THEOSOPHY, Vol. 89, Issue 4, May/June 2001
(Pages 157-164; Size: 16K)


[Article number (14) in this Department]

How can we know when to help people or when they are following their own natures?

The tendency of theosophy students to break away from the traditions of our upbringing may help us see this question from two sides, because someone somewhere has probably tried to "save" the heretic within us, possibly with religious fervor "for our own good." Yet, the desire to help others beckons us. When William Q. Judge explains that the soul stands "firmly in its own nature, then it proceeds further ... to bring about the aim of all other souls still struggling on the road" (Patanjali's Yoga Aphorisms), we hear the challenge for our own development as well as the call to selfless service. This inquiry points particularly to our seeing the many paths and the diversity of thought and circumstance that surround us.

Whether we ask about the spiritual soul or charity, this inquiry addresses not the motive or mode, but the rights of others to choose their path and be what they are as well as our own ability to discern their real needs. No one escapes making these choices. We face the struggles of self-delusion, selective perception, hypocrisy, and our own lessons in life. Our choices, or their outcomes, define how we view the integrity of the individual and how we focus our minds on where we sit on any given fence.

Life, ever changing, tends to push us off our fences. Literature is full of stories of the prices we pay and the lessons in store for us. One recently portrayed virtue-vs.-vice story lays out the roles in extreme: In the movie Quills, actor Geoffrey Rush plays the blasphemous and vulgar Marquis de Sade as a strutting peacock, within the very sensual world that he defines as his personal reality. He finds joyful redemption in his attack against hypocrisy, even as he revels (insanely) in his own depraved nature. For those who would protect him from himself and others, a different type of corruption (under the guise of responsibility) destroys the ideals of compassion, integrity, and progress. The peacock remains a victim to his nature, but even greater are the losses incurred by others, in particular by that of the spiritual guide in the character of a young priest, who is caught up by compromises devised by those of intellectual powers. The spiritual battle is subtle and seductive, and the winning of it is not as it appears, materially. Let's not be distracted by aspects of the peacock or seduced by the cold intellect, but look to the priestly role, at least for the moment. Our choices, not those of the peacock, are in question.

Using another fabled story, consider the role of a good Samaritan, this one being the alligator who helps a scorpion cross the river only to get stung in betrayal: Would you help the scorpion if you knew it would sting you (as is its nature) thereby drowning you both? By motive alone, you may answer "yes," because to help is the right thing to do. But then there's the futility of death (however temporary the state) when no real service results. How indeed can we know when to help people or when they are following their ways, their natures? This question is examined by several students along different facets of inquiry.


The effort to help others is generally believed to be one of friendship and love. As soon as we determine that help is needed, we are fraught with many heavy decisions. It seems simple enough at first, but once we take into consideration the dual nature of existence, the total complexion changes.

We are complex beings, and when we consider that the immortal Ego is on a journey to a conscious realization of being at one with the whole of life, an overwhelming sense of responsibility wells up and prompts us to weigh every thought preceding our acts.

If we hold to the idea that the best help we can give to others is to help them so that they can help themselves, the choice still is not so simple as it may seem. There are those who are down and out on our streets, others with problems that are not so visible but nevertheless of a nature that renders them incapable of rational behavior. Some may say of one hungry for food that once fed, one is whole again, but is this true? Naturally, the inquiring mind may wonder how this person or situation came to be. Then again, is it our business? How can we know when we are helping someone rather than interfering with karma?

Judge first turns to the source of guidance called the divine spirit within each of us:

The old definition of what is good and what bad Karma is the best. That is: "Good Karma is that which is pleasing to Ishwara, and bad that which is displeasing to Ishwara." There is here but very little room for dispute as to poverty or wealth; for the test and measure are not according to our present evanescent human tastes and desires, but are removed to the judgment of the immortal self -- Ishwara. The self may not wish for the pleasures of wealth, but seeing the necessity for discipline decides to assume life among mortals in that low station where endurance, patience, and strength may be acquired by experience. There is no other way to implant in the character the lessons of life. (Judge Articles, p. 154, "Is Poverty Bad Karma?" Path, July, 1891.) [Note: For those who would like to read the article quoted from, once you have finished reading this article, I've placed a link to it at the end of this one.--Compiler]
Similarly, the very fact that we are in this position means there must be a karmic connection, and the only decision to be made is how we can be of service in this situation. A hungry person is not looking for a philosophical dissertation on how he came to be where he is. On the other hand, there are many kinds of hunger; and while one is not in need of physical food, our mutual karmic position may be just what the Ego is seeking by way of interaction.

The difference between a philosophical view and a worldly view, then, is one of scope. We can view the body only as being the person in need, or we can view the person as a façade expressing aspects of a sevenfold nature. Theosophical inquiry pushes us toward considering the needs of our imperishable Self that reincarnate, beyond the personality in which it clothes itself at every rebirth.


According to the third fundamental proposition of Theosophy, human beings evolve by self-induced and self-devised efforts. No one can eat and digest our food for us; we have to do it ourselves. No one can study and digest a lesson, a truth, a principle for us; we have to do it ourselves. Sometimes a child may wail to his mother that his homework is too difficult, she must do it for him. If she bends to his will in this matter, she may think she is helping him, but in reality she will be hindering him in many ways. Not only will the child have failed to learn the immediate scholastic skill being taught, but certain negative tendencies will have been reinforced in the child: procrastination, laziness, self-pity, manipulation of others for selfish purposes, etc. As the Bhagavad-Gita warns, "The duty of another is full of danger" (p. 27). If the mother did the duty of the child, that would be a grave danger to both of them. This is not to say that in this situation there is nothing the mother can do to help. There are many ways, without complying with another's bidding, to intervene without interfering with growth and development. For instance, she can show him how to solve the basic problem, make certain he understands the principle behind it, then encourage him to do the rest of the lesson himself. That way the child learns both the immediate school lesson and the much more important life lesson: to do one's own duty, no matter how imperfect.

But there are many situations in life that are not so clear-cut. The old beggar lying on the sidewalk in a drunken stupor. Your cousin who, because of an uncontrolled temper, has lost one job after another and whose children are now wanting for proper food and clothing. In many cases, since we are as yet far from being masters of wisdom, we simply do not know what is the best way to be of assistance. How then should we proceed? First of all, remember that we already possess the knowledge needed to act wisely; that knowledge is within us; that knowledge is us. The problem is that it is locked away in our inner hearts, inaccessible to our waking consciousness. If we create a bridge (antaskarana) between the two, between the higher consciousness and the lower, the spiritual knowledge within us can pour into our outer awareness. How? In "Spiritual Gifts and Their Attainment," Judge says that we must listen to the voice of intuition:

Every impulse from above, every prompting of the Divine within, should meet at once with a hearty welcome and response. If you feel as if something urged you to visit some sick or afflicted neighbour or friend, obey the suggestion without delay. ... If some pathetic story of suffering has moved you, act on the emotion while your cheeks are still wet with tears. In short, put yourself at once in line with the Divine ways, in harmony with the Divine laws. More light, more wisdom, more spirituality must necessarily come to one thus prepared, thus expectant (WQJ Articles, II, 387). [Note: As with the first one, for those who would like to read the article quoted from here, once you have finished reading this article, I've placed a link to it at the end of this one.--Compiler]
It is as the old saw says, practice makes perfect. The more we rely on and act upon our intuition, the more readily will it be there for us when we need it. And the more readily will we know how to help our brothers and sisters traveling with us along this journey of a thousand sufferings.


When we help another person, a small portion of ourselves merges with the other. A mysterious transference of atoms takes place that science is unprepared to detect. For the act to transpire at all, we have become the other person for a moment. It is that acknowledgment of oneness, a momentary, almost unconscious experience, that gives us the awareness of the other's need and the impulse to participate in its fulfillment.

In the everyday physicality of our lives, we seem to be eternally separate. We are separated by race, gender, circumstances; we are wedged apart by economics, religion, political persuasion, education -- the list is endless. Yet when we get cut, we all bleed. We all want meaning in our lives. We want verification that there is some purpose within the overwhelming transience and irony of human life. When we identify with another person and reach beyond the periphery of our self-imposed separateness, we enter that realm of being that has the power to open our eyes to the underlying unity of life that all great sages have pointed to in every age. "Give, and it shall be given unto you" (Luke 6:38) is true in that giving, in evolutionary terms, does more for the giver than the receiver because it allows an inner transformation to take place. It allows the cataract of our spiritual eye to be removed at least momentarily. At these rarefied times, the light of our higher nature shines through. We are truly alive.

The spontaneous impulse to help that arises when we see another in need, even if we don't know the person, is born from the underlying unity that exists in the spiritual dimension of our lives. The even stronger drive within us to help our loved ones, those we are close to, is due to the strong personal bonds we feel. It is in this connection that we have the greater opportunity to partake in a kind of spiritual fusion and realize ("real-eyes") that "life is one" is not merely a cliché.

To come back to earth for a moment, we can remember all those times we tried to be of help and didn't do such a good job of it. To help another often takes a true knowledge of the situation and a true understanding of the needs of the other. This takes real psychological and spiritual insight. We need to study the purpose of life in its everyday manifestations. We need to learn to act unselfishly for the good of others, and we need to learn that sometimes the best we can do for another person, especially someone we are close to, is let them make their own decisions and face the consequences of their own actions. Only then can they really grow and achieve something worthwhile in their lives.

As in the parable of the good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37), we are all neighbors. As in one of Tsong Kha-pa's three principle aspects of the Buddhist path, view all beings as precious as your own mother. With the Hindu voice of thunder (Brihadaranyaka Upanishad 5.2.2), restrain yourself, give, be compassionate. We are sparks of the same flame, fingers on the same hand. The overriding principle in all belief systems, even when we don't understand or we can't share in another's task, is the unity expressed through the bond of true love.

[Note: Here are the links to the two articles by William Q. Judge that were quoted from in the above article.--Compiler]:
(1) Is Poverty Bad Karma?
(2) Spiritual Gifts and Their Attainment

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