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Karma and the Victorian Mind

Sep 20, 1997 12:04 PM
by Drpsionic

The biggest problem in dealing with the idea of karma in the context of the
Theosophical Society is the lack of understanding of the time In which the TS
adopted it.  You have to remember that these were VICTORIANS and they had a
very particular view of the world that we of the end of the 20th century
simply do not share becuase our experiences are so much different.

First, good victorians had a real problem with doubt.  Now that make no sense
to us at all, because we have a problem with people who don't doubt.  We
consider them to be idiots or new agers or worse.  The good victorian, on the
other hand lived in a world of certainties and when one certainty bit the
dust he had to run off and find a new one real quick or develop one of those
complexes that that odd Dr. Freud was talking about and betake himself to an

Well, the victorians found themselves with a serious problem becuase one of
their most cherished certainties, the concept of eternal damnation for anyone
who did not behave like a good victorian was heading for the dustbin of
history.  This created a serious problem, because if people did not have
something to be afraid of, they might start doing all sorts of terrible
things, like having sex and drinking.  Again, pretty silly stuff to us, but
not to them.  To the victorians this was serious business.

The Theosophists figured they had the solution.  They stole the idea of karma
from the Orient and put their own little gloss on it in the hope that it
would inspire people to act like good victorians and give up sex and meat and
drink only temperance beverages.

Fortunately for civilization, they failed.  Because not only was hell
delivered to the trash bin, but no one with any sense bought into the karma
thing either. (One of the features of second-stage Theosophists, 1900-1930,
is that they seemed totally bereft of any common sense.) They were too busy
having fun.  Freed of the shackles of one superstition, they were not about
to adopt another one.

The other problem with the victorians was they had an idea of law that is
peculiar to their time.  They thought of law in near mystical terms,
something that transcended mortals, only in spiritual, but in temporal terms.
 They took the idea of immutable laws of physics (like our old friend
gravity) and extrapolated onto human society and the spiritual realm as well.
 This was, of course, a reaction to the still remembered time of absolute
human monarchy and the divine Tyrant of Israel.  So when our older
Theosophists adopted karma, they put that notion onto it.

Now we don't view law that way at all.  First, we know only too well that the
laws of nature are far from immutable and there are always methods for
getting around them even though that may take some work.  Second, we know
that human legislators are no better than monarchs, being just as corrupt,
venal and stupid.  Law is not something we take very seriously as a
philosophical concept any more.  Rather than affirm its majesty, as the
victorians did, we do anything we can to subvert it and render it impotent.
 So when faced with an idea such as karma and then having it presented as a
law, our instinctive reaction (as a society) is not embrasure but revulsion
in varying degrees depending upon our life experiences.  

We just don't view law as a good thing.  It is at best a necessary evil that
given the right circumstances all of us will work to get around.

What all this means is that the idea of karma has found itself caught in a
cultural trap and that is why all the attempts to explain and justify it.  It
is not enough to merely assert it, as our victorians would.  It has to be
defined and explained and examples given.  The only problem is that there are
no examples of it that anyone can see, so the only resort is argument by
analogy, but the analogies don't work very well either.  The final fallback
position is argument by authority, but authority has to be accepted and that
is one huge weakness.  You don't try to persuade a Baptist by referring to a
Papal encyclical because he doesn't care what the Pope thinks.

So what we have with karma is this ancient idea cobbled together to control a
society that was adopted in the vain hope of controlling another that cannot
be proven and is impossible to explain in any coherint fashion and which
cannot be enforced upon anyone. 

Chuck the Heretic

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