Karma and Archetype: A Teleological Unfolding of Self

This is an excerpt from Adventure in Archetype: Depth Psychology and the Humanities (Essays in Archetype) by Mark Greene, Ph.D. More information about Mark and his book can be found at the end of this excerpt.

            In synchronous step with the advent of a western psychology of the unconscious, the 20th, and now, early 21st century have witnessed an enormous influx and integration of eastern philosophy and mysticism into western culture. Evidence of this intellectual cross-pollination can be seen as early as 1875 in New York City with the founding of the Theosophical society, “a small but active international group of occultists who believed in reincarnation as the necessary path to the ultimate, inevitable purification of humanity” (Funk & Wagnells, 2002). Although not directly influenced by Hinduism or Buddhism, modern western science also began to describe the quantum physics underpinning material reality in terms plainly reminiscent of the age-old eastern concept of maya which stipulates that “indeed everything (material) other than Brahman, the indescribable Absolute, is an illusion” (Smart, 1976, p. 70). These new western insights were facilitated by Plank’s introduction of a quantum mechanics theory of sub-atomic particle movement in 1900 and Einstein’s special theory of relativity in 1905. In the latter part of the 20th century, the influence of Hinduism, Zen Buddhism and Daoism upon popular western culture in the form of music, television programming and a surge of interest in eastern meditative and martial arts is also readily apparent.

            Of all the ideology found in the rich panoply of eastern religions, perhaps it is the doctrine of karma which stands out as the most accessible and fascinating for those of us raised in the west. Implicit within the westerner’s understanding of karma is that one’s deeds do not go unnoticed and that, indeed, an individual will be either rewarded or punished both in this lifetime and in subsequent incarnations for actions carried out today. Perhaps the inculcation in the west of a predominantly Christian dogma which proposes heaven or hell after-life possibilities dependent upon our behavior on earth enables the psyche of the westerner to successfully identify with this aspect of karma called ethicization, “the belief that good and bad acts lead to certain results in one life or several lives” (O’Flaherty, 1980, xi).

In so imagining ourselves collectively as children of an Old Testament father capable of compassion and wrath, and then subsequently, as sheep under the loving eye of a pastor (manifest in Jesus of Nazareth), the western psyche readily responds to the karmic doctrine by supposing that someone or some cosmic principle is, indeed, watching over us. As argued by Freud, such perception may actually stem from a collective projection upon a divine father for lack of a satisfying relationship with our actual biological fathers. This point notwithstanding, it is not a big leap to imagine a western acceptance of a divine father enforcing a sort of karmic law upon us as well. Doing so stirs up the societal baggage of a western father complex, one born of guilt for both loving a divine image of father (and our actual fathers) yet wanting to overthrow them to fully test our accomplishments and differentiation from them as individuals.

            Of primary concern in this paper are the actual roots of the karmic doctrine and its subsequent integration into the modern western psyche with the help of the theories C. G. Jung, the founder of analytical psychology. Implicit within the karmic doctrine is the concept of accumulationresulting from a synthesis of negative and positive actions which add up to a current balance of energy much like the funds available to us in a bankaccount. How one manages to preserve, invest or squander these funds over the course of ones lifetime is the result of many personal decisions. Nevertheless, one cannot spend what is not there, at least not in a responsible manner. Thus, a coming to terms with predetermined limitations coupled with a concept of free will, in the broadest possible sense, form the two opposing tenants which comprise the single paradoxical law of karmaand its relevance to the individual.

            In picturing ones life (or lifetimes) laid out linearly left-to-right upon a timeline, it would appear that karma, as a force, concerns itself primarily with the past and the immediate present. Our karma unfolds from the past but is also created anew in the moment. Its momentum progresses on a bearing from left to right, past to present. Jung, however, postulates that life is inherently teleological (Gr. telos end, purpose: the fact or character attributed to nature or natural processes of being directed toward an end or shaped by a purpose). Although Jung also allows for similar left-to-right movement on the above described timeline, the motivating forces he believes to be at work are those which attract the individual towards a final end. In this way, it is a force based in the future which exerts its pull upon the individual as opposed to one which propels the individual from the past as implied by the karmic model. In describing life as fundamentally teleological, Jung imagines our progress as running towardsa goal:

Life is an energy-process. Like every energy-process, it is in principle irreversible and is therefore directed towards a goal. That goal is a state of rest. In the long run everything that happens is, as it were, no more than the initial disturbance of a perpetual state of rest which forever attempts to re-establish itself. Life is teleology par excellence; it is the intrinsic striving towards a goal, and the living organism is a system of directed aims which seek to fulfill themselves” (1958, CW 8, para. 798). In his conceptualization, Jung appears to take into account forces which both propel and attract the individual as evidenced by his use of the term ‘directed’ in the above passage. This paper later provides further examples of how Jung’s archetypal theory accounts for the unconscious ‘directing’ which occurs within the human psyche.

In exploring the origins of the word karma, one finds that they can be traced to the ritual surrounding the actual burnt offering of the Vedic sacrifice. At the most basic level, the Vedic tradition employed the term karman, from the Sanskrit root /kr (‘to do’), to describe the ‘doing’ of the sacrificial ritual. However, over the many centuries during which it represented Indias ‘culturally hegemonous’ system of belief and practice, the Vedic sacrifice developed into an entity of astounding complexity, and the ‘doing’ of the sacrifice became more than a matter of simple action” (Tull, 1989, p. 6).

Tull argues that the Vedic sacrifice had as it purpose the invocation of a microcosmic world order, one wherein the laws of the greater cosmos were mirrored and the gods propitiated by a controlled act of death made literal in the act of an animal offering. The Purusasukta, one of the books of the Rgveda, describes the creation of the cosmos by the divinity Purusa in two distinct phases. In the first, he is spread asunder in all directions, to what eats and does not eat(Rgveda 10.94.4, citedin Tull). Since the cosmos are still in a state of primordial undifferentiation, this spreading of the god Purusa in all directions establishes him as the stuff or materia prima of creation(Tull, p. 51). In the second phase of creation, Purusas distributed essence brings forth the cosmos as manifest in the concrete forms of earth, sun, moon and humankind.

Central to this origin myth is the theme of sacrifice as requisite for creation. In this sense, the supreme act of creation can occur only by way of a supreme act of sacrifice of the creators body. The form of this sacrifice is dismemberment(Rgveda 10.90.11, cited in Tull). Purusas body represents the whole of the undifferentiated cosmos; to bring forth the manifest cosmos, with its several constituents, this whole must be broken up into distinct parts(Tull, p. 51). And so, upon the fire altar of the sacrifice (the Agnicayana), a liminal space is created wherein the performer of the ritual substitutes an offering to be sacrificed in exchange for his ultimate sacrifice which will eventually occur in the burning of the body on his own funeral pyre. In exchange for the controlled act of destruction manifest in the sacrifice, this act which purports to force access to the other worldexpects a response in the form of life, or in simple terms, one must sacrifice a cow in order to obtain cows(Heesterman, 1978, cited in Tull, 1989).

In this way, the expectations and action of Vedic sacrifice itself, the ‘doing’ of the ritual, reinforce the idea that in something dying, something new will be born in response. Later, at the time of death, the one performing the sacrifice will move up one level in the cosmic analogy, transcending yet replicating the symbolism of the ritual by actually becoming a part of the cosmos with his sacrifice. His death and implied rebirth are literally informed by the structure of the ritual which he has dutifully performed throughout his life. In this way, karma is enacted on multiple levels of which the most mundane, that of the sacrifice, serves as microcosm for a universal order. No longer just symbolic agency, the soul is now an active player in the cosmic dance.

In considering these origins of the karmic doctrine, it becomes evident that life, as seen from an eastern perspective, is but an unfolding of a momentum within which we as souls have the fortune to partake and even influence. In recognizing creation itself as the result of a selfless act of sacrifice it is fitting to acknowledge that indeed one becomes good by good action, bad by bad action (Brhadaranyak Upanisad 3.2.13, cited in Tull). It is thus left to each individual to assist in the creation of the cosmos by performing good deeds, or at least, living ones life to the fullest by returning to the sacrificial fire what was given to all of us at the moment of creation.

            The reader perhaps cannot help but notice thematic similarities between the Vedic origin of karma and those surrounding the inception of Christianity. In both, a supreme sacrifice is made by a divinity whosedeath provides humankind with the opportunity for continued existence. In both cases, a platform for the continuance of the world is provided along with sanctuary for humanity’s mundane existence upon it. Both also offer metaphysical alternatives. In the case of the west, salvation is equated with life everlasting as a sort of final destinationand is available to any believer who confesses sins and acknowledges Jesus Christ as savior. In the east, each lifetime functions as a proving ground wherein the individual strives to better his accrued karmic lot so that someday he may be released from samsara, the cycle of reincarnation and suffering, and merge with Brahman, Hinduism’s absolute godhead.

From this vantage point, the core themes influencing eastern and western psyche may not be as dissimilar as previously thought. At the heart of the issue, however, is the following discrepancy. The book of Genesis, where the Judeo-Christian origin myth is both inscribed and rooted in western psyche, does not tell the story of a selfless act of sacrifice which in turn begets the cosmos. From the start, the god of the Hebrew Torah (Old Testament) indicates the necessity for an I-thou relationship between himself and humankind. As Joseph Campbell (1991) puts it, As long as an illusion of ego remains, the commensurate illusion of a separate deity also will be there; and vice versa, as long as the idea of a separate deity is cherished, an illusion of ego, related to it in love, fear, worship, exile or atonement, will also be there” (p. 14).

Jung and others have argued that the evolution of the god-image in the western collective psyche found it necessary to tell the story of Christ the Redeemer in an attempt to compensate the I-thou relationship that had characterized the West’s relationship with god up until that point in history. Perhaps some benefits are to be had in our ‘sky god’ incarnating in the body of a man. That this god/man sacrificed his life to offer humanity eternal life certainly resonates with the Vedic origin myth reviewed here. Still, east and west approach spirituality and humanity’s relationship with the divine in markedly contrasting ways. According to Swami Vivekananda (1901), “no one can get anything except he earns it; this is an eternal law; we may think it is not so, but in the long run we shall be convinced of it . . . A fool may buy all the books in the world, but they will be in his library, and he will only be able to read those he deserves, and this deserving is produced by karma” (p. 20).

It is very likely that as result of reading at least most of the books in his library and recognizing the unity found in eastern religion between the creator and his creation that C. G.  Jung strove to bring to the west an awareness of this different approach to the divine. Jung’s karma led him to develop theories that continue to act as a bridge between east and west and also collectively identify substrata of psyche that link all humanity. In this way, increasing our understanding of the eastern psyche is but one path on the road to understanding all of humanity. Reading Jung this way shows how greatly he was influenced by the karmic doctrine.

            Jung reveals his high esteem for eastern philosophy in the memorial address he gave for his friend Richard Wilhelm in 1930. In it, he notes that a significant sign of the times is the fact that “Wilhelm and the indologist Hauer were asked to lecture on yoga at this year's congress of German psychotherapists . . . Imagine what it means when a practicing physician . . . establishes contact with an Eastern system of healing!”  He further asserts that “I know that our unconscious is full of Eastern symbolism” (1958, CW 15, para. 90). According to the tome transcribed and written by his secretary but often referred to as his autobiography, Memories, Dreams, Reflections, Jung showed that he understood the mandalas he had been drawing during and immediately after his confrontation with the unconscious (1912-1918) were “cryptograms concerning the state of the self which were presented to me anew each day. In them I saw the self—that is, my whole being—actively at work” (p. 196). Not until 1927 when Jung received from Wilhelm a copy of the Taoist alchemical treatise The Secret of the Golden Flower, did he receive an “undreamed-of confirmation of my ideas about the mandala and the circumambulation of the center” (p. 197).

Coward (1985) points out the stunning parallels between Jung’s description of tapas, “a term which can best be rendered as self-brooding” and a passage in the Isa Upanisad which describes the Atman. First, Jung: “This expression clearly pictures the state of meditation without content, in which the libido is supplied to one’s own self somewhat in the same manner of incubating heat. As a result of the complete detachment of all affective ties to the object, there is necessarily formed in the inner self an equivalent of objective reality, or a complete identity of inside and outside, which is technically described as tat tvam asi (that art thou). The fusion of the self with its relations to the object produces the identity of the self (atman) with the essence of the world . . . so that the identity of the inner with the outer atman is cognized” (1958, CW 6, para. 189).

Compare the above with the following Isa Upanisad passage provided by Coward: “The Atman is unmoving, one, swifter than the mind. The senses do not reach It as It is ever ahead of them. Though Itself standing still, It outstrips those who run. In It the all pervading air supports the activities of beings. It moves and It moves not; It is far and It is near; It is within all this and It is also outside all this” (Isa Upanisad 4-5 cited in Coward). It is apparent that Jung drew heavily upon the eastern religious concept of Atman in the formulation of his concept of the Self. If the Self is for Jung a sort of sun in a solar model around which other entities of the psyche revolve, such as the ego (Earth), anima, and shadow, then the archetypes would correspond to the primordial stuff of which the sun and all the other planets are composed. For Jung, the Self was paradoxically both the container and the contained. In this analogy, then, the Self would simultaneously be represented by the Sun and the universe.

            Jung elaborated his pivotal theory of the archetype throughout his life’s work. In the eastern tradition of yoga, Jung found corroboration of his own theories. Coward argues that Jung uses the term yoga to mean a way of life involving both psychology and philosophy. Jung’s interest “from the beginning was not with Patanjali's technical definitions but with the spiritual development of the personality as the goal of all yoga” (p. 3). In October 1932, Jung gave a series of seminars on chakra symbolism of Tantra Yoga titled a Psychological Commentary on Kundalini Yoga. In an attempt to define samskara, memory trace, to his western audience, he likens it to “. . . our idea of heredity . . . also, our hypothesis of the collective unconscious” (Jung, 1975a, p. 8). In later editions of On the Psychology of the Unconscious, he placed a footnote at the end of a description of the collective unconscious where he describes it as containing the “. . . legacy of ancestral life, the mythological images: these are the archetypes . . .” and calls it “a deliberate extension of the archetype by means of the karmic factor . . . (which is) essential to deeper understanding of the nature of an archetype” (1958, CW 7, para. 118n). Elsewhere Jung states that “We may cautiously accept the idea of karma only if we understand it as psychic heredity in the very widest sense of the word. Psychic heredity does exist—that is to say, there is inheritance of psychic characteristics such as predisposition to disease, traits of character, special gifts, and so forth” (CW 11, para. 845).

Jung continued to refute the notion of a personal karma since “the main bulk of life is brought into existence out of sources that are hidden to us. Even complexes can start a century or more before a man is born. There is something like karma” (Jung, 1975b, p. 436). Only later in life did Jung begin to accept the possibility of a personal karma, one more specific in its implications to a person’s destiny than the collective attributes he had always assigned to it in helping him see corroboration of his theory of the collective unconscious in other religions. Jung connects the collective unconscious, ancestral memories and as yet unfulfilled archetypal images with a sort of collective karma.

            Although Jung openly credits karma theory as influencing his theories of the archetype, Coward aptly points out that “little recognition  is given to this major Eastern influence by either Jacobi, Jung’s systematizer, or Jungian scholars . . . this apparent attempt to hide or ignore the Eastern content in Jung’s archetype may be . . . a fear among Jungians that such an admission would make their already suspect psychology even less acceptable to the mainstream of Western psychology” (Coward, 1975, p. 98).

Jung offers a rebuttal to those who would criticize his theory by wondering “what sort of idea my critics would have used to characterize the empirical material in question” (1958, CW 7, para. 118n). Later in life, Jung’s dreams provided evidence pointing to his own reincarnation. For him, it was these dreams, plus those of a close acquaintance, which led to a very positive assessment of Indian karma and rebirth theory in the last years of his life. In the chapter On Life after Death in Memories, Dreams, Reflections, Jung states, “I could well imagine that I have lived in former centuries and there encountered questions I was not yet able to answer; that I had to be born again because I had not fulfilled the task that was given to me. When I die, my deeds will follow along with me - that is how I imagine it” (Jung, 1989, p. 318).

Jung believed that his purpose this lifetime was to bring the shadow to the Christian archetype. In striving throughout his life to portray the image of god as containing both evil and good, Jung sought to bring a union of the opposites to our western consciousness so as to avoid the literal playing out of the Judeo-Christian god’s inherent imbalance upon our lives.


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Jung, C. G. (1975b). Letters. Psychological Perspectives–A Semi-Annual Journal of Jungian Thought, 6.

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Tull, Herman W. (1989). The Vedic origins of karma: Cosmos as man in ancient Indian myth and ritual. Albany: SUNY Press.

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About The Book

You've just read an excerpt from Mark Greene, Ph.D's Adventure in Archetype: Depth Psychology and the Humanities (Essays in Archetype).

This volume comprises a collection of essays written from an archetypal perspective. Intended for students of literature, the arts and psychology, this book was also written for the reader intent on self-discovery. Archetypal theory refers to one aspect of the work developed by the pioneering psychoanalyst C. G. Jung (1875-1961) and taken further by psychologist James Hillman (1926 - 2011). These theories, or their derivatives, may also appear under other headings such as analytical psychology, archetypal psychology, Jungian psychodynamic theory, depth psychology or, in general terms, a psychology of the unconscious.

About The Author

Mark Greene received his Ph.D. in mythological studies and depth psychology from Pacifica Graduate Institute, USA in 1999. Passionate about psychology, mythology and the significance of symbols in dreams and consciousness, he teaches a range of subjects including the psychology of consciousness, analytical psychology, positive psychology, abnormal psychology and how to use mythology and psychology to better understand the archetypes present in our personal narratives and the media and arts around us. 

An Assistant Professor in the Department of Counselling and Psychology at Hong Kong Shue Yan University, he is also the OECD Project Coordinator and Senior Researcher at the Economic and Wellbeing Project. Besides conducting one of Hong Kong's best known subjective wellbeing surveys since 2007, other areas of interest and research include exploring the meaning of symbols and images in myths, legends and fairy tales. Mark Greene is also a registered counselor at the Dream Therapy Institute in Hong Kong www.dreamdecanter.net (http://www.dreamdecanter.net/)

Plans for further volumes in the Essays in Archetype series include books on the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice and an archetypal look at China and the west using modern and ancient myths to elucidate mutual understanding.

Book Review

"As a professor of the Psychology of Personality for many years I can attest to the fact that for beginning students of Jung's psychology, one of the more difficult concepts to grasp is that of the Archetype. Understanding the concept with examples has often proved elusive. But with Mark Greene's new book we have the solution to hand. He has written a most readable and accessible set of essays which illuminate archetypal experience in many areas of literature, art, religion and mythology with a view to helping us understand ourselves better. As he succinctly puts it: "Familiarizing oneself with the concept of archetypes and their myriad manifestations in myths, legends and fairy tales can provide a better understanding of how individual psychology functions". Dr Greene has done teachers and students of personality alike a great service by a writing a comprehensive and accessible book which should serve as a standard in archetypal psychology for years to come." - Prof. Geoffrey Blowers, University of Hong Kong.