by Archibald Keightley (1859-1930)
THERE is nothing more common to those who know anything about Theosophy than to be asked: — What is Karma ? Karma is a Sanskrit word which has to be used by those who discuss the idea it conveys, simply because there is no English word to correspond to it. That is very easy to answer. Then comes the question: — What is the idea which it conveys ? Than this there is nothing more difficult to answer, and the reason why this is the case is not far to seek. Let it once be granted that the constitution of man is complex and complicated, and that the soul has existed for ages that seem like an eternity, and existed, moreover, in a garb of flesh which has been changed thousands of times in the course of those ages. Let this be granted, and, in addition, that no action is without its effect in the physical, moral, and spiritual worlds, then, it will be seen, that the answer to the question: “What is Karma”, is very difficult, if not well-nigh impossible. Still, some endeavour may be made to give a general idea, though the details of any individual case can hardly be calculated.
Granting the principle of reincarnation, Karma is the working of the great law which governs those incarnations; but, taken in its wider sense, Karma may be defined as a manifestation of the One, Universal, Divine Principle in the phenomenal world. Thus, it may be further defined as “the great law of Harmony” which governs the Universe.
But it may be replied that Harmony is not the great law of Nature, but, on the contrary, lack of harmony and discord. And what proof is there that Harmony is the law ?
When such proof is required, the answer is at once made: — Too short a view of life and the universe has been taken. The man who denies the existence of harmony in the universe has transgressed the law and is experiencing the punishment. He does this unconsciously to himself, because the law of harmony forms an unconscious impulse to its readjustment when it has been broken. No better illustration can be given than in the definition of a fugue, which is: — ” A musical composition in contrapuntal style, in which a subject is proposed by one part, and then responded to by the others according to certain rules”. Again, in musical chords, the composing notes, if taken by twos and threes, will be found in discord, but, when taken altogether, produce a harmony. Harmony is then the just adaptation of things to each other, and the universe, the personal element of man being eliminated, is essentially an evidence of harmony; otherwise it could not exist, for it would fall to [Page 40] pieces and no longer be a universe. To those who find only discord around them, the note to Rule 5, in the second part of ” Light on the Path “, may convey a meaning. No other words can express it better. One reason for the apparent disharmony may be given. The desires of man are, as a rule, devoted to the gain of what may be called his personality. While such is the case in any man, to the exclusion of other interests, that man cannot dive deep into his own heart and perceive the real underlying harmony. He is incapable of understanding or even of perceiving it, because his attention is solely devoted to that which produces discord. Naturally, then, to him all things seem out of joint, the reign of discord is ever present, and he cries out perpetually against the injustice of the world he lives in. But if he will but turn his attention from his personality to the greater span of his life, and endeavour first to see evidence of harmony in those around him and then in himself, he will find that harmony; and his way will be made plain to him.
Granting, then, that it is the Great Law of Harmony or Karma which governs the Universe, and which is the Divine principle under one aspect manifested in Nature, then it is easy to understand that any action in violation of Nature’s laws will produce a deviation from the straight line of harmony; consequently the law of harmony will produce an adjusting effect. Now, who is to produce that effect? Nature, or the man who committed the action ? Both, or, rather, the latter under the influence of the former. The latter most certainly, unless man is to be regarded simply as a blind puppet. It is possible to compare the situation to that of a man whose progress is contingent upon an exact balance being preserved on a pair of scales in front of him. If his actions disturb the balance of those scales and add weight to one side or the other, it is necessary immediately to add a counter-balancing weight on the opposite side and so restore the balance or harmony. (Of course this is a physical illustration, and can hardly be carried very far on the moral plane.) That is to say that the one Divine principle is divided by man’s actions into two opposing forces of good and evil, and man’s progress depends on the exertion of his will to preserve harmony and prevent deviation to one side or the other. Evil only exists in contradistinction to good, and the preservation of such harmony as we have and the advance towards Universal Harmony — the abstract divinity — is what all right-minded persons theoretically aspire to.
It has been thought that, in consequence of the attention paid to the classics in education, the word Nemesis would replace Karma with advantage. So perhaps it might have done, had the earliest traditions of Greek mythology been preserved. But the fatal tendency towards anthropomorphism set in very strongly even in the palmy days of Greece, and in consequence Nemesis only pourtrayed the personification of a human passion. Originally the balancing power, independent of Zeus and all the Olympian Gods, who carried out her decrees, Nemesis [Page 41] became simply the avenging deity; so much was this the case that in a general sense she might have been called the tutelary deity of those envious of their neighbour’s happiness. Between these points Nemesis appears as the personification of the moral reverence for law, of the natural fear of committing a wrong action, and hence the personification of conscience. It was after this period that Nemesis was said to direct human affairs, with a view to restore the balance between happiness and unhappiness. But, in earlier times, the idea of Nemesis was divided into those of Nemesis and Adrasteia (or what Orientalists would call good and evil Karma), for even then the idea of evil was beginning to be attached to Nemesis.
But Nemesis was closely linked to both the Moirae (Fates) and the Eumenides (Furies), who were all the children of Zeus and Night. The Moirae appear generally as divinities of fate in a strict sense, and act independently at the helm of necessity. They direct fate, and watch that the fate assigned to every being by eternal laws shall take its course ( Aesch: Prometheus Vinctus, 511-515). Zeus, as well as gods and men, submits to them. They assign their proper functions to the Erinnyes who inflict the punishment, and are sometimes called their sisters (Aesch: Eumen: 335, 962; Prometheus 516, 696, 895). These latter were always considered to be more ancient than the Olympian gods, and were therefore not under the rule of Zeus, though they honoured and esteemed him. The crimes which they especially punished were (l), violation of the respect due to old age; (2), perjury; (3), murder; (4), violation of the law of hospitality; (5), improper conduct towards suppliants; and the punishment was inflicted not only after death but during life. (It is somewhat curious that these “crimes” are also those actions which entail the heaviest Karma.) No prayers, sacrifices, or tears could move them or protect the object of their persecution. When they feared that he would escape, they called in Dikè to their assistance, with whom they were closely connected, as justice was said to be their only object.
Now when the meaning of all these “minor” Greek deities is considered, and further, if it is considered in connection with the definition of Karma, it will be seen that all are so many personifications of the main divisions of the law of ancient Nemesis or Karma. But the one word cannot, in popular estimation, replace the other; for, as said above, Nemesis has lost its original meaning, and is almost invariably associated with the idea of vengeance. Karma, however, has never lost its essential connection with the law of Harmony, though even in this case there is some tendency to confine it to the law of cause and effects, and to consider what is called evil Karma solely in relation to human life. This is almost inevitable, while the human personality takes the foremost place in the consideration of each man, and his own welfare, in time and eternity, is the goal of his [Page 42] endeavours. As said above, while this is the case man cannot regard the great laws of the Universe, nor recognise himself as part of it, and thus his life is confined to the world of effects, and can never enter that of causes. Thus it is ignorance of the law of Harmony that leads him to struggle in vain, in this world, for the apparent advantage of surpassing his neighbour, and — worse — to instinctively carry the struggle beyond death, and attempt to advance in favour in the so-called heavenly kingdom.
This is the result of the pernicious doctrine of reward and punishment after death, in heaven or in hell. Nothing could have been found more calculated to circumscribe the view of life as a whole, and concentrate man’s attention on temporary matters. It is inevitable that man should regard his soul as something fashioned after his struggling personality, and very similar to it; and this view of his personality was not calculated to agree with the loftiness of the ideas about the soul. From this point of view he either rejected the idea of soul as altogether worthless, or else he transferred his interest to the soul’s welfare in Heaven — in either case concentrating his attention on what is inevitably transient. It is as though a man lost sight of the fact of respiration in its component parts of inspiration and expiration; that is to say, that one respiration is taken as the whole, and the millions of other respirations in the course of a human life are lost sight of and forgotten. Thus the man who adapts his life to the ordinary views, with regard to life on earth and life in Heaven, fixes his thoughts and aspirations on what is transient, and desires to intensify that. No truer words were ever spoken than by Christ when he said: — “What shall it profit a man if he gain the whole world and lose his own soul”. It is a loss which man will inevitably experience if he pursues this purblind course of endeavour, for he will lose sight of his real soul altogether, and he — as he, that is — will never regain it. He follows a nickering Will-o’-the-Wisp, and finds his way only into a treacherous marsh; the result being that the whole of that incarnation is wasted, and a stumbling block, perhaps, placed in the way of the next. This danger is, as said, due to neglect or ignorance of the idea of Karma, and to the purblind view consequently taken of the great scope of human life.
In the Theosophist, of July, 1887, Mr. Subba Row deals with the doctrine of Karma as contained in the Bhagavadgita. His lecture contains one of the clearest elucidations of the metaphysical side of the question which it is possible to put in language, so far as the Kosmic aspect of Karma is concerned. In it, and the previous lectures, Mr. Subba Row dealt with three main bases or vehicles [Sanskrit Upadhi] (states of matter) through which the light of the spirit is reflected into the phenomenal world. These vehicles, when traced to their origin, lead to prakriti, or matter; as opposed to purusha, or spirit. [Page 43]
“So Krishna says that all Karma is traceable to Upadhi, and hence to Prakriti. Karma itself depends upon conscious existence. Conscious existence entirely depends upon the constitution of man’s mind. . . . Upadhi is the cause of individual existence. Existence itself, I mean living existence, is, however, traceable to this light (of the Logos). All conscious existence is traceable to it, and, furthermore, when spiritual intelligence is developed, it directly springs from it. . . Now it is through the action of this Karma that individual existence makes its appearance. On account of this Karma individual existence is maintained, and it is on account of Karma that man suffers all the pains and sorrows of earthly existence. Birth, life, and death, and all the innumerable ills to which human nature is subject, are endured by mankind owing to this Karma. . . . Thus Karma, being the inevitable result of Prakriti, and Prakriti continuing to exist as long as you are a human being, it is useless to try to get rid of Karma. . . . When you renounce this desire (desire to do Karma other than from a sense of duty), Karma will become weaker and weaker In its ability to affect you, till at last you arrive at a condition in which you are not affected by Karma at all, and that condition is the condition of Mukti”. [ Liberation or Nirvana]
“Those philosophers who want to reject all Karma pretend to renounce it altogether. But that is an impossible task. No man, so long as he is a human being, can ever give up Karma altogether. He is at least bound to do that which the bare existence of his physical body requires, unless, indeed, he means to die of starvation, or otherwise put an untimely end to his life.”
“Supposing you do give up Karma that is abstain from it in action, how can you keep control over your own minds? It is useless to abstain from an act, and yet be constantly thinking of it. If you come to the resolution that you ought to give up Karma, you must necessarily conclude that you ought not even to think about these things. That being so, let us see in what a condition you will then place yourselves. As almost all our mental states have some connection with the phenomenal world, and are somehow or other connected with Karma in its various phases, it is difficult to understand how it is possible for a man to give up all Karma, unless he can annihilate his mind, or get into an eternal state of Sushupti (dreamless slumber). Moreover, if you have to give up all Karma, you have to give up good Karma as well as bad, for Karma, in its widest sense, is not confined to bad actions. If all the people in the world give up Karma, how is the world to exist ? Is it riot likely that an end will then be put to all good impulses, to all patriotic and philanthropic deeds, that all the good people, who have been and are exerting themselves in doing unselfish deeds for the good of their fellow men, will be prevented from working ? If you call upon everybody to give up Karma, you will simply create a number of lazy drones, and prevent good people from benefiting their fellow beings.”
“And furthermore, it may be argued that this is not a rule of universal applicability. How few are there in the world who can give up their whole Karma, and reduce themselves to a condition of eternal inactivity. And if you ask these people to follow this course, they may, instead of giving up Karma, simply become lazy, idle persons, who have not really given up anything. What is the meaning of the expression, ‘ to give up Karma ?’ Krishna says that in abstaining from doing a thing there may be the effects of active Karma, and in active Karma there may be no real Karmic results. If you kill a man, it is murder, and you are held responsible for it; but suppose you refuse to feed your old parents and they die in consequence of your neglect, do you mean to say that you are not responsible for that Karma ? You may talk in the most metaphysical manner you please, you cannot get rid of Karma altogether”.
“Taking all these circumstances into consideration, and admitting the many mischievous consequences that will follow as the result of recommending every [Page 44] human being to give up Karma, Krishna adds all that is to be found in the teaching that makes the Logos the means of salvation, and recommends man — if he would seek to obtain immortality — a method by following which he is sure to reach it, and not one that may end in his having to go through another incarnation, or being absorbed into another spiritual being whose existence is not immortal.”
” The recommendation to practice and obtain self-mastery; Krishna accepts. But he would add to it more effectual means of obtaining the desired end — means sufficient in themselves to enable you to reach that end. He points out that this practise of self-mastery is not only useful for training in one birth, but is likely to leave permanent impulses on a man’s soul which come to his rescue in future incarnations.” . . .
“Krishna, in recommending his own method, combines all that is good in the five systems, and adds thereto all those necessary means of obtaining salvation that follow as inferences from the existence of the Logos, and its real relationship to man and to all the principles that operate in the cosmos. His is certainly more comprehensive than any of the theories from which these various schools of philosophy have started, and it is this theory that he is trying, in the second six chapters of the Bhavadgita, to inculcate.”
In the above quoted lecture Karma was considered in its Kosmic and universal aspect, but no attempt was made to consider it in its individual aspect as applied to the various great sections of Being on this planet. The first approach to this is seen in the animal kingdom. Doubtless, the mineral and vegetable kingdoms are under the law of Harmony with Nature; it could not possibly be otherwise for they are closer to what is known as nature and much less individualised. But there is so little individualisation in these kingdoms that it is hardly possible to consider them in relation to the law of harmony, or to that of Cause and Effect on the plane of objectivity. But to anyone who has thought about the question it is plain that the animal kingdom, in its individuals, does come at least under the law of cause and effect. This may practically be called the working of Karma on the physical plane and by some has been called the law of Compensation, this being a term expressive of mechanical and physical energy. The word Karma had better be retained to express the working of the law of harmony on that plane where moral responsibility begins, and where “the law of compensation can be modified by will and reason”, and where therefore personal merit and demerit exists. To quote from an article in the Theosophist on the Karma of animals:—
“A piece of iron is attracted to a magnet without having any desire in the matter. If it is exposed to air and water, it may become rusty and cannot prevent it. A plant or a tree may be straight or crooked on account of circumstances over which it has no control. An animal usually follows the instincts of its nature without any merit or demerit for so doing, a child or an idiot may smilingly kick over a lamp which may set a whole city on fire; the cause will have its effect, but the child or the idiot cannot be held responsible for it, because they have not sufficient intelligence to fully control their actions or to judge about the consequences. A person can only be held responsible according to his ability to perceive justice and to distinguish between good and evil. The power to discriminate properly is an attribute of the human mind, and the higher that mind is developed the more it becomes responsible for the effects it [Page 45] produces. A cat may kill a mouse or an ox gore a man; and to hold them morally responsible for it would be an act of injustice, cruelty and stupidity. Whether or not a dog may have sufficient reason to incur any moral responsibility is a matter of opinion, and no emphatic affirmation or denial will decide the case: but it is reasonable to suppose that a dog, though he may have sufficient reason to know what is good or bad for himself or for those to whom he is attached, has no moral responsibility.”
Thus, though animals may be under the law of compensation, and under the law of harmony or Karma, they are not under the law of compensation, or the law of harmony or Karma in the same way as it applies to human beings. With humanity, a fresh element has been introduced — the intellectual, reasoning, and discriminating power. Consequently, while the universal law of harmony or Karma governs the whole Universe, the law of Harmony should be applied to the Universe as a whole, and its manifestations, the laws of Karma and Compensation, should be applied to man and animal respectively.
It is more possible, perhaps, to consider the question in relation to the various grades of humanity so far as we can conceive of it and them. It would be better to commence with the highest and proceed downwards.
All Theosophists, and many who are not, have heard of Mahatmas, and many have speculated very wrongly about them. In this magazine, and in this article, it may be possible to write about them without disrespect, because only through these speculations is it possible to understand the law of harmony and its relation to man as Karma, and to divinity as harmony. The word Karma as limited above does not apply to the Mahatma.
“Gazing only upon the eternal the Mahatma feels neither good nor ill, nor does either good or ill come to him. Personally, he cannot either suffer or rejoice, and is incapable of emotion, because he is indifferent to circumstances. But as he developes, his sympathies increase, until at last his sympathies enter into all beings, and with them he rejoices and suffers until they also pass beyond the sense of joy or pain.”
” They do not have good or evil Karma. The glory and good fortune and happiness, these go to the good men who look for temporary joys. Karma produces pleasure or pain by the ordering of circumstances. The Mahatma does not feel pleasure and pain, and is not affected by circumstances, therefore he is Karmaless. The law of cause and effect is only called Karma when it concerns temporary and changing circumstances. The acts of the Mahatma generate spiritual energy which goes to create the power that shall be his when he is no longer man, and consequently form an eternal factor in his future; thus, the Mahatma, being without personal desire, is outside the operation of the law of Karma.”
In his real condition he is in harmony with Nature, and its agent, and hence outside Karma. His physical body is however still within its limits of action. But to him this is a very small matter.
( To be continued.) [Page 46]