Karma literally means ‘work’ or ‘activity’. Law of Karma means the law of cause and effect or the law that governs action and reaction. In physics we have such laws of cause and effect like – “For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction”. Similarly we have laws that govern action and reaction in life. These laws are called the Laws of Karma.
Just as we have governmental laws – laws of the land, the laws of nature – laws that govern matter like – thermodynamic laws, laws of physics, chemistry, biology etc. similarly there are laws that life, called the Laws of Karma.
As Lord Jesus Christ put it nicely, “As you sow, so shall you reap.”
What it practically means is that the pain and pleasure that we cause others will sooner or later come back to us – what goes around comes around. However, is that the law of karma is very complicated and intricate? – it is not a question of one activity one result – we are performing millions of actions, in millions of circumstances, with millions of intentions, in millions of lifetimes – all of this is analyzed to award a suitable reaction.
Q) What is the need of the law of karma? There are many benefits that we will see later.
What are the different types of Karma? (this section has to be fine tuned but it will work in the present scenario so use your previous knowledge to present it as best as possible)
Good karma – I perform some good, charitable, kind action and I get some good reaction as a result
Eg. one is very charitable to educational institutions in this life – in his next life he may become very wealthy and receive an excellent education
Bad karma – I perform some bad, harmful, unbeneficial action and I get a bad reaction as a result e.g. I unlawfully take the property of someone else, then in the future some time I will be the victim of a similar act
Akarma –action that gives no reaction. These are actions done for the pleasure of the Lord.
Instant karma – the reaction for a certain action comes instantaneously e.g. I hit someone they hit me back
Delayed karma – the reaction comes some time after the actual action – can be weeks, months, years, or even lifetimes after the action.
Q) Why should I suffer now for my actions in some previous life? (If I suffer the reaction for what I do in this life then I will learn my lesson. What is the use of suffering the reactions for sins I don’t even know that I committed?)
Different seeds take different amount of time to fructify.
Eg. A farmer takes different varieties of seeds, like mustard, coconut, grains, mango, neem etc. and plants them in his field at different places. Everyday, he religiously waters the seeds with great enthusiasm and dedication. He expects that within the next 3 months before the harvest time comes, all the grains, fuits and vegetable seeds will fructify and he shall sell them in the market to make a lot of money. After 3 months he realizes that some grains have fructified and some grains have hardly even begun to grow. He perplexed, bewildered and complains, “Why did all my seeds not grow within the harvest time, although I watered all of them equally?” What is the answer?
In this example, the farmer is compared to the living entity. The land is compared to the life situations that the world throws at us. Every action that we do is like sowing a seed in the land. The seed will fructify according to the law of germination, which is different for each seed. Mustard seeds take a week to grow. Grains are harvested after two or three months. Mangoes may take even twenty years to bear fruit and coconuts even more than that. Some seeds may even take hundred years to fructify.
Once the seeds fructifies one cannot escape the result. One may say, “I don’t want the fruit of this neem tree. It is very bitter. I don’t want it.” One will be forced to accept that fruit. The reactions will come. One cannot sow the seed of a neem tree and expect the sweet fruit of the mango tree!
To understand why different actions give reactions after different time durations, let us probe deeper into the mechanism of karma. This is illustrated through an incident form the Mahabharata.
STORY - DHRITARASHTRA AND HIS DEAD SONS.
After the Kurukshetra war, blind Dhritarashtra asked Krishna, “I had a hundred sons. The principle of life is that first the father dies and then the son dies. How is it that all of my 100 sons were killed in the war, before me?
Krishna replied, “Fifty lifetimes ago, you were a hunter. While hunting, you tried to shoot a male bird, but it flew away. In anger, you ruthlessly slaughtered the hundered baby birds that were there in the nest. The father-bird had to watch in helpless agony. Then you poked the eyes of the father-bird and made it blind. Thus you were born blind and because you caused that father-bird the pain of seeing the death of his hundred sons, you too had to bear the pain of your 100 sons dying.
Dhritarastra asked further, “Why did I have to wait for a fifty lifetimes?”
Krishna answered, “For fifty lifetimes you were performing pious activities and accumulating punya. As a result of that punya (pious credits) you were born as a king and had 100 sons. This requires a lot of punya to have the money enough to raise and educate 100 children. (Today with the fees of education spiraling people find educating even a few children a burden!) Then it was the perfect time to get the reaction for the papa (sin) that you had done fifty lifetimes ago.
Krishna says in the Bhagavad-Gita (4.7) gahana karmano gatih – the way in which action and reaction works is very complex. Material nature, following the Law of Karma, knows best, which reaction has to be given at what time and in what situation. Therefore, some reaction may come in this lifetime, some in the next and some in a distant future.
Jesus said, “The mills of God grind slow but they grind exceedingly fine!” So, every action will be accounted for, sooner or later.
Eg. If there are thousands of cows in a cowshed and if the calves are let loose, each calf will be able to find it’s mother, amongst the thousands there. This is the ability that nature has provided to each calf – it can easily connect to its cause.
In this example, the cow is compared to the cause and the calf is compared to the effect or the result. Just as material nature by the law of action-reaction or cause-effect, helps the calf to find its own mother, similarly, our karma will find us amongst millions of people on the planet. We are the cause and our karma is the effect.
There may be thousands of people on the road but only one of them meets with an accident. It is not by chance, it’s by karma. Thus, the law of karma works exceedingly fine; it may be slow to act, but no one can escape it.
Q) It still feels unfair that people must suffer for something that they did in a previous lifetime. Why should I suffer now for what I did in a previous situation, with which I have no connection now? Yes, it definitely seems unfair to a person who is too absorbed in this one life and has lost touch with the reality of being an eternal spiritual soul who is simply changing different bodies in different lifetimes. However, form the higher point of view it is totally fair and true justice.
Eg. If I commit a murder and the police catch me, what is highest punishment they can give me? Capital punishment? What if I commit 10 murders and the police catch me, then what is the highest punishment they can give me? Again Capital punishment! Is this justice? Hanging to death once for 1 murder and hanging to death for 10 murders is not true justice. Thus, man-made laws are incomplete. However, according to the universal law of justice (or the Law of Karma) one is killed 10 times in 10 different lifetimes for the murders he had committed in a previous lifetime. That is complete justice.
That is why, people who have a limited vision, who can see only this one life time are baffled to understand, how and why things are happening, the way they are, in the world around them. Those who understand the Law of Karma and the Law of Reincarnation etc. are much better equipped to face the rigors and challenges that life may throw at them.
Eg. If we are going for a movie but we reach late, after the interval, practically during the last part of the movie. We find that the villain and all his henchmen are mercilessly being beaten and killed by the hero and being chased by the police. One may say, “Why are these people after this poor fellow. What has done to deserve this?” In fact, we may conclude that the hero is the actual villain, since he is beating others without any rhyme or reason.
However, for those who have seen the movie right from the beginning, they know the atrocious activities done by the villain and they see it is as proper justice. They sympathize with the hero rather than sympathizing with the villain! Similarly, if we understand that life is a continuous journey then we can understand that people have committed many actions in the past for which they are reaping the results now. If we see life only a short flash in time, then it is like seeing the last part of the movie and we can easily get bewildered to see people suffering or enjoying and wonder, “Why is God doing this to them?!” then God becomes the villain and the villain becomes the hero!
Q) I would still like to know exactly what Karma I have done in the past for which I am suffering now?
The Law of Karma is exact and perfect by nature. It gives the exact reaction to the right person at the tight time in the right situation, even if it is after millions of lifetimes! Since the record maintained is so huge and so complicated, it is beyond human intelligence and memory to understand and connect each reaction to the exact past karma.
Eg. If someone goes to a doctor with symptoms of fever, shivering, body ache etc. the doctor may clinically conclude that we have malaria and starts an anti-malaria tablets immediately. If the patient says, “I will take the tablet only if I know exactly how did I get the malaria. I want to know exactly which mosquito bit me on which day and at what time. I also want to see that mosquito right now. If you can bring that mosquito in front of me and show me and prove it to me that mosquitoes create malaria, only then will I believe in your medicines and take them”
Now this is a foolish claim. Also it is physically impossible to trace out which mosquito exactly may have bitten the patient. However, by seeing the symptoms, one can logically conclude what the cause may have been. Similarly, it may be physically impossible for our limited memory and intelligence to know exactly which karma was done where and in which lifetime. However seeing the result one can understand whether the past karma may have been good or bad.
Individual karma– this is where one person performs an action, and they receive the reaction
Collective karma – where many people have performed a certain action and therefore deserve a similar reaction – and this reaction is given to them collectively e.g. through the mechanisms of a large scale disaster
Individual Karma = My own
Collective Karma = Family, National, Leader
FAQ 5 : If I don’t know the Law of Karma will it still work?
Ignorance is not an Excuse – train ticket
Q) Why are some people born in slums or in the congo forest or in other places where there is very little scope for practicing Krishna Consciousness or knowing about the Law of Karma and getting out of it?
When a person misuses his freewill and chooses to be away from Krishna then material nature gives them the facility to stay as far away as they want from the principles of devotional service or the knowledge of the Laws of Karma etc. after sufficiently satisfying their desires or by frustration with material desires or by good association when these people again reuse their free will to inquire about the Lord, then the Lord in the heart immediately arranges for them to meet the devotees and begin their path to perfection!
Eg1. When a person commits a crime, he is put in a jail. In a standard jail, often there are reformers who give good counsel to the prisoners so that they will become good citizens. But if in the jail also, the prisoners acts criminally and starts beating the other co-prisoners, counselors and guards, the he will be taken from the normal prison cell and put in a dark dungeon where he will be given food from window and nobody will come to give him counsel. Why is that? Because he rejected the opportunity for counseling earlier, now he is put in place where he gets no counseling.
Similarly, if today somebody is born in a social situation or in a cultural environment where that person never gets to know about the law of Karma, then that’s because he has, by his past action shown God and material energy, the superintendent, “I am not interested in knowing about your laws; I don’t care. I will do whatever I want.” That’s why he is put in a place where he has no opportunity for getting to know about God.
This current Kali yuga is also such a dark age. The souls who are born in Kali Yuga are the ones who have failed to perfect their lives in the previous ages of satya, treta and dwapar yugas. They have shown by their actions that they care less for the laws of God and that’s why many of them are born in a situation where they don’t come to know about the laws of God. As soon as such souls desore to turn towards the Lord, He makes all arrangements to help them achieve Him.
FAQ 6) Does Good and Bad Karma nullify each other?
In general, good karma and bad karma do not cancel each other. Generally, people think, “If I have done some bad karma, then by doing certain punya karma, I will settle the score and be freed from the bad karma!” This is a mistaken idea. There is a separate account maintained for all routine good and bad karma that we perform.
Eg. Let’s assume that one has performed 7 good actions and 4 bad actions. 7- 4 = ? The answer in normal mathematics is 3. Applying the same logic, many people think that by performing pious actions or sufficient good karma they will overcome bad karma. However in the Law of karma one will enjoy 7 good reactions and suffer for 4 bad reactions separately
Eg. If I kill someone and behave nicely towards another then I shall be punished for the sin of killing and rewarded for the good karma of good behavior.
There is a story in the 10th canto, Ch. 64 of the Srimad Bhagavatam to illustrate this point nicely.
Eg. Story of Maharaj Nrga.
One day Sämba and other young boys of the Yädava dynasty went to the forest to play, and after playing for a long time they became very thirsty and began looking for water. Inside a dry well they found an amazing creature: a huge lizard resembling a hill. The boys felt sorry for it and tried to pull it out. But after several attempts to pull it out, even with ropes, they saw that they would not be able to rescue the creature, and thus they went to Lord Krishna and told Him what had happened. The Lord accompanied them to the well and, extending His left hand, easily lifted the lizard out. By the touch of Lord Krishna's hand the creature transformed at once into a demigod. Then Lord Krishna asked, "Who are you, and how did you assume such a lowly form?”
The divine being replied, "My name was King Nrga, son of Iksväku, and I was famous for giving charity. Indeed, I gave away countless cows to numerous brahmanas. But on one occasion a cow belonging to a first-class brahmana wandered into my herd. Unaware of this, I gave this cow in charity to a different brahmana. When the cow's previous owner saw the second brahmana taking this cow away, the first brahmana claimed the cow as his and began arguing with the second brahmana.
Charity once given to a brahmana should never be taken back since it is considered a very sinful act. The brahmanas wanted to save the king and themselves from sinful actions and were therefore demanding that the cow be returned to them.
After quarreling for some time they approached me, and I implored them to each take one hundred thousand cows in exchange for that one cow, and to please forgive me for the offense I had unknowingly committed. But neither brahmana would accept my proposal, and the matter remained unsettled.
"Shortly thereafter I died and was taken by the Yamadütas to the court of Yamaräja. Yama asked me which I preferred to do first: suffer the results of my sins or enjoy the results of my pious acts. I decided to suffer my sinful reactions first, and thus I assumed the body of a lizard."
Because Maharaj Nrga was charitably disposed he had also given donations to the devotees to build a Visnu temple. Thus he had accumulated some devotional credits. Due his sinful reactions he was born as a lizard, but due to his devotional service, he was born as a lizard in Vrindavan and got the mercy of the Supreme Lord Krishna. Then due to his pious karmas he was given a heavenly body where he would continue to advance in devotional service.
After King Nrga had told his story, he offered prayers to Lord Krishna and then mounted a celestial airplane, which transported him to heaven.
Thus we get good reactions for the good karmas we perform, and we get bad reactions for the bad karmas we perform. And we get spiritual karmas for the devotional service that we perform.
However, there are certain special actions called atonements (prayascitta) that one can perform to overcome the sins that we have performed in this life or the past lives. By performing certain yajnas, giving charity at a certain times or going to holy places etc. we can counteract previous sins. These are certain loopholes given by material nature to inspire people to take to pious activity.
Eg. Every citizen has to pay the tax or will be penalized for evading it. However, there are certain schemes in which if we invest or donate, then we can officially save tax on the money that is invested. Also the government has schemes from time to time to convert the black money into white money. Similarly, the scriptures prescribe varieties of schemes (atonements – prayascitta) to overcome the results of certain bad karma previously done.
However, there are some challenges in performing such atonements.
1) First of all one needs to find the right person who can actually prescribe the right atonements. Just like the science of astrology is true but one needs to find a really qualified astrologer. Sometimes we find them simply exploiting the suffering, gullible masses of people who may innocently follow anyone and everyone.
2) Secondly, the atonements or prayascitta are also pious karma or good karma. Thus, these activities also have their good reaction. So, one still remains bound in the chain of action-reaction or in the cycle of karma. And in case one makes a mistake while performing these activities then one may get a negative reaction like in the case of Maharaj Nrga.
In conclusion, to get out of the cycle of karma is quite difficult. The concept that, “I will perform some good karma or some yajna or go to some holy place like char dham yatras and all my sins will be forgiven and I will achieve liberation or moksha is mistaken.” Yes, one can be relieved from one’s previous sins by these activities but to get complete freedom from the karma cycle is impossible.
The only way to neutralize sins completely and fully and in a way that they will never reappear is to perform devotional service to the Supreme Personality of Godhead, Krishna. Since, He is the Lord and master of material nature and her every law (including the Law of Karma), He has the power to pardon anyone and everyone who approaches Him.
Eg. If one becomes a family member of the Lord then one is freed from the taxes of karma just as the family members do not need to pay rent to the father to live in the house or just like the government ministers do not need to pay taxes to the government.
Eg. Srimad Bhagavatam 6.1.15 compares one’s past sins to a dense fog, which covers our vision in life and creates many obstacles. Even with the most powerful and bright light one can see only a few meters at max. The powerful lights are compared to the atonements and prayascittas. They can only give one a little light and vision. Devotional service is compared to the sun rays that dissipates all fog and darkness and reveals the bright sun of Sri Krishna. Once one learns to live in the light of the Lord, then there is no question of darkness or sin touching one’s life!
FAQ 7 : Why do Bad things happen to Good People?
Granary (Grain Tank) in a village. What goes in comes out first.
Q) If everything happens by the will of the Lord, then why am I responsible for whatever happens?
There are 3 doers for any action to be performed.
1) Soul - Jiva.
2) Material Nature – Prakrti.
3) Supreme Lord – Krishna.
However, each one has a different role to play in the action that is performed. It is important to know what is the role of each doer. Why? It will help us to understand who is actually responsible for the action.
An action takes place only when the living entity desires the action to take place. So, the desire is the initiating factor for each and every action. However, the living entity soul is only 1/10,000th tip of the hair. So it is impossible for the tiny soul to perform the action independently! The material energy helps the living entity to carry out the action. However, the material energy acts only by the sanction of the Supreme Lord. It is said, “Not a blade of grass moves without the sanction of the Lord.” So only when the Lord sanctions then the action is carried out.
Eg. I have to go from the temple in chowpatty to cuffe parade by taxi. For the action to be completed, all 3 have to work in cooperation – the passengers wish, the taxi and the driver. Once the taxi reaches the destination, if I get down and tell the taxi driver, “Thank you very much for the drive. You are a very good driver. Hope to meet you again!” Then I leave without paying the taxi driver. What will be his response? He will demand that I pay the fare from Chowpatty to Cuffe parade. Now I can tell him, “You also came along with me, then why should I only pay. You also enjoyed the ride.” Is that fair? Who should pay for the taxi fare? It is definitely the passenger who must pay. Why? It is because of the passenger’s desire that the driver brought the taxi to Cuffe Parade. So, it is the responsibility of the driver to pay the fare.
In this example, the passenger is compared to the living entity – jiva. The taxi is compared to material nature and the driver is compared to the Supreme Lord.
The living entity first has a desire to perform a certain action. (In this example - to go from one place to another.) Then the material energy carries out the action under the direction and supervision of the Supreme Lord. (In this example – the taxi carrying the passenger to his destination, driven by the driver.)
Since the entire action (traveling) happened due to the desire of the passenger, so it is his responsibility and he has to pay for the action.
So people perform some bad karma like smoking or drugs and say, “It is God who made me do it. Everything happens by the WILL of the Lord.” This is a wrong understanding. The fact is that everything happens by the SANCTION of the lord. SANCTION means it happens by His permission or approval. This may be against His Will. Still He sanctions it because the living entity wants to stubbornly enjoy separate from Him.
Eg. Supreme Lord is impartial like a Judge. When a judge awards a million dollars, as compensation to someone, is he partial to that person? Or when the judge awards a death penalty to a criminal, does he have a personal enmity with that person? No! The judge is impartial. He simply awards the reactions to the people based on:
1) The activities of that person and according to
2) The Law of the Land.
So, if we are performing some bad karma then we are doing it by our own will. It also must have the sanction of the Lord even if it is against His own Personal Will. Thus, we are alone responsible for our karma and we have to bear the consequences for them, just like the passenger has to pay the fare for the taxi drive.
Eg. STORY - RAMAN RAGHAV
A few decades back there was a serial killer called Raman Raghav. He would kill poor people sleeping on the streets at night by stoning them to death. He was soon caught and produced in court. What was his defence? He said, “The lord within my heart is inspiring me to kill. I should not be blamed or held responsible for this act.”
What is the answer? Is he responsible or not responsible? He is definitely responsible for the act. He should definitely be punished for his sinful desire.
Sometime people argue that, “I am drinking this alcohol and that is also the will of the lord. If He did not want me drink it then why did He make it in the first place! So, it is God’s wish that I drink.” Similarly, some religious people who eat meat argue that, “God gave us the dominion over animals. He made this world for us to enjoy, so we are allowed to eat meat.”
The answer is that God has made many things but we choose to accept certain things or reject certain things based on our desire. Thus, we are responsible for our good or bad actions. God has made gutter water also! So, if God has made it then why do we avoid that and have alcohol. And then we conveniently shift the blame to God, that I am having it since he has made it. Oh! Such sincere followers of God’s will!
The same logic can be applied to eating meat. God has given mankind, dominion over the animal kingdom. This gives humans the responsibility the protect them and not exploit them!
Eg. A parent has 2 children. Both the kids are going out for a sports event. The father gives money to the elder child, sufficient for both and puts the younger child under his care. Now, the younger child is under the dominion of the elder child. Does this mean that the elder kid should exploit or even kill the younger one and eat his flesh or should he provide protection to the younger child as a representative of the father?
In this example, the father is compared to the Supreme Lord, the elder child to the humans and the younger child to the animal kingdom (including birds, fishes etc.) The Lord has given the human body extra facilities and put the earth and it’s creatures under their care. This means it is duty of the human society to provide all protection for the animal kingdom on behalf of the Lord rather than exploit them and even kill them for satisfying their selfish tastes. Human beings who perform such activities will have to bear the consequences of their actions.
That is why Lord Jesus Christ prayed, “My Lord, let Thy will be done, not my will!” He clearly distinguished that there are two wills. The Will of the Lord and the Will of the living entity. The goal of our lives is to align ourselves with the Will of the Lord and become happy.