How often we think of karma as a kind of nemesis or dread fate, falling upon us or our loved ones when we are least prepared, avenging some unknown deeds done, or left undone, in this life or in lives long past. Yet with the earliest Greeks, Nemesis was a goddess who personified our conscience, our inborn fear of committing wrong against the gods; or again, our reverence for the moral and spiritual law of harmony, of balance. Later, in the 5th century BC, Pindar, the poet, and the historian Herodotus, described her as directing human affairs in order to restore disturbed equilibrium, so that the "right proportions" of either happiness or unhappiness should be meted out. Always, the chaste and humble heart was considered the open doorway to the gods; and if one were overproud of Fortune's "gifts," then losses and suffering were administered; or vice versa, the modest were blessed in ways that would bring them peace and contentment. Still later, the goddess, because she was depicted as a check upon extravagances, became in the minds of many an avenging or punishing fate that would in due time overtake the reckless or willful.
Seldom do we look upon the universal law of cause and effect as healing, merciful because of its restorative power for good. We forget that the gods are not separate from ourselves, but that we are an extension of their life-essence, their care for us being as intimate a part of our growing process as our protection is for the atomic lives evolving within the human hierarchy. It is this interrelationship that we need to understand and live with, and thereby to recognize that karma is not something inflicted upon us by god or devil or by any outside force, but is our very selves.
"Man is his own karma," wrote G. de Purucker, meaning by this that there is not an instant in our lives when we are not impressing on our memory-cells -- which are, incidentally, of many types -- the quality of our thinking and feeling, lofty or base; and because of this, by the law of magnetic attraction, whatever comes to us we ourselves must sometime have desired, knowingly or not. It is we who have left those imprints on our atoms -- our life-atoms, he calls them; and as the soul returns to earth life again and again, those very life-atoms return also, to form anew its several vehicles of expression, physical, psychical, mental and spiritual. It all seems quite logical, for how else would justice be assured? No one reaps a harvest that is not his or her own: in benefits and strength of character for good seed sown; in deprivations and weakness of will for tares.
To regard karma or nemesis as an avenging demon or a rewarding angel, as is often done, is to judge solely by externals, not by the inner purport of karmic reaction. Have we not all discovered, possibly only after years, that the most harrowing passages of our life-experience have yielded us lasting gifts? "Blessings in disguise" is the common phrase, indicating an intuitive recognition that pain and sorrow hold hidden beauties in the deepening love we feel for those in travail.
Marcus Aurelius, 2nd century Roman emperor, experienced more than the normal allotment of heartache, but was upheld throughout his tragic rule by his unshakable belief that whatever befell a man was prepared for him "from the beginning of time." In his private admonitions "to himself," called by later admirers his Meditations, he returned often to this theme:
In the woven tapestry of causation, the thread of your being had been inter-twined from all time with that particular incident. -- x, 5
Love nothing but that which comes to you woven in the pattern of your destiny. For what could more aptly fit your needs? -- vii, 57
To Marcus, a philosopher and Stoic by nature and education, man was the offspring of divinity, a particle of the primordial Mind-Fire, and therefore nothing could touch him except that which truly belonged to him. We may be selfish, greedy, cunning in our lesser self; but in our essential core, we have been registering "from the beginning of time" on the tablets of our soul untold strengths. Every aspiration born in the deepest recesses of our being, as well as every low and evil desire, have sown their seed, to be harvested in due course, with effect equal to cause. We, then, are our karma, the recorders of our character, our destiny, pleasant or unpleasant as the case may be.
So much for theory. It is relatively simple to philosophize when one has reasonably sound health and comfortable circumstances. But where is the justice for the poverty-ridden; what can philosophy do for the millions doomed to die of disease if not of starvation? Shall we say it is their karma and they will have to work it through, with better luck, hopefully, next life? Obviously, it is their karma or they wouldn't have been born into those exceedingly difficult conditions; but how can we isolate their karma from our own? We are one family of man, and all of us have had a share in creating their tragic lot. Besides, is it not also our karma to be profoundly concerned, and where possible to seek to alleviate the awful misery that exists in so many parts of our globe? There is some comfort in the fact that the world conscience is awake, and becoming ever more sensitive and acute, so that an increasing number of self-sacrificing and knowledgeable laborers are already dedicating their lives in this field of service.
Most of us, however, can offer little if anything in the way of tangible relief, much as our hearts yearn to help. But there is not one of us who cannot work unceasingly to eradicate the causes of human suffering -- deep-seated and long in the making -- that have resulted in the present unconscionable plight. This is an enormously long-range goal, admittedly, but does this make it any the less urgent or worthy?
In this light we begin to grasp the inwardness of the story of the young Indian prince who, tired of the surfeit of pleasures his father had showered upon him, determined to move among his people and find out for himself what conditions were really like. On three successive occasions he went forth from the palace with Channa, his faithful charioteer; and even though the king had ordered that only beauty and magnificence should greet his son, the devas saw to it that one of their kind should afford him a "sign" -- first, an old man, heavy with years; second, a man ill and parched with fever; third, a corpse being carried to the pyre. Profoundly shaken, they became for him "awakeners"; why, for what purpose, should these afflictions be visited upon innocent human beings? Why bring children into this world of sorrow -- his lovely wife had just the night before given birth to a son -- if all that awaited them is unhappiness, disease, old age, and death? So a fourth time he ventured out, and this day he met a holy man, serene and self-possessed. No longer could Gautama hold back his vow to learn the meaning of life. He knew that henceforth he would abandon all lesser things, all enticements of mind and body, until truth was his, until he could find the causes of pain, and the way to rout them from human lives.
The story is familiar to us all, and how at length the young mendicant-prince fought the hardest battle of all, the battle of the self, and became victor, attaining under the Bo tree the full glory of perfect wisdom. His renunciation -- of all that he had struggled so ardently to achieve -- is the ultimate in compassion, the ideal of those who would follow his path. So he returned among men and taught that change, growth, advancement was the way of nature; that all things of earth therefore are impermanent, subject to a succession of births and deaths and rebirths, and that the only way to end suffering was to do away with its cause, to cut the taproot of attachment to material concerns, for if man were master of his desires, then external influences would cease to trouble him.
But what has this to do with ourselves today? Few of us have the calm purposiveness of a Gautama, nor the equanimity of a Marcus Aurelius. We are ordinary men and women, striving to keep our equilibrium midst the daily karmic pulls and to grasp something of the why and wherefore of ourselves and our universe; yearning the while to assuage the longings of the soul and, not least, to better serve the greater good. How, then, do these "awakeners" that brought enlightenment to a young prince relate to us 2,500 years later?
There is so much awry in human relationships all over the world that we can't help but feel that it will take many ages to set things right; no doubt we've tallied quite a karmic score against us that must be worked out. But we should not overlook the other, the positive side of the ledger, the nobler entries made by us in lives gone by. Could it be that this intensity of suffering and confusion of values is due as much to a karmic "awakening," a stimulus from our higher selves, as it is to karmic debts still unpaid?
Surely we were meant to live our lives as a wholeness, with buoyancy of spirit, and not to be continually fractured by anguish or despair. Sorrow comes to us all, just as rain for the earth, to nourish and bring forth new growth. Yet how can parents plunged into the depths of grief from the accidental killing of their sons, or those facing terminal illness, or others helpless before the blasted psyches of loved ones. . . . how can they see karma as a friend? In the immediacy of their trauma, few words are called for. But love has its own wisdom, for "between hearts and hearts are ways." Then later, when they seek to understand why, these ideas may be of help.
One day, in this life or in another, we will be able to look at all we have been through with the eyes of the seer we intrinsically are, as an eagle high above our earth-karma, and glimpse with panoramic vision our entire experience, past and present -- not in detail, but in atmosphere. Then we shall know that all hindrances, all suffering, physical and mental, also death, are part of the unfolding pattern of growth, woven in the tapestry of our destiny kalpas ago, to etch into the soul the deeper perception, the truer love, the caring for all, not only for our own.
Karma -- ultimate rectifier of disturbed equilibrium, recorder of ourselves, by ourselves, and for ourselves, from our radiant essence to those dark and foreboding corners -- is indeed the stern but always beneficent reactor to previous action, the Lipika or "Scribe" of every movement of consciousness, not alone for man but for all entities. Yet even were nature a mathematician of cosmic dimension, how could she handle the input of karmic impressions from the incomputable number of living beings that range from the infinitesimal worlds to the macrocosmic? Decentralization would appear to be the key. Each entity of every kingdom and of every evolutionary standing surely is his own Lipika, his own "Scribe" or Recorder, his own judge and comforter. And if we ourselves stamp our quality on every atom of our many-leveled constitution, every other hierarchy in nature must be doing likewise -- one cosmic life-force, one cosmic stuff, one cosmic modus operandi.
Thinking along these lines is its own preparation, so that when the karmic onslaughts do come -- as they will and must to us all if the soul is to awaken -- there is a residue of calm, an inbuilt stamina, and a profound conviction, as Walt Whitman had to learn, that "what will be will be well, for what is is well."
(From Sunrise magazine, February 1976. Copyright © 1976 by Theosophical University Press)