The Mysterious Workings of Karma

By Eloise Hart
The universe and everything in it, moral, mental, physical, psychic, or Spiritual, is built on a perfect law of equilibrium and harmony. -- H. P. Blavatsky, The Key to Theosophy, p. 189

Karma is a Sanskrit word that means "action," and action -- movement fueled by desire -- is what brings universes and all of their inhabitants repeatedly into being, energizing them through their continuing cycles of existence. Karma is the sowing and reaping of the Bible; the action and reaction of Buddhists and Brahmans. It is cause and effect with scientists, credit and debit with bankers, and in society it is the giving and receiving and giving in return, that makes our lives pleasant and harmonious. But woe to the receiver who gives nothing back; who is so wrapt up in himself he has no idea that his non-action blocks the flow of kindness and love that otherwise would come to his aid in time of need. Of course, we can't judge another, for there are many ways of reciprocating: sincere and warmhearted appreciation may at times be sufficient.

Let us remember that a karmic occurrence is not a one-time event. Reactions are repeated again and again until disturbed, discordant energies are balanced. Thus, the antecedents of an act may be traced back, back, back into an infinite past, and the effects may fan out and affect millions into an infinite future.

But are all actions reactions? Can altruistic individuals initiate or "evolve" actions with far-reaching benefits? Although we cannot stay the arrow shot from a bow, or still the vibrations of an angry voice, we can with our will create harmonies to counterbalance the inharmonious forces we engendered and thus establish new rhythms of cause and effect.

Newcomers to this idea often think of karma as the dispensations of an all-knowing God who, balancing good against evil, rewards the good and punishes evildoers. Later they come to understand that we are our karma. We, by our thoughts and desires, award and punish ourselves. What we are, every incident that occurs in our lives, does so because we generated the causes that brought it into being.

But how can thoughts and deeds become life situations? This most mysterious working of karma is addressed in Oriental philosophy by explanations of the nature and operations of thoughts and skandhas. Skandhas are the "bundles" or "aggregates" of physical and psychological characteristics that we accumulate during our lifetime. They are collections of habits, personality traits, biases, prejudices, fears, and talents. After we die, our skandhas lie dormant until we return. Then, during the incarnating processes, these bundles or "seeds" begin to awaken and, by the alchemy of transformation, give shape and substance to the personality and life-situations that will be ours for a coming lifetime. Moreover, thoughts and desires are impressed on our subconscious and translate themselves into acts and memories that serve as the focus for karmic adjustments days or lifetimes later. Bright and loving thoughts raise and refine our nature, while dark and selfish thoughts sicken and depress us and, when concentrated on repeatedly and by enough people, can corrupt and destroy whole nations. H. P. Blavatsky puts these thoughts into perspective:

there 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. If one breaks the laws of Harmony . . . one must be prepared to fall into the chaos one has oneself produced. . . . Karma-Nemesis is no more than the (spiritual) dynamical effect of causes produced and forces awakened into activity by our own actions. -- The Secret Doctrine 1:643-4

There is a passage in the New Testament that confirms this idea:

And as Jesus passed by he saw a man which was blind from his birth. And his disciples asked him, saying, Master, who did sin, this man, or his parents, that he was born blind? -- John 9:1-2

Apparently in those days it was taken for granted that one's fate is the consequence of one's own or one's parents' former thoughts and deeds. How else could a newborn child be held accountable for its "sins"?

Is it just to suffer for something we did lifetimes ago? Physicians who trace genetic and character traits back generations try to explain how this happens. If everything has a cause, then birth is the continuation of a long series of lives. A child comes into life bearing seeds from his past. In former incarnations he may have yearned to help others, or participated in wrongdoing that produced conditions he and his parents, and perhaps, grandparents are involved in. Now, as seeming victim, he has a choice: either to follow the path of destruction, or to do what he can to put things right.

And we can "put things right," for karma is a just and compassionate law. When we attempt to do what is kindly and fair, nature, ever seeking balance, comes to our aid. Moreover, in providing us with the capacity to forget past-life causes of present-day pain, and giving us at birth a fresh mind, trusting heart, and an abundance of vitality, she sets the stage so that we can better ourselves and the lives of our family. In the process, we could very well turn enemies from the past into friends.

Going back to the question about the blind man's sin, Jesus' answer was revealing: "Neither hath this man sinned, nor his parents: but that the works of God should be made manifest in him," and bending down, he picked up some clay and anointed the blind man's eyes, and told him to "Go, wash in the pool of Siloam." The man went, and washed, and when he opened his eyes he could see! Whereupon Jesus explained to his disciples that this was the fulfillment of his mission: "I am come into this world, that they which see not might see . . ." (John 9:1-4, 7, 39).

This "mission" is that of all great teachers. It was the endeavor also of the Mystery schools that flourished throughout the Mediterranean area at that time. Through teachings and mystical experience, they sought to awaken spiritual perceptions. Anointing the blind man's eyes symbolizes the process of spiritual awakening. Neophytes, during their training, were expected to free themselves, to wash themselves clean of earthly attachments, to walk out of the darkness into light and immerse themselves in the waters of truth.

The parallels continue: Jesus sends the blind man to the "pool of Siloam" where his sight was restored; while initiants of the Greek Mysteries awoke from the sleep of ignorance illumined, able to see all, know all, and feel at one with the ineffable Light (Eleusis: Archetypal Image of Mother and Daughter by C. Kerenyi, pp. 15, 96-8).

This "restoration of sight" is mentioned also in the myth of Demeter and Persephone that formed the core of the Eleusinian Mysteries. During their sacred ceremonies, Demeter, goddess of earth and civilization, was said to "give sight to the blind." The myth, with its many hints at aspects of karma we seldom consider, tells how the lovely young Persephone wandered one day into a strange meadow to gather its rare and beautiful flowers -- that is, to reap some rare and beautiful karma. Suddenly a chasm opened before her and Pluto, god of the underworld, appeared. Captivated by her beauty, he gathered her into his carriage and, despite her terrified screams, carried her down into Hades.

When she failed to return, Demeter, her grief-stricken mother, not knowing what had happened, searched the whole Earth for her daughter. Her sadness had such devastating effect on life everywhere that Zeus, fearing that whole races would perish, ordered Pluto to release his young bride. But he could not, for he had tricked her into eating six pomegranate seeds and, having tasted the "food of the dead," she was unable to return to the living. She was, however, permitted to return and live with her mother during the springtime and summer, but she must spend the rest of the year in Hades.

Despite the worldwide rejoicing when she returned, Persephone never again was the lovely maiden who had gathered flowers without a thought or care. Having suffered and known "death," she was wiser and "different" -- different even from the gods of Olympus, for unlike them, she could relate to the needs and sufferings of mankind and bless them with the gifts they desired. And they, in turn, found comfort in the presence of this goddess whose name, because of the secrets she guarded, they were forbidden to mention.

Like all true myths, this story has many levels of meaning, among them the agricultural, psychological, and metaphysical, its fullness lying in the integration of these three. It obviously relates to the lunar fertility cycles that influence the processes of procreation and growth that occur throughout nature and within our psychological and spiritual natures. We marvel at the caterpillar's transformation into butterfly, yet seldom consider or examine the metamorphoses that we undergo, and how the quality of our thoughts and actions is absorbed, synthesized, and instilled into character traits and life situations.

Persephone had much to teach about these processes, and also about the karmic fructification and absorption that takes place during sleep and death. In her role as goddess of death and queen of the underworld Persephone "stands for post mortem Karma, which is said to regulate the separation of the lower from the higher 'principles"' (Key to Theosophy, p. 99n) as our spirits soar "among the stars that sleep not," as the ancient Egyptians said.

This reminds us of the responsibility we bear for our thoughts and deeds: those which we think we entertain in private, shape and influence not only the details of our lives, of our dreams, and the stages we pass through when we die, but also affect and influence for good or ill the lives of untold thousands.

As mentioned earlier, dangers accrue when we interfere with or block the currents of karmic reactions. This idea is the theme of India's treasured Bhagavad-Gita. In it Krishna explains to the reluctant prince Arjuna that it is his duty to fight -- not to slay friends and kinsmen, but to destroy the elements of darkness within himself that light might be born. He tells him that

The journey of your mortal frame cannot be accomplished by inaction.
It is better to do one's own duty, even though it is devoid of excellence, than to perform another's duty well. It is better to perish in the performance of one's own duty; the duty of another is full of danger.
Action comes from the Supreme Spirit who is one; wherefore the all-pervading Spirit is at all times present . . . -- W. Q. Judge recension, 3:8, 35, 15

Blavatsky reinforces this idea that "action [karma] comes from the Supreme Spirit." "Atma," she says, "is the highest aspect of Karma, its working agent of ITSELF" (Key, p. 135). In other words, karma is rooted in the Divine, is inseparably connected with Atma, the divine source and essence of our being and of the cosmos.

Should we win the battle Arjuna was engaged in -- when, with mind and desires controlled, with heart fixed on the Supreme, we act for the benefit of all -- will we find peace? Will our lives improve and heartache disappear? Not necessarily. If we really wish to help others, the seeds of compassion in our hearts will draw us into situations where there is need, where we will have opportunity to assuage human pain and lift the clouds of darkness from hearts and minds.

  • (From Sunrise magazine, October/November 1996. Copyright © 1996 by Theosophical University Press.)

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