Good Karma and Bad Karma

What is good or positive Karma and what is bad or negative Karma?

Many people think and say “Good Karma is when things go smoothly and happily and positively in your life, the way you would like them to be, and bad Karma is things like personal failure, sickness, poverty, loss of relationships, and so forth.”

From the perspective of our personal self, which cannot view things metaphysically but only through its five senses, such a definition would make sense and sound reasonable.

Theosophy, on the other hand, maintains that from a higher perspective – that of our reincarnating soul, our inner Ego – “good Karma” and “bad Karma” take on a different and more subtle meaning.

It’s true that these and similar terms are sometimes used in Theosophical literature. However, let us look at these statements from the writings of William Q. Judge, who, along with H. P. Blavatsky, was one of the two main founders of the modern Theosophical Movement:

“No man but a sage or true seer can judge another’s Karma. Hence while each receives his deserts, appearances may deceive, and birth into poverty or heavy trial may not be punishment for bad Karma, for Egos continually incarnate into poor surroundings where they experience difficulties and trials which are for the discipline of the Ego and result in strength, fortitude, and sympathy.” (“Aphorisms on Karma”)

“That view of one’s Karma which leads to a bewailing of the unkind fate which has kept advantages in life away from us, is a mistaken estimate of what is good and what is not good for the soul. . . .

“What then is good Karma and what bad? The all embracing and sufficient answer is this:

“Good Karma is that kind which the Ego desires and requires; bad, that which the Ego neither desires nor requires. . . .

“Struggle is needed for the gaining of strength; buffeting adverse eras is for the gaining of depth; meagre opportunities may be used for acquiring fortitude; poverty should breed generosity.

“The middle ground in all this, and not the extreme, is what we speak of. To be born with the disadvantage of drunken, diseased parents, in the criminal portion of the community, is a punishment which constitutes a wait on the road of evolution. It is a necessity generally because the Ego has drawn about itself in a former life some tendencies which cannot be eliminated in any other way. But we should not forget that sometimes, often in the grand total, a pure, powerful Ego incarnates in just such awful surroundings, remaining good and pure all the time, and staying there for the purpose of uplifting and helping others. . . .

“But seeing that we have many lives to live, and that they will give us all needed opportunity for building up character, we must admit that poverty is not, in itself, necessarily bad Karma. . . .

“Languages, archaeology, music, satiating sight with beauty, eating the finest food, wearing the best clothes, travelling to many places and thus infinitely varying impressions on ear and eye; all these begin and end in the brain and not in the soul or character. As the brain is a portion of the unstable, fleeting body the whole phantasmagoria disappears from view and use when the note of death sends its awful vibration through the physical form and drives out the inhabitant. The wonderful central master-ganglion disintegrates, and nothing at all is left but some faint aromas here and there depending on the actual love within for any one pursuit or image or sensation. Nothing left of it all but a few tendencies – skandhas, not of the very best. The advantages then turn out in the end to be disadvantages altogether. But imagine the same brain and body not in places of ease, struggling for a good part of life, doing their duty and not in a position to please the senses: this experience will burn in, stamp upon, carve into the character, more energy, more power and more fortitude. It is thus through the ages that great characters are made. The other mode is the mode of the humdrum average which is nothing after all, as yet, but an animal.” (“Advantages and Disadvantages in Life”)

“The question of what is good Karma and what bad has been usually considered by theosophists from a very worldly and selfish standpoint. The commercial element has entered into the calculation as to the result of merit and demerit. Eternal Justice, which is but another name for Karma, has been spoken of as awarding this or that state of life to the reincarnating ego solely as a mere balance of accounts in a ledger, with a payment in one case by way of reward and a judgment for debt in another by way of punishment. . . .

“So it has come about that the sole test of good or bad Karma is one founded entirely upon his purse. But is poverty with all its miseries bad Karma? Does it follow, because a man is born in the lowest station in life, compelled always to live in the humblest way, often starving and hearing his wife and children cry out for food, that therefore he is suffering from bad Karma?

“If we look at the question entirely from the plane of this one life, this personality, then of course what is disagreeable and painful in life may be said to be bad. But if we regard all conditions of life as experiences undergone by the ego for the purpose of development, then even poverty ceases to be “bad Karma.” Strength comes only through trial and exercise. In poverty are some of the greatest tests for endurance, the best means for developing the strength of character which alone leads to greatness. These egos, then, whom we perceive around us encased in bodies whose environment is so harsh that endurance is needed to sustain the struggle, are voluntarily, for all we know, going through that difficult school so as to acquire further deep experience and with it strength.

“The old definition of what is good and what bad Karma is the best. That is: “Good Karma is that which is pleasing to Ishwara, and bad that which is displeasing to Ishwara.” There is here but very little room for dispute as to poverty or wealth; for the test and measure are not according to our present evanescent human tastes and desires, but are removed to the judgment of the immortal self – Ishwara. . . .

“It may then be asked if all poverty and low condition are good Karma? This we can answer, under the rule laid down, in the negative. Some such lives, indeed many of them, are bad Karma, displeasing to the immortal self imprisoned in the body, because they are not by deliberate choice, but the result of causes blindly set in motion in previous lives, sure to result in planting within the person the seeds of wickedness that must later be uprooted with painful effort. Under this canon, then, we would say that the masses of poor people who are not bad in nature are enduring oftener than not good Karma, because it is in the line of experience Ishwara has chosen, and that only those poor people who are wicked can be said to be suffering bad Karma, because they are doing and making that which is displeasing to the immortal self within.” (“Is Poverty Bad Karma?”)

“Ishwara” or “Ishvara” is a Sanskrit word which literally means “Lord.” When used in Theosophy with regard to the individual, it is often a term for our Higher Ego, the Higher Manas principle, the Noetic part of us, the inner divine Mind-Entity, that portion of our being which incarnates in body after body, personality after personality, on this Earth. It is “the Lord within,” our own Inner God, that Being of Light which is our true “I.”

The Higher Self is the Atma principle, which is above and beyond the Higher Ego, and is universal and not individual at all. What we are talking about here appears to be the Higher Ego and we can see that Mr Judge encourages and advises us to view the whole question and subject of Karma from the Egoic perspective rather than the everyday, human, personal perspective. Depending on the context, however, “Ishwara” is sometimes used for the Higher Self. For further clarification, please see Who or What is Ishwara?

Tsong-Kha-Pa, the Tibetan reincarnation of Gautama Buddha, is viewed very highly in Theosophy, and in the second volume of his “Lamrim Chenmo” (“The Great Treatise on the Stages of the Path to Enlightenment”) he speaks about the perfection of the Paramita of Patience and makes a similar point.

We all have suffered, we all do suffer, and we all will suffer; this is the first of Buddha’s Four Noble Truths. But Tsong Kha-pa uses the phrase “Reflecting on the good qualities of suffering” and writes:

“Suffering has five good qualities: (1) The good quality of spurring you on to liberation. This is because if you had no suffering, you would not develop the determination to be free of it. (2) The good quality of dispelling arrogance. This is because when suffering strikes you, it reduces your sense of superiority. (3) The good quality of causing you to shun sin. This is because when you experience very painful feelings, they arise from nonvirtue, so if you do not want these effects, you must avoid their causes. (4) The good quality of causing you to like cultivating virtue. This is because when you are tormented with suffering, you desire happiness, and once you want it, you must cultivate the virtue that causes it. (5) The good quality of producing compassion for those who wander in cyclic existence. This is because after you have assessed your own situation, you think, “Other beings suffer like this.”

And so it will help us to move from a material view of Karma to a truly spiritual one.

Ultimately, there is no “bad” Karma except that from which we learn nothing.

Even the worst of circumstances and situations can be made good use of and have an enduring beneficial effect on the soul as well as on the personality.

“The purpose of life is to learn. It is all made up of learning,” says Mr Judge on p. 126 of “Letters That Have Helped Me.” In “Light on the Path” the Adept responsible for that book explains that “no man is your enemy: no man is your friend. All alike are your teachers.” (p. 24)

This is not necessarily an easy mental attitude to accept. Some, due to difficult life circumstances, understandably resist and protest against such principles as those outlined in this article, yet those who accept and adopt this mental position unanimously attest to it being of significant psychological and emotional help. It enables one to look at their life from a higher plane rather than being totally enmeshed and absorbed in the objective world.

But it does not mean that we should not try to better our situation or to improve our circumstances in life.

No-one should merely passively accept whatever life brings and say “This is my Karma, there’s nothing I can do about it.” You will always be able to do something about it. Maybe a lot or in some cases maybe not very much . . . but you will always be able to do as much as your Karma (your own self-created destiny) will allow . . . and you will never know what that Karmic limit is unless you try. “Try” is almost a motto with the Masters. TRY – but try from a position of spiritual Wisdom. That way life will never disappoint you.

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SOME RELATED ARTICLES: A Right Understanding of Karma, Questions about Karma, The Skandhas, Aphorisms on Karma, A Right Understanding of Reincarnation, Death and The Afterlife, 12 Things Theosophy Teaches, The Sevenfold Nature of Man, Ego Is Not A Bad Word, Who was William Quan Judge?, Understanding The Importance of Mr. Judge, William Q. Judge and The Masters of Wisdom, and The Great Tsong-Kha-Pa.

One thought on “Good Karma and Bad Karma

  1. Karma is the twelve link chain of causation. You reap what you sow and with so many of us causing out of ignorance, suffering is the effect and another lesson learned or is it? Only through the study of theosophy can the world ever answer that question,’why are we here?

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