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Lesson Four: The Law of Karma

A Course in Vedic Knowledge IV


PART I:In high school I was taught in religion class that after death good people go to heaven and bad people go to hell—for eternity in both cases. One day I asked the teacher, “What happens if a baby dies? Does he go to heaven or to hell?”

My teacher replied, “He goes to heaven, of course, because he has never committed any sins.”

I immediately perceived a rather gruesome derivation of this logic and formulated another question: “But, therefore, wouldn’t it be best to kill all the babies right away? Then they could never commit any sins and would go straight to heaven. After all, if they grow up, there is a real danger that they will become sinners and end up going to hell.”

My impertinent inquiry was greeted with indignant silence. How dare this boy ask such a question! I knew my proposal was only academic, because it violated one of the most basic religious injunctions. But still the question remained unresolved. What does happen to the baby? My proposal was obviously out of the question, but my teacher’s answer got him into a logical dilemma.

About twenty years later, on my way to Knoxville, Tennessee, I saw a bumper-sticker that reminded me of this incident: “If you died tonight, would you go to heaven or hell?”

Here it was again, the same black-and-white supposition—no alternatives, no gray area, only heaven or hell.

This time I began to reflect on the matter, and I recognized that the statement implied three things:

  1. There is only one life, one chance.
  2. After we die, we will be situated eternally in either heaven or hell, and there is nothing in between.
  3. If we fail in life because of ignorance or circumstances, well never get a chance again. We'll burn eternally in hell.

I had the same feeling I’d had in high school twenty years before. This didn’t make sense. It wasn’t logical. Why would God create someone to grow up in the crime- ridden slums of a big city, have him fight for subsistence, just to eternally vanish into hell? I thought this bumper sticker was good advertisement for atheism.

Just a few days before my trip to Knoxville, I had watched a program on TV: When Bad Things Happen to Good People, by Rabbi Kushner. He said that when something bad happens to a good person, there are, from the religious point of view, three assumptions generally made:

  1. The person is good.
  2. God is all-powerful.
  3. God is all-merciful.

Rabbi Kushner proposed that out of these three options, only two at a time can go together. As soon as all three are together. a contradiction arises.

If the person is good and God is all-powerful, then God could have prevented the bad thing from happening to the good person. Consequently, God can’t be all-merciful. But Kushner rejects that solution, because it would make people hate an unmerciful God.

If God is all-powerful and all-merciful, then He would never let bad things happen to good people. Consequently, the person must be bad. But obviously bad things do happen to good, innocent people. (Kushner’s own son died of a disease at an early age.) After all, it’s bad psychology to tell good people they must have deserved whatever happened to them, because it makes them hate themselves. So Kushner rejects that solution too.

The last possible combination is that the person is good and God is all-merciful. but He is not all-powerful. Rabbi Kushner endorses this possibility and rationalizes that bad things aren’t caused by God but rather by bad people and by the forces of nature. He concludes that God is the creator, but His creation is going on somewhat independently of Him. Therefore God can’t do much about the suffering, but He can help His children endure the unavoidable misery He can’t prevent, and in this way He is quite helpful.

This also didn’t make sense to me. If God is not all- powerful, then what is the ultimate power? If there is a power superior to God, then God is not supreme. But then, who is supreme? Who created that power God can’t control? What is the ultimate refuge? An all-merciful but not all-powerful God defies the definition of God as the Supreme Being. Rabbi Kushner’s theory leads to concealed atheism.

Reflecting upon these three incidents. I can appreciate the tremendous benefit of having studied the ancient Vedic scriptures for over a decade. Contrary to Western culture and philosophy, the Vedic literature establishes the law of karma, working under God’s supervision, as the main guiding factor in our existence. Karma provides the only logical and spiritually sound answer to all the incidents cited above.

The word karma has at least three meanings:

  1. any material activity that produces a reaction and therefore leads to the development of another body,
  2. the reaction from a material activity,
  3. material activities done according to the regulations of the Vedic scriptures.

Everyone is constantly performing activities. either physical or mental. The Bhagavad-gita (3.5) confirms. “No one can refrain from doing something, not even for a moment.”

We are all well aware of Newton’s law that states that every action causes a reaction. In fact we observe the validity of this law hundreds or thousands of times every day. Without it, time would stand still—nothing could move.

Karma is simply the extension of Newton’s law. Instead of dealing merely with inert objects, it applies to our actions, words, and thoughts. We can understand the mechanism of these laws in detail from the Vedic scriptures.

Understanding karma begins with understanding the condition of the spirit soul in the material world. The spirit soul is originally an inhabitant of the spiritual world. But he has a certain amount of independence and can attempt to be happy without God. This material world is created by God to provide the rebellious souls with such an opportunity.

Here the spirit soul is covered by a material body and mind. He tries to reject God’s authority and attempts to control nature himself. In this process he identifies strongly with his material body and makes its gratification his goal.

Obviously, accepting the laws of karma and being an atheist don’t go together. A materialistic person wants to control everything, while he maintains the notion that he himself is independent.

Yet clearly we are not controlling nature; nature is controlling us. Sometimes the weather is too hot; sometimes it’s too cold. We can’t change these things. Can we stop a hurricane? Can we make it rain when there is a drought?

Nobody has any control over where or when he takes birth, what kind of body he is given, or who his parents will be. Somehow or other, nature puts every one of us in our own predicament. Obviously we are not controlling everything.

Sometimes a person treated for a minor disease will die, and sometimes after doctors give up on someone, he miraculously recovers. Where is our control?

Two children may be born in the same family, they may be given the same opportunities, but one may become successful. and the other may be a failure. Everyone is trying to become happy, but not everyone succeeds. No one is trying to become unhappy, but misery comes out of its own accord, and happiness also comes to people in ways they don’t expect or work for.

If we could actually control nature and our lives, everyone would be rich, happy, and healthy. But clearly there are forces controlling us. Therefore an intelligent person will try to find out w hat these forces are, how they work, and how we can benefit from them.

This is how Newton formulated his famous law. He observed the forces of nature and investigated them. He was not satisfied to know that there are forces—he wanted to know how they work. We owe to his inquisitiveness an incredible amount of technological advancement.

Similarly, if we want to find out what is beneficial for us, we have to investigate the forces that control our lives. But we have one big advantage over Newton: The universal laws we are concerned with have already been explained in the Vedic literature. and they have been confirmed by great spiritual authorities. All we have to do is study them.

Material Activity

The general definition of karma is that it is material activity. That means it is activity performed with attachment to the result, it is temporary, and it is done without spiritual understanding.

Material activity can be subdivided into good and bad karma:

Good karma: If the living entity acts piously, he can enjoy in this life and in future lives. The results of good karma are wealth, beauty, good parentage, health. knowledge, happiness, birth on heavenly planets, and so on.

Bad karma: If the living entity acts impiously, violating scriptural injunctions and acting according to his own whims, he has to suffer the reactions. The results of bad karma are poverty, disease, ugliness, birth on lower planets or in undesirable circumstances, and so on.

We learn from Bhagavad-gita, however, that all karma—good or bad—is always bad, because karma forces us to accept another material body. A material body in any situation brings with it the sufferings of birth, death, old age, and disease. The Vedic literature also categorizes other miseries we get on account of the material body:

  1. Miseries inflicted on us by our body and mind, like disease, stress, anxiety, fear.
  2. Miseries inflicted by other living entities: mosquitoes biting us, envious people talking badly about us, rape, mugging, wars, and so on.
  3. Miseries inflicted by nature, like heat, cold. droughts, tornadoes, and floods.

Because the living entity cannot stop performing activities, he cannot stop incurring karma.Every activity he performs binds him in the karmic cycle.

Everything happening to us now is the cumulative effect of our past activities from either this life or previous lives. Sometimes we enjoy; sometimes we suffer. In one life we have a human body, in another an animal body. As long as we are bound by this continuous cycle of actions and reactions, we will be forced to accept one material body after another.

Spiritual Activity

Spiritual activity is performed without attachment, on behalf of the Supreme Personality of Godhead, Krishna. in full spiritual knowledge, without desire for personal sense gratification, and for the eternal benefit of the soul.

The Bhagavad-gita (3.9) defines spiritual activity thus:

Work done as a sacrifice for Vishnu has to be performed; otherwise work causes bondage in this material world. Therefore, O son of Kunti, perform your prescribed duties for His satisfaction, and in that way you will always remain free from bondage.

Spiritual activity does not produce karmic reactions. Rather, it results in one’s not having to accept another material body, and it enables one to go back to the spiritual world at the time of death.

If a soldier kills people in a war on behalf of his government, he will not be punished for such killing, but rather he will receive a medal. But if the same soldier kills his neighbor on his own behalf, he will be convicted and sent to prison.

Similarly, if the living entity acts on behalf of the supreme authority. Krishna. or His representative, the spiritual master. he does not incur any sinful reactions. But if he acts on his own behalf, he will be bound in the cycle of karma.