Karma and Ancient Law
The Theosophist, September, 1888
Some points in ancient law, which furnish coincidences with the occult doctrine of cyclic progression, and some legal theories which illustrate certain theological dogmas, are the subject of this paper.
Looked at from the standpoint of modern legislation, all that we know of ancient Roman law appears singular, anomalous and unintelligible, until the principle which underlies it is understood. Modern law occupies itself chiefly with two duties—the adjustment of the relations between individuals and the state, and of the relations of individuals with each other; these relations being so fixed that each individual may be said to move inside a fixed circle, which marks the boundaries of his individual rights and obligations.
Within this circle each man is free to move as he pleases; he may appropriate as much as he can of the gifts of nature, or the produce of industry; he is at liberty to exercise to the utmost the right of competition, the practical outcome of that struggle for existence which is, according to an occult teacher, the real and most prolific parent of most woes and sorrows and all crimes; from this limiting circle the modern man practically makes war for his own good on the rest of humanity,—a war glossed over by the word society which really means holy alliance for mutual good.
In modern law the unit of legislation is the individual, the relations between man and man, husband and wife, father and son, brother and brother, being legally fixed and strictly defined.
In the oldest Roman law of which we have definite knowledge, an entirely different principle prevails; here the unit of legislation is not the individual but the family, the relation between family and family being legally fixed, while the internal relations of the family are left to the control of the principle of patria potestas; a term indicating that the family—that is, the wife, the children and the slaves—are under the absolute control of the father, and cannot possess property for themselves, nor enter into contracts without his consent. While the father lives, his children, grand-children and great-grand-children, his adopted children with their children and grand-children, are all absolutely under his control and the whole family acts as a harmonious unit, or rather as a system of several bodies bound together by some harmoniously acting and perfectly balanced force, under the direction of the father.
That the supremacy of the father was not secured by force, as some students have considered to be the case, the simple consideration of its physical impossibility is enough to show; for how could an old and perhaps infirm father compel the obedience of several grown up sons and their families in the perfection in which this obedience was undoubtedly rendered? Hence we are compelled to conclude that the bond which held the family together was mutual consent based on mutual benefit. For such a harmonious relation to subsist, every member of the family must have continuously fulfilled every duty to every other member of the family, and the father must have possessed absolute power, not as a despot, but as true representative of the family; he must have been master of all, because he was first servant of all. This mutual fulfillment of every duty would create one Karma for the whole family, and would be likely to ensure that its members would keep together through a series of incarnations.
In this institution of the patria potestas, in fact, we have a historical picture of exactly that condition of family life which we are led to expect as characteristic of the Satya Yuga; and it is a remarkable proof of Indian spirituality that a somewhat similar principle regulates Hindu family life at the present day. The present condition of strife and competition, of mutual distrust and evasion of duties, of discord between father and child, husband and wife, master and servant, employer and employed; the present state of confusion of nationalities which has made a great exponent of Vedic religion a son of Christian European parents, which has made a Russian and an American the chosen teachers of the Buddhist and the Hindu, while Europe and the New World look for spiritual instruction to the Brahmans, and the scriptures of the East; in short, the disharmonies which characterize the present Kali Yuga are all due to the gradual neglect of mutual duties, the growth of selfishness and individualism, the tacit acceptance of the doctrine that a man’s first duty is not to Truth, or his own divine nature, nor to humanity, or even his family, but to his own selfish personality. The practical conclusion we come to is that if we wish to bring on the new Satya Yuga, to restore the golden age with all its joys, to bring the gods once more among men we must begin by repairing the mischief we have done, by truly and unselfishly fulfilling every duty, first to truth, then to our own divine nature, then to the members of our own family, then to our nation and all humanity; so shall we lay this terrible demon called the struggle for existence, and practically realize that grand ideal of Universal Brotherhood, the profession of which is the honour and glory of the Society to which we belong.
While on the subject of ancient law there is one other matter upon which it may be well to touch. The position of father in the Roman family, the sum total of his legal rights and obligations as the representative of the family, was called his persona. This persona is not insolubly connected with the idea of personality; in fact, several things which had no personality, as, for instance, corporate bodies, had a persona in the eye of the law. As we noticed before, the father of the family had power to adopt children into his family, in addition to, or in default of his own; these adopted children were in exactly the same position, legal and social, as his own children; the wife, children and grand-children, whether adopted or not, together with their wives and children, had, as we have seen, no rights of their own, but were in exactly the position which is suggested to us by the word slave, except for the right of inheritance, which right indeed was conceded to slaves in certain cases by Roman law. Inheritance, under early Roman law, had certain peculiarities. As regards their future action the sons were, on the death of their father, separate and individual: each could possess property or make contracts for himself; but as regards the property, rights, and obligations of their father, they still remained united; they took upon them conjointly his complete legal clothing; on them all equally devolved their father’s persona.
If three sons were co-heirs, they inherited the persona equally; that is to say, the phenomenon of three personalities in one persona, of three individuals in one person, was quite natural and normal to the Roman mind.
We have but to remember that dogmatic theology, imported from Greece under the early Roman Empire, was matured in the very midst of these ideas, to understand the effect which they have had in moulding its various dogmas.
The theological conception of mankind under the despotic rule of an absolute lord, to whose arbitrary commands they owed implicit obedience, and disobedience to whom was visited with the direst punishments, exactly embodies the view which would be taken of the patria potestus by an age which had already forgotten the spirit of that institution while remembering its form.
The God of theology is in fact the Roman pater-familias, while humanity, according to this view of the universe, fills the position of the adopted sons; the extreme form of this idea having produced the grovelling wretch who takes a pleasure in stating that be is a miserable sinner, and owes eternal gratitude to his tyrant for the right to exist even in hell.
But there is another dogma on which the conceptions of ancient law shed even more light, and this is the dogma of the Trinity. We have seen how the conception of three individuals in one person had become quite habitual and natural to the Roman mind; and once we fully grasp this fact, we are ready to comprehend the source of the Trinity as at present taught and understood, to understand the process by which the adept of Galilee, the Life-Spirit, and the whisperings of intuition, became metamorphosed into the triune Jehovah, the three persons in one God. The theological trinity is not, like the trimurti of the Brahmans, or the corresponding doctrines of Egypt and Persia, a metaphysical idea involving the conceptions of creation, conservation, and transformation, but is a dogmatic assertion of the co-existence of three divine personalities which are at once united and distinct. We should not have said that this doctrine is understood by Christendom, for it is self-contradictory and inconceivable if taken in connection with any modern idea of person and personality, and is unintelligible without the key to its origin which we have indicated.
When Christians come to see that this doctrine of the Trinity is not the gospel, but that the true gospel is something not even remotely resembling it, then may they turn with open and candid minds, with sincerity and love of truth, to seek in the recorded words of Jesus the true eternal and theosophical doctrines which he taught; a right understanding of which, united to their conscientious fulfilment, will make him in very deed their saviour, whom they have long hailed as such, though completely misunderstanding his doctrines; and often flagrantly, if ignorantly, transgressing all his commands.
The reformation of Christendom will begin when professing Christians find that it is really true that “a man’s life consists not in the abundance of his possessions,” and when they begin to understand the dark saving “whosoever will save his life shall lose it and whosoever will lose his life for my sake shall save it.”
Then will they begin to see that the eternal life promised by Jesus is not a post-mortem prolongation of earthly felicity, an extended term of sensuous enjoyment, but a present reality, attainable by all and attained by a few, who have learned, in the words of one of our teachers, to “get rid of their own ego,—the illusory apparent self and to recognise the true self in a transcendental Divine Life,” and who unselfishly teach this doctrine to others.