Is Poverty Bad Karma?
The Path, July, 1891
The question of what is good Karma and what bad has been usually considered by theosophists from a very worldly and selfish standpoint. The commercial element has entered into the calculation as to the result of merit and demerit. Eternal Justice, which is but another name for Karma, has been spoken of as awarding this or that state of life to the reincarnating ego solely as a mere balance of accounts in a ledger, with a payment in one case by way of reward and a judgment for debt in another by way of punishment.
It has been often thought that if a man be rich and well circumstanced it must follow that in his prior incarnation he was good although poor; and that if he now be in poverty the conclusion is that, when on earth before, his life was bad if rich. So it has come about that the sole test of good or bad Karma is one founded entirely upon his purse. But is poverty with all its miseries bad Karma? Does it follow, because a man is born in the lowest station in life, compelled always to live in the humblest way, often starving and hearing his wife and children cry out for food, that therefore he is suffering from bad Karma?
If we look at the question entirely from the plane of this one life, this personality, then of course what is disagreeable and painful in life may be said to be bad. But if we regard all conditions of life as experiences undergone by the ego for the purpose of development, then even poverty ceases to be “bad Karma.” Strength comes only through trial and exercise. In poverty are some of the greatest tests for endurance, the best means for developing the strength of character which alone leads to greatness. These egos, then, whom we perceive around us encased in bodies whose environment is so harsh that endurance is needed to sustain the struggle, are voluntarily, for all we know, going through that difficult school so as to acquire further deep experience and with it strength.
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.
It may then be asked if all poverty and low condition are good Karma? This we can answer, under the rule laid down, in the negative. Some such lives, indeed many of them, are bad Karma, displeasing to the immortal self imprisoned in the body, because they are not by deliberate choice, but the result of causes blindly set in motion in previous lives, sure to result in planting within the person the seeds of wickedness that must later be uprooted with painful effort. Under this canon, then, we would say that the masses of poor people who are not bad in nature are enduring oftener than not good Karma, because it is in the line of experience Ishwara has chosen, and that only those poor people who are wicked can be said to be suffering bad Karma, because they are doing and making that which is displeasing to the immortal self within.