Annie Besant 1847 - 1933
From “Theosophy” by Annie Besant
The object of Man’s assumption of bodies – Incarnation – has already been explained; we have seen that his three higher bodies form his permanent clothing, and that they grow and increase with the unfolding of his consciousness. We have seen also that the three lower bodies are temporary, existing through a definite life-cycle, spent by him in three worlds – the earth, the intermediate world, and heaven; with his return to the earth he assumes new bodies, and this is Reincarnation. The necessity for this lies in the comparative density of the matter of which the lower worlds are composed; the bodies made of this can only grow and expand within certain limits, far narrower than those which belong to the subtler bodies; stretched beyond these, by the constant unfolding of consciousness, they lose their elasticity, and can no longer be used; moreover, they grow old by this constant stretching, and wear out.
When the consciousness, at the end of a cycle of growth, has definitely established itself in its new stage of evolution, it needs new bodies shaped for the expression of its enhanced powers. If this were not arranged for in the Plan we should be like children enclosed in iron armour, and stunted in their growth by its non-expansiveness. Children “grow out of their clothes”, and we give them new ones; we grow out of our bodies, and are given new ones by our father, the LOGOS.
The method is simple enough; a seed of divine consciousness is sown in the soil of human life; nourished by that soil, which is experience, stimulated by the sunshine of joy, expanded by the rain of sorrow, it swells and burgeons out into plant, flower, and fruit, until it attains the likeness of the parent tree. Put without metaphor: a human Spirit, a germinal life, enters the babe of a savage; he has scarcely any intelligence, no moral sense; he lives there for some forty or fifty years, dominated by desires, robs, murders, finally is murdered.
He passes into the intermediate world, meets many old enemies, suffers, sees dimly that his body was murdered as a result of murdering others, comes to a vague conclusion unfavourable to murder; this is very faintly impressed on his consciousness; he enjoys the results of any dawning love he may have felt; he comes back a trifle more :knowledgeable” than at his first birth. This is repeated over and over again, till he has gradually but definitely arrived at conclusions that murder and theft an other such actions cause unhappiness, and love and kindness cause happiness; he has thus acquired a conscience, and it is easily overborne by any strong desire.
The interval between births is at first very short, but it gradually lengthens, as his thought-power increases, until the regular round of the three worlds is established; in the first he gathers experience; in the second he suffers for his mistakes; in the third he enjoys the outcome of his good thoughts and emotions, and here also he worked the whole of his good mental and moral experiences into mental and moral faculties; in this heavenly world, further, he studies his past life, and his sufferings, due to his mistakes, bring him knowledge, and thus power. “Every pain that I suffered in one body became a power which I wielded in the next”. [ Edward Carpenter, Towards Democracy, “The Struggle of Man with Satan”.] His stay in the third world increases in length and richness of yield as he progresses.
At last he approaches the term of his long pilgrimage; he enters the Path, passes through the great Initiations, and reaches human perfection. [See Section IV, “The Path to Perfection and Divine Men”.] For him, Reincarnation is over, for he has spiritualised matter for his own use, and while he may wear it, it cannot blind or rule him.
Looking at this long-turning wheel of Births and Deaths, a man may feel a sense of weariness. But it must be remembered that each life-period is new to the one living through it; by a wise arrangement, a man down here forgets his past, at least until he is strong enough to bear its weight, and as Goethe said rejoicingly, we “return bathed” and fresh. There is no sense of weariness in the child, joyously springing out to meet his new life, but a sense of glad vitality, of eager enjoyment, of ever-fresh delights. A way-worn soul, entering into a child’s body, weighed down by the memory of past struggles and blunders, of loves and hates, would be a poor exchange for the gladness of healthy childhood.
Every life is a new opportunity, and if we have wasted one life, we have always “another chance”. Reincarnation is essentially a Gospel, good news, for it makes an end of despair, encourages effort, cheers with the proclamation of final success, and ensures the permanence of every fragment, every seed, of good in us, and time enough for the least evolved to flower into perfection.
Its value as an explanation of life is untold. The criminal, the lowest and vilest, the poorest, foulest specimen of our race, is only a baby-soul, coming into a savage body, and thrown into a civilisation for which he is unfit if left to follow his own instincts, but which will provide for him a field of rapid evolution if his elders take him in hand and guide him firmly and gently. He is now at the stage at which the average commonplace men were standing a million years or so years ago, and he will evolve in the future as they have evolved in the past.
There is no partiality shown to those who are situated differently from him; there is only difference of age. The inborn inequality in men need no longer distress us – the inequality between the splendidly shaped and the cripple, the healthy and the diseased, the genius and the fool, the saint and the criminal, the hero and the coward. True, they are born thus, and bring with them into the world these inequalities which they cannot transcend. But they are either much younger in experience, or have built themselves as they are under the laws of nature; every weakness will disappear in time, opportunity after opportunity will come to them, every height is open to them to climb with the strength necessary for its scaling.
The knowledge of Reincarnation guides us, as we shall see in Section V., in dealing with social problems. It shows us also how the social instincts have evolved, why self-sacrifice is the law of evolution for man, how we may plan out our own future evolution under natural laws. It teaches us that qualities evolved from earthly experience are returned to earth for the service of man, and how every effort brings its full result under unerring law. By giving him sufficient time, it puts into man’s hands the power to make his destiny as he wills, and to create himself after his ideals. It points to a future of ever-growing power and wisdom, and rationalises our hope of immortality. It makes the body the instrument of the Spirit instead of his owner, and removes the fear that as the Spirit required a physical body in order to come into existence at birth, he is likely to perish when deprived of that body by death. As Hume said, it is only theory of immortality that the philosopher can look upon.
Memory of past
lives has its seat in the Intellect not in the Mind, in the permanent
individual not in the mortal person. We saw in
We are in the habit of regarding Reincarnation from the viewpoint of the mortal nature of man, and thus seeing a succession of lives, which we describe as “reincarnations”. But it might sometimes be well to consider the question from the viewpoint of the Eternal Man, the Monad manifesting as the triple Spirit. Thus looked at, reincarnation disappears, unless we say that a tree reincarnates with each spring when it puts out a new crop of leaves, or a man reincarnates when he puts on a new coat. This personality, which looms so large down here, is only a new set of leaves, or a new coat.
The Man knows himself as one Man all through, with an unbroken continuity of consciousness, with a single identity, and an uninterrupted memory. The days of his mortal life have for him no more weariness than the long succession of mortal days have for our consciousness working through the physical body; we rise in the morning and go forth to interests ever renewed, and each new day brings its own pleasures and pains which we live through with zest.
The fact that our physical body is always changing does not trouble us a bit; we are the same, inside it. And so, in the larger life, we are the same, the ever-living, ever-working Spirits. When we realise this, pain and weariness drop away, for we see them as belonging to that which is not ourselves. To stand in the fixed centre, and to look at the whirling wheel from there, is very refreshing and very useful. If any of my readers feel tired, I would invite them to seek for awhile this Place of Peace.
THE LAW OF ACTION AND REACTION
Reincarnation is carried on under the Law of Action and Reaction – Karma. The word Karma means action, and we have seen above that every action is a triplicity. The Hindū , who has studied psychology for thousands of years, analyses action as made up of three factors: will [or desire] draws the mental energies together and directs them towards accomplishment; the act itself takes form in the mental world. It is then ready for manifestation, and is, as it were, pressing outwards towards embodiment; it is thrown out into the physical world, when the thinker can create an opportunity by his willpower, or when an opportunity presents itself.
It is then precipitated as a visible act. The whole process is regarded by the Hindū as a triple unity, and he calls it “Karma”, action. The clear understanding of this is needed for the grasping of the three subsidiary laws which affect our future destiny.
But first it is necessary to realise that karma is a law of nature, and not an arbitrary enactment which may be changed at will, and that it brings about results, but does not reward or punish. A law of nature is not a command, but a relation, an invariable sequence. It does not reward or punish, but yields invariable, and therefore foreseeable, results.
It may be stated generally as follows: Where A and B are in a certain relation to each other, C will follow. Suppose we object to C; we must keep A and B out of that relation. Nature does not say: “You must have C”. ------You must have it, if A and B are in a certain relation to each other; but if you can keep A and B out of that relation by any device – by the interposition of some force, some obstacle – C will not appear. Hence the better we understand Nature, the more we can have our own way in the midst of her laws; every law of Nature is an enabling force to the man of understanding, though a compelling force to the ignorant; we are perfectly free to balance these forces against each other, to neutralise those which are against our purpose while we leave free to act those only which will accomplish it. It was truly said: “Nature is conquered by obedience”. The ignorant man is her slave and her plaything; the man of knowledge is her conqueror and her king.
Karma is a Law of Nature; it compels the ignorant, but it gives freedom to the wise. The three subsidiary expressions of it that bear most on our destiny are: “Thought builds character”; “Desire attracts its object, and creates opportunity for grasping it”; “Action causes a favourable or unfavourable environment according as it has brought happiness or unhappiness to others”.
 We have already seen the first, in dealing with thought-power; anyone who chooses to spend five minutes regularly every morning in steady thought on any virtue which he does not possess will find that virtue – after a time the length of which depends on the steadiness and strength of his thought – showing itself forth in his character.
 a strong and firm wish brings about its own accomplishment; this is very often seen within the limits of a single life; a review of several successive lives places the existence of the law beyond doubt.
 Those who make others happy, reap happiness for themselves ; happiness is found by not seeking it, and ever eludes those who grasp at it most passionately. Most strongly does this, again, come out in reviewing a succession of lives; the man who has caused widespread happiness is born into prosperous circumstances, while the man who has caused unhappiness appears in an unfortunate environment. But so exactly does the law work – “Thought builds Character” – that is he has caused the happiness from a selfish motive his selfishness will result in a nature which is itself miserable, even when surrounded by all that should make life pleasant:
“Though the Mills
of God grind slowly yet they grind exceedingly small;
Though He stands and waits with patience, with exactness grinds He all”.
Karma being the result, at any given time, of all the thoughts , desires and actions of the past, manifested in our character, our opportunities, and our environment, it limits our present: If we are mentally dull, we cannot suddenly become brilliant; if we have few opportunities, we cannot always create them; if we are crippled, we cannot be hale. But as we created, so can we change it; and our present thoughts, desires and actions are changing our future Karma day by day. Moreover, it is well to remember, especially if we are facing a coming disaster, that the Karma behind us is as mixed as our present thoughts, desires and actions.
A review of any day will show that it contains some good thoughts and some bad, some noble desires and some base, some kindly actions and some unkindly. Each kind has its full effect, the good making good Karma and the bad making bad. Hence when we face misfortune we have behind us a stream of force which will aid us in turning it aside, and another which weakens us. One of these may be overwhelmingly strong, helping or hindering us; if so, our present effort will play but a small part in the result; but very often the two forces are fairly equally balanced, and a strong present effort will turn the scale. A knowledge of Karma should thus strengthen effort, not paralyse it – as unfortunately is sometimes the case with those whose knowledge is very small. It must never be forgotten that Karma, being a law of Nature, leaves us just as much freedom as we are able to take. To talk of “interfering with Karma” is to talk nonsense, except in the sense that one may talk of interfering with gravity.
In that sense we may interfere with both just as much as we can. If our muscles are weak from fever, we may be unable to walk upstairs against gravitation; but if we are strong, we can run up gaily, defying gravitation to keep us in the hall below. So with Karma. Once more, Nature does not command anyone to do one thing or another; she lays down invariable conditions under which things can, or cannot, be done. It is for us to find out the conditions which will enable us to succeed, and then all her forces work with us and accomplish our desires. “Yoke your wagon on to “, said Emerson, and then the force of the star will draw your wagon to the place where you will have it.
One other practical point is of grave importance. We may in the past have made some special karmic force for evil so strong that we are unable to overbear it by any force we can bring to bear against it today. Under such circumstances we are driven to do wrong, even when we wish to do right, and feel ourselves to be as helpless as a straw driven before the wind.
Never mind. We still have resources. When the temptation to evil comes, we may meet it in one of two ways. Feeling that we must yield, we may yield supinely, and thus forge another link in the deadly chain of evil habit. But the knower of Karma says: “I have created this hateful weakness by countless yieldings to low desire; I set against it the higher form of desire, my Will, and I refuse to yield”. Battling against temptation, the man is forced surely back, step by step, until he falls over the precipice, and yields in act, though not in will.
To the eye of the world, he has fallen, a helpless victim in a hopeless slavery. To the eye of the knower of Karma, he has, by his gallant struggle,, filed away much of the chain that is still round his limbs; a few more such “ failures" and the chain will snap, and he will be free. A habit made by many wrong desires cannot be destroyed by one effort of right desire, except in those rare cases in which the God within awakes, and with one touch of the fiery spiritual Will burns up the chains. Such cases of “conversion” are on record, but most men tread the longer path.
The more we understand Karma, the more it becomes a power in our hands, instead of a power which binds them. Here, perhaps more than anything else, “knowledge is power”.
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