THEOSOPHY, Vol. 89, Fall 2001
(Pages 5-11; Size: 14K)


[Article number (16) in this Department]

How can we determine the difference between personal and collective karma?

An example comes to mind in the story of a group of nonviolent activists sitting on the floor in a detention center, after being herded together by police and left largely to themselves. As hours pass, they grow hot, hungry, argumentative, and fractious. Suddenly, in a burst of noise at the door, a stranger seems to be hurled bodily into the room and is actually attempting to join them, reaching out to them, followed closely by guards trying to pull this new person out of the room. Immediately the group unites, pulling and holding the stranger in a move of solidarity. They are strong in number but the guards have the power of authority -- a momentary standoff -- until someone starts to sing. Quickly joined by the others, the room fills with determined voices, flowing in unison as if one. They are transformed. They are not individuals in a struggle but an aggregate unit, and the guards let go, backing away, leaving their prisoner behind. The collective intent, the momentum, came together for a powerful moment, much like the call for faith that can move mountains. This is the spirit of freedom found in revolutions throughout history.

Several other images of power come to mind in the great cataclysms and wars, explosions of activity that commit us to an action seemingly beyond our own world and wishes: a violent rebellion, for instance, or a crowd out of control. Examples include, in recent years, quite real incidents of wilding, when so-called play-like behavior escalates to violent and cruel attacks, masked in the anonymity of gang mentality. In any case, a sound (thought or act) penetrates the consciousness of the masses and moves them toward a consensus, growing ever so subtlety until the forces gain a momentum greater than any one thought can redirect. Perhaps today's vernacular would include inciting to riot or mob mentality or lynching. These stories of crime, violation, terrorism, and massacre are too often in the news today.

Once such a momentum is gained, either for a good deed or evil one, the trigger may seem out of proportion to the result -- a song, a word, a slight, a misstep. The crisis seems not the property of any one individual and cannot always be considered resolvable on an individual level. The forces must work themselves out. The critical mass can be thought of as an overloading of forces that burst. And who can say what "I" was a part of the cause?

A family, working group, study group, political unit, or governing body, etc., has a collective intent, a bonding or affinity, intentional or not. Institutional violence, discrimination, and ingrained inequalities are far subtler and require an enlightened awareness of our complicity. Understanding the forces at work can suggest the process that all of humanity shares and one's probable place within it. First heard, however, is the lion's roar followed instantly by the piercing shrills of horns being blown in the first chapter of the Bhagavad-Gita. A series of awakenings, the sound begins with singular trumpeting to raise the spirit of the chief and instantly progresses to the din of dreadful noise, all announcing the battle had begun. This is the nature of war, the archetype of collectivity.

How does theosophy shed light on personal and collective karma? Several students offer their perspectives along varying facets of inquiry.


At the onset of a great period of evolutionary activity the One becomes the many. The one great Self splinters into an infinite number of individual sparks, called lives, or souls. Each immortal spark undergoes its own, unique spiritual pilgrimage through various forms in order to grow and evolve towards complete self-realization. At the end of the journey, all the individual sparks dissolve back into the One Life again for a great period of rest. And then the cycle repeats. Along the way, the individual soul creates karma. Karma is an act and it is also the result of that act; it is the sowing of a cause and the reaping of the effect that inevitably follows from the cause. Each spark has its own unique and individual line of karma, a single string of cause and effect that stretches from the dawn of existence to its dusk.

However, along the journey the individual spark becomes involved with other sparks to form groups -- families, communities, and nations. Together the sparks in the group commit actions and together they experience the results of those actions. That is collective karma. So, both are true. Both exist. There is individual karma and there is collective karma, both intertwined to create an extraordinarily complex web of actions and reactions.

As a general guideline, we can say that what we experience as an individual person is the result of individual karma: for instance, an attraction to a particular person or place, an aversion to a particular person or place, a promotion at work, an artistic talent, or an emotional or mental proclivity. On the other hand, what we experience as part of a group is the result of collective karma: for example, a financial disaster, which affects a whole family; a political scandal, which affects a whole city; a blizzard, which affects a whole region; a war, which affects a whole nation; pollution, which affects a whole world.

It is important to remember, however, that groups are made up of individuals. And not all individuals respond in the same way to the same collective karmic event. Say a nation is attacked. The nation is experiencing as a group the results of actions it committed as a group, perhaps in this lifetime, perhaps many lifetimes ago. But different individuals within that nation respond in their own unique ways, according to their own individual destinies. One fights bravely. Another runs. Another tries to stop the fighting. One cowers and hoards from his neighbors. Another tries to save them. And so it goes, in all the various possibilities of human thought, feeling, and behavior. So, even within a collective karmic event, individual karma persists.

Individual karma is like a single string in a great tapestry. It has its own beginning and end, its own unique identity. It takes on the colors and the design of the pictures it passes through (group karma) and, from a distance, even seems to merge with its surroundings. But look up close and you can see that its own single identity is ever intact.


The situations of life besiege us with many perplexing questions. Most of us have asked about the justice of a given effect, something that happened to us or someone we know. We are surrounded by seeming injustices, with no way to reconcile the many inconsistencies to which we are subjected. We want to see some order and equanimity expressed within the universe.

The doctrines of karma and reincarnation might help us provided we take into consideration as many aspects possible to our perceptions. The two kinds of karma, individual and collective, are so closely interwoven that to discern the difference is sometimes impossible. For one thing, we have a dual mind, and more often, we try to equate kama manas (desire mind) through the lower aspect of our dual mind. This limits our perceptions to our personal experience. Once we recognize the necessity for reincarnation as a means to take our understanding beyond a one-life limitation, we are better able to see our position from a universal perspective.

In our ignorance of our total nature, we, as personalities in any lifetime, set causes into motion motivated by personal desires. When these desires are not in harmony with the whole of life, a disturbance is caused that must be resolved at its source. This is one expression of the justice inherent in karma. One wonders whether we can experience (through collective karma) the effects of karma we did not personally set up.


The saying attributed to Jesus, "Come ye out and be ye separate," takes on clear meaning when related to the teaching of karma. "You must be lamps unto yourselves," according to Buddhism, and in the Bhagavad-Gita (6.19), the controlled mind is depicted as "a lamp in a windless place" in that its light does not waver. Our strength lies in individuality and freedom of will. As individuals we are each the producers of causes. We have thoughts, make decisions, and act in the world.

Our actions have consequences that affect us as well as others. According to occult philosophy, our actions eventually go out to affect the whole universe, at least to an imperceptible degree, just as a single stone dropped into the center of a pond eventually sets the whole pond in motion. Although our actions may be individual as cause, they are certainly collective in effect. As H. P. Blavatsky points out in her Secret Doctrine (vol. i, pg. 634) karma exoterically is "simply and literally 'action,' or rather an 'effect producing cause.' Esoterically it is quite a different thing in its far-fetching moral effects." This puts a great responsibility on us as active mind beings.

To understand the ramifications of our actions on others and then act accordingly allows us to be a good influence rather than a destructive one. This is not always so easy to accomplish. Psychiatrist Carl Jung (1954) said, "The inner voice is at once our greatest danger and an indispensable help." The choices we are forced to make in life in the face of complex and confusing situations are rarely, if ever, perfect. For example we all participate in a fossil-fuel economy. Even though we may have a reverence for the earth and see the importance of keeping it a fit place for human evolution, we also have to participate in the life of our civilization. Every time we drive a car or get on a plane or a bus, we participate in an act that is choking the earth. We are all karmically affected by the pollution but have not been the sole cause of it.

Conformity is complicity. German philosopher Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche warns against small omissions and small submissions (Thus Spake Zarathustra, 1892). Indifference of thought and action will carry us away into a kind of cultural and national karma. In this case, we forfeit the right to guide ourselves as self-evolvers, becoming the passive karmic agents of others actions, swept along by the general tide, falsely thinking that refraining from action saves us from the karmic consequences connected to family, group, or nation. As The Voice Of The Silence points out, "Inaction in a deed of mercy is action in a deadly sin." What we don't do is as vital in forming our future as what we do.

Consider acts of love and sacrifice: we may reap effects that we do not seem to deserve because of any kind of transgression in this life, as would a humanitarian doctor who tends to an epidemic of sick patients with a communicable disease and eventually contracts the disease. To understand the value of a life well-lived, we need to see the broader view, sense the grander scale, and live according to higher aspirations.

In a 1986 article ("Life") Lily Tomlin posed the paradox: "We are all in this together -- by ourselves." Our challenge is to do what is right as an individual regardless of the situations that present themselves. If we begin to act from within, the realization that what we do affects all beings will gain active potency. When acting individually for the benefit of all others, the cold materialism and lack of human solidarity in the world will begin to melt away.

Next article:
(Winter 2001-2002)
[Article number (17) in this Department]

Back to the
complete list of articles.

Back to the full listing containing all of the
"Additional Categories of Articles".

Main Page | Introductory Brochure | Volume 1--> Setting the Stage
Karma and Reincarnation | Science | Education | Economics | Race Relations
The WISDOM WORLD | World Problems & Solutions | The People*s Voice | Misc.