Can there be Unmerited Suffering?

Indian woman with Rangoli of Flowers

“Our philosophy teaches that Karmic punishment reaches the Ego only in its next incarnation. After death it receives only the reward for the unmerited sufferings endured during its past incarnation.”

This statement made by H.P. Blavatsky on p. 161 of her book “The Key to Theosophy” has occasionally caused confusion for students of Theosophy over the years.

The confusion or bemusement relates to the fact that she here speaks of the soul (“soul” and “Ego” are synonymous terms in Theosophy) being compensated after death for unmerited sufferings which it experienced during the lifetime just ended, whereas everywhere else – and even in the same book – she emphatically maintains that the Law of Karma is so perfectly just and infallible in its workings that everything that comes to us in life, whether good or bad, is fully merited and exactly deserved.

After all, if the Law of Karma is really LAW and the “Ultimate Law of the Universe,” as asserted in that book, how and where can anything even slightly “unmerited” creep into our experience? This would imply a break or failure somewhere along the line in the operations of Karmic Law and would seem to nullify the strong statement in “The Voice of the Silence” (p. 37) that –

“In the “Great Journey,” causes sown each hour bear each its harvest of effects, for rigid Justice rules the World. With mighty sweep of never erring action, it brings to mortals lives of weal or woe, the karmic progeny of all our former thoughts and deeds.”

The solution to this seeming problem can be found without us even having to turn the page, if we will only read studiously and attentively.

In a footnote there on p. 161, HPB says regarding “unmerited sufferings” that “Some Theosophists have taken exception to this phrase, but the words are those of Master, and the meaning attached to the word “unmerited” is that given above.”

So what is that meaning? For that we have to look “above,” i.e. back up to the main part of p. 161, where halfway down the page she writes, “If it may be said that there is not a mental or physical suffering in the life of a mortal which is not the direct fruit and consequence of some sin in a preceding existence; on the other hand, since he does not preserve the slightest recollection of it in his actual life, and feels himself not deserving of such punishment, and therefore thinks he suffers for no guilt of his own, this alone is sufficient to entitle the human soul to the fullest consolation, rest, and bliss in his post-mortem existence.”

So here the explanation is given.

For a start, as said in all the rest of the Theosophical teachings, “there is not a mental or physical suffering in the life of a mortal which is not the direct fruit and consequence of some sin in a preceding existence.” So the perfect and unerring justice of Karmic Law – called “the Great Adjuster” and “the Unfailing Regulator” – is maintained.

But the vast majority of people do not have any memory or conscious recollection of their actions in a previous lifetime which resulted in those reactions and effects in the present lifetime. If he does not “preserve the slightest recollection of it in his actual life” then he naturally “feels himself not deserving of such punishment, and therefore thinks he suffers for no guilt of his own.”

This does not change the fact that all suffering is Karmic in nature and thus comes to us strictly under Law but it does mean that if we think and feel that our sufferings and experiences in life are unjust, unfair, and undeserved, then “this alone is sufficient to entitle the human soul to the fullest consolation, rest, and bliss in his post-mortem existence.”

We will be mistaken in our assumptions but we will be compensated for our incorrect yet sincere and strongly held feelings on the matter nonetheless, since the Law of Nature is perfectly just in every form and in all its departments. It is Compassion itself but of a far higher and more truly spiritual and perfect sort than our limited terrestrial conceptions of compassion.

In the article “Reward for Unmerited Sufferings,” William Q. Judge says that “The word “unmerited” as written in The Key is not to be construed as being used by any Karmic power, but as the conception formed by the Ego during life of the propriety or impropriety of whatever suffering may have been then endured.

“For, as we have seen in other studies, Devachan – the post-mortem state under consideration – is a condition wherein no objective experiences are undergone by the Ego, but in which the thoughts of a certain sort had during life act in producing about it, or rather within its sphere, the blissful subjective experiences necessary for the resting of the soul. Hence if when in the mortal frame it considered itself unjustly treated by fate or nature, it set up then and there the causes for bringing about a so-called reward for the suffering which to it seemed unmerited, just as soon as it would be released from the body and the causes be able to act in the only place or state which will permit their action.”

Elsewhere, Mr Judge explains:

“It seems to me impossible that any person suffers or enjoys anything whatever except through Karma; whether we are in families, nations, or races, and thus suffer and enjoy through general causes, it is still because of our own Karma leading us to that place. In succeeding incarnations we are rewarded or punished according to the merit or demerit of preceding lives, and wherever it is stated in Theosophic books by competent writers that people are “rewarded for unmerited suffering” it always refers to the fact that a person does not himself perceive any connection between the suffering or reward and his own act. Consequently in Devachan he makes for himself what he considers a complete reward for any supposed unmerited suffering, but in his life upon earth he receives only that which he exactly merits, whether it be happiness or the opposite. This is a brief statement of the doctrine, but I think it can be sustained by argument. It seems to me the whole philosophy would fall to the ground if for a moment we admitted that any suffering or reward was not that to which the individual was exactly entitled, for the largeness of the reward which the Ego makes for itself in Devachan is something that he is entitled to, inasmuch as it balances the mental attitude he assumed while living and satisfies his individual needs without disturbing anyone else.” (“Forum Answers” Question 257)

In his answer to Question 262, he continues, “I do not think any suffering or any enjoyment is unmerited. Whatever we have comes by law and justly. But as this is a world governed by cause and effect, the mental attitude of those who suffer or enjoy must be considered; it has its force and effect; it must be provided for. Men in their ignorance do not always see why they suffer, as no connection is visible between the punitive circumstances and the prior cause, which, indeed, had arisen in some long-gone life. Hence, while suffering, the person feels deeply that he does not merit it. This is what is meant by “unmerited suffering.” In the mind is lodged the thought that pain has been suffered which was not merited. Devachan provides for this just as it provides for many another supposed ill or injustice. There the person – due to the thought I have spoken of – finds for himself the reward for “unmerited suffering.” If he were fully enlightened, of course he would see that all that had happened was just, and no unmerited suffering would exist in that case.”

In conclusion, we must always remember that there is no God or any other being or entity behind this Law of Karma, nor is it something which is forced upon us from outside ourselves. The One Law is inseparable from the One Infinite Divine Life. Karma is one with the Absolute Divine Principle. “The Secret Doctrine” teaches that Deity is Law and Law is Deity.

The perpetual and incessant re-adjusting action of Karma is simply the way, the means, and the method whereby the Universe maintains its harmony, its balance, and its equilibrium. And at the end of the day, no Karma is entirely “bad” Karma except that from which we learn nothing.

~ Blavatsky Theosophy Group UK ~

SOME RELATED ARTICLES: A Right Understanding of Karma, Questions about Karma, Is Karma Merciful and Compassionate?, Prayer, Karma, and Compassion, There is No Injustice, Blavatsky on Karma, The Skandhas, Aphorisms on Karma, Heredity – A Karmic Effect, A Right Understanding of Reincarnation, Death and the Afterlife, When We Die, The Sevenfold Nature of Man, The Difference between Soul and Spirit, Being Sensible about Past Lives, 12 Things Theosophy Teaches, Blavatsky on Vicarious Atonement, and The Karmic Visions of H.P. Blavatsky.

Comments

  1. “”Men in their ignorance do not always see why they suffer, as no connection is visible between the punitive circumstances and the prior cause, which, indeed, had arisen in some long-gone life. Hence, while suffering, the person feels deeply that he does not merit it. This is what is meant by “unmerited suffering.” In the mind is lodged the thought that pain has been suffered which was not merited. Devachan provides for this just as it provides for many another supposed ill or injustice. There the person – due to the thought I have spoken of – finds for himself the reward for “unmerited suffering.” “”

    If the unmerited suffering is due the ignorance bias about karmic law, what will be the devachan state for those who comprehend karma?

    Does this idea promote a naive position? I do not accept and understand the karma and despite this I will enjoy the bliss of devachan!

    It’s a little confusing.

    • Thank you for sharing your question and thoughts.

      All who enter the state of Devachan will have a blissful condition and experience there, regardless of whether or not they believed their sufferings in life to have been “unmerited” and “undeserved.” So there is nothing which can be looked upon as a promotion or unwitting recommendation of naivety.

      The point you raise is understood but it has to be seen that the bliss of any and every Devachanee (or Devachani) is felt by that soul to be as full as can be…and so “those who comprehend karma” will not have any less of a blissful state than those who didn’t.

      Besides which, those who DO understand and accept the Law of Karma should ideally be aiming to transcend the necessity of Devachan or at least to have increasingly shortened Devachanic states in order to return sooner to the physical plane to help, serve, and teach others. Our eventual renunciation of Devachan is what finally results in the renunciation of Nirvana, the great renunciation made by the Bodhisattvas, the Masters, and the true friends of humanity.

  2. This is a very interesting argument, but I am not entirely convinced. The point about memory/knowledge is well made (if I leave my bath running then completely forget about it, the absence of this in my mind doesn’t protect me from a flood) but HPB does explicitly say in the fn that we often suffer from the actions of others, which is not strictly our own karma. There is an interesting line of development here… That aside, on p202 there is the question do all the social evils result from karma- and it is clearly stated that suffering here is not necessarily a result of individual action. We already have 2 types of k listed, distributive & retributive…My worry that an overemphasis on karma in a fatalistic sense leads to the egoism that theosophy challenges: ‘you have created your own situation’. If that were entirely true, we would be solely responsible for the actions of others, for the societies in which we live etc. Doesn’t the teaching on hierarchies gives some insight here – nature is the result of co-operating, evolving (& imperfect) hierarchies of being. Finally, the SD commentaries (on Phoenix ULT w/site) has some interesting things to say on the subject.
    Thanks for this blog – keep the work alive…

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