This life of the ego in his own world, which is so glorious and so fully satisfying for the developed man, plays but a very small part in the life of the ordinary person, for in his case the ego has not yet reached a sufficient stage of development to be awake in his causal body. In obedience to the law of Nature he has withdrawn into it, but in doing so he has lost the sensation of vivid life, and his restless desire to feel this once more pushes him in the direction of another descent into matter.
This is the scheme of evolution appointed for man at the present stage—that he shall develop by descending into grosser matter, and then ascend to carry back into himself the result of the experiences so obtained. His real life, therefore, covers millions of years, and what we are in the habit of calling a life is only one day of this greater existence. Indeed, it is in reality only a small part of one day; for a life of seventy years in the physical world is often succeeded by a period of twenty times that length spent in higher spheres.
Every one of us has a long line of these physical lives behind him, and the ordinary man has a fairly long line still in front of him. Each of such lives is a day at school. The ego puts upon himself his garment of flesh and goes forth into the school of the physical world to learn certain lessons. He learns them, or does not learn them, or partially learns them, as the case may be, during his schoolday of earth-life; then he lays aside the vesture of the flesh and returns home to his own level for rest and refreshment. In the morning of each new life he takes up again his lesson at the point where he left it the night before. Some lessons he may be able to learn in one day, while others may take him many days.
If he is an apt pupil and learns quickly what is needed, if he obtains an intelligent grasp of the rules of the school, and takes the trouble to adapt his conduct to them, his school-life is comparatively short, and when it is over he goes forth fully equipped into the real life of the higher worlds for which all this is only a preparation. Other egos are duller boys who do not learn so quickly; some of them do not understand the rules of the school, and through that ignorance are constantly breaking them; others are wayward, and even when they see the rules they cannot at once bring themselves to act in harmony with them. All of these have a longer school-life, and by their own actions they delay their entry upon the real life of the higher worlds.
For this is a school in which no pupil ever fails; every one must go on to the end. He has no choice as to that; but the length of time which he will take in qualifying himself for the higher examinations is left entirely to his own discretion. The wise pupil, seeing that school-life is not a thing in itself, but only a preparation for a more glorious and far wider life, endeavours to comprehend as fully as possible the rules of his school, and shapes his life in accordance with them as closely as he can, so that no time may be lost in the learning of whatever lessons are necessary. He co-operates intelligently with the Teachers, and sets himself to do the maximum of work which is possible for him, in order that as soon as he can he may come of age and enter into his kingdom as a glorified ego.
Theosophy explains to us the laws under which this school-life must be lived, and in that way gives a great advantage to its students. The first great law is that of evolution. Every man has to become a perfect man, to unfold to the fullest degree the divine possibilities which lie latent within him, for that unfoldment is the object of the entire scheme so far as he is concerned. This law of evolution steadily presses him onward to higher and higher achievements. The wise man tries to anticipate its demands—to run ahead of the necessary curriculum, for in that way he not only avoids all collision with it, but he obtains the maximum of assistance from its action. The man who lags behind in the race of life finds its steady pressure constantly constraining him—a pressure which, if resisted, rapidly becomes painful. Thus the laggard on the path of evolution has always the sense of being hunted and driven by his fate, while the man who intelligently co-operates is left perfectly free to choose the direction in which he shall move, so long as it is onward and upward.
The second great law under which this evolution is taking place is the law of cause and effect. There can be no effect without its cause, and every cause must produce its effect. They are in fact not two but one, for the effect is really part of the cause, and he who sets one in motion sets the other also. There is in Nature no such idea as that of reward or punishment, but only of cause and effect. Anyone can see this in connection with mechanics or chemistry; the clairvoyant sees it equally clearly with regard to the problems of evolution. The same law obtains in the higher as in the lower worlds; there, as here, the angle of reflection is always equal to the angle of incidence. It is a law of mechanics that action and reaction are equal and opposite. In the almost infinitely finer matter of the higher worlds the reaction is by no means always instantaneous; it may sometimes be spread over long periods of time, but it returns inevitably and exactly.
Just as certain in its working as the mechanical law in the physical world is the higher law, according to which the man who sends out a good thought or does a good action receives good in return, while the man who sends out an evil thought or does an evil action, receives evil in return with equal accuracy—once more, not in the least a reward or punishment administered by some external will, but simply as the definite and mechanical result of his own activity. Man has learnt to appreciate a mechanical result in the physical world, because the reaction is usually almost immediate and can be seen by him. He does not invariably understand the reaction in the higher worlds because that takes a wider sweep, and often returns not in this physical life, but in some future one.
The action of this law affords the explanation of a number of the problems of ordinary life. It accounts for the different destinies imposed upon people, and also for the differences in the people themselves. If one man is clever in a certain direction and another is stupid, it is because in a previous life the clever man has devoted much effort to practise in that particular direction, while the stupid man is trying it for the first time. The genius and the precocious child are examples not of the favouritism of some deity but of the result produced by previous lives of application. All the varied circumstances which surrounded us are the result of our own actions in the past, precisely as are the qualities of which we find ourselves in possession. We are what we have made ourselves, and our circumstances are such as we have deserved.
There is, however, a certain adjustment or apportionment of these effects. Though the law is a natural law and mechanical in its operation, there are nevertheless certain great Angels who are concerned with its administration. They cannot change by one feather-weight the amount of the result which follows upon any given thought or act, but they can within certain limits expedite or delay its action, and decide what form it shall take.
If this were not done there would be at least a possibility that in his earlier stages the man might blunder so seriously that the results of his blundering might be more than he could bear. The plan of the Deity is to give man a limited amount of free-will; if he uses that small amount well, he earns the right to a little more next time; if he uses it badly, suffering comes upon him as the result of such evil use, and he finds himself restrained by the result of his previous actions. As the man learns how to use his free-will, more and more of it is entrusted to him, so that he can acquire for himself practically unbounded freedom in the direction of good, but his power to do wrong is strictly restricted. He can progress as rapidly as he will, but he cannot wreck his life in his ignorance. In the earlier stages of the savage life of primitive man it is natural that there should be on the whole more of evil than of good, and if the entire result of his actions came at once upon a man as yet so little developed, it might well crush the newly evolved powers which are still so feeble.
Besides this, the effects of his actions are varied in character. While some of them produce immediate results, others need much more time for their action, and so it comes to pass that as the man develops he has above him a hovering cloud of undischarged results, some of them good, some of them bad. Out of this mass (which we may regard for purposes of analogy much as though it were a debt owing to the powers of Nature) a certain amount falls due in each of his successive births; and that amount, so assigned, may be thought of as the man's destiny for that particular life.
All that it means is that a certain amount of joy and a certain amount of suffering are due to him, and will unavoidably happen to him; how he will meet this destiny and what use he will make of it, that is left entirely to his own option. It is a certain amount of force which has to work itself out. Nothing can prevent the action of that force, but its action may always be modified by the application of a new force in another direction, just as is the case in mechanics. The result of past evil is like any other debt; it may be paid in one large cheque upon the bank of life—by some one supreme catastrophe; or it may be paid in a number of smaller notes, in minor troubles and worries; in some cases it may even be paid in the small change of a great number of petty annoyances. But one thing is quite certain—that, in some form or other, paid it will have to be.
The conditions of our present life, then, are absolutely the result of our own action in the past; and the other side of that statement is that our actions in this life are building up conditions for the next one. A man who finds himself limited either in powers or in outer circumstances may not always be able to make himself or his conditions all that he would wish in this life; but he can certainly secure for the next one whatever he chooses.
Man's every action ends not with himself, but invariably affects others around him. In some cases this effect may be comparatively trivial, while in others it may be of the most serious character. The trivial results, whether good or bad, are simply small debits or credits in our account with Nature; but the greater effects, whether good or bad, make a personal account which is to be settled with the individual concerned.
A man who gives a meal to a hungry beggar, or cheers him by a kindly word, will receive the result of his good action as part of a kind of general fund of Nature's benefits; but one who by some good action changes the whole current of another man's life will assuredly have to meet that same man again in a future life, in order that he who has been benefited may have the opportunity of repaying the kindness that has been done to him. One who causes annoyance to another will suffer proportionately for it somewhere, somehow, in the future, though he may never meet again the man whom he has troubled; but one who does serious harm to another, one who wrecks his life or retards his evolution, must certainly meet his victim again at some later point in the course of their lives, so that he may have the opportunity, by kindly and self-sacrificing service, of counterbalancing the wrong which he has done. In short, large debts must be paid personally, but small ones go into the general fund.
These then are the principal factors which determine the next birth of the man. First acts the great law of evolution, and its tendency is to press the man into that position in which he can most easily develop the qualities which he most needs. For the purposes of the general scheme, humanity is divided into great races, called root-races, which rule and occupy the world successively. The great Aryan or Indo-Caucasian race, which at the present moment includes the most advanced of Earth's inhabitants, is one of these. That which came before it in the order of evolution was the Mongolian race, usually called in Theosophical books Atlantean because the continent from which it ruled the world lay where now roll the waters of the Atlantic ocean. Before that came the Negroid race, some of whose descendants still exist, though by this time much mingled with offshoots of later races. From each of these great root-races there are many offshoots which we call sub-races—such, for example, as the Roman races or the Teutonic; and each of the sub-races in turn divides itself into branch-races, such as the French and the Italians, the English and the Germans.
These arrangements are made in order that for each ego there may be a wide choice of varying conditions and surroundings. Each race is especially adapted to develop within its people one or other of the qualities which are needed in the course of evolution. In every nation there exist an almost infinite number of diverse conditions, riches and poverty, a wide field of opportunities or a total lack of them, facilities for development or conditions under which development is difficult or well-nigh impossible. Amidst all these infinite possibilities the pressure of the law of evolution tends to guide the man to precisely those which best suit his needs at the stage at which he happens to be.
But the action of this law is limited by that other law of which we spoke, the law of cause and effect. The man's actions in the past may not have been such as to deserve (if we may put it so) the best possible opportunities; he may have set in motion in his past certain forces the inevitable result of which will be to produce limitations; and these limitations may operate to prevent his receiving that best possible of opportunities, and so as the result of his own actions in the past he may have to put up with the second best. So we may say that the action of the law of evolution, which if left to itself would do the very best possible for every man, is restrained by the man's own previous actions.
An important feature in that limitation—one which may act most powerfully for good or for evil—is the influence of the group of egos with which the man has made definite links in the past—those with whom he has formed strong ties of love or hate, of helping or of injury—those souls whom he must meet again because of connections made with them in days of long ago. His relation with them is a factor which must be taken into consideration before it can be determined where and how he shall be reborn.
The Will of the Deity is man's evolution. The effort of that nature which is an expression of the Deity is to give the man whatever is most suitable for that evolution; but this is conditioned by the man's deserts in the past and by the links which he has already formed. It may be assumed that a man descending into incarnation could learn the lessons necessary for that life in any one of a hundred positions. From half of these or more than half he may be debarred by the consequences of some of his many and varied actions in the past. Among the few possibilities which remain open to him, the choice of one possibility in particular may be determined by the presence in that family or in that neighbourhood of other egos upon whom he has a claim for services rendered, or to whom he in his turn owes a debt of love.