The Key to Theosophy
Helena Petrovna Blavatsky
The Key to Theosophy
Helena Petrovna Blavatsky
What is Karma?
Q. But what is Karma?
A. As I have said, we consider it as the Ultimate Law of the Universe, the
source, origin, and fount of all other laws which exist throughout Nature. Karma
is the unerring law which adjusts effect to cause, on the physical, mental, and
spiritual planes of being. As no cause remains without its due effect from
greatest to least, from a cosmic disturbance down to the movement of your hand, and as like produces like,Karma is that unseen and unknown law which adjusts wisely, intelligently, and equitably each effect to its cause, tracing the
latter back to its producer. Though itself unknowable,its action is perceivable.
Q. Then it is the "Absolute," the "Unknowable" again, and is not of much value
as an explanation of the problems of life?
A. On the contrary. For, though we do not know what Karma is per se, and in its essence, we do know how it works, and we can define and describe its mode of action with accuracy. We only do notknow its ultimate Cause, just as modern
philosophy universally admits that the ultimate Cause of anything is
Q. And what has Theosophy to say in regard to the solution of the more practical needs of humanity? What is the explanation which it offers in reference to the awful suffering and dire necessity prevalent among the so-called "lower
A. To be pointed, according to our teaching all these great social evils, the
distinction of classes in Society, and of the sexes in the affairs of life, the
unequal distribution of capital and of labor-all are due to what we tersely but
truly denominate Karma.
Q. But, surely, all these evils which seem to fall upon the masses somewhat
indiscriminately are not actual merited and individual Karma?
A. No, they cannot be so strictly defined in their effects as to show that each
individual environment, and the particular conditions of life in which each
person finds himself, are nothing more than the retributive Karma which the
individual generated in a previous life. We must not lose sight of the fact that
every atom is subject to the general law governing the whole body to which it
belongs, and here we come upon the wider track of the Karmic law. Do you not
perceive that the aggregate of individual Karma becomes that of the nation to
which those individuals belong, and further, that the sum total of National Karma
is that of the World? The evils that you speak of are not peculiar to the
individual or even to the Nation, they are more or less universal; and it is
upon this broad line of Human interdependence that the law of Karma finds its
legitimate and equable issue.
Q. Do I, then, understand that the law of Karma is not necessarily an individual
A. That is just what I mean. It is impossible that Karma could readjust the
balance of power in the world's life and progress, unless it had a broad and
general line of action. It is held as a truth among Theosophists that the
interdependence of Humanity is the cause of what is called Distributive Karma,
and it is this law which affords the solution to the great question of
collective suffering and its relief. It is an occult law, moreover, that no man
can rise superior to his individual failings, without lifting, be it ever so
little, the whole body of which he is an integral part. In the same way, no one
can sin, nor suffer the effects of sin, alone. In reality, there is no such
thing as "Separateness"; and the nearest approach to that selfish state, which
the laws of life permit, is in the intent or motive.
Q. And are there no means by which the distributive or national Karma might be
concentrated or collected, so to speak, and brought to its natural and
legitimate fulfillment without all this protracted suffering?
A. As a general rule, and within certain limits which define the age to which we
belong, the law of Karma cannot be hastened or retarded in its fulfillment. But
of this I am certain, the point of possibility in either of these directions has
never yet been touched. Listen to the following recital of one phase of national
suffering, and then ask yourself whether, admitting the working power of
individual, relative, and distributive Karma, these evils are not capable of
extensive modification and general relief. What I am about to read to you is
from the pen of a National Savior, one who, having overcome Self, and being free to choose, has elected to serve Humanity, in bearing at least as much as a
woman's shoulders can possibly bear of National Karma. This is what she says:
Yes, Nature always does speak, don't you think? only sometimes we make so much noise that we drown her voice. That is why it is so restful to go out of the
town and nestle awhile in the Mother's arms. I am thinking of the evening on
Hampstead Heath when we watched the sun go down; but oh! upon what suffering and misery that sun had set! A lady brought me yesterday a big hamper of wild flowers. I thought some of my East-end family had a better right to it than I, and so I took it down to a very poor school in Whitechapel this morning.
You should have seen the pallid little faces brighten! Thence I went to pay for some dinners at a little cookshop for some children. It was in a back street, narrow, full of jostling people; stench indescribable, from fish, meat, and other food, all reeking in a sun that, in Whitechapel, festers instead of purifying. The
cookshop was the quintessence of all the smells. Indescribable meat-pies at 1d.,
loathsome lumps of 'food' and swarms of flies, a very altar of Beelzebub! All
about, babies on the prowl for scraps, one, with the face of an angel, gathering
up cherrystones as a light and nutritious form of diet. I came westward with
every nerve shuddering and jarred, wondering whether anything can
be done with some parts of
If by any sacrifice one could win the power to save these people, the cost would not be worth counting; but, you see,they must be changed-and how can that be
wrought? In the condition they now are, they would not profit by any environment in which they might be placed; and yet, in their present surroundings they must continue to putrefy.
It breaks my heart, this endless, hopeless misery, and the brutish degradation that is at once its outgrowth and its root. It is like the banyan tree; every branch roots itself and sends out new shoots. What a difference between these feelings and the peaceful scene at Hampstead! and yet we, who are the brothers and sisters of these poor creatures, have only a right to use Hampstead Heaths to gain strength to save Whitechapels.
Q. That is a sad but beautiful letter, and I think it presents with painful
conspicuity the terrible workings of what you have called "Relative and
Distributive Karma." But alas! there seems no immediate hope of any relief short
of an earthquake, or some such general engulfment!
A. What right have we to think so while one-half of humanity is in a position to
effect an immediate relief of the privations which are suffered by their
fellows? When every individual has contributed to the general good what he can
of money, of labor, and of ennobling thought, then, and only then, will the
balance of National Karma be struck, and until then we have no right nor any
reasons for saying that there is more life on the earth than Nature can support.
It is reserved for the heroic souls, the Saviors of our Race and Nation, to find
out the cause of this unequal pressure of retributive Karma, and by a supreme
effort to readjust the balance of power, and save the people from a moral
engulfment a thousand times more disastrous and more permanently evil than the
like physical catastrophe, in which you seem to see the only possible outlet for
this accumulated misery.
Q. Well, then, tell me generally how you describe this law of Karma?
A. We describe Karma as that Law of readjustment which ever tends to restore
disturbed equilibrium in the physical, and broken harmony in the moral world. We say that Karma does not act in this or that particular way always; but that it
always does act so as to restore Harmony and preserve the balance of
equilibrium, in virtue of which the Universe exists.
Q. Give me an illustration.
A. Later on I will give you a full illustration. Think now of a pond. A stone
falls into the water and creates disturbing waves. These waves oscillate
backwards and forwards till at last, owing to the operation of what physicists
call the law of the dissipation of energy, they are brought to rest, and the
water returns to its condition of calm tranquility. Similarly all action, on
every plane, produces disturbance in the balanced harmony of the Universe, and
the vibrations so produced will continue to roll backwards and forwards, if its
area is limited, till equilibrium is restored. But since each such disturbance
starts from some particular point, it is clear that equilibrium and harmony can
only be restored by the reconverging to that same point of all the forces which
were set in motion from it. And here you have proof that the consequences of a
man's deeds, thoughts, etc. must all react upon himself with the same force with
which they were set in motion.
Q. But I see nothing of a moral character about this law. It looks to me like
the simple physical law that action and reaction are equal and opposite.
A. I am not surprised to hear you say that. Europeans have got so much into the
ingrained habit of considering right and wrong, good and evil, as matters of an
arbitrary code of law laid down either by men, or imposed upon them by a
Personal God. We Theosophists, however, say that "Good" and "Harmony," and "Evil" and "Dis-harmony," are synonymous. Further we maintain that all pain and suffering are results of want of Harmony, and that the one terrible and only cause of the disturbance of Harmony is selfishness in some form or another.
Hence Karma gives back to every man the actual consequences of his own actions, without any regard to their moral character; but since he receives his due for all, it is obvious that he will be made to atone for all sufferings which he has
caused, just as he will reap in joy and gladness the fruits of all the happiness
and harmony he had helped to produce. I can do no better than quote for your
benefit certain passages from books and articles written by our Theosophists-those who have a correct idea of Karma.
Q. I wish you would, as your literature seers to be very sparing on this
A. Because it is themost difficult of all our tenets. Some short time ago there
appeared the following objection from a Christian pen:
Granting that the teaching in regard to Theosophy is correct, and that "man must
be his own savior, must overcome self and conquer the evil that is in his dual
nature, to obtain the emancipation of his soul," what is man to do after he has
been awakened and converted to a certain extent from evil or wickedness? How is he to get emancipation, or pardon, or the blotting out of the evil or wickedness he has already done?
To this Mr. J.H. Conelly replies very pertinently that no one can hope to "make
the theosophical engine run on the theological track." As he has it:
The possibility of shirking individual responsibility is not among the concepts
of Theosophy. In this faith there is no such thing as pardoning, or "blotting
out of evil or wickedness already done," otherwise than by the adequate
punishment therefore of the wrong-doer and the restoration of the harmony in the universe that had been disturbed by his wrongful act. The evil has been his own, and while others must suffer its consequences, atonement can be made by nobody but himself.
The condition contemplated … in which a man shall have been "awakened and
converted to a certain extent from evil or wickedness," is that in which a man
shall have realized that his deeds are evil and deserving of punishment. In that
realization a sense of personal responsibility is inevitable, and just in
proportion to the extent of his awakening or "converting" must be the sense of
that awful responsibility. While it is strong upon him is the time when he is
urged to accept the doctrine of vicarious atonement.
He is told that he must also repent, but nothing is easier than that. It is an
amiable weakness of human nature that we are quite prone to regret the evil we
have done when our attention is called, and we have either suffered from it
ourselves or enjoyed its fruits. Possibly, close analysis of the feeling would
show us that thing which we regret is rather the necessity that seemed to
require the evil as a means of attainment of our selfish ends than the evil
Attractive as this prospect of casting our burden of sins "at the foot of the
cross" may be to the ordinary mind, it does not commend itself to the Theosophic student. He does not apprehend why the sinner by attaining knowledge of his evil can thereby merit any pardon for or the blotting out of his past wickedness; or why repentance and future right living entitle him to a suspension in his favor of the universal law of relation between cause and effect.
The results of his evil deeds continue to exist; the suffering caused to others by his wickedness is not blotted out. The Theosophical student takes the result of wickedness upon the innocent into his problem. He considers not only the guilty person, but his victims.
Evil is an infraction of the laws of harmony governing the universe, and the
penalty thereof must fall upon the violator of that law himself. Christ uttered
the warning, "Sin no more, lest a worse thing come upon thee," and St. Paul
said, "Work out your own salvation. Whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap." That, by the way, is a fine metaphoric rendering of the sentence of the Pur as far antedating him-that "every man reaps the consequences of his own
This is the principle of the law of Karma which is taught by Theosophy. Sinnett,
in his Esoteric Buddhism,rendered Karma as "the law of ethical causation." "The
law of retribution," as Mme. Blavatsky translates its meaning, is better. It is
the power which
Just though mysterious, leads us on unerring
Through ways unmarked from guilt to punishment.
But it is more. It rewards merit as unerringly and amply as it punishes demerit.
It is the outcome of every act, of thought, word, and deed, and by it men mold
themselves, their lives and happenings. Eastern philosophy rejects the idea of a
newly created soul for every baby born. It believes in a limited number of
monads, evolving and growing more and more perfect through their assimilation of many successive personalities. Those personalities are the product of Karma and it is by Karma and reincarnation that the human monad in time returns to its
E.D. Walker, in his Reincarnation, offers the following explanation:
Briefly, the doctrine of Karma is that we have made ourselves what we are by
former actions, and are building our future eternity by present actions. There
is no destiny but what we ourselves determine. There is no salvation or
condemnation except what we ourselves bring about … Because it offers no shelter for culpable actions and necessitates a sterling manliness, it is less welcome to weak natures than the easy religious tenets of vicarious atonement, intercession, forgiveness, and deathbed conversions … In the domain of eternal
justice the offense and the punishment are inseparably connected as the same
event, because there is no real distinction between the action and its outcome …
It is Karma, or our old acts, that draws us back into earthly life. The spirit's
abode changes according to its Karma, and this Karma forbids any long
continuance in one condition, because it is always changing. So long as action
is governed by material and selfish motives, just so long must the effect of
that action be manifested in physical rebirths. Only the perfectly selfless man
can elude the gravitation of material life. Few have attained this, but it is
the goal of mankind.
And then the writer quotes from The Secret Doctrine:
Those who believe in Karma have to believe in destiny, which, from birth to
death, every man is weaving, thread by thread, around himself, as a spider does
his cobweb, and this destiny is guided either by the heavenly voice of the
invisible prototype outside of us, or by our more intimate astral or inner man,
who is but too often the evil genius of the embodied entity called man. Both
these lead on the outward man, but one of them must prevail; and from the very
beginning of the invisible affray the stern and implacable law of compensation
steps in and takes its course, faithfully following the fluctuations. When the
last strand is woven, and man is seemingly enwrapped in the network of his own
doing, then he finds himself completely under the empire of this self-made
destiny … 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. Nor
would the ways of Karma be inscrutable were men to work in union and harmony, instead of disunion and strife. For our ignorance of those ways-which one portion of mankind calls the ways of Providence, dark and intricate; while
another sees in them the action of blind fatalism; and a third simple chance,
with neither gods nor devils to guide them-would surely disappear if we would
but attribute all these to their correct cause … We stand bewildered before the
mystery of our own making and the riddles of life that we will not solve, and
then accuse the great Sphinx of devouring us. But verily there is not an
accident of 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 … The law of Karma is
inextricably interwoven with that of reincarnation … It is only this doctrine
that can explain to us the mysterious problem of good and evil, and reconcile
man to the terrible and apparent injustice of life. Nothing but such certainty
can quiet our revolted sense of justice. For, when one unacquainted with the
noble doctrine looks around him and observes the inequalities of birth and
fortune, of intellect and capacities; when one sees honor paid to fools and
wastrels, on whom fortune has heaped her favors by mere privilege of birth, and
their nearest neighbor, with all his intellect and noble virtues-far more
deserving in every way-perishing for want and for lack of sympathy-when one sees all this and has to turn away, helpless to relieve the undeserved suffering,
one's ears ringing and heart aching with the cries of pain around him-that
blessed knowledge of Karma alone prevents him from cursing life and men as well as their supposed Creator … This law, 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 coequal with eternity, it
cannot be said to act, for it is action itself. It is not the wave which drowns
the 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 plants 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 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 owing to their ignorance of the labyrinth
of life, is working for the good of his fellowmen. 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
regarded 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
Another able Theosophic writer says:
Every individual is making Karma either good or bad in each action and thought
of his daily round, and is at the same time working out in this life the Karma
brought about by the acts and desires of the last. When we see people afflicted
by congenital ailments it may be safely assumed that these ailments are the
inevitable results of causes started by themselves in a previous birth. It may
be argued that, as these afflictions are hereditary, they can have nothing to do
with a past incarnation; but it must be remembered that the Ego, the real man,
the individuality, has no spiritual origin in the parentage by which it is
reembodied, but it is drawn by the affinities which its previous mode of life
attracted round it into the current that carries it, when the time comes for
rebirth, to the home best fitted for the development of those tendencies … This
doctrine of Karma, when properly understood, is well calculated to guide and
assist those who realize its truth to a higher and better mode of life, for it
must not be forgotten that not only our actions but our thoughts also are most
assuredly followed by a crowd of circumstances that will influence for good or
for evil our own future, and, what is still more important, the future of many
of our fellow-creatures. If sins of omission and commission could in any case be only self-regarding, the fact on the sinner's Karma would be a matter of minor
consequence. The effect that every thought and act through life carries with it
for good or evil a corresponding influence on other members of the human family renders a strict sense of justice, morality, and unselfishness so necessary to future happiness or progress. A crime once committed, an evil thought sent out from the mind, are past recall-no amount of repentance can wipe out their
results in the future. Repentance, if sincere, will deter a man from repeating
errors; it cannot save him or others from the effects of those already produced,
which will most unerringly overtake him either in this life or in the next
Mr. J.H. Conelly proceeds-
The believers in a religion based upon such doctrine are willing it should be
compared with one in which man's destiny for eternity is determined by the
accidents of a single, brief earthly existence, during which he is cheered by
the promise that "as the tree falls so shall it lie"; in which his brightest
hope, when he wakes up to a knowledge of his wickedness, is the doctrine of
vicarious atonement, and in which even that is handicapped, according to the
Presbyterian Confession of Faith.
By the decree of God, for the manifestation of his glory, some men and angels
are predestinated unto everlasting life and others foreordained to everlasting
These angels and men thus predestinated and foreordained are particularly and
unchangeably designed; and their number is so certain and definite that it
cannot be either increased or diminished … As God hath appointed the elect unto glory … Neither are any other redeemed by Christ effectually called, justified, adopted, sanctified, and saved, but the elect only.
The rest of mankind God was pleased, according to the unsearchable counsel of
his own will, whereby he extendeth or withholdeth mercy as he pleaseth, for the
glory of his sovereign power over his creatures, to pass by and to ordain them
to dishonor and wrath for their sin to the praise of his glorious justice.
This is what the able defender says. Nor can we do any better than wind up the
subject as he does, by a quotation from a magnificent poem. As he says:
The exquisite beauty of Edwin Arnold's exposition of Karma in The Light of Asia tempts to its reproduction here, but it is too long for quotation in full. Here
is a portion of it:
Karma-all that total of a soul
Which is the things it did, the thoughts it had,
The "self" it wove with woof of viewless time
Crossed on the warp invisible of acts.
Before beginning and without an end,
As space eternal and as surety sure,
Is fixed a Power divine which moves to good,
Only its laws endure.
It will not be despised of anyone;
Who thwarts it loses, and who serves it gains;
The hidden good it pays with peace and bliss,
The hidden ill with pains.
It seeth everywhere and marketh all;
Do right-it recompenseth! Do one wrong-
The equal retribution must be made,
Though Dharma tarry long.
It knows not wrath nor pardon; utter-true,
Its measures mete, its faultless balance weighs;
Times are as naught, tomorrow it will judge
Or after many days.
Such is the law which moves to righteousness,
Which none at last can turn aside or stay;
The heart of it is love, the end of it
Is peace and consummation sweet. Obey.
And now I advise you to compare our Theosophic views upon Karma, the law of Retribution, and say whether they are not both more philosophical and just than this cruel and idiotic dogma which makes of "God" a senseless fiend; the tenet, namely, that the "elect only" will be saved, and the rest doomed to eternal
Q. Yes, I see what you mean generally; but I wish you could give some concrete
example of the action of Karma?
A. That I cannot do. We can only feel sure, as I said before, that our present
lives and circumstances are the direct results of our own deeds and thoughts in
lives that are past. But we, who are not Seers or Initiates, cannot know
anything about the details of the working of the law of Karma.
Q. Can anyone, even an Adept or Seer, follow out this Karmic process of
readjustment in detail?
A. Certainly: "Those who know" can do so by the exercise of powers which are
latent even in all men.
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