Pablo Sender – USA
In the religious world, there are basically two models to explain our actions and their effects. One is that of a God who judges our deeds. Good actions are rewarded, while bad ones (sins) entail a punishment. This God that judges and administers punishments and rewards, however, can pardon sins if there is repentance in the doer or for other more inscrutable reasons.
H. P. Blavatsky (HPB), however, argued that the teaching of remission of sins takes away the idea of personal responsibility:
We believe neither in vicarious atonement, nor in the possibility of the remission of the smallest sin by any god, not even by a “personal Absolute” or “Infinite”, if such a thing could have any existence. What we believe in, is strict and impartial justice. (The Key to Theosophy, Sec. 11, “Periodical Rebirths”)
The strict and impartial justice that HPB mentions is called “karma” in Eastern religions. It is the law of cause and effect by which everything that happens to a person is the result of actions performed in the past, and each action in the present will produce its effects in the future.
The Theosophical Society was the first organization to spread the idea of karma widely and systematically in the West, outside academic circles. In fact, this teaching is part of a fundamental theosophical concept — that of personal responsibility. According to Blavatsky, this topic is one of the fundamental propositions upon which The Secret Doctrine is based:
The pivotal doctrine of the Esoteric philosophy admits no privileges or special gifts in human beings, save those won by their own Ego through personal effort and merit. (The Secret Doctrine, vol. 1, p. 17)
Although forgiveness of sins is possible in the “God model”, once we deal with karma as a universal law, “forgiveness of effects” is impossible. In the theosophical view, the karmic effects cannot be erased on behalf of anybody, not even on that of an enlightened being:
He [the Master] is himself under the inexorable law of Karma, which no one from the Zulu savage up to the highest archangel can avoid — and [even] he has to assume the great responsibility of the causes created by himself. (Collected Writings, vol. 7, p. 243)
To understand this, we need to keep in mind the difference between the characteristics of human and natural laws. Human laws are artificial and arbitrary. In some cultures, the punishment for stealing is to spend some time in jail, while in other cultures thieves get their hands cut off. Both punishments are imposed arbitrarily, since the cause (stealing) has no direct connection with the effect (the chosen punishment). Moreover, the punishment can be avoided if the person escapes, if there is not enough proof, if the judge is corrupt, and so forth.
Natural laws do not work in this way. Causes and effects are always connected, or rather, are the manifestation in time of a single event. For example, let us suppose that we eat more than we should, and an hour later we feel the consequences. What are these? We do not get unrelated effects (like pain on our leg); we get indigestion, because this is the normal effect of having eaten improperly. The resultant pain is not a punishment assigned by an external force, but the natural result and consequence of overeating.
This is the general idea behind karma. Everything that happens is the natural result and consequence of actions we performed. Sometimes the effects of an action may take a long time (even lifetimes) to bear fruit. But even then, cause and effect are never disconnected. This would be like a person that may have acquired a parasite when he was a child, but the effects appear only later in life, when the conditions of the body are vulnerable enough.
The fact that we cannot avoid the karmic effects does not mean that karma is a fate which cannot be changed. Although the effects of causes produced cannot be undone, they can be counterbalanced by creating a new set of causes. As Mahatma KH stated:
Your acts in the past . . . cannot be obliterated, for they are indelibly stamped upon the record of Karma, and neither tears nor repentance can blot the page. But you have the power to more than redeem and balance them by future acts. (C. Jinarâjadâsa, Letters from the Masters of the Wisdom, series 1, letter 20)
Just as we can cure a disease, we can change our karma. However, just as a given disease can only be cured by the appropriate treatment, the right kind of action is necessary to counterbalance a particular effect . Let us come back to our previous analogy. If we regularly get sick as a consequence of bad eating habits, the natural way to change the effect is to learn to eat well. The cause (bad eating), the effect (poor health), and the new cause (healthy eating) that will eventually overcome the undesirable effect, are all naturally related.
Now, we could also nullify to some extent the effects of bad eating in a more artificial way, as by taking a pill. The taking of a pill is not directly connected to the original cause (bad eating habits) and so, although the pill can produce a quicker effect to relieve the digestive problem, the action of taking a pill will not solve the problem of bad eating. In addition, the taking of a pill will produce its own side effects. We may be relieved from a stomach ache, but the chemicals in the pill will affect our body in other ways. The same happens at the level of karma, as illustrated in the following simple example. (1) Let us say there is a stingy person, always selfishly accumulating things. This will produce a future frustrating condition of experiencing scarcity. The natural way to change the karmic effects of this condition would be to develop a generous attitude.
Now, there are some “tricks” that this person can use to relieve the immediate karmic effects of his stinginess, as in the case of the pills and the stomach ache. He could try to use the power of thought by means of affirmations and decrees to “force” the circumstances to bring what he wants. If other conditions allow it, this may actually produce a result, and he may acquire the desired objects. Thus, by the introduction of a new cause (thought-power), he may momentarily block the effects of an older cause. But this, far from erasing the karmic effects of stinginess, will worsen the situation. To the effects of his lack of generosity, he would be adding the effects of using a universal force for selfish purposes. These two sets of causes will eventually manifest, producing an even more difficult condition.
The same can be said of other methods purported to erase karmic effects, such as bathing in the Ganges river, putting one’s faith in a Guru, chanting a mantra, or doing different visualizations. As said before, in order to counteract the karmic effects produced by previous causes, we need to create a new opposite cause of equal nature.
None of the practices just mentioned can possibly work, since there is no causal relationship between these activities and the original action that generated the karma. At best, these practices could block the effects temporarily; at worst, they will further complicate the karmic situation.
The idea that these unrelated practices can be effective is based on a belief that a) suffering is merely a punishment which can be eliminated without consequences, and b) there are supernatural agencies that can break universal laws. This view, as we have seen, is common in the “God model”, but is incompatible with the “natural law model”. The confusion comes when people raised within the God model (whether in the East or the West) adopt a different view (the natural law model) but still remain conditioned by the ideas absorbed in their upbringing.
What most people do not realize is that if the karmic effects could be cleared up by these methods, the purpose for the very existence of this law would be defeated. It would be like a judge who condemns a person for stealing, while forgiving somebody else who did the same thing because the latter bribed him. What kind of justice would that be? If by bathing in the Ganges, visualizing a violet flame, and so forth, we could really get rid of nonrelated causes, then karma would verily become the law of universal injustice. The vast majority of humanity that does not have the opportunity or knowledge to use these methods would still be condemned to uselessly suffer effects that could very easily be relieved.
In the natural law model, suffering is not a punishment — it is the natural result of a wrong action. It has an educational purpose, since this is the way we learn which actions are in harmony with the nature of the cosmos and which are not. If not for the stomach ache, we would keep eating, caught up in the pleasure of our mouth, until irreversible damage is caused to our digestive system. Thus, by means of the karmic law, human beings can discern the right action — that which is in tune with the nature of the whole.
The possibility of being released from the consequences of our past actions by special dispensations would imply that suffering is not really necessary. This would make God, or the cosmos, pointlessly cruel. But perhaps more importantly, the idea of erasing karmic effects acts against the development of personal responsibility. It is very convenient to believe that we can obliterate the consequences of our wrong actions without much sacrifice, whether by confession, prayer, visualization, the grace of a guru, and so forth. HPB frequently pointed out that this idea is the very cause of the moral degradation of our culture. She wrote that this view
. . . clashes not only with every conceivable view of justice and logic, but which, if analyzed, leads us to our moral perdition, checks the progress of humankind, and — positively making of might, right — transforms every second human being into a Cain to his brother Abel. (The Key to Theosophy, Sec. 11, “The Difference between Faith and Knowledge; or, Blind and Reasoned Faith”)
Maybe a brief exploration about the way cause and effect are naturally related may help us to better understand how karma works. As we said, causes and effects are really the same. From a deeper point of view, the karmic effects are not external things that happen to us because of what we did. The cause is what we are, and to stop producing undesirable karmic effects we have to change ourselves. The teachings about permanent atoms and skandhas can help us see this more clearly.
Theosophical literature postulates that our personal self is composed of three dimensions: physical, emotional, and mental. Accordingly, we have not only a physical body, but also subtler emotional and mental bodies. When a person dies, these three bodies dissolve one after the other and all the “particles” (whether physical, emotional, or mental) that formed them scatter, except for one “atom” of each body, which are called “permanent atoms”. The occult “atoms” are not those known by modern science, but rather, the ultimate particles of the physical, emotional, and lower mental planes. (2) These permanent atoms remain linked to the reincarnating soul through the whole cycle of incarnation.
Every experience we go through during our life, every single action, feeling, and thought in which we have engaged, is transmitted to the physical, emotional, and lower mental permanent atoms respectively, and stored there as a vibratory power. This is a kind of “memory” that records the tendencies to vibrate in a particular way in response to the external world, regardless of whether these responses were appropriate or not.
Once our three bodies dissolve in the post mortem processes, the permanent atoms remain dormant, united to the soul. When the new mental, emotional, and physical bodies begin to be formed for a new incarnation, these atoms are reawakened and their vibratory power attract mental, emotional, and physical material to reproduce bodies of the same general type as the ones the person had at the end of his/her last life. (3)
Thus, the new personality is a continuation of the previous one, and the soul has to resume its work at the point that was left at the end of the previous life. Thus, if some of us were selfish in previous incarnations and our permanent atoms do not know how to respond to love, our character will be unloving, and we will naturally find difficulties to enter into relationships with loving people.
This is one of the mechanisms behind what is being proposed in this article — the karmic experiences a person will go through in life are produced by what the person is, and not by an external agency imposing certain situations as a form of punishment. How can we change our fate? Only by changing ourselves. We have to learn to feel love for others, to apply our thoughts not exclusively to fulfil our own desires, but to benefit others, and to actually perform loving actions. In this way, we are learning to be loving and “training” our bodies and the permanent atoms in them to vibrate in response to love. The physical permanent atom will be affected by loving actions, the emotional by feelings of love, and the mental by loving thoughts. No artificial external means will do this for us.
When most people talk about ways to balance out or erase karma, they usually mean their “bad” karma. Although we commonly may talk of good or bad karma, there is no such thing. We could say that there is pleasant and unpleasant karma, but neither pleasant means “good” nor unpleasant “bad”. This confusion is, in fact, at the root of many of our problems. If a person is addicted to a substance that is making him sick, we would agree that it is good for him to undergo some type of rehabilitation.
The experience can be very trying and produce no little amount of suffering, but after the person overcomes the addiction, he is freer and healthier than before. No intelligent person would say that the rehabilitation was something “bad” for the person, just because it was painful. Asking that the unpleasant karma does not manifest in our lives is like the addict asking not to go through the rehabilitation. If we fully understand how harmful the addiction is and cooperate with the process, the rehabilitation will be faster and less trying. But there is a certain amount of suffering that will be inevitable, although it can be borne with dignity and confidence when based on a real understanding of the process.
Both pleasant and unpleasant karma are equally links of the chain that keeps us tied to the eternal fluctuation between joy and sorrow. A saying goes that, in the chain of karma, unpleasant causes are like an iron link, while pleasant causes are a golden link. Both are part of the chain. This is why the Buddha said that pleasure and suffering are the two wheels of the same cart.
As long as we are looking for pleasure or comfort we are bound to also experience suffering, because we are acting at a level where pleasure and suffering are possible. But there is a state of consciousness that rises above this polarity. Although this state is sometimes described as one of bliss, this denomination may be misleading, because it may bring the idea of a glorified form of pleasure, which it is not.
Whenever we do something with the motivation of gaining pleasure or happiness, we are within the reach of suffering and sorrow. But when we perform actions because they are the right thing to do (regardless of whether they bring joy or sorrow), we rise above the realm of pleasure and pain and dwell in that “peace that passeth understanding”. Thus, as one ceases to act based on the desires and fears of the personal ego, this illusory entity gradually vanishes, and along with it does the chain of causes and effects produced by it. This is the foundation of what is known as “karma yoga”, which leads to the transcendence of personal karma.
To answer the question that we asked at the beginning — whether karma can be eliminated — theosophical literature indicates that it cannot. However, karma can be changed and, eventually, its manifestation on the personal plane can be transcended.
Understanding the law of karma can be very important to correct false conceptions that give rise to mistaken attitudes. Once we understand that the experiences, whether pleasant or unpleasant, have a purpose; that we cannot escape the unpleasant effects by using tricks or shortcuts; and that the only way to change our future is by learning and growing from all experiences; we can then drop the idea of karma from our minds.
We do not need to burden our brain by thinking what kind of causes we may have generated in the past, what effects may come to us, or how we could neutralize them. With the peace of mind that a deep understanding of the law of karma brings, we can concentrate our sight on the present — on doing our best in each situation — and in fostering inner growth. We can be confident that this attitude will produce the right results, and that the suffering that we may have to face will be a helper and teacher in our journey searching for Truth.
1. In order to get a basic understanding of this law, we need to examine simple models, just as scientists do in their laboratory. But we must remember that, since every part of the universe is connected to the whole and affects the whole, the karmic interplay of causes and effects is extremely complex.
2. Since the mental body is formed with matter of the lower sub-planes of the mental plane, it does not really have a permanent “atom” but, rather, a permanent “unit” made of a combination of atoms. To make our analysis simpler we will refer to it as “permanent atom” along with the ones for the emotional and physical bodies.
3. However, it is necessary to keep in mind that the process of formation of the bodies is a complex one, and the permanent atoms are not the only kind of karmic influence affecting it.
This article was also published in The Theosophist VOL. 144 NO. 1 OCTOBER 2022
The Theosophist is the official organ of the International President, founded by H. P. Blavatsky on 1 Oct. 1879.
To read the SEPTEMBER, 2022 issue click HERE