The Lessons of Karma
The Path, February, 1888
“There’s a divinity that shapes our ends,
Rough-hew them how we will.”
The idea most usually attached to the word Karma is, a power, inherent in the nature of things,—by the action of which good deeds are rewarded with happiness, while evil deeds bring suffering and pain. According to this view, Karma becomes a sort of moral police, continually adjusting and correcting the errors and extravagances of the human race, and vigilantly providing that none shall trespass on the domain of another.
Karma has been described as an application of the Law of Action and Re-action to the mental forces, and its spirit has been summed up in the words: “Whatsoever a man soweth, the same shall he also reap.” And all this is undoubtedly true; and these ideas, when displacing the belief that occurrences are merely accidental and fortuitous, are of the highest importance; but though true in itself, this idea falls far short of the whole truth; for when examined scientifically it is found to be aimless; the continual action of this compensatory law, its perpetual adjusting and correcting, is mere temporising, it goes nowhither. It is nothing more than the endless swingings to-and-fro of an isolated pendulum. The pendulum is merely mechanical, and, when detached is unnatural; for all nature has a purpose, and moves ever onward. Nature is organic; much more so is super-nature.
If the limited view of Karma be compared to a pendulum, its true action might be represented by a tree;1 and its rewards and punishments may be compared to leaves, produced in spring only to fall in autumn and again produced the next spring, only again to fall. But the tree is better than it was a year ago; the pendulum merely does its work to undo it again; but not so the tree. It has added something to itself by every effort, it has assimilated to itself an enlarged territory won from the inorganic world.
The force within and behind the tree works forward, and for definite ends, and this fact makes the tree a fitting emblem of the law of Karma.
Observation of life teaches us that beyond the mere rewarding, or compensatory action of pain and pleasure, they have another use; this deeper use is for discipline—development. In the light of subsequent insight, events which at the time seemed quite insignificant and objectless appear in their true light as teachers, and the lesson which they have taught—and for which and no other the learner was ripe, becomes evident.
By what appears at the time mere chance, one may meet a certain person, or group of people; conversation on various subjects may take place; various views may be expressed, various feelings manifested; the necessary nourishment which the learner’s growth demands may be received quite unnoticed; and years after, a sudden necessity or circumstance may reveal the purpose of that meeting, and may turn a beam of light on the grain of gold unconsciously received. This is true of all events, but chiefly of persons, the greatest of events.
Persons are the great teachers, the greatest revealers in the lesson of life; we may learn through another what our single sight might never have perceived.
Amongst the lessons to be learned from persons, perhaps the most important are those to be drawn from Sex.
Nature has grouped all human beings into two great classes,—sexes; each being complementary to the other, and this being true especially on the mental plane. Every peculiarity of each sex, each feature which differentiates it most notably from the other, is a further perfection of this complementary character, an additional attraction to bind the two sexes together in mutual harmony.
And when the highest perfection of this mutual harmony is attained, in complete good understanding and perfect sympathy, what lesson is learned?
The more perfect the sympathy—in its best sense, of sharing another’s life, and penetrating it with filaments of love,—the more clearly this truth is apprehended:—that, far deeper than any difference between the sexes, lies a radical unity and identity; though masquerading under very different appearances, the soul of man and the soul of woman are the same, the same in the laws which govern their life, in their nature, and in their divinity.
It would seem that Life, the great teacher, having brought the evolving souls to vivid individual consciousness, and despairing of ever teaching them sympathy, of ever illumining for them the inner spiritual nature of each other and revealing to them their identity, had organised this charade of the sexes, had invented these masks of man and woman, male and female.
Besides this perception of identity, there is another lesson taught, another object subserved, by the complementary nature of the sexes. A poor cramped egotist enters the arena of life; all things seem to look bitterly upon him; a cloak of perpetual misery seems thrown over him; he seems tied and bound with iron bonds, so that in the presence of others he can never even be himself; he feels frost-bitten and crushed, and he knows that if by some miracle he could drink a deep draught of elixir and burst his bonds, he could at last walk upright—a man among men.
He is an egotist, an unfortunate, not sufficiently developed to learn the grand lesson of sympathy, and this through no taint of evil, but because the stream of life is half congealed within him, awaiting some miracle, some angel to stir the waters into life. By and by the miracle happens; the great teacher brings him face to face with another soul, qualified in all things to supplement his deficiencies. At once he feels an infusion of supernal power. In the presence of this elect one, he feels thrilled with warm waves of celestial vigour; a part of the infinite promise of life is realised, one of the prophecies of spirit is fulfilled in joy. At last the poor egotist can burst his bonds; he tastes the divine sweetness of sympathy with another soul; he learns that threads of gold bind soul to soul, that soul traverses soul with ethereal arteries conveying to each the life of the other in addition to its own. And he learns also one sublime lesson—the divinity of renunciation. Through giving he receives; through self-sacrifice he inherits his kingdom.
And the lesson by no means ends here, in sympathy with a single soul,—great and notable benefit though that be. Gaining such large good from one, he learns to credit others with the same excellence; his faith extends in an ever widening circle, till at last he embraces all humanity in holy bonds of love.
If harmony teaches great lessons, great also are the lessons to be learned from discord.
All strife produces pain; as great pain to the oppressor as to the oppressed,—perhaps greater. Seek to tyrannize over another, and not only does that other rise against you, but within you rises a truer self, and takes the part of the oppressed. My every tyranny against my brother is at once punished by this truer self, with a corresponding weight of fear.
At last I learn the lesson, that one cannot be harmed without the harm reacting on the other, on all; that the well-being of one is inseparable from the well-being of all. I throw down my arms, and make amends by generous dealing. At once my brother’s attitude changes, from enemy he becomes friend. He has been waiting for this opportunity to acknowledge me as brother; and once again the great teacher teaches the lesson of sympathy. Henceforth my brother’s life is a part of my life, and the power we command belongs to both.
And thus the most ordinary events, and even our own errors, are turned to benefits. A firm hand, a power that sits above us, and whose secret we cannot command, guides our evil to wider good, and turns our erring energies into right channels.
Every event in life teaches its lesson, consciously or unconsciously, to us. If we are dull learners it may have to be repeated twice or many times; if we aid the teaching by ready perception, it may be taught but once, and then we can pass on to grander problems and higher themes.
Since every event thus bears for us a secret and spiritual value, and we cannot guess beforehand the nature of that value, is it not futile in us officiously to take on ourselves the direction of the lessons, with a grand assumption of omniscience; saying “To such a life I shall devote myself; such and such things shall I perform; and from such and such I shall abstain”; like an unskilled pilot without chart or compass, steering in the dark to an unknown land.
Were it not better to drop this pretense of wisdom which we cannot make good; boldly to face events as they meet us, and with good courage and resolution to dare and endure all things, so only that the golden lesson hidden in the events be not lost?
It has been hinted that those who seek wisdom should abandon all their present occupations and live the life of a desert ascetic; and some have even thought to draw down on themselves the gifts of divinity by a mere mechanical walking away from their duties; but not thus is life’s secret to be surprised, by turning the back on our appointed duties, and more important still on the lessons they contain for us.
The books on wisdom are written in cypher; the true ascetic is he who, without abandoning his duties, renounces all selfish aims, and leaving behind his animal nature, takes refuge in the secret place of his soul.
Much more than this is allegorical, concealing a spiritual nature within it; perhaps, amongst others, the saying that earth’s greatest sages dwell on her loftiest mountains is an allegorical picture of the truth that the divinest souls are those who have raised themselves furthest from earthly things to the peaks of purity, forever embosomed in the serene azure of spirit; for all things in the physical world have thus their inner vital meanings; though doubtless, were we to search earth’s loftiest summits we would come face to face with the stately forms of holy sages, for as the spiritual fact is complete so also must the earthly picture of it be complete.
Life, the great Teacher, has thus designed his lessons. For those whose sight is gross, the teaching is framed in physical pictures, in faces, in trees, in mountains, and in the broad bosom of earth; but those whose sight is finer perceive within each of these a deeper and truer fact, for which alone these have their being.
These externals, forests and hills, the restless ocean, the everlasting stars, are ever eloquent sermons hymning the divinity of spirit. The life of the world says, with the Erd-Geist in Faust—
“Thus at the roaring Loom of Time I ply,
And weave for God the garment thou see’st him by.”
The great teacher brings to us person after person, event after event; from each, as we are able, we learn its lesson; from each, as we are able, we wrest its secret, a value unknown and inscrutable until we are face to face with it.
Though at first the lesson may be bitter and unwelcome, we learn at last that what seemed bitter was in reality most sweet, and that what seemed hurtful was pregnant with healing; in our highest moods we are one with the teacher and perceive his ends; in our moments of deepest insight, we perceive that the teacher is our true self; and though we may writhe under subsequent sharp lessons, we are willing to endure; certain that the suffering is for our ultimate benefit.
These considerations teach no indolent and idle acquiescence in the tide of events; our duty and advantage is to throw ourselves on the side of the teacher and to check all perverse tendencies which else would thwart and neutralise the lesson. Let those who esteem this an easy task, try it concientiously for a single day.
Since all events and persons have thus an interior and unapparent value, since all are intimately related to our development and lasting good, we infer that this truth holds for others also; and we are thus able to perceive dimly the mighty power and beneficent directing energy which lies behind life, turning the good and evil of each to the welfare of all. Let us therefore cast ourselves on Truth and work out our divine destiny without fear; this is the truest good for ourselves, and as surely is it the truest good for all others.
By working out our own divine destiny we gain the power of well doing, for he alone who has access to the heart of good can do good to his neighbor. Such laws as these teach us a noble carelessness of petty ends and events, and forbid forever all sordid taking thought for the morrow.
Perceiving the swing of these grand laws, we can boldly take in hand the game of life, with a heart for every fate. And so we find the first and last word of Karma to be discipline—development. But discipline to what end? Is it for the great prizes of earthly life? to glorify our three score years and ten?
Far otherwise is the tendency of these mighty laws; they lead not to wealth so often as to poverty, not to praise and fame so often as to contempt and obloquy, not so often to the throne as to the scaffold.
And thus,—unless we are bemocked by a lifelong illusion, unless we are the fools of a never-ending nightmare,—we have, in the sweep and tendency of these majestic laws, an intimation of our higher destiny and a sure certificate of our immortal good.
“Then first shalt thou know,
That in the wild turmoil,
Horsed on the Proteus,
Thou ridest to power,
And to endurance,”
1. The symbol of the Tree is an ancient Aryan one. They said the Tree grew head downward, its roots above.—[ED. (W.Q. Judge)]