Richard Brooks – USA
[This article was previously published in Theosophy in New Zealand, (June 2004)]
Karma is one of the basic ideas of Theosophy along with its twin doctrine, reincarnation. It is sometimes stated as a Law of Karma and is generally acknowledged as a fact by members of the Theosophical Society. But what, exactly, is this law? That question was put rhetorically by Sri Krishna to his disciple Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita (4.16; my translation): “What is karma, what non-karma? About this even the wise are confused. Therefore 1 will declare what karma is, knowing which you will be freed from harm.”
Krishna then proceeded to indicate the relation of karma to one’s duty (Sanskrit dharma) and also stated that doing nothing is just as much a form of action (karma) as is engaging in activity. But one must remember that in Sanskrit the word karma means merely “action,” whereas Westerners who have adopted the term tend to use it to refer either to the action-reaction cycle or just to the reaction alone, which in Sanskrit is called phala, literally “fruit.” The latter, karma interpreted as reaction, seems to be the intended meaning in that Beatles (John Lennon, editor) song “Instant Karma” which begins: “Instant karma gonna get you, gonna knock you right on the head! You better get yourself together. Pretty soon you’re gonna be dead.”
Taking the term karma in its broadest sense, one can find examples of it in many of the world’s religions and philosophies. For most Christians, it is indicated in their idea of God’s revenge, as, for example, in St. Paul’s letter to the Romans (12.19) translated in the King James version as “Vengeance is mine; I will repay saith the Lord.” That is also a usual view of the term in Judaism and Islam, although “vengeance” is unlikely to be what Paul intended by the Greek verb ekdikein,which has the general meaning of “giving judgement” or “carrying out justice,” usually interpreted or misinterpreted as “revenge.” In India, Jains give karma a materialistic interpretation: actions produce a kind of “karmic dirt” which covers the soul (called jiva in their philosophy) and obscures its inherent omniscience. According to Jains, both moral and immoral acts produce such “dirt”; good acts produce a kind of translucent “dirt” that allows at least some of the soul’s brilliance to manifest, whereas bad acts produce opaque “dirt” which obscures the soul’s inherent nature. Hindus hold a variety of views on the subject. The Sankhya philosophy, as found in the Bhagavad Gita, interprets karma as a natural law that results from the action of the qualities (gunas) of matter. The more orthodox Mimamsa and Nyaya philosophies, similar to Jainism, claim that karma is a kind of unseen, subtle substance. Vedantins interpret karma as a causal law under the guidance of God (Ishvara).
The Buddhist view, which seems to be the one Annie Besant adopts in her book Karma, interprets karma psychologically as the working of our mind and emotions, called in Pali khandas (Sanskrit skandhas, literally “heaps”), especially our habit patterns or sannkaras (Sanskrit samskaras). H. P. Blavatsky occasionally uses terms like “karma-nemesis” (The Secret Doctrine 2:367) or the “Law of Retribution” (ibid., 1:165, 187), which sounds like fatalism or strict determinism, although she does not interpret the terms that way. She writes (ibid., 2:368): “For 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. It is not, therefore, Karma that rewards or punishes, but it is we who reward or punish ourselves, according as we work with, through and along with Nature, abiding by the laws on which that harmony depends, or — breaking them.
In some Theosophical literature, karma seems to be treated as a kind of “divine” mechanism for reward or punishment, similar to the orthodox Christian view. For instance, Leadbeater claims that the sinking of Atlantis was punishment for the influence of “black magic” practiced by people in that ancient culture, rather than, say, to normal geological factors such as plate tectonics. Other Theosophical literature, such as Light on the Path (in the essay entitled “Karma”), claims that we can not understand karma until we are no longer affected by it!
Despite the latter admonition, Theosophical writers have not been reluctant to detail how the law of karma works. Blavatsky states that this universal law is under the direction of lofty beings called Lipikas (literally “scribes”), a view also found in some of Leadbeater’s writings. Blavatsky writes (ibid., 1:104): “Mystically, these divine Beings are connected with Karma, the Law of Retribution, for they are the Recorders, or Annalists, who impress on the (to us) invisible tablets of the Astral Light . . . a faithful record of every act, and even thought, of man; of all that was, is, or ever will be, in the phenomenal Universe.” What she calls the “Astral Light” has also been called the Akashic Records.
C. Jinarajadasa describes the working of karma and reincarnation by means of an educational analogy: each life is a “day in school,” in which we are to learn certain lessons. If we fail to learn them, we have to repeat them in a future life. The essay on “Karma” in Light on the Path uses a tangled electrical wire or rope analogy, although stating that the analogy is incomplete. But these are all rather simplistic approaches to understanding karma. Further complicating the picture is the fact that human beings are interconnected with each other and, ultimately, with all nature. Thus there is also our interaction with various groups, described as family, social group (clan or caste), political entity, racial, and religious karma. And because we are thinking and emotional, as well as physical, beings, our actions (karma) on other levels of our nature also produce their effects (phala). Obviously, then, the Law of Karma is extremely complicated.
Edgar Cayce’s discussion of karma further complicates things. He has suggested that the results of action can occur in three different ways: (1) the effect is identical to the cause; (2) the effect is similar to the cause; and (3) there is a symbolic correlation between the cause and the effect. He gives both negative and positive examples of all of these. For instance, a positive case of (1) would be if a person was kind and loving in one life, that person would be reborn in a kind, loving family in a subsequent life. A negative example of (1) would be if one were to abandon one’s family in one life, one would be abandoned by the family in a future life. A positive instance of (2) might be that an explorer in one life would become a scientist in the subsequent life, exploring the world in a different way. Negatively, if one were to make one’s spouse unhappy in one life, one would have difficulty forming affectionate, meaningful relations in the next life, perhaps never getting married. Cayce gives as an example of a positive instance of (3) being materially wealthy in one life and intellectually or spiritually wealthy in the next. Or, negatively, being deliberately “blind” to the truth in one life and being reborn physically blind.
Annie Besant develops what might be termed the “mechanics” of karma in her book. One should consult it for her ideas. In a general sense, we create our own character and are attracted to certain places, people, and situations by means of our thoughts and feelings. We create the “field” for our own health or disease, for peace or war, for obedience to the law or criminal behavior, for religious tolerance or prejudice, for sexism and racism and nationalism, as well as for brotherhood. In the final analysis, it isn’t really important that we understand the “mechanics” of the law of karma, but merely that we realize there is such a law. Karma assures us that we live in a moral as well as orderly universe, a universe of justice as well as an intelligible universe. Our attitude, then, should be to act in the most constructive, altruistic manner possible, realizing that such loving action will inevitably benefit not only ourselves, but humanity as well, at least in some small measure.
It is wisdom and moral insight (Sanskrit buddhi) that we need, not smug self-congratulation or vengeance. As Sri Krishna admonishes Arjuna (who is confused about what to do), we lose buddhi when we are captivated by sensory or sensual things (Gita, 2:62-63), but that insight, that buddhi, is “quickly established” when we have a serene or tranquil mind (ibid. 2:64-65) and act with a kind of detachment (ibid. 3:19). That is one of the reasons for engaging in daily meditation and acting from a sense of altruism or love. Blavatsky, in fact, defined Theosophy as “altruism.” And C. Jinarajadasa once said, “Loving action is Divine Wisdom at work; and he who acts lovingly will inevitably come to be Wisdom.”
That, I think, is all we really need to understand about this very complicated law known as karma.