Karma by Annie Besant: who’s running this show?

KarmaKarma by Annie Besant
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A thought-provoking and brief overview of a very important topic, packaged in a slapdash print-on-demand format.

Annie Besant, one of the leading lights of the Theosophical Society of the early 20th century, here presents the understanding of karma attained by direct clairvoyant perception of herself and other Theosophists. At least, that is my understanding of how the material was derived, and if that’s the case, then the book is tremendously valuable, for it provides an alternative view to the teachings of karma handed down by tradition by Vedic, Jain, and Buddhist masters. It is a work based on experience rather than on authority.

There are significant differences between the way karma is presented here and the way it is presented in those Indian traditions. I’m no expert on the subject, but as a student of Buddhism I have come to understand karma as a strictly impersonal force, like magnetism or gravity, but one that operates primarily from the mental realm rather than the physical one. Even though that’s so, karma nonetheless has distinctly physical consequences. As for the exact mechanism of its workings, this is mysterious. In the Buddhist scriptures, the Buddha himself narrates how he saw directly into the workings of karma in the second watch of the night on which he gained supreme enlightenment. He saw this with the “divine eye” of clairvoyance, which is beyond normal human perception. As for his students, they were instructed not to try to understand the exact workings of “karma and result”; the Buddha placed this topic, along with three others, on the list of the “four unthinkables”–subjects that, if a student tried to understand them conceptually, would lead him only to frustration and madness.

In this text the author offers something like a full account of the mechanism of karma, but it is not seen as an impersonal force; for the Theosophists found that karma is regulated by spiritual entities knows as the Lords of Karma. It is our thoughts, rather than our actions, that generate karma, for thought is the primary creative principle of the cosmos, in the Theosophical teaching. Indeed, our actions are generated by our thoughts. According to this text, every single thought we have, no matter how trivial or fleeting, leads to an eventual experienced result. The function of the Lords of Karma is to “right-size” the circumstances of our next birth according to the karma we have accumulated and, perhaps, according to how much bad karma we wish to extinguish at one time.

The Theosophical account of karma is quite different from the Buddhist account. To the Theosophists we are all fundamentally immortal souls, while the Buddha taught that belief in an immortal soul is an error. According to him, there is no such thing, and belief in its existence is exactly the cause of all our sufferings. So in the Buddhist system karma must be an impersonal force, since, fundamentally, there is no person anywhere anyway. That said, it doesn’t mean there can’t be Lords of Karma; it’s just that they, like ourselves, have a conventional existence rather than an ultimate one. They would be among the devas of the Buddhist cosmology, beings that exist on an exalted plane, but which are samsaric beings as we are, and thus subject to change and suffering.

A lot of people have difficulty believing in karma; indeed, Besant notes that even many Theosophists, while affirming it intellectually, do not really let it guide their actions. And the purpose of the doctrine is to guide our actions, for it is a moral law. For my own part, I have no such difficulty. I believe in karma as much as I can believe in anything I can’t see or touch. To the best of my ability, I try to let it guide my actions. In the end, does it really matter whether karma is regulated by a strictly impersonal law or by tremendously powerful spiritual beings existing at a much higher plane of reality? To us on the earthly plane, the upshot is the same: our thoughts, words, and actions have power, and will all visit results upon us at some point.

It’s wonderful that this book is available to modern readers in a paperback edition such as this one, but the book has some serious flaws. The physical book is fine; it was printed on demand by Amazon in Bolton, Ontario. But no one has proofread the book. It contains typos and formatting flaws such as the printing of footnotes in the body of the text instead of at the bottom of pages, and the burying of headings in the text of paragraphs. The text has been machine formatted and printed, and the result is clumsy. They need to get someone to review a proof of the book and fix the source file.

But I’m happy to have it and to have read it. Few topics are as important as karma for the conduct of our life and of all our future lives. This is a short but serious work by one who claims to have at least glimpsed the actual workings of this great cosmic force. As such, it is worth reading, if anything is.

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