BLTC Press Titles

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The Picture of Dorian Gray

Oscar Wilde

Mortal Coils

Aldous Huxley

The Characters of Theophrastus


The Worm Ouroboros

E. R. Eddison

Emerson and Vedanta

by Paramananda (Swami)


The idea of Karma is not regarded in India as a theological doctrine or as an intellectual speculation; it is considered to offer the only rational, logical and satisfactory explanation of all the perplexities and problems of human life. The word Karma, from the Sanskrit, literally means "action," that is, all that we think, all that we do, and also whatever is produced as the result of our thought and deed. It is not limited, however, to what we think and do in this life only; its scope extends to all the past and all the future. The law must operate in both directions; because if what we are doing now is to determine our future condition, then there must have been some cause in the past for our present condition. There are many who believe in a future life, but who are unwilling to accept the idea of pre-existence; yet it requires little logic to see that if we exist in the future, then our present life must become preexistence to that future life.

In India the idea of Karma is not a mere dogmatic belief; it is a fundamental law and corresponds to what modern science calls the law of cause and effect. It shows that there is no such thing as chance or injustice in human affairs; that all these inequalities which we see in the world are not ordained by an arbitrary Ruler, but are the inevitable results of our own mode of life and thought. This life, in Indian Scriptures, is called Karma-'bhumi, the harvest field of action; and according to the seeds we sow in it do we reap. It is evident that we cannot reap what we do not sow; hence what comes to us must be of our own planting. For the same reason people have no cause to be frightened by circumstances; for however overpowering and unalterable our present condition mayseem, it can always be undone by the thoughts and actions which we sow to-day. Emerson gives a clear expression of this in his essay on Compensation.

"Ever since I was a boy," he says, "I have wished to write a discourse on Compensation; for it seemed to me when very young that on this subject life was ahead of theology and the people knew more than the preachers taught. ... It seemed to me also that in it might be shown a ray of divinity, the present action of the soul of this world, clean from all vestige of tradition; and so the heart of man might be bathed by an inundation of eternal love, conversing with that which he knows was always and always must be, because it really is now. It appeared, moreover, that if this doctrine could be stated in terms with any resemblance to those bright instructions in which this truth is sometimes revealed to us, it would be a star in many dark hours and crooked passages in our journey, that would not suffer us to lose our way.

"I was lately confirmed in these desires by hearing a sermon at church. The preacher, a man esteemed for his orthodoxy, unfolded in the ordinary manner the doctrine of the Last Judgment. He assumed that judgment is not executed in this world; that the wicked are successful; that the good are miserable; and then urged from reason and from Scripture a compensation to be made to both parties in the next life. . . . What did the preacher mean by saying that the good are miserable in the present life? Was it that house and lands, offices, wine, horses, dress, luxury, are had by unprincipled men, whilst the saints are poor and despised; and that a compensation is to be made to these last hereafter, by giving them like gratifications another day—bank stock and doubloons, venison and champagne? This must be the compensation intended; for what else? Is it that they are to have leave to pray and praise? to love and serve men? Why, that they can do now. The legitimate inference the disciple would draw was: 'We are to have such a good time as the sinners have now,' or to put it to its extreme import, 'You sin now, we shall sin by and by; we would sin now, if we could; not being successful, we ex* pect our revenge tomorrow.'

"The fallacy lay in the immense concession that the bad are successful; that justice is not done now. The blindness of the preacher consisted in deferring to the base estimate of the market of what constitutes a manly success, instead of confronting and convicting the world from the truth; announcing the presence of the soul; the omnipotence of the will, and so establishing the standard of good and ill, of success and falsehood."

This is what we see in the world of ordinary consciousness, the world where everything is looked at and judged from the surface. When we analyze properly, however, we find that the whole standard here rests on a physical basis; but a complete explanation of life can never be found if we limit our vision to the surface only. So long as we merely perceive the effect and judge from that, we shall always see injustice and feel resentful. Emerson writes: "Every act rewards itself, or in other words, integrates itself, in a twofold manner; first, in the thing, or in real nature, and secondly in the circumstance, or in apparent nature. Men call the circumstance the retribution. The causal retribution is in the thing and is seen by the soul. The retribution in the circumstance is seen by the understanding; it is inseparable from the thing, but is often spread over a long time and so does not become distinct until after many years. The specific stripes may follow late after the offense, but they follow because they accompany it. Crime and punishment grow out of one stem. Punishment is a fruit that unsuspected ripens within the flower of the pleasure which concealed it. Cause and effect, means and ends, seed and fruit, cannot be severed; for the effect already blooms in the cause, the end preexists in the means, the fruit in the seed."

This is absolutely in accordance with the Indian conception of Karma. The effeet we see is nothing but the fruition of a seed of action. Whether or not any one keeps record of what we think or do, even in the dark, the seed we sow must bear fruit; just as a seed grows even when the gardener drops it unconsciously on the soil. It is not that an arbitrary will decrees that we be happy or unhappy. The world is governed by law and man cannot escape from that law. As soon as he understands this, he tries to put himself in harmony with it. "All things are double, one against another," Emerson writes. "'[fit)for(tai); an eye for an eye; a tooth for a tooth; blood for blood; measure for measure; love for love. Give and it shall be given you. He that watereth shall be watered himself. Thou shalt be paid exactly for what thou hast done, no mor,e, noUess. Who doth not work shall not eat. Curses always recoil on the head of him who imprecates them. If you put a chain around the neck of a slave, the other end fastens itself around your own. . . . You cannot do wrong without suffering wrong." "Always pay; for first or last you must pay your entire debt. Persons and events may stand for a time between you and justice, but it is only a postponement. You must pay at last your own debt."

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