Karma, Justice, and Forgiveness

From the notes of a talk given at the
United Lodge of Theosophists in London, England

In the Gospel according to Matthew, in the New Testament, Jesus is reported as saying these words: “If you forgive others for the sins and offences they have committed, then your Heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others for their sins and offences, neither will your Father forgive your wrongdoing.” (6:14-15)

This is a profound statement, essentially saying “If you don’t forgive, GOD can’t forgive YOU.”

But in Theosophy we don’t believe in a personal God who chooses to either forgive or not forgive, so what might those verses mean in their esoteric sense?

It could perhaps be paraphrased as saying “If you do not forgive others, you are prolonging your own negative Karma and suffering, but if you do forgive others, even for the worst things they may have done to you, your Karmic suffering is then lessened.”

Of course, Theosophy doesn’t teach that just by forgiving someone your bad Karma will then go away, for that’s not how Karma works. We have to experience the full effects of Karma that are justly due to us, as the Universe’s way of balancing out and re-harmonising any imbalances and disharmony that we have at some point created. But Theosophy does say that suffering is primarily and predominantly experienced in the mind, rather than in the external circumstances, and so a letting go of bitterness, frustration, resentment, anger, hatred, and so on, can sometimes lessen one’s suffering tremendously, even though it may not change one’s outer circumstances.

To quote another relevant Bible verse: the Apostle Paul writes to the Romans: “Be transformed by the renewing of your mind” (12:2) and to the Philippians he said “Let this same mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus.” (2:5) The same mind. And even though the Gospels are often not a reliable historical account, we know that Jesus is famously shown when being crucified as saying of those who were so brutally killing him, “Father, forgive them, they know not what they do.”

But before we go any further, let’s remind ourselves about what this Sanskrit term “Karma” actually means. The word literally means “action,” “deed,” and “work.” That’s why the Yoga of selfless actions and service for others is called in Hinduism Karma Yoga.

But at this time we’re dealing primarily with the LAW of Karma and the Law of Karma is said by H. P. Blavatsky to be “the Ultimate Law of the Universe,” (“The Key to Theosophy” p. 201), also “the Power which controls the Universe,” (“Isis Unveiled” Vol. 1, p. 346), also “the very cornerstone of Esoteric Philosophy.” (“Theories about Reincarnation and Spirits”)

It’s inextricably linked with reincarnation or rebirth, re-embodiment, because you can’t have Karma without also having rebirth in order to experience and pay off all the past Karma, and you can’t have rebirth except in accordance with Karma, otherwise rebirth would just be something happening according to blind chance, luck, fate, or the will and caprice of some god somewhere. But this Universe, Theosophy tells us, is produced and governed by absolute immutable LAW.

That law of laws is Karma . . . and it wasn’t created or produced by the gods or Dhyan Chohans, nor by the Absolute. The Law was there first, the gods came later.  “Deity is Law” says “The Secret Doctrine” Vol. 1, p. 152, and it emphasises that the vice versa is also true: “Law is Deity.” And Deity, Theosophy often says, is an impersonal absolute Principle, the infinite eternal ENERGY from which all proceeds, in which all exists, and into which all is eventually re-absorbed.

Deity or the Divine, the Infinite, the Absolute, is in fact our very Self. “Thou art That,” “You are That,” is the fundamental message of the Upanishads. HPB explains in “The Key to Theosophy”: “Atman or the “Higher Self” is really Brahman, the ABSOLUTE, and indistinguishable from it.” (p. 174) The same book also states  regarding Atma or Atman – our Higher Self, the One Universal Self of All, and which is inseparable from the Supreme Self – that in one sense Atma is Karma. For Atman is the Divine, the Deity, God Itself if one wishes to use that term, and, as we just saw, Deity is Law.

“Neither Atma nor Buddhi are ever reached by Karma, because the former [i.e. Atma] is the highest aspect of Karma.” (HPB, “The Key to Theosophy” p. 135)

So although the Law of Karma operates and holds sway throughout the entirety of the Universe, it is also inseparable from the core, the centre, of our own being.

For a definition or description of the Law of Karma, we cannot really do any better than to take the entry for “Karma” from “The Theosophical Glossary” (p. 173-174) as it’s very brief but very concise and clear. There HPB writes:

“Karma [is] Physically, action: metaphysically, the LAW OF RETRIBUTION, the Law of cause and effect or Ethical Causation. [Note: “Retribution” doesn’t necessarily only mean “punishment,” for as a word it just literally means re-payment, i.e. Karma repays us the effects of what we have done and it’s entirely up to us whether we commit actions that produce a painful retribution or a pleasant one.] . . . it is the power that controls all things, . . . 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.”

So, the soul – which is the same as the Reincarnating Ego, the permanent Individuality mentioned at the end of the above quote – must receive its just deserts, whether bad, good, or a mixture of both, and it’s usually a mixture of both, as we know just by looking at our own present lives. This is the way, the means, and the method whereby the Universe maintains its harmony, balance, and equilibrium, and so the Law of Karma is called “the great adjuster” and “the unfailing regulator.” And if we are able, as well as willing, to learn the lessons that Law presents us with, it becomes a great aid in our inner evolution, unfoldment, and progress.

It’s really a beneficent Law, for it only becomes a punisher if we are punishing ourselves through unwise thoughts, unwise words, unwise actions. We are not punished for our sins; we are punished by our sins. Or, to use less religious language, by our misdeeds, our errors, our foolish choices.

FORGIVENESS, then, becomes instantly far easier when we realise that no matter which people may have been instrumental in our suffering, that suffering was nonetheless brought upon us, destined upon us, by none other than we ourselves . . . not by some god or devil, not by blind chance or bad luck, but by simple cause and effect, action and reaction, sequence and consequence, sowing and reaping. Nobody denies or disbelieves that there is such a thing on the physical material plane as cause and effect; Theosophy just says that this Law and principle exists and functions on every plane, metaphysical and invisible included, and that it applies not only to our body but to all the more ethereal and suble components and aspects of our being too. Atma and Buddhi, our two highest Principles, are the only ones which do not create Karma nor experience Karma. As was already pointed out, Atma is Karma, Deity is Law.

Some people have noticed that whereas the Christian religion speaks quite frequently of forgiveness, Eastern and Indian religions rarely ever mention it explicitly. In the whole of the Bhagavad Gita, the Dhammapada, the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, the Upanishads, even the highly esoteric text “The Voice of The Silence,” where is “forgiveness” actually spoken of by name and clearly talked about as a specific subject? Hardly anywhere, if anywhere at all.

But the reason for this is most likely the fact that in the Indic religions and traditions, the Law of Karma is so well accepted as being the true basis for everything that happens to us in life, that one would naturally and automatically forgive and pardon those who appear to wrong us, without really having to even think about it. Once the reality of Karmic Law is ingrained within our mind and consciousness and daily thought process, forgiveness becomes increasingly ingrained also.

Undoubtedly, from the ordinary everyday perspective of the physical plane and how things appear in normal daily life, there is a huge amount of injustice in this world. But let’s turn to these timeless words of wisdom, first from “The Voice of the Silence” which was translated by H. P. Blavatsky from the Book of the Golden Precepts:

“A harsh word uttered in past lives, is not destroyed but ever comes again. The pepper plant will not give birth to roses, nor the sweet jessamine’s silver star to thorn or thistle turn. . . . 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.” (p. 34, original edition)

And then from Robert Crosbie, in the book “Answers To Questions on The Ocean of Theosophy”:

“There is no injustice. What we see as apparent injustice seems so because we do not see the causes which have produced the present ill effects. If we have no knowledge of our own real nature and the Law of Karma that is inherent in it, then the feeling can only be that we have received injustice, and we harbor hatred and resentments. What prevents our understanding these things is mainly that we do not know what we are here for. We look at things from a one-life basis, and finding ourselves in this life we imagine it as something we had nothing to do with. Seeing others, according to our view, more fortunate than ourselves, we want to know why, and no answer being possible on the basis we have assumed, we assume that we are receiving injustice. If Karma is the doctrine of responsibility, Reincarnation is the doctrine of hope. The two go together. The reason we are on earth, according to the Occult teaching: we are not here because of our virtues; we are here because of our defects. The “personality” is really the working off of defects. If we do not learn what the object of life is, and don’t do the work, then we are only creating more defects to adjust, and more trouble for ourselves.” (p. 143-144)

And in “The Ocean of Theosophy,” William Q. Judge explains:

“Theosophy . . . is . . . complete in itself and sees no unsolvable mystery anywhere; it throws the word coincidence out of its vocabulary and hails the reign of law in everything and every circumstance. . . . When we come again we do not take up the body of some one else, nor another’s deeds, but are like an actor who plays many parts, the same actor inside though the costumes and lines recited differ in each new play. . . . So instead of its being unjust, it is perfect justice, and in no other manner could justice be preserved. . . . reincarnation, with its companion doctrine of Karma, rightly understood, shows how perfectly just the whole scheme of nature is. . . . With reincarnation the doctrine of karma explains the misery and suffering of the world and no room is left to accuse Nature of injustice. . . . The scientific and self-compelling basis for right ethics is found in these and in no other doctrines. For if right ethics are to be practised merely for themselves, men will not see why, and have never been able to see why . . . they should do right.”

Having read all this, some might ask, “What about the phrase “unmerited sufferings” which is sometimes used in Theosophy? Doesn’t that term imply that some suffering truly is unmerited by the soul within?” The answer is no, because the explanations given by HPB are that when it is said that the soul received compensation during its heavenly afterlife for all the “unmerited sufferings” it experienced here on Earth, the phrase “unmerited sufferings” is a figure of speech, the easiest and most convenient available, for expressing the fact that if we feel unjustly done by while alive here on Earth and if we truly believe that we’re the victim of injustice, even though that’s a mistaken belief arising from not knowing or not understanding the Law of Karma; still, some sort of compensation is given for that during one’s Devachanic experience, and erases that hurt and sorrow.

In an article by William Judge titled “Reward for Unmerited Sufferings,” he also says, “The word “unmerited” as written in The Key [to Theosophy] 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.”

In light of all this, does it mean that when someone wrongs us or causes us harm, we shouldn’t do anything about it but should just sit back and passively accept it?

That obviously depends on what it is. Something slight or minor can often be allowed to pass without reaction but what about if someone steals from us? What about if someone physically attacks us? What about if someone indecently abused us in our childhood? Or if there is someone who mentally bullies or otherwise mistreats us? Or if someone threatens us? Or an employer tries to get away with underpaying or not paying us? Those things are far more serious than an unpleasant word or an insult or a betrayal by a friend or loved one, as painful as those might be.

While accepting that under Karma there can be no injustice, the fact remains that we live on the physical plane and from the physical plane perspective those things are wrong and in many cases illegal, against the laws of the land, against the laws of commonly accepted human decency.

And since part of our duty while here on this Earth is to help maintain and foster harmony and order in society, and also since we are meant to respect ourselves – not only our inner spiritual selves but our outer selves too – we ought ideally to take some form of action if any such things happen to us. Of course, if one really doesn’t want to, or is afraid to because of the possibility of even worse consequences and recriminations, no-one is compelled to, although in such cases they could seek the help of others to support them. But here are the words of H. P. Blavatsky that we are basing these statements on:

“Kindness, absence of every ill feeling or selfishness, charity, good-will to all beings, and perfect justice to others as to one’s self, are [Theosophy’s] chief features.” (“Five Messages to The American Theosophists” p. 6-7)

“One of the fundamental rules of Theosophy is, justice to oneself – viewed as a unit of collective humanity, not as a personal self-justice, not more but not less than to others.” (“The Key to Theosophy” p. 238)

That’s quite clear: we are to exercise as much justice for ourselves as we would for anyone else. “Perfect” justice, in fact. That doesn’t seem to be presented as an option that we can take or leave but rather, as she says, a “fundamental rule” and one of the “chief features” of Theosophy.”

But it’s crucial to remember that in the same breath she equally emphasises kindness, absence of every ill feeling, charity, and goodwill to all beings. So in exercising justice for ourselves we have to be endeavouring to be practising and sustaining forgiveness and not be doing it with any anger, bitterness, or ill will in mind, since this will only create further unpleasant Karma for ourselves.

Even if we may have genuinely reached such a condition of self-abnegation that we honestly don’t care what others might do to us, HPB adds slightly later on in the same book: “Justice consists in doing no injury to any living being; but justice commands us also never to allow injury to be done to the many, or even to one innocent person, by allowing the guilty one to go unchecked.” (“The Key to Theosophy” p. 251)

So even if, as seems unlikely, we honestly don’t care that someone’s just mugged us or attacked us, the fact remains that the culprit is likely to do the same to others at some point and so the sooner they are prevented from doing so, the better for everyone concerned. And if they end up harming others because we failed to report them or complain about them, or whatever the situation is – and perhaps from a misguided belief that we have already reached the high state of the Initiate described in “Light on The Path” who is not permitted to raise his or her voice in self-defence or rebuke of another – then as we just read, H. P. Blavatsky herself declares that we will have committed an injustice.

Hopefully there is no need to make the following clarification but we will anyway: any justice we may seek for ourselves should not be like for like, an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, etc., since that just strengthens and prolongs the cycles of negative behaviour in this world. Mahatma Gandhi is believed to have said, “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.”

What does the word “forgive” literally mean in its etymology? To “for-give” is to “give for.” That is, to give up something for something else; to exchange one feeling or attitude for another. Not everyone agrees that that’s what the word etymologically means but some do.

Forgiveness is a definite moment, a definite choice, and the determination to sustain that choice. Ideally it’s something that should be thought through and done reflectively, in a state of contemplation and compassion and with a definite point in time from which you decide “from this moment forward, I forgive” whoever it may be. Sometimes we have to forgive ourselves for foolish and bad choices and actions we have made.

The facet of memory comes into all of this. “The Voice of the Silence” says “Kill in thyself all memory of past experiences” and adds “Look not behind or thou art lost.” This naturally doesn’t mean to literally forget every single past experience you’ve ever had; it’s referring to those which do us no good at all to keep remembering and bringing to mind. This is a subtle process, since we do have to remember that such and such a thing was detrimental to us, so that we don’t do it again, and so that we carry the lesson learned from it. Perhaps this advice from William Judge in the book “Letters That Have Helped Me” is worth remembering: “Forgive, forgive, and largely forget.” Not “absolutely, entirely forget” but “largely” or “mostly” forget.

We close with these words from H. P. Blavatsky in “The Key to Theosophy” (p. 200) which sum up the matter nicely but which should be read with those other words in mind which we quoted from the same book, about justice for oneself, so as to get a balanced and clearer view of what she’s really saying in this passage. She writes:

“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 unfailing Regulator affects in each incarnation the quality of its successor; and the sum of the merit or demerit in preceding ones determines it.”

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