The Theosophical Society in America

Karma and Dharma: Twin Keys to the Heroic Journey

Originally printed in the November - December 2003 issue of Quest magazine.
Citation: Mills, Joy. "Karma and Dharma: Twin Keys to the Heroic Journey." Quest  91.6 (NOVEMBER - DECEMBER 2003):204-209, 227.

By Joy Mills

Joy MillsIn Letter 16 of The Mahatma Letters to A. P. Sinnett, a letter dealing principally with answers to questions put by Sinnett concerning Devachan, the Mahatma K. H. writes:

You can do nothing better than to study the two doctrines—of Karma and Nirvana—as profoundly as you can. Unless you are thoroughly well acquainted with the two tenets the double key to the metaphysics of Abidharma—you will always find yourself at sea in trying to comprehend the rest. We have several sorts of Karma and Nirvana in their various applications.

Such a statement deserves deep consideration, although there may be a tendency to dismiss it as simply abstruse Buddhist metaphysics, without a great deal of relevance to the more basic theosophical principles to which we have become accustomed. Karma, yes, an essential concept inherent in the theosophical worldview, necessary as a guide in our lives, but Nirvana? No, not really relevant. And if I dare to suggest, as indeed I propose to do, that the concept of Nirvana is related to, if not identical with, that less familiar principle known as dharma, there may be considerable skepticism regarding my placement of these two ideas in a central position within the theosophical framework.

Yet precisely because the human state is central to the entire metaphysic of theosophy—for that metaphysic is rooted in the proposition that Reality is realizable and is possible only through consciousness, or, more precisely, self-consciousness—it is therefore in reference to the human condition that we must seek the fundamentals of the theosophical worldview and the principles that can guide us today. Such a proposition indicates the coherence, the inner integrity, and the holistic nature of that worldview. This does not exclude paradox; indeed there is paradox and there is mystery, forever leading us onward in our quest for the realizability of the Ultimate.

To make a beginning, let us recognize that we, all humankind along with all sentient beings, are engaged in a journey, a great adventure. Whether we perceive that journey as simply a progress, a pilgrimage, through the years that separate our birthing from our dying or, on a grander scale, through all the cycles that include the numerous incarnations from our unconscious beginnings to our conscious perfectiveness, the pattern of the adventure is the same. And it is that pattern, that ordering, which we may discover and which, I suggest, constitutes one of the most exciting—if not the most challenging—concept inherent in the theosophical worldview. For the pattern is one of beauty, of the perfect proportion of all things, the essential rightness of creation itself. And we participate in that; we are held by that; we move in accordance with that divinely appointed ordering; and ultimately we are one with that, the Truth of our being, the Supreme Order whose very heart is bliss and peace.

What is the heroic journey? Is it not to live each day, each hour, each moment in full and conscious awareness of the underlying order, that cosmic harmony, in which we are rooted? Is it not to live inaccordance with the law of our own best being? To live always beyond ourselves and to act in such a manner that our every action mirrors in its spontaneous rightness the cosmic act of creation itself? The heroic journey, the great adventure on which we are embarked, is the journey of the soul throughour humanity to the realm of the gods; it is the journey from the bondage of nonknowing to the nirvanic freedom of luminous wisdom; it is the adventure of the spirit involving both a descent into hell and the ascent into heaven, stages symbolized in all the mystery schools and reexperienced in our lives as the painful and the happy moments produced by our own thoughts, feelings, and actions. And the twin keys to this heroic journey, the journey in which each one of us is the hero of his or her own story, are those great ideas to which many names in many traditions have been given: karma and dharma. Karma is that "one eternal Law in nature," as H. P. Blavatsky defined it, that law which she said "always tends to adjust contraries and to produce final harmony," and dharma, from which conceptually karma cannot be separated, and which has been translated in so many ways, but which as righteousness, as duty, as that which upholds, sustains, and nourishes our very being, is indeed the essence of our being: These two, karma and dharma, are but aspects of that one cosmic principle known in the Vedas as rta.

The journey may be more simply expressed: It is the way we all must take, the way from nonknowing (avidya) to knowing (vidya), from nonseeing to seeing, from nonhearing to hearing, from karma to nirvana.

St. Paul spoke of the way when he wrote to the Galatians: "Stand fast in the liberty where with Christ hath made us free, and be not entangled again with the yoke of bondage. . . . For, brethren, ye have been called unto liberty. . . .Walk in the Spirit. . . . the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, long suffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, temperance: against such there is no law." Words full of mystical meaning, indeed, when read in the light of the concepts we are here considering: To stand fast in liberty is to become one with one's dharma, to be established in that state in which one is identified with the Christ principle that animates us and therefore to be no longer subject to that outer law that has buffeted us about for so long because we have been ignorant of its nature. To walk the world in that knowledge is to know what St. Paul called "the fruit of the spirit," that love, joy, peace, goodness, which is to realize nirvana, the extinction of the personal self, the bliss of the One Self, here and now. It is to know, as Nagarjuna, the great Buddhist sage, said, "Nirvana is samsara; samsara is nirvana; between the two there is no difference."

To come to the knowing, which is wisdom, and to answer what St. Paul termed the call to liberty, which is enlightenment or spiritual illumination, means simply, in the theosophical context, to enter upon the way or path that leads to the realization of the essential unity of life. "Who can here declare what pathway leads on to the gods?" asked the Rig Veda seer. It is that pathway which we all must take, either in full awareness of the task before us or unconsciously driven onward by the inexorable laws that govern all manifested existence.

"Man was created for the sake of choice," declares a Hebrew proverb, and choice in the way of ourgoing is surely the most priceless of our human rights, even when our choices appear to be wrong. For the wrongness lies only in the continued experience of disequilibrium, the sense of conflict and suffering, which we all too often attribute to karma. We fail to see that karma is merely the lawfulness of existence itself and therefore productive only of what is in harmony with the causes we ourselves set in motion.

H. P. Blavatsky has pointed out that "Karma is a word of many meanings," a statement echoed in the comment by the Mahatma K.H. concerning the "several sorts of Karma." Further commenting on this concept, H. P. B. has stated that "it is owing to this law of spiritual development superseding the physical and purely intellectual, that mankind will become freed from its false gods, and find itself finally SELF-REDEEMED" (The Secret Doctrine, 2:420).

In The Theosophical Glossary, attributed to H. P. B., the term is equated with "ethical causation," and the further explication is given:

Karma neither punishes nor rewards, it is simply the one Universal Law which guides unerringly and, so to say, blindly, all other laws productive of certain effects along the grooves oftheir respective causations. When Buddhism teaches that "Karma is that moral kernel (of any being) which alone survives death and continues in transmigration" or reincarnation, it simply means that there remains nought after each Personality but the causes produced by it; causes which are undying, i.e., which cannot be eliminated from the Universe until replaced by their legitimate effects, and wiped out by them, so to speak, and such causes—unless compensated during the life of the person who produced them with adequate effects, will follow the reincarnated Ego, and reach it in its subsequent reincarnation until a harmony between effects and causes is fully reestablished.

But karma is only one half of the key that unlocks the meaning of existence as we travel the pathway that leads on to the gods. It is not enough to eliminate the causes we ourselves have set in motion and from which we all too often seek escape simply by generating further and still worse effects; within the context of achieving the aim of the human quest, we have an obligation to undertake our dharmic responsibility to travel the pathway that leads onward to the redemption of ourselves and the world. For we are destined to be world-redeemers, as the Self-redeemed of the world.

So dharma is the other half of the key that unlocks the meaning and purpose of existence. As the contemporary Indian philosopher S. Radhakrishnan points out in his book Indian Philosophy (1:52), dharma is the most important concept in Indian thought. This is so, as Radhakrishnan states, not as a matter of chance but as the necessary consequence of the basic postulate of an Ultimate Reality that is both immanent and transcendent. Ultimately and ideally there is, as the theosophical worldview postulates, no duality between Brahman and the universe; one is the mirror image of the other. Consequently our duty, as Radhakrishnan expresses it, is "to return from the plurality into the One" through our experiences with the plurality. As the law of morality, dharma is an invitation to perform just this task. It is the work of "becoming perfect" as the Christian scripture states; it is the task that the alchemists called the opus contra naturam, which is that work against the downward and outward flow of nature into diversity. Dharma then is the law of our best being, inspired by the one reality pervading and penetrating the entire universe, and to act according to dharma is desirable, fundamentally moral, and conducive to the fulfillment of our human state. Hence, too, dharma (from the Sanskrit root dhr, which means "to hold together, to support, to nourish") also means the characteristic nature of a thing, and the dharma of an individual is consequently the essential quality of a human being in terms of his or her moral obligations, since to be human is to be a moral or ethical entity. Krishna emphasized this fact to Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita (18:48), when he enjoined him in no uncertain terms that he had to act, even though every action carries with it its own burden of consequences: "All undertakings indeed are clouded by defects as fire by smoke." There is always karma, yet "Better is one's own duty though destitute of merit than the well-executed duty of another. He who doeth the duty (dharma) laid down by his own nature incurreth not sin" (18:47).

Here is truly the royal secret communicated by Krishna to Arjuna, as it has been communicated by every teacher to his disciples from time immemorial. We had it already noted in the words of St. Paul, although in different phraseology: "Walk in the Spirit . . . against such there is no law."

How are we to achieve that condition in which karma and dharma are unified? In the yogic literature, the path is by means of tapas, the burning away or eliminating all that is nonessential; in Buddhism, the aspirant is asked to engage in upaya, skillful means, action that reflects both wisdom (prajna) and compassion (karuna); in the Gnostic tradition, the principle of self-discipline, the regulation of one's actions in accord with one's dharma, was known as askesis, or spiritual skill, a term from which we derive our English word "asceticism."

To understand fully the concept of dharma is as difficult as to understand fully the idea of karma, although the latter has often seemed much simpler because of our tendency to give it a very simplistic definition. As the Mahatma K. H. pointed out to Sinnett, "We have several sorts of Karma and Nirvana in their various applications . . ."; as already noted, I am suggesting that Nirvana in that context—the snuffing-out of the personal, egoistic self—is nearly synonymous, or at least correlate, with the concept of dharma as the fulfillment of one's nature, a fulfillment in which the personal, egoistic desire-self is altogether dissolved. Dharma has been defined in a number of different ways in the various Sanskrit works, from the Vedas to the Dharma-shastra literature.

In terms of the individual, dharma may be said to refer to our moral obligations; in terms of society, dharma is often defined as social solidarity; while in the context of religion, dharma has been called beatitude, since that is said to characterize the essential nature of religion itself; in the context of law, dharma represents its essential property as justice. In every category, however, it represents what we may call the imperative necessity of the mundane order to reflect the cosmic order, while at the same time it also represents the potential for further growth and transformation since the dynamism of process is the characteristic feature of the cosmos.

Nowhere are these twin concepts of karma and dharma more beautifully described as characteristics of the original cosmic order than in those glorious hymns of ancient India, the Vedas, and most particularly the Rig Veda. A full examination of the Vedic concept of rta, or cosmic order, would take us far afield, but even a cursory summary may be useful in establishing the importance of recognizing that the two principles—karma and dharma—are not only intimately related but are essentially one as aspects of the fundamental structure of the universe in which we as human beings are active participants.

To understand the significance of the concept of rta in the Vedic tradition, we must turn briefly to the subject of cosmic origins as expounded in the Rig Veda. The rishis responsible for the great Vedic hymns thought of the origin of the universe as a projection into manifestation, through a process we can only call divine contemplation, of all that lies latent within the One, the Eternal That, an unfoldment from within without, as The Secret Doctrine so aptly describes it. This emanative process moves through three different stages, implying three levels or world orders. The first may be termed the primordial or transcendental level, the original emergence from the One, manifesting the cosmic order, rta, as the blueprint for all successive emanations. It is the emergence of the gods, who are, as Jeanine Miller defines them in her work on The Vedas: "personified agents of rta or cosmic order or harmony whose ordinances shine through rta, that eternal foundation of all that exists. . . . This rta implies that perfect harmony existing between the essence of being, sat, and its activity, i.e., between the inner and the outer, the latter being but the effect and in some sense, the mirror of the former."

The blueprint is thus established and the scene is prepared for that cosmic action which is inaccordance with the inherent lawfulness (rta) of the entire process. As Miller states, "It implies alsothe spontaneous rightness observable in the majestic movement of the stars, the recurrence of the seasons, the unswerving alternation of day and night, the unerring rhythm of birth, growth, death of each form of life, that rhythm which is the very breath of the divine action."

So at the primordial level, rta expresses itself as the differentiating principle whereby the One becomes the two poles of manifestation, the two become the three, and the three the many. The constant transformation points to a law of becoming, of change, and adjustment, to which all creation, all successive emanations will be subject, all being subservient to the one law of transformation or harmony (rta), that law which reveals the ordered course of the universal pattern. As the Rig Veda puts it: "By law (rta) the herds of the universe (i.e. the stars) have entered the cosmic orbit. Firmly fixed are the foundations of rta shining in beauty, manifold are its beauteous forms" (4:23).

In the natural process of emanation, then, the first level gives rise to the second, the intermediate level, where the gods themselves manifest and function. Here the universal law, rta, provides the dynamics for the unfolding in every realm of activity throughout the entire manifested system, each god or deva performing his task in perfect harmony: "one-minded, one-intentioned, unerringly move together to the one purposeful accomplishment" (Rig Veda 6:9).

Such is the beautiful description of the action of the intelligent forces in the universe; their solidarity, their essential righteousness, their concerted activity are the unique features of their manifestation, marking them as agents of the law of harmony, by which, through which, and in which they live and perform their various tasks:

One is the mighty godhood of the shining-ones. (Rig Veda 3:55)

Denizens of heaven, flame-tongued, thriving through the law, they abide brooding in the womb oflaw. (Rig Veda 10:65)

True observers of the law, faithful to the law, righteous leaders, bounteous to every man. (Rig Veda 5:67)

Law abiding, born in law, sublime fosterers of law . . . (Rig Veda 7:66)

Herdsmen of the supreme law, whose decrees are truth. (Rig Veda 10:63)

So the gods, intelligent agents of the law—not to be anthropomorphized at their loftiest levels andyet to be seen as the products of former systems who have won their immortality through past eonic cycles—reveal rta, the cosmic order, embodying it in their very being, since they are established in that nirvanic state in which their nature is both compassion and truth, bliss and knowledge.

Finally then, as a natural emanation through the cosmic action of the gods, there arises the phenomenal world where the individual rules and by virtue of his or her freedom disrupts the divine equilibrium, shatters the original cosmic harmony underlying all things, and suffers the consequences (karma) in their progress along the pathway of return, that pathway that leads on to the gods, enlightenment, and illumination.

What is known as rta or cosmic order exhibits itself in the transcendental and intermediate realms as dharma, the law of becoming in accordance with the rightness of one's being, the inner obedience to that duty which marks one's place in the cosmic scheme; there, in those inner realms, a certain state that has been called "karmalessness" obtains, a state of nirvana since there is the extinction of all sense of separateness, of a personal self, in that "oneminded, one-intentioned" harmonious action which accords with truth (satya). Yet because of rta, cosmic order, there is that aspect of the law which we experience in this phenomenal universe, which we call karma, failing to recognize that the term itself simply means action, although too often, since our actions disrupt the harmony of the universal order, we attribute to karma the concept values of goodness and badness.

While we have grossly oversimplified the great Vedic tradition and have necessarily omitted from so brief a survey other and equally important aspects of the entire process of the emanation of a manifested universe (this in itself the subject matter of the entire first volume ofThe Secret Doctrine), I suggest we begin to see the magnificence and splendor of the theosophic vision in terms of its relevance for us who are embarked on the human phase of the journey that leads onward to . . . what shall we call that unknown goal toward which all creation moves? How shall we define a culmination still unknown to us, and yet which we dimly sense and in our profounder moments of insight know in some mysterious manner is both in the distant "there" and in the very present "here" of our existence?

To live in accord with the cosmic order, to travel onward in harmony with the law of our inmost being—these are the consequences of rta in terms of karma and dharma, twin keys to the heroic journey of our humanity. These are the self-imposed demands inherent in the phenomenal world because of the very nature of the transcendent realm of which the phenomenal world is an emanation.

As we turn to our journey in the realm of the phenomenal, in the worlds of manifestation, we may gain a new appreciation for the concepts of karma and dharma, perceiving in them both challenge and opportunity to move more quickly on our heroic way. For a certain heroism is called for, a bravery of the spirit to accept the challenge of the pathway that leads onward, a soul-courage to take up the opportunity that is our human birthright, the opportunity to win our immortality and join the gods, if I may put it thus, in their eonic labors.

It is truly the great adventure of the spirit in which we are engaged, and the very word "adventure" is rich in meanings we have forgotten or overlooked. It is a word that appears frequently in the legends that arose in Europe in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, legends telling of the quest for the Holy Grail. Some scholars, translating those legends from the medieval French, particularly Pauline Matarasso, have pointed out that the French word aventure, from the old French aventiure in Middle High German, both from the Latin adventura, translated into modern English as "adventure," raises problems both linguistic and interpretive, simply because it contains such a wealth of meaning that we have today no single word to comprehend. In essence, it meant both karma and dharma; and when, in the Grail stories, Perceval or Parzifal was told, "Go where adventure leads you," it is clear that the directive was intended as a command to the hero to act in accordance with the pattern established by his own past (what we would call karma) and also to fulfill his particular mission or destiny (what we would call his dharma). So, as Matarasso points out in her commentary of The Quest of the Holy Grail, the anonymous work attributed to the Cistercian monks:

The adventure . . . is the challenge which causes man to measure himself against standards more than human . . . the adventure is above all God working and manifesting himself in the physical world. To accept an adventure is to accept an encounter with a force which is in the proper sense of the word supernatural, an encounter which is always perilous for the sinner or the man of little faith and much presumption.

She adds, "I think it is true to say that the author of The Quest uses the concept of the adventure asa symbol of providence just as precisely and consistently as he uses the Holy Grail as a symbol ofmystical experience." In her translation of the legend, therefore, she has used a variety of words,commenting, "I feel . . . bound to stress that beneath the multiplicity of terms there runs through the story like an unbroken thread the idea of providential guidance which man can either accept, refuse, or simply fail to see."

One could illustrate this idea by numerous references to the Grail legends as they appeared in Europe during that turbulent period of the early Middle Ages, a period not very different from our own, when new values were arising and a new consciousness coming to birth. Joseph Campbell comments at some length on the use of the term "adventure" in the Grail legends in reference both to the new values coming to birth at that time in Europe and to the changing perspectives of our modern age. In his work Creative Mythology (the fourth volume in his series Masks of God), Campbell points out in his discussion of the term "adventure" in connection with the Grail legends that it had reference to the fact that "the casual, chance, fragmentary events of an apparently undistinguished life disclose the form and dimension of a classic epic of destiny when the cosmic mirror is applied, and our own scattered lives today, as well, are then seen, also, as anamorphoses."

The use of the term "anamorphosis," by the way, is most interesting, since the word (from theGreek, "to form again or anew") often refers to a distorted image, taking us back to the Vedic concept of this phenomenal realm as an image, too often distorted by our perception, of the transcendental sphere of the gods.

All of this is an interesting study in itself, and of course it is closely related to a deeper study of karma as a central concept in understanding human destiny.

However, what I have sought to emphasize is that by following the advice of the Master K. H. as to the importance of a study of "Karma and Nirvana," we may derive a new understanding of the manner in which these principles may serve to guide us today. We may come to recognize that in meeting all that is appropriate to us as a result of our past—that which we call our karma—and in accepting the challenge of our inevitable destiny, the rightness of our self becoming nature—that which we call our dharma—we will have made clear the pathway that leads on to the gods. This is the nirvanic pathway, if you like, for it is essentially the way of bliss in which the separate self is extinguished in favor of that greater light of the Universal Self.

From the Vedic seers and rishis to St. Paul onward to the Gnostics, the alchemists, and those who penned the Grail legends, the story has been told of the human—the heroic—journey. The patterns of events in our lives, when we have eyes to see the patterning, reveal that, as Joseph Campbell puts it, "Beneath the surface effects of this world sit . . . the gods." For here we may learn to mirror that cosmic harmony that holds the stars in their orbits and reveals itself in the rhythms of tides and seasons.

In The Voice of the Silence, reference is made to a stage when "once thy foot hath pressed the bed of the Nirvanic stream." Then is asked the question: "What see'st thou before thine eye, O aspirant to god-like Wisdom?" And the traveler replies: "I see the PATH; its foot in mire, its summits lost in glorious light Nirvanic. And now I see the ever narrowing Portals on the hard, the thorny way to Jnana."

Hard and thorny it may appear to be, the road to jnana, knowing, to Gnosis or Sophia-Wisdom, but our destiny is no other than to walk onward, for

The way to final freedom is within thy SELF.
That way begins and ends outside of Self.


Joy Mills, MA, has been a student of Theosophy for over sixty years. She has held numerous positions within the Society, including president of the American and Australian sections, international vice president, and director of the Krotona School of Theosophy. She is the author of several books as well as articles that have appeared in Theosophical journals throughout the world.