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The Law Of Karma

"Karma" is a term in general use among the Hindus, and the Western

believers in Reincarnation, the meaning of which is susceptible of

various shades of definition and interpretation. It is most important to

all students of the subject of Reincarnation, for it is the companion

doctrine--the twin-truth--to the doctrine of Metempsychosis. Strictly

speaking, "Karma" is the Law of Cause and Effect as applied to the life

he soul--the law whereby it reaps the results of its own sowing, or

suffers the reaction from its own action. To the majority of

Reincarnationists, however, it has a larger meaning, and is used in the

sense of the Law of Justice, or the Law of Reward and Punishment,

operating along the lines of personal experience, personal life, and

personal character.

Many authorities hold that the original idea of Karma was that of a

great natural law operating along exact lines, as do the laws of

mathematics and chemistry, bringing forth the exact effect from every

cause, and being, above all, questions of good or evil, reward or

punishment, morality or immorality, etc., and acting as a great natural

force above all such questions of human conduct. To those who still

adhere to this conception, Karma is like the Law of Gravitation, which

operates without regard to persons, morals or questions of good and

evil, just as does any other great natural law. In this view the only

"right" or "wrong" would be the effect of an action--that is, whether it

was conducive to one's welfare and that of the race, or the reverse. In

this view, if a child places its hand on a hot stove, the action is

"wrong," because it brings pain and unhappiness, although the act is

neither moral or immoral. And another action is "right" because it

brings happiness, well-being and satisfaction, present and future,

although the act was neither moral nor immoral. In this view there can

be neither reward nor punishment, in the common acceptation of the term,

although in another sense there is a reward for such "right" doing, and

a punishment for such "wrong" doing, as the child with the burnt hand

may testify to.

In this sense of the term, some of the older schools of Reincarnation

accepted Karma as determining the Re-Birth, along the lines of Desire

and Attraction, holding that the souls' character would attract it to

re-birth along the lines of its strongest desires, and in such

environment as would give it the greatest opportunity to work out those

desires into action, taking the pains and pleasures of experience

arising from such action, and thus moulding a new, or fuller character,

which would create new Karma, which would determine the future birth,

etc., and so on, and on. Those holding to this view believed that in

this way the soul would learn its lesson, with many a crack over the

knuckles, and with the pain of many an experience that would tend to

turn it into the road most conducive to spiritual happiness and

well-being; and lead it away from the road of material desires and

pleasures, because the repeated experiences had shown that no true

spiritual well-being was to be obtained therefrom. In other words, the

soul, in its spiritual childhood, was just like a little child in the

physical world, learning by experience that some things worked for its

"good" and others for "bad." This view naturally carried with it the

idea that true ethics would show that whatever tended toward the

advancement of the soul was "good," and whatever retarded its

advancement was "bad," in spite of any arbitrary standard of right or

wrong erected by man during the ages, and which standard has constantly

changed from time to time, is changing now, and always will change.

But the Hindu mind, especially, soon enlarged upon this original idea of

Karma, and the priests of India soon had the idea of Karma working as a

great rewarder of "good," and a great punisher of "evil." Corresponding

to the rewards and punishments in the future life, as taught by

Christian preachers, the Hindu priests held over the sinner the terrors

of Karma; and the rewards promised the good people from the same source

served to spur on the worshiper to actions in accordance with the ethics

of the particular church preaching the doctrine. It was taught that the

man's future state, in the next incarnation, and perhaps for many

others, depended upon his state of "goodness," in accordance with the

laws of the church and priestly teaching--surely as powerful an argument

and as terrifying a threat as the orthodox "bribe of heaven, and threat

of hell" of the Western world. The effect of this teaching is seen among

the masses of the but slightly educated Hindu classes of today, who are

very desirous of acquiring "merit" by performing some "good" deed, such

as bestowing alms upon the wandering religious mendicant; making

contributions to the temples, etc., as well as performing the acts of

ordinary good will toward men; and who are as equally anxious to avoid

acquiring "demerit" from the lack of proper observances, and the

performance of improper actions. While the general effect of this may be

in the direction of holding the ignorant masses in the ethical road most

conducive to the public weal, it also has a tendency to foster

credulity, superstition and imposition, just as do similar teachings in

any land, time, under the cover of any religion. There is a strong

family resemblance between these teachings among all the religions, and

there are many men who hold that this "crack of the theological whip" is

most necessary for the keeping of the masses of the people in the strait

road of morality, they being held incapable of the practice of "doing

good for good's sake, and avoiding evil because it is evil." We shall

not discuss this question--decide it for yourself.

One of the strongest applications of the above mentioned form of the

doctrine in India is the teaching that the caste of the man in his next

incarnation will be determined by his degree of "good conduct" in the

present life--and that his present caste has been determined by his

conduct in his previous lives. No one who has not studied the

importance of "caste" in India can begin to understand how powerful a

lever this teaching is upon the people of India. From the exalted

Brahman caste, the priestly caste--down to the Sudra caste of unskilled

laborers, or even still further down to the Pariahs or outcasts, the

caste lines are strongly marked; the higher caste person deeming it the

greatest disgrace to be touched by one of an inferior caste, or to eat

food prepared by a lower-caste person, and so on in every act of daily

life. The only comparison possible to the American mind is the attitude

of the old-time Southerner toward the lowest class of negroes, and even

in this case the prejudice does not extend so far as in the case of the

Hindus, for the Southerner will eat food cooked by a negro servant, and

will permit the latter to shave him, act as his valet, etc., something

at which the high-caste Hindu would be horrified on the part of one

below him in caste. This being understood, it is easy to see how careful

a high-caste Hindu would be to avoid performing actions which might rob

him of his caste in his next life, and how powerful an incentive it is

to a low-caste Hindu to strive for birth in a higher caste after many

incarnations. To people holding such a view, birth in a low caste is the

mark of crime and evil action performed in a previous life, and the

low-born is accordingly felt to be worthy of no respect. We understand,

from Hindu acquaintances, that this idea is gradually being dispelled in

India, and an era of common human brotherhood and common interest is

beginning to manifest itself.

In the Western world, the Reincarnationists, without doubt, have been

greatly affected by the prevailing orthodox Hindu conception of Karma,

rather than by the Grecian and general occult conception. Although there

are many who regard Karma as rather a moulder of character, and

consequently a prime factor in the re-birth, rather than as a dispenser

of rewards and punishments--still, there are many who, discarding the

orthodox Devil of their former faith, have found a worthy substitute

for him in their conception of Karma, and manifest the same terror and

fear of the new devil as of the old one--and his name may be summed up

as FEAR, in both cases.

Theosophists have discussed the matter of Karma very thoroughly, and

their leading authorities have written much about it, its various

interpretations showing in the shades of opinion among the writers.

Generally speaking, however, it may be said that they have bridged over

the chasm between the "natural law" idea and that of "the moral law,"

with its rewards and punishments, by an interpretation which places one

foot on each conception, holding that there is truth in each. Of course,

justice requires the reference of that student to the Theosophical

writings themselves, for a detailed understanding of their views, but we

feel that a brief summary of their general interpretation would be in

order at this place.

One of their leading authorities states that the Law of Karma is

automatic in action, and that there is no possible escape from it. He

likewise holds that Absolute Justice is manifested in its operations,

the idea of mercy or wrath being absent from it; and that, consequently,

every debt must be paid in full, to the last penny, and that there is no

vicarious atonement or exceptions made in answer to supplications to a

higher source. But he particularly states that this action of the law

must not be confused with ordinary reward and punishment for "good deed

or bad," but that the law acts just as does any other law of Nature,

just as if we put our hand in the fire we shall be burned as a natural

consequence, and not as a punishment. In his statement of this view he

says: "We hold that sorrow and suffering flow from sin just precisely in

that way, under the direct working of natural law. It may be said,

perhaps, that, obviously, the good man does not always reap his reward

of good results, nor does the wicked man always suffer. Not always

immediately; not always within our ken; but assuredly, eventually and

inexorably." The writer then goes on to define his conception of Good

and Evil. He says: "We shall see more clearly that this must be so if

we define exactly what we mean by good and evil. Our religious brothers

would tell us that that was good which was in accordance with God's

will, and that that was evil which was in opposition to it. The

scientific man would say that that was good which helped evolution, and

whatever hindered it was evil. Those two men are in reality saying

exactly the same thing; for God's will for man is evolution, and when

that is clearly realized all conflict between religion and science is at

once ended. Anything, therefore, which is against evolution of humanity

as a whole is against the Divine will. We see at once that when a man

struggles to gain anything for himself at the expense of others he is

distinctly doing evil, and it is evil because it is against the interest

of the whole. Therefore the only true gain is that which is a gain for

the race as a whole, and the man who gains something without cost or

wrong to anyone is raising the whole race somewhat in the process. He is

moving in the direction of evolution, while the other man is moving

against it."

The same writer then gives the list of the three kinds of Karma,

according to the Hindu teachings, namely: "1. There is the Samchita, or

'piled up' Karma--the whole mass that still remains behind the man not

yet worked out--the entire unpaid balance of the debit and credit

account; 2. There is the Prarabdha, or 'beginning' Karma--the amount

apportioned to the man at the commencement of each life--his destiny for

that life, as it were; 3. There is the Kriomana Karma, that which we are

now, by our actions in this present life, making for the future." He

further states: "That second type, the Prarabdha Karma, is the only

destiny which can be said to exist for man. That is what an astrologer

might foretell for us--that we have apportioned to us so much good or

evil fortune--so much the result of the good and evil actions of our

past lives which will react on us in this. But we should remember always

that this result of previous action can never compel us to action in

the present. It may put us under conditions in which it will be

difficult to avoid an act, but it can never compel us to commit it. The

man of ordinary development would probably yield to the circumstances

and commit the act; but he may assert his free will, rise superior to

the circumstances, and gain a victory and a step in evolution. So with a

good action, no man is forced into that either, but an opportunity is

given to him. If he takes it certain results will follow--not

necessarily a happy or a wealthy life next time, but certainly a life of

wider opportunity. That seems to be one of the things that are quite

certain--that the man who has done well in this life has always the

opportunity of doing still better in the next. This is nature's reward

for good work--the opportunity to do more work. Of course, wealth is a

great opportunity, so the reward often comes in that form, but the

essence of the reward is the opportunity and not the pleasure which may

be supposed to accompany the wealth." Another Theosophical writer says

further on the subject of Karma: "Just as all these phases of Karma

have sway over the individual man, so they similarly operate upon races,

nations and families. Each race has its karma as a whole. If it be good,

that race goes forward; if bad, it goes out--annihilated as a

race--though the souls concerned take up their karma in other races and

bodies. Nations cannot escape their national karma, and any nation that

has acted in a wicked manner must suffer some day, be it soon or late."

The same writer sums up the idea of individual unhappiness in any life,

as follows: "(a) It is punishment for evil done in past lives; or (b) it

is discipline taken up by the Ego for the purpose of eliminating defects

or acquiring fortitude and sympathy. When defects are eliminated it is

like removing the obstruction in an irrigating canal which then lets the

water flow on. Happiness is explained in the same way--the result of

prior lives of goodness."

The general idea of a number of writers on the subject of Karma is that

"as ye sow, so shall ye reap," brought down to a wonderful detail of

arrangement, and effect flowing from causes. This conception, carried to

its logical conclusion, would insist that every single bit of pain and

unhappiness in this life is the result of some bad deed done either in

the present life or in the past, and every bit of happiness, joy or

pleasure, the result of some good action performed either in the present

or past life. This conception of Karma affords us the most intricate,

complex and detailed idea of reward for good, and punishment for evil

(even when called "the operation of natural law") possible to the mind

of man. In its entirety, and carried to its last refinement of

interpretation and analysis, it has a tendency to bewilder and terrify,

for the chance of escape from its entangling machinery seems so slight.

But still, the same authorities inform us that every soul will surmount

these obstacles, and everyone will Attain--so there is no need to be

frightened, even if you accept the interpretation of doctrine in its


But there are some thinkers who carry this idea of retributive Karma to

such an extreme that they hold that every instance of physical pain,

disease, deformity, poverty, ill fortune, etc., that we see among

people, is the inevitable result of some moral wrong or crime committed

by that person in some past life, and that therefore every instance of

poverty, want or physical suffering is the just result of some moral

offense. Some of the extremists have gone so far as to hesitate at

relieving poverty, physical pain and suffering in others, lest by so

doing they might possibly be "interfering with Karma"--as if any great

Law could be "interfered with." While we, generally, have refrained from

insisting upon our personal preference of interpretation in this work,

we cannot refrain from so doing in this instance. We consider that such

an interpretation of the Law of Karma is forced and unnatural, and

results from the seeming natural tendency of the human mind to build up

devils for itself--and hells of one kind or another. Robbed of their

Devil, many people would attribute to their God certain devilish

qualities, in order that they may not be robbed of the satisfaction of

smugly thinking of the "just punishment" of others. And, if they have

also discarded the idea of a Personal God, their demand for a Devil

causes them to attribute certain devilish qualities to Natural Law. They

are bound to find their Devil somewhere--the primitive demand for the

Vengeful Spirit must manifest itself in one form or another.

These people confound the action of Cause and Effect on the Material and

Physical Plane, with Cause and Effect on the Spiritual Plane, whereas

all true occultists teach that the Cause operating on one plane

manifests effects upon the same plane. In this connection, we would call

your attention to the instance in the New Testament (John IX., 2), in

which Jesus was asked regarding the cause of the affliction of the man

who was BORN BLIND. "And his disciples asked him, saying, 'Master, who

did sin, this man, or his parents, that he was born blind?'" The

question being asked in order that Jesus might determine between the two

prevailing theories: (1) That the blindness was caused according to the

operation of the law of Moses, which held that the sins of the parents

were visited on the children unto the third and fourth generation; or

(2) that it was caused according to the Law of Karma, along the lines of

reincarnation, and because of some sin which the man had committed in

some past incarnation (for no other interpretation of the passage is

possible, and it shows the prevalence of the idea of Reincarnation among

the people of that time). But Jesus promptly brushed away these two

crude, primitive conceptions and interpretations, and in the light of

his superior spiritual knowledge answered: "Neither hath this man

sinned, nor his parents; but that the works of God should be manifest in

him," the explanation of the term "the works of God" being that Jesus

meant thereby the operation of the Laws of Nature imposed by

God--something above punishment for "sins," and which operated according

to invariable physical laws and which affected the just and the unjust

alike, just as do any natural laws. It is now known that many infants

are rendered blind by negligence of certain precautions at birth--this

may have been a case of that kind. We consider any attempt to attribute

physical infirmities to "sin" unconnected with the physical trouble to

be a reversion to primitive theological dogmas, and smacking strongly of

the "devil idea" of theology, of which we have spoken. And Poverty

results from economic conditions, and not as punishment for "Sin." Nor

is Wealth the reward of Virtue--far from it.

But before leaving this phase of the subject we would like to say that

many careful thinkers have been able to discern certain spiritual

benefits that have arisen from physical suffering, or poverty, and that

the sufferers often manifest a high degree of spiritual development and

growth, seemingly by reason of their pain. Not only this, but the divine

faculties of pity, help, and true sympathy, are brought out in others,

by reason thereof. We think that this view of the matter is far more

along the lines of true spirituality than that of want and disease as

"the punishment of sins committed in past lives." Even the human idea

of Justice revolts at this kind of "punishment," and, in fact, the

highest human justice and human law eliminates the idea of "punishment"

altogether, so far as reprisal or revenge is concerned, the penalty

being regarded merely as a deterrent of others, and a warning to the

criminal against further infractions of the law, and as a reformatory

agent--this at least is the theory of Human Law--no matter how

imperfectly it works out in practice--and we cannot think of Divine Law

being less just and equitable, less merciful and loving. The "eye for

eye, tooth for tooth" conception of human justice has been out-lived by

the race in its evolution.

After considering the above mentioned extreme ideas of "punishments,"

through the Law of Karma, we ask you to consider the following lines

written by a writer having great insight, and published in a leading

magazine several years ago. The idea of "The Kindergarten of God"

therein expressed, we think, is far nearer in accordance with the

highest Occult Teachings, than the other idea of "Divine Wrath" and

punishment for sin, along the lines of a misinterpretation of the Law of

Karma, worthy of the worshipers of some ancient Devil-God. Read this

little quotation carefully, and then determine which of the two views

seems to fit in better with your highest spiritual conceptions:

"A boy went to school. He was very little. All that he knew he had drawn

in with his mother's milk. His teacher (who was God) placed him in the

lowest class, and gave him these lessons to learn: Thou shalt not kill.

Thou shalt do no hurt to any living thing. Thou shalt not steal. So the

man did not kill; but he was cruel, and he stole. At the end of the day

(when his beard was gray--when the night was come), his teacher (who was

God) said: Thou hast learned not to kill. But the other lessons thou

hast not learned. Come back tomorrow.

"On the morrow he came back, a little boy. And his teacher (who was God)

put him in a class a little higher, and gave him these lessons to learn:

Thou shalt do no hurt to any living thing. Thou shalt not steal. Thou

shalt not cheat. So the man did no hurt to any living thing; but he

stole and he cheated. And at the end of the day (when his beard was

gray--when the night was come), his teacher (who was God) said: Thou

hast learned to be merciful. But the other lessons thou hast not

learned. Come back tomorrow.

"Again, on the morrow, he came back, a little boy. And his teacher (who

was God) put him in a class yet a little higher, and gave him these

lessons to learn: Thou shalt not steal. Thou shalt not cheat. Thou shalt

not covet. So the man did not steal; but he cheated, and he coveted. And

at the end of the day (when his beard was gray--when the night was

come), his teacher (who was God) said: Thou hast learned not to steal.

But the other lessons thou hast not learned. Come back, my child,


"This is what I have read in the faces of men and women, in the book of

the world, and in the scroll of the heavens, which is writ with

stars."--Berry Benson, in The Century Magazine, May, 1894.

But there is still another view of Karma held by some Western thinkers,

who received it from the Greek mystics and occultists, who in turn are

thought to have received it from ancient Egypt. These people hold that

the Law of Karma has naught to do with Man's theories of ethics, or

religious dogmas or creeds, but has as the basis of its operations only

Universal and Cosmic Principles of Action, applicable to the atom as

well as Man--to the beings above Man as well. And that these universal

principles of action have to do with the evolution of all things in

Nature, according to well established laws. And that the evolving soul

is continually striving to find the path along the lines of evolution,

being urged to by the unfolding spirit within it--and that that "path"

is always along the lines of least spiritual friction, and therefore

along the lines of the least ultimate spiritual pain. And that,

accordingly, Spiritual Pain is an indication to the evolving thing that

it is on the wrong path, and that it must find a better way

onward--which message it heeds by reason of the pain, and accordingly

seeks out for itself a better way, and one that will bring less

spiritual pain and greater ultimate spiritual satisfaction.

This teaching holds that all material things are a source of more or

less pain to the growing and evolving soul, which tends to urge it along

the line of the least spiritual resistence--the least spiritual

friction. It may be that the soul does not recognize the direction of

the urge, and insist in tasting this material pleasure (so-thought) and

then that--only to find that neither satisfy--that both are Dead Sea

Fruit--that both have the thorn attached to the flower--that all bring

pain, satiety and disgust--the consequence being that the tired and

wearied soul, when rested by the Lethal slumber, and then re-born has a

horror and distaste for the things which disgusted it in its previous

life, and is therefore urged toward opposite things. If the soul has not

been satiated--has not yet been pricked by the hidden thorn--it wishes

to go on further in the dream of material pleasure, and so it does,

until it learns its lesson. Finally, perceiving the folly and

worthlessness of materiality, it emerges from its cocoon and, spreading

out its newly found wings, takes its flight for higher planes of action

and being--and so on, and on, and on, forever.

Under this view people are not punished "for" their sins, but "by"

them--and "Sin" is seen to be merely a "mistake," not a crime. And Pain

arises not as a punishment for something done wrongly, but as a warning

sign of "hands off"; and consequently Pain is something by which we may

mount to higher things--to Something Better--and not a punishment. And

this idea holds, also, that on the physical plane physical law governs,

and physical effects follow physical causes; likewise on the mental

plane; likewise on the Spiritual Plane. And, therefore, it is absurd to

suppose that one suffers physical pain as a punishment for some moral

offense committed on another plane. On the contrary, however, this idea

holds that from the physical pain which was occasioned by the operation

of physical law alone one may develop higher spiritual states by reason

of a better understanding of the nature of pain in oneself and others.

And this idea refuses to recognize material pleasures or profits as a

reward for spiritual or moral actions.

On the whole this last mentioned conception of Karma refuses to use the

terms "reward and punishment," or even to entertain those ideas, but

instead sees in everything the working out of a great Cosmic Plan

whereby everything rises from lower to higher, and still higher. To it

Karma is but one phase of the great LAW operating in all planes and

forms of Life and the Universe. To it the idea that "THE UNIVERSE IS

GOVERNED BY LAW" is an axiom. And while to it ULTIMATE JUSTICE is also

axiomic, it sees not in the operation of penalties and reward--merits

and demerits--the proof of that Ultimate Justice; it looks for it and

finds it in the conception and realizing that ALL WORKS FOR GOOD--that

Everything is tending upward--that everything is justified and just,

because the END is ABSOLUTE GOOD, and that every tiny working of the

great cosmic machinery is turning in the right direction and to that

end. Consequently, each of us is just where he should be at the present

time--and our condition is exactly the very best to bring us to that

Divine Consummation and End. And to such thinkers, indeed, there is no

Devil but Fear and Unfaith, and all other devils are illusions, whether

they be called Beelzebub, Mortal-Mind, or Karma, if they produce Fear

and Unfaith in the All-Good. And such thinkers feel that the way to live

according to the Higher Light, and without fear of a Malevolent Karma,

is to feel one's relationship with the Universal Good, and then to "Live

One Day at a time--Doing the Best you Know How--and Be Kind"--knowing

that in the All-Good you live and move and have your being, and that

outside of that All-Good you cannot stray, for there is no

outside--knowing that THAT which brought you Here will be with you

There--that Death is but a phase of Life--and above all that THERE IS

NOTHING TO BE AFRAID OF--and that ALL IS WELL with God; with the

Universe; and with YOU!