In the Key to Theosophy, on page 161, the author uses a phrase which has been objected to on the ground that a strict construction of it overthrows the whole doctrine of Karma. The words referred to and the contiguous sentences are:
Our philosophy teaches that Karmic punishment reaches the Ego only in its next incarnation. After death it receives only the reward for the unmerited sufferings endured during its past incarnation.
The italicised portion is the part objected to, and the objection raised is that, if all that happens to us so happens because it is our Karma, then it cannot be unmerited: hence, either the statement is incorrect or Karma is not the law of justice, but there must be some other one governing man and the vicissitudes of his life.
Let us go further down the same page and see if some sentences in the same paragraph do not bear upon the meaning of the author. She says:
If it may be said that there is not a mental or physical suffering in the life of a mortal which is not the direct fruit and consequence of some sin in a preceding existence; on the other hand, since he does not preserve the slightest recollection of it in his actual life and feels himself not deserving of such punishment, and therefore thinks he suffers for no guilt of his own, this alone is sufficient to entitle the human soul to the fullest consolation, rest, and bliss in his post-mortem existence. Death comes to our spiritual selves ever as a deliverer and friend.
All students of theosophy known to me believe that Karma is the great governing law, that all suffering and reward come from and through Karma; and, as I understand from the published and unpublished views of H. P. Blavatsky, she holds the same opinion. Therefore, such being the case, what we have to enquire into is the meaning intended to be conveyed by the passages cited. There is no doubt whatever that the author of the Key agrees, except perhaps about hell, with the Buddhist priest who, writing several years ago in the Theosophist 1 upon this subject, said:
In this light Karma may be defined as . . . that irresistible force which drags the criminal into the hell fire amidst his loud lamentations, the powerful hand that rescues the wretch from the merciless hands of the infernal angels and takes him to a happier place for the amelioration of his miserable condition, or the heavenly angel who bears away, as it were, the enraptured soul to the blissful abodes above and takes it back after a very long course of heavenly enjoyments to this world, or to hell itself, paying little or no attention to the sorrowful tales of the reluctant soul.
Construing together the sentences in the paragraph from the Key to Theosophy, we find that she says, in effect, in the later sentences on the same page, that all suffering is the direct fruit and consequence of some sin committed in a previous existence, but that as the personality in the life when the suffering comes has no recollection of the cause which brought it about, the punishment is felt by that personality to be undeserved, and another cause is thus set up which has its action in the post mortem condition. The difficulty raised by the objection put is that the whole matter has been made objective, and Karma has been looked upon as a material or objective law, and the post mortem state placed in the same category. The true Ego neither suffers nor enjoys, and is not bound at any time by Karma; but as Devachan is a subjective condition in which the Ego therein creates for itself out of its own thoughts the surroundings fit for it, so we may say, without at all interfering with our conceptions of Karma, that after death this Ego receives the reward for the sufferings which it thought were unmerited in the life just quitted. The word “unmerited” as written in The Key is not to be construed as being used by any Karmic power, but as the conception formed by the Ego during life of the propriety or impropriety of whatever suffering may have been then endured.
For, as we have seen in other studies, Devachan–the post mortem state under consideration–is a condition wherein no objective experiences are undergone by the Ego, but in which the thoughts of a certain sort had during life act in producing about it, or rather within its sphere, the blissful subjective experiences necessary for the resting of the soul. Hence if when in the mortal frame it considered itself unjustly treated by fate or nature, it set up then and there the causes for bringing about a so-called reward for the suffering which to it seemed unmerited, just so soon as it would be released from the body and the causes be able to act in the only place or state which will permit their action.
This blissful state, as intimated in the quotation made from the Theosophist, is Karmic reward in the plane of Devachan. The “Karmic punishment” referred to in the Key is not the opposite of this, but is the opposite of Karmic reward acting on the plane of objective earth life. For the opposite of devachanic reward or bliss must be on a similar plane, such as the “hell” spoken of by the Buddhist priest, or Avitchi. If these distinctions are clearly borne in mind, there cannot be much difficulty with any of these questions.
To me Karma is not only judge, it is also friend and deliverer. It is essentially just. The conditions are laid down. If I comply, the result inevitably follows. It is my friend because it will, just as inevitably as life and death, give me a rest in devachan where the tired soul which needs recuperation as well as the body will find what is best for it. And a mere phrase like “unmerited suffering” invented by me in my ignorance here upon earth will be one of the factors used by this very Karma to bring about my peace and joy, albeit that still again inexorable Karma awaits me at the threshold of Devachan to mete out in my next appearance upon this terrestrial stage my just deserts. And thus on and ever on and upward we shall be led from life to life and stage to stage, until at last the conviction has become an inherent portion of our being that Karma is not only just but merciful.
1. Vol. 1, Theosophist, p. 199.