Click Here to return to
STRIPPED of its innumerable and inextricable oriental complications, which may possibly correspond with realities but which cannot be verified, Karma, the infallible Law of Retribution, is, when all is said, what we, speaking more vaguely and without believing in it unduly, call Immanent Justice. Our Immanent justice is a somewhat idle shadow. True, it often manifests itself after monstrous actions, great vices, sins or iniquities; but we rarely have the opportunity of seeing it intervene in the thousand petty acts of injustice, cruelty, weakness, dishonesty and baseness of ordinary life, though the aggregate of these paltry but incessant misdeeds may weigh heavier than the most notorious crime. In any case, its action being more dispersed, more diffuse, slower and more often moral than material, nearly always escapes our observation; and, as, on the other hand, it appears to cease at the moment of death, it hardly ever has time to demand its due and usually arrives too late at the bedside of a sick or dying man, who has lost consciousness or no longer has the time to expiate his offences.
Karma then, if you will, is Immanent Justice; only, it is no longer an inconstant goddess, inconsistent, incoherent, impotent, erratic, capricious, inexact, forgetful, timid, inattentive, sluggish, evasive, intangible and bounded by the tomb, but a god, vast and inevitable as Destiny, a god who fills up each outlet, each horizon, each crevice of every existence and who is omnipresent, omniscient, omnipotent, infallible, impassible and incorruptible. He is in us, as we are in him. He is ourselves. He is more than we: he is what we are, while he is still what we were and is already what we shall become. We are small, evanescent and ephemeral; he is great, imperturbable, immovable, eternal. Nothing escapes him of that which escapes us and no doubt will escape us even beyond the tomb. Not an action, not a wish, not a thought, not the shadow of an intention but is weighed more strictly than it was weighed by the forty-two posthumous judges who awaited the soul on that further shore of which we are told in one of the most ancient texts in the world, the Egyptian Book of the Dead. All is set down, dated, valued, verified, classified, entered as debit or credit, as reward or expiation, in the immense and eternal index of the astral records. There can be nothing that he does not know, because he has taken part in all that he judges; and he judges us not from the depth of our present ignorance, but from the height of all that we shall learn much later. He is not only our intelligence and our consciousness of to-day, which are hardly waking and no longer count their errors; he is even now, for they already dwell within us, though they be inactive, impotent, dumb and blind, our intelligence and our consciousness to come, when they shall have attained, in the course of the ages and of the innumerable developments, expiations and ascents, the loftiest summits of Wisdom and Discernment.
At the hour of our death the account seems closed; but he is simply asleep and will resume his hold of us again. He will slumber perhaps for hundreds, nay, thousands of years in "Devachan," that is to say, in the state of unconsciousness which prepares us for a new incarnation; but, when we awake, we shall find the assets and liabilities added up beyond recall; and our Karma will merely continue the life which we have laid aside. It will continue to be ourselves in that life and to see the consequences of our faults and our deserts burst into flower and afterwards to see other causes bear fruit in other effects, until the consummation of the ages when every thought born upon this earth ends by losing sight of it.
Karma, as we see, is, when all is said, the immortal entity which man fashions by his deeds and thoughts and which follows him, or rather envelops and absorbs him, through his successive lives and changes, even as he incessantly changes, while preserving every previous impress. Man's thoughts, as this doctrine very truly says, build up his character; his deeds make his environment. What man has thought, that he has become; his qualities and natural gifts adhere to him as the results of his ideas. He is, in all truth, created by himself. He is in the fullest sense of the word responsible for all that he is. He is contained in the net of all that he has done. He can neither undo nor destroy the past; but, so long as the effects of the past are yet to come, it is possible for him to alter them or to divert them by fresh exertions. Nothing can affect him that he has not set in movement; no evil can befall him that he has not deserved. In the infinite evolution of the eternities he will never find himself in the presence of any judge other than himself.
It is certain that the idea of this supreme judge, who is our consciousness uninterrupted throughout the centuries and the millenaries, who is each one of us grown more and more enlightened, more and more incorruptible and infallible, leads to the highest, sincerest and purest system of morals that it is possible to conceive or to justify here below. The judge and the defendant are no longer face to face; they are one within the other and form but one and the same person. They can hide nothing from each other; and both have the same urgent interest in discovering the least fault, the slightest shadow and in purifying themselves as quickly and as completely as possible, in order to put an end to the reincarnations and to live at last in the One Being. The best, the saintliest are near doing so from the moment when they quit this life; but, detached from all things, they do not cease to act for the good of all men, for already they know all things. They go farther than the mystic Christian who expects a reward from without: they are their own reward. They go farther than Marcus Aurelius, the great type of the man without illusions, who continues to act without hoping that his action can profit others: they know that nothing is useless, that nothing can be wasted; it is when they no longer need anything whatever that they work with the greatest ardour.
Contrary to what is too generally believed, this system of morals which leads to absolute repose extols activity. Hear, in this connection, the great teachings of the Bhagavad-Gita, the Lord's Song, which is perhaps, as its translators, not without good reason, think, the most beautiful, that is to say, the most exalted book known up to the present time:
"Thy business is with the action only, never with its fruits; so let not the fruit of action be thy motive. . . . Perform action . . . dwelling in union with the divine, renouncing attachments and balanced evenly in success and failure. . . . Pitiable are they who work for fruit. . . . Man winneth not freedom from action by abstaining from activity, nor by mere renunciation doth he rise to perfection. . . . Perform thou right action, for action is superior to inaction; and, inactive, even the maintenance of thy body would not be possible. The world is bound by action, unless performed for the sake of sacrifice....
"He who seeth inaction in action and action in inaction, he is wise among men, he is harmonious, even while performing all action. Whose works are all free from the moulding of desire, whose actions are burned up by the fire of wisdom, him the wise have called a sage. Having abandoned attachment to the fruit of action, always content, nowhere seeking refuge, he is not doing anything, although doing actions. . . . He should be known as a perpetual ascetic, who neither hateth nor desireth; free from the pairs of opposites . . , he is easily set free from bondage. . . ."
And remember that this, which forms part of the Mahabharata, the greatest epic on earth, was written four or five thousand years ago.
Whatever we may think of the plausibility of the doctrine or revelation, we cannot dispute that this morality and this justification of justice are the most ancient and at the same time the most beautiful and reassuring that the mind of man has imagined. But they are based upon a postulate which we are perhaps too much inclined to refuse blindly. It asks us in fact to admit that our existence does not end at the hour of our death and that the spirit, or the vital spark, which does not perish, seeks an asylum and reappears in other bodies. At first the postulate seems monstrous and unacceptable; but on closer examination its aspect becomes much less strange, less arbitrary and less unreasonable. It is, to begin with, certain that, if all things undergo transformation, nothing perishes or is annihilated in a universe which knows no nothingness and in which nothingness alone remains absolutely inconceivable. What we call nothingness could therefore be only another mode of existence, of persistence and of life; and, if we cannot admit that the body, which is only matter, is annihilated in its substance, it is no less difficult to admit that, if it were animated by a spirit -which it is hardly possible to dispute -- this spirit should disappear without leaving a trace of any kind.
So the first point of the postulate and the most important is of necessity granted. There remains the second point, that of the successive reincarnations. Here, it is true, we have only hypotheses and probabilities. It is necessary that this spirit, this soul, this vital spark or principle, this idea, this immaterial substance -- it matters little what name we give it -- must go or reside somewhere, must do or become something. It may wander in the infinity of space and time, dissolve, lose itself and disappear, or at least mingle and become confused with what it encounters there, and finally become absorbed in that boundless spiritual or vital energy which appears to animate the universe. But, of all hypotheses, the least probable is not that which tells us that, on leaving a body which has become uninhabitable, instead of escaping and wandering through the illimitable vast that fills it with terror, it looks about it for a lodging resembling that which it has lately quitted. Obviously this is only an hypothesis; but in our complete and terrible ignorance it presents itself before any other. We have nothing to support it save the most ancient tradition of humanity, a tradition perhaps prehuman and in any case absolutely general; and experience tends to show that at the base of these traditions and these instances of universal assent there is nearly always a great truth and that they must be accorded a greater importance and a greater value than have hitherto been attributed to them.
As regards evidence, or rather premonitory suggestions of evidence, we have scarcely anything beyond the experiments of Colonel de Rochas, who, by means of hypnotic passes, succeeded in making a few exceptional mediums retrace not only the whole course of their present lives, back to their earliest childhood, but also that of a certain number of previous existences. It cannot be denied that these extremely serious experiments, which were very scientifically conducted, are most bewildering; but the danger of unconscious suggestion or telepathy is not and doubtless will never be sufficiently remote to allow them to become really conclusive.
We find further, on pursuing the same train of ideas, certain cases of reincarnation, like that of one of Dr. Samson's little daughters, as related in the Annales des sciences psychiques for July, 1913. This case, which is almost undisputed, is exceedingly curious; but, though it is not unique, those which resemble it are too rare to allow us to rely upon them.
There remains what are known as prenatal reminiscences. It happens fairly often that a man who finds himself in an unfamiliar country, in a city, a palace, a church, a house, or a garden, which he is visiting for the first time, is conscious of a strange and very definite impression that he "has seen it before." It suddenly seems to him that this landscape, these vaulted ceilings, these rooms and the very furniture and pictures which he finds in them are quite well-known to him and that he recollects every nook and corner and every detail. Which of us but has, at least once in his life, vaguely experienced some such impression? But the recollections are often so definite that the person in whom they occur is able to act as a guide through the house or park which he has never explored and to describe beforehand what his party will find in this or that room or at the turn of this or that avenue. Is it really a recollection of previous existences, a telepathic phenomenon or an ancestral and hereditary memory? The same question suggests itself touching certain innate aptitudes or faculties, by virtue of which we see children of genius, musicians, painters, mathematicians or simple artisans, who know from the outset, without learning them, nearly all the secrets of their art or craft. Who will venture to decide?
This is about all that we can cite in favour of the doctrine of reincarnation. It is not enough to weigh down the scales. But all the other suppositions, theories or religions, excepting spiritualism, which for the rest is perfectly consistent with successive existences, have less solid foundations and are even, to be truthful, devoid of any. It would therefore be ungracious on their part to reproach the supposition which we are considering with the instability of the arguments whereon it is based.
Once again, how desirable it would be that all this were true! There would be no more moral uncertainties, no more uneasiness in respect of justice. And it is so beautiful, so complete, that it is perhaps real. It is difficult indeed to admit that such a dream is untrue from first to last, a dream which has been dreamed so long, since the beginning of the world, by so many thousands of millions of men and which, despite numerous and far-reaching distortions, has, when all is said, been the one dream of humanity. It is not possible to prove that it is based upon truth; but, unlike most of the religions derived from it, it is not possible either to demonstrate that it is imaginary and fabricated throughout; and, there being this doubt, why should not reason, which it never offends, be allowed to accept it and at heart to hope and act as though it were true, while waiting for science to confirm it completely, or to invalidate it, or to give us another hypothesis which it will perhaps never be able to elaborate?
What at first repels many of those who investigate it is the unduly assured and arbitrary insistence upon a thousand petty details, probably interpolated, as in all religions, by inferior minds, animated by a narrow and maladroit zeal. But these details, viewed from a certain elevation, do not in any way alter the great outlines, which remain immeasurable, admirable and unspoiled.
For the rest, whether reincarnation be accepted or rejected, there is surely such a thing as survival, since death and nothingness cannot be conceived; and the whole matter is once more reduced to the problem of continued identity. Even in reincarnation this identity, from our present, limited point of view, would possess only a relative interest, seeing that, all memory of previous existences being abolished, it would necessarily evade us. Let us ask ourselves, moreover, whether this question of personality without solution of continuity does really possess the importance which we attach to it and whether this importance is not a delusion, a temporary blindness of our egoism, of our terrestrial intelligence. For the fact remains that we interrupt it and lose it every night without disquieting ourselves. It is enough for us to be certain that we shall recover it on awaking; and we are reassured. But suppose that this were not the case and that one evening we were warned that we should not recover it, that on the following morning we should have forgotten all our past existence and should begin a new life, without any memory to connect us with the old. Should we feel the same terror, the same despair, as if we had been told that we should never wake again and that we should be hurled into our death? I do not believe it, I even think that we should accept our lot fairly cheerfully. It would not greatly matter to us that we should have to lose the memory of a past, consisting, like the past of all of us, of more evil than good, provided that life continued. It would no longer be our life, it would no longer have anything in common with the life of the day before; nevertheless we should not believe that we were losing it and we should retain a vague hope of recovering or recognizing something of ourselves in the existence before us. We should take pains to prepare for this existence, to insure it against misfortune and distress, to make it, in advance, as pleasant and as happy as possible. It might and ought to be so, not only if we believe in reincarnation, because the case would be almost identical, but also if we do not believe in it, since a survival of some sort is almost certain and absolute annihilation is actually inconceivable.
Perhaps with a little courage and goodwill it would be possible for us, even in this life, to look higher and farther, to shed for an instant that narrow and dismal egoism which refers all things to self, to tell ourselves that the intelligence or the good which our thoughts and efforts diffuse in the spiritual spheres are not wholly lost, even when it is not certain that the little nucleus of trivial habits and commonplace recollections that we are possesses them exclusively. If the good actions which we have performed, the noble or merely honest intentions or thoughts which we have experienced attach themselves and give value to a life in which we shall not recognize our own, this is not a sufficient reason to regard them as useless or to deny them all merit. It is well to remind ourselves at times that we are nothing if we are not everything and to learn from now onwards to interest ourselves in something that is not solely ourselves and already to live the ampler, less personal, less egotistical life which presently, without any doubt, whatever may be our creed, will be our eternal life, the only life that matters and the only life for which it is wise to prepare ourselves.
If we do not accept reincarnation, Karma none the less exists: a mutilated Karma, it is true; a diminished Karma, devoid of spaciousness, with an horizon limited by death, beginning its work and doing its best in the brief spell of time which it has before it, but less negligible, less impotent, less inactive and ineffective than is supposed. Acting within its narrow sphere, it gives us a fairly accurate albeit very incomplete idea of what it would accomplish in the wider sphere which we deny it. But this would lead us back to the, highly debatable question of mundane justice. It is almost insoluble, because its decisive operations, being inward and secret, escape observation. Following many others, who, for the rest, have explained it better than I, I have spoken of it elsewhere, particularly in Wisdom and Destiny and in The Mystery o f Justice;1 but, as Queen Scheherazade might say, it would serve no useful purpose to repeat it.
Let us then return to Karma properly so-called, the ideal Karma. It rewards goodness and punishes evil in the infinite sequence of our lives. But first of all, some will ask, what is this goodness, what is this evil, what is the best or the worst of our petty thoughts, our petty intentions, our petty ephemeral actions, compared with the boundless immensity of time and space? Is there not an absurd disproportion between the hugeness of the reward or punishment and the pettiness of the fault or merit? Why mix the worlds, the eternities and the gods with things which, however monstrous or admirable at first, are not slow, even within the trivial limits of our life, to lose gradually all the importance which we ascribed to them, to vanish, to fade into oblivion? That is true; but we must needs speak of human things in terms of human beings and on the human scale. What we call good or evil is that which works us good or evil, that which benefits or harms ourselves or others; and, so long as we live upon this earth and have not disappeared, we must needs attach to good and evil an importance which in themselves they do not possess. The noblest religions, the proudest metaphysical speculations, so soon as they involve human morality, human evolution and the human future, have always been obliged to reduce themselves to human proportions, to become anthropomorphous. This is an invincible necessity, by virtue of which, despite the horizons that tempt us on every hand, it behoves us to limit our ideas and our outlook.
Let us then limit them and once more ask ourselves, this time remaining within our sphere, what, after all, is this evil which Karma punishes? If we go to the very root of the matter, evil always arises from a lack of intelligence, from an erroneous and incomplete judgment, obscured or restricted by our egoism, which allows us to perceive only the proximate or immediate advantages of an action harmful to ourselves or others, while concealing the remote but inevitable consequences which such an action always ends by begetting. The whole science of ethics, after all, is based only upon intelligence; and what we call heart, sentiments, character is in fact nothing but accumulated and crystallized intelligence, inherited or acquired, which has become more or less unconscious and is transformed into habits or instincts. The evil which we do we do only because of a mistaken egoism, which sees the limits of its being too near at hand. As soon as intelligence raises the point of view of this egoism, the limits extend, widen and end by disappearing. The terrible and insatiable ego loses its centre of attraction and avidity and knows itself, finds itself and loves itself in all things. Let us not believe blindly in the intelligence of the wicked who succeed, or in the happiness of the criminal. We ought rather to see the converse, that is to say, the often hideous reality of the success; moreover, this intelligence, in the shape of skill, cunning or disloyalty, is a specialized intelligence, confined within a narrow circuit and, like a constricted jet of water, very effective when directed at a single point; but it is not a true and general, spacious and generous intelligence. Wherever the latter reveals itself, we necessarily find honesty, justice, forbearance, love and kindness, because there is a lofty and full horizon and because there is an instinctive or conscious knowledge of human proportions, of the eternity of existence and the brevity of life, of man's position in the universe, of the mysteries that compass him about and the secret bonds that unite him to all things that we see as well as to all things that we do not see upon earth and in the heavens.
Is Karma, then, supposed to punish lack of intelligence? And, in the first place, why not? It is the only real evil upon this earth; and, if all men were superlatively intelligent, none would be unhappy. But where would the justice of it be? We possess the intelligence which nature has bestowed upon us; it is she, not we, that should be held responsible. Let us understand one another. Karma does not inflict punishment, properly speaking; it simply places us, after our successive existences and slumbers, on the plane on which our intelligence left us, surrounded by our actions and our thoughts. It keeps a check and a record. It takes us such as we have made ourselves and gives us the opportunity to make ourselves anew, to acquire what we lack and to raise ourselves to the level of the highest. We are bound to raise ourselves, but the slowness or rapidity of our ascent depends only upon ourselves. When all is said, the apparent injustice which grants more intelligence to some than to others is but a question of date, a law of growth, of evolution, which is the fundamental law of all the lives that we know, from the infusoria to the stars. We could at most complain of coming later than the rest; but the rest, in their turn, might with more reason complain of being called too soon, of being unable to profit at once by all that has been acquired since their birth. To avoid recrimination, therefore, we should all have been on the same plane from the outset; we should all have been born at the same time. But then the world would have been complete, perfect, immutable, immobile, from the first moment of its existence and ours. This would perhaps have been preferable; but it is not so and it is, no doubt, impossible that it should be so; in any case, no system of metaphysics, no religion, not even the first, the greatest, the loftiest, the mother of all the rest, ever thought of rejecting the indisputable and indubitable law of endless movement, of the eternal Becoming; and it must be admitted that everything appears to justify it. It is probable that there would be nothing if it were otherwise and that there can only be something on condition that it becomes better or worse, that it rises or falls, that it constitutes itself in order to deconstitute and reconstitute itself and that movement is more essential than being or substance. It is so because it is so. There is nothing to be done, nothing to be said; we can but state the fact. We are in a world in which matter would perish and disappear sooner than movement, or rather in which matter, time, space, duration, existence and movement are but one and the same thing.
But we also live in a world in which our reason encounters only the impossible, the insoluble and the incomprehensible. The supreme interpretations do no more than shift the riddle, to permit us to obtain glimpses from a higher standpoint of the boundless immensity in which we are striving. Therefore, apart from the puerile explanations which, after successive changes of form, all the religions have drawn from the original religion, three hypotheses and no more offer themselves for our choice: on the one hand, nothingness, inertia and absolute death, which are inconceivable; on the other hand, chance and its eternal renewals, which are without change, hope, object or end, or which, if they led to anything, would lead either to an inconceivable annihilation or to the third hypothesis, according to which the best becomes infinite, even to total absorption in the imperfectible, the immutable, the immovable, which, as I have said elsewhere,2 must have occurred already in the eternity that precedes us, since there is no reason why that which could not take place in this eternity should take place in the eternity to come, which is no more infinite, is no more extensive and offers no more chances than the past eternity and which is not of a different nature.
The mother religion itself, the only one which is still acceptable, which takes account of everything and which has foreseen everything, does not escape this last dilemma by extending to thousands of millions of years the duration of a year of Brahma, that is to say, the period of evolution, of expiration, of externalization and activity, and to an equal number of thousands of millions of years the duration of a night of this god, that is to say, the period of involution, of inspiration, of internalization, of slumber or inertia, during which all is reabsorbed into the divinity or the sole absolute. It does not escape it either by next multiplying these days and nights by a hundred years which form one life and this life by a hundred lives which lead to figures that defy expression, after which another universe begins.
Here, too, there would be either an eternal recommencement without hope or object, or, if there be progression, final perfection and immobility which ought already to be attained. Let each draw from all this such conclusions as he please or can, or bow once more, in silence, before the Unknowable.
1 The first essay in The Buried Temple.- A. T. de M.
2 In Our Eternity.- A. T. de M.