The Inner Life, v. II/Eighth Section/I
THE LAW OF EQUILIBRIUM
WHEN we are considering the life of man we have three principal forces to take into account, all interacting and limiting one another: the steady pressure of evolution, the law of cause and effect which we call karma, and the free-will of man. The action of the evolutionary force has, so far as we can see, no reference whatever to the man's pleasure or pain, but only to his progress, or rather his opportunities for progress. One would say that it was absolutely indifferent as to whether the man was happy or unhappy, and that it might press him sometimes into one of these conditions and sometimes into the other, according to what was best calculated to afford opportunity for the development of the particular virtue on the formation of which he is for the moment engaged. Karma appears as the manifestation of the action of the man's free-will in the past. He has accumulated energies which either afford opportunities for the evolutionary force, or limit it in its operation. Then the man's present use of such free-will as he possesses is a third factor.
The doctrine of karma explains that advancement and well-being are the results of well-doing; but there should be no mistake as to exactly what is meant by well-doing and well-being respectively. The object of the entire scheme is, so far as we are concerned, the evolution of humanity; and consequently the man who does best is he who does most to help forward the evolution of others as well as his own. The man who does this to the utmost extent of his power and opportunity in one life will certainly find himself in the next in possession of greater power and wider opportunities. These are not unlikely to be accompanied by worldly wealth and power, because the very possession of these usually gives the opportunity required, but they are by no means a necessary part of the karma; and it is important for us to bear in mind that the result of usefulness is always the opportunity for further and wider usefulness, and we must not consider the occasional concomitants of that opportunity as themselves the reward of the work done in the last incarnation.
One instinctively shrinks from the use of such words as reward and punishment, because they seem to imply the existence, somewhere in the background, of an irresponsible being who deals out both at will. We shall get a truer idea of the way in which karma works if we think of it as a necessary readjustment of equilibrium disturbed by our action — as a kind of illustration of the law that action and reaction are always equal. It will also help us much in our thinking if we try to take a broader view of it — to regard it from the point of view of those who administer its laws rather than from our own.
Though the inevitable law must sooner or later bring to each man unerringly the result of his own work, there is no immediate hurry about it; in the counsels of the eternal there is always time enough, and the first object is the evolution of humanity. Therefore it is that one who shows himself a willing and useful instrument in forwarding that evolution always receives as his “reward” the opportunity of helping it still further, and thus, in doing good to others, to do best of all for himself. Of course if the thought of self-advancement were his motive for thus acting, the selfishness of the idea would vitiate the action and narrow its results; but if, forgetting himself altogether, he devotes his energies to the single aim of helping in the great work, the effect upon his own future will undoubtedly be as stated.
A definite protest ought once for all to be entered against the theory that suffering is the necessary condition of spiritual progress. Exercise is the condition of attaining physical strength, but it need not be painful exercise; if a man is willing to, take a walk every day, there is no need to torture him on the tread-mill in order to develop the muscles of his legs. For spiritual progress a man must develope virtue, unselfishness, helpfulness — that is to say, he must learn to move in harmony with the great cosmic law; and if he does this willingly there is no suffering for him but that which comes from sympathy with others.
Granted that at the present time most men refuse to do this, that when they set themselves in opposition to the great law suffering invariably follows, and that the eventual result of many such experiences is to convince them that the path of wickedness and selfishness is also the path of folly; in this sense it is true that suffering conduces to progress in those particular cases. But because we wilfully elect to offend against the law, and thereby bring down suffering upon ourselves, we have surely no right so to blaspheme the great law of the universe as to say that it has ordered matters so badly that without suffering no progress can be made. As a matter of fact if a man only will, he can make far more rapid progress without suffering at all.
It must, however, be remembered that any man who has once realized the glorious goal which lies before us can never be perfectly happy until he has attained that goal, and that he finds an ever-present source of dissatisfaction in his own failings. Now even dissatisfaction is a modified form of suffering; and from that no man can hope to be free until the imperfection has been outgrown. “God, Thou hast made us for Thyself, and our hearts are ever restless till they find their rest in Thee.”
Whether it is comforting or the reverse to know that one's sufferings are deserved may be a matter of opinion; but that in no way alters the undoubted fact that unless they had been so deserved they could not possibly come to us. It is lamentable that so many people should adopt the unphilosophical and indeed childish attitude which leads them to assume that any idea which does not fall in with their particular sectarian preconceptions cannot possibly be true. Unintelligent people constantly say: “The Theosophical teaching about karma does not seem to me so comfortable as the Christian idea of forgiveness of sins,” or “The Theosophical heaven-world does not seem so real and beautiful as the Christian, and so I will not believe in it.”
They evidently think poor creatures that their likes and dislikes are powerful enough to alter the laws of the universe, and that nothing of which they do not approve can possibly be on any plane. We, however, are engaged in studying the facts of existence, which after all are not modified because Mr. and Mrs. So-and-so would rather believe them to be otherwise than they are. If it were possible for anyone to be an innocent victim there would be no certainty of the operation of the great law of cause and effect anywhere in the universe, which would be a far more terrible thing for us than having to work out the results of any amount of sin committed in former lives. It can never be too strongly emphasized that the law of karma is not the vindictive vengeance of some angry deity, but simply an effect naturally and inevitably following upon its cause in obedience to the action of universal law.
Every individual will have to pay to the utmost every debt that he contracts, and to every individual the most perfect justice will be done; but for this purpose it is not always necessary that a vast crowd of egos should be perpetually meeting one another in successive lives. If one man so acts towards another as seriously to hasten or retard his evolution, if he does anything which produces upon the other a marked or permanent effect, it is fairly certain that the two must meet again in order that the debt may be adjusted. It is obvious that that may be done in various ways.
A man who murders another may conceivably sometimes himself be murdered in turn in another incarnation; but he can cancel the karma much more satisfactorily if he happens to have an opportunity in that next incarnation of saving the life of his former victim at the cost of his own. It would seem that sometimes he may cancel it without losing his own at all; for among the many lines of lives which have been examined we found at least one case in which a murderer apparently fully expiated his fault by patiently devoting the whole of a later life to the service of the person whom he had previously slain.
There is a vast amount of minor karma which appears to go into what may be described as a kind of general fund. The schoolboy who mischievously pinches a classmate will certainly not have to meet that classmate a thousand years hence under other skies in order to be pinched by him in return, though it is unquestionable that even in so small a matter as this perfect justice will be done to both the parties. Constantly as we pass on through life we shower small kindnesses upon those whom we meet; carelessly and often unconsciously we do them small injuries in thought and word and deed. Every one of these brings its corresponding result of good or evil to ourselves, and we too, though we knew it not, were the agents of karma in those very actions. The small kindness which we attempt will prove a failure if the recipient does not deserve even that much of help; the careless slight will pass unnoticed by its victim if there has been nothing in his past for which it is a fitting retribution.
It is not easy to draw the line between these two classes of karma — that which necessitates personal adjustment and that which goes into the general fund. It is certain that whatever influences a person seriously belongs to the first category, and small everyday troubles belong to the second; but we have at present no means of knowing exactly how much influence must be exerted in order that an action may rank in the first-class.
We must remember that some of the greatest and most important of all karma can never be personally repaid. In all our line of lives, past and future, no benefit can be greater than that which the Masters have conferred upon us in giving us access to the Theosophical teaching; yet to Them as individuals we can make absolutely no return, since They are far beyond the need of anything that we can do. Yet even this stupendous debt must be discharged like all the rest; but the only way in which we can ever repay it is by handing on the knowledge to others. So we see that here is another kind of karma which may be said to go into the general fund, though not quite in the same sense as before.
A querent asks: “If it is a man's karma to have scarlet-fever, by what mechanism is the result brought about?”
I do not think that, in the sense in which the questioner means it, it ever is a man's karma to have scarlet-fever. It is his karma in a given incarnation to have as the result of his actions in past lives a certain amount of physical suffering, and if a scarlet-fever germ happens to be at hand when he is in a sensitive condition, it may be permitted to fasten upon him, and part of that debt of suffering may be discharged in that way. But if such a germ does not happen to be there at the moment, one of cholera or tuberculosis will do just as well, or instead of a disease there may be a broken limb caused by a bit of orange-peel on the pavement or by a passing motor car.
I am aware that there are books which lay down with great precision the exact type of karma which follows upon certain action — as, for example, that if a man is rude to his father in one incarnation he will be born lame of the right leg in the next, whereas if it is with his mother that he has a difference of opinion it will be the left leg which is affected, and so on. But in the many lines of lives which we have examined in order to study the working of karma we have found no such rigidity. On the contrary, we were especially struck no less by the wonderful flexibility of karma than by its unerring certainty. By no possible effort can the man escape a single feather-weight of the suffering destined for him, but he may often avoid it in one shape only to find it inexorably descending upon him in a different form, from some unsuspected quarter.
Just as a debt of ten pounds can be paid in a single note, in two smaller notes, in gold or silver, or even in a bag-full of copper, so a certain amount of karma may come in one terrible blow, in a number of successive but less severe blows of various kinds, or even in a long series of comparatively petty annoyances; but in any and every case the full tale must be paid.
The same sin, committed under the same circumstances by two exactly similar people, must result in the same amount of suffering, yet the kind of suffering might be almost infinitely varied, according to the requirements of the case. Take as an example one of the very commonest of failings, and let us think what would be the probable result of selfishness. This is primarily a mental attitude or condition, so we must look for its immediate result on the mental plane. It is undoubtedly an intensification of the lower personality at the expense of the individuality, and one of its results will therefore certainly be the accentuation of that lower personality, so that selfishness tends to reproduce itself in aggravated form, and to grow steadily stronger.
Thus more and more of the higher would be lost in each life through entanglement with the lower, and persistence in this fault would be a fatal bar to progress; for nature's severest penalty is always deprivation of the opportunity for progress, just as her highest reward is the offering of such opportunity. So here we have already a glimpse of the way in which selfishness may itself bring about its own worst result, in so hardening the man as to make him insensible to all good influences, and to render his further progress impossible until he had conquered it.
There would also be the karma on the physical plane of all the unjust or unkind acts which the man's selfishness might lead him to commit; but the worst penalty that those could bring upon him would be trivial and evanescent beside the effect upon his own mental condition. It is possible that one result might be that he would be drawn by affinity into the society of selfish people, and so through suffering from this vice in others he would learn how heinous it is in himself. But the resources of the law are endless, and we mistake if we imagine it as cramped down to the line of action on which we in our ignorance think it ought to be administered.
A large proportion of the man's suffering is what Mr. Sinnett calls “ready-money karma” — that is to say, it is not due to the result of actions in past lives, and not in any real sense necessary at all. But his actions, in spite of examples put before him and advice freely given to him, are so foolish, and his ignorance is so invincible, so apparently perverse, that he is constantly involving himself in suffering the causes of which are transparently obvious and readily evitable. I do not think that I exaggerate when I say that nine-tenths of the suffering of the ordinary man is utterly unnecessary, for it is not the result of the distant past, but is simply the outcome of the mistaken action or foolish attitude of this present life.
Another point to be taken into account is that man in his calculations so often fails to discriminate between good and evil effects. The average man regards death as the greatest of all evils, either for himself or for his friends; yet in many cases karma grants it as a reward. It is, indeed, hardly ever an evil or a punishment, but simply an incident — a kind of move in the game, inevitable at certain intervals, but at all times available as a temporary solution of a difficult position when it is seen to be desirable. It is rarely a matter of anything approaching the importance which is commonly attributed to it.
If we can conceive two newly-formed egos standing side by side, absolutely primitive and karmaless, and one of them should kill the other, or, indeed, act in any way with regard to the other, a result would be produced which would be, strictly speaking, undeserved. I doubt whether any such condition ever exists, for I think that the individualized animal brings over something of karma into his first human birth.
Many animals have a sense of right and wrong, or at least a knowledge that some things ought to be done and that others ought not to be done; and they are capable of feeling ashamed when they have done what they think to be wrong. They have in many cases a power of choice; they can exercise (or not exercise) patience and forbearance; and where there is a power of choice there must be responsibility, and consequently karma. The savage animal becomes a savage and cruel man; the gentle and patient animal becomes a gentle and kindly man, however primitive he may be. This serious difference is clearly the consequence of karma made in the animal kingdom. Such karma must inhere in the group-soul, but must be equally distributed through it, so that when a portion breaks off as an individual, it will carry within it its share of that karma.
It may be said that that only pushes our difficulty a little farther back, for there must be a first step sometime, and we must technically consider the result of that first step as unjust.
Not necessarily. Let us suppose the first step to be a fight between two animals. The wish to kill or wound would be equally present in both; the karma of that wish would in the case of the vanquished be worked out at once by death, whereas the victor would still owe a debt which would probably be discharged later by his own death by violence. In considering the case of humanity, however, we need not indulge in any such speculations.
We have behind us a great mass of accumulated energy of both kinds, desirable and undesirable, and I can hardly imagine any conceivable “accident” that would not suit as an expression for some part of its infinite variety. Therefore shipwreck or financial ruin does not discriminate, because it need not; there is always something which can work itself out in that way in the whole mass of karma which lies behind an ordinary man. In the rare cases where there is nothing remaining which can so work itself out, the man cannot be injured, and is therefore what is commonly called miraculously saved.
Nothing could be more wildly absurd than the idea that anything we can do can prevent the working out of karma. For example, if a child is born under circumstances which lead to its being cruelly treated, no doubt such treatment is in accordance with its previous karma; but if kindly intervention delivers it from the demons in human form who torment it, then that intervention also is in accordance with its karma. If it were not, then the well-intentioned effort to rescue it would fail, as we know it sometimes does. Our obvious duty is to do all the good we can, and to render all the help within our power in every direction; and we need have no haunting fear that in doing so we are interfering with the work of the great karmic deities, who are assuredly perfectly capable of managing their business with absolute exactitude, whatever we do or do not do.
Does karma seem merciless? If that adjective can be correctly applied to the working of Nature's laws, I suppose we must admit that it is so, just as the law of gravitation is. If a child slips over the edge of a precipice, no matter how sad may be the circumstances surrounding the slip, he usually falls to the bottom of that precipice just as effectually as would an older and more responsible person; if a man seizes a red-hot iron bar, he is equally burnt whatever may have been his object in seizing it, or whether he knew that it was hot or not. Yet it would hardly occur to us to think of the bar or the precipice as merciless, or to blame the law of gravitation or the law of the radiation of heat. Does not exactly the same thought apply in the case of karma?