Are we responsible?

By a student

Theoosophy 213 LOT b

[This article appeared in the August 2021 issue of The Theosophical Movement. For more articles published in this excellent magazine follow this link:]

We are all too aware of our rights, but seldom ask, do we also have our responsibilities? If yes, then what are they? Are we, for instance, responsible for our thoughts, for our desires, for our actions, for our nation, for the world we live in, for the sins of our ancestors and for our happiness? Every scripture of the world shows that from time to time, great teachers come to guide humanity and leave behind them the teachings which when studied and applied, would enable us to be self-reliant and responsible human beings. Are we living responsible lives? We live for ourselves, without consideration for others. We live a materialistic life, running after name, fame, power, position and possessions. We live, think and act irresponsibly. That is because we are unable to differentiate between real and unreal; permanent and impermanent. Our perceptions are colored by our conceptions about God, Man and Nature. We cannot say that we possess the right concepts. Otherwise, would there be so much dishonesty, hatred, violence and greed? Would we witness man’s inhumanity to man, and cruelty to animals, if we understood the law of interdependence? The philosophy of Theosophy enables in awakening man’s intuition and making him aware of his responsibilities to himself, to his fellow beings and to the whole of Nature.

We are reluctant to accept that we are responsible for all the adversities and pain that comes into our lives. The general tendency is to hold another person or our environment responsible for our character or failure or sorrow. The environment, inner and outer, is the result of our own past karma. We alone have the power to change both. The outer environment is our family, society, community, nation, workplace, etc. The inner environment consists of our mind, passions and desires, emotions, tendencies, likes and dislikes, ideas, etc., which are called our skandhas, vasanas or samskaras. These we have brought over from the past lives.

If we believe that every human being is a new creation, a new soul passing through life’s journey, then how could he be held responsible for his vices, weaknesses and sins, which are transmitted to him hereditarily? If there is a murderer, who comes from the race or family of murderers, then we cannot hold him responsible for the murder, because he cannot help committing murder, under heredity. Thus, once we accept that our character is transmitted to us hereditarily, we cannot attach responsibility or punish people for murder, robbery, prostitution, etc. We may have to pass laws that make an exception in cases of people who are guilty of murder or theft because they come from the family of murderers or thieves, says Mr. Judge. We do not deny the fact that likes and dislikes, as also, peculiarities are transmitted from one generation to the other, down the line of descent. However, the point to grasp is that heredity should not be looked upon as the cause of crime or virtue. It is not the cause but only an instrument or means for the production of the effect. The Ego is attracted to the family which can furnish it the necessary instruments, the body and the brain, through which the knowledge and the skill can be manifested.

Likewise, we are born in a family, society, country due to past karmic affinity, and also because, to some extent, we must have contributed to making them what they are today. We are responsible, directly or indirectly, if we find uncleanliness, corruption, pollution, violence or poverty in our country. The extent to which we are affected is linked to the extent to which we have contributed in making them what they are, by neglect of our responsibility, or by active participation. A son may decide to walk out of a house where the father earns money by unfair means. Nevertheless, he must know that it is not so simple to disconnect himself from the family because he would not have been born into that family if he had not contributed to making the family as he finds it today.

We are all united on inner and invisible planes, and are continually affecting each other through our thoughts, feelings and actions. It is difficult to say what portion of another’s karma is strictly of his own making. As Mr. Judge suggests, “The indissoluble unity of the race demands that we should consider every man’s troubles as partly due to ourselves, because we have been always units in the race and helped to make the conditions which cause suffering” (“Forum” Answers, p. 55). We have contributed in making the humanity as we find it today. While explaining the meaning of the verse in the Bible that says that the sins of the father will be visited on the children to the third and fourth generation, Mr. Judge narrates a story told by a mystic. It is the story of an Eastern king who had a son, and this son committed a deed, the penalty of which was that he should be killed by a great stone thrown upon him. However, it was seen that such a punishment would not repair the wrong nor give to the offender the chance to become a better man, hence the counsellors of the king advised that the stone should be broken into small pieces; some of which should be thrown upon him in the quantity that would hurt but not kill him, and remaining pieces should be thrown at his children and grand-children, as they were able to bear it. The explanation given is that the children and grandchildren could not have been born in the family of the prince if they had not had some hand in the past, in other lives, in the formation of his character. For that reason, they should share, to some extent, in his punishment.

None of us acts in isolation. We are continually helping or hindering others in building their character, not only by our actions, but also by our thoughts—for good or ill. By not resisting the temptation to take a bribe or tell a lie, or by allowing a material or sensual thought to enter the mind, we are giving an impulse to some  weak person with a similar tendency to indulge in sin. The converse is also true. Every attempt to overcome vices in us sends out an impulse for good that strengthens another individual who may be fighting similar weaknesses. “Each nation suffers, on the moral as well as the physical plane, from the faults of all other nations, and receives benefit from the others also even against its will,” writes Mr. Judge,

Some people seem to intuitively recognize this collective responsibility for all the good and evil in society, as can be seen in the example of a Judge in America, narrated by Swami Shri Savitanand. The Judge, as it were, is living up to the words in Light on the Path, “The sin and shame of the world are your sin and shame, for you are a part of it; your Karma is inextricably interwoven with the great Karma.” A Judge in New York pronounced a judgment after World War I, based on collective responsibility. After World War I, people in America, faced acute poverty. During that period, a man was caught stealing bread. He was brought to the court, and made to stand before the Chief Justice with a panel of judges. He was asked if he had stolen bread. He quietly admitted that he had done that, and not stolen anything else. When asked why he had to steal a bread, the man answered with tears in his eyes that after searching for a job for three to four days, when he could not find any job, he was forced to steal a bread, because his hungry children were crying. Since he had admitted his crime, the jury pronounced a fine of eleven shillings as punishment. The Judge, however, said that if this man had eleven shillings in his pocket, he would not have stolen a bread. However, since he has been fined eleven shillings by the court, that amount must be deposited in the government account. Hence, he decided that each jury member would pay one shilling, while he himself would pay two shillings as a fine, and that he believed was fair, considering that they were living in such a society where a father had to steal a loaf of bread to feed his hungry children! The Judge and the jury paid their share of the fine. After that the Judge gave some money to the poor man and left the court, trying to hide the tears that welled up in his eyes.

The explanation of how we affect each other is based, firstly, on the unity of humanity. All human beings are as a scientific and dynamic fact united. Science tells us that if you pluck a flower or a fruit or a branch of a tree, then it will adversely affect the future or further growth of that tree. Likewise, if one person in a family is depressed it goes a long way in making others also depressed. If one person is happy and hopeful then it goes a long way in lifting up the emotions of others in the family. Light on the Path asks us to consider a rope made up of innumerable fine threads. If at some place, one or two threads are stained then that stain or color will run along the length of the rope and also affect other threads along the thickness of the rope. If one thread is pulled, then the drag awry will be communicated to other threads, and all will be in a tangle, instead of being straight and parallel to each other. These threads may be thought of as so many individuals.

Secondly, there exists a subtle medium, called the astral light, which acts as a register, on which are impressed all the acts, thoughts and desires of every human being, and these are reflected back on humanity. It all works on the law of similarity. Like attracts like. Hence, it all depends upon what thoughts or desires we allow to arise in our minds. Ordinarily, a bad thought of taking revenge or telling a lie, attracts another thought of the same nature and gives us a push in doing that. However, there is also the conscience, which begins to prick. We also have the power of will. Normally, we strive to push aside an unwholesome thought and settle on a better course. Nevertheless, when we are in our weaker moments, or as Mr. Judge puts it, when our nervous vitality is exhausted, then the force of the thoughts that come from outside have a greater power than the power of thoughts produced by us. We are then impelled by outside thoughts. This happens most easily with people, who are like sponges, porous and bibulous, ready to absorb every thought coming from outside. We call them sensitives and mediums, and they are drawing these thoughts and are hypnotized by astral light. Mr. Judge says that it is not for nothing that we are asked to keep a close watch over our thoughts. It is equally true that if we aspire higher, then those very thoughts of goodness and morality will be drawn to us and boost up our moral energy to enable us to keep our resolve to become better human beings.

We describe our age as an “age of progress,” which although it has brought material comforts through technological advancement, has been responsible for selfishness, crime, immorality and a host of evils, because sorely lacking in ethical and spiritual values. Responsibility has to be seen as twofold: in relation to material necessities and spiritual and moral welfare. For both of these, people have to be educated in the true sense. No doubt, there are those who know, and there are those who need help in understanding this. Someone needs to play the role of an adjuster of these two classes or sections, so that each one of them becomes aware of their own responsibility. In the highest sense, those who know are the Masters of Wisdom, and those who need help and knowledge is the whole of humanity. The connecting link is formed by student-aspirants of the philosophy of Theosophy, who can study, exemplify and spread the teachings.

If we believe in the Law of Karma, the just law of cause and effect, action and reaction, and try to understand its working, it is easy to see that everything happens under the law. Let us realize that such knowledge also brings with it moral responsibility to the knower. The responsibility of the individual who knows and understands the Law of Karma is to so think and act, as to be of service to all, which aids in the progress of all. Such an individual should endeavor to purify himself, so as to be in a fit condition to discharge his duties, which flow from his self-assumed responsibilities towards humanity. These duties are, over and above, the duties we owe to our society, family, or race. “If you have obtained true knowledge…it urges you to plunge into the misery and sorrow of the world, and with your cheering word, if you have no more…strive to lighten the burden for some struggling soul,” writes Mr. Judge.

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