Tuesday, March 6, 2012


A doctrine common to Hinduism, Buddhism, and Theosophy, although not wholly adopted by Theosophists as taught in the other two religions. The word karma itself means ‘‘action,’’ but implies both action and reaction. All actions have consequences, some immediate, some delayed, others in future incarnations, according to Eastern beliefs. Thus individuals bear responsibility for all their actions and cannot escape the consequences, although bad actions can be expiated by good ones.
Action is not homogeneous, but on the contrary contains three elements: the thought, which conceives the action; the will, which finds the means of accomplishment; and the union of thought and will, which brings the action to fruition. It is plain, therefore, that thought has potential for good or evil, for as the thought is, so will the action be. The miser, thinking of avarice, is avaricious; the libertine, thinking of vice, is vicious; and, conversely, one thinking of virtuous thoughts shows virtue in his or her actions.

There is also a viewpoint which believes that karma comes not from the action itself, but the beliefs and feelings which motivate or allow the action. ‘‘The law of karma is not a justice and retribution system, so anyone who has had much suffering in this life is not a victim of ‘bad karma,’ but simply finds themselves in predicaments that are simply the result of their own beliefs about themselves.’’

Arising from such teaching is the attention devoted to thought power. Using the analogy of the physical body, which can be developed by regimen and training based on natural scientific laws, Theosophists teach that character, in a similar way, can be scientifically built up by exercising the mind.

Every vice is considered evidence of lack of a corresponding virtue—avarice, for instance, shows the absence of generosity. Instead of accepting that an individual is naturally avaricious, Theosophists teach that constant thought focused on generosity
will in time change the individual’s nature in that respect. The length of time necessary for change depends on at least two factors: the strength of thought and the strength of the vice; the vice may be the sum of the indulgence of many ages and therefore difficult to eradicate.

The doctrine of karma, therefore, must be considered not in relation to one life only, but with an understanding of reincarnation. In traditional Hinduism individuals were seen as immersed in a world of illusion, called maya. In this world, distracted from the real world of spirit, one performs acts, and those actions create karma—consequences. In traditional teaching the goal of life was to escape karma. There was little difference between good and bad karma. Karma kept one trapped in the world of illusion.

During the nineteenth century, Western notions of evolution of life and the moral order were influenced by Indian teachings. Some began to place significance upon good karma as a means of overcoming bad karma. The goal gradually became the gaining of good karma, rather than escape. Such an approach to reincarnation and karma became popular in Theosophy and Spiritism, a form of Spiritualism.

Western scholars have often mistakenly viewed karma and fate as the same concept. Fate, however, is the belief that the path of one’s life is established by agencies outside oneself. Karma is the opposite, implying the ability to alter one’s path of life—in a future life if not the present—by altering one’s feelings and beliefs, and by engaging in positive practices. ‘‘It is the coward and the fool who says this is fate,’’ goes the Sanskrit proverb. ‘‘But it is the strong man who stands up and says, ‘‘I will make my fate.’’

According to this view, reincarnation is carried on under the laws of karma and evolution. The newborn baby bears within it the seeds of former lives. His or her character is the same as it was in past existences, and so it will continue unless the individual changes it, which he or she has the power to do. Each succeeding existence finds that character stronger in one direction or another. If it is evil the effort to change it becomes increasingly difficult; indeed a complete change may not be possible until many lifetimes of effort have passed. In cases such as these, temptation may be too strong to resist, yet the individual who has knowledge of the workings of karma will yield to evil only after a desperate struggle; thus, instead of increasing the power of the evil, he helps to destroy its potency. Only in the most rare cases can an individual free himself with a single effort.

The karmic goal in reincarnation, however, is said not necessarily to raise the soul to a higher plain of existence, but entreat enlightenment to reign at whichever level of existence the soul happens to find itself. ‘‘Many. . .see the process of enlightenment as ‘‘ascension’’; it is in fact more true to say that it is a process of descension, that is bringing the light down to all levels.’’

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