Capital Punishment

[Debate on the merits of capital punishment continues in the United States. Although the first two decades of the 20th century saw nine states abolish capital punishment, the practice gained ground in the mid-1920s, peaking in the 1930s with an average of 167 executions per year. In 1967 an unofficial moratorium began, capped by the 1972 Supreme Court ruling overturning all existing death penalty laws. In 1976, however, the Supreme Court upheld death penalty convictions imposed by a dual trial and sentencing system. Executions resumed in 1977, and now 38 states allow capital punishment, and a growing list of federal offenses call for the death penalty. Meanwhile, 28 European countries, as well as Canada and Australia, have abolished the practice.
The main points raised by those in favor of capital punishment are public safety, deterrence, and retribution. Among the factors cited by those opposed are its irreversibility, particularly in light of erroneous convictions; its unfairness, since inequities in the legal system result in a preponderance of the poor, mentally incompetent, and uneducated among those sentenced to death, as well as a disproportionate number of minorities; its incompatibility with Jesus' commandments to love and forgive, and with repentance and redemption as opposed to revenge; lack of any evidence for its deterrent value; and its inhumanity and barbarity. The following statements give a theosophic perspective on this question. -- Eds.]


There is, in truth, but one kind of crime which is committed by sound and disposing minds, and it is that form of murder which is called capital punishment. A man's life does not belong only to the community. It is a part of the universal scheme of life. Each of us is placed here by the divine law for divine and universal purposes, and there is nothing that can give us the right to legalize the taking of human life. We are committing a crime ourselves when we permit it, and it is the crime against the higher law.

Look below the surface appearances; look into the depths of life. Here is a man to be executed for his crimes tomorrow: we know what will happen to his body, but how about the soul to which that body belongs? In what condition will his soul go forth -- in sympathy with the human race, perhaps; at peace with man and the world? He will be, on the contrary, but little impressed as he leaves life with the love of humanity, or with the love of the good, the beautiful, and the true. He knows nothing whatever about the divine nature within his human nature: as he sits there agonizing in the condemned cell, there is no atmosphere, no reminder of divine things about him, within or without.

"Love ye one another!" said the grand Nazarene: since this man was taken for his crime, he has had nothing to love or be loved by but the iron bars of his cage where he has been made to realize every moment that he is doomed, a thing, an outcast from humanity altogether. He has come to hate mankind -- which, truly, never gave him reason to do otherwise. He is at war with everything around him; his whole being is alive with bitterness against those who condemned him, with lust of revenge, with horror of what is approaching. He has heard preached this and that doctrine, from this pulpit or that, at one time or another, but never a word nor thought to give him any real understanding of himself.

He has not the enlightenment to know -- how should he have? -- that what we reap we have sown, and as we sow, we shall reap. He has reveled in the lower side of his nature till now in the world's eyes he is the worst thing on earth. As far as we can, we allow him no memory but this: that he is accursed and unfit to be alive, and so must be pushed forth with every circumstance of degradation into the great unknown.

The soul is there -- a human soul is there -- he has still the spark of divinity within him, however faint recognition of it may have become. Because he is human, he is essentially divine. We know so little of life as yet. Of this man, this much may be said: though the soul has been shut out steadfastly from his consciousness and has found no way to express itself in his actions -- though he has been living apart from it and is sunk in the deepest degradation -- the immutable law that governs all life holds him in its keeping as it does the greatest of the saints, and somewhere beyond death that divinity will open up vistas of hope for him, and the realization that the way he followed was mistaken and that other chances will be given him.

Truly, the divine law is more merciful than human law: beyond death there is peace, and knowledge of our greater selves, and recompense for what injustice the world may have done us. We human beings are divine -- born to evolve! We are sons of god, incarnate here to work out superb destinies for ourselves and the world we live in. But we should remember what deposit of thought, as it were, the executed has left on the brink of this world, and realize that when through the divine urge of the law he seeks his place on earth again, as he will -- as all must -- and takes up again the burden that he laid down, it is not in the halls of the learned we shall find him, nor in the places where beauty and truth abide. He will of necessity move to an environment akin to the thoughts and feelings with which he went out: such was the door of his exit, and such must be the door of his return.


Theosophy teaches that justice does not call for punishment from us. Karma will take care of this more efficiently than we can possibly do, and bring to all just what they deserve. Why should any seek to add to this? Our sole care should be to help people meet their deserts bravely. What might we not accomplish, for example, if our prison system were based on educative rather than punitive measures? Increasing numbers are realizing this in considering capital punishment -- legalized murder. The karma of thwarting nature's plan in this way must be heavy for the nations who have permitted it. Society must, of course, be protected against malefactors, but in such a way that the latter are not made worse. As H. P. Blavatsky says:

Resist not evil, and render good for evil . . . were first preached in view of the implacability of Karmic law. For man to take the law into his own hands is anyhow a sacrilegious presumption. Human Law may use restrictive not punitive measures; but a man who, believing in Karma, still revenges himself and refuses to forgive every injury, thereby rendering good for evil, is a criminal and only hurts himself. As Karma is sure to punish the man who wronged him, by seeking to inflict an additional punishment on his enemy, he, who instead of leaving that punishment to the great Law adds to it his own mite, only begets thereby a cause for the future reward of his own enemy and a future punishment for himself. -- The Key to Theosophy, p. 200

A criminal who is violently deprived of his body does not really die -- that is, leave this earth atmosphere -- but remains on the astral plane, more at liberty in a way than when behind prison bars, until his natural life-term has expired. Here he can and does freely influence the weak-minded to commit crimes and inject his feeling of hate against society into the minds of the living. Think of the terrible karma this brings to all concerned, and contrast that with the results which would follow an intelligent and sincere effort to help the criminal out of the mire he is in.

It evokes our innate dignity to know that we are masters of our destiny; that there is no chance in the universe; that "privileged beings" do not exist, but that the unlimited treasures of nature are open to all who meet the conditions.

Such is the law which moves to righteousness,
Which none at last can turn aside or stay;
The heart of it is love, the end of it
Is peace and consummation sweet. Obey! -- Sir Edwin Arnold, The Light of Asia

(From Sunrise magazine, October/November 2000; copyright © 2000 Theosophical University Press)

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I never told my own religion, nor scrutinized that of another. I never attempted to make a convert, nor wished to change another's creed. I have ever judged of others' religion by their lives . . . for it is from our lives and not from our words, that our religion must be read. -- Thomas Jefferson, Letter to John Adams