What is Karma?

         From the ancient Indian language, Sanskrit, the word, ‘kri’ meaning ‘to do’  or ‘to make’. Philosophically meaning ‘consequences’. When and entity acts, he acts from within; he acts through an expenditure in greater or less degree of his own native energy. This expenditure or out flowing of energy, as it acts upon the surrounding environment, brings forth a reaction from universal nature, either instantaneous or delayed. Nature in other words, reacts against the impact; and the combination of these two – of energy acting upon Nature and Nature reacting against the impact of that energy – is what is called Karma. Karma is essentially a chain of causation, stretching back into infinity of the past and therefore necessarily into the infinity of the future. It is inescapable, because it is in universal nature, which is infinite and therefore everywhere and timeless. Sooner or later a reaction will inevitably be felt by the entity which aroused it.

         Karma is the universal law of harmony and balance, which ensures that every cause set in motion will, some time in the future, bring about its corresponding effect. It is intimately enmeshed with its companion doctrine of Reincarnation as our environment and choices from previous lives have an impact on our current and future choices and circumstances.

         It is a very old doctrine known to all religions and philosophies. Common observation tells us that if you throw a stone into a pool, it causes ripples which spread outwards to the very edges of the pool. Also, modern science tells us that vibrations, such as TV, radio, or light waves, are carried outward into infinity. Every religion has stressed the doctrine of moral responsibility. In Christianity we read in the New Testament: ‘whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap”. Islam speaks of Kismet as representing one’s individual portion or lot in life. The ancient Greeks had, Nemesis, or the goddess of retributive justice, and they personified the past, present and future as the three Moirai or Spinners of Destiny. In Judaism there is the injunction from Moses: “an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth”. In Hindu and Buddhist philosophy the term is used to signify action followed by reaction.

         There are many aspects to karma, such as world, national and racial karma, family as well as the better known individual karma. We can even say there is business karma, community karma, and so forth. In other words, every avenue of experience, from the individual to the international, men are thinking and acting and hence setting certain causes in motion which are bound to have their effects. So there is no end to the ramifications of actions and reactions – from G de Purucker: Occult Glossary.

 Is Karma always punishment?

When we think of karma we tend to think of punishment inflicted on us from the outside for evil deeds in this, or previous lifetimes. However, there are different ways of looking at karma as awakener, even ‘friend’, or certainly an opportunity to restore balance. In reality, karma is an out flowing of our very self, and can provide us with the opportunity to learn new life skills, or settle old debts with others, but it is up to us how we react to these opportunities. We therefore can view outwardly difficult life situations as ‘punishment’, but more accurately as opportunities to restore balance and learn valuable ‘soul’ lessons at the same time; eg. serious illness can be a time when we learn forbearance, patience, and concentrate our attention on spiritual realties rather than our everyday concerns.

 If Karma is true, then why do good people suffer?

Picture a good person in their late adulthood stricken down with diseases caused by the dissolute lifestyle of their youth. Equally, we may be paying the price for the ‘sins’ incurred many lifetimes ago. The balancing karma appearing much later when we have learned in the meantime to be a better person. Karma has to find the right combination of environment and people to be able to balance disharmonies, and this may not occur for many lifetimes after an ‘evil’ deed. What about children suffering and dying in wars and natural disasters – were they all evil in the past? It may be that they have chosen to work out difficult karma in one short life with others of similar karmic background. Equally, they may well be very advanced souls who sacrifice themselves to elicit compassion in others. Outwardly difficult circumstances may be impulsed by the Higher Self to bring about an ‘initiation’ of individuals or groups into the finer qualities of human nature that we might normally take many lifetimes to achieve.

 What good is suffering if we don’t remember what we did in previous lives?

If we suffer now, we feel it would be a lot fairer if we knew why we were suffering so we could make the necessary changes in our lives. However, according to Theosophy we are our own karma, ie our past actions have determined who we are and our situation of today. The physical brain is newly formed in each life, and therefore cannot remember all details of previous lifetimes. However, there is an aspect of ourselves that endures from one life to another – our Higher Self – which does remember, and which directs the circumstances for soul learning and setting the balance aright. According to Theosophy, there will come a day in the future when we have developed spiritually enough to withstand the shock of remembering the details of all our former lives. Until then, in quiet moments we can intuit some of the major lessons we have come into incarnation to learn.

Is Karma Fatalism?

People often ask does karma mean that everything in our lives is predetermined? Don’t we have some measure at least of free will to direct our lives? Theosophy teaches that we retain the power of free will at all times as this is a necessary precondition for spiritual growth and for us to grow to join the spiritually self-ware forces that administer nature’s operations. However, we exist as part of the whole of the Universe, and we are subject to the results of actions we have done in the past which must eventually be balanced. Just as a single cell is subject to the general health of the body, we are part of larger communities we determine our lives to a greater or lesser degree. Similarly, most people are weighted down with the heavy karma of past lives when they lived unaware of real action of the law of karma in their lives. Once such awareness is attained, it can make a big difference to how we choose to live our lives from thereon.

 If Karma is true, then why should we bother helping those doomed to die of disease, poverty and starvation. Isn’t it their karma? Better luck next life?

Such an attitude is reprehensible from the viewpoint of Theosophy. Obviously, it is their karma; but if indeed we are one human family, and we certainly helped create the difficult present circumstances in past lifetimes, how can we isolate our karma from theirs? Surely it is part of our karma being in incarnation in the more fortunate parts of the world, to help those millions in less fortunate circumstances elsewhere. As HP Blavatsky said: “Inaction in a deed of mercy becomes action in a deadly sin.” Many people all over the globe are increasingly hearkening to this call and dedicating their energies to practical humanitarian aid to those less fortunate.

 How do you reconcile heredity with Karma?

The law of Karma will attract us into the family, culture and nation where we can best fulfil our individual needs for soul learning. This may be into either outwardly comfortable, or difficult circumstances, so that we individually have the opportunity to develop patience, tolerance, and other finer human qualities. The power of both love and hate can bind us into a particular group of people for as long as is needed to work out our Karma together, and then go our separate ways. According to Theosophy it is we who determine heredity by our behaviour in each life impressing our ‘life atoms’ with individual patterns of attributes. We merely pick up these bundles of attributes or ‘skandhas’ as they are called in Sanskrit, at each rebirth, and go on from where we left off last life.

 What about the fact that all of us are subjected to the will of our families, nations and the global environment. How does individual karma fit with such group karma?

There are many aspects of karma, such as world, national, and racial karma, family as well as individual karma. In every avenue of experience, from the individual to the international, we are thinking and acting and hence setting certain causes in motion which are bound to have their effects. According to Theosophy, we are all part of a single, living, universe and hence connected in a web-work of life over vast periods of time. We have developed strong karmic relationships at family, national, and global levels during this long process of learning, and so we are bound to have to work out our group, as well as our individual karma. The current crisis of global warming could be said to be an ultimate example of group karma for the whole human race.

Do the Gods step in to save us from our Karma?

Just as we are more progressed in self-consciousness than the animals, there are beings, call them ‘Gods and ‘Goddesses’, ‘God’, Angels, or whatever, which are more advanced than us humans on the ladder of spiritual evolution. People pray to their vision of them all the time, but it is said in Theosophy that they never interfere with our Karma, though the may ‘dam’ it back to stop it overwhelming the human race. Humans, as learning beings, must be free to work out our own destiny, which means that our mistakes will eventually recoil upon ourselves, for it is thus that we learn and may one day grow in self-consciousness to join ‘the Gods’. Men themselves decide their fate by their choice of the various alternatives life presents. The ‘Gods’ however, do guide, protect, and help forward the evolution of their ‘younger brothers’ wherever they can without interfering with our right to learn and grow through our own choices.

Is life fair

Most people think that it is ‘bad karma’ when we undergo life’s trials such as illness, loss, handicap, and grief. But surely it is a common experience that such events give us the opportunity to learn soul lessons of patience, tolerance, and spiritual understanding in the most meaningful and enduring way – ‘blessings in disguise’ we often call such experiences. ‘Bad Karma’ may actually be ‘Good Karma’ from the viewpoint of soul learning. Theosophy teaches that ‘we are our own karma’ – meaning everything that comes to us is an out flowing of ourselves – our past. Perhaps our souls rejoice at such opportunities to reconcile past imbalances, learn valued lessons, nurture compassion, and possibly be of help to those around us a result of what we’ve learned in the ‘school of hard-knock


Can events suffered by one generation really affect future generations? Is there no Karmic relief? Are we as humans to be forever haunted by the specter of a karmic revenger?

Human genetic biology may hold the answer to this question in the form of potentiated memories, the consequential remainder of our former unremembered responsibilities. “Occultism teaches that the life-atoms [DNA] of our (Prana) life-principle are never entirely lost when a [person] dies.” And Blavatsky explains how this occurs in The Secret Doctrine, Vol. 2, p.656:

The atoms [in the genes?] impregnated with the life-principle (an independent, eternal, conscious factor) — are partially transmitted from father to son by heredity …

“They are partially drawn once more together,” she says, “and become the animating principle of the new body in every new incarnation…” “We are on the brink of uncovering a hidden world, a world that connects past and future generations in ways we never imagined possible. . . An environmental exposure that your grandmother had, could cause a disease in you, even though you’ve never been exposed to the toxin. And you are going to pass it on to your great-grandkids.”


How does Karma explain the obvious injustice done to thousands who lost their jobs and billions in pensions because of the actions of a few selfish executives?

It is in The Key to Theosophy, Section 11, that explains the apparent conundrum where H. P. Blavatsky uses the phrase unmerited suffering— a puzzle to many students because it seems to contradict the fundamental karmic axiom that:

…the particular conditions of life in which each person finds himself, are nothing more than the retributive Karma which the individual generated in a previous life.

This axiom of karma is explained in detail by W. Q. Judge in his Echoes from the Orient, Ch. 15

“when a being dies, he emits, as it were, a mass of force or energy, which goes to make up the new personality when he shall be reincarnated.” “We say that man suffers so much unmerited misery during his life, through the fault of others with whom he is associated, or because of his environment,”

Blavatsky explains,

…that he is surely entitled to perfect rest and quiet, if not bliss, before taking up again the burden of life.

Surely every one of us is entitled and compensated for their self-perceived mistaken beliefs, which remains as the ‘unmerited suffering’ during the period of between-life sleep known by the Tibetan word “Devachan” (place of the Gods), says Theosophy.

 And she goes on to describe this compensation between lives on Earth — which we would compare to a long, sound sleep between hard days at work:

As a man exhausted by one state of the life fluid seeks another — as, for example, when exhausted by the hot air he refreshes himself with cool water — so sleep is the shady nook in the sunlit valley of life. (The Secret Doctrine Commentary, Transactions of the Blavatsky Lodge, by H. P. Blavatsky, APPENDIX on DREAMS.)

“The life current must be broken,” she explained, “by changing the waking for the sleeping state. Ask a good clairvoyant to describe the aura of a person just refreshed by sleep… [He] will be seen bathed in rhythmical vibrations of life currents — golden, blue, and rosy — these are the electrical waves of Life.

Anyone caught up in the outer circumstances of his life, may feel resentful of what he sees as a personal injustice. But personal suffering in any one life is almost invariably due to lack of information stored in our own personal mind field. When we are unaware of our stored karmic information, we lack insight into the entangled workings of karmic law — and cannot know ‘how things really are’ in this invisible matrix field bonded to us by our own actions.


 All of this sounds good, but how do I know that any of it is true?

 We can observe the cycle of ebb and flow, action and reaction everywhere in nature. If you toss a stone into a pool, it causes ripples in the water; and these ripples spread and finally impact on the banks. Modern science tells us that we live in a universe of waves and vibrations extending infinitely outwards into the universe impacting and reacting with atomic particles everywhere. Do you think human beings are any exception? Much of theosophical teaching is based on the learning of the Masters of Wisdom who have ventured self-consciously into the invisible realms which support the physical. Such Masters during their initiatory journeys, see the universe ‘as it is in itself’. They have returned from their initiations to teach us ordinary people what they have observed to be true there, and confirmed by comparison with the experiences of other Initiates.

  Further Reading:

         Grace F Knoche: To Light a Thousand Lamps. Chapter 7 on Karma.


         James Long: Expanding Horizons. Chapter on ‘Karma: law of cause and effect.’


         Gertrude van Pelt: The Doctrine of Karma: Chance or Justice?


         G. de Purucker: Fountain-Source of Occultism pages 410-420 particularly the chapters ‘Man is his own Karma’ and comments on the question, ‘Is Karma ever unmerited?’.


         Alternative perspectives on the common view of karma as punishment are offered by William Q. Judge in Karma the Compensator [ULT Pamphlet no.20] comprising ‘Is Karma only punishment?’ and ‘Good and Bad karma’.


         Why not check out the articles on Karma listed at the Theosophy Downunder website at: www.theosophydownunder.org

  •  See the videos on Karma at Theosophy Watch https://theosophywatch.com/


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