The karma of disease and health

The relationship between karma and disease is a controversial one. There is the common sense view that since disease is unwelcome, it ‘must be’ bad karma. On the other hand there is a long tradition of theosophical thought saying that bad karma doesn’t exist. I was reading up on a related topic this summer and found Geoffrey Hodson saying that disease is an expression of inner conflict. In the introduction to the same booklet Oscar Kollerstrom was less nuanced. He went ahead and concluded that illness is an expression of disharmony. Nature does not mean us to be ill and spiritual growth and physical health go hand in hand.

It’s a bit disconcerting to read all that when the first theosophical teacher of note, in fact one whose fame has only been surpassed by Jiddu Krishnamurti, H.P. Blavatsky, was ill most of her productive life. She wrote all of her books while suffering from some disease or other. In fact, she faced death several times in that period in her life. It’s therefore not surprising to find her writing in her Esoteric Instructions that:

Rude physical health is a drawback to seership. (…) It is an excess of prana [life energy] setting up powerful molecular vibrations, and so drowning the atomic. [Atomic is here used for the spiritual in us. In ordinary theosophical terminology it is atma]

While I’m at it, it’s well known that Jiddu Krishnamurti too suffered from life long health problems. The cancer he succumbed to at the age of 90 had been in his system for quite a few years. He only became convinced of his readiness to be a spiritual teacher (though he would never put it in those words) when ‘the proces’ made him ill and gave him spiritual experiences at the same time.

So how does this square with the old idea that physical health is necessary for spiritual growth? It is after all an old idea. People were only allowed to become Buddhist monks when they had an excellent health. I tend to think that this has something to do with changes in life span for people, including sick people. For the last two centuries or so, people with health problems have managed to survive fairly long. Health care has after all improved considerably, even if universal access is still a pipe dream for most of humanity (including US citizens).

But Geoffrey Hodson does have a point, doesn’t he? Inner conflict does bring on ill health. Whether we call it psychosomatic or otherwise, it’s still an experiential fact. Where I disagree is I guess in how this inner conflict relates to real spiritual growth. While everybody would like to have inner peace and lack of conflict, the fact of life is that it exists. Balancing that out may take a life time and the very attempt is an example of spiritual growth in my book.

So, what does karma have to do with all this?

According to theosophy and Buddhism there are really two kinds of people. Ordinary people and people on the path towards enlightenment. Ordinary people will just keep on creating new karma and any good they experience is likely to be temporary because they are likely to spoil it with bad actions in a next life. This keeps the cycle of reincarnation going and the mixed bag of good and bad in both their present and past lives makes for a very complicated karmic story.

People on the path (stream enterers in Buddhist terminology) towards enlightenment however have come to a fundamental realisation about the nature of reality and the uselessness of fighting only for your own good. This realisation has been combined with the Bodhisattva Vow: the vow to benefit all sentient beings and help them realize the same truths. For them, so theosophical tradition has it, there are only seven lives on earth left. In those seven lives all the karma they have gathered in their previous lives has to be worked out.

This makes for rather difficult lives in general. Disease, money problems and inner conflict: all the mistakes made in previous lives have to be faced in their essence and conquered. Inner conflict is rather to be expected in such people, because to become wise one has to face up to all that is not wise in oneself. How else can wisdom be combined with compassion for all that lives?

It would of course be nice and neat if health and good karma went hand in hand. That would mean after all that we could look at the state of a person’s health and determine their spiritual worth. It’s always nice to be able to label people. But nice and wise are two very different things. It’s never by observing a person superficially that the inner truth about their nature can become clear.

Source for Geoffrey Hodson and Oscar Kollerstrom

I found their opinions in an undated Dutch theosophical booklet called ‘Een occulte beschouwing van gezondheid en ziekte’  published in Amsterdam by Gnosis publishing. It is probably a translation into Dutch of some booklet in English.

A version of this post appears in my book Essays on Karma.

9 thoughts on “The karma of disease and health”

  1. I’ve been reading a lot of CG Jung lately and found his approach to mental illness as a necessary step towards personal and spiritual growth quite interesting. I read a quote from him saying “Thank God he’s neurotic” about one of his patients, and he actually went through a schizophrenic period after which he produced several of his most important works, to the point that he came up with the term “creative illness” to describe the process that he and many others big thinkers go through as a natural step towards enlightenment.

  2. As I reflect on my own spiritual journey I look at my past and realize that the times when it was darkest for me are when I have grown the most. I work with the mentally ill population and I am always astounded by their strength. I am in conflict as to why people are afflicted by mental illness. I can not believe that these people did something wrong in their this life or their previous one. I want to believe that they are something of a teacher in this life for others but then the pain that they suffer makes me feel this is selfish. I can only hope that their lives have great meaning to humanity as a whole.

  3. This is absolutely right. I have had a personal experience on this. I use to always believe that my body is strong and capable of healing by itself. Everytime I get a disease I just do some “inner work”. I say to myself that there is some conflict within me and that needs to be set straight. The minute I say this to myself I understand the conflict and I calm myself down. Then I carryout my normal day to day work not paying much attention to the disease and It just vanishes 🙂

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