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The Law Of Karma

"Karma" is a term in general use among the Hindus, and the Western
believers in Reincarnation, the meaning of which is susceptible of
various shades of definition and interpretation. It is most important to
all students of the subject of Reincarnation, for it is the companion
doctrine--the twin-truth--to the doctrine of Metempsychosis. Strictly
speaking, "Karma" is the Law of Cause and Effect as applied to the life
of the soul--the law whereby it reaps the results of its own sowing, or
suffers the reaction from its own action. To the majority of
Reincarnationists, however, it has a larger meaning, and is used in the
sense of the Law of Justice, or the Law of Reward and Punishment,
operating along the lines of personal experience, personal life, and
personal character.

Many authorities hold that the original idea of Karma was that of a
great natural law operating along exact lines, as do the laws of
mathematics and chemistry, bringing forth the exact effect from every
cause, and being, above all, questions of good or evil, reward or
punishment, morality or immorality, etc., and acting as a great natural
force above all such questions of human conduct. To those who still
adhere to this conception, Karma is like the Law of Gravitation, which
operates without regard to persons, morals or questions of good and
evil, just as does any other great natural law. In this view the only
"right" or "wrong" would be the effect of an action--that is, whether it
was conducive to one's welfare and that of the race, or the reverse. In
this view, if a child places its hand on a hot stove, the action is
"wrong," because it brings pain and unhappiness, although the act is
neither moral or immoral. And another action is "right" because it
brings happiness, well-being and satisfaction, present and future,
although the act was neither moral nor immoral. In this view there can
be neither reward nor punishment, in the common acceptation of the term,
although in another sense there is a reward for such "right" doing, and
a punishment for such "wrong" doing, as the child with the burnt hand
may testify to.

In this sense of the term, some of the older schools of Reincarnation
accepted Karma as determining the Re-Birth, along the lines of Desire
and Attraction, holding that the souls' character would attract it to
re-birth along the lines of its strongest desires, and in such
environment as would give it the greatest opportunity to work out those
desires into action, taking the pains and pleasures of experience
arising from such action, and thus moulding a new, or fuller character,
which would create new Karma, which would determine the future birth,
etc., and so on, and on. Those holding to this view believed that in
this way the soul would learn its lesson, with many a crack over the
knuckles, and with the pain of many an experience that would tend to
turn it into the road most conducive to spiritual happiness and
well-being; and lead it away from the road of material desires and
pleasures, because the repeated experiences had shown that no true
spiritual well-being was to be obtained therefrom. In other words, the
soul, in its spiritual childhood, was just like a little child in the
physical world, learning by experience that some things worked for its
"good" and others for "bad." This view naturally carried with it the
idea that true ethics would show that whatever tended toward the
advancement of the soul was "good," and whatever retarded its
advancement was "bad," in spite of any arbitrary standard of right or
wrong erected by man during the ages, and which standard has constantly
changed from time to time, is changing now, and always will change.

But the Hindu mind, especially, soon enlarged upon this original idea of
Karma, and the priests of India soon had the idea of Karma working as a
great rewarder of "good," and a great punisher of "evil." Corresponding
to the rewards and punishments in the future life, as taught by
Christian preachers, the Hindu priests held over the sinner the terrors
of Karma; and the rewards promised the good people from the same source
served to spur on the worshiper to actions in accordance with the ethics
of the particular church preaching the doctrine. It was taught that the
man's future state, in the next incarnation, and perhaps for many
others, depended upon his state of "goodness," in accordance with the
laws of the church and priestly teaching--surely as powerful an argument
and as terrifying a threat as the orthodox "bribe of heaven, and threat
of hell" of the Western world. The effect of this teaching is seen among
the masses of the but slightly educated Hindu classes of today, who are
very desirous of acquiring "merit" by performing some "good" deed, such
as bestowing alms upon the wandering religious mendicant; making
contributions to the temples, etc., as well as performing the acts of
ordinary good will toward men; and who are as equally anxious to avoid
acquiring "demerit" from the lack of proper observances, and the
performance of improper actions. While the general effect of this may be
in the direction of holding the ignorant masses in the ethical road most
conducive to the public weal, it also has a tendency to foster
credulity, superstition and imposition, just as do similar teachings in
any land, time, under the cover of any religion. There is a strong
family resemblance between these teachings among all the religions, and
there are many men who hold that this "crack of the theological whip" is
most necessary for the keeping of the masses of the people in the strait
road of morality, they being held incapable of the practice of "doing
good for good's sake, and avoiding evil because it is evil." We shall
not discuss this question--decide it for yourself.

One of the strongest applications of the above mentioned form of the
doctrine in India is the teaching that the caste of the man in his next
incarnation will be determined by his degree of "good conduct" in the
present life--and that his present caste has been determined by his
conduct in his previous lives. No one who has not studied the
importance of "caste" in India can begin to understand how powerful a
lever this teaching is upon the people of India. From the exalted
Brahman caste, the priestly caste--down to the Sudra caste of unskilled
laborers, or even still further down to the Pariahs or outcasts, the
caste lines are strongly marked; the higher caste person deeming it the
greatest disgrace to be touched by one of an inferior caste, or to eat
food prepared by a lower-caste person, and so on in every act of daily
life. The only comparison possible to the American mind is the attitude
of the old-time Southerner toward the lowest class of negroes, and even
in this case the prejudice does not extend so far as in the case of the
Hindus, for the Southerner will eat food cooked by a negro servant, and
will permit the latter to shave him, act as his valet, etc., something
at which the high-caste Hindu would be horrified on the part of one
below him in caste. This being understood, it is easy to see how careful
a high-caste Hindu would be to avoid performing actions which might rob
him of his caste in his next life, and how powerful an incentive it is
to a low-caste Hindu to strive for birth in a higher caste after many
incarnations. To people holding such a view, birth in a low caste is the
mark of crime and evil action performed in a previous life, and the
low-born is accordingly felt to be worthy of no respect. We understand,
from Hindu acquaintances, that this idea is gradually being dispelled in
India, and an era of common human brotherhood and common interest is
beginning to manifest itself.

In the Western world, the Reincarnationists, without doubt, have been
greatly affected by the prevailing orthodox Hindu conception of Karma,
rather than by the Grecian and general occult conception. Although there
are many who regard Karma as rather a moulder of character, and
consequently a prime factor in the re-birth, rather than as a dispenser
of rewards and punishments--still, there are many who, discarding the
orthodox Devil of their former faith, have found a worthy substitute
for him in their conception of Karma, and manifest the same terror and
fear of the new devil as of the old one--and his name may be summed up
as FEAR, in both cases.

Theosophists have discussed the matter of Karma very thoroughly, and
their leading authorities have written much about it, its various
interpretations showing in the shades of opinion among the writers.
Generally speaking, however, it may be said that they have bridged over
the chasm between the "natural law" idea and that of "the moral law,"
with its rewards and punishments, by an interpretation which places one
foot on each conception, holding that there is truth in each. Of course,
justice requires the reference of that student to the Theosophical
writings themselves, for a detailed understanding of their views, but we
feel that a brief summary of their general interpretation would be in
order at this place.

One of their leading authorities states that the Law of Karma is
automatic in action, and that there is no possible escape from it. He
likewise holds that Absolute Justice is manifested in its operations,
the idea of mercy or wrath being absent from it; and that, consequently,
every debt must be paid in full, to the last penny, and that there is no
vicarious atonement or exceptions made in answer to supplications to a
higher source. But he particularly states that this action of the law
must not be confused with ordinary reward and punishment for "good deed
or bad," but that the law acts just as does any other law of Nature,
just as if we put our hand in the fire we shall be burned as a natural
consequence, and not as a punishment. In his statement of this view he
says: "We hold that sorrow and suffering flow from sin just precisely in
that way, under the direct working of natural law. It may be said,
perhaps, that, obviously, the good man does not always reap his reward
of good results, nor does the wicked man always suffer. Not always
immediately; not always within our ken; but assuredly, eventually and
inexorably." The writer then goes on to define his conception of Good
and Evil. He says: "We shall see more clearly that this must be so if
we define exactly what we mean by good and evil. Our religious brothers
would tell us that that was good which was in accordance with God's
will, and that that was evil which was in opposition to it. The
scientific man would say that that was good which helped evolution, and
whatever hindered it was evil. Those two men are in reality saying
exactly the same thing; for God's will for man is evolution, and when
that is clearly realized all conflict between religion and science is at
once ended. Anything, therefore, which is against evolution of humanity
as a whole is against the Divine will. We see at once that when a man
struggles to gain anything for himself at the expense of others he is
distinctly doing evil, and it is evil because it is against the interest
of the whole. Therefore the only true gain is that which is a gain for
the race as a whole, and the man who gains something without cost or
wrong to anyone is raising the whole race somewhat in the process. He is
moving in the direction of evolution, while the other man is moving
against it."

The same writer then gives the list of the three kinds of Karma,
according to the Hindu teachings, namely: "1. There is the Samchita, or
'piled up' Karma--the whole mass that still remains behind the man not
yet worked out--the entire unpaid balance of the debit and credit
account; 2. There is the Prarabdha, or 'beginning' Karma--the amount
apportioned to the man at the commencement of each life--his destiny for
that life, as it were; 3. There is the Kriomana Karma, that which we are
now, by our actions in this present life, making for the future." He
further states: "That second type, the Prarabdha Karma, is the only
destiny which can be said to exist for man. That is what an astrologer
might foretell for us--that we have apportioned to us so much good or
evil fortune--so much the result of the good and evil actions of our
past lives which will react on us in this. But we should remember always
that this result of previous action can never compel us to action in
the present. It may put us under conditions in which it will be
difficult to avoid an act, but it can never compel us to commit it. The
man of ordinary development would probably yield to the circumstances
and commit the act; but he may assert his free will, rise superior to
the circumstances, and gain a victory and a step in evolution. So with a
good action, no man is forced into that either, but an opportunity is
given to him. If he takes it certain results will follow--not
necessarily a happy or a wealthy life next time, but certainly a life of
wider opportunity. That seems to be one of the things that are quite
certain--that the man who has done well in this life has always the
opportunity of doing still better in the next. This is nature's reward
for good work--the opportunity to do more work. Of course, wealth is a
great opportunity, so the reward often comes in that form, but the
essence of the reward is the opportunity and not the pleasure which may
be supposed to accompany the wealth." Another Theosophical writer says
further on the subject of Karma: "Just as all these phases 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 same writer sums up the idea of individual unhappiness in any life,
as follows: "(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 general idea of a number of writers on the subject of Karma is that
"as ye sow, so shall ye reap," brought down to a wonderful detail of
arrangement, and effect flowing from causes. This conception, carried to
its logical conclusion, would insist that every single bit of pain and
unhappiness in this life is the result of some bad deed done either in
the present life or in the past, and every bit of happiness, joy or
pleasure, the result of some good action performed either in the present
or past life. This conception of Karma affords us the most intricate,
complex and detailed idea of reward for good, and punishment for evil
(even when called "the operation of natural law") possible to the mind
of man. In its entirety, and carried to its last refinement of
interpretation and analysis, it has a tendency to bewilder and terrify,
for the chance of escape from its entangling machinery seems so slight.
But still, the same authorities inform us that every soul will surmount
these obstacles, and everyone will Attain--so there is no need to be
frightened, even if you accept the interpretation of doctrine in its

But there are some thinkers who carry this idea of retributive Karma to
such an extreme that they hold that every instance of physical pain,
disease, deformity, poverty, ill fortune, etc., that we see among
people, is the inevitable result of some moral wrong or crime committed
by that person in some past life, and that therefore every instance of
poverty, want or physical suffering is the just result of some moral
offense. Some of the extremists have gone so far as to hesitate at
relieving poverty, physical pain and suffering in others, lest by so
doing they might possibly be "interfering with Karma"--as if any great
Law could be "interfered with." While we, generally, have refrained from
insisting upon our personal preference of interpretation in this work,
we cannot refrain from so doing in this instance. We consider that such
an interpretation of the Law of Karma is forced and unnatural, and
results from the seeming natural tendency of the human mind to build up
devils for itself--and hells of one kind or another. Robbed of their
Devil, many people would attribute to their God certain devilish
qualities, in order that they may not be robbed of the satisfaction of
smugly thinking of the "just punishment" of others. And, if they have
also discarded the idea of a Personal God, their demand for a Devil
causes them to attribute certain devilish qualities to Natural Law. They
are bound to find their Devil somewhere--the primitive demand for the
Vengeful Spirit must manifest itself in one form or another.

These people confound the action of Cause and Effect on the Material and
Physical Plane, with Cause and Effect on the Spiritual Plane, whereas
all true occultists teach that the Cause operating on one plane
manifests effects upon the same plane. In this connection, we would call
your attention to the instance in the New Testament (John IX., 2), in
which Jesus was asked regarding the cause of the affliction of the man
who was BORN BLIND. "And his disciples asked him, saying, 'Master, who
did sin, this man, or his parents, that he was born blind?'" The
question being asked in order that Jesus might determine between the two
prevailing theories: (1) That the blindness was caused according to the
operation of the law of Moses, which held that the sins of the parents
were visited on the children unto the third and fourth generation; or
(2) that it was caused according to the Law of Karma, along the lines of
reincarnation, and because of some sin which the man had committed in
some past incarnation (for no other interpretation of the passage is
possible, and it shows the prevalence of the idea of Reincarnation among
the people of that time). But Jesus promptly brushed away these two
crude, primitive conceptions and interpretations, and in the light of
his superior spiritual knowledge answered: "Neither hath this man
sinned, nor his parents; but that the works of God should be manifest in
him," the explanation of the term "the works of God" being that Jesus
meant thereby the operation of the Laws of Nature imposed by
God--something above punishment for "sins," and which operated according
to invariable physical laws and which affected the just and the unjust
alike, just as do any natural laws. It is now known that many infants
are rendered blind by negligence of certain precautions at birth--this
may have been a case of that kind. We consider any attempt to attribute
physical infirmities to "sin" unconnected with the physical trouble to
be a reversion to primitive theological dogmas, and smacking strongly of
the "devil idea" of theology, of which we have spoken. And Poverty
results from economic conditions, and not as punishment for "Sin." Nor
is Wealth the reward of Virtue--far from it.

But before leaving this phase of the subject we would like to say that
many careful thinkers have been able to discern certain spiritual
benefits that have arisen from physical suffering, or poverty, and that
the sufferers often manifest a high degree of spiritual development and
growth, seemingly by reason of their pain. Not only this, but the divine
faculties of pity, help, and true sympathy, are brought out in others,
by reason thereof. We think that this view of the matter is far more
along the lines of true spirituality than that of want and disease as
"the punishment of sins committed in past lives." Even the human idea
of Justice revolts at this kind of "punishment," and, in fact, the
highest human justice and human law eliminates the idea of "punishment"
altogether, so far as reprisal or revenge is concerned, the penalty
being regarded merely as a deterrent of others, and a warning to the
criminal against further infractions of the law, and as a reformatory
agent--this at least is the theory of Human Law--no matter how
imperfectly it works out in practice--and we cannot think of Divine Law
being less just and equitable, less merciful and loving. The "eye for
eye, tooth for tooth" conception of human justice has been out-lived by
the race in its evolution.

After considering the above mentioned extreme ideas of "punishments,"
through the Law of Karma, we ask you to consider the following lines
written by a writer having great insight, and published in a leading
magazine several years ago. The idea of "The Kindergarten of God"
therein expressed, we think, is far nearer in accordance with the
highest Occult Teachings, than the other idea of "Divine Wrath" and
punishment for sin, along the lines of a misinterpretation of the Law of
Karma, worthy of the worshipers of some ancient Devil-God. Read this
little quotation carefully, and then determine which of the two views
seems to fit in better with your highest spiritual conceptions:

"A boy went to school. He was very little. All that he knew he had drawn
in with his mother's milk. His teacher (who was God) placed him in the
lowest class, and gave him these lessons to learn: Thou shalt not kill.
Thou shalt do no hurt to any living thing. Thou shalt not steal. So the
man did not kill; but he was cruel, and he stole. At the end of the day
(when his beard was gray--when the night was come), his teacher (who was
God) said: Thou hast learned not to kill. But the other lessons thou
hast not learned. Come back tomorrow.

"On the morrow he came back, a little boy. And his teacher (who was God)
put him in a class a little higher, and gave him these lessons to learn:
Thou shalt do no hurt to any living thing. Thou shalt not steal. Thou
shalt not cheat. So the man did no hurt to any living thing; but he
stole and he cheated. And at the end of the day (when his beard was
gray--when the night was come), his teacher (who was God) said: Thou
hast learned to be merciful. But the other lessons thou hast not
learned. Come back tomorrow.

"Again, on the morrow, he came back, a little boy. And his teacher (who
was God) put him in a class yet a little higher, and gave him these
lessons to learn: Thou shalt not steal. Thou shalt not cheat. Thou shalt
not covet. So the man did not steal; but he cheated, and he coveted. And
at the end of the day (when his beard was gray--when the night was
come), his teacher (who was God) said: Thou hast learned not to steal.
But the other lessons thou hast not learned. Come back, my child,

"This is what I have read in the faces of men and women, in the book of
the world, and in the scroll of the heavens, which is writ with
stars."--Berry Benson, in The Century Magazine, May, 1894.

But there is still another view of Karma held by some Western thinkers,
who received it from the Greek mystics and occultists, who in turn are
thought to have received it from ancient Egypt. These people hold that
the Law of Karma has naught to do with Man's theories of ethics, or
religious dogmas or creeds, but has as the basis of its operations only
Universal and Cosmic Principles of Action, applicable to the atom as
well as Man--to the beings above Man as well. And that these universal
principles of action have to do with the evolution of all things in
Nature, according to well established laws. And that the evolving soul
is continually striving to find the path along the lines of evolution,
being urged to by the unfolding spirit within it--and that that "path"
is always along the lines of least spiritual friction, and therefore
along the lines of the least ultimate spiritual pain. And that,
accordingly, Spiritual Pain is an indication to the evolving thing that
it is on the wrong path, and that it must find a better way
onward--which message it heeds by reason of the pain, and accordingly
seeks out for itself a better way, and one that will bring less
spiritual pain and greater ultimate spiritual satisfaction.

This teaching holds that all material things are a source of more or
less pain to the growing and evolving soul, which tends to urge it along
the line of the least spiritual resistence--the least spiritual
friction. It may be that the soul does not recognize the direction of
the urge, and insist in tasting this material pleasure (so-thought) and
then that--only to find that neither satisfy--that both are Dead Sea
Fruit--that both have the thorn attached to the flower--that all bring
pain, satiety and disgust--the consequence being that the tired and
wearied soul, when rested by the Lethal slumber, and then re-born has a
horror and distaste for the things which disgusted it in its previous
life, and is therefore urged toward opposite things. If the soul has not
been satiated--has not yet been pricked by the hidden thorn--it wishes
to go on further in the dream of material pleasure, and so it does,
until it learns its lesson. Finally, perceiving the folly and
worthlessness of materiality, it emerges from its cocoon and, spreading
out its newly found wings, takes its flight for higher planes of action
and being--and so on, and on, and on, forever.

Under this view people are not punished "for" their sins, but "by"
them--and "Sin" is seen to be merely a "mistake," not a crime. And Pain
arises not as a punishment for something done wrongly, but as a warning
sign of "hands off"; and consequently Pain is something by which we may
mount to higher things--to Something Better--and not a punishment. And
this idea holds, also, that on the physical plane physical law governs,
and physical effects follow physical causes; likewise on the mental
plane; likewise on the Spiritual Plane. And, therefore, it is absurd to
suppose that one suffers physical pain as a punishment for some moral
offense committed on another plane. On the contrary, however, this idea
holds that from the physical pain which was occasioned by the operation
of physical law alone one may develop higher spiritual states by reason
of a better understanding of the nature of pain in oneself and others.
And this idea refuses to recognize material pleasures or profits as a
reward for spiritual or moral actions.

On the whole this last mentioned conception of Karma refuses to use the
terms "reward and punishment," or even to entertain those ideas, but
instead sees in everything the working out of a great Cosmic Plan
whereby everything rises from lower to higher, and still higher. To it
Karma is but one phase of the great LAW operating in all planes and
forms of Life and the Universe. To it the idea that "THE UNIVERSE IS
GOVERNED BY LAW" is an axiom. And while to it ULTIMATE JUSTICE is also
axiomic, it sees not in the operation of penalties and reward--merits
and demerits--the proof of that Ultimate Justice; it looks for it and
finds it in the conception and realizing that ALL WORKS FOR GOOD--that
Everything is tending upward--that everything is justified and just,
because the END is ABSOLUTE GOOD, and that every tiny working of the
great cosmic machinery is turning in the right direction and to that
end. Consequently, each of us is just where he should be at the present
time--and our condition is exactly the very best to bring us to that
Divine Consummation and End. And to such thinkers, indeed, there is no
Devil but Fear and Unfaith, and all other devils are illusions, whether
they be called Beelzebub, Mortal-Mind, or Karma, if they produce Fear
and Unfaith in the All-Good. And such thinkers feel that the way to live
according to the Higher Light, and without fear of a Malevolent Karma,
is to feel one's relationship with the Universal Good, and then to "Live
One Day at a time--Doing the Best you Know How--and Be Kind"--knowing
that in the All-Good you live and move and have your being, and that
outside of that All-Good you cannot stray, for there is no
outside--knowing that THAT which brought you Here will be with you
There--that Death is but a phase of Life--and above all that THERE IS
NOTHING TO BE AFRAID OF--and that ALL IS WELL with God; with the
Universe; and with YOU!

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