A Holistic View of Karma

Shirley Nicholson

[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. H. P. Blavatsky, The Secret Doctrine.]

Karma, the concept of cause and effect from Eastern religions, has become widely known in the West, as it has always been in the Orient. The word has found its way into conversations among people at all levels of Western society and has even shown up in popular music. However, most people familiar with the idea think of it as shaping our personal lives, as “paying us back” for our actions, good and bad. This perhaps is the realm in which karma seems closest to us. Yet karma is a universal law inherent in the One and encompasses all of manifestation, all kingdoms of nature, from atoms to galaxies, from rocks to human beings. H.P.B. assures us that “every creature is subject to Karma”1 and “no spot in the manifested universe is exempt from its sway.”2

She states that “the One Life is closely related to the One Law which governs the world of Being — Karma3 and that this is “TheUltimate Lawof the Universe.” She says that it “exists from and in eternity, truly, for it is eternity itself.”4 Its reaches are far greater than our human affairs. Like all the principles outlined in esoteric philosophy, karma is an aspect of the one Reality that comes into play as manifestation proceeds. Karma as the law of cause and effect is involved in all differentiation and all relationships, spiritual as well as physical. Therefore, it must have become active at the awakening of the universe with the polarization of consciousness and matter. The first manifestation of cause and effect occurred when consciousness as Divine Mind began to create a world by impressing organization on precosmic matter. This, presumably, is the beginning of karmic action, which continues on every level of being throughout the entire cycle of manifestation.

At the first flutter of renascent life . . . “the Mutable Radiance of the Immutable Darkness unconscious in Eternity” passes, at every new birth of Kosmos, from an inactive state into one of intense activity ... it differentiates, and then begins its work through that differentiation. This work is Karma.”5

H.P.B. defines karma as “the unerring law which adjusts effect to cause on the physical, mental, and spiritual planes of being.”6 She depicts it as a law of harmony that continually restores the naturally harmonious state of the cosmos whenever it becomes disturbed. “The only decree of Karma — an eternal and immutable decree — is absolute harmony in the world of Matter as it is in the world of Spirit."7 Karma “restores disturbed equilibrium in the physical and broken harmony in the moral world."8 She compares it to a bough which “bent down too forcibly, rebounds with corresponding vigor."9 Thus karma appears not as an external law acting from the outside but as an elastic quality of the cosmos itself, which causes it to spring back into harmony when distorted.

The Secret Doctrine does not depict karma mechanically or as “an eye for an eye” doctrine as some later writers have interpreted it. H.P.B. does not predict a one-to-one relationship between cause and effect—a predetermined course in which certain types of actions always have the same karmic consequences. In her view karma is not a mechanical system in which engaging a gear moves a cam, that in turn eventually turns a wheel, in a prescribed, linear, cause-and-effect manner. This kind of causality implies a rigid determinism — an unalterable sequence of events—which is not in keeping with theosophical philosophy. Rather, karma is fluid and flexible, as outcomes are continually shaped by the input of new factors. “Karma does not act in this or that particular way always.”10 Rather it works in an interconnected system in which everything affects everything else.

The workings of karma might be compared to the complexities of weather patterns. Huge areas of high and low pressure swirl through the atmosphere replacing one another, causing winds and many atmospheric conditions. Moisture from the earth rises and forms clouds, which may blow hundreds of miles before releasing their moisture as rain or snow. The jet stream high above the earth has an effect, as do deserts created centuries ago by nomadic peoples who overgrazed their herds. Seas of blacktop and concrete in modern cities play a part. The weather at a given place on a given day results from a combination of innumerable factors, past and present, local and distant, and new influences keep entering the system to change the outcome. Karma, too, is multidimensional, not linear. It is af­fected by and works on physical, mental, and spiritual levels, on all the planes and fields of nature. It brings into play influences from the distant past as well as those of the moment. Though determined by the past, the future is far from set. It is the result of countless causes. Prem and Ashish bring out the wholeness within which karma works:

No thing causes any other thing, for causality resides not in things but in the whole. Particular events take place not because of any power in some other events which are said to be their causes, but because of an organic linking of the whole of cosmic experience, a linkage which is such that all events in the Cosmos are bound together in one harmonious correlation. Movement of any one “part” or element of the Cosmos necessitates movements of all the other elements, not because of any direct “causal power" exerted by the first but because all exist together in one seamless garment that is the Whole.”11

Karma is involved in the vast sweeps of cyclic life that wheel behind evolution, which are “pre-ordained, so to say, by Karmic law.”12 While the law of cycles sets manifestation going in recurrent patterns, it is karma that fashions the specific events within the cycles.

[It is] the mysterious guiding intelligent power, which gives the impulse to and regulates the impetus of cycles and universal events. . . . Karma’s visible adjuster on a grand scale.”13

Karma connects each cycle of manifestation to all the previous ones, as “the working of Karma [is] in the periodical renovations of the universe.”14 The geological ages, the birth and death of species and kinds of plants and animal life, the coming and going of great races of men, the rise and fall of civilizations are all involved in karmic continuity. “There is a predestination in the geological life of our globe, as in the history, past and future, of races and nations. This is closely connected with what we call Karma.”15 It embodies what might be called a law of universal conservation — ensuring that nothing is lost, that the fruits of one cycle are passed on to the next.


Karma also acts intimately and precisely in the affairs of individuals. While cosmic karma rolls on in grand cycles, individual karma gathers together tendencies and discharges them as events in our lives and evokes our inherent characteristics, whether physical, emotional, or intellectual. We all receive the repercussions of our own acts and thoughts, our personal karma. Just as each person has an individual scent which can be detected by a dog, it seems that each individual can be “sniffed out” by forces of karma. In the unimaginably complex karmic currents set up by humanity, in some mysterious way our own waves ripple out and return precisely to us. H.P.B. likens the process to the effects created by a stone falling into a pond and setting up waves which roll back and forth until equilibrium is restored, and the pond is again quiet. All action, no matter on what level, produces such disturbances.

But since each disturbance starts from some particular point, it is clear that equilibrium and harmony can only be restored by the reconverging to that same point of all the forces which were set in motion from it. And here you have proof that the consequences of a man's deeds, thoughts, etc., must all react upon himself with the same force with which they were set in motion.”15

According to esoteric philosophy, as humanity won through to the higher levels of mind and became capable of choice, individuals became responsible for their actions in a way not possible among lower animals. With this responsibility came personal karma. According to this doctrine, we ourselves are responsible for our lives, for our circumstances, our pain and joy, our opportunities and limitations, even our character traits, talents, neuroses and personality blockages. Everything about us is the outcome of forces we ourselves have set in motion, either in this life or in some distant past. We are “under the empire of [our] self-made destiny.”17 Karma has given us back the actual consequences of our own actions. The way we live, our actions and thoughts, enter a continuous stream of causes that determine our lives. Nothing is lost. All the thoughts, motives, emotions which we generated in the past have gone into the complex strains that make us what we are today. “It is not . . . karma that rewards or punishes us, but it is we who reward and punish ourselves.”18

However, as karma works with cycles and evolution on the grand scale, so does it work with evolution to promote growth in our individual lives. It “adjusts wisely, intelligently, and equitably each effect to its cause”19 reflecting our past actions in our outer lives and in our inner makeup. Thus our lives give us feedback, if we know how to read it, showing us a record of how we are doing, what is going well, where we have erred and failed. Because of karma we can learn from life.

It must be stressed, however, that karma is not fatalism or determinism. Prem and Ashish point out that our lives are neither absolutely determined nor absolutely free. We live according to “a determined track within whose unformed potentiality lies the opportunity for change and growth.”20 We cannot erase influences we generated in the past, but we can influence the course of our lives at any time by pouring in new energies in new directions. We may not see the results immediately, but karma assures that they will come, as any energy we generate must have its effect. Scanning our lives for recurrent patterns can reveal the areas in which we need to work. If we overcome harmful tendencies, try to eliminate defects, and counteract negative elements within us, we set up new causes which alter the karmic outcome of past actions. Any help we offer others, any service we perform for worthwhile causes, any helpful, positive thoughts and emotions we send out will affect the karmic balance. In this realm right motives, feelings, and thoughts are more important even than right action, for energies from higher planes or fields are more powerful than physical energies. According to H.P.B.:

It is a law of occult dynamics that a given amount of energy expended on the spiritual or astral plane is productive of far greater results than the same amount expended on the physical objective plane of existence.”21

Thus love and hate are powerful factors in fashioning our karma.


H.P.B.'s exposition of karma also includes group and national karma. The strands of our individual karma are interwoven with those of our nation and other groups with which we have strong ties. All social evils are karmic, as are social opportunities. We each participate karmically in the actions of our nation, whether we like those actions or not. As groups are interdependent in a society and nations are interdependent in the world, each individual is in some ways karmically linked with all others, and we all share in the outcome of world events.

Thus in a sense our actions do affect all mankind. We tend to see our lives as in a limited sphere, our influence extending only to those in our immediate vicinity. But, as we have seen, the universe is not created from isolated bits. It is a vast network of interconnections in all directions, at all levels. Our actions do not stop at the periphery of our vision but affect the whole of life in some measure, one way or another.

In Light on the Path, a mystical work by Mabel Collins, there is a small essay on karma attributed to a great sage and Master. He likens the individual life to a rope composed of innumerable fine threads. From time to time some of these threads get caught or attached to something, creating a tangle and disorder in the whole. Sometimes one or more of the threads becomes stained, and the stain spreads and discolors other strands. But in time the threads pass out of the shadow into the shine, where they become golden and lie together straight and even. At last harmony is established. This revealing image illustrates the holistic nature of karma. The essay goes on to say:

What it is necessary first to understand is not that the future is arbitrarily formed by any separate acts of the present, but that the whole of the future is in unbroken continuity with the present, as is the present with the past.”22

As each individual life is composed of intertwined threads, so the whole of humanity is composed of individual lives intertwined and continually influencing one another. To the degree that we deliberately try to improve the energies we contribute to the whole, so in this world of interconnections will we be able to “lift a little of the heavy karma of the world.”


  1. H. P. Blavatsky, The Secret Doctrine, (Adyar: Theosophical Publishing House, 1978), 2:361.

  2. H. P. Blavatsky, The Key to Theosophy, Joy Mills, ed. (Wheaton, IL: Theosophical Pub­lishing House, 1981).

  3. The Secret Doctrine, 2:359.

  4. Ibid., 3:306.

  5. Ibid., 2:360.

  6. H. P. Blavatsky, The Key to Theosophy (see chap. 2, v. 6), p. 121.

  7. The Secret Doctrine, 2:368.

  8. The Key to Theosophy, p. 124.

  9. The Secret Doctrine, 3:306.

  10. The Key to Theosophy, p. 124.

  11. PremSri Krishna and Sri Madhava Ashish, Man, the Measure of All Things, (Wheaton: Theosophical Publishing House, 1969), p. 210.

  12. The Secret Doctrine, 2:367.

  13. Ibid., 3:60.

  14. Ibid., 2:362.

  15. Ibid., 2:366.

  16. The Key to Theosophy, p. 16.

  17. The Secret Doctrine, 2:364.

  18. Ibid., 2:365.

  19. The Key to Theosophy, p. 121.

  20. Prem and Ashish, Man, the Measure, p. 114-5.

  21. The Secret Doctrine, 2:369.

  22. Mabel Collins, Light on the Path (Pasa­dena: Theosophical University Press, 1976),

p. 88.

The article was published previously in The American Theosophist,Issue y1985 v73 i4 April p97


  1. If a person deserves his or her suf­fering as punishment for past evil actions, why should we try to help alleviate anyone’s suffering?

  1. What is the point of someone being punished by karmic results for a mis­take in a previous life if he or she has no memory of that life?

  1. Contrary to the “eye for an eye” version of the karma doctrine, the “developmental” version sees our present circumstances not as rewards or punishments but solely as provid­ing opportunities for spiritual growth. Discuss the merits and/or defects of each of these versions.

  1. Since we do not ordinarily think that we belong to a nation or racial group by choice, is it fair that individuals must participate in group and na­tional karma?

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