home books e-books audio books recent titles with blogs
Pre-Existence, Reincarnation and Karma by Raynor C. Johnson

It is probably true to say that a number of my readers have already reacted to the title of this chapter with some measure of emotional interest or aversion. Some people seem curiously and almost instinctively interested in these topics, others, frequently religious-minded people, feel antagonistic, as though some strange pagan faith was subtly menacing their cherished beliefs. The average thoughtful Western man has in general given little consideration to these matters, although his reticence does not always match his knowledge. In any attempt to formulate a philosophy of life and endeavour to see meaning in our pilgrimage, these ancient beliefs cannot be lightly set aside. It is our duty to weigh them carefully, and without prejudice, in order to see if they illuminate for us tracts of experience which would otherwise remain dark and mysterious.

In so far as they are truths, it is fully recognised that they can only be relative truths (i.e., truths explanatory of experience in the world of appearance): but these are the only sort of truths we can hope to grasp with our minds. The mysterious character of Time itself always looms in the background of thought whenever we talk of the evolution of forms, or of consciousness, whenever we speak of a Way or a future goal. As long as we recognise this, we may safely go forward into our subject which concerns the great rhythms of Being and Becoming.


(a) We start from indisputable ground. Here we are on earth, going through a set of experiences in physical form along with millions of others. We were born into these conditions, into a particular nation and a particular family, without, so far as we are aware, having had any opportunity of choice in these matters. Let us look particularly at the tragic side of life, because this presents the thoughtful person with doubts and problems far more than does the attractive and happy side of life. We see children born into the world under the greatest variety of conditions. Some have sound, healthy bodies with good brains, keen, alert and capable, when fully matured, of sustaining great thoughts. Others are handicapped from the beginning with unhealthy bodies, blindness, deafness, disease and defective intelligence. For some the environment is one of security and affection, encouragement, culture and ǣsthetic interest; for others it is depravity, squalor and ugliness, and one of indifference or gross cruelty by the parents. For some, opportunity stands knocking at the door waiting to welcome and assist; for others it passes by, or knocks too late. Are these things just chance, or are they “planned by God?” If neither of these alternatives is acceptable, what explanation have we to offer which carries with it the reasonable assurance that we live in a just world? If God is just, and good and all-loving, the person who supposes each soul born into the world to be a new creation of God is faced with a real dilemma. There is no doubt that the conditions into which some souls are born preclude their proper development in this life. In some cases the physical body is a wretched tenement: consider the imbecile and the Mongolian idiot. In other cases the environment of fear, cruelty and brutality is calculated to crush and brutalise before the child’s personality can possibly resist it. Is it conceivable that God is capable of doing something which any ordinary decent person would do all in his power to prevent or mitigate? The Christian, at least, should remember the words of Jesus, “If ye then, being evil, know how to give good gifts unto your children, how much more shall your Father which is in heaven give good things to them that ask Him?” The commonplace orthodox answer to this dilemma is quite frankly an evasion. It runs something like this.

“Certainly there is inequality, but in the light of a future state there is justice too. Life, we must remember, is a handicap race.

To whom much was given, from him much will be required.

Shakespeares and Newtons must make good use of their talents.

The idiots, the suffering and crushed must do their best, realising that God is just and merciful, that He only expects achievement commensurate with their talents, and that in the end all will have been found to be worthwhile.” However true these affirmations may be, they do not face the problem, which is concerned not with compensations in a future state, but with an explanation of the present state. There is an obvious way out of the difficulty— namely, to abandon the idea that each soul born into this world is in some mysterious way a fresh creation of God. If we do so we need not assume that chance or accident is an alternative “explanation” of the gross inequalities at birth. We can take our stand on the Law of Cause and Effect, and say that all these grossly unequal conditions of birth and childhood are the results of prior causes.

Since these causes are not by any means apparent in the present lives, this involves as a logical necessity the pre-existence of souls. It is then possible to affirm that we are the product of our past, that present circumstances arise as the result of self-generated forces in states of prior existence.

It is curious that in the West we have come to accept the Law of Cause and Effect without question in the scientific domain, but seem reluctant to recognise its sway on other levels of significance. Yet every great religion teaches this as part of its ethical code. “Whatsoever a man sows that shall he also reap.”

In Oriental philosophy this is the great Law of Karma.

Whatsoever a man sows, whether in the field of action or thought, sometime and somewhere the fruits of it will be reaped by him. As a boomerang thrown by a skilled person will move rapidly away to a great distance on a circular path, but finally returns to the hand of the thrower, so there is an inexorable law of justice which runs through the world on all these levels. There is no question of rewards and punishments at all: it is simply a question of inevitable consequence, and applies equally to good things and evil things. We must, moreover, remember that we are none of us isolated beings. We manifest in a web of relationships and are interlinked with persons both in this world and others, whose thoughts and actions affect ours, and whom we in our turn affect. We reap effects which others have sown, and we sow causes which influence others; but a justice which inheres in the ultimate nature of things—the Law of Karma— governs all.

Such a viewpoint is logical, and avoids the incredible supposition that God places one newly created soul in a position of advantage and another in a position of extreme disadvantage, and in effect tells them both to make the best of it. If we suppose that a man is born an idiot because of his activity in previous lives it may seem brutal, but let us be clear that it is not the explanation which is brutal, but the facts. Heredity, of course, is operative: no one denies this. It must, however, be seen as an effect as well as a cause. Looking behind the heredity, we infer, on this view, that the Law of Karma operates so as to direct or draw a person to be born to certain parents under certain conditions.

(b) The pre-existence of the human soul is also supported by the widely different degrees of spiritual achievement we find around us. There is a vast gulf between the spiritual quality of the best person we know and the worst, between the saint or sage on the one hand and a degenerate wretch on the other. It is so great a gulf that many consider it cannot be accounted for in terms of failure or achievement in one life-span of seventy years. It seems to me to represent a gulf quite as enormous as that which on the physical evolutionary level separates primitive and advanced forms of life. It suggests the probability that the two spiritual states are the culmination of very varying moral and spiritual struggle through a long past.

The same remarks apply equally to the chasms found in intellectual and artistic capacity. We have on the one hand a Plato, an Einstein, a Michael Angelo or a Leonardo da Vinci, and on the other we have the primitive tribesmen of equatorial Africa. It is well-nigh impossible to believe that the difference between the highest men of our race and the lowest is accountable in terms of one lifetime of effort in newly created beings. It suggests rather that these differences represent the result of ages of past achievement, striving and discipline in lives prior to the present.

(c) A special form of the previous argument concerns the appearance from time to time of infant prodigies. We have a Mozart or a Chopin composing symphonies of great musical maturity or playing an instrument with outstanding skill at an early age, when the teaching or environment are completely inadequate as explanations. We occasionally come across mathematical prodigies—mere boys who can perform elaborate mathematical operations without any adequate teaching or training. We are told of Sir William Hamilton, who started to learn Hebrew at the age of three, and

“at the age of seven he was pronounced by one of the Fellows of Trinity College, Dublin, to have shown a greater knowledge of the language than many candidates for a fellowship. At the age of thirteen he had acquired considerable knowledge of at least thirteen languages. Among these, beside the classical and the modern European languages, were included Persian, Arabic, Sanskrit, Hindustani and even Malay. ... He wrote at the age of fourteen, a complimentary letter to the Persian ambassador who happened to visit Dublin; and the latter said he had not thought there was a man in Britain who could have written such a document in the Persian language.

“A relative of his says, ‘I remember him a little boy of six, when he would answer a difficult mathematical question, and run off gaily to his little cart.’ Dr. Brinkley (Astronomer Royal of Ireland) said of him at the age of eighteen, ‘This young man, I do not say will be, but is, the first mathematician of his age.

Genius at an early age cannot be conveniently ignored because of its rarity. It calls for an explanation. By recognising pre-existence, we may reasonably suppose that such outstanding gifts represent an overflow into the present life of great prior achievement in particular fields. In this connection we may recall Plato’s theory of Reminiscence: the view that knowledge we acquire easily is “old” knowledge with which our enduring self has in a previous state of being been acquainted. On the other hand, knowledge which we find difficult to assimilate, or in which we lack interest, may be that which we meet for the first time. So, too, Intuition is possibly to be regarded as based on wisdom assimilated through the experience of past lives.

(d) The commonplace matter of family differences is one which must frequently create speculation. Physical differences and likenesses are doubtless covered by genetical laws, but differences of a profound kind in mental, moral and artistic characteristics sometimes occur, and remain quite inexplicable on biological grounds. This would not be unreasonable if we assume that each soul has a long past behind it, and was drawn to incarnate according to karmic laws in a family whose parents could provide him with the physical vehicle and environment most suited to his further development.

It has been remarked that Johann Sebastian Bach was born into a family with a long musical tradition, but we need not infer from this that his genius could be accounted for by his heredity. Rather the view would be that his musical genius needed a special quality of physical vehicle and a certain environment for its satisfactory expression and further progress, and his soul chose, or was directed towards, parents capable of providing that opportunity. The soul determines the heredity, not the heredity the soul.

(e) In the field of personal relationships there are occasionally friendships and antipathies of a very marked kind where no psychological explanation seems to fit the facts. Cases of love at first sight, though necessarily suspect through being so much the stock-in-trade of the romantic novelist, may find an explanation on the lines indicated. They may represent the reaction to relationships which have pre-existed the present lives.

I have two friends who permit me to use their own experience here. The husband I will call A, and his wife B. Now in late middle life, they are an exceptionally cultured, wise and kindly couple. He is an important business executive, although chiefly interested in philosophy and those questions which are ultimate in our thinking and living. She is a cultured lady who had in earlier years some psychical sensitivity and more than one experience of a mystical character. B says that she had known from the days of her girlhood that she would, after long waiting, finally meet someone of great significance to her. In her own words, “It was a sudden welling-up from the subconscious, almost like an inner voice assuring me that no one in my then circle of friends was of any special significance for me, but that I should have to wait for a relationship of great importance, and not only would I have to wait, but I would have to wait a very long time.” In the middle thirties A came from abroad and met B at a public function for the first time. This first meeting both intuitively recognised was of the greatest significance, and as they have now been married for over twenty-five years, their immediate intuition has been adequately tested. A year or two before meeting A, B had a curious experience in the form of a waking vision. This is her account of it.

“I suddenly lost touch with my surroundings and seemed to be in another place and period, which might have been medieval Britain, or some northern European country. I was lying in bed, and knew I was at the point of death. I had given birth to a child, which I knew I should never see. The room was very large indeed. Part of it, the living part, had an earthen floor. The bed I was lying in was at the top (near the door), and was on a raised platform.

“There was a great commotion outside. I knew my husband was there and that he was about to set out on a very dangerous adventure. He was undertaking a forlorn hope on behalf of his King, and the populace were cheering him. He came in to say good-bye to me, and knelt beside my bed, overcome with grief. We both knew we should not meet again alive. The parting was terribly poignant and when the vision departed I found myself weeping bitterly. I felt I had been through the dreadful experience once again.

“When the vision ceased, I was puzzled, because I knew no one who might have been the man. Later, on thinking it over, I wondered if a man I knew well might have been he, because when I first met him I had a very strong impression that I had known him well in a past life. I wondered, without any sense of conviction, if it might have been he.

“When I met A, I knew without a shadow of doubt that it was he and have never wavered in that belief since.”

It is significant that this vision came to B with all the emotional force of a poignant memory.

(f) Finally, I think we should consider a viewpoint expressed by Plato in the Phaedo, that if souls be only supposed to come into existence at birth, their survival of death would seem to a philosopher improbable. We may express it positively thus: that if the nature of the soul is immortal (as Plato believed), an immortality which implies an infinite future also implies an infinite past. To accept the one without the other, as some appear to do, is a strange feat of mental gymnastics, the grounds for which are difficult to discover.

Such, I think, is the case for our pre-existence of this life.


If the case for pre-existence is considered a strong one. then the idea of reincarnation presents no logical difficulties, whatever be the emotional reaction to it. What the soul has done once by the process of incarnation in a physical body, it can presumably do again. (By the term “soul” we mean that individualised aspect of the Self, including buddhi—the Intuitive self—and Higher Mind, all of which are regarded as immortal.) We should of course bear in mind that what is meant by the phrase “have lived before” is not that the physical form Raynor Johnson has lived on earth previously, but rather that Raynor Johnson is only a particular and temporary expression of an underlying immortal soul which has adopted previous and quite possibly different appearances. The power that builds forms in the world of appearance exists apart from the forms. Of this we have had much evidence already. We may reflect on the pageant of living things (Chapter 3), the power which builds an oak tree from an acorn, or a human child from a fertilised ovum. We may recall also the evidence of psychical research in Chapters 9, 10, and 11.

If the general conception of evolution be regarded as applicable to the soul as well as to the physical world, it is not either improbable or unreasonable that the soul should adventure forth into the physical world in a newly-built body to acquire further experience of the kind which this world can provide. The fact that the soul has done so once was presumably for adequate and compelling reasons, and whatever these are, it is apparent that more might be gained by a series of such incarnations.

The doctrine of reincarnation has had a long history. Originating probably with the ancient sages of India, it found a fundamental place in both Hinduism and Buddhism. Among the Greeks it was taught by Empedocles, Pythagoras and Plato. Traces of it appear in the teaching of Philo of Alexandria and in several of the early Church Fathers. It was officially pronounced to be a heresy by the Council of Constantinople in 551. In the Roman world it seems to have appealed to Cicero and Seneca, and the poets Virgil and Ovid. The sixth book of Caesar’s Gallic War records that the Druids of Gaul taught this doctrine. In recent times it has been supported by Giordano Bruno and van Helmont, by Swedenborg, Goethe, Lichtenberg, Lessing, Herder, Hume and Schopenhauer (as a reasonable hypothesis), Lavater, Ibsen and Maeterlinck. 4 Of recent philosophers, the most weighty testimony is probably that of James Ward, Professor of Mental Philosophy at Cambridge, who supported it in his Gifford Lectures on the Realm of Ends. Professor McTaggart of Cambridge also argues for it in his work Some Dogmas of Religion (1906). Dean Inge, without wishing to be definite, confesses, “I find the doctrine both credible and attractive”. The English-speaking poets have toyed with this doctrine rather more than the philosophers. There are passages in Shelley, Wordsworth, Tennyson, Rossetti, Browning, Longfellow and Whitman which show their interest in it.

Thus Browning in a poem to Evelyn Hope, a girl who died at the age of sixteen, expressed his sense of an old friendship and an underlying bond:

I claim you still, for my own love’s sake!
    Delayed it may be for more lives yet,
Through worlds I shall traverse, not a few;
    Much is to learn and much to forget
Ere the time be come for taking you.

John Masefield has written:

I hold that when a person dies
    His soul returns again to earth;
Arrayed in some new flesh-disguise,
    Another mother gives him birth.
With sturdier limbs and brighter brain
The old soul takes the road again.

These names are sufficient, I think, to show that the doctrine of re-birth has commended itself to many thoughtful men. It need not be supposed to imply that re-birth takes place in any automatic way or with only a short interval between succeeding lives. There are occult schools of thought which lay claim to surprisingly detailed knowledge on such subjects, affirming as the source of their information teachings communicated by incarnate beings of very mature spiritual development. Whether such claims have any factual basis is a matter of personal opinion, and I do not think my own is of more value than any one else’s. I think the only safe guide is to blend critical caution with the tolerant spirit which is prepared to find truth in many strange places. A thoughtful friend of mine has said to me, more than once, that he keeps a mental shelf on which to place inconspicuously, ideas and theories which he does not find necessary for his present philosophy. Later, facts and data may demand one of these theories for their understanding, and he will then be prepared to take it off the shelf!

A widely accepted doctrine appears to present the view that after death of the physical body the individual has a life on some level of the “Astral” plane—perhaps for the equivalent of some hundreds of years, and that at the close of this a second transition with discarding of the astral body takes the self on to the mental plane where it lives a shorter and intenser life, still, however, in a body or form.

Finally the deeper self, having absorbed all the value and wisdom of such experience, seeks again an adventuring forth into matter, and the “outgoing” process again sets in, leading ultimately to re-birth. All forms of the doctrine agree that it is Desire which again attracts the soul to earthly life. The Sanskrit word is Trishna which means “thirst” for sentient existence.

Rebirth results from the pull or attraction of earthly love and desires. This being so, it is clear that the cultivation of detachment and the elimination of material desires are an essential element of the Eastern teaching which seeks to show men how to leave the Wheel of Becoming and be free from the ceaseless round of births and deaths.

We are, of course, here in a region of speculative thought, and the ideas put forward are of the “revelatory” character on the value of which each person must form his own opinion. In two interesting books of Geraldine Cummins which are the product of automatic writing there are given communications purporting to come from F. W. H. Myers, one of the distinguished scholars who founded the London Society for Psychical Research. He made the following writings:

“As there are certain centres in the brain, so in psychic life there are a number of souls all bound together by one spirit, depending for their nourishment on that spirit. ... It explains many of the difficulties that people will assure you can only be removed by the doctrine of reincarnation. . . . Many soul-men do not seek another earth-life, but their spirit manifests itself many times on earth. There may be contained within that spirit twenty souls, a hundred souls, a thousand souls. The number varies.

What the Buddhists would call the karma I had brought with me from a previous life is, very frequently, not that of my life, but of the life of a soul that preceded me by many years on earth, and left for me the pattern which made my life…. When your Buddhist speaks of the cycle of births, of man’s continual return to earth, he utters but a half-truth. I shall not live again on earth, but a new soul, one who will join our group, will shortly enter into the pattern or karma I have woven for him on earth. . . .

You may say to me that for the soul-man, one earth-life is not enough. But as we evolve here we enter into those memories and experiences of other lives that are to be found in the existence of the souls that preceded us and are of our group. I do not say that this theory which I offer you can be laid down as a general rule. But undoubtedly it is true in so far as it is what I have learned and experienced.

“The majority of people only re-incarnate two, three, or four times. By participating in the life of the group soul I perceive and feel the drama in the earthly journey of a Buddhist priest, an American merchant, an Italian painter—and I am, if I assimilate the life thus lived, spared the living of it in the flesh. You will recognise how greatly power of will, mind and perception can be increased through your entry into the larger self. You continue to preserve your identity and your fundamental individuality. But you develop immensely in character and spiritual force. You gather the wisdom of the ages not through the continual ‘sturm und drang’ of hundreds of years passed in the confinement of the crude physical body; you gather it through love which has a gravitational pull and draws you within the memories of those who are akin to your soul, however alien their bodies may have been when they were on earth.“There is no set law concerning reincarnation. At a certain point in its progress, the soul reflects, weighs and considers the facts of its own nature in conjunction with its past life on earth. If you are primitive this meditation is made more through instinct—a kind of emotional thought that stirs up the depths of your being. Then the spirit helps you to choose your future. You have complete freewill, but your spirit indicates the path you should follow and you frequently obey that indication.’’

These are, to say the least, very interesting views.


There is a number of questions which inevitably arise in the mind of anyone who seriously considers this subject.

Why do persons not remember their past lives? It is, I think, a reasonable reply to say that when we know how memory works we may hope to have an answer. The memory of events in our present life gets more and more sparse and uncertain as we go back to early years. Few people can recall much of the third year of their life, and almost certainly nothing of the second year of life. This datum of observation suggests that we ought not normally to expect to recover memories of pre-existent life, and their absence should not be taken as evidence against pre-existence. It may be remarked that under hypnosis extremely early memories have been recovered from the deeper mind, which must clearly store them somehow. All that we may deduce from this is that if the memories of pre-existent lives are in fact recoverable, we should only expect it to be possible in unusual circumstances or with a special technique.

The fact is that some persons have claimed to possess memories for which they cannot account in terms of their present life. Of course assertions prove nothing, and the sceptic will always enquire how the person distinguishes between memories and imaginations. I know that I had a holiday in Teignmouth over twenty years ago, and that this is a memory, and not an imagination, although I may have no corroborative evidence. All we can do, then, is to assess the weight to be attached to evidence by what we know of the character of the witness.

The lady B whose waking vision was described earlier in this chapter had also another fragmentary glimpse of what she felt to be a memory of a previous life. In this glimpse A, her present husband, was a monk, and she and another person were young boys being taught by him. This fragment came a few years later than the first vision, and after she had met A.
Professor Lutoslawski, a Polish scholar, whose book The World of Souls favourably impressed William James, wrote, “For me the subjective certainty of pre-existence is parallel to the certainty of immortality. ... I know that I have existed before this life, either on earth as a man, or elsewhere in similar conditions.”

Krishnamurti, whose spiritual quality and insight have impressed all who have come into contact with him, said in 1931, “For me reincarnation is a fact, and not a belief; but I do not want you to believe in re-incarnation. On the contrary, reject it; put it out of your mind; and remember only that as you are the product of the past, so you can control the future. You are master of yourself and in your own hand lies eternity.” Such is wholly in the line of Krishnamurti’s teaching, which is that nothing should be accepted on external authority: that the only authority is within the self. Moreover, he is constantly pointing people away from the Ego-centred, partial aspects of truth to the ultimate Truth which can only be known so far as the Self is realised.

D. G. Rossetti in a short poem called “Sudden Light” expresses a memory of the past.

I have been here before,
    But when or how I cannot tell:
I know the grass beyond the door,
    The sweet keen smell,
The sighing sound, the lights around the shore.

You have been mine before—
    How long ago I may not know:
But just when at that swallow’s soar
    Your neck turned so,
Some veil did fall—I knew it all of yore.

Readers of John Buchan’s delightful volume of reminiscence may recall that he tells of three unusual experiences. “I find myself in some scene which I cannot have visited before, and which yet is perfectly familiar; I know that it was the stage of an action in which I once took part, and am about to take part again; I await developments with an almost unbearable sense of anticipation. And then nothing happens; something appears which breaks the spell.” If there were not the subjective sense that the scenes were associated with events in a past age, they might of course be interpreted according to Dunne’s theory as recovered precognitive dream memories. As it is they appear more probably to be retrocognitive glimpses.

A very different objection sometimes raised to the theory of reincarnation, sees in the absence of continuity of memory of previous lives something unjust in the operation of the law of Karma. Thus the argument would run, if X, Y,
and Z are successive lives on earth of the same individual, why should Z inherit happiness and suffering arising from causes in the life of Y or X of which he has no memory? I think the answer to this is that forgetting may have an important function to play in our development, as well as remembering. An analogy may help us here. A good mathematician can tackle a new problem presented to him, because he has at his command a knowledge of principles, a variety of mathematical processes and techniques, and skill in the use of them. Such equipment is the fruit of years of teaching and research, of trial and error, and of experience in solving other and perhaps simpler problems. Most of these will be forgotten, but what remains with him is not some thousands of details, but the fruits of his experience. This remains available to be drawn upon in facing any new situation.

If memory retained all the myriad details with equal vividness, the fruits of experience might be hard to sort out with swiftness when required. It is probably much the same with the experience of the self in many lives. It is not that any detail is necessarily lost, but rather that in the interests of efficiency what remains available to us in a new life is the garnered wisdom of the past—the fruit of experience. This is the past which is of real value to us in facing new situations, and it is available to us as Intuition—the wise promptings of our higher self. It is doubtful if a detailed recollection of the experience of past lives would add anything of real value to this intuitional wisdom. It may possibly be that the higher self uses at least a part of the life between births for the assimilation of terrestrial experience and the distillation from it of wisdom.

At the same time, it is interesting to notice that there are a number of well-attested cases of persons who appear to remember considerable detail of prior existences which are capable of verification. Bearing in mind all the possibilities of paranormal cognition, the reincarnation hypothesis is by far the simplest one in some of these cases. Apart from what may be described as these rather rare and freakish cases, it would seem that some masters of the spiritual life do have available a knowledge of their own past. Krishna, speaking to Arjuna, said, “Both you and I have passed through many births; you know them not, I know them all.”

Another question sometimes raised about reincarnation is “Why here again?” Are there not other worlds, other significant levels, a whole universe of possibilities? It may be so. It may also be said of our life here on earth that this planet is big enough for us to roam in, but we find that however far a man may travel, love and duty call him back to his own country and his own home again. Love is a cosmic principle of attraction, and if his spiritual kindred are involved in life on earth, these bonds and desires will draw him back to help them and to share their life. It is reasonable to assume that the cycle will continue with Earth as the magnet until the attaching bonds of desire are finally broken. In a poem dealing with the soul’s progress F. W. H. Myers expresses this nostalgic longing for Earth which he imagines the soul carrying with it.

So, howsoe’er thy soul’s fate bear her far
Thro’ counter changing heaven and avatar,
Still shall her gaze that earliest scene survey
Where eyes heroic taught the heavenly way,

Where o’er themselves they seized the high control,
Each at the calling of the comrade soul.

Ah Fate! what home soe’er be mine at last,
Save me some look, some magic of the Past!
O’er deep blue meres be dark cloud-shadows driven;
Veil and unveil a storm-swept sun in heaven;
Cold gusts of raining summer bring me still
Dreamwise the wet scent of the ferny hill.


We have already referred briefly to this Oriental doctrine, of which the Law of Cause and Effect as we know it in the material world may be regarded as a special case. Indeed, the Law of Karma is just this law applied to all the significant levels—of thought, desire and action. It is strange that our Western scientific tradition leads us to accept it so readily on the material plane, but that we are reluctant to recognise it on the others. I think it is because we profoundly believe that there is such a thing as human freedom—the freedom of the will to choose—and as we do not know within what limits this is operative, in order to safeguard our faith in freedom we reject the potentially menacing doctrine of Karma. Yet the consequence of rejecting the reign of law on the levels of desire and thought is inevitably to suppose that chance and caprice rule there. To many of us this would seem most improbable, and we must be prepared to consider carefully the relation between human and karmic law.


If we look at history we find that “love of freedom” has played no inconsiderable part. For this men have fought and died. Yet again and again, after fighting to secure some environmental change that they thought would secure them freedom, it has eluded them. This is because the more important causes of bondage are within men’s hearts and minds, not outside them. We are prisoners of our habits, of our fears, our desires, our hopes and our social interests. We are prisoners of our climate of thought, our prejudices, our background of teaching, our mental limitations, our accepted political, scientific, religious and philosophical beliefs. If to be truly free is to live and act in accordance with our real inner nature (that of the Self as distinct from the Ego), the fact is that freedom is a very rare phenomenon. We are all prisoners, some perhaps tethered with a longer rope than others, but none of us free except within the little circle determined by the length of rope. For a large part of humanity this circle is very small indeed, but people do not know it. They cherish the illusion of choice and freedom of the will, and would be offended to be told they were well-nigh automatons. The Ego, that centre in the mind with which we falsely identify ourselves, is the focus of all the patterns of thought and desire and action we have built up. The real Self which alone has freedom gets very little chance to exercise it because of the dominant Ego. At one extreme there is what we may call” animal-man”, completely governed by the Ego. Place him in a given situation and you might predict how he would behave. He may imagine he exercises his will to choose. His will has, in fact, little or nothing to do with it: he is governed by the strongest desire at the time. At the other end of the scale is “spirit-man”, the sage or saint, the truly enlightened man, whose Ego only exists as the perfect vehicle of expression of his Self in the lower worlds. He alone is free. Indian philosophy uses the term moksha, or liberation, to describe his state. In between these extremes is the mass of humanity. Let us be clear, then, that inner freedom is something which has to be earned and won (by ways which we have attempted to describe in the previous chapter). The Buddhist says we are bondslaves of Ignorance. Jesus proclaims the same thing: “Ye shall know the Truth—and the Truth shall make you free.”

The patterns of thought, desire and action to which we have alluded, and which constitute our bondage, are but the consequences of the Law of Karma. This maintains that every thought and desire and action, though apparently over and done with, has consequences. These may be pleasant or otherwise; they may follow rapidly or be long delayed—perhaps until some other life. It is, then, what we are that creates for us the circumstances of our existence.

These circumstances and events are attracted to us by karmic law. It is only within the limits which such law prescribes that we are free to act, desire or think. According to the way in which we do react in thought, word and deed to given situations, we neutralise or modify existent Karma. Each circumstance and event, tragic or happy, is attracted to us by what we have been and are, and in itself offers to us, by a right reaction to it, the opportunity of spiritual development.

It is perhaps not a misleading analogy to say that while the rules of football or cricket prescribe a framework within which the game must be played, they leave the player free within these limits to decide how and in what direction he shall send the ball. So it is with karmic law and the circumstances we have to meet. We must beware, however, of presuming to judge others, or of making any glib and facile deductions about past Karma from present circumstances. If individuals lived in isolation, the possibility of such judgments being right might be appreciable. We do not, however, manifest in isolation, but in a web of relationships. As Gerald Heard has said: “I cannot say to the deformed beggar, ‘So you earned and so you are’. Neither he nor I has ever been, is now, or ever will be an absolute individual. We earn for each other both good and evil, and are earned for.”

As a consequence, exponents of the Law of Karma have always maintained that there is a Karma of groups, nations and races, in which individuals inevitably participate.

Moreover, as a counter to any facile judgments, we should recognise that adverse and difficult circumstances may be an opportunity of great spiritual advance to noble natures, and who are we to judge that such a one may not have chosen poverty, hardship or insignificance for such a high reason?

There are some persons who feel antipathetic to the conception of Karma on the ground that it leads to fatalism. By fatalism we understand a philosophy of life which assumes that all that we experience arises from a destiny or powers outside ourselves which we can in no way influence or control. It makes human life the sport of destiny, and necessarily leads to resigned indifference or cynicism. Such a philosophy is not a legitimate deduction from the idea of Karma, which says, rather, that there is no fate or destiny which we have not made and do not make for ourselves. We are today the product of our long past, and we shall be tomorrow what we make of ourselves today. Karma may be inescapable, but it is not unchangeable. The fatalist who stands on the river-bank and, seeing a person who cannot swim struggling in the water, says to his friend, a swimmer, “Let him alone: it is his Karma,” is misunderstanding Karma. It may have been the man’s Karma to tumble into the river, but it was equally a part of his Karma to do so when there was a man on the river-bank who could help him.

There are others who feel antipathetic to the idea of Karma because it suggests a cold impersonality about the Universe: a sort of machinery grinding out inexorable consequence. I do not see why this reaction should be the case. It is possible to believe in Love as the supreme governing power in the Universe and still to hold that on every significant level there is a reign of Law. A dependable universe is far more easily conceived as an expression of a loving power than a capricious universe. We do not think that the existence of a Law of Gravitation or of any of the Laws of Nature leads to a coldly impersonal universe, nor need we feel that the existence of Law on any significant levels does so.


Let us look briefly at what we often describe as the tragic and mysterious side of life. Here is a young man who, after years of study and discipline, has qualified himself to be a surgeon: he is suddenly blinded in an accident. Another young man out for a day’s recreation is accidentally shot through the spine and will have to spend the whole of his life on his bed. Here is a child in a pram, when a slate is blown off a roof by a gust of wind and maims or kills it. Such examples of what we call “chance” or “accident” where no reasonable vigilance or foresight on the part of the victim could have prevented the occurrence might be multiplied. How do we fit these poignant happenings into our philosophy of life?

It should, of course, be remembered that many things in life come to us in ways which are unforeseeable and apparently fortuitous, and that not all of these are unpleasant. They cover every kind of experience, from those we have most valued to those most disliked. Perhaps a chance meeting, a casual word or glance, a missed train, a shower of rain—a hundred such things—can sometimes affect the whole current of life. Whether there could possibly be a material world in which there were such possibilities for good, without also such possibilities for ill, is, I think, very doubtful. We must not lose sight of this when we are oppressed by the poignant, tragic things. There are two questions which demand an answer as we reflect on these matters:

1. Is there chance or accident, or do we regard these things as not affecting human life? Are there perhaps only happenings, the causes of which are so numerous or remote that we cannot trace them?

2. Is this life on earth just to individuals? We may perhaps consider that, taking a broad view of human life, the happiness on the whole outweighs the unhappiness, but we still have the problem of justice to the individual on our hands.

Let us consider carefully what we mean by chance or accident. Henri Poincare, a distinguished mathematician and philosopher, has pointed out that what we call fortuitous phenomena may arise in several ways. If we knew precisely all the laws of Nature and the complete situation of the material universe at a given initial moment, then it would be granted that we could theoretically calculate the situation of the universe at any succeeding moment.

1. Suppose we do not know all the laws, this might be one source of unpredictability.

2. Suppose all laws are known, but that a slight inaccuracy in knowledge of the initial situation produces a large inaccuracy in the final situation. Again in practice prediction becomes impossible.

3. All the laws being known, suppose nevertheless the causes of an event are extremely complex and numerous, then prediction may be impossible. For example, the position of a particular grain of sand shaken up with many other grains.

4. All the laws being known, suppose we select what we believe to be all the relevant factors in the initial situation, but in fact neglect one factor which seems irrelevant but comes to play an important part. This may vitiate prediction.

I think this analysis by a mathematician helps us to realise that while for a sufficiently inclusive mind (the “Divine Mind”) there could be no such thing as chance, we must in practice recognise the existence of chance for our finite minds. By chance, we mean that which we cannot be expected to foresee or predict on the basis of our experience. We take, for example, the tile blown by a gust of wind off a roof and killing a child. There are numerous causes, such as the height and slope of the roof, the type of fastening of the tile, corrosion of the nails, fissures in the underlying wood, defective workmanship perhaps originating years previously, the direction and speed of the wind, which in turn is caused by distant temperature variations over the earth’s surface, the location of the pram at this precise moment, etc., etc. From the practical point of view these causes are so numerous that we may properly describe the event as “chance” in the sense that we have defined this word (viz., an event we could not have predicted on the basis of our experience).

But now let us consider whether the events which here concern us (viz., events affecting human beings) are ever solely the product of material or physical causes. The answer is obviously No. Emotional and mental factors play a part. In the above example the defective fastening may have been due to a workman’s forgetfulness or momentary interest in something else. The person wheeling the pram may have been influenced by innumerable desires (e.g., to look in passing shop-windows) or by innumerable thoughts (such as to perform another task before going out), all of which affected arrival at the particular place at the particular time. As soon as we recognise the influence of emotional and mental factors our knowledge of the telepathic inter-linkage of minds reminds us that numerous other living persons, as well as independent thought-forms, may have contributed to the event. We begin to see that we cannot possibly hope to assess or know of more than a small fraction of the relevant causes. At least we must view as not unreasonable the karmic hypothesis which presumably has its operative mechanism on the level of Mind.

On this view it is what we are on the mental level which draws to us circumstances and events of a certain kind. There is, on this view, no such thing as accident or chance, but only the great karmic law of cause and effect operative presumably through telepathic means to attract and repel.

I think we have to make up our minds—and we shall do so doubtless according to our temperamental preferences—whether we say there is chance in the world affecting human lives, or whether we say that what seems like chance is governed by karmic law on another significant level. I think we can scarcely claim at present to have proof of this latter hypothesis, and if we adopt it, we do so as an act of faith. For my own part, I adopt it, believing that there is no fate, circumstance or event which in the last analysis we do not or have not created for ourselves (i.e., ourselves in relationship with others). I do not think this is either an optimistic or a pessimistic view, and certainly not a fatalistic one. We are today what we have made ourselves through all the past, and we shall be tomorrow what we have been made by the past together with our present attitudes. To this we may add the conclusion to which we were led in Chapter 7 (p. 166), that on the psychic level, future states also may be the cause of present events. The pull of the future may contribute equally with the influence of the past to present events and circumstances. This is an impressive, and I think may be an encouraging, thought to some who are living in the shadow of loneliness, frustration, adversity or seeming tragedy. The relation between future and present may be as significant as between past and present. “It doth not yet appear what we shall be”, and the present may be what it is, so that a future may be what it shall be (and what on the deeper levels it already is).

We may appropriately turn to the second question. Is this life on earth just to individuals? Should we expect it to be so if it is only a fragment of an infinite pilgrimage of the soul? If we go into a theatre at one door, walk across its breadth, and pass out by the farther door, what we may see and hear enacted on the stage in that short time-interval may seem most puzzling—even unjust and tragic. But we do not know what has led up to this glimpse, nor what will follow it. It is surely equally probable that many a human life will be a problem and a mystery unless it is viewed in the setting of a larger whole which has preceded and will follow it. Justice is only a word applicable to the whole play.

It is not, I think, mere optimism, nor a pleasant form of wishful thinking only, but rather a reasonably based faith to share the confidence Browning expresses in “Rabbi Ben Ezra”:

    Grow old along with me!
    The best is yet to be,
The last of life, for which the first was made:
    Our times are in His hand
    Who saith ‘A whole I planned,
Youth shows but half; trust God: see all, nor be afraid!’

“Pre-Existence, Reincarnation and Karma” is an extract from The Imprisoned Spledour by Raynor C. Johnson. It is published by White Crow Books and avaiilable from Amazon and other online bookstores.

translate this page
Personal Recollections of Abdu’l Baha Abbas and the Baha’i Outlook by Wellesley Tudor Pole – What is the special appeal voiced by Baha'u'llah and his son, which has resulted in so many of their followers the world over asserting that they are no longer Jews, Christians, Moslems or Buddhists, as such but have become Baha'is? Read here
© White Crow Books | About us | Contact us | Author submissions | Trade orders