Theosophical Notes, July 1955
Karma, Just and Unjust
We surmise that some readers, after perusing the above title, will first rub their eyes, then ask themselves whether we have gone crazy. For the literal meaning of the words is: "Justice, Just and Unjust."
Karma by definition, is universal law of cause and effect, operating on all planes, mental, moral, and physical, with inexorable precision. One might as well try to escape it as to escape space itself. The defined nature of it leaves only two alternatives: denial of its existence; or acceptance of it as both universal and just. To take any intermediate position is to replace the classic definition in both Theosophy and all the traditional religions and philosophies using the term, with some definition peculiarly that of the dissident individual. It is not intellectually honest to use a word whose meaning has been established for thousands of years, in some other sense. We would be interested to know, for instance, what sort of picture of law - or of the universe - was in the mind of the genius who wrote that "not one person in twenty thousand is now under karmic law." We know what was in the mind of Cayce, who committed similar but lesser errors in principle; the toxic heritage of a profoundly Christian background; of that sort of Christianity which recognizes no law but only the whims of a personal god as the modulus for the conduct of the universe.
On the face of it, the remark which inspired our title was as odd as the title itself: "I hope that you will not consider this as just karma!" It would be a natural remark for a Christian who did not believe in karma at all, but it is from a Theosophist of many year's standing. Now, just what sort of satisfactory answer are we supposed to give to such a remark? Shall we say: "Yes, in this case we have to agree that karma was not just?" It appears rather elementary to say that if there can be one case of injustice in the Universe, then the whole notion of karma falls down. If one, why draw the line at a thousand or millions, or billions?
What we suspect is that our correspondent is saying one thing and meaning another. Reading somewhat between the lines as to her experience with some Theosophists of which she has told us, we suspect that what she really means is: "I hope you will not complacently remark that this is just karma, and content yourself with just being self-satisfied about it!" The case as described is one of flagrant misunderstanding and bad treatment of a handicapped child in an institution; one of those which seem rather numerous because of sheer ignorance and obliviousness on the part of those in immediate charge ....
One of the curious psychological problems that we have often met with, and which Madame Blavatsky had occasion to refer to, is that of the Theosophist for whom karma is the perfect explanation of everything so long as it treats him properly, no matter what happens to others. In a case cited by her, a seemingly earnest and enthusiastic Theosophist for the first time met with a bitter personal misfortune, and exclaimed: "What more proof is needed that it is all a lie, that there is no karma, no justice!" The principles of Theosophy are all two-edged blades which enact surgery on the user as well as the objects of his observations. Just, so surely as anyone sets himself apart from karma and its victims, consciously or unconsciously classifying them as "poor miserable sinners" suffering punishments which he never, under any circumstance, could meet with, just so surely will nature call his hand and give him a thorough-going test of his earnestness, understanding, and honesty. He may have been bathing in his own moral self-righteousness, or in the glory of his own organization, which could not possibly fall upon the evil days that have overtaken others, or whatnot. He will be given the chance to learn what both sides of the coin look like; and woe betide at some future date if he fails to look!
H.P.B. pointed out that initiation into her Esoteric group brought with it a quick precipitation of pending karma; that those ready to endure it, and strong enough to endure it, would win through to bliss and power; but "woe to the coward who fears to let justice be done!" Of course the notion that there is karma of sorts from which oneself is necessarily exempt, and the covert gloating over the sorrows of others which is likely to result, are symptoms of great, even though secret, pride and vanity; and these are always the root of resentment, of hatred and bitterness of any kind arising from personal misfortune. Such attitudes involve a presupposition that the Universe itself is unjust; and the Universe takes the complainer at his own word, presenting him with seeming injustice on every side. He may thus find himself in a vicious circle in which he resents every misfortune; the resentment itself intensifies the trend toward trouble by a thousand effects within himself and on others; and increasing trouble brings increasing hate, self-pity, recrimination and revenge against individuals, mental or overt.
This ceases to be a theoretical or remote problem if one has had occasion to note in person the progress of any of these downward spirals. A Theosophist himself may begin one of them apparently quite casually, by failing to note that his reaction to some incident leaves in his mind a lasting residue of resentment and rankling sense of injustice - no matter what the incident. The end of such a spiral is the encasement of the soul in hatred impenetrable by reason or kindness on the part of others, and thus begins a one-way progress on the left-hand path, and to personal annihilation. For a Theosophist, there is a particularly subtle trap in the process, in that sometimes being ashamed to admit, even to himself, that he does harbor personal hatred, the emotion is subconsciously metamorphosed into a hatred seemingly on behalf of others, the "oppressed," or "injured." If the reader has not met with individuals who foam with hatred for "oppressors" of one kind or another, but who at the same time have not a spark of real sympathy or compassion for the "oppressed" - well, we have met them, and not entirely outside the ranks of Theosophy, either.
Is it possible actually to accept wrong, insult, and injury, without resentment toward the agency thereof? So far as the mass of humanity is concerned, as well as the overwhelming majority of Theosophists, No! These reactions are the inevitable responses of a humanity which in this cycle is mostly animal in nature; they are the self preservative mechanisms of the animal, transferred into our supposedly human life. The Theosophist differs from the other human animals around him only in that it has been his fortune to have the means of discovering that the animal state is not his proper state, and of some instruction as to how to get out of it. He may or may not really try it. To escape these reactions is a long, slow task, to which a major part of one's will must be devoted, for years, perhaps for a lifetime or many lifetimes. But until it is finished, a truly complete understanding of the nature of life cannot be had, and obviously wherever hatred, resentment, or discontent exists, unity with the Self cannot be realized. The Self contains all these people, and all the circumstances, that we resent; they are indissolubly part of us in essence, and to deny the unity in thought and feeling is to lie in the face of the Supreme. No thing or person affecting us can do so except as the agency of our own personalities - past or present. If we must curse anything, let us curse our own folly.
Quite a series of complex psychological problems are involved. The modern psychiatrist often tends to advise one to "blow off steam" and not suppress resentments, lest they create innumerable physical and mental evils in oneself, and result ultimately in some more serious explosion. He has a fairly good apparent basis for this in experience. On the other hand, Theosophy insists that such feelings should be "suppressed;" though one finds in The Mahatma Letters the remark in reply to an accusation against another Mahatma of easily getting angry, that it is much more honest to show your anger than merely to pretend, according to Western convention, not to be angry at all. It seems that the trouble here, as with the control of any other undesirable emotion, is in what the word "suppress" means. In practice, nine times out of ten, among Theosophists as among others, it merely means "not to show." Be as furious as you wish, but manage not to show it, and you will get credit for being a very magnanimous person. But the facts show that this kind of magnanimous person is often just the one who goes into nervous breakdowns or suddenly kills somebody. In Theosophy, he is likely to come up as a tyrannical "Leader," or put forth whole sets of weird notions or antics of one kind or another.
Note that the refusal to show an undesirable emotion, while yet indulging in it, merely adds hypocrisy to the original offense. On the other hand, the habit of indulging in expressing one's feelings on every occasion, like a squalling infant kicking its heels on the floor, will soon deprive you of most of your social contacts, get you the reputation of a first-class so and so, and lead to increasing lack of self-control. What is the answer? Just don't have those feelings. As long as you do have them, which as said, may be for some years or some lifetimes, admit frankly to yourself that you have them, and that to that extent you are a failure and hypocrite. Assuming that position and working on it will leave you so little time to dwell on the cussedness of others that resentment toward them will tend to fade out, and thus a benign rather than a vicious circle can get started. Some very powerful help can be counted on if we keep working on the problem; because we are then working toward the living reassertion in our life of the powers and qualities of the Self, which will come to our aid as fast as we make it possible. Theosophy sets before the individual, not only the ideal but the possibility of becoming a Christ.
Does acceptance of karmic law require one to stand by when evil is done; without effort or protest? Buddha said: "It is a beautiful thing to impede an unjust man; if it is impossible to impede him, it is a beautiful thing not to aid him." Buddha did not say that it is a beautiful thing to hate him or kill him. Now it is not possible actually to inflict an injustice on anyone so far as that person is concerned. Nothing can be done to him that he has not done to other's, and this is immutable law. But this principle is one particularly sharp on both edges. Taken in one sense, it can lead not merely to complacence in the presence of evil, but to the active commission of it. The most extreme case we ever heard of was that of an apprehended bandit and murderer - in Norway, oddly enough, where one least expects that sort of thing - who claimed that as he could only inflict on people what karma had decreed them, in killing and robbing them; he was only hastening the beneficent progress of nature. The court took a dim view of this notion - and of karma as well.
The basic problem is rather far-reaching. We know one Theosophist who regards suffering - the suffering of other people, that is - with much resignation, and a frequent remark to the effect that suffering is good for the personal man. In another case, when we pointed out to a "follower" that some actions of a certain "leader" inevitably brought sorrow and suffering to others, she replied that as suffering was a means of enlightenment, one need not hesitate to inflict suffering on others, but only need to be sure that they could endure it. And who was qualified to "be sure" of such a matter? Well - guess who!
This problem exists in all levels from an unconscious callousness toward suffering, to an active pleasure in seeing others "get what is coming to them." The latter now and then burgeons into an active cooperation in retribution. Prevention of evil is part of the Theosophical way of life; retribution never. Those who confuse the two, like those who are complacent about the misery of other people, have met Theosophy too soon.
All of which illustrates that the right hand and left hand paths lies inside, not outside; and that a man makes his own choice no matter what the books say. The books are the means of kill or cure; the man himself decides which use to make of them. Theosophy is not alone in that respect. Look, for instance, at St. Francis and Torquemada, both fervent Christians as far as books and church went!
It is here that books - even the Secret Doctrine and the Gita fail to solve the whole problem of the Theosophical mission. There is a common notion to the effect that if a given Theosophical organization keeps its books true in wording to the original, and its speakers likewise, then it is accomplishing its Theosophical duty. But the true effect on the people will be determined by what the "teachers" themselves are doing about the books, by what their real way of life and thought may be. If they are hypocrites, people with an aptitude for inner understanding will be repelled, perhaps unconsciously to themselves; and like will attract like, the books regardless. In this manner, Karma works many an unseen result.
Karma can never be understood as a law governing each individual as a case all by himself. Mankind is one and karma is one. All actions are interactions, and our own part can never make sense if dissected out from the entire network. The notion, in its crudely simplified form, that what I do to you, you or someone else does to me in another life, is only a primitive approach to the real problem. In part I made you, and you made me; and what we do to one another is a function of what we have made of one another.
This again is only part of it. Spoken and written words are only the flotsam and jetsam of thoughts wrecked on the rough material shores of the deep sea of thought and feeling of which all men are immersed denizens. Though the surface attention of the outer mind be directed exclusively to the material sign, thus being blind to the thought, will, and feeling that propel it, there is a deeper self within us that listens and understands better because it looks directly on ideas, and sees them in the other mind.
One may listen to an eloquent hypocrite and go away praising, seemingly convinced. But somehow, in some way, he does not get there again, or if he does, by and by drifts away, not quite knowing just what was lacking or unconvincing. The Self knew; and warned the "shadow" away
from what might in time have darkened it still more. To live karma is the only means of bringing its truth home to others; and doubly the only way of understanding it ourselves. To live it is to live without anger, without resentment, without fear; no matter what. This is to live as the Christ lived. Christendom in general has found this so difficult that to excuse the failure of human nature, it raised Jesus to a unique status, to which no human might aspire; and in so doing, blocked off man from all his highest potencies. Is it possible to live like that? It is possible. It is not possible for everyone. That stature has to be grownup to very slowly and very painfully. No one has ever yet passed that way without bitter complaint from the personal segment of his nature, and if he has not had times of despair, or fear, or hate, that have blotted out for moments or hours all his lessons, then it is not on that way he has passed. To become a Christ inevitably involves crucifixion in one form or another; many of which are far worse than the material experience.
The spiritual child cannot be blamed for not yet having become a man; he can be blamed, and mightily will be blamed; by karma itself, for any deliberate renunciation of man's estate in favor of retaining infancy.
This is what a man does who denies the principle of non-resentment in addition to yielding to the temptation to violate it. If, under any provocation, he finds in himself either hate or self-pity - very near relatives these - then he should know that there is still enough wrong in him to work on for a long time yet without worrying too much about other people.
The ancient books call on the warrior to defend the right and innocent, not to stand by complacently. But the "warrior," according to the Kshatriya ideal is a man incapable of hate. Only such a man can truly know when to fight, whom to fight, how to deal justice in victory, and how to accept defeat without rancor, while planning an undaunted return to the field. Should we be bystanders so long as we are incapable warriors in this respect? No, for thus we would never become anything but bystanders. A coward must learn bravery by starting to fight in the midst of fear; the clumsy swordsman must obtain his skill through the pains of many a wound; the door to battle experience is always open, and the task will never be easier than at the time it first appears. It will become harder with delay, and perhaps at last impossible.
How shall a man, men being what they are, be compassionate toward those who suffer, knowing the suffering to be just? Here is the problem of a thoroughly poisoned moral nature that is the common property of almost all mankind. Some time, somewhere in the dark genesis of this Kali Yuga, men began to lose faith in and sight of karma in its true sense. Hurting from wrongs, and yielding to anger thereby, it became the notion that karma, - which gradually became the "will of the gods" - being fallible, it behooved man himself to make good the deficiency; upon man himself to punish. Having taken this responsibility upon himself, karma relentlessly insisted upon his carrying it out to the full, withdrawing its own constabulary wherever a rash man stood ready to undertake the task. Hence, indeed it came to be often a case of kill or be killed, of self-protection by a society that had destroyed the natural channels of protection. But punishment and self-protection became indistinguishable from revenge and revenge means hate. Thus, deserved suffering being the proper lot only of those whom we hate; as we think, all compassion for suffering known to be deserved vanished, and, with few exceptions, it is so today. But in the Eternal Universe, suffering is suffering, entitled to compassion in accordance with its intensity, whatever the origin. A child burns its fingers from ignorance and folly. Do we add sneer, and punishment to its suffering? Well - some do.
One of the Church fathers of the Dark Age claimed that the greatest joy of the saved saint was the privilege of leaning over the battlements of heaven to sniff the odor of roasting from below - not exactly what he said, but what he meant. This may be good enough for some kinds of Christians; but what a Theosophist should ask himself is:"If it were to work betterment to the great common good; would I be willing to change places on the grid with the poor devil myself?" For if the answer is negative, he has still a part of the journey to make, and sometime, somewhere life itself will yet present him with the opportunity to try out, in sample if not otherwise, the flavor of utterly unrewarded sacrifice - or what seems so.
If from one point of view, karma is never unjust, being immutable Law; from another point of view it is never quite just. There is a passage in The Key to Theosophy that has confused many:
..."Whatever the sin and dire results of the original Karmic transgression of the now incarnated Egos no man (or the outer material and periodical form of the Spiritual Entity) can be held with any degree of justice responsible for the consequences of his birth. He does not ask to be born, nor can he choose the parents that will give him life. In every respect he is a victim to his environment, the child of circumstances over which he has no control; and if each of his transgressions were impartially investigated, there would be found nine out of every ten cases when he was the one sinned against, rather than the sinner. Life is at best a heartless play, a stormy sea to cross, and a heavy burden often too difficult to bear. The greatest philosophers have tried in vain to fathom and find out its raison d'etre, and have all failed except those who had the key to it, namely, the Eastern sages. Life is, as Shakespeare describes it: -
"...but a walking shadow - a poor player.
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing ....."
Nothing in its separate parts, yet of the greatest importance in its collectivity or series of lives.At any rate, almost every individual life is, in its full development, a sorrow, And are we to believe that poor, helpless man, after being tossed about like a piece of rotten timber on the angry billows of life, is, if he proves too weak to resist them, to be punished by a sempiternity of damnation, or even a temporary punishment? Never! Whether a great or an average sinner, good or bad, guilty or innocent, once delivered of the burden of physical life, the tired and worn-out Manu ("thinking Ego") has won the right to a period of absolute rest and bliss. The same unerringly wise and just rather than merciful Law, which inflicts upon the incarnated Ego the Karmic punishment for every sin committed during the preceding life on Earth, provides for the now disembodied Entity a long lease of mental rest, i.e., the entire oblivion of every sad event, aye, to the smallest painful thought, that took place in its last life as a personality, leaving in the soul-memory but the reminiscence of that which was bliss, or led to happiness. Plotinus, who said that our body was the true river of Lethe, for "souls plunged into it forget all," meant more than he said. For, as our terrestrial body is like Lethe, so is our celestial body in Devachan, and much more... (Chap. VIII, subhead: "On the Reward and Punishment of the Ego.")
This is a relative statement, made from the point of view of the personal man, to whom the problem of life does seem like this; and who accordingly allots himself a long compensation in Devachan. This is a local equilibrization of an illusionary situation; a little whirlpool of seeming inequity in the giant Egoic stream of man's evolution is smoothed out. In the long run, in the great summing up at the end of Maha-Manvantara, it will be seen that the "adjustment" was as illusionary and as immaterial as the "curing" of an imaginary wound on a baby's hand by a mother's kiss.
Nevertheless, in a very true sense, at that particular time the man was right in that he did not have then what he deserved. No man, at any given time, has exactly what he deserves in the sense of all that he has earned. We are spinning out new webs of karma all the time, for good or evil. The processes of nature cannot possibly keep up with us, especially as we weave good one moment, bad the next. If there were indeed gods of justice, and record keepers in heaven for the soul, they would long ago have gone mad, or thrown away their pens and whips and covered their heads in confusion, unable to cope with the undependability of mankind.
A definition of Karma is that of "an undeviating tendency in the Universe to restore equilibrium." It is always restoring our equilibrium, but never finishes the task, for to finish it is to finish the being himself. He is in his very nature as a personal man, a complex of imbalances. Should he accomplish a true inner equilibrium between all the results of his deeds, he would cease to be discernible in the Universe as an individual: "The dewdrop in the shining sea."
This is Nirvana, the ultimate - for our cycle - balancing and squaring of all the mans accounts for good. Perfect bliss, perfect peace, perfect justice at last accomplished after the long ordeal. To contrast it is the opposite - perfect justice for those perfected in evil; the final compensation for all evil deeds in a being all evil - annihilation. This is the return to the great bosom of Space by the road of Prakriti, as against the other road of Purusha. Only at one goal or another is perfect justice at last found, in the sense of perfect and final compensation for all deeds.
Justice ever pursues us without ever quite catching up; we are always within reach of the whip, or of the soothing balm simultaneously borne to meet the contradictions of our own nature; but never fall under the full weight of the one or the full blessing of the other. Fortunately for us; who would dare test his ability to stand under either?
What a man sees at any point is his current situation. With
any real power of perception, he can trace out many a line of cause and
effect in his own nature, and thus verify to that extent the existence
of the Law. But he can never as an individual personality see it
completely demonstrated, because neither his own nature nor his own
fate are yet complete.
A phrase often repeated is: "When the lesson is learned, the necessity ceases." If we suffer, the fact is proof positive that we have not yet learned the necessary lesson. If we kick against the pricks and suffer with bitterness, it means not only that we have not learned the lesson of that particular suffering, but are piling up for ourselves some new ones to learn. One who does not accept at least in will and thought, even though the flesh and the Kamic nature be weak, his misfortunes, is no more a Theosophist than is he who accepts indifferently the woes of others.
"..... Nemesis is without attributes; that while the dreaded goddess is absolute and immutable as a Principle, it is we ourselves - nations and individuals - who propel her to action and give the impulse to its direction. KARMA-NEMESIS is the creator of nations and mortals, but once created, it is they who make of her either a fury or a rewarding Angel ... unwise they, who believe that the goddess may be propitiated by whatever sacrifices and prayers, or have her wheel diverted from the path it has once taken. ... Karma-Nemesis is the synonym of Providence, minus design, goodness, and every other finite attribute and qualification, so unphilosophically attributed to the latter. An Occultist or a philosopher will not speak of the goodness or cruelty of Providence; but, identifying it with Karma-Nemesis, he will teach that nevertheless it guards the good and watches over them in this, as in future lives; and that it punishes the evil-doer - aye, even to his seventh rebirth. So long, in short, as the effect of his having thrown into perturbation even the smallest atom in the Infinite World of harmony, has not been finally readjusted. 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 to whether we work with, through and along with nature, abiding by the laws on which that Harmony depends, or - break them. (Secret Doctrine, I, 642-3.)
Consider with me that the individual existence is a rope which stretches from the infinite to the infinite and has no end and no commencement, neither is it capable of being broken. This rope is formed of innumerable fine threads, which, lying closely together, form its thickness. These threads are colorless, are perfect in their qualities of straightness, strength and levelness. This rope, passing as it does through all places, suffers strange accidents. Very often a thread is caught and becomes attached, or perhaps is only violently pulled away from its even way. Then for a great time it is disordered, and it disorders the whole. Sometimes one is stained with dirt or with color; and not only does the stain run on further than the spot of contact, but it discolors other of the threads. And remember that the threads are living - are like electric wire, more, and are like quivering nerves. How far, then, must the stain, the drag awry, be communicated! But eventually the long strands, the living threads which in their unbroken continuity form the individual, pass out of the shadow into the shine. Then the threads are no longer colorless, but golden; once more they lie together, level. Once more harmony is established between them; and from that harmony within the greater harmony is perceived ... (Light on the Path, p. 87)
"But who shall dare to tax Eternal Justice?" Logic and simple common sense, we answer: if we are made to believe in the "original Sin," in one life, on this Earth only, for every Soul, and in an anthropomorphic Deity, who seems to have created some men only for the pleasure of condemning them to eternal hell-fire ... why should not every man endowed with reasoning powers condemn in his turn such a villainous Deity? Life would become unbearable, if one had to believe in the God created by man's unclean fancy. Luckily he exists only in human dogmas, and in the unhealthy imagination of some poets .... This Law - (of retribution) whether Conscious or Unconscious - predestines nothing and no one. It exists from and in Eternity, truly, for it is ETERNITY itself; and as such, since no act can be co-equal with eternity, it cannot be said to act, for it is ACTION itself. It is not the Wave which drowns a man, but the personal action of the wretch, who goes deliberately and places himself under the impersonal action of the laws that govern the Ocean's motion. Karma creates nothing, nor does it design. It is man who plans and creates causes, and Karmic law adjusts the effects; which adjustment is not an act, but universal harmony, tending ever to resume its original position, like a bough, which, bent down too forcibly, rebounds with corresponding vigor. If it happen to dislocate the arm that tried to bend it out of its natural position, shall we say that it is the bough which broke our arm, or that our own folly has brought us to grief? Karma has never sought to destroy intellectual and individual liberty, like the God invented by the monotheists. It has not involved its decrees in darkness purposely to perplex man; nor shall it punish him who dares to scrutinize its mysteries. On the contrary, he who unveils through study and meditation its intricate paths, and throws light on those dark ways, in the windings of which so many men perish erring to their ignorance of the labyrinth of life, is working for the good of his fellow-men. KARMA is an Absolute and Eternal law in the world of manifestation; and as there can only be one absolute, as One eternal ever-present Cause, believers in Karma cannot be re garded as Atheists or materialists - still less as fatalists; for Karma is one with the Unknowable, of which it is an aspect in its effects in the phenomenal world. (Secret Doctrine, II, p. 305)