Viewpoint: The Importance of Karma

Printed in the Summer 2019 issue of Quest magazine.
Citation: Hebert, Barbara ,"Viewpoint: The Importance of Karma" Quest 107:3, pg 12-13

Barbara Hebert, National President

Theosophical Society - Barbara B. Hebert currently serves as president of the Theosophical Society in America.  She has been a mental health practitioner and educator for many years.When we consider tragedy and loss in light of the perennial wisdom, it is almost impossible to avoid a discussion regarding karma. During the production of this issue, I had a conversation with Quest editor Richard Smoley about the Theosophical perspective on karma. As is usual with Richard, his statements make one think deeply; not surprisingly, then, our conversation elicited opportunities for me to contemplate my own personal perspective.

Before the coming of the Theosophical Society, very few people in the West had ever heard the word karma, and it is likely that even fewer understood its meaning. In the past 130+ years, much has changed. Most individuals living in the West have heard the term, and many have some basic understanding of it. We find memes and cartoons regarding karma, including references to instant karma. We hear it referred to in various terms: the Law of Cause and Effect; the Law of Action and Reaction; Universal Law; the Law of Harmony; the Law of Self-Created Destiny; and so on. Numerous books, articles, and talks about it can be found in both the East and the West, from both spiritual and pragmatic perspectives; some have been shallow, others very deep. But not everyone agrees about what karma is.

Below are a few statements about karma with which many esotericists would agree:

  •  It is a universal principle that is inherent in the universe.
  •  It is impersonal and inexorable.
  •  Every action has a reaction.
  •  Karma is inextricably linked to reincarnation.

In all honesty, I am not sure that we have much more of an understanding of karma than these few points. We frequently speak as if we understand karma in more depth, but do we? Is there a knowing or understanding that comes from deep inside of ourselves, or are we just repeating what we have heard and read? These questions elicit a need for self-introspection, listening to the still voice within.

At the end of the Theosophical classic Light on the Path, Mabel Collins presents an “Essay on Karma.” In it she tells us that the operations of karma cannot be fully understood “until the disciple has reached the point at which they no longer affect” him or her. Given this statement, we can recognize that it is not possible to grasp the entire concept at this point in our spiritual evolution; however, if we contemplate karma deeply, we may have some small intuitive glimpse of its workings.

Even without a thorough understanding of the teaching, we can use the four statements above to help us in our daily lives. These assertions provide us with direction and understanding as we consider karma in relation to tragedy and loss.

The belief that karma is a principle inherent in the universe implies that there is order in the universe. It implies that there is some sort of cosmic intelligence that has created a structure, and that the incidents that occur are not random, chaotic, or happenstance. Karma is a principle or law, just as gravity is a principle or law. Gravity is neither good nor bad—it simply is. Karma is neither good nor bad—it simply is.

Taking these statements further, we can look at the second assertion: karma is impersonal and inexorable. This sounds somewhat ominous, doesn’t it? However, gravity is also impersonal and inexorable, and we don’t usually perceive it as ominous. Gravity doesn’t decide, “I’m going to make that person fall but not that person.” Gravity always works the same way, without fail. Karma works the same way.

In light of the third assertion—“for every action, there is a reaction”—we have H.P. Blavatsky’s words in The Key to Theosophy: “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” (emphasis Blavatsky’s).

HPB tells us that karma is universal harmony. She uses the metaphor of a tree to describe it, saying that when the limb of a tree is bent forcibly, it rebounds accordingly. As Theosophists, we know that our every thought, word, or act causes a wave of energy, which has a rebounding response. This is the way in which the universe maintains equilibrium. For every cause, there will be an effect.

The fourth statement—“karma is inextricably linked to reincarnation”—takes us into a different arena. Theosophical literature talks about the evolution of the soul. It says that through a series of incarnations, we continue to learn and grow spiritually until that point in time when we become totally human. As John Algeo, former president of the TSA, writes, “The purpose of our many lives is to further the evolutionary development of our minds and souls.” We are expanding our consciousness as we live each life, and the goal is to further this evolutionary development, to become fully human, and in doing so to recognize the unity of all beings. Expanding our consciousness often involves some degree of pain or disruption. Looking back on our lives, we may ask ourselves: when have I learned or grown the most? Inevitably the answer involves the passage through a very difficult time, frequently one of loss and tragedy.

Blavatsky put this concept in a different way. In her pamphlet “Reincarnation and Karma,” found on the Theosophy World website, she talks about this growth:

The inner being must continually burst through its confining shell or encasement, and such a disruption must also be accompanied by pain, not physical but mental and intellectual.

And this is how it is in the course of our lives. The trouble that comes upon us is always just the one we feel to be the hardest that could possibly happen—it is always the one thing we feel we cannot possibly bear. If we look at it from a wider point of view, we shall see that we are trying to burst through our shell at its one vulnerable point; that our growth, to be real growth, . . . must progress evenly throughout, just as the body of a child grows, not first the head and then a hand, followed perhaps by a leg, but in all directions at once, regularly and imperceptibly. [Humanity’s] tendency is to cultivate each part separately, neglecting the others in the meantime—every crushing pain is caused by the expansion of some neglected part, which expansion is rendered more difficult by the effects of the cultivation bestowed elsewhere.

To put this discussion in a more practical light, let’s look at an example. Joe is trimming large limbs from the trees in his yard using a chain saw. He loses his balance and cuts his leg deeply. Does it matter if this incident is due to karma? No! It matters that Joe receive the medical attention needed to save his leg and possibly save his life. To take this metaphor a step further, let’s assume that Joe’s life is saved, but the muscles in his leg are so badly damaged that he may never be able to use it. Again, we may quickly assume that this terrible injury is due to karmic circumstances. We may wonder if in a previous lifetime Joe was in combat and severed the legs of his enemy, or if he took advantage of people who were physically challenged in some way, or if he lacked compassion for individuals who struggled, treating them unkindly or even viciously. We can wonder indefinitely, but does it matter? What matters is the situation in front of us.

It seems that the most important aspects of this situation are twofold. First, Joe needs to receive the appropriate therapy so that he may possibly regain some use of his leg. Second, Joe’s response (physically, emotionally, and cognitively) to the situation is critical. He can use the situation to grow and learn in ways that are unique to him and his evolutionary journey, in ways that increase his compassion and empathy for others. Joe can also choose to become angry and bitter over this devastating injury. It is Joe’s choice alone.

I’m not saying that Joe won’t have to deal with his feelings and thoughts—he definitely will; however, he can choose to work through the feelings and thoughts, which belong primarily to the personality. He can go beyond the personality and choose actions that will further his evolutionary journey.

We have all known individuals in situations similar to Joe’s. We may even think about historical personages such as Viktor Frankl, Anne Frank, Helen Keller, and Sojourner Truth. It’s a choice, and if we believe in the inextricability of karma and reincarnation, that choice determines the situations that may occur in future lifetimes.

So how does a knowledge of karma help us today when we face tragedy and loss? We may recognize that karma is intricately involved, but that is not the most important component. We must deal with the situation at hand both from the temporal and spiritual perspectives, allowing ourselves to further the evolution of humanity through a greater depth of understanding and compassion for all.

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