Why are some people born wealthy and some poor?
Question: Why are some people born wealthy and some poor? Why do we so much injustice in the starting points of our lives?
Answer: Yes, these seeming injustices can be quite hurting, but the twin concepts of karma and reincarnation can help us make sense of life and grow onwards in life. Let’s see how by comparing life with a cricket match.
Why Different Starting Conditions?
If we compare life to a cricket match, then all of us get widely different starting conditions to play the match of life. Some of us are born good-looking; some, mediocre-looking. Some of us are born with a phenomenal memory; some, with a below-average memory. These starting conditions often significantly shape the difficulties we face in achieving our life’s goals. If I have a below-average memory and my academic success is measured by exams that test memory, the decks are stacked against me right from the start; the match is fixed against me even before it starts.
Why do different people get different starting conditions? The elusiveness of a simple, straightforward answer to questions like these has been discovered by thinkers throughout history and has also been acknowledged in the Srimad Bhagavatam (1.17.18-20), “It is very difficult to ascertain the particular miscreant who has caused our sufferings, because we are bewildered by all the different opinions of theoretical philosophers. Some of the philosophers, who deny all sorts of duality, declare that one’s own self is responsible for his personal happiness and distress. Others say that superhuman powers are responsible, while yet others say that activity is responsible, and the gross materialists maintain that nature is the ultimate cause. There are also some thinkers who believe that no one can ascertain the cause of distress by argumentation, nor know it by imagination, nor express it by words.”
Despite the near-impossibility of ascertaining the specific cause of every single suffering that comes upon us, thoughtful people across history and geography have looked for general principles of causality that logically explain life’s inequities. And the Vedic wisdom-tradition does offer a worldview incorporating such principles, a worldview that can help us make sense of our present and also prepare for a better future. Moreover, the Vedic wisdom-tradition, far from handing out dogma and demanding belief, encourages logical analysis as a means to strengthen faith in the veracity of its revealed wisdom. For example, the Chaitanya Charitamrita, a medieval devotional classic, beckons, “If you are indeed interested in logic and argument, kindly apply it to the mercy of Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu. If you do so, you will find it to be strikingly wonderful.” (CC Adi 8.15). As our present discussion is about life’s disparities, let us use logic to analyze which worldview best explains these disparities? Which are the worldviews that could be logical candidates for evaluation? If we were to ask why a team got a particular starting score, the various possible explanations would eventually boil down to three: it was determined by chance or by the organizer or by the team itself. The same three possibilities emerge when we seek an explanation of life’s inequities. Let’s analyze the corresponding worldviews one by one to see which offers the best explanation.
This is the materialistic, atheistic worldview which holds that what we are is the result of the chance interactions of natural forces, that one shot at living is all that we ever get and that we are successes if we mine the maximum material enjoyment out of our brief life-spans. With such a worldview, the setting for pursuing life’s material goals like wealth seems blatantly unfair. Some people are born in heartbreakingly poor families; some, in middle class families with a constant anxiety about paying the bills; some in fabulously wealthy families with plenty of everything material.
Using the cricket analogy, this worldview makes life seem like a one-day cricket tournament in which one team starts with an initial score of 0 runs; another, with a score of 100 runs; and still another, with a score of 200 runs. Why this difference? This worldview answers by saying that there is no answer; some people are lucky, some, unlucky. Period.
Of course, we can console ourselves by the reassurance that, irrespective of where we are now, we can improve our lot. And we can also try to rectify the inequities socio-politically by enacting policies for redistribution of wealth or preferential employment to the economically disadvantaged. While such reassurances and policies can help to create a brighter future, they don’t at all rationally explain the bleak present. The chance-based worldview makes the unlucky feel wronged and helpless. Even the lucky end up feeling insecure because any moment their luck may run out. Such a worldview is unappealing as it violates our intuitive sense of justice. It is also disempowering as it breeds feelings of helpless victimization at the hands of blind chance. Most of the people who accept it do so because they don’t know of any better alternative. The theistic alternative that they commonly know doesn’t seem much better.
This is the worldview of most denominations of the Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam). By adding God to the previous worldview, it posits that the problems of life are moral tests arranged by God to impel us to grow spiritually. While this worldview may explain why life has problems, it doesn’t explain why some people have more problems than others. Even if spiritual advancement – and not material aggrandizement – is added to this worldview as the ultimate goal of life, still the question of discrimination remains: why are some people born in devout families that offer abundant opportunities for spiritual growth and some people born in atheistic families that offer very few, if any, such opportunities?
If God is like the teacher who sets the questions for the test, then this worldview makes God into a discriminatory teacher who arbitrarily gives easy questions to some students and difficult questions to others. Continuing with the cricket analogy, this worldview makes God the assigner of different starting scores to different teams. Why does God discriminate like this? This worldview usually answers with some variation of the platitude that God’s justice is different from ours. But for those who have been wronged by life, such a rationalization seems more a covert ploy to get God off the hook than a reasonable explanation. And it is difficult to deny the ring of truth in their resounding retort: God’s justice may be different from ours, but it should be different in the sense of being better than ours, not worse than ours. It is a sad fact of history that the demand for faith in such a capricious “God” has caused millions of intelligent, sincere people to balk. Thousands have even taken what seemed to them the next logical step and embraced full-scale atheism. Given that they had to make the difficult choice between the two unpalatable options of mundane chance and divine caprice, their decision is understandable.
Understandable, but ill-informed. Because there is a third option.
The third option is the Vedic worldview that incorporates reincarnation and karma into a complete Weltanschauung that is individually and socially empowering. The Vedic reincarnation-based worldview explains that all of us are eternal souls who have reincarnated through many lives in the past and will also reincarnate through as many future lives as are necessary for our spiritual growth. These multiple reincarnations provide us opportunities for self-education that culminates in graduation into eternal life. The qualification for graduation is the development of the supreme virtue of selfless love for God and all his children. Those who don’t graduate by the end of their present life get further chances in their future lives, where their starting point is determined by the deeds of their present life. Extending the same principle backwards in time, the individual starting points that we got in this life were determined by where we had left off in our previous life.
The reincarnation-based worldview enables us to see the diversity among people to be the like the diversity among the students who are in different classes in a university. Just as different students get different exams according to what is required to raise them from their present class to the next, all of us face different problems in life according to what is best suited to raise us from our present moral and spiritual level to the next.
Going back to the cricket analogy, life is like a multi-innings test match where our present lifetime is only one innings. The different initial scores that different teams start off with are determined not by arbitrary fluke or fiat, but by the lead (or the lag) they had themselves acquired in their previous innings. Life’s match is ultimately fair because life gives us what we have earned; if the match seems fixed, then it is we ourselves who have fixed it.
Of course, there are subtleties and nuances to this worldview, but overall it offers us a coherent explanation for life’s disparities. When contrasted with the irrational beliefs that we are pre-natal victims of either mundane chance or divine caprice, the Vedic explanation that we are the intermediate products our own past choices shines with the light of rationality. And the knowledge that the present “I” is an intermediate product – not the final product – that can be refined by present choices is definitely empowering. Srila Prabhupada succinctly reminds us of this ultimate freedom and ultimate responsibility that rests with us: “By making our choice, we can make our future destiny.”
Redefining our relationships
The reincarnation worldview is also socially empowering, for it transforms our vision of the universe from that of a jungle to that of a university and thus infuses our relationships with a learning and sharing mood instead of a fighting and grabbing mood. By redefining our view of the world as a university and of all living beings as fellow-students, the reincarnation-based worldview helps us to see those less endowed with qualities and abilities than us with sympathy rather than scorn; they are like the kinder-garden students, who deserve the encouragement, not the scorn, of the college students. The awareness that we too were at that level once inspires us to extend a lifting hand rather than a pushing hand. This worldview also engenders respect for those better endowed than us; they have earned their PhDs by diligent study in the same university where we are striving to pass through junior college. As the same spiritual expressway that they took is open to us, we feel inspired to accelerate our journey on that way by learning from them instead of getting stuck where we are by envying them. We don’t need to compete against even those who are our equals; our success does not require their failure, as it often does in material endeavors like sports, where the victory of one team requires the defeat of another, or academics where the limited number of seats in a prestigious university necessitates that students can get those seats only by edging out their competitors. In joyful contrast, spiritual endeavors depend only on our sincerely striving to develop a loving service attitude toward the Lord and his devotees –irrespective of whether our equals become better than us. In the spiritual world, our original home, there is no competition for limited seats; all of us have our own individual seat in the spiritual world reserved inalienably for us, just waiting for us to reclaim them by making sufficient spiritual advancement. Thus our life’s cricket match is not against others, but against our own lower self that drags us into irrational, growth-stunting choices. And it is when we start playing the match against our lower self earnestly that we can experience the practical empowerment resulting from the Vedic worldview.
The philosophical worldview that answers intelligibly questions which have otherwise baffled the human intellect is just the beginning of the gifts on offer for humanity from the Vedic wisdom-tradition. For those who are spiritually adventurous enough, this worldview becomes the intellectual launching pad for the experiential techniques of yoga. Bhakti yoga centered on chanting of the Hare Krishna mahamantra gives experience of inner spiritual fulfillment that becomes for the sincere yogi the experiential confirmation of the reincarnation philosophy. The Srimad Bhagavatam explains this through an analogy that all of us can relate to: “Devotion, direct experience of the Supreme Lord, and detachment from other things—these three occur simultaneously for one who has taken shelter of the Supreme Personality of Godhead, in the same way that pleasure, nourishment and relief from hunger come simultaneously and increasingly, with each bite, for a person engaged in eating.”
The spiritual satisfaction coming from direct experience of the divine and the resulting detachment from material things helps us see the inequities of life as relatively unimportant: they are temporary, superficial to our spiritual essence and inconsequential in our pursuit of everlasting spiritual fulfillment.
Moreover, wherever we may presently be along the spiritual continuum of life, the cultivation of Krishna consciousness offers the best pathway to spiritual perfection. It empowers us to break free from self-defeating patterns of thought and behavior that imprison us in injurious choices. It also blesses us with the inner clarity and purity by which we can receive divine guidance and make the best choices. Indeed, Lord Krishna promises in the Bhagavad-gita (10.10), “To those who are constantly devoted to serving me with love, I give the understanding by which they can come to me.”
Overall, the reincarnation-based worldview empowers us to make the best sense out of the seeming senselessness of life. Not only that, the insight that life’s disparities are neither arbitrary nor discriminatory, but are progressive and tailor-made, transforms life into an exciting and fulfilling adventure. When we try to fix the match of our life ourselves, as most of us have been trying till now, we end up making a mess out of it – sooner or later. But when we bring Krishna and his wisdom into our life, he guides us to fix it – for good.