(A Paper read at a Meeting of the Cambridge T.S. )

reprinted from “Theosophical Siftings” Volume - 2 -

FIRST let me say that I do not intend to hazard any conjectures as to the conditions of existence or being in what, looking at it from our present standpoint, we call the infinite past or the infinite future (we should rather style it all the infinite present) — but I wish to deal, so far as I am able, with the mutual action of Karma and Free Will, in shaping the destinies of each individual during his period or periods of existence in the human form, as we understand the word human.

This is but a very minute portion of the whole subject, but it is the only portion on which I feel myself able to concentrate any thought and to endeavour to reduce the results of that thought into words.

As the law of Karma is essentially the law of Harmony, we may assume that if a single portion of the whole subject is found to be perfectly harmonious, the remainder we shall find to be in perfect tune when our perceptions are sufficiently acute to form a judgment on the matter.

I have of course, no right to assume that all of you believe in the doctrine of Reincarnation, but in the limits of the present paper I have no time to deal with this subject, and must ask you for the nonce to assume its truth. I must again tax your powers of belief or credulity, as the case may be, by asking you to assume that our existence in the human form is like a huge wave or spiral, commencing from a height and descending, only again to reach a still higher position than the one from which it started.

This doctrine of Karma, roughly speaking, tells us that our actions and thoughts in the past, have determined our surroundings and proclivities in the present, as those in the present are determining the conditions of our future. This, however, is an erroneous method of explanation, because it would lead us to consider that the present formed a boundary between the past and the future, whilst in reality we have lived, are living, and shall always live in the eternal present.

“Never the spirit was born; the spirit shall cease to be never;
Never was time it was not; End and Beginning are dreams !
Birthless, and deathless, and changeless remaineth the spirit for ever;
Death hath not touched it at all, dead though the house of it seems! "

" Nay, but as when one layeth
His worn-out robes away,
And, taking new ones, sayeth:
‘These will I wear today !'
So, putteth by the spirit
Lightly its garb of flesh,
And passeth to inherit
A residence afresh." [Page 7]

I may compare the effects of Karma to an endless rope, broken at no one point. This rope is composed of many strands, to which we may liken our varying thoughts, aspirations, proclivities, and actions, whilst the country over and through which this rope passes may well represent our surroundings. This simile is taken, as I have no doubt you at once recognise, from the units given on the subjects of Karma in “Light on the Path".

Now it seems to me incomprehensible that we should consider the force of Karma alone to act, for then how are we to account for the generation either of good or evil Karma, except from an outside cause ? Or even granting this generation, how are we to account for the fact that evil Karma generating in the future unfavourable surroundings and proclivities, the individual who is subject to these does not necessarily go from bad to worse; and vice versa with good Karma?

By the inexorable laws of Karma one bad deed committed, one evil thought harboured, brings in the fulness of time its sure reward. Evil generates evil, bad Karma brings still worse in its train. What shall become of the man who once does evil ? The further he goes, the worse become his surroundings, his mental sphere more gross, his physical condition more and yet more unfavourable to pure, right growth, and all the inevitable results of that one false step. And yet after a time, something steps in, clears away the mist, and shows him the error of his way, his fatal blindness. Something gives him not only the strength but the desire to shake off his accumulations of evil, to leave the foul paths he has been treading, and force his painful way upward from the depths of falsehood and evil to the heights of everlasting truth. Even then the battle is not won; he has begun to generate good Karma; but that good does not go on and increase as one might expect. Even when all the old Karma is exhausted — that which was generated before the evil was recognised, and the right path desired and sought for — even when that is lived through, and the tangled threads smoothed straight, the goal is not won, heaven not entered; for humanity, so strong, yet so weak, a God, yet a little child, stumbles, and falls once more, and this time it may be to greater depths and darker ways than it ever did before; and so on, in endless repetition, until the good predominating, the suffering soul enters that peace beyond comprehension; or being utterly evil, yet not without some spark of the divine in him, he is cast down to the very beginning to try his fate once more. The theory of Karma alone, I say, does not meet such cases as these.

We must perforce seek for some other source of power whose action is mutual and interdependent with that of Karma; and these conditions we shall find fully satisfied if we turn to Free Will as that source.


“Yet, tell me Teacher! by what force doth man
Go to his ill, unwilling, as if one
Pushed him that evil path ?” [Page 8]


" Karma it is !
Passion it is! born of the Darknesses,
Which pusheth him. Mighty of appetite,
Sinful and strong is this! Man's enemy

“ Sense, mind, and reason — these, O Kunti's son !
Are booty for it; in its play with these
It maddens man, beguiling, blinding him.

" Govern thy heart! Constrain th' entangled sense !
Resist the false, soft sinfulness which saps
Knowledge and Judgement ! "

Remember the two assumptions with which I started, and note that I should deduce from the second, that man, in his progress in human evolution, must pass through every portion of the curve of the wave or spiral, that is, must pass through every phase of experience of good and evil alike, must, passing from spirituality, at first travel through materialism, only to rise to a higher spirituality beyond. And bear in mind that this huge wave or spiral consists of many smaller wavelets or spirals corresponding to man's existence in his different reincarnations.

Now, since the inexorable law is that we must pass over every portion of the curve of each wavelet, it follows that the man who passes directly down from the height of spirituality through materialism, only at once to ascend again, will have accomplished the journey in a much shorter time, and with much less toil than one who, descending into materialism, passes in a horizontal direction along the trough of the wave, thus saturating himself with materialism, and rendering a subsequent rise to spirituality all the more difficult, because he has got rid of the traces of spirituality which he carried down with him in his descent from the crest of the previous wavelet, and which would have assisted him in rising to the crest of spirituality again.

In like manner, one who remains at the crest of a wavelet when he should be advancing to the next, will find his spirituality degenerating into superstition; so that when he descends to the next period of materialism, he will be less able to cope with the conditions there, than if he had carried some trace of materialism with him from the trough of the last wavelet. Remember that there is a succession of wavelets, each with its crest and trough passing down from a spiritual wave crest to a material wave trough, only to rise to a more highly spiritual wave crest. Now, I maintain that it depends on a man's free will as to whether he decides to pursue the even tenour of his way, from crest through trough to crest, or whether he turns aside to linger in the trough, or on the side of the crest, or on the crest itself; when he should be passing on to the next wavelet. But as I have pointed out, his power to pass on his way depends in great measure on whether he carries with him sufficient spirituality from the crest, and sufficient materialism from the trough of each wavelet, to enable him to pass over the succeeding one with but little difficulty.

And this I take to be a roughly sketched idea of the working of Karma and Free Will. Or we may represent human existence as a passage from the high [Page 9] brow of a mountain, down through successive rich vales and forests, barren plains and sandy deserts, over range after range of little hills, to a deeper and richer vale — or it may be a yet more barren plain — from which we rise, over a corresponding series of hills and vales and plains, to a higher mountain top than the one from which we first descended. And so it will be understood, how it is true that every man must pass through every phase of experience, but it needs not that he linger in the forests and enervating plains of vice, or on the unfruitful and bare hill-sides of superstition.

If he has any of these, he creates evil Karma, which will delay his future advance. Now if Karma alone had sway over him, he would continue in the valley or on the hill-side, where he had first turned his steps from the path, and his course would be in a horizontal direction along either of these, so that he would get left behind in the stream of human advance, and would eventually be blotted out of existence as having made no progress.

"There be those, too, whose knowledge, turned aside
By this desire or that, gives them to serve
Some lower gods, with various rites, constrained
By that which mouldeth them. Unto all such —
Worship what shrine they will, what shapes in faith —
'Tis I who give them faith! I am content !
The heart thus asking favour from its God,
Darkened but ardent, hath the end it craves,
The lesser blessing — but 'tis I who give !
Yet soon is withered what small fruit they reap:
Those men of little minds, who worship so,
Go where they worship, passing with their gods."

Perhaps we may here note, too, the parable of the talents, where he who had five talents was commended much for earning other five, he who had two, whose Karma, that is, delayed his progress, yet struggled on to make other two, whilst he who had one, whose Karma was still more hostile, refused to make any effort to progress, and was severely censured for his conduct. Mind, he did not destroy the talent, he only refused to use it to the best advantage.

We must bear in mind, that as we progress from one crest of spirituality to a higher one, as we progress from one depth of materialism to one on a higher level, the action of Free Will and Karma becomes much more powerful, and a very much smaller apparent divergence from the right path leads to more damaging results. It is hard to give rough instances of what I mean, but I will try to do so; the examples I give must only be considered as distantly approximating to the thought I would wish to express.

Take a blacksmith's blows on a rough piece of metal — one blow not so well directed as it should be, will not do much apparent harm; in the forging of a light steel chain a less mistake will do more injury, whilst in the manufacture of a delicate chronometer, the slightest mistake will ruin the whole watch. So in spiritual matters, a murder may weigh comparatively lightly on a low type of villain. In another individual who is more sensitive, a falsehood damaging another will weigh much more heavily, whilst in one whose conscience is more highly strung, an envious thought of another will create agonies of remorse.

These are but rough instances, but will perhaps suffice to explain my meaning. [Page 10] Again, we must remember that each one's Karma is inextricably interwoven with the Karma of his fellow-men, and we are responsible in a measure for them, as they for us; nor must we roughly separate the strands of our rope from the strands of theirs. If we in the past have been instrumental in turning some fellow-creature from the right road it may be one whose Karma is more hostile than ours, and who was so all the more easily turned; we must not, when we see the right way, roughly bid them adieu, but strive to turn them with us, and only gently separate the strands if we find that our toil is in vain, not submitting to travel further astray, but endeavouring to the best of our ability to turn their strands with ours in the right direction; and let us remember that in benefiting them, we are benefiting ourselves, for we all are one with the Eternal. This view of the subject complicates the matter enormously, and is a question with which I do not feel in the least competent to deal.

I might compare the action of Karma to the progress of some vessel in a given direction, carried by a current, now sluggish and now swifter, whilst Free Will would represent the rudder, and to carry out the simile further, we may consider that at first the long beam is used for steering, requiring great apparent expenditure of energy to produce comparatively small results; then we have the wheel, which again requires some considerable expenditure of strength, though not so much as in the former case, whilst progressing further we have the small wheel acting through machinery where a very small effort will produce comparatively great results; and so we steer our vessel on its course, avoiding the whirlpools here, the cross currents there, taking the middle of the current when the stream near the banks is too sluggish, nearing the banks when the centre torrent is too rapid, ever on the look-out to avoid fouling other vessels, on the same stream of time, yet ready to lend a helping hand to one in distress, so long as we ourselves are not led into shipwreck by so doing; for we must remember that our vessel is a trust which we hold, and though by helping others we may delay our arrival in port, yet we have no right to risk shipwreck by so doing. Of course, the stouter the boat, and the better she answers to the helm, the nearer will she be able to approach danger in helping others; but the captain in each case is responsible, and must know perfectly the capabilities of his boat, and will be held answerable for all the incidents, both good and evil, of the voyage.

This simile again, as indeed all similes drawn from our present experience must be, is necessarily inadequate to meet the whole case, but will give some idea of the lines on which I think we ought to attempt to work out this question, progressing in the march of time to a nearer and nearer approximation of the whole truth.

“Know thou that Nature and the Spirit both
Have no beginning! Know that qualities
And changes of them are by Nature wrought
That Nature puts to work the acting frame.
But Spirit doth inform it, and so cause
Feeling of pain and pleasure. Spirit linked
To moulded matter, entereth into bond
With qualities by Nature framed, and, thus
Married to matter, breeds the birth again
In good or evil ‘youis ' (wombs)." [Page 11]

Then, as we rise to higher and higher states, we shall helps us on our way amazingly. We must, however, remember that good Karma does not necessarily rise from actions that seem good.

“The gift lovingly given, when one shall say,
‘Now must I gladly give !' when he who takes
Can render nothing back; made in due place,
Due time, and to a meet recipient,
Is gift of 'Sattwan,' fair and profitable.

" The gift selfishly given, when to receive
Is hoped again, or when some end is sought,
Or when the gift is proffered with a grudge,
This is of ‘Rajas,' stained with impulse, ill,

" The gift, churlishly flung, at evil time,
In wrongful place, to base recipient,
Made in disdain or harsh unkindliness,
Is gift of 'Tamas' dark; it doth not bless."

Benevolence! Freedom from the grosser forms of vice, a strong will to out-strip our fellows on the path to perfection — all these may have quite a contrary effect, unless they are simply spontaneous efforts to reach the light, as the plant grows upwards, and not strivings after reward and greater power to ourselves. Here Free Will comes in strongly in determining our reasons for attempting to progress. Is it merely that we feel our need for something further, that our aspirations lead us to something higher, until we return to oneness with the Eternal? Or is it a desire to outstrip our fellows, and sooner obtain the fancied reward ? For this will make all the difference in the long run.

“Abstaining from a work by right prescribed
Never is meet! So to abstain doth spring
From 'Darkness', and Delusion teacheth it."

"Whoso performeth — diligent, content —
The work allotted him, whate'er it be,
Lays hold of perfectness"

" Better thine own work is, though done with fault,
Than doing others' work, e'en excellently.
He shall not fall in sin who fronts the task
Set him by Nature's hand! Let no man leave
His natural duty, Prince! though it bear blame !
For every work hath blame, as every flame
Is wrapped in smoke! Only that man attains
Perfect surcease of work whose work was wrought
With mind unfettered, soul wholly subdued,
Desires for ever dead, results renounced."

" The doors of Hell
Are threefold, whereby men to ruin pass —
The door of Lust, the door of Wrath, the door
Of Avarice. Let a man shun those three !
He who shall turn aside from entering
All those three gates of Narak wendeth straight
To find his peace, and comes to Swarga's gate."

Let us trust that, as we ascend higher and higher, we may rid ourselves of the effects of Karma and pass finally back again into the full blaze of eternal light and truth, from which we emanated.

May we in time be able to say:

“Trouble and ignorance are gone! The Light
Hath come unto me, by Thy favour, Lord!
Now I am fixed! My doubt is fled away!
According to Thy word, so will I do!”

NOTE.—The extracts are from the “Song Celestial,” or ”Bhagavad Gita” by Edwin Arnold.


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