The Ancient Wisdom

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The Ancient Wisdom

By A Besant


Having traced the evolution of the soul by the way of reincarnation, we are now in a position to study the great law of causation under which rebirths are carried on, the law which is named Karma. Karma is a Sanskrit word, literally meaning “action”; as all actions are effects flowing from preceding causes, and as each effect becomes a cause of future effects, this idea of cause and effect is an essential part of the idea of action, and the word action, or karma, is therefore used for causation, or for the unbroken linked series of causes and effects that make up all human activity.

Hence the phrase is sometimes used of an event, “This is my karma,” i.e., “This event is the effect of a cause set going by me in the past.” No one life is isolated! It is the child of all the lives before it, the parent of all the lives that follow it, in the total aggregate of the lives that make up the continuing existence of the individual.

There is no such thing as ”chance” or as “accident”; every event is linked to a preceding cause, to a following effect; all thoughts, deeds, circumstances are causally related to the past and will causally influence the future; as our ignorance (Page 243) shrouds from our vision alike the past and the future, events often appear to us to come suddenly from the void, to be “accidental,” but this appearance is illusory and is due entirely to our lack of knowledge. Just as the savage, ignorant of the laws of the physical universe, regards physical events as uncaused, and the results of unknown physical laws as “miracles”; so do many, ignorant of moral and mental laws, regard moral and mental events as uncaused, and the results of unknown moral and mental laws as good and bad “luck.”

When at first this idea of inviolable, immutable law is a realm hitherto vaguely ascribed to chance dawns upon the mind, it is apt to result in a sense of helplessness, almost of moral and mental paralysis. Man seems to be held in the grip of an iron destiny, and the resigned “kismet” of the Moslem appears to be the only philosophical utterance. Just so might the savage feel when the idea of physical law first dawns on his startled intelligence, and he learns that every movement of his body, every movement in external nature, is carried on under immutable laws.

Gradually he learns that natural laws only lay down conditions under which all workings must be carried on, but do not prescribe the workings; so that man remains ever free at the centre, while limited in his external activities by the conditions of the plane on which those activities are carried on. He learns further that while the conditions master him, constantly frustrating his strenuous efforts, so long as he is ignorant of them, or, knowing them, (Page 244) fights against them, he masters them and they become his servants and helpers when he understands them, knows their directions, and calculates their forces.

In truth science is possible only on the physical plane because its laws are inviolable, immutable. Were there no such things as natural laws, there could be no sciences. An investigator makes a number of experiments, and from the results of these he learns how Nature works; knowing this, he can calculate how to bring about a certain desired result, and if he fail in achieving that result he knows that he has omitted some necessary condition – either his knowledge is imperfect, or he has made a miscalculation.
He reviews his knowledge, revises his methods, recasts his calculations, with a serene and complete certainty that if he ask his question rightly Nature will answer him with unvarying precision. Hydrogen and oxygen will not give him water today and prussic acid tomorrow; fire will not burn him today and freeze him tomorrow. If water be a fluid today and a solid tomorrow, it is because the conditions surrounding it have been altered, and the reinstatement of the original conditions will bring about the original result. 

Every new piece of information about the laws of Nature is not a fresh restriction but a fresh power, for all these energies of Nature become forces which he can use in proportion as he understands them. Hence the saying that “knowledge is power,” for exactly in proportion to his knowledge (Page 245) can he utilise these forces; by selecting those with which he will work, by balancing one against another, by neutralising opposing energies that would interfere with his object, he can calculate beforehand the result, and bring about what he predetermines.

Understanding and manipulating causes, he can predict effects, and thus the very rigidity of nature which seemed at first to paralyse human action can be used to produce and infinite variety of results. Perfect rigidity in each separate force makes possible perfect flexibility in their combinations. For the forces being of every kind, moving in every direction, and each being calculable, a selection can be made and the selected forces so combined as to yield any desired result. 

The object to be gained being determined, it can be infallibly obtained by a careful balancing of forces in the combination put together as a cause. But, be it remembered, knowledge is requisite thus to guide events, to bring about desired results. The ignorant man stumbles helplessly along, striking himself against the immutable laws and seeing his efforts fail, while the man of knowledge walks steadily forward, foreseeing, causing, preventing, adjusting, and bringing about that at which he aims, not because he is lucky but because he understands. The one is the toy, the slave of Nature, whirled along by her forces: the other is her master, using her energies to carry him onwards in the direction chosen by his will.

That which is true of the physical realm of law is (Page 246) true of the moral and mental worlds, equally realms of law. Here also the ignorant is a slave, the sage is a monarch; here also the inviolability, the immutability, that were regarded as paralysing, are found to be the necessary conditions of sure progress and of clear-sighted direction of the future. Man can become the master of his destiny only because that destiny lies in a realm of law, where knowledge can build up the science of the soul and place in the hands of man the power of controlling his future – of choosing alike his future character and his future circumstances.The knowledge of karma that threatened to paralyse, becomes an inspiring, a supporting, an uplifting force.

Karma is then, the law of causation, the law of cause and effect. It was put pointedly by the Christian Initiate, S. Paul : “Be not deceived, God is not mocked: for whatsoever a man soweth that shall he also reap.”(Galatians, vi, 7). Man is continually sending out forces on all the planes on which he functions; these forces – themselves in quantity and quality the effects of his past activities – are causes which he sets going in each world he inhabits; they bring about certain definite effects both on himself and on others, and as these causes radiate forth from himself as centre over the whole field of his activity, he is responsible for the results they bring about. 

As a magnet has its “magnetic field,” an area within which all its forces play, larger or smaller according to its strength, so has every man a field of influence (Page 247) within which play the forces he emits, and these forces work in curves that return to their forth-sender, that re-enter the centre whence they emerged.

As the subject is a very complicated one, we will sub-divide it, and then study the subdivisions one by one.

Three classes of energies are sent forth by man in his ordinary life, belonging respectively to the three worlds that he inhabits; mental energies on the mental plane, giving rise to the causes we call thoughts; desire energies on the astral plane, giving rise to those we call desires; physical energies aroused by these, and working on the physical plane, giving rise to the causes we call action. We have to study each of these in its workings, and to understand the class of effects to which each gives rise, if we wish to trace intelligently the part that each plays in the perplexed and complicated combinations we set up, called in their totality “our Karma.” When a man, advancing more swiftly than his fellows, gains the ability to function on higher planes, he then becomes the centre of higher forces, but for the present we may leave these out of account and confine ourselves to ordinary humanity, treading the cycle of reincarnation in the three worlds.

In studying these three classes of energies we shall have to distinguish between their effect on the man who generates them and their effect on others who come within the field of his influence; for a lack (Page 248) of understanding on this point often leaves the student in a slough of hopeless bewilderment. 

Then we must remember that every force works on its own plane and reacts on the planes below it in proportion to its intensity, the plane on which it is generated gives it its special characteristics, and in its reaction on lower planes it sets up vibrations in their finer or coarser materials according to its own original nature.The motive which generates the activity determines the plane to which the force belongs. 

Next it will be necessary to distinguish between ripe karma, ready to show itself as inevitable events in the present life; the karma of character, showing itself in tendencies that are the outcome of accumulated experiences, and that are capable of being modified in the present life by the same power (the Ego) that created them in the past; the karma that is now making, and will give rise to future events and future character. ( These divisions are familiar to the student as Prarabdha (commenced, to be worked out in the life); Sanchita (accumulated), a part of which is seen in the tendencies, Kriyamana, (in course of making).

Further, we have to realise that while a man makes his own individual karma he also connects himself thereby with others, thus becoming a member of various groups – family, national, racial – and as a member he shares in the collective karma of each of these groups.

It will be seen that the study of karma is one (Page 249) of much complexity; however, by grasping the main principles of its working as set out above, a coherent idea of its general bearing may be obtained without much difficulty, and its details can be studied at leisure as opportunity offers. Above all, let it never be forgotten, whether details are understood or not, that each man makes his own karma, creating alike his own capacities and his own limitations; and that working at any time with these self-created capacities, and within these self-created limitations, he is still himself, the living soul, and can strengthen or weaken his capacities, enlarge or contract his limitations.

The chains that bind him are of his own forging, and he can file them away or rivet them more strongly; the house he lives in is of his own building, and he can improve it, let it deteriorate, or rebuild it, as he will. We are ever working in plastic clay and can shape it to our fancy, but the clay hardens and becomes as iron, retaining the shape we gave it. A proverb from the Hitopadesha runs, as translated by Sir Edwin Arnold:

“Look! The clay dries into iron, but the potter moulds the clay; 
Destiny today is the master – Man was master yesterday. “ 

Thus we are all masters of our tomorrows, however much we are hampered today by the results of our yesterdays. 

Let us now take in order the divisions already set out under which karma may be studied. 

Three classes of causes, with their effects on their (Page 250) creator and on those he influences.The first of these classes is composed of our thoughts. Thought is the most potent factor in the creation of human karma, for in thought the energies of the SELF are working in mental matter, the matter which, in its finer kinds, forms the individual vehicle, and even in its coarser kinds responds swiftly to every vibration of self-consciousness. The vibrations which we call thought, the immediate activity of the Thinker, give rise to forms of mind-stuff, or mental images, which shape and mould his mental body, as we have already seen; every thought modifies this mental body, and the mental faculties in each successive life are made by the thinkings of the previous lives.

A man can have no thought-power, no mental ability, that he has not himself created by patiently repeated thinkings; on the other hand, no mental image that he has thus created is lost, but remains as material for faculty, and the aggregate of any group of mental images is built into a faculty which grows stronger with every additional thinking, or creation of a mental image, of the same kind.

Knowing this law, the man can gradually make for himself the mental character he desires to possess and he can do it as definitely and as certainly as a bricklayer can build a wall. Death does not stop his work, but by setting him free from the encumbrance of the body facilitates the process of working up his mental images into the definite organ we call a faculty, and he brings this back with him to his next birth on the physical plane, part of the brain (Page 251) of the new body being moulded so as to serve as the organ of this faculty, in a way to be explained presently. 

All these faculties together form the mental body for his opening life on earth, and his brain and nervous system are shaped to give his mental body expression on the physical plane. Thus the mental images created in one life appear as mental characteristics and tendencies in another, and for this reason it is written in one of the Upanishads: “Man is a creature of reflection: that which he reflects on in this life he becomes the same hereafter.” (Chhandogyopanishad IV, xiv,1). Such is the law, and it places the building of our mental character entirely in our own hands; if we build well, ours the advantage and the credit; if we build badly, ours the loss and blame. Mental character, then, is a case of individual karma in its action on the individual who generates it. 

This same man that we are considering, however, affects other by his thoughts. For these mental images that form his own mental body set up vibrations, thus reproducing themselves in secondary forms. These generally, being mingled with desire, take up some astral matter, and I have therefore elsewhere (see Karma, page 25 - Theosophical Manual No. IV) called these secondary thought-forms – astro-mental images. Such forms leave their creator and lead a quasi-independent life – still keeping up a magnetic tie with their progenitor.

They come into contact with and affect others, in this way setting up karmic links between these (Page 252) others and himself; thus they largely influence his future environment. In such fashion are made the ties which draw people together for good or evil in later lives; which surround us with relatives, friends, and enemies; which bring across our path helpers and hinderers, people who benefit and who injure us, people who love us without our winning in this life, and who hate us though in this life we have done nothing to deserve their hatred. Studying the results, we grasp a great principle – that while our thoughts produce our mental and moral character in their action on ourselves, they help to determine our human associates in the future by their effects on others. 

The second great class of energies is composed of our desires – our out-goings after objects that attract us in the external world: as a mental element always enters into these in man, we may extend the term “mental images “ to include them, although they express themselves chiefly in astral matter. These in their action on their progenitor mould and form his body of desire, or astral body, shape his fate when he passes into Kamaloka after death, and determine the nature of his astral body in his next rebirth.

When the desires are bestial, drunken, cruel, unclean, they are the fruitful causes of congenital diseases, of weak and diseased brains, giving rise to epilepsy, catalepsy, and nervous diseases of all kinds, of physical malformations and deformities, and, in extreme cases, of monstrosities. Bestial appetites of an abnormal kind or intensity may set up (Page 253) links in the astral world which for a time chain the Egos, clothed in astral bodies shaped by these appetites, to the astral bodies of animals to which these appetites properly belong, thus delaying their reincarnation; where this fate is escaped, the bestially shaped astral body will sometimes impress its characteristics on the forming physical body of the babe during ante natal life, and produce the semi-human horrors that are occasionally born. 

Desires – because they are outgoing energies that attach themselves to objects – always attract the man towards an environment in which they may be gratified. Desires for earthly things, linking the soul to the outer world, draw him towards the place where the objects of desire are most readily obtainable, and therefore it is said that a man is born according to his desires. ( See Brihadaranyakopanishad,IV,iv, 5,7,and context). They are one of the causes that determine the place of rebirth.

The astro-mental images caused by desires affect others as do those generated by thoughts. They, therefore, also link us with other souls, and often by the strongest ties of love and hatred, for at the present stage of human evolution an ordinary man’s desires are generally stronger and more sustained than his thoughts. They thus play a great part in determining his human surroundings in future lives, and may bring into those lives persons and influences of whose connection with himself he is totally unconscious.

Suppose a man by sending out a thought of bitter hatred and revenge has helped to form in (Page 254) another the impulse which results in a murder; the creator of that thought is linked by his karma to the committer of the crime, although they have never met on the physical plane, and the wrong he has done to him, by helping to impel him to a crime , will come back as an injury in the infliction of which the whilhom criminal will play his part. Many a “bolt from the blue” that is felt is utterly undeserved is the effect of such a cause, and the soul thereby learns and registers a lesson while the lower consciousness is writhing under a sense of injustice.

Nothing can strike a man that he has not deserved, but his absence of memory does not cause a failure in the working of the law. We thus learn that our desires in their action on ourselves produce our desirenature, and through it largely affect our physical bodies in our next birth; that they play a great part in determining the place of rebirth; and by their effect on others they help to draw around us our human associates in future lives.

The third great class of energies, appearing on the physical plane as actions, generate much karma by their effects on others, but only slightly affect directly the Inner Man. They are effects of his past thinkings and desires, and the karma they represent is for the most part exhausted in their happening. Indirectly they affect him in proportion as he is moved by them to fresh thoughts and desires or emotions, but the generating force lies in these and not in the actions themselves.

Again, if actions are often repeated, they set up a habit of the body (Page 255) which acts as a limitation to the expression of the Ego in the outer world; this, however, perishes with the body, thus limiting the karma of the action to a single life so far as its effect on the soul is concerned. But it far otherwise when we come to study the effects of actions on others, the happiness or unhappiness caused by these, and the influence exercised by these as examples.They link us to others by this influence and are thus a third factor in determining our future human associates, while they are the chief factor in determining what may be called our non-human environment. Broadly speaking, the favourable or unfavourable nature of the physical surroundings into which we are born depends on the effect of our previous actions in spreading happiness or unhappiness among other people. The physical results on others of actions on the physical plane work out karmically in repaying to the actor good or bad surroundings in a future life. 

If he has made people physically happy, by sacrificing wealth or time or trouble, this action karmically brings him favourable physical circumstances conducive to physical happiness. If he has caused people wide-spread physical misery, he will reap karmically from his action wretched physical circumstances conducive to physical suffering. And this is so, whatever may have been his motive in either case – a fact which leads us to consider the law that : 

Every force works on its own plane. If a man sows happiness for others on the physical plane, (Page 256) he will reap conditions favourable to happiness for himself on that plane, and his motive in sowing it does not affect the result . A man might sow wheat with the object of speculating with it to ruin his neighbour, but his bad motive would not make the wheat grains grow up as dandelions. Motive is a mental or astral force, according as it arises from will or desire, and it reacts on moral and mental character or on the desire-nature severally.

The causing of physical happiness by an action is a physical force and works on the physical plane. “By his actions” man affects his neighbours on the physical plane; he spreads happiness around him or he causes distress, increasing or diminishing the sum of human welfare. This increase or diminution of happiness may be due to very different motives – good, bad, or mixed. A man may do an act that gives widespread enjoyment from sheer benevolence, from a longing to give happiness to his fellow creatures. 

Let us say that from such a motive he presents a park to a town for the free use of its inhabitants; another may do a similar act from mere ostentation, from desire to attract attention from those who can bestow social honours (say, he might give it as purchase-money for a title); a third may give a park from mixed motives, partly unselfish, partly selfish. The motives will severally affect these three men’s characters in their future incarnations, for improvement, for degradation, for small results.

But the effect of the action is causing happiness to large numbers of people does not depend on the motive of the giver; (Page 257) the people enjoy the park equally, no matter what may have prompted its gift, and this enjoyment, due to the action of the giver, establishes for him a karmic claim on Nature, a debt due to him that will be scrupulously paid. He will receive a physically comfortable or luxurious environment, as he has given widespread physical enjoyment, and his sacrifice of physical wealth will bring him his due reward, the karmic fruit of his action.

This is his right. But the use he makes of his position, the happiness he derives from his wealth and his surroundings, will depend chiefly on his character, and here again the just reward accrues to him, each seed bearing its appropriate harvest. (see Karma, Pages 50 to 51) Truly, the ways of Karma are equal. It does not withhold from the bad man the result which justly follows from an action which spreads happiness, and it also deals out to him the deteriorated character earned by his bad motive, so that in the midst of wealth he will remain discontented and unhappy.

Nor can the good man escape physical suffering if he cause physical misery by mistaken actions done from good motive; the misery he caused will bring him misery in his physical surroundings, but his good motive, improving his character, will give him a source of perennial happiness within himself, and he will be patient and contented amid his troubles. Many a puzzle maybe answered by applying these principles to the facts we see around us.

These respective effects of motive and of the (Page 258) results (or fruits) of actions are due to the fact that each force has the characteristics of the plane on which it was generated, and the higher the plane the more potent and the more persistent the force. Hence motive is far more important than action, and a mistaken action done with a good motive is productive of more good to the doer than a well-chosen action done with a bad motive. The motive, reacting on the character, gives rise to a long series of effects, for the future actions guided by that character will all be influenced by its improvement or its deterioration ‘ whereas the action, bringing on its doer physical happiness or unhappiness, according to its results on others, has in it no generating force, but is exhausted in its results. 

If bewildered as to the path of right action by a conflict of apparent duties, the knower of karma diligently tries to choose the best path, using his reason and judgment to the utmost; he is scrupulously careful about his motive, eliminating selfish considerations and purifying his heart; then he acts fearlessly, and if his action turn out to be a blunder he willingly accepts the suffering which results from his mistake as a lesson which will be useful in the future. Meanwhile, his high motive has ennobled his character for all time to come.

This general principle that the force belongs to the plane on which it is generated is one of far-reaching import. If it (Page 260) be liberated with the motive of gaining physical objects, it works on the physical plane and attaches the actor to that plane. If it aim at devachanic objects, it works on the devachanic plane and attaches the actor thereto. If it have no motive save the divine service, it is set free on the spiritual plane, and therefore cannot attach the individual, since the individual is asking for nothing.




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