I guess I can’t get away from the topic of karma. In my post on karma and right action I wrote that
The doctrine of karma is in Biblical words ‘as you sow, so you will reap’. Contrary to what many people suggest it is a long term doctrine. It means in simple terms that if you want to have lives upon lives of living well off – be nice, generous, good and honest consistently throughout your lives.
That was admittedly simplified to the extreme. And my words were not as clear as they might have been, which perhaps explains the angry e-mail I got in response to that. ‘living well off’ means, in my opinion, simply having all you need. Could be a limitation of my English. Anyhow, to illustrate I’d like to go back to what one of theosophy’s less well known classic authors, W.Q. Judge had to say about the relationship between poverty and karma.
The old definition of what is good and what bad Karma is the best. That is: “Good Karma is that which is pleasing to Ishwara, and bad that which is displeasing to Ishwara.” There is here but very little room for dispute as to poverty or wealth; for the test and measure are not according to our present evanescent human tastes and desires, but are removed to the judgment of the immortal self–Ishwara. The self may not wish for the pleasures of wealth, but seeing the necessity for discipline decides to assume life among mortals in that low station where endurance, patience, and strength may be acquired by experience. There is no other way to implant in the character the lessons of life.
It may then be asked if all poverty and low condition are good Karma? This we can answer, under the rule laid down, in the negative. Some such lives, indeed many of them, are bad Karma, displeasing to the immortal self imprisoned in the body, because they are not by deliberate choice, but the result of causes blindly set in motion in previous lives, sure to result in planting within the person the seeds of wickedness that must later be uprooted with painful effort. Under this canon, then, we would say that the masses of poor people who are not bad in nature are enduring oftener than not good Karma, because it is in the line of experience Ishwara has chosen, and that only those poor people who are wicked can be said to be suffering bad Karma, because they are doing and making that which is displeasing to the immortal self within.
Ishwara (or Ishvara) is the word used to describe the higher self – or that in us which learns.
W.Q. Judge makes two valid points:
- We can’t see from the outside whether something that happens to someone is good karma or bad karma.
- A good person will learn what needs to be learned and do what needs to be done in any circumstance. In that sense all they go through is good karma. A bad person vice versa.
Judge was very good at simply explaining things. In light of current day psychological insight however I think it is necessary to stress that most of us are neither 100% sinner nor are we 100% saint. We are somewhere in between. To the extent that we meet life’s challenges without lowering our moral standard, it was clearly duty we were ready for – a lesson we were ready to learn perhaps. But when we meet challenges we aren’t ready for, ones we meet with anger, frustration, disappointment perhaps – without learning the lessons we were meant to learn – that is bad karma. Because as long as we don’t learn those lessons, similar circumstances will keep returning to us…
Money is of course a very relative thing. We live, in the West with an amount of wealth that is honestly shaming to see. More worrying perhaps is that they have become necessary for us. For instance: I can’t do my job without a computer. Without an internet connection.
Yet millions live in poverty, don’t have a roof over their head, don’t have a place to stay that is peaceful, don’t have clear drinking water etc. The evils of this world are too many to enumerate here. But the point is this: the doctrine of karma makes it clear that this is karmic in cause.
However, even in such awful circumstances there are those that learn the art of self-sacrifice. There are those who turn into thieves. There are those who flee. There are those that fight. All such choices have their own karmic consequences. The main insight to be learned from such extremes of poverty is perhaps the one that Dumbledore tried to teach Voldemort: there are worse fates then death.
“It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God.” (Matthew 19:24)
This is, I think, because wealth is so very seductive. It is easy to come used to. It is easy to become vain. It is easy to be greedy about money – especially once you have it. It is easy to see it as a privilege instead of a responsibility. It is easy to say ‘I need this money’.
The karmic advantage of poverty is, in my opinion, clear: there is less responsibility. Less responsibility means less chance of messing up.
I found the inspiration for this post in an article on ‘The Pathology of the SuperGuru‘. It ends with the following – which I would like to end my post with as well:
Fortunately I had many memories of simple, even barren, rooms in which I had sat with great saints in India, rooms where they stayed in joyful contentment, living the simplest of lives. Before going to India I had seen the two tiny rooms in which Paramhansa Yogananda, head of a world-wide spiritual organization, had lived for over a quarter of a century, as well as the simple little kitchen where he had so often cooked for his beloved students.
“Contented in the Self by the Self, then he is said to be one whose wisdom is steady. (Bhagavad Gita 2:55)” I had seen Krishna’s words verified in the lives of the true yogis.
A version of this post appears in my book Essays on Karma.