Thursday, April 9, 2015

Theosophical Karma as Toxic Synthesis

Moloch has a good article up discussing the concepts of karma and the "threefold law" as put forth by many Wiccans. I would expand that scope a bit, since the concept of karma he's talking about reaches much of the modern esoteric scene. For example, the vast majority of New Agers seem to subscribe to it as well, and their numbers are much larger than those of Wicca. Furthermore, a lot of modern witches eschew the concept entirely, or treat it as a guideline rather than a law.

Moloch covers how this concept of karma made its way into Western esotericism by way of Theosophy and how it doesn't actually make much sense and gets applied in silly ways. I agree with all of that. But let me be clear - I'm not writing this to denigrate the concept of karma as it actually exists in Eastern religions such as Buddhism. In fact, the Theosophical version of karma is entirely different. It's what I call a toxic synthesis, a combination of Eastern and Western ideas that results in something far worse than the principles that it combines.

In Buddhism, karma simply refers to the law of cause and effect. Buddhism teaches emptiness of phenomena as the key to avoiding attachment. But karma points out that, for example, even if you can "realize the emptiness" of a bus speeding towards you, it's still likely to kill you if you don't get out of the way. Likewise, you can "realize the emptiness" of polite social interaction, but if you treat other people badly they'll eventually decide that you're an asshole and start avoiding you. So this form of Buddhist karma is eminently practical. It has nothing to do with mysterious retribution wreaked by "the universe" for misdeeds.

That's where Theosophy comes in.

Theosophical thinkers basically decided that they could make karma better by combining it with the Christian idea of sin. This resulted in the form of karma that most Westerners talk about today. "I helped an old lady across the street yesterday, so today I got a bonus at work," or "I was upset and yelled at my kids yesterday, so today my car won't start." Unless the old lady you helped was a friend of your boss and put in a good word for you, or your kids went out and sabotaged your car after you yelled at them, there's no connection between these events. But a lot of New Agers would argue otherwise.

Theosophical karma works like a gloss over Christian sin. There's a list of good actions, and a list of evil ones. In conventional Christianity, believers contend that God rewards good actions in the afterlife and punishes evil ones. But this is softened by the concept of faith, which is also instrumental to salvation and allows for the forgiveness of sin. In Theosophical karma, good actions are rewarded with unrelated positive experiences and evil ones with unrelated negative experiences in the here and now, and the concept of forgiveness is nowhere to be found.

This sort of "karma" gives rise to the insidious belief that people who find themselves in bad circumstances have only themselves to blame, because if they were good people, "the universe" would be rewarding them instead of punishing them. Replace "the universe" there with "God," and the theological system you have is essentially the prosperity gospel, one of the worst corruptions of Christian teaching that exists in the modern world. It twists the message of Jesus who was very concerned with the plight of the poor into the assertion that the poor deserve their poverty and rich Christians deserve their riches.

New Agers have continued to tweak the concept, trying to work out how to explain it. That's a difficult problem, because it doesn't make much sense. The latest popular incarnation seems to be the "Law of Attraction," which tries to explain it using the mechanism that negative thoughts attract negative experiences and positive thoughts attract positive ones. But as I see it, the fact that thoughts are, by themselves, neither positive nor negative undermines this model considerably. Also, while thoughts can influence events, they do not control them in a deterministic fashion.

The other big problem with Theosophical karma is the idea that wrongdoers will be "prosecuted" by the natural course of events, and as such we don't need to take action against them. This is nothing more than an excuse for laziness. In reality, we are the agents of karma. Serial killers aren't struck down by lightning bolts out of the blue; they're apprehended by law enforcement, who act as agents of karma when they work at solving cases. Likewise, there are plenty of more common circumstances where sitting back and letting "the universe" take care of a problem is the worst thing you could possibly do.

In magick, references to Theosophical karma are particularly dumb. There's no reason why a harmful spell like a curse would "rebound" on the caster if performed correctly. If you don't use a proper containment structure to isolate you from your target it's possible that you could be affected by the spell as well, but the solution is not to start invoking karma, but rather the use of a proper containment structure. I rarely employ curses myself, but sometimes they are necessary - and I've never had one "rebound" on me.

Ethics are not technology. The failure to understand this is at the heart of both Theosophical karma and the "threefold law." As a magical practitioner, I don't throw curses around willy-nilly because I'm an ethical person, not because I'm afraid that God or "the universe" will punish me in some fashion. I see the latter as fundamentally cowardly and not particularly ethical at all. How ethical is it, really, to only refrain from harming others out of fear?

As with Christians who claim that without the fear of God they would be raping and murdering people, I can't respect anyone who would spend all their time hurting others if not for the threat of karmic retribution. Such individuals are not ethical people, just fearful ones.

Technorati Digg This Stumble Stumble


I. A. E. said...

Another idea that I frequently see bandied about is the idea that an inverted pentagram is automatically "Satanic", and therefore evil. Although the popular media are undoubtedly to blame, the idea in the broader Magical community may have stemmed from a note in Regardie's versions of the Pentagram Ritual and the Magic Sword; but even there, it hints that the inverted pentagram may have some obscure Magical use.

Aside from the fact that much of modern Wicca/Witchcraft is influenced heavily by the Golden Dawn, I can't see a reason why this idea would be picked up and held onto so strongly by Pagan practitioners.

(Even leaving aside its use, in a different context, in things like Reguli.)

Scott Stenwick said...

I believe that one comes from the original Golden Dawn system, in which inverted figures were never used. Apparently it survived into the 1930's and was published along with the rest of the GD material from that period by Regardie.

According to Crowley, the inverted pentagram represents spirit condensing into matter, so it is particularly suited for certain types of manifestation rituals. The upright pentagram, on the other hand, represents spirit ruling over matter, and is more suited to rituals involving direction and control.

I've never been involved in Wicca, but I thought I heard someplace that the inverted pentagram is used as a symbol for one of the degrees and is not considered "evil." I could be wrong about that, though.

siriusvoid said...

IMO Judeo/Christian 'Sin', like Buddhist 'Suffering' is an (often unintended) consequence.. or side effect caused by our activity in the worlds of thought, word(emotive energy), and physical deed.. An indirect and ultimately undesirable alteration to the phenomenological 'assemblage' of experience we, as 'self', come to identify with. 'self grasping' born of ignorance, and it's concomitant/resultant pain... We,(even Buddhists) continue to seek a 'remedy'.. consulting any and every 'owners manual', and trouble-shooting guide we happen upon to assist us in repairing, and/or augmenting a machine that simply doesn't exist... Never did.. Never will. - Not saying reality doesn't exist.. Just that our greatest inventions.. Our best thinking and acting are simply ways of avoiding, rather than accommodating truth.
The cure all religions in common have for sin/suffering is REPENTENCE (Stop Doing That!)... Until that 'holy jumping off place' of repentence is reached, 'Plenary Indulgence' is offered, in the form of 'reframing' erroneous POVs, and redirecting one's footsteps, perchance to divert us away from a headlong dive straight into the burning/freezing crannies of hell... Reciting scripture.. Sacrifice (God forbid even self sacrifice as in the case of one notable 'so called' Christian).. Austerities.. Prayers.. Mantras.. Anything at all.. just please... Stop Doing That! Christians and Buddhists alike say we were each and all born into a WORLD of sin.. While Christians and Jews can blame gullible Eve and her erstwhile side-kick 'What's his name'.. Oh yeah.. A-Dumb (just kidding ADM) who got us all booted out of the Garden of delights.. Buddhists and Hindus simply consider it to be the plight faced by all born beings in the jungles of Samsara.. I like that Jesus said 'pay back what you owe, and stop behaving wrongly, or things won't go well for you.. Moses too tried to warn.. Sage advice. At least they offered to cut out the middle man (Priest) who, as we all know will charge you both coming and going. I also like that Buddha said as human beings, even though we are as lazy, ignorant, and 'off the mark' of all beings of any in creation, perhaps we can find a way to use this flaw of 'endless suffering' to our advantage.. Perhaps we can become 'sin'cerely 'dead'icated... Motivated to awaken to the Dharma in spite of these drawbacks.

Scott Stenwick said...

Just as a point, the Christian term repentance as used in the English translation of the Gospels does NOT mean "stop doing that," at least not in the original Greek. The Greek word is metanoia, which has at its roots meta, meaning above/beyond, and nuos, meaning mind. It does not include the connotation of redress for past wrongs, or anything related to behavior. The word has a lot more in common with the Buddhist term bodhichitta, which means something akin to "awakened mind," than it does with the English "repentance."

The translation error actually happened when the original Greek was translated into Latin. In the vulgate, metanoia is translated as paenitentia, which is the root of the English repentance and has the same connotation. But that connotation was introduced during the translation and was not part of the original text. While it is true that a person with an awakened mind does generally behave differently than a person limited by conventional awareness, the point is not to stop doing "bad stuff." The point is to do spiritual practices and awaken your mind.

This distinction was at the heart of the Protestant Reformation. Luther's concept of "justification by faith" is a lot closer to the original meaning of metanoia than the idea of indulgences and so forth being promulgated by the Roman church of the time. The reason the distinction is important is that people who misunderstand it may think that they can be "saved" so long as they don't do anything on the "bad list" of sins. But if you never awaken your mind, it doesn't matter how virtuous your actions may outwardly appear.

This gets even more insidious when fundamentalists try to bring it into the political arena. I'm convinced that much of the opposition to things like same-sex marriage and contraception are rooted in the idea that "sin," as an action, is in some way contagious. That is, no matter how much effort an individual puts into not sinning, they still can be "contaminated" by the mere presence of someone else who does not share their beliefs behaving "badly." This idea is employed as a justification for Christians who want to take over the government and make sure that non-Christians are relegated to the position of second-class citizens.

Anonymous said...

As i christian I find fearing God the most stupid concept ever tought by the church. It's one of the things that made me turn my back to religion at an early age and to start finding my own answers. I can go on by saying that it is a means by which the people were controlled for centuries. For example, the king was considered God's chosen ruler, so he needed to be feared and obeyed also. The Pope is another example of a figure chosen by God and we've seen the mass hysteria a pope visit generates in mostly chatolic countries.

The fear of God could also come from the fear of Saturn, as Saturn represents the Lord of Karma. I'm this current lifetime a human is unaware of his/her deeds in past lifes, so is also unaware of the consequences those deeds will have generated for the current lifetime. I guess this fear of the unknown generates the fear of God. Also, many people have adopted Job's "God giveth..." like for everything unexpected that they had faced over the course of time.

Scott Stenwick said...

Personally I am not convinced at all that the idea of "past life karma" is really a thing. To me it sounds more like just-world nonsense designed to make people think that they couldn't get away with bad behavior - when they totally could. Religions know that to have political power, they have to control peoples' behavior. So I find any idea that clearly was instituted for that reason suspicious at best.

Here's an example of the what I think is the same thing in Christianity. Christianity teaches that once you are saved, that's it - your sins are forgiven. So why would anybody in their right mind NOT just convert on their deathbed and not worry about their conduct over the course of their life? St. Augustine did, for example.

The problem there is that it gives the church no real power to shame people for their behavior. So the Catholic Church invented "Purgatory," a totally non-scriptural place that makes sure anybody who converts on their deathbed gets punished anyway. That led to indulgences, and indulgences led to the Protestant Reformation - so it wasn't as winning a strategy as it first appeared to be.

Likewise, in the Asian religions that talk about karma and reincarnation, if you know that you're going to die, why not just do bad stuff? You're going to be dead soon anyway, on to the next life, hitting the reset switch, and so forth. The only way to stop that is to insist that "karma" will follow you into the next life and punish you there. But does it really?

In my opinion, if we are going to assume reincarnation happens (of which I can't be sure), the only thing that you really carry from one life to the next is the spiritual aspect of your being. You'll have a stronger soul in your next life if you did spiritual practices and built it up. But that's about it. So the only "karma" that has much of an effect is the karma of doing diligent spiritual practice versus doing anything else.

A number of traditional sins can be thought of in this way - if your entire focus is on attaining material advantage over others in whatever way, especially without any regard for ethical considerations, it's very likely to become an all-consuming pursuit. So it keeps you from practicing and gaining the corresponding benefits, but that's really about it from a mystical or spiritual standpoint. But that's a far cry from "fearing God" because he's going to torture you for everything bad thing you've done.

Anonymous said...

I totally get what you're saying. Unfortunately I'm writing on my phone and it makes it more difficult for me to formulate my ideas more clearly, because I constantly need so check for autocorrect typos.

What I mean by past life actions was not I the way you understood it. Althought I'm not blaming you for doing so. It was my fault that I wasn't explicit enough. I wasn't refering to the fact that if a person is a total asshole, s/he would suffer in the next life for it. I was also refering that the Soul will be getting stronger with each lifetime. But for this to happen and one to keep moving forward on the path to finally reunite with the divine/spirit/God, I think that the Soul needs to enrich itself with alot of experiences from multiple perspectives. Failing to accept the new perspective it needs to keep moving forward would result in a shit storm. This is because Saturn (as part of the Spirit/God/Man-God in my view) demands that the soul which spirit created for itself to explore the Kingsom/Malkuth, would move on to other areas of this material life with seemingly endless possibilities of being lived/felt/experienced.

Take me for instance. From what I've come across from studying karmic astrology, in my past life I always put other's needs above my own and I served them, while neglecting me. There must have come a time when that had to be ended and to move on, but my conscious mind in those lifetimes must have kept going the wrong way. That resulted in me getting slapped hard this current lifetime, just to realize my individualism. For instance, I couldn't even imagine/visualize myself looking thorough my own eyes before. When I pictured me doing something, I only saw myself from outside my body, as ridiculous as it might seem for a normal person.

The signs were there, but i didn't understand them until recently. I'm a Gemini (dual nature), I have Saturn (retrograde - karmic debt) in the 1st house, opposing the Sun in the 7th house. So I was hard for me to come to terms with myself in this lifetime. I have Lolith in he 7th, loosely conjunct the Sun and opposite Saturn. That brought me nothing but trouble from other people, even if I acted nicely to them, as I previously had some in my past lifes. Saturn wants me to be an asshole more and to stop caring for others that much. At least this Saturn return made me understand the lessons :)

So that's the perspective I was talking about when I said that people didn't know what yet did in their past lifes.

Anonymous said...

I guess I'll just have to live with these typos.

And to further make my point, I've learned from the spiritual causes of diseases that bad teeth are the result of not saying what you feel at certain times, and keeping it in you against your will. As a result of me not wanting to hurt others in my past lifes, I ended up growing multiple rows of baby teeth which needed several surgeries when i was between 6 and 8 yoa - first Saturn square. Saturn also ruled bones and teeth so I guess i got kicked in the teeth hard :) What followed was a long and painful existence due to dental problems, because I kept in my past lifes comfort zone (SN in Libra 29th degree). This resulted in yet another surgery just before Saturn opposite, because a cist had developed in the region of my previous surgeries.

I'm the other hand, most people always either rejected me or were mean to me. This changed when I acted like a dick, but when I began a ring nice again, they started acting mean again. Also, before I got to you and Birch Tree (youtube) nobody wanted to answer my questions regarding anything and I was left to find my own answers. I think that meeting you guys, even if not in person, was the result of me starting to understand Saturn's karmic lessons and becoming to move on.

So that's my view on karma :)

Scott Stenwick said...

That is a little different than what I thought you were saying, but I still am skeptical that behavior in a past life would lead to having bad teeth in this one. It could be related to something like the position of Saturn in your natal chart, but I have never seen any verifiable evidence that your current natal chart and your past lives are related.

I know that some modern astrologers try to bring that in, but it is a relatively new development that corresponded with the rise of Theosophy in the late 1800's. Prior to that, Renaissance and Medieval astrology made no references to past lives at all. And there are various problems with Theosophy, including the very model of karma that I criticize in this article.

I don't mean to sound closed-minded about this - if there's data suggesting otherwise I'm willing to consider it. But so far I haven't seen much beyond relatively recent subjective speculation.

Anonymous said...

My natal Saturn is in 5 degrees (+ some minutes) Sagittarius. This would have resulted in problems with my upper legs/femurs if it would have followed the traditional body part correspondences.

I'm not questioning your view on the Theosophical Society's vision of karma. I didn't study their doctrines, so I'llhave to take your word for it. I'm just saying that there has to be something to take into consideration with karmic stuff. Again, I think it's about the soul failing to move on and adapt to the new environments and sticking to the old ones instead. Or else why would Uranus (revolution) be beyond Saturn (routine)? And Neptune and Pluto also. You might say that they refer to collectives, not the individual, but society is made up of individuals and societies changes once individuals start to change. I might sound like a New Ager in this :)

I think that astrology has also progressed throughout the centuries, just like magick has and it has come up with more information worthy to look into.

I've seen people born around the same time as myself also having about the same challenges in life as I had. I didn't know it back then, but they were also miserable for failing to act more towards their NN in Aries and were still stuck in their SN Libra.

I don't think you're gonna find any proof, because it has to do with the subjective experience of each individual.

You could look up your Lunar Nodes in your chart, see what karmic astrology says about them and cross check with your own life.