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A key concept in theosophy, it is derived from the Sanskrit where it means merely “action,” though in most theosophical literature as well as in its popular usage it means the action-reaction cycle. (In Sanskrit, the reaction is called “fruit” or phala.) One of the little theosophical classics, Light on the Path, contains an essay on karma which attempts to illustrate it with a metaphor of a rope, but also states that its operations cannot be fully understood “until the disciple has reached the point at which they no longer affect himself” (p. 118). Therefore, anything said about it must of necessity be in very general terms.

In its most basic sense, it is the law of action and reaction. It is commonly thought to be a Hindu, Buddhist, and Jain concept, but, as many theosophists have suggested, it is implicit in St. Paul’s statement in the Christian Scriptures, “. . . whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap” (Gal. 6.7 KJV; cf. Geddes MacGregor, The Christening of Karma, TPH, 1984). In Judaism, the idea of karma is implied in statements like the prophesy of Hosea (speaking of Israel), “For they sow the wind and they shall reap the whirlwind” (Hosea 8:7). It has been claimed that the idea of karma is also implicit in the Tao Te Ching where it is stated that “Returning is the action of Tao” (TTC, 40) although that is capable of other interpretations. Some have also suggested that the Confucian virtue of reciprocity (shu) implies karma. Clearly, if one wishes to receive pleasant results from one’s actions, one should follow the admonition of the Golden Rule as stated by both Jesus and Confucius: “And as ye would that men should do to you, do ye also to them likewise” (Lk. 6.31) or “Do not do to others what you yourself do not desire” (Analects, 15.24).

In some Hindu philosophic texts, karma is considered to be a moral law under the guidance of God (Īśvara). In other Hindu philosophic texts, it is considered an unseen (adṛṣṭa) force operating without need for divine guidance. In Buddhism, karma is interpreted more in terms of human psychology and acts according to the five constituents of one’s being or skāndhas (Pāli kandhas, lit. “heaps”), especially our habit patterns or “grooves” in our consciousness (samskāras; Pāli sankhāra). In Jainism, karma is considered to be a kind of “dirt” which covers the soul (jīva), obscures its inherent omniscience, and keeps it in the cycle of transmigration by weighing it down so that it is earth-bound. Theosophical literature explains karma both as an impersonal law and also a law guided by extremely lofty intelligences.

In a general sense, however conceived, the law of karma implies that we live in a universe of moral order as well as one of physical order — a just universe, in other words. That seems to imply some sort of cosmic intelligence, not merely the impersonal, mechanical action of matter. But since it is hardly possible that all karmic reactions could occur in the same human lifetime, it is said that REINCARNATION is a twin doctrine with karma. In theosophical literature, these twin doctrines can be traced respectively to the Second and Third of the Three Fundamental Propositions in The SECRET DOCTRINE of Helena P. BLAVATSKY. It is the combination of these two doctrines which are invoked by theosophists to explain apparent injustices and inequities in one’s personal, family, or environmental circumstances. Furthermore, karma functions not only at the individual level, but also at the level of groups. These might be termed clan karma, national karma, racial or ethnic karma, etc. So it is an extremely complex law. There are said to be three kinds of karma: saṇchita karma or the accumulated karma of all previous lives; prārabdha karma or ripe karma which is now set in motion in this life; kriyamāṇa karma or present karma that is being created in this life.

Seen from a moral point of view, karma is sometimes called the law of retribution, taking that term in a strictly neutral sense. As such, it is, as H. P. Blavatsky put it, one of the “four links of the golden chain which should bind humanity into one family, one universal Brotherhood” (Key to Theosophy, p. 233). But such retribution takes into effect not only the mere motion of the action, but also the intention or motive involved in initiating it as well as the actor’s state of understanding of what he or she is doing. Because none of us possesses a complete understanding of all the inner states of any person (including ourselves), it is impossible for us to predict the karmic consequences of any particular act. One can only make general statements. For example, violent thoughts and actions will beget painful results, loving thoughts and actions done in compassion will beget pleasant results. But the effects of violence and hatred can, at least to some degree, be mitigated if the energy that caused them is not returned by those to whom it is directed. As both Buddha and Jesus pointed out, love overcomes hatred.

Karma operates on all levels of our being, not just on the physical. And these different levels can affect one another. It has been said by some clairvoyants that strong prejudice, for example, can cause a kind of blockage in one’s mental or astral body which will eventually result in a blockage of some sort — constipation, heart trouble, cancer, etc. — at the physical level. Of course, the reverse is also true: loving meditation, a lack of prejudice, etc. can have a beneficial effect on one’s physical body and has even been known to result in physical healing. This is the rationale behind psychic healing, meditative healing circles, and “sending good thoughts” to someone who is distressed or diseased. Since karmic situations are complex, these efforts sometimes are of no avail — except to the people who practice them — but there are cases in which they are known to result in remarkable (so-called “miraculous”) cures.

From the theosophical point of view, intelligence pervades the entire cosmos, thus all action leaves an impression on this “living” universe. These impressions have been called the “ākāśic record” and there are said to exist beings called LIPIKAS (Sk., “scribes”) who record these impressions, hence are sometime referred to as “Lords of Karma.” It is said in some theosophical literature that these Beings constantly “adjust” the karmic results so that no one is ever completely overwhelmed by the consequences of actions done out of ignorance in some past incarnation. That is, no one is made to suffer more than he or she can cope with, even though some individuals may feel overwhelmed and commit suicide — which, of course, from the theosophical point of view, accomplishes nothing, since one will simply have to face the same challenges in a future incarnation.

The law of karma is sometimes considered to be a kind of fatalism, but that is a misunderstanding of the law. We must face the consequences — good or bad — of our past actions, but when those consequences occur, we are free to deal with them creatively or uncreatively, i.e., reactively. In the latter case, we just perpetuate the energy which brought them about; in the former case, we resolve the problem and dissipate the energy. In other words, as Blavatsky has explained (cf. SD I:639), karma implies DESTINY, rather than FATALISM; it is self-imposed rather than foreordained and fixed. Of course, the less aware one is of one’s own nature and of the law of karma, the more like fate it will appear to be.

In addition to Light on the Path, mentioned above, there are other books in the theosophical literature, such as The Voice of the Silence translated by Blavatsky from a Northern Buddhist source, which give advice on dealing with the results of karma and treading the Path to enlightenment which is the path of true freedom. This Path, it is stated, results in SELF-REALIZATION. It is the knowledge that there are beings, who were once like us who have reached that state — called Masters, ADEPTS, MAHĀTMAS — that indicate that such freedom is possible and that it is possible to master karma through self-knowledge. until that time, karma can be considered both a mature and an enabling doctrine, since it indicates that we live in a just universe, that we are responsible for whatever situation we find ourselves in, and also that we have the power to change our circumstances.