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Karma, see also Work, Action

Karma

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What goes around, comes around

Karma generally means the cause and effect of our thoughts and actions. But the word karma has several connotations. It can mean an action, its reaction, or the whole system of action-reaction known as the law of karma.

"Do unto others as you would have them do unto you" and "what goes around, comes around" are common ways of talking about karma. Basically, our good or bad actions determine our good or bad future. Our quality of life, in terms of such things as health, wealth, intelligence, and physical appearance, is the result of our previous karma, actions.

We can change our karma from good to bad (or bad to good) by changing our activities. But any karma is bad from the spiritual point of view. In our natural, free condition, the spirit self, atma, isn't meant to live under strict karmic laws. Good and bad karma is what forces us to endure repeated birth and death. This upsetting process forces us into a succession of "good" or "bad" temporary bodies, in an environment characterized by constant upheaval—the material world—that's alien to our eternal spiritual nature. But karma is not something we have to be stuck with forever.

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Krishna gives a thorough explanation of karma in the Bhagavad-gita, where He also explains akarma, inaction, and vikarma, actions that go against natural laws. He says that rather than endlessly trying to improve our karma, we should try to become free from karma entirely. This is a major theme of the Gita. Freedom from karma means liberation from the cycle of birth and death. This requires a revolution of consciousness, from self-centered (lower case "s") to Supreme Self-centered.

As parts of the supreme whole, we're meant to act in accord with the supreme will, like a finger is meant to act in harmony with the body as a whole. As long as we think we're separate from God and act independently, with our own benefit in mind, laws of karma dictate whether we enjoy or suffer as a result.

But if we practice acting in service to the Supreme Person, Krishna—and we're guided by genuine spiritual authority—we can consistently enjoy the same kind of freedom from karma that Krishna Himself enjoys, without any negative consequences to our actions. Krishna is the supreme enjoyer; He can do as He likes, and everything He does is free from adverse reactions. When we act in harmony with His will, we get spiritual happiness rather than material reactions.

Krishna says, (Bg. 3.9), "Work done as a sacrifice for Vishnu (God) has to be performed; otherwise work causes bondage in this material world. Therefore . . . perform your prescribed duties for His satisfaction, and in that way you will always remain free from bondage."

“Why Did This Have To Happen To Me?”

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from Back To Godhead Magazine #29-06, 1995


The Srimad-Bhagavatam tells the story of Bali Maharaja and Vamanadeva. Vamanadeva is the Supreme Personality of Godhead, appearing in the form of a small brahmana boy. He goes to Bali Maharaja and begs three paces of land, “as paced by My own steps.” As the story progresses, Vamanadeva reveals His universal form. His first two steps claim the whole universe, and Bali is then unable to fulfill his promise of three. Thus he is put into difficulty. Vamanadeva arrests him with the ropes of Varuna, and his wife and guru reject him.

The Bhagavatam tells us, however, that Bali Maharaja is neither ashamed nor aggrieved at his arrest. Instead, he addresses Vamanadeva as follows: “Many demons who were continuously inimical toward You finally achieved the perfection of great mystic yogis. Your Lordship can perform one work to serve many purposes, and consequently, although You have punished me in many ways, I do not feel ashamed of having been arrested by the ropes of Varuna, nor do I feel aggrieved.” (Bhag. 8.22.6)

Srila Prabhupada explains in his purport to this section that Bali Maharaja appreciated the Lord’s mercy and the fact that the Lord distributes His mercy liberally. “Bali Maharaja was indeed a fully surrendered devotee, but even some demons who are not at all devotees but merely enemies of the Lord attained the same exalted position achieved by many mystic yogis. Thus Bali Maharaja could understand that the Lord had some hidden purpose in punishing him. Consequently he was neither unhappy nor ashamed because of the awkward position in which he had been put by the Supreme Personality of Godhead.”

Why would someone feel ashamed to be put in such an awkward position? Because one likes to appear victorious, especially in front of friends and relatives. Also, one might be ashamed to be degraded in front of the greatest personality, the Supreme Lord.

Bali had lost all his material possessions—everything from home and kingdom to the respect of his family members. Bali at that time was ruling the whole universe. He had a lot to lose. But instead of being ashamed or aggrieved, Bali was jubilant. He accepted everything that happened to him as Krishna’s plan, and he had faith that even this awkward situation was created by Krishna for his own good.

Although we like to learn from the people in the Bhagavatam, we cannot pretend to be on the same platform as they. Bali was arrested by Krishna personally. We may not have the fortune to be punished directly by Krishna. Instead, we are punished indirectly by Him, through His material energy. We can understand that our suffering or awkward situations are created by our past karma.

Srila Prabhupada tells us, however, that we are receiving only a token of what is due to us, like a murderer whose retribution is only a pinprick. The state has the right to take the murder’s life, so a token reaction to his crime is like a devotee’s token reaction to his past sinful life.

A devotee who recognizes this lives by this verse from Srimad-Bhagavatam: “My dear Lord, one who earnestly waits for You to bestow Your causeless mercy upon him, all the while patiently suffering the reactions of his past misdeeds and offering You respectful obeisances, with his heart, words, and body, is surely eligible for liberation, for it has become his rightful claim.” This verse depicts Bali Maharaja’s attitude.

In another section of the Bhagavatam, we read of Maharaja Yudhishthira lamenting that so many people were killed to set him on the throne. Yudhishthira wanted to mitigate his suffering by understanding things had to happen that way. Bhishmadeva then began describing how the Pandavas had already suffered so much, although they did not deserve to suffer. Since the Pandavas were all pure devotees of Krishna, they could not be suffering from sinful reactions. They were destined to suffer by providence, the influence of time. When we are suffering, therefore, we can only be tolerant.

Bhishma then turned to Yudhishthira and said: “In my opinion, this is all due to inevitable time, under whose control every person in every planet is carried, just as the clouds are carried by the wind.”

Even pious people have to suffer the miseries of the material nature. Still, we want to know more. What is this time, under whose influence everyone has to suffer? Prabhupada explains that kala, time, is identical with Krishna Himself and therefore the influence of time indicates His inexplicable wishes. There is nothing to be lamented, because it is completely beyond our control. It is simply to be accepted. Time and death are inevitable.

It is often easier to accept how time influences others than how it influences ourselves. People ask, “Why did this have to happen to me?” But no one can know the Lord’s plan. “Even though great philosophers inquire exhaustively, they are bewildered. … It is useless to inquire about it. The best policy is simply to abide by the orders of the Lord without argument.” In this way, a devotee can be at peace about life’s reverses.

A further point is that Krishna can carry out many purposes with one act. He can pull down two trees like a naughty boy, and at the same time liberate the two souls embodied in them. In offering those souls liberation, He also fulfilled Narada Muni’s promise to Kuvera’s two sons, whom Narada had cursed to stand as trees.

When Krishna directly or indirectly punishes us, we must have faith that He is acting to bring us closer to His lotus feet. We should pray to have this realization in times of difficulty or confusion, and to understand that the real purpose of life is to satisfy the Supreme Lord, not to satisfy ourselves. Satisfying Krishna is not difficult. We simply have to take whatever situation in which we find ourselves and transform it into an opportunity for devotional service.

Therefore, Narada Muni told Srila Vyasadeva: “O brahmana Vyasadeva, it is decided by the learned that the best remedial measure for removing all troubles and miseries is to dedicate one’s activities to the service of the Supreme Lord Personality of Godhead [Sri Krishna]. O good soul, does not a thing, applied therapeutically, cure a disease caused by that very same thing?” (Bhag. 1.5.32-3). Srila Prabhupada adds, “Milk preparations sometimes cause disorder of the bowels, but the very same milk converted into curd and mixed with some other remedial ingredients cures such disorders.”

It is our attachments to material objects that make us suffer. If we can take those same material objects and use them in Krishna’s service, that will help us go back to Godhead.

Bad Karma

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There’s More to It Than Stubbing Your Toe

In most people’s minds a person is a body. Whenever a child is born, a new person has come into existence. He grows up, lives out his life, and finally dies, and then that particular person has ceased to exist. In this view, life is sort of a one-time, open-and-shut affair.

From the Vedic viewpoint, however, a person is an eternal traveler who wanders from one body to the next. He appears in different guises—sometimes as a genius, sometimes a fool, sometimes a wealthy man, sometimes a pauper. Sometimes he assumes the role of an American or Englishman, at other times an Indian or Chinese. And with each change of body, he forgets his previous life.

Now one might ask, what is it that determines the kind of body one will appear in next?

According to Bhagavad-gita, our next destination depends upon the direction our consciousness points to at the time of death; it is our consciousness that carries us to our next body. And the direction our consciousness points to will naturally depend upon the activities we have performed throughout our life.

To give an analogy: A student enters high school and pursues his studies for some years, then graduates and goes on either to college or to some sort of work. Now, what kind of job or college he goes to will depend to a great extent on how he has spent his time in high school. If he has studied diligently and done well on his exams, perhaps he will go on to an excellent college and a rewarding career. On the other hand, if he has frittered away his time, he may find himself struggling to land a tiresome job for low pay. In other words, his next life—his life after school—depends on how he thinks and acts before he graduates.

In the same way, our next body will depend on how we think and act now. We have only so many years in our present body, and then the examination comes, at death. At death our consciousness is tested. We have spent our time however we felt best, and at death “Time’s up!” Our present lifetime comes to a close, and our consciousness carries us to our next body.

It is not desire alone that determines our next body; we get not exactly what we desire but what we deserve. A student may desire to go to Harvard or Yale, but his desire alone will not get him in; he must also have high enough grades, be able to pay the tuition, and so on. Similarly, it is not that we will become wealthy and aristocratic in our next birth merely by aspiring to wealth and aristocracy now. We must first act in such a way that we deserve it.

So people are born in different countries, different families, and different bodies—not by chance but according to precise and intricate natural laws of cause and effect. These laws are known in Sanskrit as the laws of karma.

The word karma literally means “action,” yet it also carries the import of “fate” or “destiny.” This is entirely reasonable, for it is our actions that determine our fate. This is not a matter of esoteric belief or superstition but of common sense and practical everyday experience. Suppose I put my hand in a fire. This is a kind of action. Yet it also implies an entirely predictable reaction—I’m going to get burned.

So in everyday life my actions have certain reactions; cause and effect are always at work. I may not always understand what the results of my actions will be, and when something has taken place I may not always understand why—but at least I can be sure that what is happening now has resulted from what has gone before and will influence what will happen next.

Now, the Vedic teachings carry this understanding one step further. From a materialistic viewpoint, cause and effect may bounce me around during my lifetime in this body, but no longer—when the body is dead, I am dead, and the chain of action and reaction comes to an end. But what the Vedic teachings propose is that this chain of action and reaction extends not only within our present lifetime but before it and beyond it, throughout a succession of lives. Why does a person take his birth in a particular body? It is because of his past karma,his past activities. What kind of body will he be born in next? Again, that depends on his karma.His present activities—together with the sum total of his previous activities—will determine his consciousness at the time of his death, and that consciousness will carry him on to his next body.

What’s more, a living being may travel not only from one human body to another but also down from the human species to the body of a plant or animal. In these lower species also, birth and death take place—consciousness enters the body, stays there for some time, and then leaves for the next body.

The Dolly Follies: Questions and Answers about Human Cloning

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Can they clone a human being?

They can. They will. They may already have.

Does a clone have a soul?

Yes. A clone has consciousness, and consciousness means soul.

How does the soul enter the cloned body?

No problem. It already happens in nature, with identical twins. One cell splits into two bodies, and by Krishna’s arrangement a soul enters both.

Is there any history of cloning in the Vedic scriptures?

Yes, in Srimad-Bhagavatam. When the goddess Diti was pregnant, Lord Indra by mystic power entered her womb to kill the expected child. He cut the child to pieces—but each piece, to his surprise, became a child. These children became known as the forty-nine Maruts. (An early lesson to cloners: Once you start slicing, you may not always end up with what you set out for.)

Will cloning be good for humanity?

Sometimes good, sometimes bad, always a waste of time. Cloning is but another attempt to coax nature into giving us a better life on earth, a life more like what we want.

But nature, by design, acts in such a way that we always get precisely what we deserve: a mixture of happiness and distress brought about, measure for measure, by our own karma. No matter what you do, you can’t squeeze a better life out of it.

Real advancement of civilization lies not in tinkering with nature, vainly trying to make a better world, but in moving forward in self-realization and getting out of the material world altogether. If we’re not doing that, we’re simply wasting our time.

But as long as we’re here, can’t cloning bring about some good?

Some good, perhaps. But here’s a secret of nature: Whenever we try to exploit her, get more, make things better, she always retaliates. Result: More comfort at the start, more trouble later down the line. It’s “the rubber-band effect”: It always snaps back on you.

As stated in Srimad-Bhagavatam (7.9.17), duhkhaushadham tad api duhkham atad-dhiyaham: As long as we’re in material consciousness, whatever we do to remedy our troubles just makes our troubles worse.

With the comfort of the car comes the poison of exhaust; with the efficiency of nuclear power plants, disasters like in Chernobyl.

In the long run, will cloning make for a better world? No. As usual, worse.

What kind of karma must you have to become a clone?

Bad. Good or bad, karma’s all bad, because karma means repeated birth and death.

Apart from that, precisely what kind of karma must you have? The ins and outs of karma are subtle, too subtle to consistently predict. The cell biologists at the Roslin Institute who cloned Dolly the sheep might come back in their next lives as sheep, perhaps cloned ones, bleating a truly excellent “baa baa” and wearing superior coats of wool.

What will cloning mean for bioethics?

It’ll mean a mess. The pattern is becoming familiar: Science charges ahead, and human life becomes more vexatious, more dangerous, and further off from spiritual realization.

What does the Hare Krishna movement advise?

Live simply, chant Hare Krishna, get out of this material world, and go back home, back to Godhead.

Death on the Evening News

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from Back To Godhead Magazine, #17-12, 1982

While recently watching the evening news, I saw that almost the entire show was about killing and death: a murder, a rash of drug poisonings, a massacre of refugees by military forces, and a sampling of wars and preparations for war. For a kind of relief, the half-hour report ended with sports coverage. Yet even the world of games mourned: the news gave a two-minute homage to a former baseball hero who had just died at seventy. Only the commercials provided sheer, unadulterated illusion, inviting viewers to enjoy true happiness from Shredded Wheat or a new Volkswagen.

Was the TV news editors’ emphasis on killing sensationalistic? Or was my taking notice of it too extreme?

In one sense, history is nothing but the piling up of corpses, the vanquishing of empires. So there’s nothing startling about people dying.

But what is startling is our refusal to face up to the inevitability of our own death. As expressed in the Mahabharata, a great epic of Vedic times, “Every day millions of living beings are forced to the kingdom of death. Yet those who remain aspire for a permanent life in the material world. What could be more wonderful than this?”

Superficially, we all recognize that we shall die one day. We take out insurance policies to provide for those who will live after us. We make out wills bequeathing whatever we own to our loved ones. We may even put money aside for our own funeral, cemetery plot, and gravestone. But this is not real preparation for death.

Who really knows what will happen after death? Even if we profess a theory or a theology that explains death, do we know for certain where we will go after death? Most people don’t in quire into these questions seriously; they keep up the illusion that death won’t come to them. Unwilling to face death, they concentrate wholeheartedly on enjoying their present life, with no concern for the next.

Yet a small but growing number of people are concerned about their own death and are trying to do something about it. Recent years have seen the increasing popularity of a psychology of death, a discipline aimed at mentally preparing a person for a peaceful demise. Taking death to be inevitable, psychologists try to relieve our anxiety about the end. And often their death therapy rests on speculations about a uniformly pleasant hereafter.

In reaction to the “death psychologists,” atheistic humanists have condemned many death studies as symptomizing a morbid fascination or an escape from the realities of life. For such humanists, temporary bodily life is the all-in-all. They want to go on boldly trying to enjoy this material world, or sometimes to improve it by political or altruistic efforts. At best, they hope to die with a cavalier attitude of “no regrets.” But they also can’t say for sure what death is.

Real knowledge about life and death begins with a clear understanding of the self beyond the body. Suppose at a wake the grieving widow says, “Oh, my husband is dead and gone!” Another person may say, “Why do you say he’s gone? He’s lying there.” But she will say, “No, he’s gone forever.” The very language suggests that the person who was her husband, the real self, was different from his body.

Whether the body is old or young, white or black, man or woman, it is simply a covering for the real self, the eternal spiritual particle within the body. This lesson we must learn. Then we can understand that we do not really die when our body dies.

The Vedas say that to think the body is the self is to think on the level of the animals. When a cow’s calf has died and the cow will no longer give milk, the farmer sometimes tricks the cow by bringing the calf before her. The cow licks the body of the dead calf and allows herself to be milked. People with a bodily conception of the self are similarly foolish. They take shelter of materialistic science and sometimes think that when they die scientists will be able to freeze their dead bodies so that in the future they may live again. But no scientist can return a departed soul to the body, any more than a cow can bring her calf back to life. We must know first of all that the soul, not the body, is the self. Only then can we progress toward an understanding of death.

According to Vedic information, when death occurs the vital bodily functions stop and the eternal self, or soul, transmigrates to another body. But for each of us the question remains: “Where will go after death?”

The answer is that our destination is determined by the laws of karma, the subtle laws of action and reaction that work under the direction of the Supreme Personality of Godhead. Thus we will take our next body according to our activities in this life. If now we live in goodness, next time we will get a better body—one in the human species or higher. But if we misuse the human form of life and act out of passion or ignorance, in our next life we will be degraded, perhaps to an animal species or even lower. So it is intelligent to live the present life in preparation for the next.

Still, even if we amass “good karma” and get a better body in our next life, this doesn’t solve the problem of death. The flaw of mortality always remains, no matter what body we get. So for materialists death remains an insoluble problem, whether they fear death, try to forget death, try to prevent death, or pretend to accept death. Only Krishna consciousness solves the problem of death.

The solution? To raise our consciousness out of beastly, bodily identification up to spiritual knowledge, to love of God, so that when death comes we can transcend the cycle of repeated births and deaths. If a person dies completely enlightened about the self and God and about this world and the next, he can go to the eternal, spiritual world and attain immortality in his original identity as a servant of God. This is the good news that is unfortunately never reported on television.

Do Bad Things Happen to Good People?

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A rabbi’s best-selling book proposes a radical solution to the problem of evil. Does it work?

About five years ago, when we were having an altar installed in our new temple, the overseer from the marble company would regularly bring his seven-year-old son along to watch. The boy was very handsome, with jet-black hair and pale skin and long, dark eyelashes. He was well-behaved and always seemed in a good humor even though he could hardly walk at all. I never saw him take more than a few steps, leaning on a wall and straining his torso with an awkward twisting motion and then swinging forward a leg clamped into a large, clumsy brace.

The boy had been born crippled. While he was cheerful despite that, his father was not. His father was an angry man. “When that boy was born I stopped going to church,” he told me once, as he knelt on our altar putting grout between the marble slabs. “I never did anything bad enough to deserve this. Sure, I’m not a saint, but I don’t deserve this. And even if I did, what could he have done?”

The aggrieved father, an unsophisticated marble contractor, was raising a problem that has long preoccupied Western religious thinkers, so much so that it has created a special discipline called theodicy, a branch of theology concerned with justifying the ways of God to man. Theodicy deals with what is usually called "the problem of evil." St. Augustine cast it into the form of a dilemma: “Either God cannot or God will not eliminate evil from the world. If He cannot, He is not all-powerful; if He will not. He is not all-good.” This formulation makes the logic of the problem clear: to show that the existence of a world with evil in it is compatible with the existence of a God who is both all-powerful and all-good. To deny either one of these attributes would easily explain evil, but orthodox theologians have always considered that unacceptable.

Those who find the problem of evil intractable usually deny the existence of God outright rather than settle for a God limited either in power or goodness. Would such a finite being really qualify to be called “God”? Would he be worthy of our worship?

Although philosophers and theologians have left us a huge body of technical literature on the problem of evil, it is far from a theoretical concern. It is everybody’s problem, sooner or later. Suffering is universal. But oddly enough, practically as widespread is the sufferer’s feeling that he has been unfairly singled out. From millions come the outraged cry: “Why me! What did I do to deserve this?”

It is for such people that Harold S. Kushner, a Massachusetts rabbi, has written his book When Bad Things Happen to Good People. It is a painfully honest treatment of what the author claims is the one theological issue that reaches folks “where they really care.”

Kushner’s book grew out of his personal pain; his testimony commands respect. He tells how his son was afflicted from infancy with progeria, a disease that brings on rapid aging, so that Kushner saw him grow bald and wrinkled, stooped and frail, until he died of old age in his fourteenth year. Kushner presents the victim’s point of view, and he lets us hear the real voices of people in pain. In that stark light, the standard religious justifications for our misfortunes, which Kushner lays out one by one, do indeed seem like facile verbal shuffles that don’t take people’s suffering seriously but simply try, however lamely, to get God off the hook.

Kushner effectively criticizes the standard answers handed out by priests, ministers, and rabbis, and he offers instead his own radically unorthodox solution. His book has been a bestseller for months, and he has attracted a large and grateful following among Jews, Catholics, and Protestants. Indeed, the popularity of his view among members of America’s mainstream churches and synagogues suggests something of a grassroots theological rebellion.

The most reprehensible device of theodicy, in Kushner’s view, is to remove the blame from God by putting it onto the sufferer, to explain suffering “by assuming that we deserve what we get, that somehow our misfortunes come as punishment for our sins.” To accept that bad things happen to us as God’s punishment, Kushner says, may help us make sense of the world, give us a compelling reason to be good, and sustain our belief in an all- powerful and just Deity—yet it is not “religiously adequate.”

By “religiously adequate” Kushner means “comforting.” Seeing suffering as a punishment for sin is not comforting because it teaches people to blame themselves for their misfortunes, and so creates guilt, and it also “makes people hate God, even as it makes them hate themselves.”

Kushner tells us of a couple who blamed their teenage daughter’s sudden death on their own failure to observe the prescribed fast on a Jewish holy day: “They sat there feeling that their daughter’s death had been their fault; had they been less selfish and less lazy about the Yom Kippur fast some six months earlier, she might still be alive. They sat there angry at God for having exacted his pound of flesh so strictly, but afraid to admit their anger for fear that He would punish them again. Life had hurt them and religion could not comfort them. Religion was making them feel worse.”

It is a virtue of Kushner’s work to bring this anger at God up front, to talk at length about what few believers have had the courage to admit, even to themselves. Many people must be grateful that someone has recognized their real feelings and has dealt with them openly.

But the worst thing about the belief that our misdeeds cause our misfortunes, says Kushner, is that it doesn’t even fit the facts. People do suffer ills they don’t deserve; bad things happen to good people all the time. Kushner adamantly maintains this. To the thousands who resent life’s unfair treatment, who proclaim in outrage and indignation, “I didn’t do anything to deserve this!” Kushner answers, comfortingly, “That’s right, you didn’t.”

And Kushner is not talking about saints, about people who never do wrong. Rather, he wants to know “why ordinary people, nice friendly neighbors, neither extraordinarily good nor extraordinarily bad, should suddenly have to face the agony of pain and tragedy… . They are neither much better nor very much worse than most people we know; why should their lives be so much harder?”

Here, tapping into a great psychic underground of resentment, Kushner has found his following. He has been willing to openly acknowledge a vast repressed sense of betrayal, a great silenced accusation that leaks unwillingly from the hearts of believers and wends its way up to the divine ear as the universal unvoiced anti-prayer: “You didn’t hold up your end of the bargain!”

Kushner insists that the innocent suffer, and as conclusive proof he advances that grievance which has been the bane of Judeo-Christian theodicy and which occasioned his own harrowing foray into the problem of evil: the suffering and death of children.

This is what drove the marble contractor to take up atheism, the usual response of those who feel God has failed them. But atheism is the response Kushner wants to prevent with his book. To restore the faith of those who have been spiritually devastated by misfortune, Kushner offers his own story of how he and his wife “managed to go on believing in God and in the world after we had been hurt.”

Kushner is indeed convinced that the existence of a God both all-good and all-powerful is incompatible with the evils of our world; yet he wants us to go on believing in God. His conclusion, then, is simple: we can go on believing in God—but not in a God who is all-powerful. God is good, but there are limits to what He can do. God does not want us to suffer; He is as angry and upset at our misfortunes as we are. But He is also helpless.

This is Kushner’s credo: “I believe in God,” he says, but—“I recognize His limitations.” As a result, Kushner tells us in relief, “I no longer hold God responsible for illnesses, accidents, and natural disasters, because I realize that I gain little and I lose much when I blame God for these things. I can worship a God who hates suffering but cannot eliminate it more easily than I can worship a God who chooses to make children suffer and die, for whatever exalted reason.”

It is not hard for me to put myself in the place of Kushner or the marble contractor: I have children of my own. I can even understand why, given the kind of religion they know, Kushner can worship only a finite deity, and the marble contractor can’t bear to enter a church. Nevertheless, I don’t have the problem with God that they do. When bad things happen, I don’t find myself calling into question either His power or His goodness.

Of course, I am a devotee of Krishna; my religious convictions are founded upon the Vedic theism revealed in the Bhagavad-gita and the Srimad-Bhagavatam. To espouse those convictions has been viewed by most normal Americans as a radical thing to do. But now we find that many normal Americans are willing to do something that, in its way, is more radical than what I’ve done. They are abandoning one of the most basic and universal theistic tenets: they are becoming worshipers of God-the-not-almighty.

I want to tell you how we handle the problem of evil. If you, like so many others, are unsatisfied with the standard Judeo-Christian theodicy, perhaps you will consider our Krishna conscious view before following Rabbi Kushner.

In the Bhagavad-gita Krishna explains that you and I, like all living beings, are spiritual entities, souls. We now animate bodies made of matter, but we are not these bodies. Our involvement with matter is unfortunate, for it is the cause of all our suffering. We rightly belong in the spiritual kingdom, where life is eternal, full of knowledge and bliss. There everyone is joyously surrendered to the control of God as they directly serve Him in love. Every action is motivated exclusively by the desire to satisfy God.

But some of us perversely wished God’s position for ourselves. We wanted independence so that we could try to enjoy and control others like God does. Yet we cannot, of course, take God’s place; He alone has no master. But to grant our desires, God sends us to the material world, where He now controls us indirectly, through His material nature and its laws. Here we can forget God, strive to fulfill our desires, and have the illusion of independence.

Yet we are controlled by the laws of nature, and these force us to perpetually inhabit a succession of temporary material bodies. In ignorance, we identify ourselves with each body we enter, and we suffer again and again the pains of birth, old age, disease, and death. Life after life we transmigrate through plant, animal, and human bodies, sometimes on this planet, sometimes on far better ones, sometimes on far worse.

Once we take a human birth, our destiny is shaped by karma. In the Bhagavad-gita (8.3) Krishna succinctly defines karma as “actions pertaining to the development of material bodies.” This means that there are actions we do now that determine our future material births. What kind of actions? Those motivated by material desire. We may do them directly for ourselves or indirectly for our extended self—our family, friends, community, nation, and the like. And such acts sentence us to future births in the material world, there to reap what we have sown.

Karma is of two kinds: good and bad.

Every civilized society recognizes a set of commandments that have divine authority and that regulate material enjoyment. Such commandments, for example, restrict the enjoyment of sex to marital relations and oblige the wealthy to be philanthropic. They also encourage religious and charitable acts, which earn the performer merit. And they prescribe atonements for transgressors. Thus people are allowed to pursue material enjoyment, but they must observe moral and religious codes. And those who follow these codes, who live pious lives of restricted sensual pleasure, are assured of even greater enjoyment in the life to come.

If we act according to scriptural regulations, the Vedas tell us, we will produce good karma and in future births enjoy the benefits of our piety. For example, if a person is born in an aristocratic family, is beautiful, well-educated, or wealthy, he is reaping the benefits of good karma. The Vedas also tell us that if a person is extraordinarily pious he may be reborn on one of the higher planets in this universe, where the standard of sensual pleasure is far greater than anything we have on earth.

Conversely, there is bad karma. We create bad karma when we disregard scriptural injunctions and restrictions in our pursuit of sense pleasure—that is, when we act sinfully. Bad karma brings us suffering and misfortune, such as birth in a degraded family, poverty, chronic disease, legal problems, or physical ugliness. Exceptionally bad karma will take us into animal bodies or down to lower planets of hellish torment.

The law of karma is as strict, relentless, and impartial as the grosser natural laws of motion and gravity. And, like them, it applies to us whether we know about it or not. For example, if I eat the flesh of animals even though I can live as well without it, my bad karma will force me to be born as an animal and to be slaughtered myself. Or if I arrange to have a child killed in the womb, I simultaneously arrange for myself to be killed in the same way, again and again, without ever seeing the light of day.

So when you and I were born we inherited, along with our blue eyes or our black hair, the consequences of our past good and bad deeds. We have a long history, and the happiness and distress our lives will bring is set. We are indeed children of destiny, hostages to fortune, but it is a destiny we created for ourselves, a fortune self-made. And in this life we are continuing to create our future.

But of all this Kushner is unaware, and he can make no sense of his suffering. He has the unshakable conviction that God owes him an agreeable and happy life, that God is obliged to arrange matters for his satisfaction. But God fails, bringing on Kushner’s crisis of faith. It can only be that God is either bad or weak, Kushner reasons, and then settles for weakness.

Yet in spite of Kushner, God is both all-good and all- powerful. But He does not engineer our suffering—we do. We are the authors of our karma. And it is our decision, not His, that brings us down into the material world, into the realm of suffering.

So the answer to the question “Why do bad things happen to good people?” is “They don’t.” All of us here in the material world are—how shall I put it?—not of the best sort. Reprobates and scapegraces—each of us persona non grata in the kingdom of God. We are sent here because we seek a life independent of God, and He grants our desire as far as possible. But since His position is already taken, we can only play at being God while deceiving ourselves that we are independent of Him.

At the same time, the material world reforms us, teaches us through reward and punishment to acknowledge God’s supreme position. For by natural law we are rationed out the pleasures we desire according to our observance of the divine regulations, following the ways of good karma. The practice of good karma, then, amounts to a materially motivated religion, an observance of God’s orders on the inducement of material reward. By this practice, spanning many lifetimes, I may, it is hoped, become habituated to following God’s commands and reconciled to His supremacy. Thereupon I become eligible at last to take up the pure and eternal religion, in which, completely free of all material desires, I serve God in loving devotion, asking nothing in return. This religion, called bhakti in the Vedas, causes my return to the kingdom of God. The acts of bhakti are karmaless: they produce no future material births, good or bad.

From the Vedas, then, we learn of two clearly distinct religions, one pure and the other impure. Practicing good karma can elevate us in the material world, secure for us a vast life span on heavenly planets, and so on. In other words, it can make us first-class inmates of the material world. But bhakti alone can release us from the prison altogether. Even the best karma cannot free us from suffering, as Krishna warns in the Bhagavad- gita (8.16): “From the highest planet in the material world down to the lowest, all are places of misery where repeated birth and death take place.” But bhakti destroys all karmic reaction, extirpates all material desires, revives our pure love for God, and delivers us beyond birth and death to His abode. There we never taste temporary, material pleasure but rather relish eternal, spiritual bliss by serving Krishna and thus joining in His bliss.

It is a signal virtue of the Vedic tradition that it distinguishes so clearly between the religion of good karma and the religion of bhakti and offers bhakti purely, without compromise. Most of us, whether Catholic, Protestant, or Jew, have been taught a kind of common karmic religion: God has put us on this earth to enjoy ourselves, and if we do so within the ordained limits, not forgetting to show God gratitude and proper respect. He will see to our success. We should ask God to meet our needs and fulfill our lawful desires, for He is the greatest order supplier. If we are observant and good, He will reward us well in this life and even better in the next.

This is the religion Kushner professed: “Like most people, my wife and I had grown up with an image of God as an all-wise, all-powerful parent figure who would treat us as our earthly parents did, or even better. If we were obedient and deserving, He would reward us. If we got out of line, He would discipline us, reluctantly but firmly. He would protect us from being hurt or from hurting ourselves, and would see to it that we got what we deserved in life.”

Of course, Kushner begins to reconsider his religion when he discovers that it doesn’t work. At this point, most people (like the marble contractor) become atheists. The idea of God as order supplier is thus responsible for a great deal of unbelief. But Kushner wants to preserve his faith in God, or at least in God’s goodness, by denying His power.

Kushner’s chief defense of his position is that it is “religiously adequate,” that is, comforting. You will recall that he accused conventional theodicy of making people feel worse—causing them to feel guilty and to hate God. The explanation of suffering I have presented shouldn’t make anyone feel worse. True, it says that we cause our own suffering, yet the point is not to make us feel guilty. The point is to let us know we’ve made some mistakes and should correct them. And why should we resent God for our suffering? Suffering comes by the law of karma. But karma is the impartial working of causal law. Hostility toward God is what has put us under that law; it certainly won’t help us get out. For His part, God is making every effort to get us out: He comes to this world from time to time to teach the path of bhakti, which will destroy all our karma. He sends His representatives throughout the world on the same mission, and He even stays with us as the indwelling Supersoul during our sojurn in the material world, ready to give us the intelligence to approach Him when we put aside our ancient enmity.

Kushner has the right instincts: he too would like people to cease their enmity toward God, and he even recognizes the ignobility of worshiping Him on the condition that He satisfy our demands. But if only we recognize God’s limitations, he says, we won’t be angry at Him when things go wrong in our life, nor will we worship Him for the satisfaction of our desires. Kushner thus urges the religious adequacy of his own theodicy.

But it is far from adequate. Kushner’s problem is that he cannot overcome the conditioning of karmic religion. He needs something more spiritually powerful than good instincts to free him from the implicit hostility toward God, the unconscious, deep-seated unwillingness to serve Him unconditionally, that binds the conditioned soul to karma.

Kushner is still hostile. Because God did not satisfy his demands, Kushner must think of Him as ineffectual and weak. Kushner once thought of God as a parent who always gratifies our desires. But now Kushner views Him as needing our forgiveness—for having failed as a parent: “Are you capable of forgiving and loving God even when you have found out that He is not perfect, even when He has let you down and disappointed you by permitting bad luck and sickness and cruelty in His world, and permitting some of those things to happen to you? Can you learn to love and forgive Him despite His limitations ... as you once learned to forgive and love your parents even though they were not as wise, as strong, or as perfect as you needed them to be?”

Kushner asserts that his hostility toward God is no more, but what he has really done is simply change the form in which it is expressed—from rage to condescension. And this idea of God will only support our unwillingness to acknowledge His supremacy, and thus it will help keep us in the material world, where we will continue to suffer. Thus Kushner’s theodicy will not make us feel better; it will only make us feel worse.

Furthermore, if we think God weak and ineffectual, it is certain that we will not be able to surrender to Him fully and serve Him without any personal consideration. The condition that makes such service and surrender possible is His promise of complete protection. “Declare it boldly,” Krishna tells His disciple Arjuna, “My devotee never perishes” (Bg. 9.31). Because we can depend upon God completely, we can surrender to Him completely: “Abandon all varieties of religion and just surrender unto Me. I shall deliver you from all sinful reactions. Therefore you have nothing to fear” (Bg. 18.66).

If we accept Kushner, we will always have to look out for ourselves; we will have to act for our own sake, and so we will remain involved with karma. Our service to God will never be total and unconditional. Indeed, as long as we insist on taking care of ourselves, God will leave us to our own devices.

But if we accept Krishna, if we give up independent action and depend completely on God, devoting all our effort to His service, He will take complete care of us. We shouldn’t expect God to remove all inconvenience, but if difficulty comes we should simply tolerate it, recognizing that our residual bad karma is playing itself out, and continue to expect God’s mercy.

God will minimize the karmic reaction due us, but the ultimate way He protects us is by bestowing spiritual consciousness upon us and destroying the ignorance by which we identify ourselves with matter. Krishna describes that consciousness in the Bhagavad-gita (6.22-23): “In that joyous state, one is situated in boundless transcendental happiness and enjoys himself through transcendental senses… . Being situated in such a position, one is never shaken even in the midst of the greatest difficulty. This, indeed, is actual freedom from all miseries arising from material contact.” God frees us not so that we can goof off, not so we can get some “reward,” but so that we can serve Him wholeheartedly, without any other concern.

So if we accept Krishna, we can solve the problem of evil. That solution doesn’t lie in rejecting either the goodness or the power of God, but rather in taking advantage of that goodness and power to perform pure devotional service—and in that way end all our suffering forever.

Transcending the Laws of Karma

Complexity: 
Easy

from Back To Godhead Magazine #16-11, 1981

Nadine is the mother of four children. Her son Ravi, age seven, was born deaf and dumb. The other day, using sign language, Ravi asked his mother why he cannot speak or hear like his brother and sisters. Nadine, who has recently taken up Krishna consciousness, answered by explaining in a very simple way the law of karma. Ravi understood.

Nadine feels that had her son asked this question prior to her coming to understand the law of karma, she would have been unable to give him a satisfying explanation. Surely such questions as this are perplexing. Why does one person enjoy, while another suffers? But the answers to such questions are crucial to all of us, because they give us a direct clue to how we can become free from all future suffering.

Nowadays people tend to accept only explanations based on the authority of material sciences, such as physics, mathematics, and chemistry. Ideologists also stress economic, political, psychological, and sociological explanations, as well as philosophical speculations, the interpretations of astrology, and the dogmas of sectarian religions. But none of these explanations for good and ill fortune is as scientific, or as intellectually and morally satisfying, as the Vedic literature’s explanation of the law of karma.

According to the Vedic literature, karma is the law of cause and effect: there is a reaction for everything we do. If we throw a coin up, it will come down. If we regularly put money in the bank, our wealth will accumulate. If we drink too much, we’ll get drunk. These are natural laws of cause and effect. Similarly, the law of karma states that if we do something sinful we shall get a bad result and if we do something pious we shall get a good result.

According to the Vedic literature, the activities we perform in our present life determine the happiness and distress we meet in our future life. The body we have now is not our real self but is only a covering. Our real identity is the atma, the eternal spirit soul within the body. Impelled by the law of karma, we, the atma, transmigrate from one species to another, suffering and enjoying the results of our activities in the human form of life.

The Vedic literature distinguishes between karma, acts which are allowed, and vikarma, acts which are forbidden. Vikarma will bring us unfortunate reactions in this life and the next. These unfortunate reactions are sometimes popularly referred to as “bad karma.” Our present sufferings—chronic disease, poverty, and so on—are the bad karmic reactions of our past sinful activities.

These are not the beliefs of a particular religious faith; they are natural laws governing all activities in the material world. There is individual karma and collective karma. Individual karma accounts for our personal misfortune, and collective karma accounts for the sufferings of an entire nation: an epidemic, a war, a natural holocaust. Society’s sins of abortion and cow- killing, for example, must eventually result in severe collective bad karma. On the other hand, one who acts piously may be rewarded by a good birth on this planet or even on higher planets, where there is greater longevity and better enjoyment than on earth.

In the ultimate sense, however, all karma, whether good or bad, is bondage. Even pious activities bind us to the cycle of repeated birth and death. Whether rich or poor, weak or strong, learned or ignorant, beautiful or ugly, pious or impious, famous or obscure, everyone in the material world must suffer, birth after birth. As Lord Krishna states in Bhagavad-gita (8.16), “From the highest planet to the lowest planet, all are places of misery wherein repeated birth and death take place. But one who attains to My abode, O Arjuna, never takes birth again in this material world.” Therefore, until we become free of all karma, we have to undergo repeated birth and death.

Neither God nor the laws of nature are responsible for our karma; we make our own destiny. Out of our particular desires to enjoy this world in various ways, we create our own good or bad karma. We can attain freedom from karma only when we give up acting according to our material desires and instead act to serve the Supreme Personality of Godhead. When we are purified of all material desires and repose all our thoughts, words, and actions in loving service to Krishna, then only can we transcend the law of karma. Otherwise karma, good or bad, will lead us to repeated suffering, birth after birth.

We have to understand that the law of karma is actually operating, and then we can consider extricating ourselves from karma’s influence. Even if a mother can educate her deaf and dumb child by alternative methods and help him adjust to his handicapped life, the main problems of material life still remain. There are no material means for avoiding karma. Freedom from karma is possible only when we understand how to act transcendentally.

Nadine understands the laws of karma and was therefore able to solve her son’s dilemma. Usually psychologists, doctors, and parents of deaf and dumb children can explain only the immediate cause: “During pregnancy your mother was very sick.” “You had meningitis when you were a baby.” But such explanations don’t really answer the question. And Ravi’s reaction to such explanations had been like that of so many other handicapped children: “Yes, but why me?” Therefore he had remained dissatisfied.

Then Nadine had learned about Krishna consciousness and the Vedic literature’s explanation of karma. So one day when her son approached her in great frustration, demanding to know why he was deaf and dumb, she showed him a painting in Bhagavad-gita As It Is, by His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada. The painting depicted the soul as it transmigrates from birth to childhood to youth to adulthood to old age and finally, at death, to another body. Pointing to the picture, Nadine told Ravi that during one of his many previous lives he must have performed sinful activities and because of those sinful activities he was now being forced to accept the karmic reaction. Ravi looked up at his mother and smiled, and then he looked down at the picture again for a long, long time. He was no longer complaining, and he didn’t hit her or blame her as before. He just kept looking at the picture, satisfied.

Nadine is also satisfied. Ravi will learn to use his life so he won’t have to take another birth and suffer the results of his karma.

In Happiness and Distress

Complexity: 
Easy

from Back To Godhead Magazine #27-03, 1993

Misery and happiness come and go in this world, just like winter and summer. The Bhagavad-gita advises us to tolerate both happiness and distress. We are meant to tolerate while we keep performing our duties, and we are meant to keep worshiping Krishna despite everything. The Bhagavatam (10.14.8) states, tat te ’nukampam su- samikshamano… “My dear Lord, one who earnestly waits for You to bestow Your causeless mercy upon him, all the while patiently suffering the reactions of his past misdeeds and offering You respectful obeisances with his heart, words, and body, is surely eligible for liberation, for it has become his rightful claim.” This verse defines the mood of a devotee facing adversity.

Suffering is caused by our past acts. Therefore, a devotee should not expect immediate relief from his or her past karma. Prabhupada has assured us that Krishna minimizes our karmic reactions when we take up devotional service. But a devotee also looks at the suffering in the material world as a reminder of the harshness of illusion. Suffering is a teacher. Our hands are being rapped: “Pay attention! Work to get out of this material world! Remember Krishna!”

There can be no peace in the material world, where no one is free from karmic reactions. As long as we stay in material existence we must continuously suffer or enjoy the results of our past acts. The Nectar of Devotion describes these acts and their reactions as an almost unbreakable chain. Not only are we getting reactions to sins we have committed in the past, but present sinful activity is creating new reactions, reactions we will suffer in the future. And we have material desires within us that we have not yet acted upon. These also will have their reactions.

Devotees sometimes think they should be exempt from suffering because they are surrendered to Krishna. At initiation (the beginning of devotional life), the chain of karmic reactions is broken. Krishna tells us in Bhagavad-gita, sarva-dharman parityajya mam ekam sharanam vraja, aham tvam sarva-papebhyo: all papa (sin) will be removed by surrender to Him. But Prabhupada tells us that Krishna will still give us a token reaction as a reminder of the dangers of the material world and as an impetus to greater surrender. He gives us enough suffering to break our attachments. He wants to wean us from sense gratification and free us from further entanglement. And He wants us to love Him completely.

A devotee doesn’t want to be detained in the material world. So he always looks for ways to increase his remembrance of Krishna. Happiness and distress are the same for a devotee because they push the mind toward Krishna. Our real solace as devotees is to spend our days in that spirit.

The Bhagavatam states that liberation becomes the rightful claim for one who thinks like this. The exact word used to describe him is daya-bhak, “a rightful heir.” A pure devotee who is prepared to undergo any tribulation for Krishna consciousness becomes fit to enter the transcendental abode. Sridhara Swami comments, “What does a son have to do to get his father’s property? He simply has to stay alive.” To inherit a place in the spiritual world, we have to stay spiritually alive in all situations.

An example was set by Maharaja Yudhishthira. He was a great devotee of Krishna, but he suffered heavily, both in exile with his brothers and after the Kurukshetra War. Maharaja Yudhishthira was an honest and pious king. So when he thought of all the deaths caused by the war—a war fought simply to enthrone him—he felt weighed down by guilt and sorrow. No one could relieve him. Krishna then advised him to go for instruction to Bhishma.

At that time, Bhishma was lying on a bed formed by the arrows shot through his body. He was in great pain. Yet instead of going to him to ease his last days, Yudhishthira and his four brothers approached Bhishma to ask for help. Bhishmadeva said,

sarvam kala-kritam manye
bhavatam ca yad-apriyam
sapalo yad-vashe loko
vayor iva ghanavalih

“In my opinion, your suffering is all due to inevitable time, under whose control everyone in every planet is carried, just as the clouds are carried by the wind” (Bhagavatam 1.9.14). God’s ways are unknown. Everything happens under the control of time, according to the will of the Lord.

We are so tiny. Who are we to question the vast intelligence of the universe? Who are we to demand to fathom or change that which Krishna has set up? As Prabhupada says about Yudhishthira, we should not be sorry for the inconceivable action of time.

Hrid-vag-vapurbhir vidadhan namas te… All we can do is continue to offer obeisances to Krishna from the core of our hearts. Yudhishthira’s sufferings were not reactions for sins committed in his past, but “everyone has to bear the actions and reactions of time as long as one is within the conditions of the material world.” Even the most pious person has to suffer because of material nature. If this were not so, the material world would be nondifferent from the spiritual world, Vaikuntha—the place of no anxiety.

Bhishma added, “Oh, how wonderful is the influence of inevitable time. It is irreversible—otherwise, how can there be reverses in the presence of King Yudhishthira, the son of the demigod controlling religion; Bhima, the great fighter with a club; the great bowman Arjuna with his mighty weapon Gandiva; and above all, the Lord, the direct well-wisher of the Pandavas?” In the face of that which is inevitable, only a fool holds a grudge. As Bhishmadeva states, there is no need to lament when something is beyond the control of any human being.

A devotee, though, goes beyond the inevitabilities of material nature and sees the hand of Krishna present in everything. Still, precisely what Krishna intends is beyond our knowing. “O king,” said Bhishmadeva, “no one can know the plan of Lord Sri Krishna. Even though great philosophers inquire exhaustively, they are bewildered.” And Prabhupada adds in his purport:

The bewilderment of Maharaja Yudhishthira over his past sinful acts and the resultant sufferings is completely negated by the great authority Bhishma. Bhishma wanted to impress upon Maharaja Yudhishthira that since time immemorial, no one, including such demigods as Siva and Brahma, could ascertain the real plan of the Lord. So what can we understand about it?

Why did this happen to me? Bhishma considers this a useless question. Even the exhaustive philosophical inquiries of the sages cannot ascertain the reason. A devotee can simply have faith in Krishna’s ultimate kindness, continue to worship Him with heart, mind, and words, and continue to patiently accept Krishna’s mercy in whatever form it appears, whether in happiness or distress. In this way, a devotee earns the right to return to the spiritual world.

Who or What is to Blame?

Complexity: 
Medium


An investigation into the causes of suffering.

Dharma, religion personified, had taken on the form of a bull. Shaking in fear, he stood trembling on one leg, his other three legs broken. Kali, who personifies the present age of quarrel and hypocrisy, raised his club and swung it again and again, beating Dharma’s legs.

Although a common laborer, Kali was falsely dressed as a king, just as a criminal might dress as a policeman to gain trust. It seemed Kali was ready to beat his victim to death. Then Parikshit, the real king, arrived.

After ordering Kali to stop, Parikshit asked the victim to say who had caused his broken legs and pitiable condition. Dharma answered that suffering comes from many causes and therefore he couldn’t identify the real perpetrator. Besides, he said, the ultimate cause of everything is Lord Sri Krishna, and he didn’t wish to blame the Lord, who acts only for everyone’s good.

Parikshit praised the answer and declared Dharma to be the personification of religion.

“The destination intended for the perpetrator of irreligious acts,” Parikshit said, “is also intended for one who identifies the perpetrator.”

As part of his kingly duty, Parikshit then prepared to bring Kali to justice.

Several classes of philosophers try to explain suffering.

Some say that the cause is inscrutable and we simply have to bear grief without understanding its cause.

Others say that the laws of nature cause misery and, since those laws arise by chance, no one is responsible for suffering. These philosophers often seek to ease suffering through scientific advances that will, they hope, adjust nature to their own plan.

Other philosophers say that because all is spirit, Brahman, suffering is an illusion; it doesn’t really exist. These philosophers wish to destroy grief by destroying individuality, either by dissolving the self or by merging it into the total spirit.

Philosophers who know something of reincarnation suggest that the reactions to our desires and actions cause suffering, that an automatic law metes out justice.

Some theistic philosophers explain that God, the supreme controller, arranges for suffering and we simply have to trust that His reasons are good and sensible.

The Full Picture

Each of these philosophies is incomplete. Each has part of the truth—like the blind men asked to describe an elephant. The man touching the tail said that an elephant was like a rope, the one touching an ear said that an elephant was like a fan, and the one touching the trunk said that an elephant was like a large snake.

Each of the philosophies I listed fails to give as complete and satisfying an explanation of the cause of suffering as we find in the Vedic literature. The Vedas explain that each soul that enters the material world does so voluntarily, desiring to imitate God, Krishna. The soul by nature is a loving associate of the Lord, serving Him in unlimited activities of joy. But on entering this world, the soul develops desires and actions in disharmony with its very self. Just as eating something indigestible—such as plastic—will cause suffering, so thinking, feeling, and doing anything against our nature causes misery. The laws of nature, including what we term the “law of karma,” bring us the reactions to our work, just as the “law of digestion” brings the plastic-eater stomach pain.

The misery karma brings does not really affect the self, or soul, in any way, as much as the suffering of the hero in a drama has no actual effect on the lives of the audience. They suffer by identification. The soul “suffers” by identifying with the body and mind acquired to fulfill artificial desires. Just as the staged drama is real (actually taking place) but not reality (eternal spiritual existence), so is one’s suffering in this world.

This whole process—the soul’s acting in disharmony with his constitution, the laws of nature then bringing suffering, the soul identifying that suffering as his own—takes place under Krishna’s direction. But the process is not simply mechanical. Like a judge in this world, Krishna may choose to modify how the law is applied in a particular case.

The very complexity of the system makes the entire scheme inscrutable to a human mind. It involves the intertwining of many souls’ reactions, the playing out of justice over many lifetimes, and the freedom to make new choices while suffering reactions to old ones.

The Place of Compassion

What about compassion for those who suffer? In our school we were studying the Native Americans known as the Cherokees. They fully adopted European-American culture and set up a Christian society with a government modeled after the American constitution. Completely assimilated, they were model citizens who legally owned their land and homes. When government officials tried to seize their land, they won their case in court—as far as the Supreme Court. Yet the President ignored the ruling and allowed local officials to arrest the Cherokees and give away their land. Finally, the Cherokees were forced to migrate from Georgia to a reservation in Oklahoma. So many died on the way that the route is called “The Trail of Tears.”

As I study the suffering of the Cherokees, the injustice and greed of the perpetrators fill me with disgust. But does my pity for the law-abiding Cherokees who were robbed and exiled betray an ignorance of the laws of karma? After all, suffering doesn’t truly affect the real spiritual self. And everything that happened to the Cherokees resulted from their past actions, either in this life or previous ones. Besides, the Lord supervised and approved the infliction of suffering.

Still, one rightly feels compassion for the powerful, effulgent, and wise soul who has sown seeds that yielded a thorny harvest. Do we not mourn a person born into wealth and education who through his own choices lies in his alcoholic vomit in the gutter? We know he got himself there, yet we do what we can to bring him back to his rightful place.

The Evildoers

What of those who do evil? Is the perpetrator of evil really to blame if the victims are truly only victims of their own past actions? Every religious system has a code for defining crimes and penalties. Therefore, Krishna, the ultimate designer of these codes, considers that an evildoer should be held responsible and accountable. The officers of the American government who stole the Cherokees’ land, imprisoning and exiling the Cherokees, did not have any right to cause such pain. And, through the laws of karma, they suffer for their sinful actions.

After all, God doesn’t need the evildoers’ help. All-powerful, He can independently deliver someone’s destiny. He can send a natural disaster or a disease that brings as much pain and destruction as any demonic person or group can invent. Or He can use the evildoer by bringing together the criminal and those whose karma merits their being the object of a crime. The evildoer does the Lord’s will then, certainly. Ironically he does so as an act of disobedience to that very will. How wonderful Krishna is that He can bend the most wicked and cruel actions of men into His own plan. All serve Him, willing or not.

Evildoers only hurt themselves. By acting against codes of morality and religion, they exchange spiritual joy for bad karmic reactions.

Another question may arise: If people get what they deserve, why should the government get involved in administering justice? The Vedas teach that when a government punishes evil, it acts as Krishna’s agent to deliver some or all of the evildoers’ reactions. As a bona fide agent of God, the government incurs no reaction in its administration of proper justice.

Enlightened victims see those who perpetrate evil against them as messengers of karmic destiny, like postal workers delivering parcels they ordered. Persons in knowledge don’t point to the perpetrator as the only or ultimate cause. Rather, they see the direct giver of pain as the messenger of their own karma and Krishna’s will.

The Vedas say that one who blames the evildoer as the ultimate cause is also guilty of the hate, anger, and other ignorant qualities that drove the perpetrator to perform evil. We can assign blame, but only to benefit the perpetrator through justice and, ideally, rectification.

Seeing the immediate cause of our suffering or enjoyment as the agent of God and our karma is easy when that cause delivers enjoyment. For example, we can sense the divine hand of Krishna when someone, without our asking, gives us something we desire. At the same time, we are grateful to the gift- giver, who, for the good deed, gets karmic credit and, if giving with the desire to serve the Lord, spiritual progress.

Similarly, whoever assails us with the unwanted is rightly punished, but we can see the suffering we receive as Krishna’s mercy, just as when we are materially pleased. And the truly saintly persons, who see Krishna with love everywhere and in everything, feel connected with Him in both types of reciprocation.

What About Remedial Measures?

How does one who has developed this vision act? Scriptures such as the Srimad-Bhagavatam describe saints who did nothing at all to remedy material suffering. They felt constant spiritual happiness and realized that the ultimate result of everything is good. They lived separate from society and sometimes seemed muddle-headed to common people.

Generally, however, even perfectly self-realized souls who always serve Krishna with love take up ordinary means to counteract suffering. For example, when sick, they take appropriate medicine and treatment. If a crime is committed against them, they report it to the authorities and try to bring the criminal to justice.

While attempting to remedy the difficulty, they are always aware that the results are in Krishna’s hands, and do not consider that they are the ultimate “doer” of their actions. They act to show an example to those less spiritually advanced, who cannot gratefully embrace both joy and sorrow. And they act to preserve justice in the world. Since Krishna wants justice, such actions are also part of serving Him.

Those of us who aren’t saintly and fully realized can turn to remedies while depending on Krishna. At least in theory we can understand that the Supreme Lord controls everything and that the efficacy of our cures depends on Him. Knowing that He is all good, we trust that if we continue to suffer despite remedies, the suffering is designed to assist us in coming to total spiritual joy. Life brings material happiness and suffering, just as it brings day and night or snowstorms and heat waves. When such changes no longer disturb us, inner, spiritual happiness begins.