William Q. Judge on Karma

By W. T. S. Thackara

[Presented at a William Q. Judge Centenary meeting, Theosophical Library Center, Altadena, California, Friday, March 22, 1996.]

Reflecting on W. Q. Judge's many-faceted contribution to uplifting the human condition, perhaps his greatest was to make theosophical principles understandable, accessible, and practical in our daily lives. One of his favorite themes was karma: that we reap what we sow in the field of experience. Karma is the law of ethical causation and impartial justice -- of compensation, of the adjustment of effects to their causes that unerringly restores harmony and equilibrium -- and is the foundation of the Golden Rule. Together with its twin doctrine of reincarnation, karma was frequently reiterated by Judge as among the most important and liberating ideas of theosophy. That an understanding of karma is essential to handling the greater and smaller problems of life may be discerned in a letter to WQJ, received sometime after the passing of H. P. Blavatsky, from their adept sponsor and teacher. It contains not only some very good advice, but a philosophical teaching about karma that is a potent key to theosophy in practice. Here are the pertinent lines:

Brave soldiers need neither orders nor constant encouragement. Pursue the lines laid down long ago and "we will look out for results." As said by me in S.D. [The Secret Doctrine] Atma is Karma, so all results flowing from sincere work will be right, if you are detached. . . . Be wise and prudent, and expect nothing for this is an age of darkness. [You] cannot be too careful. . . . You are to sow seed. Pay all your attention to that and force not the growth. . . . -- The Theosophical Forum, October 1947, p. 577

Although these lines are addressed personally to Judge, and had specific relevance to the difficult challenges he had then to meet as a leader of the movement, they nevertheless have much to offer us today. The pivotal statement, in my view, is the three words: "Atma is Karma." From this simple phrase all the rest flows.

Atma (or Atman) is a Sanskrit term referring to our highest self, our divine spark, the monadic source, origin, and author of our being. Hence the frequently repeated maxim that "we are our karma." Outwardly we represent the fruit or sum total of our thoughts and actions that is able to express itself at any given moment. In back of this is the unexpended karma created by us in this or previous lives awaiting expression in the future.

However, since the ultimate source of karma is our highest divine Self, the god within, we may also infer that behind all the karma that we have personally created is the sum total of our evolutionary potential, which comprises both infinite wisdom and boundless compassion. Another way to say this is that our karma is not just a cold, blind mechanical action and reaction, but is intelligently regulated and infused with compassionate spiritual help, even to the smallest circumstances of our lives -- simply because the universe exists for the welfare and benefit of each and every living being. Nevertheless it is our karma which reaches us and belongs completely to our self. Thus we are enjoined to know our self, our real Self. To repeat: "Atma is Karma, so all results flowing from sincere work will be right -- if you are detached."

To help us understand this dynamic, Judge used the phrase "karmic stamina," which he related to the Christian thought about laying up treasures in heaven (Echoes of the Orient 2:427). Because we tend to personalize our karma -- "my karma" and "your karma," giving the impression they are utterly different and separate -- Judge pointed out three additional kinds of karma which should also be factored in the equation: family karma, racial or national karma, and the karma of the present age. Through our individual and collective actions we have created a store of karmic force, so to speak, both positive and negative, which powerfully and inexorably affects everyone and everything. We are therefore part of, touched by, and to some degree responsible for everything that comes within our experience -- both the good and the bad, the pleasant and the unpleasant.

To help us grasp the idea of our blended collective karma, Judge illustrated an aspect of it with the story of an Eastern king who had one son:

"And this son committed a deed the penalty of which was that he should be killed by a great stone thrown upon him. But as it was seen that this would not repair the wrong nor give to the offender the chance to become a better man, the counselors of the king advised that the stone should be broken into small pieces and those be thrown at the son, and at his children and grandchildren as they were able to bear it. It was so done, and all were in some sense sufferers yet none were destroyed." It was argued, of course, in this case that the children and grandchildren could not have been born in the family of the prince if they had not had some hand in the past, in other lives, in the formation of his character, and for that reason should share to some extent in his punishment. -- "Thoughts on Karma," The Path, August 1892 (in Echoes 1:258)

The same reasoning applies to our good actions, which are likely to outweigh our sins and shortcomings. Hence if "Atma is Karma," it follows that our karma flows from and is regulated by our highest self -- not that we can't modify its expression by creating "instant karma" on the personal plane. We may be confident, however, that when we undertake our daily duties to the best of our ability, the whole evolutionary force of the universe is behind us, urging us and leading us ever higher, offering signposts, stepping stones and, in a certain sense, protecting us -- if we are detached. This is reiterated in the Bhagavad-Gita's teachings of karmayoga, the yoga of action, and karmasannyasayoga, the "renunciation of action" -- that is, renunciation of the personal fruits of action or detachment from selfish motive. In the performance of duty, says the Gita, "he who is perfected in devotion [yoga] will in time find spiritual knowledge springing up spontaneously in the self [and from the Self]" (4:38).

Our sacred instructions are indeed within us, impressed on the fabric of our soul. Therefore we do not require specific verbal or written orders from the gods or the masters, because even in our most challenging situations, our karma comes freighted with all the inner and outer direction and help we need in order to transform any situation into a creative opportunity. And that is exactly what William Q. Judge did -- through his writings, his spoken word, and a life grounded upon a profound trust in karma and the beneficent purposes of divine wisdom.

  • (From Sunrise magazine, December 1996/January 1997. Copyright © 1997 by Theosophical University Press.)

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