Is Karma Merciful and Compassionate?

Purple Lotus

“Karma is both merciful and just. Mercy and Justice are only opposite poles of a single whole; and Mercy without Justice is not possible in the operations of Karma. That which man calls Mercy and Justice is defective, errant, and impure.”

– William Q. Judge, “Aphorisms on Karma” (#21)

“No man can receive more or less than his deserts without a corresponding injustice or partiality to others; and a law which could be averted through compassion would bring about more misery than it saved, more irritation and curses than thanks.”

– H. P. Blavatsky, “The Key to Theosophy” p. 216

“You have asked me for comment on the questions sent in by our English brother; particularly, as to “Karma being as merciless as the Bible-God.” But does he consider that Mercy is not opposed to Justice, and that the fullest justice is the same as the fullest mercy? Some take the meaning of Mercy to be a permitted escape from the results of wrong-doing; but this would not be Justice, nor would it be merciful to those injured by the wrong-doing. He should remember the definition of Karma: an undeviating and unerring tendency in the Universe to restore equilibrium, which operates incessantly. Karma is inherent law and its operation must therefore be impersonal. Some might take this to be “merciless,” but that would only be because they desire escape from consequences that are unpleasant. . . . Karma simply means “action” and its consequent “re-action.” There is no Karma unless there is a being to make it or feel its effects; unpleasant effects predicate causes that send forth unpleasantness in the world, affecting others, and finding the restoration of equilibrium at the point of disturbance. There can be, then, but one consideration, and that is, Justice. Why should we desire anything but Justice to be done?”

– Robert Crosbie, “The Friendly Philosopher” p. 30-31

The twin doctrines of Karma and Reincarnation are at the very centre and heart of Theosophy. The Law of Karma – called the “Ultimate Law of the Universe” in Theosophical teachings – has been discussed and explained in some depth in numerous articles on this site, particularly A Right Understanding of Karma, Questions about Karma, and There is No Injustice. In the “Theosophical Glossary,” H. P. Blavatsky summarises it like this:

“There is the Karma of merit and the Karma of demerit. Karma neither punishes nor rewards, it is simply the one Universal LAW which guides unerringly, and, so to say, blindly, all other laws productive of certain effects along the grooves of their respective causations. When Buddhism teaches that “Karma is that moral kernel (of any being) which alone survives death and continues in transmigration” or reincarnation, it simply means that there remains nought after each Personality but the causes produced by it; causes which are undying, i.e., which cannot be eliminated from the Universe until replaced by their legitimate effects, and wiped out by them, so to speak, and such causes – unless compensated during the life of the person who produced them with adequate effects, will follow the reincarnated Ego, and reach it in its subsequent reincarnation until a harmony between effects and causes is fully re-established.”

There are many people who say, “This teaching about Karma sounds so strict and unloving. It’s like the “eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” of the Old Testament. If there really is such a thing as the Law of Karma, then it must surely be compassionate and merciful and not cold, heartless, and punitive.”

In other words, they don’t really believe in the value and virtue of perfect justice and would prefer it if themselves and others could be able to get away with their bad deeds and unwise actions with just a light slap on the wrist or perhaps not even that. This mindset is largely found amongst those from a Christian background and is totally foreign to the Buddhist or Hindu way of thinking. The Christian, brought up with the absurd and illogical belief in a personal, anthropomorphic God with human-like sentiments and emotions, and the possibility of escaping and eternally evading the results and effects of one’s sins at an instant by saying “Forgive me, Lord!” or accepting Saint Anselm’s doctrine of vicarious atonement, feels that he or she is entitled to have cosmic justice stand aside and take a back seat.

But, as all life experience shows, things just don’t work that way.

The fact is that Karma is only “cold, heartless, and punitive” if we are. And even then, it is not Karma itself which can be described or viewed in such terms, since Karma is merely the impersonal and immutable Law inherent in the Universe which works incessantly to ensure the balance, harmony, and equilibrium of the Universe, by making perfect adjustment of effect to cause, reaction to action, and consequence to sequence. There’s no such thing as an effect without a cause, just as there is no cause without an effect.

In the chapter on “Karma” in “The Ocean of Theosophy,” William Judge writes that “nowhere is there any answer or relief save in the ancient truth that each man is the maker and fashioner of his own destiny, the only one who sets in motion the causes for his own happiness and misery. In one life he sows and in the next he reaps. Thus on and forever, the law of Karma leads him. Karma is a beneficent law wholly merciful, relentlessly just, for true mercy is not favor but impartial justice.”

An enquirer once asked, “What place have mercy and forgiveness in Theosophy, and are they consistent with Karma?” To this, Mr Judge replied:

“Mercy and forgiveness should have the highest place in that branch of Theosophy which treats of ethics as applied to our conduct. And were it not for the perfect mercifulness of Karma – which is merciful because it is just – we ought long ago to have been wiped out of existence. The very fact that the oppressor, the unjust, the wicked, live out their lives is proof of mercy in the great heart of Nature. They are thus given chance after chance to retrieve their errors and climb, if even on the ladder of pain, to the height of perfection. It is true that Karma is just, because it exacts payment to the last farthing, but on the other hand it is eternally merciful, since it unerringly pays out its compensations. Nor is the shielding from necessary pain true mercy, but is indeed the opposite, for sometimes it is only through pain that the soul acquires the precise knowledge and strength it requires. In my view, mercy and justice go hand in hand when Karma issues its decrees, because that law is accurate, faithful, powerful, and not subject to the weakness, the failure in judgment, the ignorance that always accompany the workings of the ordinary human judgment and action.”

On another occasion, in “Forum Answers,” Mr Judge stated that “The law of Karma should not be regarded as a law of retaliation, because retaliation again infers the action of a being and not the working of law. Karma is the working out of effect from cause, as well as the creation of cause from which an effect must follow. Hence Karma is completely merciful, because justice and mercy in their highest aspect are one. The exact result must follow the cause, and from every act will flow many effects, both good and bad.”

Someone admirably remarked to us one day, “If I had the ability I would reprieve all those who have wronged or hurt me in any way from having to experience all the suffering and unpleasant effects which may result from their actions against me. I don’t want anyone to suffer, not even those who have caused me to suffer. So is it not the case that even I am more merciful and compassionate than the Law of Karma?”

In one sense, yes, since this attitude shows a true heartfelt compassion which is nothing less than divine. But three important things have to be borne in mind:

#1. If it was to ever happen that a cause could be set in motion without ever having its corresponding, correlative effect coming back to the point of origin – i.e. the cause-maker – then the whole Universe would immediately cease to be, since its very continuity and existence depends on this ever-acting Law of perfect balance and adjustment. If this could be overthrown in even one small case, everything would be instantaneously thrown into chaos.

#2. Karma, as is constantly reiterated, is a Law and has no resemblance or similarity to any type of being, entity, or personality, nor is it produced or invented by any Being or God. “KARMA is an Absolute and Eternal law in the World of manifestation; and as there can only be one Absolute, as One eternal and ever present Cause, believers in Karma cannot be regarded as Atheists or materialists – still less as fatalists: for Karma is one with the Unknowable, of which it is an aspect in its effects in the phenomenal world. . . . The ONE LIFE is closely related to the one law which governs the World of Being – KARMA. . . . To say to those ignorant of the real significance, characteristics and awful importance of this eternal and immutable law, that no theological definition of a personal deity can give an idea of this impersonal, yet ever present and active Principle, is to speak in vain.” (H. P. Blavatsky, “The Secret Doctrine” Vol. 2 p. 305-306, Vol. 1 p. 634) There is no Being behind Karma but Karma is behind all beings.

#3. We are not in a position, with our finite perception of things, to be able to judge or know what is best for the inner evolution or “soul evolution” of others. If we had the power, and exercised it, of reprieving others from having to face and experience their possibly painful and unpleasant Karma, we would be unwittingly robbing them of an important opportunity to learn, develop, and progress. Everything in life can be used and applied in this direction and everything in life is Karma, for nothing can ever happen outside of the Law of Karma, meaning that in reality there is actually no injustice but that all is exactly as we ourselves have made it to be.

We learn far more from and in our experiences of pain and suffering than we do from our experiences of pleasure and happiness. Our most valuable and enduring lessons are often learned as a result of deep suffering. Of course, this is not a popular concept today but it is the truth and has always been recognised as such in any spiritual philosophy worthy of the name.

“Misery, sorrow and suffering have a mission. It is usually only the misery we bring upon ourselves that makes us stop doing wrong, to look around and ask and see what is right. It is by our mistakes we learn to see the difference between right and wrong, and in seeing that difference is the whole story of progress. We have to be able to tell the difference. It is only through “the opposites” – the perception of them and the employment of them – that any being can grow at all. There has always to be duality in nature. All human beings are One in spirit, dual in expression. Always there is the actor and something to act upon. Always there are the two – Purusha, the spirit, and Prakriti, matter – not two separate things, but two aspects of one and the same thing. No perception is possible unless we have that duality. We have to experience darkness first in order to see light, and so with the opposites of pleasure and pain. Without pain we could not understand pleasure; without pleasure we could not understand pain. What lies behind all advance in intelligence, from the lowest to the highest, is perception gained by that which acts from that which is acted upon.”

– Robert Crosbie, “The Cause of Sorrow” (“The Friendly Philosopher” p. 245)

So, is Karma merciful and compassionate? The answer is that Karma is perfect Mercy itself. Karma is perfect Compassion itself. And this is because Karma is perfect Justice itself. If it was anything less than pure, perfect, exquisite Justice, it would not be merciful or compassionate. And why would we wish it to be anything less than perfectly just, both for ourselves and others? It always works for the highest good of all and this is what we should wish for all. The other attitude is the product of an understanding warped by unphilosophical religious dogmas which lead invariably to irresponsibility and moral decay.

When we stop and think about it, if we have caused suffering and pain to some other precious soul or souls, why should we be able to just get away with it and just walk off eternally scot-free from life to life, never having to atone or make payback for any of our wrong or harmful actions? It’s akin to saying that as a reincarnating human soul we have a right to cause suffering and a right to never have to experience suffering ourselves. Most likely everyone reading this will agree that that just doesn’t sound right. So, as Crosbie asks, “Why should we desire anything but Justice to be done?”

In “The Light of Asia,” Sir Edwin Arnold’s poetic rendition of the life and teachings of Gautama Buddha, the Enlightened One declares:

Ho! Ye who suffer! know

Ye suffer from yourselves. None else compels,

None other holds you that ye live and die,

And whirl upon the wheel, and hug and kiss

Its spokes of agony,

Its tire of tears, its nave of nothingness.

Behold, I show you Truth! Lower than hell,

Higher than Heaven, outside the utmost stars,

Farther than Brahm doth dwell,

Before beginning, and without an end,

As space eternal and as surety sure,

Is fixed a Power divine which moves to good,

Only its laws endure. . . .

This is its work upon the things ye see:

The unseen things are more; men’s hearts and minds,

The thoughts of peoples and their ways and wills,

Those, too, the great Law binds.

Unseen it helpeth ye with faithful hands,

Unheard it speaketh stronger than the storm.

Pity and Love are man’s because long stress

Moulded blind mass to form.

It will not be contemned of any one;

Who thwarts it loses, and who serves it gains;

The hidden good it pays with peace and bliss,

The hidden ill with pains.

It seeth everywhere and marketh all;

Do right – it recompenseth! Do one wrong –

The equal retribution must be made,

Though DHARMA tarry long.

It knows not wrath nor pardon; utter-true

Its measures mete, its faultless balance weighs;

Times are as nought, to-morrow it will judge,

Or after many days.

By this the slayer’s knife did stab himself;

The unjust judge hath lost his own defender;

The false tongue dooms its lie; the creeping thief

And spoiler rob, to render.

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!

“Karma creates nothing, nor does it design. It is man who plans and creates causes, and Karmic law adjusts the effects; which adjustment is not an act, but universal harmony, tending ever to resume its original position, like a bough, which, bent down too forcibly, rebounds with corresponding vigour. If it happen to dislocate the arm that tried to bend it out of its natural position, shall we say that it is the bough which broke our arm, or that our own folly has brought us to grief?”

“The only decree of Karma – an eternal and immutable decree – is absolute Harmony in the world of matter as it is in the world of Spirit. It is not, therefore, Karma that rewards or punishes, but it is we, who reward or punish ourselves according to whether we work with, through and along with nature, abiding by the laws on which that Harmony depends, or – break them. . . . With right knowledge, or at any rate with a confident conviction that our neighbours will no more work to hurt us than we would think of harming them, the two-thirds of the World’s evil would vanish into thin air. Were no man to hurt his brother, Karma-Nemesis would have neither cause to work for, nor weapons to act through.”

– H. P. Blavatsky, “The Secret Doctrine” Vol. 2, p. 305, Vol. 1, p. 643

One other important point we may raise is this: if it is not merciful or compassionate that a person reaps the full and exact fruition of their negative Karma, then it is equally wrong that they should reap the full and exact fruition of their good and positive Karma. It is doubtful that the objectors have even stopped to think about this, nor that they would be too enthusiastic at the prospect of missing out on their due reward. Likewise, we should not wish to miss out on our due “punishment” either. If we know that we have done wrong or caused suffering to others in some way, then we should be decent and mature enough to be able to say, “It is right that I should suffer. Karma will work everything out in its own way and I desire for nothing but perfect Justice to be done, as it surely will.”

As is very rightly said in “The Ocean of Theosophy,” “Alone in reincarnation is the answer to all the problems of life, and in it and Karma is the force that will make men pursue in fact the ethics they have in theory.” (p. 64) Karma is the doctrine of Responsibility and Reincarnation is the doctrine of Hope. They are inextricably interlinked, for you cannot have one without the other.

Interestingly, even the feeling that many people have of not having deserved their sufferings in life and of their life experience therefore being inherently unfair or unjust – that feeling and belief in one’s so-called “unmerited sufferings” – has its soothing and healing in the afterlife, in the heavenly state of Devachan. In that state of bliss between earthly embodiments, the soul – the reincarnating Manas, the immortal Ego, still blended in Devachan with elements of the personal self of the life just lived – receives its own Karmic compensation for the feeling of having received unmerited sufferings. No sufferings are actually unmerited or undeserved, Theosophy teaches, but if one genuinely believes them to be so, one’s Devachanic bliss will heal that psychic wound. This, which can be read about further in the article Can There Be Unmerited Suffering?, is a further example that the Universal Law is indeed of the nature of true divine mercy and compassion.

But there is another factor we must not allow ourselves to lose sight of: what is Karmically due to us CAN potentially be changed, in the sense of modified for either better or worse. A cause once set in motion does not remain as a static, motionless, lifeless, mechanical type of thing. Instead, as the essay on “Karma” at the end of “Light on The Path” states, the whole of the future is in unbroken continuity with the past – not a mechanical separation from it. We are always setting new causes in motion and those new causes effect everything. Aphorisms 13 and 27 in William Judge’s “Aphorisms on Karma” elaborate a little on the possibility of counteracting some of the Karma that is due to us:

“The effects [i.e. flowing from causes that have been set in motion] may be counteracted or mitigated by the thoughts and acts of oneself or of another, and then the resulting effects represent the combination and interaction of the whole number of causes involved in producing the effects.”

“Measures taken by an Ego to repress tendency, eliminate defects, and to counteract by setting up different causes, will alter the sway of Karmic tendency and shorten its influence in accordance with the strength or weakness of the efforts expended in carrying out the measures adopted.”

His article titled “Karma” also speaks briefly of a type of “transmutation” of Karma. But none of this relates to the popular New Age concepts of transmuting Karma by literally deleting or erasing and thus entirely evading and escaping it, whether by mantras, affirmations, “decrees,” visualisation of violet fire or violet flame, or whatever else. That is not part of the Theosophical teachings. It is taught, however, that as we modify, improve, and better ourselves, so we are modifying, improving, and bettering our future Karmic experiences to at least some extent. Similarly, something that might be very nearly unbearable for us were it to come today may be much more bearable and less severely felt in the future, if between now and then we are working on bettering, purifying, elevating, and spiritualising ourselves in every way and developing the virtues and goodness recognised by all religions in all ages. But crucially, one cannot truly succeed in such measures if one’s motive for doing so is just to selfishly lessen our own personal suffering. Nevertheless, it cannot be said to be “bad” to adopt such an approach, as can be seen from William Judge’s words below.

“The practical theosophist will do well if he follows the advice of the Masters now many years in print, to spread, explain, and illustrate the laws of Karma and Reincarnation so that they may enter into the lives of the people. Technical occultism and all the allurements of the Astral Light may be left for other times. Men’s thoughts must be affected, and this can only be done now by giving them these two great laws. They not only explain many things, but they have also an inherent power due to their truth and their intimate connection with man, to compel attention. Once heard they are seldom forgotten, and even if rebelled against they have a mysterious power of keeping in the man’s mind, until at last, even against his first determination, he is forced to accept them. The appreciation of justice is common to all, and the exact justice of Karma appeals even to the person who is unfortunate enough to be undergoing heavy punishment; even if, ignoring justice, he does good in order to make good Karma, it is well, for he will be reborn under conditions that may favor the coming out of unselfish motive.”

– William Q. Judge, “Practical Theosophy”

~ ~

SOME RELATED ARTICLES: Questions about Karma, A Right Understanding of Karma, A Right Understanding of Reincarnation, There is No Injustice, Prayer, Karma, and Compassion, Aphorisms on Karma, The “Karmic Visions” of H. P. Blavatsky, The Skandhas, Death and the Afterlife, Being Sensible about Past Lives, How Soon do we Reincarnate?, 12 Things Theosophy Teaches, The Sevenfold Nature of Man, Elementals and the Astral Light, Manas – The Mystery of Mind, Blavatsky on Vicarious Atonement, and Reincarnation and Christianity.