Karma and Choice

by Raghavan Iyer @ Theosophy Trust


KARMA AND CHOICE


My friend, if the whole path and movement of heaven and all its contents are of like nature with the motion, revolution, and calculations of wisdom, and proceed after that kind, plainly we must say it is the supremely good soul that takes forethought for the universe and guides it along that path.

Athenian Stranger

 Anyone who wishes to make practical use of the universal principles of justice and compassion inherent in the doctrine of karma must first grasp the idea that what we call the karmic effect is actually inherent in the karmic cause. This could be seen in two ways: first of all, philosophically or metaphysically, and secondly, morally. If karma refers to the totality of interaction of all beings in a single, unified cosmos, then it must be the case that every single act, rooted in a thought or an idea, already contains within itself the whole series of manifestations which appear to exist as its distinct effects. That appearance is illusory. What we call the effect of an act is already contained in the origination of the first impulse of the first thought and feeling constituting the act. This is very difficult to comprehend metaphysically. But anyone could come closer to understanding it from the moral standpoint.

 Each one could look at any single act that he has done and link it up to the state of mind in which he acted and to the quality or colour of feeling that was present in that act. He could look behind "thought" and "feeling," in the separative and specific sense in which the words are used here, and attempt to see the act in terms of the totality of his character, in relation to the whole of his life, at least since he became a responsible adult, whenever that was for the individual person. The whole of his life has led to this particular act. On this act we have the indelible stamp of the kind of person he is and has become in all the time since the moment of birth, but, more perceptibly, at least since he became a responsible adult. If the whole of his being is imprinted upon that act, in a universe of law he has already, in the very act, determined the consequences of that act to himself as a mind-being, as a unit-being. Therefore, any sound morality would be one that provides a self-validating, compelling and continually applicable basis for ethics, both on the plane of thought and on the plane of feeling, which together are represented in what we call external acts.

 A person who is wise and fortunate enough to include a method of relative and increasing self-scrutiny into his day is engaged in what might be called "doing one"s moral arithmetic." If he could do this, he would soon be able to work out a few simple sums. Then he would not have to wait, in an Epimethean way, for the sum totals of external effects, from which it is extremely difficult to trace back. Anyone who has studied a bit of elementary mathematics knows, if he is given the answer to a problem, that from the answer one cannot speedily work out the process that leads to the answer. In a very good teaching system, a person would be given more appreciation for grasping the process, even if the actual answer reached is only an approximation. Certainly this would be preferable to rewarding a person who happened to hit the answer but did not have the proper sequence of steps that follow from the initial statement of the problem, using the relevant basic rules or equations or tables that are provided to him to work out this answer.

 In the moral realm this is extremely difficult, and points to the difference between ignorant human beings and Adepts. An Adept is one who has mastered the mathematics of the soul. Indeed, he embodies it every moment, twenty-four hours a day, and therefore he continually acts with a seeming casualness but out of a profound deliberation based on total detachment. With this perspective, we can understand the reason why the heavenly wisdom in relation to karma should be imparted, in this day and age, with the extraordinary care that has been taken by the Mahatmas. Those who have the good karma – even if not entirely deserved in this life – of coming into contact with Bodhidharma are given the opportunity to move from a position of muddle and irresponsibility to a gradual awakening to their responsibility as moral agents: as manasaputras, as descendants from the divine ancestry of the great collective host that gave the fire of self-consciousness to human beings over eighteen million years ago. Those who do reasonably well render incalculable service. No one can do more than try, and even to try is to make a real choice. They are, in a sense, fortunate, because they are protected from attachment to results since they are not in a position to calculate what Adepts alone can work out precisely. They can render some benefit to the whole of the human race, to the karma of a nation, to the family in which they were born, and to their associates.

 The time has come when no student of Theosophy can afford to ignore the practical moral implications of this aspect of karma, even if he is not immediately ready to grasp the profound philosophical and metaphysical basis of the idea. We have found already in this century, in the last twenty-five years, that the idea has partially come into contemporary thought. Inward responsibility is the focus of several exploratory efforts by contemporary philosophers who want to see its application to punishment. Wittgenstein raised the question whether there is any internal, rather than extrinsic, relation between an act and its reward or punishment. Philosophically, this is difficult to grasp, but deep down we must feel a profound pity and compassion for any person who is a murderer and who is now delighted, in one sense, that he does not have to be executed, but who, on the other hand, is nonetheless excruciatingly tortured by his own thoughts. In some cases, such persons may spend a whole lifetime adding to their karma by broodings that are even worse than the thoughts which led to the murder committed. In other cases, they may be able to look back upon what was done with a sense of relative bewilderment, which Simone Weil would have called a kind of "innocence through penitence."

 No one could truly make a moral use of the teaching and become a real penitent without becoming ready, before the moment of death, to have deserved the priceless privilege of coming into contact with divine wisdom. To do this seriously requires spending time reflecting upon the idea of the interpenetration of cause and effect and how it applies to each and every one. As long as there is no understanding and proper study of karma, no one will be able to introduce any order into his life relative to the disorders of our time. Nor will he be able to generate a current of true repentance or appreciate the relationship of mercy to justice that is essential to a comprehension of concepts like reward and punishment. There is the teaching in The Ocean of Theosophy that "Karma is a beneficent law, wholly merciful, relentlessly just, for true mercy is not favor but impartial justice."

 Normally, we think of mercy as gratuitous or arbitrary and justice as relentless or ruthless. In terms of the universal law of karma, human appellations like "justice" and "mercy" are misleading. They are merely approximations arising through an inadequate understanding of connections between causes and effects applicable only over very short time spans and also modified by the gap, not merely between any legal system and the moral justice of the universe, but between the theory of that legal system and its working in practice.

 Suppose a very sincere man truly wanted to find out what is due from him to every other human being on earth – let us say because he has consulted ancient wisdom or merely because he has read Godwin, or even because he thought about it. If this person then asked what could it mean for him to do justice to every human being he ever met in this life, it would be very difficult for him to make a practical response. The mathematics are too complicated. The person hardly knows anyone else. It is forbidding enough to do justice to any human being on earth. But that is what is required on the path of understanding, of Jnana Yoga.

 Supposing, then, this person said, "To the extent to which I cannot know what is due from me to every single being, and yet that is where I want to go – though it take a very long time, even many lives – I have a firm faith that the very desire and determination to go in this direction is not only a holy one, because it is the noblest feeling I feel, but it is wholly compatible with the truth and totality of things." This makes immensely joyous the prospect of having myriads of opportunities in many future lives to be able to perfect the enterprise. Such a person might also say, "Meanwhile, to the extent to which I do not know what doing justice to every single human being means, I might as well err in one direction rather than in the other." As long as one is caught up in attavada, the delusion of being separate from everyone else – the only conception of sin in the Theosophical teachings or in the teachings of the Buddha – then, if one is going to sin it is better to sin in the direction of exaggerated praise of others than in the opposite direction.

 If this generation is to make the enormously arduous move from being the most abnormal in soul-sickness to becoming human, it would be extraordinarily important to emphasize mercy and compassion. A person who tries to use Theosophy will astonishingly find he is coming in line at the level of profession, and this is not wholly without value. Beyond all else, to be human is to radiate benevolence. As long as one strives to be compassionate and merciful, it will be imperatively and inevitably the case that one will come to understand justice better. Through mercy one may come closer to an appreciation of divine justice, cosmic justice, and above all learn what it means to be just to every living being, every elemental, every constituent of the seven kingdoms of nature. Every single human being has also the prerogative of doing justice to his or her true self.

 Theosophical teachings could be used effectively as planks of salvation in our everyday encounters. Human beings could come to incarnate the teachings. Metaphysically, in relation to the three planes of the Unmanifested, there is no distinction in the Three-in-One between absolute, attributeless Compassion, absolute, dimensionless Truth, and absolute, unconditional Love. There is no difference because all three together constitute the invisible point in an ever-revolving mainspring that is the vital centre of the great wheel of universal harmony. Through the notion of harmony, a person might come to reflect upon the metaphysical relation between justice and mercy as centripetal and centrifugal forces.

 The starting point to gain this perspective is self-examination. Take a period in one"s life. A day might be too short for this for the average person – you might take a week, a month, a year – and actually list out on a sheet the number of occasions on which one either omitted or was fortunate to be able to exemplify justice to every other human being. Then on a separate sheet list the number of occasions on which one tried to be merciful to other human beings, or where through thoughtlessness and inconsideration rooted in self-worship – which is nothing but the insecurity of the shadow – one omitted to be merciful. Soon one will make an amazing discovery because one will find that these are two different aspects of a single truth. That truth is the degree to which ignorance, avidya, was the pole star of one"s life centred in the personal mind, and the extent to which one"s highest ideation became manifest in one"s consciousness and conduct.

 No act is performed without a thought at its root, and this is the basis of karma for thinking beings. This is always the case. What it implies in strict elementary logic is that even the most apparently automatic act has a thought at its core, either at the time of performance or as leading to it. A being who is fully self-conscious, who has attained to universal self-consciousness, and therefore is totally aware of the Self, is incapable of ever engaging in any act at any time without an instantaneous and simultaneous awareness of the intention accompanying it. Because this idea is so sacred, a lot of harm is done by people who vulgarize Theosophia by talking idly of "thought-forms" and "vibrations." This is the sad result of dissemination, among the unready mass, of the delusions of the failed students of Philosophia Perennis.

 In ordinary language we all are aware of what it means to say, "Oh, that"s a good idea." "Oh, that"s a good thought" Everyone, at some time in his life, maybe at some season of the year, has had a good thought for someone else. "Oh, let me do this for someone else. Let me send this Christmas card. Let me express this goodwill." Every human being has experienced the most natural form of occultism – having a good thought and seeking for it an appropriate form of expression. In this age where it is so rare, they are very privileged who, through the magic of the madness of love, spend a lot of time not just on the benevolent thought but on the manner and the appropriateness of the expression of the thought. Some people, by a kind of soul-intuition from previous lives, and especially when they are very young, realize that a good idea must have the total purity of privacy if it is to be preserved. There must be an insulation from uncongenial elementals in making that thought inviolate, wrapping it up within an invisible circle of secrecy and privacy, so that it becomes a point in metaphysical space and may find an appropriate form.

 When we begin to see this, we are better able to know what it means to earn the privilege of hearing the teaching that men are manifested gods, creative mind-beings; manasaputras bearing the burden of the responsibility for raising all manifested matter; carriers of the divine mandate of helping the great architect, the collective demiurge – Mahat – behind the manifested universe. These thrice-blessed "fortune"s favoured soldiers" may suddenly begin to feel the immensity, the grandeur, the glory of the responsibility of being human, a thinking being, capable of choosing at will a thought and, by dwelling upon it and pouring over it the waters of selfless love, being able to find, out of the more subtle matrix of life-atoms which constitute the thought-vehicle, a form for its benevolent expression. In other words, a person who lives by an inner light begins to see that the real form of a true thought is wholly invisible. It has nothing to do with differentiated matter or the externalities of dependent origination in dependent relationships. He really comes to understand something about subtle matter.

 Two alternatives face such a person, and both alternatives apply to different classes of cases, so that he has a constant choice problem, like the choice problem of the Demiurge mentioned in the Timaeus. Out of many worlds is patterned only one world. This is the dilemma which the Demiurge must overcome. The human being, too, must be ready to grasp the fundamental problem of choice facing him. On the one hand, there are certain thoughts which are of such quality – impersonal, universal, unifying, beneficent – that where they are self-consciously generated or drawn from the akasa, they do not need any form. They are like sparks or like shooting stars that descend with a speed much greater than that of light and they find an appropriate way of sparking off myriads of atoms. On the other hand, there are those thoughts which need to be encased in a purified, distilled essence, but fashioned out of a purified astral form, out of something more than differentiated matter but something less than the pure, undifferentiated, universal, homogeneous essence. Such thoughts, when they are given that kind of force, are deliberately chosen mental assets. They become available for all other human beings encountered in our lives and yet may also become embodied for a very long time to come so that others could draw upon them for almost an indefinite future.

 What a great privilege, then, is open to the human being who has had the good fortune to learn from Brahma Vach. No one should ignore the ideal as a fit object of meditation. Theosophy teaches that every man is equally entitled to make the attempt, and no one need fear that he is so unworthy that he cannot make it. On the other hand, he should be spared the terrible karma of the delusion that Everest may be climbed quickly. Climbing Everest here means choosing every single thought. That is very hard. It requires lives. But one can begin right now choosing a few thoughts, having a little less passivity in relation to most thoughts every week, a little less of that disordered, unthinking, thoughtless, machine-like activity which is lower than that of the animal kingdom, and a little more of deliberate thought. One could, within three months, make amazing discoveries about the mystery of karma – more discoveries from three months of this practice than from a lifetime of mere use of the word "karma."

 William Q. Judge teaches in The Ocean of Theosophy that "the weak and mediocre furnish a weak focus for karma, and in them the general result of a lifetime is limited, although they may feel it all to be very heavy. But that person who has a wide and deep-reaching character and much force will feel the operation of a greater quantity of karma than the weaker person." A character broad in vision, generous in sympathy, deep in motivation, firm in the degree of deliberation – this is the self-created product of thought ranging from calm consideration to continuous meditation. Whether a man will have "much force" will depend upon becoming one-pointed in the use of force. Kierkegaard spoke about the purity of heart that goes with a concentration of will when it is focused upon one thing at a time. This is the same idea as that expressed by Cardinal Newman in the line, "Lead kindly light, one step enough for me," which was so much a favourite of Gandhi. These steps form a very beautiful kind of dance. The great pioneers of the future choose to learn this on the physical plane and in the moral realm, but with the intention of making themselves a bridge to other human beings who want to learn to do this dance, step by step by step.

 This means the will is very much involved. The will is weakened by obscurity of mind, by conflict of feelings, by lack of priorities in relation to purposes. The conservation of energy is the baseline upon which every man takes a stand. On this basis alone he determines the degree of intensity to the force that he can release. There have been many men of much force, but their vision was limited. Their motivation was not rooted in the depths of their being, and so they became like Ozymandias. They created huge thought-structures and towards the end of their lives a few wrote manuals for the benefit of others, telling them to do this, that, and the other thing. But the will was disproportionate in relation to the idea. What is most critical, then, in the formation of character is the food that a human being receives in the way of spiritual and mental diet.

 Spiritual and mental diet forms the character. If a person wanted to use this teaching, he would make vast discoveries by doing a little meditation upon the Three Fundamentals of The Secret Doctrine in the light of the idea that their ethical bearing is universal. They enable the person, whoever, whenever, over the years, who decides to become a student of the Gupta Vidya, to widen his vision and deepen his understanding. And he can do this at home, at work, in solitude, and in all spheres of life. Wherever he walks, he walks in a sphere of light and he walks as a man with an ever-widening vision. He becomes a man whose character is rock-like in its integrity. His integrity is as firm and unyielding as the spinal cord when it is a true vehicle of the divine fire, and his being is magnanimous with the fullness of his heart. He reaches outside of himself in every direction – his mind and soul compassionately encompassing every possible point of view, especially when embodied in the haunting, stumbling efforts of another human being who is trying to begin by asking, "Who am I?" To truly answer this question could be centrally important to anyone who wants to become, over the next thirty years, in the humanistic phrase of a nineteenth century writer, "A man not of property but of character."

 The whole practical use of the teaching requires recognition of the distinction between the various classes of karma. If we would understand not merely when karma is expended in spite of ourselves, but when we could make a difference in relation to the expending and altering of effects of karmic influences that work in our lives, we must see the operation of the three classes within the three fields mentioned in the ancient and sacred axioms upon the subject of karma. A crucial aphorism states:

 Changes may occur in the instrument during one life so as to make it appropriate for a new class of Karma and this may take place in two ways: through intensity of thought and the power of a vow, and through natural alterations due to complete exhaustion of old causes.

The choice here relates to positive, deliberate, Promethean penances that any man could engage in – intensity of thought and the power of a vow. Intensity of a thought means that the thought is worthy of meditation, of being used for reflection. The stronger the nature, the more impersonal and intense will be the force of the meditation. The more recurrent that meditation, the more that intense thought is generated to a point where it goes into orbit.

 Every time one"s mind turns to meditation, there is, unfortunately, obscuration. There are forms that arise in connection with it as in the denser part of the earth"s atmosphere. Any person who thinks that with the steam engine of existing thought he is going to propel himself into outer space – and "outer space" equals "inner space" metaphysically – is making a mistake. But there is no reason for a person to aim to start off with reaching the moon or any planet further off from the earth. He might start, however, by hoping that he attains to sufficient intensity in his meditation to begin to become a revolving wheel, such that when it revolves, it lifts him somewhat above the grosser atmosphere of the earth, but which yet, as it revolves, smoothly comes back into earth life. This revolution is, after a point, calm and steady.

 If intensity of thought is understood in this way, the power of a vow is enshrined in the ancient idea of a pilgrimage. Step by step, true pilgrims move by the power of a vow. A vow is taken by a person who, in taking it, stands looking in a certain direction, with a clear purpose in mind. Whatever minor vows we take follow from a great vow – a vow to be a good student of the Bodhidharma. To bring that down into today means making many decisions, making minor vows. We should not tell anyone these vows unless there is need to do so for the sake of helping others. They should simply be carried out. To combine two analogies, even if a pilgrim comes by borrowed car and mechanical transportation, he has eventually to walk toward the doors of the mystery temple, to be received and come in on his own.

 A vow has to do with an attitude of mind. Unless there is an adjustment and a purification in the attitude of mind, intensity of thought cannot be handled. Intensity of thought will boomerang and it will merely make one"s karma worse. This happens to many people. One does not want it to boomerang except to the extent to which it, Shiva-like, attenuates and destroys the shadowy self-idea. On the other hand, one wants one"s thought to reach out as a beneficent force to all other elementals, mixed with psychic embryos that constitute the universe in its preponderant astral light, as well as the planes above and planes below. A person who can direct such a beneficent motive will find that intensity of thought will be potent and constructive if it is accompanied by the positive and penitent attitude implicit in the taking of a vow.

 To take a vow means, "I am soft, I am shaken that I live like this. If these things are representative of my mental attitudes, I will expiate them, not merely by my suffering and recognition that that is the way I was, but also in a conscious sacrifice of similar intentions upon the altar of that holy and untrodden invisible, unmentioned, intangible ground of the heart." There alone one may truly worship the calm causeless cause. There, the only object of worship is the universal spirit. The only priests are good thoughts and good intentions. The only sacrificial victim is the personal self, with its inimical and hostile intentions and thoughts that are incompatible with and unpurifying to the sanctity of the inner sanctuary.

 Because of the great holiness of the subject of karma, and because all vows remind us of the Buddha"s vow, it is appropriate to recall that any human being could learn from the example of Gautama the Buddha. From his example we may appreciate the full strength that is possible from a life-binding resolve: self-generated, self-binding, self-administered, constant and consistent around one main, universal impersonal idea. Such an idea is given toward the" end of the Declaration of the United Lodge of Theosophists, which says that it welcomes to its association all those who desire to fit themselves, by study and otherwise, to be able to help and teach others. Anyone who wants to do this can thereby earn for himself the invisible sacred association with the servants of the Mahatmas. He who wishes to be worthy of that association until the moment of death could, by the power of a vow to help and serve other human beings, wipe out many karmic residues. He could gain the immense privilege of accelerating, with a toughness in response and anticipation, the self-conscious purgation of personal and constrictive karma.

 Even though all of this sounds so forbidding, it is like a grain of dust in relation to the voluntary sacrifice of those who descend on earth to take upon themselves the karma of all. They take upon themselves the limitations and weaknesses of all, and do what they can with that additional burden to increase the opportunities of those struggling souls who, despite their failures of yesteryear and of previous lives, warm at the moment of choice and have earned the joy of a new beginning. Such a soul could say, "I am not worried anymore about the past because I know that I am a manasa. Such an one will bring his questions about the mysteries of Self and karma to Brahma Vach. He can stand erect and proud as a man and walk like one, silently determined to increase his efforts on behalf of every human being caught in the overwhelming agony of ignorance. It is ignorance of the Bodhidharma, ignorance of themselves, and ignorance of the self-made windings of karma that make men suffer. It is only by the karmic force of a vow made on behalf of all our fellow men that the dawn of universal enlightenment may be hastened. Such a vow will be a living power in a man"s life, making him a living embodiment of the unity of all beings.

Begin thy work, first having prayed the Gods
To accomplish it. Thou, having mastered this,
That essence of Gods and mortal men shalt
 know
Which all things permeates, which all obey.
And thou shalt know that Law hath stablished
The inner nature of all things alike;
So shalt thou hope not for what may not be,
Nor aught, that may, escape thee.

PYTHAGORAS

Hermes, December 1976
by Raghavan Iyer