Detail from 'candlestick oppositorum'
Susana Maxelon (private collection)
Part 1 In the Beginning
Part 2 The Law Itself
Part 3 Humanity as a Whole
Part 4 Man - as an Individual
Part 5 Reincarnation
Part 6 The Aspirant
Part 7 Epilogue
We start this section with a splendid description of Karma and how it works.
Karma thus, is simply action, a concatenation of causes and effects. That which adjusts each effect to its direct cause; that which guides invisibly and as unerringly these effects to choose, as the field of their operation, the right person in the right place, is what we call Karmic Law.... in the active laws of Karma - absolute Equity - based on the Universal Harmony, there is neither foresight nor desire; and because again, it is our own actions, thoughts, and deeds which guide that law, instead of being guided by it.
It is not the impersonal law of Karma which creates causes, it is the actions of living things and in particular the actions of responsible man who creates them. Karma is the adjuster of effects.
It is not the absolute that creates Karma, but the finite and sentient being evoluted out of it, or the visible projection of a finite portion of this absolute. In other words, it is man, or matter in its highest state of perfection on earth - matter plus Brahm or the absolute. [C.W.IV, 194]
There was also a universal belief from early times in rulers, gods, of the four cardinal points, or the corresponding cosmical forces, of space (with respect to our earth). They had various names among which were Rector and Maharaja.
It is not the "Rector" or "Maharaja" who punishes or rewards, with or without "God's" permission or order, but man himself - his deeds or Karma, attracting individually and collectively (as in the case of whole nations sometimes) every kind of evil and calamity. We produce CAUSES, and then awaken the corresponding powers in the sidereal world; which powers are magnetically and irresistibly attracted to - and react upon - those who produced those causes; whether such persons are practically the evil-doers, or simply thinkers who brood mischief. [S.D.I, 124]
In the Christian scriptures (Corinthians vi,7) it says, "Be not deceived; God is not mocked; for whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap". Karma puts it thus:
We firmly believe, in the actuality, and the philosophical necessity of "Karma", i.e., in that law of unavoidable retribution, the not-to-be diverted effect of every cause produced by us, reward as punishment in strict conformity with our actions;... [C.W.IV, 499]
In a number of places H.P.B. points out false teaching in other religions, particularly in Christianity where, in spite of the above quotation from Corinthians, its doctrines teach the forgiveness of sins whereby a man feels himself relieved of his responsibility for the consequences of his acts.
Instead of bettering morality Christianity but adds to the natural human vices, owing to the doctrine of atonement and salvation by prayer, instead of that of self-reliance and Karma. [C.W.V, 123]
It is generally appreciated that the law of Karma has a series of aspects. For example, it maintains the equilibrium and harmony of the operations of Nature. This is generally accepted as the law of cause and effect. Under that aspect of the law things are as they are as a result of their antecedents (what went before). On the other hand H.P.B. has on occasions pointed out that there is a moral aspect to this law under which motive is as important as an act itself in terms of its effects. In the following quotation a distinction is made between the law of Karma as a moral law and that of the law of cause and effect:
It is generally supposed that animals are not under the operation of the law of Karma as applied to human beings....
The error often committed is to mistake the general law of cause and effect for the law of merit and demerit....
The law of Karma is a moral law, and where no moral responsibility exists, there can be no application of the law of karma; but the law of cause and effect applies to all departments of nature. [C.W.VI, 236]
We are seeing that Universal Law underlies all the activities of Cosmos. Nevertheless, however it is regarded, the law of Karma is an integral part of that universal process with its endless cycles, including those of birth and death.
For the latter [Karma] is the very corner-stone of Esoteric philosophy ... it is the grand and one pillar on which hangs the whole philosophy of rebirths, and once the latter is denied, the whole doctrine of karma falls into meaningless verbiage. [C.W.VII, 177]
That is followed by:
The law of retribution as Karma, awaits man at the threshold of his new incarnation. [C.W.VII, 180]
Our responsibility for creating our Karma is constantly reiterated:
[Theosophists] preach against every dogmatic and infallible religion and recognize no other deity, which dispenses suffering and recompense, than Karma, an arbiter created by their own actions. [C.W.VIII, 80]
The following quotation could imply that Karma fixes a man's life span by allotting the amount of energy he can expend during that life:
The amount of Kinetic energy to be expended during life by one particular set of physiological cells is allotted by Karma - another aspect of the Universal Principle ...
[C.W.IX, 76 fn]
H.P.B. tells us in many places that it is possible for unworthy people to obtain the secrets of Nature and to use this knowledge selfishly. She regards this as black magic.
And, although it is the intention that decides primarily whether white or black magic is exercised, yet the results even of involuntary, unconscious sorcery cannot fail to be productive of bad Karma. Enough has been said to show that sorcery is any kind of evil influence exercised upon other persons, who suffer, or make other persons suffer, in consequence. Karma is a heavy stone splashed in the quiet waters of Life; and it must produce ever widening circles of ripples, carried wider and wider, almost ad infinitum. Such causes produced have to call forth effects, and these are evidenced in the just laws of Retribution. [C.W.IX, 259]
Karma is ever working, even in the periods between personal lives. The characteristic effect of deeds, thoughts, etc., are transmitted to the next personality via Elementals (or Life Atoms) .
KARMA, TANHA and SKANDHAS, are the almighty trinity in one, and the cause of our re-birth.... it is its KARMA that guides the idiosyncracies and prominent moral traits of the old "personality" that was (and that the EGO knew not how to control), to reappear in the new man that will be. These traits and passions pursue and fasten on the yet plastic third and fourth priniples of the child, and - unless the EGO struggles and conquers - they will develop with tenfold intensity and lead the adult man to his destruction. For it is they who are the tools and weapons of the Karmic law of retribution.
The importance of motive for our actions is repeatedly stressed:
... in ordinary human law, an assault is more severely punished than the thought or intention, i.e., the threat, whereas Karmically it is the contrary. [C.W.X, 399]
Nothing in the manifest Universe lasts for ever and this applies to circumstances in life and to the after-death states of being, as well as to all existent things.
Here we positively refuse to accept the cruel and unphilosophical belief in eternal reward or eternal punishment.
Concerning the operation of Karma, whilst this is ultimately in the realms of mystery, there is the following:
Neither Atma nor Buddhi are ever reached by Karma, because the former is the highest aspect of Karma, its working agent of ITSELF in one aspect, and the other is unconscious on this plane. [Key, 135]
In the extracts we have made so far there is a considerable amount of reiteration of content but each extract adds a little more colour to our forming ideas.
...Our philosophy has a doctrine of punishment as stern as that of the most rigid Calvinist, only far more philosophical and consistent with absolute justice. No deed, not even a sinful thought, will go unpunished; the latter more severely even than the former, as a thought is far more potential in creating evil results than even a deed. We believe in the unerring law of Retribution, called KARMA, which asserts itself in a natural concatenation of causes and their unavoidable results. [Key, 140]
The operations of the Cosmos (on whatever scale we conceive it) constitute a process, and this process is orderly.
What we believe in is strict and impartial justice. Our idea of the unknown Universal Deity, represented by Karma, is that it is a Power which cannot fail, and can therefore, have neither wrath nor mercy, only absolute Equity, which leaves every cause, great or small, to work out its inevitable effects. [Key, 199]
The following extracts are a selection only from a whole section in The Key to Theosophy on "What is Karma?" Readers are referred to the original; it is particularly rich in application to the human situation.
ENQ. But what is Karma?
In answer we have one of the most comprehensive descriptions of the Law:
THEO. 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....
ENQ. Then it is the "Absolute", the Unknowable again, and is not of much value as an explanation of the problems of life?
THEO. 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". [Key, 201]
THEO. ... 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.
ENQ. But, surely, all these evils which seem to fall upon the masses somewhat indiscriminately are not actual merited and INDIVIDUAL Karma?
THEO. 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 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.
ENQ. Do I, then, understand that the law of Karma is not necessarily an individual law?
THEO. 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.
ENQ. And are there no means by which the distributive or national Karma might be concentrated or collected, so to speak, and brought to its natural and legitimate fulfilment without all this protracted suffering?
THEO. 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.
THEO. 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 "Disharmony", 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. [Key, 206-7]
H.P.B. quotes a number of other people's writings on Karma, one of which discusses the views of religion vis-à-vis the provisions of the Law as given in Esotericism. She selects some verses from Edwin Arnold's The Light of Asia (pp 140-143).
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, tomorrow 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.
[Quoted, Key 214-5]
One of the prime tenets of the Ancient Wisdom is Unity. Unity is used in the special sense of the Universe, as all existence, being one thing, not a collection of things put together. The implications of this statement are not immediately obvious and some of them may be very hard to accept. They are rendered more comprehensible by a conception of the "one thing" as the very essence of everything. The idea is closely related to that of the "one life" which is manifest in the multitudes of "lives" which comprise the Cosmos. "Everything is a life or an aggregate of lives". In terms of this "essence" man and Nature are one. By the Law what affects one will affect the other. Hence the vital importance of ecology, man's responsibility for his environment. This idea expands not only to environment but to the circumstances of our lives and even our climate. Man cannot escape the consequences, the effects, of his acts.
After a dissertation on the influence of the sun, the moon and the planets, on the periodicity of our system, in the text referred to as the behaviour of Nature, there is an explanatory passage concerning the metaphysical numbers involved, which refer to the sevenfold nature of the cosmic plan. It also refers to the astronomical spheres of our system as follows:
The spheres of action of the combined Forces of Evolution and Karma are (1) the super-spiritual or noumenal; (2) the Spiritual; (3) the Psychic; (4) the Astro-ethereal; (5) the Sub-astral; (6) the Vital; and (7) the purely physical spheres. [S.D.II, 621fn]
The 'spheres' here refer to the cosmic planes with their reflection into the principles of man (click for Diagram). Sometimes H.P.B. applies the general laws of Karma to very specific cases; for example, the following extracts tell about Karma and abortion, and as it relates to plants. There is an interesting passage reminding us that Karma applies in the Kingdoms of Nature as follows:
... I must all the more remind you that there may well be other spiritual laws, operating on plants and animals as well as on mankind ...
We call them Karmic laws ...[Key, 46]
It is interesting to note here that the Dhyan-Chohans, in other places referred to as Planetary Spirits of post-human levels of evolutionary development, control the Elementals who are their direct agents in the processes of the plant kingdom.
And here is the explanation of the curious fact ... that each plant has its Karma and that its growth is the result of Karma. This Karma proceeds from the lower Dhyan-Chohans who trace out and plan the growth of the tree.
The crime [of abortion] lies precisely in the willful and sinful destruction of life, and interference with the operations of nature, hence - with KARMA - that of the mother and the would-be future human being. [C.W.V, 107]
It has sometimes been said that there will always be the 'poor' and that there simply is not enough of food and other natural resources to supply the ever-increasing populations of the earth. Hear what H.P.B. says:
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 readjust the balance of power, and save the people from a moral engulfment 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....
We describe Karma as that Law of readjustment 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. [Key, 205-6]
Questions are often asked as to why "God" allows the devastating catastrophes of Nature, e.g, hurricanes, erupting volcanoes, floods, etc., with their attendant loss of life, subsequent famines, disease and so on. A rather surprising answer is given:
... the laws that govern our "Occult World"... do seem very often unjust, even at times cruel. But this is due to the fact that they were never meant either for the immediate redress of wrongs, or the direct help of those who offer at random their allegiance to legislators. Still, the seemingly real, the evanescent and quick passing evils they bring about are necessary to the growth, progress and final establishment of your small Th. Society as those cataclysms in nature, which often decimate whole populations, are necessary to mankind. An earthquake may, for all the world knows, be a bliss and a tidal wave prove salvation to the many at the expense of the few.
[MLC 134, 440]
1. I.U. ISIS UNVEILED, Vols I and II, all editions same pagination. H. P. Blavatsky.
2. S.D. THE SECRET DOCTRINE, Vols I, II and III, Original Edition and C.W. series [Vol III is 1897 ed. or in C.W.XII] H. P. Blavatsky.
3. C.W. THE COLLECTED WRITINGS OF H.P. BLAVATSKY, 14 Vols, edited by Boris de Zirkoff
4. Key THE KEY TO THEOSOPHY, Original Edition. H. P. Blavatsky.
5. MLC THE MAHATMA LETTERS TO A.P. SINNETT, Chronological Edition
[Same content but different pagination in 2nd and 3rd Editions]
First published 2001 by The Theosophical Publishing House, London. Theosophical Society in England, Bookshop link
Available from: The Theosophical Society in England, 50 Gloucester Place, London W1U 8EA
Theosophical Society in England, Bookshop link