Is Heredity a Puzzle?
The Path, November, 1888
A well known writer in Harpers Magazine said lately “Heredity is a Puzzle.” He then proceeded, “The race is linked together in a curious tangle, so that it is almost impossible to fix the responsibility. . . . We try to study this problem in our asylums and prisons, and we get a great many interesting facts, but they are too conflicting to guide legislation. The difficulty is to relieve a person of responsibility for the sins of his ancestors, without relieving him of responsibility for his own sins.”
This is the general view. Heredity is a puzzle, and will always remain one so long as the laws of Karma and Reincarnation are not admitted and taken into account in all these investigations. Nearly all of these writers admit—excepting those who say they do not know—the theological view that each human being is a new creation, a new soul projected into life on this earth.
This is quite logical, inasmuch as they assert that we are only mortal and are not spirits. The religious investigators admit we are spirits, but go no further, except to assume the same special creation. Hence, when they come to the question of “Heredity,” it is a very serious matter. It becomes a puzzle, especially to those who investigate heredity and who are trying to decide on whom responsibility ought to rest, while they know nothing of Karma or Reincarnation. And it is hinted at that there is necessity for legislation on the subject. That is to say, if we have a case of a murderer to consider, and we find that he has come of a race or family of murderers, the result of which is to make him a being who cannot prevent himself from committing murder, we have to conclude that, if this is due to “heredity,” he cannot in any sane sense be responsible. Take the case of the tribes, or family, or sect of Thugs in India, whose aim in life was to put people out of the world. Their children would of necessity inherit this tendency. It is something like a cat and a bird. It is the nature of the cat to eat the bird, and you cannot blame it. Thus we should be driven to pass a law making an exception in the case of such unfortunate persons. Then we should be met by the possibility of false testimony being adduced upon the trial of the criminal, going to show that he came under the law. This possibility is so great that it is not likely such a law will ever be passed. So that, even if the legal and scientific world were able to come to any conclusion establishing the great force of heredity, it would be barren of results unless the truth of Karma and Reincarnation were admitted. For in the absence of these, no law, and hence no remedy for the supposed injustice to be done to irresponsible criminals, could be applied. I am stating, not what I think ought to be done, but what will be the inevitable end of investigation into heredity without the aid of the other two great laws.
If these two doctrines should be accepted by the supposed legislators, it would follow that no such law as I have adverted to would ever be put on the books; for the reason that, once Karma and Reincarnation are admitted, the responsibility of each individual is made greater than before. Not only is he responsible even under his hereditary tendency, but in a wider sense he is also responsible for the great injury he does the State through the future effect of his life—that effect acting on those who are born as his descendants. There is no very great puzzle in “Heredity” as a law, from the standpoint of Karma and Reincarnation, although of course the details of the working of it will be complicated and numerous.
I know that some theosophists have declared that it puzzles them, but that is because it is a new idea, very different from those instilled into us during our education as youths and our association with our fellows as adults.
None of the observed and admitted facts in respect to heredity should be ignored, nor need they be left out of sight by a Theosophist. We are bound to admit that leanings and peculiarities are transmitted from father to son, and to all along down the line of descent. In one case we may find a mental trait, in another a physical peculiarity; and in a great-grandson we shall see often the bodily habits of his remote ancestor reproduced.
The question is then asked, “How am I to be held responsible for such strange inclinations when I never knew this man from whom I inherit them?” As theories go at this day, it would be impossible to answer this question. For if I have come from the bosom of God as a new soul; or if what is called soul or intelligence is the product of this body I inhabit and which I had no hand in producing; or if I have come from far distant spheres unconnected with this earth, to take up this body with whose generation I was not concerned; it would be the grossest injustice for me to be held responsible for what it may do. It seems to me that from the premises laid down there can be no escape from this conclusion, and unless our sociologists and political economists and legislators admit the doctrines of Karma and Reincarnation, they will have to pass laws to which I have referred. We shall then have a code which may be called, “Of limitations of responsibility of criminals in cases of murder and other crimes.”
But the whole difficulty arises from the inherited transmitted habit in the Western mind of looking at effects and mistaking them for causes, and of considering the instruments or means, through and by means of which laws of nature work, as causes. Heredity has been looked at, or is beginning to be, as the cause of crime and of virtue. It is not a cause, but only the means or instrument for the production of the effect, the cause being hidden deeper. It seems just as erroneous to call heredity a cause of either good or bad acts as it is to call the merely mortal brain or body the cause of mind or soul.
Ages ago the Hindu sages admitted that the body did not produce the mind, but that there was what they called “the mind of the mind,” or, as we might put it, “the intelligence operating above and behind the mere brain matter.” And they enforced their argument by numerous illustrations; as, for instance, that the eye could not see even when in itself a perfect instrument, unless the mind behind it was acting. We can easily prove this from cases of sleep walkers. They walk with their eyes wide open, so that the retina must, as usual, receive the impinging images, yet although you stand before their eyes they do not see you. It is because the intelligence is disjoined from the otherwise perfect optical instrument. Hence we admit that the body is not the cause of mind; the eyes are not the cause of sight; but that the body and the eye are instruments by means of which the cause operates.
Karma and Reincarnation include the premise that the man is a spiritual entity who is using the body for some purpose.
From remote times the sages state that he (this spiritual being) is using the body which he has acquired by Karma. Hence the responsibility cannot be placed upon the body, nor primarily upon those who brought forth the body, but upon the man himself. This works perfect justice, for, while the man in any one body is suffering his just deserts, the other men (or souls) who produced such bodies are also compelled to make compensation in other bodies.
As the compensation is not made at any human and imperfect tribunal, but to nature itself, which includes every part of it, it consists in the restoration of the harmony or equilibrium which has been disturbed.
The necessity for recognizing the law from the standpoint of ethics arises from the fact that, until we are aware that such is the law, we will never begin to perform such acts and think such thoughts as will tend to bring about the required alterations in the astral light needed to start a new order of thoughts and influences. These new influences will not, of course, come to have full effect and sway on those who initiate them, but will operate on their descendants, and will also prepare a new future age in which those very persons who set up the new current shall participate. Hence it is not in any sense a barren, unrewarded thing, for we ourselves come back again in some other age to reap the fruit of the seed we had sown. The impulse must be set up, and we must be willing to wait for the result. The potters wheel continues to revolve when the potter has withdrawn his foot, and so the present revolving wheel will turn for a while until the impulse is spent.