REPENTANCE AND KARMA
There are two influential doctrines which could color the attitude of the student of Theosophy towards the concept of true repentance. Both doctrines contain a germ of truth, but in their extreme formulations they are false and pernicious, dangerous distortions. One is the fatalistic doctrine of mechanical repentance, tied to a severely formal view of punishment. We have the notion that the only way in which we can expiate our sins of omission and commission is by receiving in the future the precise penalties attached to our acts, that there can be no repentance which mitigates our penalties. We may say to a sinner, "You have done wrong; you may regret your action and you may try to learn the lesson of your failure, but you cannot avoid the consequences of your act in the future; your Karma is bound to catch up with you sometime and you must be ready to receive your penalties." The other doctrine is that of sudden repentance, sometimes linked to the idea of vicarious atonement. We have here the notion that it is possible by profound regret and a dramatic act of confession and self-abasement to set aside the inexorable working of the law of Karma. We may say to a sinner, "You have sinned, yet you need not be oppressed by the thought of your future penalties; you can here and now cancel the consequences of your past sins; you can invoke the compassion of the Illustrious Beings who are the Great Guardians of the Law; you can implore the forgiveness and the blessing of the God within you." Which is worse a too mechanical or a too lax interpretation of the Law of Karma? What is true repentance?
In order to answer these questions we could usefully turn to the story of Ajamila in Book VI of the Bhagavatam. By means of stories from the lives of prophets and kings, sages and devotees, this great scripture popularizes the truths contained in the Vedas. It would be easy to draw the wrong lessons from these stories or to read into them our own preconceptions. Every story must be seen as a corrective to a prevailing error or a half-truth concerning morality, salvation and the spiritual life. There are the well-known stories about Narada, Kapila, Dhruva and Prahlada and several stories about Sri Krishna. This fascinating work was composed by Vyasa, who handed it down to Suka, who in turn passed it on to King Parikshit, from whose court it was subsequently transmitted by saintly minstrels.
The story of Ajamila is briefly as follows. He was a man who married a woman of evil ways and became very dishonest, an easy prey to wicked and sinful habits. Of his ten sons, his favorite was the youngest named Narayana. One day, when Ajamila thought he was dying, he was terror-stricken by the sight of three ugly, demonlike attendants of the King of Death. He called his son Narayana, but as he uttered the name his mind became wholly concentrated on Narayana or Vishnu, the Lord of Love. While he was thus intently meditating upon God, there appeared before him the attendants of Lord Vishnu who confronted the attendants of Death. The latter asked the former why they were preventing the Law from taking its course. As a man sows, so must he reap, they said. Man is subject to the three Gunas and his present life shows plainly his past as well as his future. His deeds leave their impressions on his subtle body and these impressions control his actions, and his future life is determined by all his present deeds. Ajamila was in his early youth, the attendants of Death reminded the attendants of Vishnu, a devout and truthful man, self-controlled, well versed in the scriptures, a friend to all beings and creatures. But one day, while in the woods gathering flowers for worship, he was aroused by the sight of a lustful couple, lost all control of himself, became greatly attached to the woman who was a wanton, forsook his lawful wife for her and gave up the pure life that he had been living. He wasted his entire fortune trying to please this woman and began to employ dishonest means to earn his living. He was now about to die in all his sins, to be taken to the King of Death who would punish him justly, and the suffering he would undergo could purify him.
The attendants of Vishnu replied that Ajamila had expiated all his sins by uttering the name of God and surrendering himself to the Lord. Wrongdoing is not eradicated or expiated, they said, if the mind continues to follow wicked desires, but when the name of God and the love of God have purified the heart all sins are completely destroyed. The mere name of God has power to save even the most depraved. On hearing all this, the attendants of Death went away and Ajamila regained his consciousness and gradually got back his health. He felt that he had received a great blessing perhaps owing to a few good deeds stored up from his past, and his whole life seemed to be transformed. He gave up his evil ways, renounced his home, practised Yoga for many years, attained self-control, and his mind became firmly fixed in the contemplation of the Divine Self. When death finally came to him, he gave up his body while chanting the sacred name of God and absorbed in meditation, thus freeing himself from the bondage of Karma.
In the preamble to this story we are told that if a man commits sinful acts which he does not expiate in this life, he must pay the penalty in the next life and his suffering will be great. Expiation and repentance are of no avail to a man who continues to commit sinful acts knowing them to be harmful. All sinful thoughts and evil deeds are caused by ignorance and true expiation comes from illumination. The fire of spiritual knowledge consumes all evil and ignorance, and complete transformation of the inner life is accomplished by following and living the Truth and through the development of the love of God. Even the most sinful man is purified if he surrenders himself to the God of Love and with whole-souled devotion serves his devotees. The path of love is the simplest way by which to free ourselves from sin. Death is conquered and the fear of death is overcome by meditation upon Krishna, the God of Love. This message and the illustrative story of Ajamila seem to imply that a man can, by intense and sudden repentance, earn for himself the right to expiate his sins through prolonged meditation and devotion in this life, even freeing himself from the bonds of Karma. It would also seem that such a view is contradictory to the doctrine of exact and inexorable Karmic retribution. What is the teaching of Theosophy on the subject?
W.Q.Judge has explained that "Karma is a doctrine too vast and complicated to be disposed of by set rules applied like balance-sheets to commercial enterprises; but one thing is certain Karma is action viewed from every side and on each occasion." In his article entitled "Is Karma Only Punishment?" he points out that one branch of the Law of Karma deals with the vicissitudes of life, with the differing states of men, with rewards and punishments. Each state is the exact result bound to come from acts that disturb or preserve the harmony of nature. Karmic rewards work both on the material plane and on the inner character, on the circumstances and on the tendencies of the person placed in a particular environment. We are continually fitting our arrows to the bow and shooting them forth, but it is not the arrow or the bow that counts. The important thing is the motive and the thought with which the missile is shot. Again, in his article on "Environment," Mr. Judge explains that the real environment to be understood and cared about is that in which Karma itself inheres in us. It is only because we see but an infinitesimal part of the long series of Karmic precipitations that any apparent confusion or difficulty arises.
The third aphorism on Karma points out that "Karma is an undeviating and unerring tendency in the Universe to restore equilibrium, and it operates incessantly." Aphorism No. 6 states that "Karma is not subject to time, and therefore only those who know the ultimate division of time in this Universe know Karma." Aphorism No. 13 holds that the effects of Karmic causes already set in motion "may be counteracted or mitigated by the thoughts and acts of oneself or of another." Further, we know from Aphorism No. 19 that "changes may occur in the instrument [of the Ego] during one life so as to make it appropriate for a new class of Karma," and this may take place through intensity of thought and the power of a vow and through natural alterations due to complete exhaustion of old causes. Aphorism No. 20 tells us that the soul and mind and body "have each a power of independent action," so that "any one of these may exhaust, independently of others, some Karmic causes." Aphorism No. 25 makes it clear that "birth into any sort of body and to obtain the fruits of any sort of Karma is due to the preponderance of the line of Karmic tendency." Aphorism No. 27 asserts that "measures taken by the Ego to repress tendency, eliminate defects, and to counteract by setting up different causes, will alter the sway of Karmic tendency and shorten its influence in accordance with the strength or weakness of the efforts expended in carrying out the measures adopted." Finally, Aphorism No. 28 affirms that "no man but a sage or true seer can judge another's Karma."
The section on Karma in Light on the Path similarly presents an occult rather than a mechanistic conception of Karma. We learn that the future is not arbitrarily formed by any separate acts of the present but that the whole of the future is in unbroken continuity with the present as the present is with the past. Even a little attention to occultism produces great results. When a man gives up the indecision of ignorance, even one definite and knowing step on the good or evil path produces great Karmic results.
This is precisely what Ajamila did. He learned that there was no cure for desire, for the fear of death or the thought of reward and punishment save in the fixing of the sight and hearing upon that which is invisible and soundless. He freed himself from the bonds of Karma only by fixing his whole attention on that which is unaffected by Karma. If Ajamila was able to invoke the name and the love of God on the approach of death, this must have been because he did not allow his misdeeds to corrupt his inner consciousness or to destroy the line of his ideation in his early life and in previous lives. Ajamila's repentance may seem to us to be sudden or even easy, but this is precisely where we are mistaken. It is only a highly evolved soul who can refrain from rationalization even when he falls into a nightmare of wrongdoing, who can bring total intensity to his thought of his Higher Self and the God of Love. It is because we are not in a position to know the entire Karmic sequence in the lives of Ajamila, it is because we do not see that part of his Karma was working through his finer tendencies developed over a long period, that we look upon his dramatic conversion as an easy way of expiation and a setting aside of the Law of Karma.
Many people take a crudely materialistic view of Karma and cannot come closer to its profoundly mysterious workings on the subjective planes of consciousness. Every human being has within himself the Karma-less fount of being, the Guardian and the Divine Parent who is a spectator of Karma but is untouched by it. Mere personal repentance is of no avail and cannot expiate our sins or free us from the effects of our actions. True repentance must belong to our deepest natures, must clearly reveal the root cause of our betrayal of the divine within us, the crucifixion of the God within. Spiritual conversion or resurrection is only possible if we cease to identify ourselves with our personal sheaths while assuming full responsibility for their scars, and if we whole-heartedly activate our vesture of immortality by sacrificial tapas and regenerative meditation. It is a mistake to isolate sinful acts or acts of repentance if we wish to grasp the working of the Law of Karma on the invisible as well as the objective planes of being.