Reflections on Karma
Karma means not only that every event has a cause, but also that whatever happens to us is a consequence of our own past actions and thoughts in this or another life. Karma is a fundamental habit of nature, its innate tendency to restore balance and harmony, so that justice ultimately prevails.
The teaching of karma rules out absolute chance and randomness. H.P. Blavatsky says: ‘It is impossible to conceive anything without a cause; the attempt to do so makes the mind a blank’ (Secret Doctrine, 1:44). Mainstream scientists accept that all events in our macroworld have causes, but most believe that in the submicroscopic quantum realm things can happen without any cause at all. However, not being able to identify a cause does not prove that no cause exists. This means that absolute indeterminism can never be more than an article of faith. As some physicists have pointed out, it is perfectly possible that there are deeper, subquantum levels of causality.
Scientists can of course believe in causality without accepting the doctrine of karma, which is inseparably connected with reincarnation. To prove that whatever happens to us is the result of causes set in motion by ourselves, often in past lives, we would need to be able to remember or clairvoyantly see our past lives. If someone is run over by a car, there are of course direct physical causes that resulted in the victim being in the path of the car at the moment the accident occurred. Whether the victim accidentally stepped in front of the car or the driver deliberately committed a crime, materialists would obviously never entertain the possibility that the incident might be linked to events in past lives.
Although nothing happens without a cause, some events can reasonably be described as random, because ‘random’ does not have to mean ‘causeless’. An example of what might be called relative randomness/chance is the outcome of tossing of a coin. The ‘laws of probability’ or ‘laws of chance’ tell us that there is a 50% (or 1 in 2) chance of throwing a head (or a tail), and a 6.25% (or 1 in 16) chance of throwing four heads (or tails) in a row (½ x ½ x ½ x ½ = 1/16).The more coin tosses we perform, the closer the result will come to the theoretical percentage.
The outcome of each toss depends on how the coin was thrown, air currents, how it interacted with the surface on which it landed, and so on, but normally these variable factors do not consistently make one outcome more likely than the other. If after many throws the percentage of heads (or tails) is significantly different from the expected 50%, and therefore ‘nonrandom’, we know that either there is something wrong with the coin, or fraud is being committed, or psychokinesis is taking place. If ‘games of chance’ were absolutely random and causeless, there would be no lawful statistical regularities in the results, and no mathematical laws of probability.
We also see a form of randomness at work in radioactive decay. Scientists cannot predict which atom in a collection of atoms of the same radioactive element will be the next to decay (most claim that the decay of an atom has no cause at all). But we know that half of the atoms will always decay within the experimentally determined half-life of that element. So here too we see relative randomness and apparent chance, but also a lawful regularity indicating that we are dealing with a deterministic, causal process.
When Darwinists talk of ‘random’ genetic mutations, they do not mean that the mutations have no cause. They mean that the mutations are not subject to any overriding direction or purpose; mutations occur haphazardly and unpredictably without regard for whether they are good, bad or neutral for the organism in question. Most ‘accidental’ mutations are in fact considered harmful. But that does not rule out the possibility that at an earlier stage of evolution (during the ‘arc of descent’), mutations did consistently contribute towards evolutionary progress.
The theory that new species, genera, families, orders, classes and kingdoms of living organisms can emerge purely due to random genetic mutations and natural selection is absurd – not least because the genetic code does not determine the shape of an organism, so changing its DNA will not change its form (see Astral bodies). Many scientists realize that more is required to explain evolution than blind chance; some speak of ‘self-organizing principles’ and ‘emergent laws’. Even today, there is strong evidence that many mutations are not in fact blind and purposeless. For instance, bacteria can mutate faster in response to a threat than would be expected on the basis of chance. These mutations are called ‘adaptive’ or ‘directed’ mutations, and are not readily explained in materialistic terms.
To explain evolution, it seems more reasonable to posit some kind of instinctive intelligence at work in nature. Blavatsky says that it is puerile to suppose that blind, indifferent cells could arrange themselves into organs, or that the marvellous complexities of the human body could be produced, without the ‘supervisory presence of a quasi-intelligent impulse’ or a ‘sub-conscious intelligence pervading matter’; this instinctive, directing intelligence is ‘ultimately traceable to a reflection of the Divine and Dhyani-Chohanic wisdom’ (Secret Doctrine, 2:299fn, 648-9).
This raises the question of how that ‘subconscious intelligence’ works and what exactly ‘dhyani-chohans’ are – whether we describe them as spiritual beings or ethereal informational guide-fields. Theosophy offers a broader philosophical framework for understanding reality, rather than detailed explanations. Official science, too, explains very little – it mainly describes physically observable things and processes. For instance, it describes the workings of the brain, then claims that this description ‘explains’ our self-conscious minds. Theosophy expands upon materialistic descriptions by referring to more ethereal planes of consciousness-substance, astral patterns and prototypes, higher intelligences, recurring evolutionary cycles, etc.
A core message of theosophy is: ‘Behind the visible lies the invisible.’ The invisible realities postulated by occult science are observable to those, like the mahatmas, who have developed the necessary occult faculties. The same cannot be said for the many invisible abstract entities invented by orthodox materialistic scientists (especially in physics and cosmology). These include curved, expanding ‘spacetime’, infinitely small particles, one-dimensional strings, and six or seven extra, curled-up ‘dimensions’ of space. At the same time, there are many phenomena (e.g. paranormal events, and memories of past lives suggestive of reincarnation) that have been investigated in a very rigorous manner and point to the existence of subtler, more ethereal entities and planes of existence – but such evidence is generally ignored or dismissed by materialists.
The mahatmas themselves are strong advocates of the scientific method (i.e. observation and experiment). They say that the ageless wisdom or occult philosophy is an ‘exact science’, based on ‘millenniums of observations and experience’, and existed ‘an eternity before the strutting game cock, modern science, was hatched’ (Mahatma Letters, 144, 160). However, the occult field of investigation is not restricted to the outer physical shell of nature, but also encompasses inner worlds.
Everything we do, think and say generates karmic causes, and sooner or later we will undergo the corresponding effects (pleasant or unpleasant). At the same time, we are instruments of one another’s karma. If we help someone, it was their karma to be helped. If we harm someone, it was their karma to be harmed. But that does not justify our misdeeds, or failing to act when we have the opportunity to help; we will ultimately have to answer for everything we do. Our actions reflect our present character, which we have built up over numerous lives and are constantly modifying. So our deeds are both effects and causes. Our past constrains our freedom, but we have enough free will to steer our evolution in the right (or wrong) direction. And undergoing the karmic effects of our actions helps to push us in the right direction.
If we deliberately put our hand in a flame, we will burn ourselves. This is instant karma, rather than direct punishment for a particular deed in a past life. Nevertheless, our action reflects our present character, which is largely the product of our past lives, so in that sense getting burnt is the result of past behaviour as well as present behaviour. If we burn ourselves accidentally, the underlying cause must lie somewhere in the past. It might not be a specific deed, but a way of living that has resulted in us having a body and mind in this life that result in us being careless.
If A murders B, that is something that had to happen to B, and it is quite possible that A felt the impulse to commit the crime because he or she was murdered by B in a previous life. They might continue to murder one another for several lives (without consciously remembering anything of their past incarnations), until one of them is wise enough to resist the impulse. In the latter case, the other person’s punishment would have to take some other form – involving another person, an ‘accident’ or a natural disaster. Suppose A merely steals something from B. It may or may not be the case that B did something similar to A in a past life. What’s certain is that B must have set in motion causes that brought him or her into contact with a person like A.
It is unlikely that every specific event in this life can be traced back to a specific event in a past life. To further complicate the picture, we make karma not only as individuals, but also as families, groups, communities, nations, races, etc. Everything is interconnected, and nothing that happens to us can ever be totally random and unconnected to our past.
It is sometimes said that karma can only be made by beings who possess free will and therefore moral responsibility. However, karma in its broadest sense is the law of cause and effect, and in this sense all the kingdoms of nature are involved in its workings. Everything that happens is both the effect of a preceding cause and the cause of a subsequent effect. Since the universe is eternal, the chain of causes and effects never had a beginning. For no more karma to be generated, all action in the universe would have to cease – an impossible event.
Nothing can be created from nothing. Everything that appears is the product of a chain of causation that is without beginning and will continue without end. It is unlikely that absolute, universal karmic equilibrium can ever be achieved. Given the state of things on earth, and given that the infinite universe has always existed, permanent, absolute perfection must be unattainable. If one eternity is not enough to achieve absolute perfection, it won’t be achieved in another eternity either. In every great evolutionary cycle, the monads or consciousness-centres evolving in a particular world system must pass through every kingdom of nature. This includes a human stage, in which they gain self-consciousness and free will, leading them to make similar errors to ourselves and go through similar learning experiences. Humans have the possibility of developing into spiritual beings and achieving a state of relative perfection by the end of the cycle. But after a period of rest, their monads will begin their evolutionary journey in a subsequent world on the lowest rung of the ladder.
G. de Purucker links the suffering of animals not only to their actions in their current or previous lives but also to things they did when the indwelling monads were embodied in the human kingdom in a previous planetary manvantara (Fountain-Source of Occultism, 416-9). We’re also told that the monads embodying in the first root-race on our globe in the present (fourth) round were at different stages of development because they ‘could not be all of the same degree of purity in their last births in other worlds’ (Secret Doctrine, 2:249). In other words, there was never an absolute beginning to evolution, when everyone was created absolutely equal and started evolving at exactly the same rate.
There’s a tendency to think of karma solely in terms of negative deeds eventually leading to negative consequences (suffering), thereby restoring equilibrium. But karma literally means action (harmonious or disharmonious), and the doctrine of karma implies that every action is followed at some point by an appropriate reaction (bringing pleasure or pain). As H.P. Blavatsky says: ‘No one can escape the punishment of his sins, any more than he can escape the reward of his virtues’ (Collected Writings, 8:402). Living in peace and harmony does not mean that no more karma is made.
Karma is whatever is. As Blavatsky puts it: ‘[T]here is not an accident in our lives, not a misshapen day, or a misfortune, that could not be traced back to our own doings in this or in another life’ (Secret Doctrine, 1:643-4). And W.Q. Judge says: ‘[E]very circumstance, all suffering, all pleasure, each reward and every punishment, are the due and exact result of causes set up by the person who is the experiencer’ (Echoes of the Orient, 2:336). He also writes: ‘No man but a sage or true seer can judge another’s karma. Hence while each receives his deserts, appearances may deceive, and birth into poverty or heavy trial may not be punishment for bad karma, for egos continually incarnate into poor surroundings where they experience difficulties and trials which are for the discipline of the ego and result in strength, fortitude, and sympathy’ (Echoes, 1:33).
The theosophical teaching is that ‘Karma governs all things with infinite justice’ (Studies in Occult Philosophy, 296). Some people may choose to believe that certain events are not karma. While the ability to look into people’s past lives can shed light on this matter, it’s impossible to precisely quantify all the different types of karma we have generated, individually and collectively, and all the karmic consequences we undergo, so it would be impossible to prove that nothing ever happens to us that is not our karma. Theosophical literature does speak of ‘unmerited suffering’, but this term refers to suffering that appears to be unmerited to the person concerned because it stems from actions they carried out in a past life that they can no longer recall (Fountain-Source, 415-20).
Blavatsky gives an example of karmic justice in her article ‘Karmic visions’ (June 1888). She indicates that the same soul who incarnated in Clovis, who ruled the Franks – a confederation of Germanic tribes – in the 5th century, reincarnated as the man who became Emperor Frederick III of Prussia in the 19th century. She relates how, after a bloody battle, prisoners of a defeated German tribe are brought before Clovis – recently baptized as a Christian – so that he can decide their fate. One of them is an old pagan seeress, who fearlessly recounts the many crimes Clovis committed to become ruler. She predicts that he will be reborn among his present enemies, and suffer the torture he had inflicted on his victims. Clovis angrily hurls her to the ground and kills her by thrusting his spear through her throat, pinning her head to the ground.
Left: Clovis. Right: Frederick III.
Centuries later, Clovis is reborn as Frederick. His father, Wilhelm I, was the first emperor of a united Germany. Frederick later developed incurable throat cancer, which caused him great suffering. After various unsuccessful treatments, a tracheotomy was performed, leaving him permanently speechless. Following his father’s death, Frederick became German Emperor and King of Prussia, and initiated various liberal reforms, but reigned for only 99 days before dying of his ailment in June 1888.
In this story, therefore, thrusting a spear through the woman’s throat is linked to throat cancer in the next life. Killing the seeress was just one incident in Clovis’s blood-spattered life, and we don’t know how much of the karma made by Clovis was worked off in the subsequent life as Frederick. It would be instructive to observe how the individual and collective karmas of large groups of souls unfold and intertwine over the course of a great many lives.
Blavatsky gives another example of karmic punishment: A man who passes himself off as a good person in one life but is really a hypocrite who preys upon others and deprives them of their property, might reincarnate as a good, well-meaning man who suffers unbearably because he is ‘unjustly and falsely charged with and suspected of greed and hypocrisy’. ‘The law of retribution,’ she says, ‘can never err’ (Collected Writings, 7:112).
W.Q. Judge gives the following example: A person who persistently hates or persecutes a physically deformed person in one life may reincarnate in a body with a similar deformity due to their mental picture of their victim affecting their newly forming astral body. Their new parents may also have been guilty of similar acts and thoughts in past lives (Ocean of Theosophy, 103-4). Judge also suggests that if, in one life, a boy of low intelligence and great malice torments animals and insects, this will produce discord in the elementals associated with them, some of which will fasten on to him like barnacles. If he dies very young, these elementals will exercise a negative influence on him in his next life and bring constant misfortune (Echoes of the Orient, 2:70-3).
While some specific thoughts and deeds in the past can be linked to specific karmic rewards or punishments in the present, we can also view our self as a single whole – a constellation of harmonious and disharmonious karmic energies that we have generated both individually and in interaction with others in both the past and the present, which ultimately attract similar harmonious or disharmonious responses from other people and our surroundings. We are our own karma, and make our own destiny.
Swiss psychiatrist and psychoanalyst Carl Jung put forward the idea of ‘acausal synchronicity’. An example: You think of X, the telephone rings, and it turns out to be X. Or the telephone rings and you think ‘it’s probably X’, and it is X. This could be the result of an unconscious telepathic or clairvoyant connection, but that need not be the case. It can also happen that the telephone rings, we think ‘that’ll be X’ and it proves not to be X – but we quickly forget these failed predictions. So if we occasionally make the right guess, that does not necessarily point to something psychic (though it may do).
A synchronicity is a ‘coincidence’ that strikes us as noteworthy and meaningful. When we walk through a town, we encounter all sorts of people. We don’t know the vast majority of them and don’t attach any special meaning to these encounters. They seem fairly ‘random’, though there is of course always a series of causes that have brough all those individuals to the same place at the same time. And if we could look into our and their past lives, it’s quite possible we would see prior interactions with the souls in question.
If a person is walking through town and thinks of X, then turns round and sees X standing there, a form of thought transference or psychic awareness is again a possible explanation. If a person turns round and someone is standing there who then seriously assaults him or her, that would be regarded as a more significant karmic encounter. From a theosophical perspective, everything is by definition karma, but some events are more momentous than others.
The correspondence between the position of the heavenly bodies at the time a person is born and that person’s character and life course also involves a kind of synchronicity. The position of the heavenly bodies is not the direct cause of how the child’s life unfolds. H.P. Blavatsky says: ‘[T]he science of astrology only determines the nature of effects, by a knowledge of the law of magnetic affinities and attractions of the planetary bodies, but ... it is the karma of the individual himself, which places him in that particular magnetic relation’ (Collected Writings, 6:327). All things are connected, giving rise to certain patterns and correspondences that make astrological predictions possible.
One of Jung’s patients was a young woman who related a dream in which she was given a golden scarab. At that moment, Jung heard a tapping noise and turned round to see a flying insect knocking against the window pane. He opened the window and caught the insect in his hands as it flew in. It was a dung beetle, which strongly resembles a scarab. Nothing like that ever happened to him again. It is theoretically possible that relating the dream caused the appearance of the dung beetle. And if that kind of thing happened frequently, it would certainly suggest a paranormal phenomenon. But Jung may be right that in this case one event (recounting the dream) was not the direct cause of the other (the appearance of the beetle); in that sense, the coincidence could be called ‘acausal’, though the two events themselves obviously had causes. It could be argued that the chains of causation leading to the two events are in some way interlinked. Or that a remarkable coincidence of this kind must occur from time to time.
Left: dung beetle. Right: golden scarab.
Whatever the case, Jung’s idea that reality displays an ‘acausal order’ is untenable. Such order is the result of ceaseless, inscrutable causal interactions and karmic connections.
When it’s time for a reincarnating soul to be reborn, it is drawn to a suitable couple by karmic attraction. G. de Purucker says that the descending ray of the reincarnating soul invigorates a particular astral life-atom (which had formerly belonged to it), which enters by psychomagnetic attraction the astral model-body of a potential father. It ends up in the appropriate physical organ as a physicalized astral precipitate. Other physical atoms and molecules then accrete around it and it becomes a germ cell. The same process of astral precipitation and physicalization (from the same reincarnating soul) also takes place with the potential mother (Esoteric Tradition, 2nd ed., 900, 907-8; 3rd ed., 487-90).
It’s unlikely that our own higher self consciously chooses which aspects of our karma we will work off in the next life. For us to meet up with all the right people, it would then have to negotiate with all the other higher selves involved, which would be busy deciding what their own reincarnating souls are going to do in the next life. Planning all that in advance would be impossible. Instead, karma must operate automatically, by means of the intricate interconnections, vibrational resonances, and psychophysical attractions and repulsions among all the relevant players.
We incarnate in the family environment most in harmony with our own karmic tendencies. This means that the characteristics that we appear to inherit from our parents, and the instinctive likes and dislikes that we begin to display from an early age, ultimately stem from our own past. On every level of our constitution, more or less the same life-atoms reassemble in each incarnation, carrying imprints of our thoughts and deeds in past lives. The clusters of life-atoms associated with the character traits and impulses we inherit from our own past are sometimes called skandhas or tanhic elementals. Our entire constitution comprises multi-layered information fields, which communicate in unseen ways with the information fields of other individuals, and as a result we are drawn together and interact in ways that give each of us exactly what we deserve.
Theosophy speaks of lipikas, or karmic ‘scribes’, who automatically impress a record of our thoughts and deeds on the astral substance of higher planes. This is a figurative way of referring to the automatic operations of karma and the memory of nature. G. de Purucker says that the lipikas are not so much real entities as ‘cosmic energies’, ‘cosmic elements’ or ‘cosmic substance-forces’, and that our aura (part of our multi-levelled auric egg) acts as a sort of lipika by instantly registering everything we do, feel and think (Dialogues, 769-71). He continues: ‘They are metaphorically called beings, because in a generalizing sense of the word a man’s aura is a being – not a self-conscious entity, but an element or essence permeated with the consciousness of the self-conscious being from which it flows.’
We do not know exactly how living organisms and nature in general encode, store and access memory imprints. Materialistic science tells us that our memories are stored as electrical and chemical signals in the brain, and that we remember things by the brain triggering specific nerve cells. But describing processes in the brain is not the same as explaining our conscious self or the workings of memory. Fortunately, we can use our memory without understanding exactly how it works. An adept can also call up pictures of events from the distant past at which he was not himself present, and even pictures of probable future events – ‘simply’ by tuning his consciousness in the right way, through the power of will and concentration.
Information is stored on a computer drive by being converted into a series of binary digits (bits), i.e. 1s and 0s, which are recorded either as magnetic patterns or as electric charges. To access the information, it must first be converted back into an intelligible form. Sometimes the idea of a ‘holographic universe’ is invoked. To make a physical hologram, a laser light is split into two beams, one of which is reflected off an object onto a photographic plate where it interferes with the second beam. When the interference pattern recorded on the photographic plate is illuminated with laser light, it produces a three-dimensional image of the original object, which can be viewed from any angle. What’s more, if a holographic film is cut into pieces, each piece produces an image of the whole object, though the smaller the piece, the hazier the image. In other words, the form and structure of the entire object are encoded within each region of the photographic record. Clearly, if nature is able to produce ‘holographic’ records of events, it must use subtler means than laser beams and photographic plates.
Nature is an infinitely complex webwork of innumerable processes and entities interacting on multiple levels. Every entity and every life-atom are both infinitely divisible and contained within an endless series of greater, multi-dimensioned wholes. Theosophy identifies the fundamental habits or operations of nature – such as karma, reembodiment and cyclic evolution – but does not pretend to explain them. They are part of the unfathomable mystery of infinite existence.
Karma: cause and effect
The nature of reality
Evolution in the fourth round
Life beyond death
Evolution and design