The Law of Karma
A Course in Vedic Knowledge V
by Pavanesana Dasa
At this point we will answer some frequently-asked questions about karma.
Q:What is the practical effect of believing in karma?
A:Simply believing in karma without changing one’s life so as to avoid undesirable reactions has no real effect. Ifs about as useful as believing in healthy living without changing one’s bad dietary habits. In other words, believing is not enough. One should have a clear understanding of the science of karma and apply that understanding to one’s life. Then one can live happily.
Q:What about people who don’t believe in karma?
A:Karma is a fundamental mechanism of our existence. It applies to everyone, regardless of belief. Anyone can understand the reasonableness of karma, and all great spiritual authorities have taught the principle of karma: that there are reactions to our actions. In the Bible, for example, we find the statement of Jesus Christ: “As you sow, so shall you reap.”
Q:I’m quite happy the way I am. Why do I need to understand karma?
A:You may have a good life now, but if, being ignorant of the laws of karma, you act improperly, there is no guarantee that your next life will also be a happy one. For example, you might have to take birth in a poor country where you and your fellow countrymen can’t even get enough to eat
Q:I believe that wherever a person is born, with determination and hard work he can make a good life for himself. Karma has nothing to do with it.
A:This is an illusion. There are people working much harder than you who will never be successful. If your karma is not to be rich or happy, you can struggle as much as you want but you won’t get anywhere.
Q:How is it possible that bad and sinful people are enjoying life without any apparent effects of bad karma?
A:You could compare karma to a contagious disease. Sometimes there are symptoms right away, and other times there is a long incubation period. But once you are infected, it’s just a question of time until the symptoms catch up with you.
Q:Is there any way of knowing how long good karma lasts?
A:Imagine you have a bank account. You are spending and spending, but you never get to see the balance sheet. One day there is no money left—and you’re in trouble. That’s what happens with good karma. If you’re not accruing more good reactions, one day your good karma will run out.
In the material world everything is temporary. Both good and bad things end. In the Bhagavad-gita (5.22) it is stated:
The pleasures which are due to contact with the material senses are sources of misery. O son of Kunti such pleasures have a beginning and an end, and so the wise man does not delight in them.
Q:How do I avoid bad karma?
A:The first thing is to give up the four basic sinful activities: meat-eating, gambling, intoxication, and illicit sex life.
Q:This program doesn’t seem to leave much room for enjoyment!
A:To the contrary, when you give up lower enjoyments, you can refine your senses and enjoy on a much higher level. It would not be reasonable to take your pleasure away and leave you with nothing. Activities in Krishna consciousness not only replace your “loss,” but they allow you to enjoy more than you ever did.
Lord Krishna says in the Bhagavad-gita (2.59),
Though the embodied soul may be restricted from sense enjoyment, the taste for sense objects remains. But ceasing such engagements by experiencing a higher taste, he is fixed in consciousness.
Unlike intoxication, meat-eating, gambling, and illicit sex, spiritual enjoyment doesn’t cost you money or impair your health. You don’t have to work in a factory for it, and you don’t have to go anywhere for it Spiritual enjoyment is within you; it is part of your spiritual nature. And once you have it, not only can you can keep it permanently, but it increases all the time.
Q:What is the relationship between the soul. the body, and karma?
A:The Bhagavad-gita (3.27) explains:
The spirit soul bewildered by the influence of false ego thinks himself the doer of activities that are in actuality carried out by the three modes of material nature.
The soul in ignorance of his relationship with Krishna identifies with the body, its activities, and its karmic reactions. But when the spirit soul becomes aware of his actual position, he can see that he is distinct from the body and its activities. Then karma does not affect him any more.
Q:But I see that devotees of Krishna still get sick. So how can they be free from karma?
A:When one is fully engaged in serving Krishna under the guidance of the spiritual master, he does not incur karmic reaction. The results of his previous actions are still coming to him to some extent, but they are running out We give the example of turning off a fan. When the switch is turned off, the fan will still run for a while, but because there is no more power, it’s just a matter of time before it stands still.
Of course, the material body will always be subjected to miseries. It’s not that because you are a devotee, the mosquitoes won’t bite you any more, or that you can enter a tiger’s cage without being eaten.
The difference is that the devotee does not identify with the body and its unavoidable problems. And at the time of death he goes back to Godhead, never to return in a material covering.
If you practice Krishna consciousness, the soul stays aloof from all material turbulence. and all material problems greatly diminish because you have pulled the plug on the fan. There is an instructive verse in Bhagavad-gita (2.70):
A person who is not disturbed by the incessant flow of desires—desires that enter like rivers into the ocean, which is ever being filled but is always still—can alone achieve peace, and not the man who strives to satisfy such desires.
Q:How would the activities of a person who does not incur karma differ from the activities of a materialist?
A:A devotee acts to please Krishna. the Supreme Personality of Godhead, and thus he incurs no karma. A materialist on the other hand, because he falsely identifies with his body, acts only to please himself or extensions of himself, such as his family or community. He doesn’t know that he is actually not satisfying himself, but only his body.
The Vedic literature explains that by pleasing Krishna, the source of all existence, you benefit too. just as all the branches and leaves of a tree are nourished if you water its root. But if you try to gratify your own senses, that is like watering the leaves of the tree: it won’t work.
Some examples of activities that incur no karma are studying books like the Bhagavad-gita. chanting the Hare Krishna mantra, and eating only food that has first been offered to Krishna. As Lord Krishna says in the Bhagavad-gita (3.13).
The devotees of the Lord are released from all kinds of sins because they eat food which is first offered for sacrifice. Others, who prepare food for personal sense enjoyment, verily eat only sin.
Q:What is the right attitude for someone- who does not want to get entangled in the cycle of karma?
A:The right attitude is the willingness to give up sinful activities and seek the guidance of a self- realized, saintly person. From him one can learn how to organize one’s life in a spiritual way. This is not so much a change of activities, but rather a change of attitude or consciousness. In the Bhagavad-gita (2.47), Lord Krishna says,
You have a right to perform your prescribed duty, but you are not entitled to the fruits of action. Never consider yourself to be the cause of the results of your activities, and never be attached to not doing your duty.
Now let’s review our two-part lesson on karma.
Knowing the law of karma, we can understand that no one is really innocent. Although we appear innocent at birth, the consequences of our past deeds reveal themselves in time. In fact, the material body itself is a symptom of the living entity’s entanglement in karmic reactions, just as fever is a symptom of disease.
Yet there is always a chance to break free from the cycle of birth and death, which is propelled by karma. There is no eternal hell. We come to the material world to exercise our independence from God, but He has given us the Vedic literature, an instruction manual explaining how to return back to Godhead.
Rabbi Kushner couldn’t reconcile the suffering of an apparently good person with the existence of an all-powerful and all-merciful God. Well, life is like a long movie of hundreds of thousands of individual pictures. In one scene the hero is laughing, and in another one he is crying. But the spectators know the movie is not real. After the movie, only the screen remains.
Similarly, the only real, permanent factor in the drama of our existence is the soul, which passes through the various scenes of different bodies. Rabbi Kushner couldn’t see beyond the scene of one lifetime and therefore didn’t know that the “good” person had received ample opportunity to cause his own suffering.
Without knowledge of karma, we become more and more entangled in the network of actions and reactions, like a fly caught in a spider’s web. But the practice of Krishna consciousness can bring our material existence to a happy end.
After attaining Me, the great souls, who are yogis in devotion, never return to this temporary world, which is full of miseries, because they have attained the highest perfection. (Bhagavad- gita 8.15)