from The Theosophist Aug 1968

Prayer and Karma

Hugh Shearman

The earliest series of Mahatma letters, received in the years immediately after the founding of the Theosophical Society, included quite a number from the Master Serapis. The Serapis letters still exist at Adyar, and a series of them appeared in pint in C. Jinarajadasa (ed.), Letters from the Masters of the Wisdom, Second series, 1925.

Many of these letters were received by Colonel Olcott at a time when Madame Blavatsky was passing through a period of great tension and distress, particularly with regard to a man called Betanelli, a minor and passing figure in the long history of her life and of the Theosophical Society but one that loomed large and disturbing during his brief period of close association with her. Serapis repeatedly urged the Colonel to take an attitude of great patience, kindness and gentleness towards her at that time and to give her the fullest moral support. In particular he wrote:" Pray for our sister". The Master's own letters usually ended up with a little prayer:" The holy Blessing be with you", "God's blessing on thee, Brother", "God lead thee, Brother mine, and may He crown thy noble efforts with success".

Temperamentally Madame Blavatsky herself was not in sympathy with the idea of prayer. In The Key to Theosophy she brushed aside the ordinary conventional Christian notion of prayer, directed attention to the procedures recommended by Plato and Apollonius of Tyana and headed one of the sub-sections of the book with the caption, "Prayer Kills Self- Reliance". She begged indeed a good many questions, here, such as what proportion of humanity, or even of her readers, had evolved to the point where they might be capable of responding to the advice of Plato and Apollonius or what self most people may expected to rely upon. That prayer was not her dharma one does not doubt; but, since our own dharma is not necessarily to be a Madame Blavatsky, any more than it is to be a Plato or an Apollonius, it is worth considering why the Master, in writing to Colonel Olcott, recommended prayer .

The fundamental question here is probably what self most people rely upon. For the vast majority of mankind, the self is a personal self, a complex of memories and self-defensive reactions, and nothing more. To speak to them of a "Higher Self," a "Father in Heaven" dwelling within them, the Atman, or however we may care to name it, evokes no really understanding response. Whatever it may be, it is something that they do not feel that they have experience. For most people there is only "this".

To attempt to align one's personal self, one's circumstances and one's hopes with a universal Reality is, for most people, to turn to somebody else. For those who hold that Self is ultimately One, prayer in the usual petitionary form is, at least philosophically, unsatisfactory, since it posits the existence of Self as "other". But to most people, quite frankly, the Self, the one universal Reality, is "other".

There are, of course, those who try to assert their unity with the Self. They say in the classic phrase, " I am that Self; that Self am I". But is this usually true when it is said? Normally that which makes this assertion is not really the Self in us. One is reminded of the story of a man who taught his followers to go in for affirmations. They stood in a row and solemnly declared, after him, "I am strength! I am beauty!" and so on. But when he invited them to affirm, "I am God!" the voices died away and the people looked embarrassed. It is easy to see why. The assertion was just not true. For these people, God or the Self was still "other", and no amount of affirmation in words could change this for them. The negative approach, traditional in Hindu culture, whereby we seek Reality, not by affirming It, but by negating hat is unreal, saying "Not this; not this," is much less likely to lead to self-deception; and most of us might be wise to take a look at our personal selves and examine the proposition that "There is no such self".

But, it may be asked, even if by most people God or the Self is inevitably regard as "other" - if He or It is regarded at all - why should this be brought into those fields of activity with prayer is usually concerned? Can we not use direct thought and feeling without invoking either God or the Self in nay way?

Indeed we can; but, in so far as we do this personally, we invoke "karma "in its reactive sense. This much used word karma is simply the Sanskrit word for action; but it carries with it the implication that all action is one and indivisible. IF, therefore, we act, or even think, from the point of view of an entity separate from the whole, we invoke for ourselves an interplay of action and reaction. Acting form the point of view of our illusory separateness from the whole, from God, from the Self, we take to ourselves a part of the whole of life, a fragment that seems to satisfy the heart's desire, only to find that we have also to accept its opposite. Choosing wealth for the convenience of our supposedly separate selves, we may obtain it, but we also obtain poverty. Choosing for our separate and personal selves what is holy, we find ourselves presently confronted by the unholy.

Wherever our vision, our motive and our desire are not completely unitive, we invoke this "law of karma". Because life is one and whole and indivisible, we cannot appropriate to our separate and personal selves a portion of that whole without experiencing at some time an equivalent opposite. It is clear that this works out, not merely form life to life as taught, for example, in the Laws of Manu, which so engagingly propound the idea that the stealing of food in one incarnation will lead to dyspepsia in a subsequent incarnation! It works out also in our daily psychological experience. Very typically, a young man told the writer of this article that whenever, as he put it, he felt "very spiritual" he always had nightmares afterwards.

It is surely this psychological expression of the law of karma which causes so much uneasiness and quarrelling in religious organizations. People try to take to themselves personally the high and holy things of life, and in doing so they inevitably activate the opposites of those desire-objects and have to give to the base and unholy things also some hospitality in their lives. So long as "spirituality" is, even in the most refined way, an object of personal ambition and acquisitiveness there will be psychological unbalance.

In connection with the direction of thought for the helping or healing of other people, the same danger of karmic or psychological rebound arises. No doubt a large part of our motive in directing helpful thought is impersonal and unselfish; but if there is in it, for example, some unconscious factor of projected self-pity or self-concern, there will arise some need to pay for what we desire in terms of its opposite. Many "absent healing "groups are haunted by a certain undertone of uneasiness.

Of course the results of helpful thought are not always, in any case, the expected one, since most people who try to project such thought are very inexperienced and unskilled. An instructive example was given by the experience of a group of ladies belonging to a certain organization, who decided to send their helpful thoughts to one of their number who was absent through illness. Accordingly they sat and thought about her very hard for a short time. The next day one of them visited her, full or curiosity as to whether their effort had had any effect. ""Did you notice anything about four o'clock yesterday afternoon?" she asked presently. "Oh yes", said the invalid, "what on earth were you doing? It was terrible. All those faced crowding in at me! Please never do it again, whatever it was". In directing helpful thought to others, it is therefore useful to adopt some from that links our intention to what is universal and lifts it at least a little above that psychological level at which the opposites exert their maximum reactive influence and effect. A time-honored way of doing this is to direct our intention in the first instance to whatever constitutes most fully for us the one ultimate Reality. That this Reality dwells within them is unknown to most people, even though they may say in words that this is so. Prayer to God is therefor a natural way of achieving this measure of detachment from the personal and the reactive, even though people may think of God as "other".

The usual, more or less poetic, form of prayer, linking the good intention with a reverent recognition of the presence of God, is not, of course, the only way of rising above the plane of the personal and the reactively unstable. Many years ago an old member of the Theosophical Society, the late W. R. Gray, used to recommend another method which for him achieved the same result. Although he head had an active career in the outer world - readers will find his name in Lawrence's Seven Pillars of Wisdom - he used to devote hours at a time, during his years of retirement, to meditation and to directing thought for the helping of humanity. He had a tranquil and impersonal attitude which enabled him to perceive psychically some of the results of what he did. He advised that if one was to avoid getting a psychological rebound, it was best, when trying to help an individual in trouble, to direct one's thought, not to that individual, but to the entire class of persons throughout the world who were suffering from that same trouble. Then out of that whole world aspect of the human situation there comes a response, helping and healing the individual who was the object of our initial intention.

A particular case which he instanced was that of a young man suffering from severe wounds resulting from machine-gun fire. To help him, he directed his benevolent thought to everybody in the world who was suffering form any kind of bullet wound; and, from the aspect of the total human condition which this form of suffering represents, a healing response came to the young man who had first awakened his concern. In this way he was doing the work of the world and not striving merely for a separate self, and his effort was largely "karmaless" so far as he himself was concerned. It was as if, instead of saying, "I am that Self," he had acted in the spirit of Mr. Jinarajadasa's favorite aphorism, "I am that Work; that Work am I".

In the same way, to put our wish for another's good into the form of a prayer can do much to give that wish the larger context which will afford some protection from the disturbing interplay of opposites.

In western countries, where prayer in its Christian form is part of an old tradition, many now turn to other and novel methods. To many the idea of meditation exerts a certain exotic appeal, and many like to claim that they are practising yoga. Yet one cannot help feeling that many such people might become less self-absorbed, less tied up in themselves, and might achieve a more effective and healthily balanced life if they pursued instead the way of prayer. In such a matter each has to find his own way; but the approach commended by the writer of the Serapis letters to a man so essentially wise and good as Colonel Olcott is worthy at least of favorable consideration.


To Top of Document


TPH Twilight Archive

HTML validation by:

W3C online validation service for HTML 4.0

last modified: July 17, 2001