Nowadays the notion of karma is part of Western popular culture. It typically means that at least some unpleasant things are consequences of one’s actions, either in this life or another. The word karma is derived from Sanskrit meaning action and, by extension, its effects or consequences. In both Eastern philosophy and Theosophy, karmic consequences are often thought to originate from actions from previous incarnations.
This essay explores the nature of karma in the Theosophical framework. To do this, it’s useful to evaluate various perspectives on the topic. First, I will discuss compensatory karma and evolutionary karma in Eastern philosophy (Näreaho, 2008). Then I will present an outline of karma from the point of view of Theosophy. Finally, I will discuss the Theosophical notion of the higher self in the context of karma and reincarnation.
The Law of Karma in Eastern Philosophy
Karma is a natural law, and nobody can escape the consequences of their actions. The Buddha expresses this eloquently in the Dhammapada (Chapter 9, 127):
Neither in the sky nor in mid-ocean, nor by entering into mountain clefts, nowhere in the world is there a place where one may escape from the results of evil deeds. (https://www.buddhanet.net/pdf_file/scrndhamma.pdf)
The compensatory view of karma maintains that it is the law of cause and effect, which rewards or punishes the moral actions of human beings. The deed is not the only factor affecting karmic consequences: the inner reasons, motivations, thoughts, and words are also karmically important.
Not all actions have karmic consequences. Ordinary actions are considered karmically neutral if they are done without attachment. (One may wonder which contemporary choices really are karmically neutral—for instance, consumption patterns, with all their ramifications).
According to Eastern philosophy, a karmic deed has two types of consequences. First, it leaves an inner mark on the person. This may manifest itself as a tendency, or it may bring a preexisting character trait to the forefront. Hence this kind of psychological karma may easily become visible in the same lifetime. For instance, negative attitudes have measurable consequences on one’s health and happiness (https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/communication-success/201502/8-negative-attitudes-chronically-unhappy-people).
Second, a karmic act has an effect like itself: a good deed has positive consequences, and a bad deed, negative ones.
The idea of reincarnation is a natural accompaniment to that of karma, because to all appearances, not all consequences of an individual’s actions come to fruition in that person’s lifetime. According to the yogic tradition, there are three possibilities in this regard. The consequences:
1. Will take place gradually over many lifetimes;
2. Are latent until the circumstances are right;
3. Do not come to a fruition at all if the yogi has already liberated himself or herself from karma.
Eastern philosophy does not concentrate so much on isolated deeds. Instead, it focuses on the karmic balance, which is the total sum of all deeds, thoughts, and words in a lifetime. The total balance determines the conditions into which a soul is subsequently born, the life span, and the experiences the individual has to face.
Problems with Compensatory Karma
Näreaho (2008) poses one obvious issue about karma in the light of reincarnation: typically the current personality has no memory of past deeds, evil or not, but is still responsible for their consequences. Why should I suffer from what are, in effect, someone else’s mistakes? Even if the new personality is a reincarnation of the same self, it has no way of knowing why its karmic punishment takes place. The Western notion of justice holds that an individual, no matter how culpable, has the right to know why they are being punished. (On the other hand, not many are worried about whether or not they have earned their good fortune.)
One possible solution to this problem of identity is to propose that one does remember the past life in the intermediate state between death and rebirth and understands the reasons for the subsequent karmic consequences. Even so, the problem remains, as the new personality forgets everything it may have accepted before rebirth.
In this perspective, karma is not primarily a mechanism for a reward or punishment; instead, it is a cosmic principle of evolution. Evolutionary karma guides human beings and their development through repeated incarnations. The reasons for evolution and karma given in the philosophy of Sri Aurobindo (1872–1950) are explained on the website “Integral Yoga of Sri Aurobindo & the Mother”:
The goal of the Divine working through Nature is evolution— individual as well as collective. The Divine has plunged itself into Creation for self-delight and self-finding through the play of multiplicity. The goal of evolution is advanced through the law of Karma. . . . Suffering should not be viewed as the consequence of evil actions in some past life, but rather as a prod to progress, a reward for virtue, and a reminder that we are not yet reached [sic] the goal.
In Aurobindo’s thinking, the karmic process has a goal. In the course of spiritual evolution, the human being will eventually manifest divine values, which are as much a part of reality as the natural laws that are investigated by science. The evolutionary law of karma combines both the process of divine manifestation and the educational process of individual souls.
Näreaho (2002) poses another interesting question: what is it in human beings that develops? This question is closely associated with the issue of the justification of karmically caused suffering, which, as we have seen, can be framed as a question of personal identity.
Let us next discuss how Theosophy views karma, and how it answers Näreaho’s questions.
Theosophical Understanding of Karma
In Theosophy, karma is understood as a law of nature, as is illustrated in the following quote from H.P. Blavatsky:
There is the Karma of merit and the Karma of demerit. Karma neither punishes nor rewards, it is simply the one Universal LAW which guides unerringly, and, so to say, blindly, all other laws productive of certain effects along the grooves of their respective causations. (https://theosophy.wiki/en/Karma)
This passage seems to acknowledge that compensatory karma has some relevance in Theosophy, even though it is not understood in terms of punishment or reward. Moreover, Blavatsky emphasizes that good actions should not be motivated by a desire to accumulate good karma:
Let not the fruit of good Karma be your motive; for your Karma, good or bad, being one and the common property of all mankind, nothing good or bad can happen to you that is not shared by many others. Hence your motive, being selfish, can only generate a double effect, good and bad, and will either nullify your good action, or turn it to another man’s profit. (https://theosophy.wiki/en/Karma)
Both Theosophy and Eastern philosophy hold that inaction also has karmic consequences. For instance, one might think that a suffering person is simply enduring the results of their karma and that helping them would only interfere with the working out of their karma. Of course, if there is a cosmic law of karmic cause and effect, unjust suffering is simply impossible. At the same time, it is clearly not right to avoid helping someone if we can. Compassion and love urge us to help in any possible way, although, of course, this help can be provided wisely or not.
Indeed, one might contend that that there is no such thing as bad karma: all consequences are good in a sense that they help us to liberate us from our past mistakes. Consequently, the Finnish author and Theosophist Pekka Ervast (1875–1934) referred to suffering and hardship as “blessings in disguise.” Although it is not easy to appreciate this fact in practice, it can help one see life’s difficulties from a different perspective.
How, then, does karma work? Theosophy talks about the “Lords of Karma,” who are responsible for implementing karmic consequences at individual, group, national, and global levels. (One can only imagine how difficult a task it must be to adjust the karma of multitudes of beings.) This view appears to suggest that karma is not merely a blind law, since its execution requires the work of intelligent beings. In a way, everyday experience supports this interpretation, as many karmic incidents—pleasant and unpleasant alike—come one’s way through or in the form of other human beings.
Then again, karma can be considered to be a good law since it guarantees that no spiritual effort is lost. This is a key to spiritual development: although our present conditions are determined by karma, our future depends on our thinking and efforts now. Every positive thought, kind word, and compassionate deed will have an effect that will create a better future for the whole of humankind.
Theosophy enables us to see why even thoughts are important: they have their own energy, which affects both ourselves and others, since reality includes both visible and invisible realms (for example, the astral and mental planes).
Let us next turn to discussing the higher self, which ultimately carries karmic responsibility.
The Higher Self and Karma
According to Theosophy, the human being consists of a physical body with an etheric double, a soul, and a spirit, which is often called the higher self or inner self. The soul is more or less equivalent to the ordinary, mortal personality, whereas the higher self is immortal. Although the higher self represents eternal values, it is still undergoing the process of spiritual evolution. The goal is to become a servant of all life, filled with love and wisdom. Those who manage to fulfill this ideal are sometimes called perfect human beings or Masters. From this perspective, the Theosophical interpretation of karma corresponds exceedingly well with the notion of evolutionary karma.
Since the personality changes from one incarnation to another, it is mortal. Hence it does not reincarnate, except in rare cases, as is suggested by children who seem to remember their past lives (https://med.virginia.edu/perceptual-studies/our-research/children-who-report-memories-of-previous-lives/).
Does the higher self reincarnate, then? No, not until the point of initiation, that is, a union of the higher self and personality, which Eastern philosophy calls enlightenment. In the meantime, according to Theosophy, the higher self generates a new personality for each incarnation based on the totality of the individual’s karma. The higher self takes on the karmic responsibility through the personality it creates.
How does Theosophy respond to the criticism that it is unjust for the personality to be punished without knowing the karmic reason for it? It is merciful that we do not remember past lives, which probably involved evil committed by us and to us. If we knew our past lives, would we able to live without anger and bitterness? No doubt this knowledge would be too much to bear in our current state of development.
People often complain that they did not choose to be born. According to Theosophy, this is not the case at all. Pekka Ervast describes beautifully how the individuality, in its heavenly state, sees the new incarnation as an opportunity to become a better human being:
The new earthly life presents itself to us. We see what is waiting for us. We see that we must step down to earth and clothe ourselves in a new personality. We see the lesson we have to learn in this new life, and we kneel down in our spirit and are immensely grateful to life for the opportunity to go to the school [of life].
And his soul feels, “Now I want to try better than before to be pure, honest, and peaceful within myself. I want to be loving towards all beings,” and out of joy he makes a promise to God: “I will give my all, all!” (Marjanen et al., 2022, 92–93)
The higher self consciously accepts all its karma before birth, as the proponents of compensatory karma would suggest. But this acceptance is accompanied by a deep understanding of the evolutionary purpose of karma: the individual sees the rebirth and karma as cosmic grace—an opportunity to attain the ideal of the perfect human being.
Marjanen, Jouni, Savinainen, Antti, and Sorvali, Jouko (2017/2022). From Death to Rebirth: Teachings of the Finnish Sage Pekka Ervast. N.p.: Literary Society of the Finnish Rosy Cross. The printed version was published via BoD.fi in 2022. Free e-book is available on the Internet at
https://www.theosophy.world/resource/ebooks/death-rebirth-pekka-ervast. The audio version is available for free here: https://youtu.be/9yE4QrLY9v4.
Näreaho, Leo (2002). Rebirth and Personal Identity: A Philosophical Study on Indian Themes. PhD dissertation. Helsinki: Schriften der Luther-Agricola-Gesellschaft 53.
——. (2008). Karman rautaiset lait. [The iron laws of karma]. In Tapio Tamminen, ed. Guruja, joogeja ja filosofeja [Gurus, Yogis, and Philosophers]: 125–153. Juva: WSOY. [Not available in English.]
One thought on “Compensatory and Evolutionary Karma by Antti Savinainen”
Love seeing people who research posts and write more than a paragraph on a post. There is a lot of meat here. Wonder which variation of kharma tips in your favor for being thorough 🤔🤔🤔