally present. Without the seed, however much the ground may be tilled and watered, it will not bring forth the plant, but the seed is equally in-operative without the joint action of the soil and culture.

The first great result of Karmic action is the incarnation in physical life. The birth-seeking entity consisting of desires and tendencies, presses forward towards incarnation. It is governed in the selection of its scene of manifestation by the law of economy. Whatever is the ruling tendency, that is to say, whatever group of affinities is strongest, those affinities will lead it to the point of manifestation at which there is the least opposition. It incarnates in those surroundings most in harmony with its Karmic tendencies and all the effects of actions contained in the Karma so manifesting will be experienced by the individual. This governs the station of life, the sex, the conditions of the irresponsible years of childhood, the constitution with the various diseases inherent in it, and in fact all those determining forces of physical existence which are ordinarily classed under the terms, “heredity,” and “national characteristics.”

It is really the law of economy which is the truth underlying these terms and which explains them. Take for instance a nation with certain special characteristics. These are the plane of expansion for any entity whose greatest number of affinities are in harmony with those characteristics. The incoming entity following the law of least resistance becomes incarnated in that nation, and all Karmic effects following such characteristics will accrue to the individual. This will explain what is the meaning of such expressions as the “Karma of nations,” and what is true of the nation will also apply to family and caste.

It must, however, be remembered that there are many tendencies which are not exhausted in the act of incarnation. It may happen that the Karma which caused an entity to incarnate in any particular surrounding, was only strong enough to carry it into physical existence. Being exhausted in that direction, freedom is obtained for the manifestation of other tendencies and their Karmic effects. For instance, Karmic force may cause an entity to incarnate in a humble sphere of life. He may be born as the child of poor parents. The Karma follows the entity, endures for a longer or shorter time, and becomes exhausted. From that point, the child takes a line of life totally different from his surroundings. Other affinities engendered by former action express themselves in their Karmic results. The lingering effect of the past Karma may still manifest itself in the way of obstacles and obstructions which are surmounted with varying degrees of success according to their intensity.

From the standpoint of a special creation for each entity entering the world, there is vast and unaccountable injustice. From the standpoint of Karma, the strange vicissitudes and apparent chances of life can be considered in a different light as the unerring manifestation of cause and sequence. In a family under the same conditions of poverty and ignorance, one child will be separated from the others and thrown into surroundings very dissimilar. He may be adopted by a rich man, or through some freak of fortune receive an education giving him at once a different position. The Karma of incarnation being exhausted, other Karma asserts itself.

A very important question is here presented: Can an individual affect his own Karma, and if so to what degree and in what manner?

It has been said that Karma is the continuance of the act, and for any particular line of Karma to exert itself it is necessary that there should be the basis of the act engendering that Karma in which it can inhere and operate. But action has many planes in which it can inhere. There is the physical plane, the body with its senses and organs; then there is the intellectual plane, memory, which binds the impressions of the senses into a consecutive whole and reason puts in orderly arrangement its storehouse of facts. Beyond the plane of intellect there is the plane of emotion, the plane of preference for one object rather than another: the fourth principle of the man. These three, physical, intellectual, and emotional, deal entirely with objects of sense perception and may be called the great battlefield of Karma.There is also the plane of ethics, the plane of discrimination of the “I ought to do this, I ought not to do that.” This plane harmonizes the intellect and the emotions. All these are the planes of Karma or action: what to do, and what not to do. It is the mind as the basis of desire that initiates action on the various planes, and it is only through the mind that the effects of rest and action can be received.

An entity enters incarnation with Karmic energy from past existences, that is to say the action of past lives is awaiting its development as effect. This Karmic energy presses into manifestation in harmony with the basic nature of the act. Physical Karma will manifest in the physical tendencies bringing enjoyment and suffering. The intellectual and the ethical planes are also in the same manner the result of the past Karmic tendencies and the man as he is, with his moral and intellectual faculties, is in unbroken continuity with the past.

The entity at birth has therefore a definite amount of Karmic energy. After incarnation this awaits the period in life at which fresh Karma begins. Up to the time of responsibility it is as we have seen the initial Karma only that manifests. From that time the fresh personality becomes the ruler of his own destiny. It is a great mistake to suppose that an individual is the mere puppet of the past, the helpless victim of fate. The law of Karma is not fatalism, and a little consideration will show that it is possible for an individual to affect his own Karma. If a greater amount of energy be taken up on one plane than on another this will cause the past Karma to unfold itself on that plane. For instance, one who lives entirely on the plane of sense gratification will from the plane beyond draw the energy required for the fulfillment of his desires. Let us illustrate by dividing man into upper and lower nature. By directing the mind and aspirations to the lower plane, a “fire” or centre of attraction, is set up there, and in order to feed and fatten it, the energies of the whole upper plane are drawn down and exhausted in supplying the need of energy which exists below due to the indulgence of sense gratification. On the other hand, the centre of attraction may be fixed in the upper portion, and then all the needed energy goes there to result in increase of spirituality. It must be remembered that Nature is all bountiful and withholds not her hand. The demand is made, and the supply will come. But at what cost? That energy which should have strengthened the moral nature and fulfilled the aspirations after good, is drawn to the lower desires. By degrees the higher planes are exhausted of vitality and the good and bad Karma of an entity will be absorbed on the physical plane. If on the other hand the interest is detached from the plane of sense gratification, if there is a constant effort to fix the mind on the attainment of the highest ideal, the result will be that the past Karma will find no basis in which to inhere on the physical plane. Karma will therefore be manifested only in harmony with the plane of desire. The sense energy of the physical plane will exhaust itself on a higher plane and thus become transmuted in its effects.

What are the means through which the effects of Karma can be thus changed is also clear. A person can have no attachment for a thing he does not think about, therefore the first step must be to fix the thought on the highest ideal. In this connection one remark may be made on the subject of repentance. Repentance is a form of thought in which the mind is constantly recurring to a sin. It has therefore to be avoided if one would set the mind free from sin and its Karmic results. All sin has its origin in the mind. The more the mind dwells on any course of conduct, whether with pleasure or pain, the less chance is there for it to become detached from such action. The manas (mind) is the knot of the heart, when that is untied from any object, in other words when the mind loses its interest in any object, there will no longer be a link between the Karma connected with that object and the individual.

It is the attitude of the mind which draws the Karmic cords tightly round the soul. It imprisons the aspirations and binds them with chains of difficulty and obstruction. It is desire that causes the past Karma to take form and shape and build the house of clay. It must be through non-attachment that the soul will burst through the walls of pain, it will be only through a change of mind that the Karmic burden will be lifted.

It will appear, therefore, that although absolutely true that action brings its own result, “there is no destruction here of actions good or not good. Coming to one body after another they become ripened in their respective ways.” Yet this ripening is the act of the individual. Free will of man asserts itself and he becomes his own saviour. To the worldly man Karma is a stern Nemesis, to the spiritual man Karma unfolds itself in harmony with his highest aspirations. He will look with tranquility alike on past and future, neither dwelling with remorse on past sin nor living in expectation of reward for present action.

Path, December, 1886

Thoughts on Karma


EVERY day in life we see people overtaken by circumstances either good or bad and coming in blocks all at once or scattered over long periods of time. Some are for a whole life in a miserable condition, and others for many years the very reverse; while still others are miserable or happy by snatches. I speak, of course, of the circumstances of life irrespective of the effect on the mind of the person, for it may often be that a man is not unhappy under adverse circumstances, and some are able to extract good from the very strait lines they are put within. Now all this is the Karma of those who are the experiencers, and therefore we ask ourselves if Karma may fall in a lump or may be strung out over a long space of years. And the question is also asked if the circumstances of this life are the sum total result of the life which has immediately preceded it.

There is a little story told to a German mystic in this century by an old man, another mystic, when asked the meaning of the verse in the Bible which says that the sins of the father will be visited on the children to the third and fourth generation. He said: “There was once an Eastern king who had one son, and this son committed a deed the penalty of which was that he should be killed by a great stone thrown upon him. But as it was seen that this would not repair the wrong nor give to the offender the chance to become a better man, the counsellors of the king advised that the stone should be broken into small pieces, and those be thrown at the son, and at his children and grandchildren as they were able to bear it. It was so done, and all were in some sense sufferers yet none were destroyed.” It was argued, of course, in this case that the children and grandchildren could not have been born in the family of the prince if they had not had some hand in the past, in other lives, in the formation of his character, and for that reason they should share to some extent in his punishment. In no other way than this can the Christian verses be understood if we are to attribute justice to the God of the Christians.

Each Ego is attracted to the body in which he will meet his just deserts, but also for another reason. That is, that not only is the body to give opportunity for his just reward or punishment, but also for that he in the past was connected with the family in which the body was born, and the stream of heredity to which it belongs is his too. It is therefore a question not alone of desert and similarity, but one of responsibility. Justice orders that the Ego shall suffer or enjoy irrespective of what family he comes to; similarity decrees that he shall come to the family in which there is some characteristic similar to one or many of his and thus having a drawing power; but responsibility, which is compounded of justice, directs that the Ego shall come to the race or the nation or the family to which its responsibility lies for the part taken by it in other lives in forming of the general character, or affecting that physical stream of heredity that has so much influence on those who are involved in it. Therefore it is just that even the grandchildren shall suffer if they in the past have had a hand in moulding the family or even in bringing about a social order that is detrimental to those who fall into it through incarnation. I use the word responsibility to indicate something composed of similarity and justice. It may be described by other words probably quite as well, and in the present state of the English language very likely will be. An Ego may have no direct responsibility for a family, national, or race condition, and yet be drawn into incarnation there. In such an event it is similarity of character which causes the place of rebirth, for the being coming to the abode of mortals is drawn like electricity along the path of least resistance and of greatest conductibility. But where the reincarnating Ego is directly responsible for family or race conditions, it will decide itself, upon exact principles of justice and in order to meet its obligations, to be reborn where it shall receive, as grandchild if you will, physically or otherwise the results of its former acts. This decision is made at the emergence from Devachan. It is thus entirely just, no matter whether the new physical brain is able or not to pick up the lost threads of memory.

So to-day, in our civilization, we are all under the penalty of our forefathers sins, living in bodies which medical science has shown are sown with diseases of brain and flesh and blood coming in the turbid stream of heredity through the centuries. These disturbances were brought about by ourselves in other centuries, in ignorance, perhaps, of consequences so far-reaching, but that ignorance lessens only the higher moral responsibility and tends to confine the results to physical suffering. This can very well lead, as it often does, to efforts on the part of many reincarnating Egos in the direction of general reform.

It was through a belief in this that the ancients attempted to form and keep up in India a pure family stream such as the highest caste of Brahmin. For they knew that if such a clean family line could be kept existing for many centuries, it would develop the power of repelling Egos on the way to rebirth if they were not in character up to the standard of that stream of life. Thus only teachers by nature, of high moral and spiritual elevation, would come upon the scene to act as regenerators and saviors for all other classes. But under the iron rule of cyclic law this degenerated in time, leaving now only an imitation of the real thing.

A variation of the Eastern story told above is that the advice of the kings counsellors was that the broken stone should be cast at the prince. This was done, and the result was that he was not killed but suffered while the pieces were being thrown. It gives another Karmic law, that is, that a given amount of force of a Karmic character may be thrown at one or fall upon one at once, in bulk, so to say, or may be divided up into smaller pieces, the sum of which represents the whole mass of Karmic force. And so we see it in life. Men suffer through many years an amount of adverse Karma which, if it were to fall all at once, would crush them. Others for a long time have general good fortune that might unseat the reason if experienced in one day; and the latter happens also, for we know of those who have been destroyed by the sudden coming of what is called great good fortune.

This law is seen also in physics. A piece of glass may be broken at once by a single blow, or the same amount of force put into a number of taps continuously repeated will accomplish the same result and mash the glass. And with the emotions we observe the same law followed by even the most ignorant, for we do not tell bad news at once to the person who is the sufferer, but get at it slowly by degrees; and often when disaster is suddenly heard of, the person who hears it is prostrated. In both cases the sorrow caused is the same, but the method of imparting the news differs. Indeed, in whatever direction we look, this law is observed to work. It is universal, and it ought to be applied to Karma as well as to anything else.

Whether the life we are now living is the net result of the one just preceding is answered by Patanjali in his 8th and 9th aphorisms, Book IV.

“From these works there results, in every incarnation, a manifestation of only those mental deposits which can come to fructification in the environment provided. Although the manifestation of mental deposits may be intercepted by unsuitable environments, differing as to class, place, and time, there is an immediate relation between them, because the memory and the train of self-reproductive thought are identical,” and also by other doctrines of the ancients. When a body is taken up, only that sort of Karma which can operate through it will make itself felt. This is what Patanjali means. The “environment” is the body, with the mind, the plastic nature, and the emotions and desires. Hence one may have been great or the reverse in the preceding life, and now have only the environment which will serve for the exhaustion of some Karma left over from lives many incarnations distant. This unexhausted Karma is known as stored-up Karma. It may or may not come into operation now, and it can also be brought out into view by violent effort of the mind leading to such changes as to alter the bodily apparatus and make it equivalent to a new body. But as the majority of men are lazy of mind and nature, they suffer themselves to run with the great family or national stream, and so through one life make no changes of this inner nature. Karma in their cases operates through what Patanjali calls “mental deposits.” These are the net results stored from each life by Manas. For as body dies, taking brain with it, there can be no storage there nor means of connecting with the next earth-life; the division known as Kama is dissipated or purged away together with astral body at some time before rebirth; astral body retains nothing–as a general rule for the new life, and the value or summation of those skandhas which belong to Kama is concentrated and deposited in Manas or the mind. So, when the immortal being returns, he is really Manas-Buddhi-Atma seeking a new environment which is found in a new body, prana, Kama, and astral double. Hence, and because under the sway of cyclic law, the reincarnation can only furnish an engine of a horsepower, so to say, which is very much lower than the potential energies stored in Manas, and thus there remain unexhausted “mental deposits,” or unexhausted Karma. The Ego may therefore be expending a certain line of Karma, always bringing it to similar environments until that class of Karma shall be so exhausted or weakened as to permit another set of “mental deposits” to preponderate, whereupon the next incarnation will be in a different environment which shall give opportunity for the new set of deposits to bring about new or different Karma.

The object that is indicated for life by all this is, to so live and think during each life as to generate no new Karma, or cause for bondage, while one is working off the stock in hand, in order that on closing each life-account one shall have wiped off so much as that permits. The old “mental deposits” will thus gradually move up into action and exhaustion from life to life, at last leaving the man in a condition where he can master all and step into true consciousness, prepared to renounce final reward in order that he may remain with humanity, making no new Karma himself and helping others along the steep road to perfection.

[pseudonym of William Quan Judge]

Path, August, 1892

The Moral Law of Compensation



For thou shalt be in league with the stones of the field; and the beasts of the field shall be at peace with thee.—Job, Chap. V, v. 23, Christian Bible.

AS a western Theosophist, I would like to present to my Indian brethren a few thoughts upon what I conceive to be the operation of the Law of Compensation in part, or, to put it more clearly, upon the operation of one branch of this law.

It seems undeniable that this law is the most powerful, and the one having the most numerous and complicated ramifications of all the laws with which we have to deal. This it is that makes so difficult for a human spirit, the upward progress after which we all are striving, and it is often forced upon me that it is this law which perpetuates the world, with its delusions, its sadness, its illusions, and that if we could but understand it so as to avoid its operation, the nirvana for the whole human family would be an accomplished fact.

In a former number a respected brother from Ceylon, speaking with authority, showed us how to answer the question so often asked: “Why do we see a good man eating the bread of poverty, and the wicked dwelling in riches, and why so often is a good man cast down from prosperity to despair, and a wicked man after a period of sorrow and hardship made to experience for the balance of his life nothing but success and prosperity?” He replied that our acts in any one period of existence were like the arrow shot from the bow, acting upon us in the next life and producing our rewards and punishments. So that to accept his explanation–as we must–it is, of course, necessary to believe in reincarnation. As far as he went, he was very satisfactory, but he did not go into the subject as thoroughly as his great knowledge would permit. It is to be hoped that he will favor us with further essays upon the same subject.

I have not yet seen anywhere stated the rationale of the operation of this law–how and why it acts in any particular case.

To say that the reviling of a righteous man will condemn one to a life of a beggar in the next existence is definite enough in statement, but it is put forward without a reason, and unless we accept these teachings blindly we cannot believe such consequences would follow. To appeal to our minds, there should be a reason given, which shall be at once plain and reasonable. There must be some law for this particular case; otherwise, the statement cannot be true. There must occur, from the force of the revilement, the infraction of some natural regulation, the production of some discord in the spiritual world which has for a consequence the punishment by beggary in the succedent existence of the reviler. The only other reason possible of statement is, that it is so ordered. But such a reason is not a reason at all because no Theosophist will believe that any punishment, save that which man himself inflicts, is ordered. As this world is a world produced by law, moved by law, and governed by the natural operation of laws which need no one to operate them, but which invariably and unerringly operate themselves, it must follow that any punishment suffered in this way is not suffered through any order, but is suffered because the natural law operates itself. And further, we are compelled to accept this view, because to believe that it was ordered, would infer the existence of some particular person, mind, will, or intelligence to order it, which for one instant no one will believe, who knows that this world was produced, and is governed, by the operation of number, weight and measure, with harmony over and above all.

So then we should know in what manner the law operates, which condemns the reviler of a righteous man to beggary in his next existence. That knowledge once gained, we may be able to find for ourselves the manner and power of placating, as it were, this terrible monster of compensation by performing some particular acts which shall in some way be a restoration of the harmony which we have broken, if perchance we have unconsciously or inadvertently committed the sin.

Let us now imagine a boy born of wealthy parents, but not given proper intelligence. He is, in fact, called an idiot. But instead of being a mild idiot, he possesses great malice which manifests itself in his tormenting insects and animals at every opportunity. He lives to be, say, nineteen and has spent his years in the malicious, although idiotic, torment of unintelligent, defenseless animal life. He has thus hindered many a spirit in its upward march and has beyond doubt inflicted pain and caused a moral discord. This fact of his idiocy is not a restoration of the discord. Every animal that he tortured had its own particular elemental spirit, and so had every flower that he broke in pieces. What did they know of his idiocy, and what did they feel after the torture but revenge? And had they a knowledge of his idiocy, being unreasoning beings, they could not see in it any excuse for his acts. He dies at nineteen, and after the lapse of years is reborn in another nation– perchance another age–into a body possessing more than average intelligence. He is no longer an idiot, but a sensible active man who now has a chance to regenerate the spirit given to every man, without the chains of idiocy about it. What is to be the result of the evil deeds of his previous existence? Are they to go unpunished? I think not. But how are they to be punished; and if the compensation comes, in what manner does the law operate upon him? To me there seems to be but one way, that is through the discord produced in the spirits of those unthinking beings which he had tortured during those nineteen years. But how? In this way. In the agony of their torture these beings turned their eyes upon their torturer, and dying, his spiritual picture through the excess of their pain, together with that pain and the desire for revenge, were photographed, so to speak, upon their spirits– for in no other way could they have a memory of him–and when he became a disembodied spirit they clung to him until he was reincarnated when they were still with him like barnacles on a ship. They can now only see through his eyes, and their revenge consists in precipitating themselves down his glance on any matter he may engage in, thus attaching themselves to it for the purpose of dragging it down to disaster.

This leads to the query of what is meant by these elementals precipitating themselves down his glance. The ancients taught that the astral light–Akasa–is projected from the eyes, the thumbs and the palms of the hands. Now as the elementals exist in the astral light, they will be able to see only through those avenues of human organism which are used by the astral light in traveling from the person. The eyes are the most convenient. So when this person directs his glance on any thing or person, the astral light goes out in that glance and through it those elementals see that which he looks upon. And so also, if he should magnetize a person, the elementals will project themselves from his hands and eyes upon the subject magnetized and do it injury.

Well then, our reincarnated idiot engages in a business which requires his constant surveillance. The elementals go with him and throwing themselves upon everything he directs, cause him continued disaster.

But one by one they are caught up again out of the orbit of necessity into the orbit of probation in this world, and at last all are gone, whereupon he finds success in all he does and has his chance again to reap eternal life. He finds the realization of the words of Job quoted at the head of this article: he is in league with the stones of the field, and the beasts of the field are at peace with him.” These words were penned ages ago by those ancient Egyptians who knew all things. Having walked in the secret paths of wisdom which no fowl knoweth and the vulture’s eye hath not seen, they discovered those hidden laws, one within the other like the wheels of Ezekiel, which govern the universe. There is no other reasonable explanation of the passage quoted than the theory faintly outlined in the foregoing poor illustration. And I only offer it as a possible solution or answer to the question as to what is the rationale of the operation of the Moral Law of Compensation in that particular case, of which I go so far as to say that I think I know a living illustration. But it will not furnish an answer for the case of the punishment for reviling a righteous man.

I would earnestly ask the learned friends of the Editor of THE THEOSOPHIST to give the explanation, and also hint to us how in this existence we may act so as to mitigate the horrors of our punishment and come as near as may be to a league with the stones and the beasts of the field.

Theosophist, October, 1881

How We Should Treat Others


The subject relates to our conduct toward and treatment of our fellows, including in that term all people with whom we have any dealings. No particular mode of treatment is given by Theosophy. It simply lays down the law that governs us in all our acts, and declares the consequences of those acts. It is for us to follow the line of action which shall result first in harmony now and forever, and second, in the reduction of the general sum of hate and opposition in thought or act which now darkens the world.

The great law which Theosophy first speaks of is the law of karma, and this is the one which must be held in view in considering the question. Karma is called by some the “law of ethical causation,” but it is also the law of action and reaction; and in all departments of nature the reaction is equal to the action, and sometimes the reaction from the unseen but permanent world seems to be much greater than the physical act or word would appear to warrant on the physical plane. This is because the hidden force on the unseen plane was just as strong and powerful as the reaction is seen by us to be. The ordinary view takes in but half of the facts in any such case and judges wholly by superficial observation.

If we look at the subject only from the point of view of the person who knows not of Theosophy and of the nature of man, nor of the forces Theosophy knows to be operating all the time, then the reply to the question will be just the same as the everyday man makes. That is, that he has certain rights he must and will and ought to protect; that he has property he will and may keep and use any way he pleases; and if a man injure him he ought to and will resent it; that if he is insulted by word or deed he will at once fly not only to administer punishment on the offender, but also try to reform, to admonish, and very often to give that offender up to the arm of the law; that if he knows of a criminal he will denounce him to the police and see that he has meted out to him the punishment provided by the law of man. Thus in everything he will proceed as is the custom and as is thought to be the right way by those who live under the Mosaic retaliatory law.

But if we are to inquire into the subject as Theosophists, and as Theosophists who know certain laws and who insist on the absolute sway of karma, and as people who know what the real constitution of man is, then the whole matter takes on, or ought to take on, a wholly different aspect.

The untheosophical view is based on separation, the Theosophical upon unity absolute and actual. Of course if Theosophists talk of unity but as a dream or a mere metaphysical thing, then they will cease to be Theosophists, and be mere professors, as the Christian world is today, of a code not followed. If we are separate one from the other the world is right and resistance is a duty, and the failure to condemn those who offend is a distinct breach of propriety, of law, and of duty. But if we are all united as a physical and psychical fact, then the act of condemning, the fact of resistance, the insistence upon rights on all occasions – all of which means the entire lack of charity and mercy – will bring consequences as certain as the rising of the sun tomorrow.

What are those consequences, and why are they?

They are simply this, that the real man, the entity, the thinker, will react back on you just exactly in proportion to the way you act to him, and this reaction will be in another life, if not now, and even if now felt will still return in the next life.

The fact that the person whom you condemn, or oppose, or judge seems now in this life to deserve it for his acts in this life, does not alter the other fact that his nature will react against you when the time comes. The reaction is a law not subject to nor altered by any sentiment on your part. He may have, truly, offended you and even hurt you, and done that which in the eye of man is blameworthy, but all this does not have anything to do with the dynamic fact that if you arouse his enmity by your condemnation or judgment there will be a reaction on you, and consequently on the whole of society in any century when the reaction takes place. This is the law and the fact as given by the Adepts, as told by all sages, as reported by those who have seen the inner side of nature, as taught by our philosophy and easily provable by anyone who will take the trouble to examine carefully. Logic and small facts of one day or one life, or arguments on lines laid down by men of the world who do not know the real power and place of thought nor the real nature of man cannot sweep this away. After all argument and logic it will remain. The logic used against it is always lacking in certain premises based on facts, and while seeming to be good logic, because the missing facts are unknown to the logician, it is false logic. Hence an appeal to logic that ignores facts which we know are certain is of no use in this inquiry. And the ordinary argument always uses a number of assumptions which are destroyed by the actual inner facts about thought, about karma, about the reaction by the inner man.

The Master “K.H.,” once writing to Mr. Sinnett in the Occult World, and speaking for his whole order and not for himself only, distinctly wrote that the man who goes to denounce a criminal or an offender works not with nature and harmony but against both, and that such act tends to destruction instead of construction. Whether the act be large or small, whether it be the denunciation of a criminal, or only your own insistence on rules or laws or rights, does not alter the matter or take it out of the rule laid down by that Adept. For the only difference between the acts mentioned is a difference of degree alone; the act is the same in kind as the violent denunciation of a criminal. Either this Adept was right or wrong. If wrong, why do we follow the philosophy laid down by him and his messenger, and concurred in by all the sages and teachers of the past? If right, why this swimming in an adverse current, as he said himself, why this attempt to show that we can set aside karma and act as we please without consequences following us to the end of time? I know not. I prefer to follow the Adept, and especially so when I see that what he says is in line with facts in nature and is a certain conclusion from the system of philosophy I have found in Theosophy.

I have never found an insistence on my so-called rights at all necessary. They preserve themselves, and it must be true if the law of karma is the truth that no man offends against me unless I in the past have offended against him.

In respect to man, karma has no existence without two or more persons being considered. You act, another person is affected, karma follows. It follows on the thought of each and not on the act, for the other person is moved to thought by your act. Here are two sorts of karma, yours and his, and both are intermixed. There is the karma or effect on you of your own thought and act, the result on you of the other person’s thought; and there is the karma on or with the other person consisting of the direct result of your act and his thoughts engendered by your act and thought. This is all permanent. As affecting you there may be various effects. If you have condemned, for instnace, we may mention some: (a) the increased tendency in yourself to indulge in condemnation, which will remain and increase from life to life; (b) this will at last in you change into violence and all that anger and condemnation may naturally lead to; (c) an opposition to you is set up in the other person, which will remain forever until one day both suffer for it, and this may be in a tendency in the other person in any subsequent life to do you harm and hurt you in the million ways possible in life, and often also unconsciously. Thus it may all widen out and affect the whole body of sociey. Hence no matter how justifiable it may seem to you to condemn or denounce or punish another, you set up cause for sorrow in the whole race that must work out some day. And you must feel it.

The opposite conduct, that is, entire charity, constant forgiveness, wipes out the opposition from others, expends the old enmity and at the same time makes no new similar causes. Any other sort of thought or conduct is sure to increase the sum of hate in the world, to make cause for sorrow, to continually keep up the crime and misery in the world. Each man can for himself decide which of the two ways is the right one to adopt.

Self-love and what people call self-respect may shrink from following the Adept’s view I give above, but the Theosophist who wishes to follow the law and reduce the general sum of hate will know how to act and to think, for he will follow the words of the Master of H.P.B. who said: “Do not be ever thinking of yourself and forgetting that there are others; for you have no karma of your own, but the karma of each one is the karma of all.” And these words were sent by H.P.B. to the American Section and called by her words of wisdom, as they seem also to me to be, for they accord with law. They hurt the personality of the nineteenth century, but the personality is for a day, and soon it will be changed if Theosophists try to follow the law of charity as enforced by the inexorable law of karma. We should all constantly remember that if we believe in the Masters we should at least try to imitate them in the charity they show for our weakness and faults. In no other way can we hope to reach their high estate, for by beginning thus we set up a tendency which will one day perhaps bring us near to their development; by not beginning we put off the day forever.

William Brehon, F.T.S.
[pseudonym of William Quan Judge]

Path, February, 1896

Is Karma only Punishment?


THE following query has been received from H.M.H.: “In August PATH Hadji Erinn, in reply to the above question, stated that ‘those who have wealth, and the happy mother seeing all her children respected and virtuous, are favorites of Karma. I and others believe that these apparent favors are only punishment or obstacles, and others think that the terms punishment and reward should not be used.”

I cannot agree with this view, nor with the suggestion that punishment and reward should not be used as terms. It is easy to reduce every thing to a primordial basis when one may say that all is the absolute. But such is only the method of those who affirm and deny. They say there is no evil, there is no death; all is good, all is life. In this way we are reduced to absurdities, inasmuch as we then have no terms to designate very evident things and conditions. As well say there is no gold and no iron, because both are equally matter. While we continue to be human beings we must use terms that shall express our conscious perception of ideas and things.

It is therefore quite proper to say that an unhappy or miserably circumstanced person is undergoing punishment, and that the wealthy or happy person is having reward. Otherwise there is no sense in our doctrine.

The misunderstanding shown in the question is due to inaccurate thinking upon the subject of Karma. One branch of this law deals with the vicissitudes of life, with the differing states of men. One man has opportunity and happiness, another meets only the opposite. Why is this? It is because each state is the exact result bound to come from his having disturbed or preserved the harmony of nature. The person given wealth in this life is he who in the preceding incarnation suffered from its absence or had been deprived of it unjustly. What are we to call it but reward? If we say compensation, we express exactly the same idea. And we cannot get the world to adopt verbosity in speech so as to say, “All this is due to that man’s having preserved the cosmic harmony.”

The point really in the questioners mind is, in fact, quite different from the one expressed; he has mistaken one for the other; he is thinking of the fact so frequently obtruded before us that the man who has the opportunity of wealth or power oft misuses it and becomes selfish or tyrannous. But this does not alter the conclusion that he is having his reward. Karma will take care of him; and if he does not use the opportunity for the good of his fellows, or if he does evil to them, he will have punishment upon coming back again to earth. It is true enough, as Jesus said, that “it is difficult for the rich man to enter heaven,” but there are other possessions of the man besides wealth that constitute greater obstacles to development, and they are punishments and may coexist in the life of one man with the reward of wealth or the like. I mean the obstruction and hindrance found in stupidity, or natural baseness, or in physical sensual tendencies. These are more likely to keep him from progress and ultimate salvation than all the wealth or good luck that any one person ever enjoyed.

In such cases–and they are not a few–we see Karmic reward upon the outer material plane in the wealth and propitious arrangement of life, and on the inner character the punishment of being unable or unfit through many defects of mind or nature. This picture can be reversed with equal propriety. I doubt if the questioner has devoted his mind to analyzing the subject in this manner.

Every man, however, is endowed with conscience and the power to use his life, whatever its form or circumstance, in the proper way, so as to extract from it all the good for himself and his fellows that his limitations of character will permit. It is his duty so to do, and as he neglects or obeys, so will be his subsequent punishment or reward.

There may also be another sort of wealth than mere gold, another sort of power than position in politics or society. The powerful, wide, all-embracing, rapidly-acting brain stored with knowledge is a vast possession which one man may enjoy. He can use it properly or improperly. It may lead him to excesses, to vileness, to the very opposite of all that is good. It is his reward for a long past life of stupidity followed by others of noble deeds and thoughts. What will the questioner do with this? The possessor thus given a reward may misuse it so as to turn it, next time he is born, into a source of punishment. We are thus continually fitting our arrows to the bow, drawing them back hard to the ear, and shooting them forth from us. When we enter the field of earth-life again, they will surely strike us or our enemies of human shape or the circumstances which otherwise would hurt us. It is not the arrow or the bow that counts, but the motive and the thought with which the missile is shot.

[pseudonym of William Quan Judge]

Path, February, 1890

Is Poverty Bad Karma


THE question of what is good Karma and what bad has been usually considered by theosophists from a very worldly and selfish standpoint. The commercial element has entered into the calculation as to the result of merit and demerit. Eternal Justice, which is but another name for Karma, has been spoken of as awarding this or that state of life to the reincarnating ego solely as a mere balance of accounts in a ledger, with a payment in one case by way of reward and a judgment for debt in another by way of punishment.

It has been often thought that if a man be rich and well circumstanced it must follow that in his prior incarnation he was good although poor; and that if he now be in poverty the conclusion is that, when on earth before, his life was bad if rich. So it has come about that the sole test of good or bad Karma is one founded entirely upon his purse. But is poverty with all its miseries bad Karma? Does it follow, because a man is born in the lowest station in life, compelled always to live in the humblest way, often starving and hearing his wife and children cry out for food, that therefore he is suffering from bad Karma?

If we look at the question entirely from the plane of this one life, this personality, then of course what is disagreeable and painful in life may be said to be bad. But if we regard all conditions of life as experiences undergone by the ego for the purpose of development, then even poverty ceases to be “bad Karma.” Strength comes only through trial and exercise. In poverty are some of the greatest tests for endurance, the best means for developing the strength of character which alone leads to greatness. These egos, then, whom we perceive around us encased in bodies whose environment is so harsh that endurance is needed to sustain the struggle, are voluntarily, for all we know, going through that difficult school so as to acquire further deep experience and with it strength.

The old definition of what is good and what bad Karma is the best. That is: “Good Karma is that which is pleasing to Ishwara, and bad that which is displeasing to Ishwara.” There is here but very little room for dispute as to poverty or wealth; for the test and measure are not according to our present evanescent human tastes and desires, but are removed to the judgment of the immortal self–Ishwara. The self may not wish for the pleasures of wealth, but seeing the necessity for discipline decides to assume life among mortals in that low station where endurance, patience, and strength may be acquired by experience. There is no other way to implant in the character the lessons of life.

It may then be asked if all poverty and low condition are good Karma? This we can answer, under the rule laid down, in the negative. Some such lives, indeed many of them, are bad Karma, displeasing to the immortal self imprisoned in the body, because they are not by deliberate choice, but the result of causes blindly set in motion in previous lives, sure to result in planting within the person the seeds of wickedness that must later be uprooted with painful effort. Under this canon, then, we would say that the masses of poor people who are not bad in nature are enduring oftener than not good Karma, because it is in the line of experience Ishwara has chosen, and that only those poor people who are wicked can be said to be suffering bad Karma, because they are doing and making that which is displeasing to the immortal self within.

William Brehon, F.T.S.
[pseudonym of William Quan Judge]

Path, July, 1891



TO the Western mind the doctrines of Karma and Reincarnation contain difficulties which while they seem imaginary to the Eastern student are nevertheless for the Western man as real as any of the other numerous obstructions in the path of salvation. All difficulties are more or less imaginary, for the whole world and all its entanglements are said to be an illusion resulting from the notion of a separate I. But while we exist here in matter, and so long as there is a manifested universe, these illusions are real to that man who has not risen above them to the knowledge that they are but the masks behind which the reality is hidden.

For nearly twenty centuries the Western nations have been building up the notion of a separate I–of meum and tuum– and it is hard for them to accept any system which goes against those notions.

As they progress in what is called material civilization with all its dazzling allurements and aids to luxury, their delusion is further increased because they appraise the value of their doctrine by the results which seem to flow from it, until at last they push so far what they call the reign of law, that it becomes a reign of terror. All duty to their fellows is excluded from it in practice, although the beautiful doctrines of Jesus are preached to the people daily by preachers who are paid to preach but not to enforce, and who cannot insist upon the practice which should logically follow the theory because the consequences would be a loss of position and livelihood.

So when out of such a nation rises a mind that asks for help to find again the path that was lost, he is unconsciously much affected by the education not only of himself but also of his nation through all these centuries. He has inherited tendencies that are hard to be overcome. He battles with phantasms, real for him but mere dreams for the student who has been brought up under other influences.

When, therefore, he is told to rise above the body, to conquer it, to subdue his passions, his vanity, anger and ambition, he asks, “what if borne down by this environment, which I was involuntarily born into, I shall fail?” Then when told that he must fight or die in the struggle, he may reply that the doctrine of Karma is cold and cruel because it holds him responsible for the consequences which appear to be the result of that unsought environment. It then becomes with him a question whether to fight and die, or to swim on with the current careless as to its conclusion but happy if perhaps it shall carry him into smooth water whose shores are elysian.

Or perhaps he is a student of occultism whose ambition has been fired by the prospect of adeptship, of attaining powers over nature, or what not.

Beginning the struggle he presently finds himself beset with difficulties which, not long after, he is convinced are solely the result of his environment. In his heart he says that Karma has unkindly put him where he must constantly work for a living for himself and a family: or he has a life long partner whose attitude is such that he is sure were he away from her he could progress: until at last he calls upon heaven to interpose and change the surroundings so opposed to his perfecting himself.

This man has indeed erred worse than the first. He has wrongly supposed that his environment was a thing to be hated and spurned away. Without distinctly so saying to himself, he has nursed within the recesses of his being the idea that he like Buddha could in this one life triumph over all the implacable forces and powers that bar the way to Nirvana. We should remember that the Buddha does not come every day but is the efflorescence of ages, who when the time is ripe surely appears in one place and in one body, not to work for his own advancement but for the salvation of the world.

What then of environment and what of its power over us?

Is environment Karma or is it Reincarnation? The LAW is Karma, reincarnation is only an incident. It is one of the means which The Law uses to bring us at last to the true light. The wheel of rebirths is turned over and over again by us in obedience to this law, so that we may at last come to place our entire reliance upon Karma. Nor is our environment Karma itself, for Karma is the subtle power which works in that environment.

There is nothing but the SELF–using the word as Max Müller does to designate the Supreme Soul and its environment. The Aryans for the latter use the word Kosams or sheaths. So that there is only this Self and the various sheaths by which it is clothed, beginning with the most intangible and coming down to the body, while outside of that and common to all is what is commonly known as environment, whereas the word should be held to include all that is not The Self.

How unphilosophical therefore it is to quarrel with our surroundings, and to desire to escape them? We only escape one kind to immediately fall into another. And even did we come into the society of the wisest devotees we would still carry the environment of the Self in our own bodies, which will always be our enemy so long as we do not know what it is in all its smallest details. Coming down then to the particular person, it is plain that that part of the environment which consists in the circumstances of life and personal surroundings is only an incident, and that the real environment to be understood and cared about is that in which Karma itself inheres in us.

Thus we see that it is a mistake to say as we often hear it said–“If he only had a fair chance; if his surroundings were more favorable he would do better,” since he really could not be in any other circumstances at that time, for if he were it would not be he but some one else. It must be necessary for him to pass through those identical trials and disadvantages to perfect the Self; and it is only because we see but an infinitesimal part of the long series that any apparent confusion or difficulty arises. So our strife will be, not to escape from anything, but to realize that these Kosams, or sheaths, are an integral portion of ourselves, which we must fully understand before we can change the abhorred surroundings. This is done by acknowledging the unity of spirit, by knowing that everything, good and bad alike, is the Supreme. We then come into harmony with the Supreme Soul, with the whole universe, and no environment is detrimental.

The very first step is to rise from considering the mere outside delusive environment, knowing it to be the result of past lives, the fruition of Karma done, and say with Uddalaka in speaking to his son:

“All this Universe has the Deity for its life. That Deity is the Truth. He is the Universal soul. He Thou art, O Svetaketu!”*

[pseudonym of William Quan Judge]

Path, February, 1887

From other Theosophical Authors

Studies in the Secret Doctrine: The Law of Karma, by B.P. Wadia

Studies in Karma (57 article series)

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