The Science of Karma
What is karma? How does it act? Questions like these are much more common today than a few decades ago. This is evident not only from the fact that the word ‘karma’ has a place in the English dictionary, but also from the fact that Gallup polls show an increase in percentage of people, not only in the eastern world, but also in the western world, who believe in karma. However, karma is not just a belief system; it is a precise science. Even more important is that it is a science of consequences, consequences that we ourselves have to bear in our lives. Therefore it’s vital to understand this science..
The Logic of Karma
1. All of nature obeys laws
The law of karma is: For every action there is equal and opposite reaction. In the Bible, it is phrased as: As you sow, so shall you reap.
Science has discovered that all of nature obeys laws. From the microscopic to the macroscopic, for any interaction of any kind, nature follows laws. In fact, science is nothing but a study and application of nature’s laws. If all of nature is governed by laws, why should we humans be an exception to such laws?
There is a saying: we can never break God’s laws; we can only break ourselves against God’s laws. If somebody says, “I don’t believe in the law of gravity” and jumps from the top of a ten-storied building, what will happen? He will definitely not break the law of gravity, but surely he will break himself against the law. He will fall down and break his leg, or he may even break his head. Similarly, we can never break any of the laws of God. Just as the law of gravity is impartial and inexorable and acts on all physical objects indiscriminately, the law of karma is impartial and inexorable and acts on all living entities indiscriminately.
2. Normal training system
If the students study well, their parents appreciate them and give them some gifts. If they don’t study nicely, the parents chastise them and reduce their pocket money. Wherever there is a superior supervisor, the normal way of training is punishment for the bad and reward for the good. Similarly, since God is the most benevolent parent and the most intelligent trainer, he also follows the same system. He uses the law of karma to train us.
Doubts About Karma
1. Why not action-reaction in one life?
Somebody may ask, “Why should I suffer now for my actions in a previous life? Why so much delay?” Different seeds fructify after different time durations. Grains harvest after two or three months, some fruit seeds produce fruits after twenty years and some seeds may even take hundred years to fructify. Every action that we do is like a seed sown. The seed will fructify and we cannot escape the result. One may say, “I don’t like this fruit, I don’t want it.” But one will be forced to eat the fruit, even if it is thorny. The reactions will come, but different types of karma seeds (actions) have different time durations after which they fructify.
Why do different actions give reactions after different time durations? To understand this, let’s probe deeper into the mechanism of karma, as is illustrated through an incident from the Mahabharata.
After the bloody Kurukshetra war, Dhritrarashtra asked Krishna, “I had hundred sons and all of them were killed in the war. Why? Krishna replied, “Fifty lifetimes ago, you were a hunter. While hunting, you tried to shoot a male bird, but it flew away. In anger, you ruthlessly slaughtered the hundred baby birds that were there in the nest. The father-bird had to watch in helpless agony. Because you caused that father-bird the pain of seeing the death of his hundreds sons, you too had to bear the pain of your hundred sons dying.
Dhritarastra said, “Ok, but why did I have to wait for fifty lifetimes?” Krishna answered, “You were accumulating punya (pious credits) during the last fifty lifetimes to get a hundred sons because that requires a lot of punya. Then you got the reaction for the papa (sin) that you have done fifty lifetimes ago.”
Krishna says in the Bhagavad-gita (4.17) gahana karmano gatih, that the way in which action and reaction works is very complex. God knows best which reaction has to be given at what time in what condition. Therefore, some reaction may come in this lifetime, some in the next and some in a distant future lifetime.
There is a saying, “The mills of God grind slow but they grind exceedingly fine.” So, every single action will be accounted for, sooner or later. The Srimad Bhagavatam gives the example: if we have a cowshed with thousand calves and if we leave a mother cow there, she will easily find out where her calf is among those thousands. She has this mystical ability. Similarly, our karma will find us among the millions of people on this planet. There may be thousands of people going on the road but only one of them meets with an accident. It is not by chance, it’s by karma. Thus, the law of karma works exceedingly fine; it may be slow to act, but no one can escape.
2. Why are the ignorant not excused?
Once a person driving on a bike came across a red signal and slowed down. Then he saw a buffalo walking confidently without considering the signal. Seeing this, he also started, and immediately, the traffic policeman stopped and fined him. He asked the policeman, “You didn’t fine the buffalo, why me?” The policeman replied, “Because you are a bigger buffalo!”
The buffalo does not have the intelligence to understand the law, but we human beings do. If we are driving, it is not the government’s duty to educate us about the laws of the state. It is our duty to learn the state laws. Similarly, if we are living in this world taking air, water, sunlight and food from nature, we need to follow the rules laid down by God.
If one stays at a hotel, eats, sleeps and watches TV, and so on, then obviously he will have to pay for all the facilities provided by the hotel for his comfort. If the bill is not paid, a few reminders will come. And if the bill is still not paid, severe reactions are sure to come. At that time, one can’t take the stance that “I did not know that I have to pay the bill for staying at the hotel.”
Similarly, it is not for material nature to teach us our duties. When we take human birth, it is for us to learn the laws of karma. After jumping from the top of a 10-story building and breaking his bones, a child cannot say, “I didn’t know that if I jump from a 10-storied building, I will fall down and break my bones”. The law of gravity will not excuse him. Just as the law of gravity is impartial and inexorable, so is the law of karma.
Another important point to note is that ignorance is not an excuse for sin; rather, ignorance is the consequence of sin. For example, when a person commits a crime, he is put in a jail. In a standard jail, often there are reformers who give good counsel to the prisoners so that they will become good citizens. But if in the jail also, the prisoner acts criminally and starts beating the other co-prisoners, counselors and guards, then he will be taken from the normal prison cell and put in a dark dungeon where he will be given food from the window and nobody will come to give him counsel. Why is that? Because he rejected the opportunity for counseling earlier, now he is put in a place where he gets no counseling.
Similarly, if today somebody is born in a social situation or in a cultural environment where that person never gets to know about the law of karma, then that’s because he has, by his past action shown God and the material energy, the superintendent, “I am not interested in knowing about your laws; I don’t care. I will do whatever I want.” That’s why he is put in a place where he has no opportunity for getting to know about God. The current Kali yuga is actually such a dark age. The souls who are born in Kali yuga are the ones who in the previous ages of Satya, Treta and Dwapar have shown by their actions that they don’t care for the laws of God and that’s why many of them are born in a situation where they don’t come to know about the laws of God.
Of course, God is not just a judge; he is also a loving father. Therefore, God’s mercy is greater than His justice. So even in the dark dungeon of Kali yuga, where normally no prison reformers come, the Lord sends His representatives. In this particular Kali Yuga, not only did the Lord himself come in the form of Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, but he also sent his representatives in the form of Srila Prabhupada and his disciples to give the knowledge of the laws of karma to even those who by their own past karma don’t deserve and don’t desire to know about it. That is why, all over the world people today have the opportunity to turn towards God. Actually in everybody’s life, God by His grace, arranges such circumstances at least once during the human form of life when one has the opportunity to think about “what am I living for?”, “what is the purpose of life?” and “what is life all about?” That time the curtains of ignorance are just opening and the stream of enlightenment is coming through. If at that time one seeks knowledge and wisdom, then God will guide him to a place where he will surely get wisdom, and that’s how a person can get spiritual knowledge even from the situation where he is deprived of spiritual knowledge.
3. Why do natural calamities kill thousands of innocent people?
Let’s consider a less-known incident during the tsunami disaster that happened in the Indian subcontinent a few years ago.
On the morning of that disaster, just before the tsunami struck, some scuba divers went scuba diving into the ocean to look for jewels. When they went under water, they suddenly felt a force pushing them upwards. They struggled to resist the force till it subsided. Then they went deeper under water, did their work, came back to the surface of the ocean and swam back to the coastline – only to find that there was no coast line! While they were under the water, the tsunami had devastated everything. Just consider, the tsunami killed those who were on the land, but those who were under the water were unharmed! If these Scuba divers had ventured into the ocean a little later or a little earlier, they would have been on the surface when the killer wave hit. But by their karma they were not supposed to die at that time, so although they were closest to the tsunami, they did not die.
Another even more amazing example: During an earthquake in Gujarat, there was a mother who had a small baby sucking on her breast. Suddenly the earthquake struck and a column of the roof fell on the mother. The mother died on the spot. Almost twenty-four hour later, when the rescue workers worked their way down to the debris, they found the mother dead and the infant moving his hands and legs holding on to his mother’s breast. The infant is so tender that one small blow can prove fatal for him, yet there it was safe amidst a quake that proved fatal for many healthy adults.
What we learn from incidents like these is that although natural calamities kill in mass, they don’t kill blindly. Only those who have the kind of karma for which they have to die at that particular time will be killed. This is an example of mass karma.
Mass karma involves a group of people who have done different kinds of bad karmas. The reaction of their karma is that they are all supposed to die. But material nature gives that reaction to many people efficiently in one stroke through a calamity. For example, all such people may be brought together in one airplane and that airplane will crash. The person who is not supposed to die will not be on that flight perhaps because his car broke down on the way to the airport and he missed the flight.
In this way, karmana daiva netrena – the law of karma acts under the divine supervision of the Lord. Even in a mass calamity, not one person is killed blindly; everyone gets the reactions of their own karma.
Three Types of Actions
The word karma has several connotations. The general understanding is that karma means the actions one does. Sometimes it is also used to refer to the reactions of past actions as in the phrase “one is suffering one’s karma”. And in other places, karma refers to the whole system of the law of karma.
But karma, in a stricter, scriptural sense, primarily means the actions done in accordance with one’s prescribed duties as mentioned in the revealed scriptures. In contrast to karma, there is vikarma – viruddha rupena karma. Vikarma refers to actions done contratry to the scriptures by the misuse of one’s free will. Vikarma takes one down to the lower forms of life. Kali Yuga is full of vikarma, and the four main vikarmic activities are intoxication, meat eating , gambling and illicit sex. These four main irreligious activities lead to severe karmic reactions, which come both in future and present lives. Illicit sex leads to variety of diseases. Meat eating leads to heart problems, cancer and other diseases. Gambling causes people to lose their senses and eventually lose everything. Intoxication, which people think is very enjoyable, is actually a ritual of self torture. What starts with “cheers!” often leads to cheerless repercussions. Making a big fool of themselves, sometimes drinkers are found lying in gutters.
Different from karma and vikarma, there is akarma. Akarma doesn’t mean inactivity, but activity that brings no reaction, activity that frees one from the cycle of birth and death.
Is Everything Destined?
We make our destiny by our karma (and vikarma). Destiny is something like a weather forecast on a journey. A weather forecast can tell us whether our journey from one place to another is going to be snowy or sunny. But it does not determine what we do during the journey.
In the Mahabharata, Vidura explained to Dhritarastra, “Destiny determines the consequences of our actions, not our actions themselves.” This means that we are not like programmed robots that have no freewill, or no choice. Our past karma does determine what will happen in our life, but it does not determine how we will react to it.
With respect to destiny, there are two schools of thought – karmavada and daivavada. Karmavada says that “By my karma I will be successful. If I just work hard enough and smart enough, then I will become the next Bill Gates. By my sweat and my muscles, I will succeed.” But if you look at the reality of life, so many people work hard and not all of them are successful. Therefore karmavada, the idea that everything depends on my actions, brings frustration and the people who follow this doctrine tend to develop inferiority complex. Thus, karmavada leads to frustration because in reality it is not our action alone that determines results.
Many times, we feel sorry when we study hard but don’t get good marks. But if we are honest, we will also admit that there are times in our life when we don’t study very much other than the few hours before exam and still get good marks. So the law of karma works both ways, sometimes due to our past good karma we get good reactions even when we don’t do proper action.
On the other hand, daivavada means to think “everything is determined by destiny, what can I do?” Dhritarastra was trying to use daivavada to justify his inaction when Duryodhana was doing atrocities on the Pandavas. Vidura told him, “Stop your son Duryodhana from waging war against the Pandavas, let him accept Krishna’s peace proposal.” Dhritarashtra replied, “No, if it is a will of destiny, then who am I, a tiny mortal, to stop the will of almighty destiny?” Vidura reminded him, “You have your duty; you have the freedom to choose to do your duty or not. So you should try to stop your son to the best of your capacity.” Many western thinkers and many westernized Indian thinkers misunderstand the Vedic philosophy. They think that the Vedic philosophy is fatalistic because everything is supposed to be predestined and thus this notion preempts any purposeful activity. But actually, Indians were never lazy. The world’s biggest poem is the epic Mahabharata which has 110,000 verses. This is seven times bigger than the world’s next two biggest poems – the Illiad and Odyssey combined together. Could lazy people have composed such a massive masterpiece? Literature, architecture, art, and even science and mathematics had reached great heights in Vedic times. All this cannot be the products of lazy people. Thus, Vedic philosophy is not daivavadi.
The real Vedic understanding is that the results of our actions are determined both by our actions of this life and the reactions of the actions of past life. For example, the sowing of seeds and the ploughing of fields is the karma of the farmer. But whether it will rain sufficiently or not is the daiva. Simply by sowing the seeds and ploughing the fields there will be no harvest unless there is sufficient rain. Similarly, simply by sufficient rains, without sowing the seeds and ploughing the fields, there will be no harvest. Therefore, the Vedic scriptures explain that you must just do your duty, the right karma, and not bother about the daiva part. Not bothering about daiva means not letting our destiny discourage us from doing our duty, whatever it is. This is so because if we do our karma now, it will give fruits if daiva is favorable now. But even if daiva is not favorable now, then this right karma is still creating the favorable daiva for the future. Therefore there is no reason to get discouraged or disheartened while performing one’s prescribed duty.
But it is important to note that even if a person does good karma, that good karma will bring good reactions and this means he has to still stay in the material world to enjoy those good reactions. For example, if somebody offers free water taps in charity, that is certainly good karma, but the reaction for it is that he has to take another birth in which he will never suffer from shortage of water. He might take birth near a lake or a river. Similarly, if somebody gives school textbooks in charity, then in his next life he might become the owner of a printing factory. But birth in the material world means he has to grow old, get diseased, has to die, and has to suffer the three-fold miseries of material existence.
Thus, even by good karma we don’t get out of the material world, because good karma is not necessary Godly karma or akarma. As long as we are forgetful of God, we stay on in the material world. The real way to come out of this material world, which is the place of suffering, is by developing our devotional service to God, which is actually akarma.
Benefits of Knowledge of Karma:
The understanding of karma has a lot of bearing on the present state of society. Only when we understand karma will the call to morality have any meaning. Imagine you come to a city where it reads, “Welcome to our city. There is no police force in this city; please follow the laws.” Do you think anybody will follow the laws? Nobody will. Today’s society has become like that. The legal system is known to be weak and corrupt. People think “If I am just clever enough, influential enough or cunning enough, then I can do whatever I want and I can get away with it.” So if we want morality in society, we need to educate people to understand the law of karma. Then and then alone will the call to morality, or the call to ethics, have any meaning. That’s why it is said that fear of God is the beginning of wisdom, just like for a child, fear of his father is generally the main impetus for him to study. How many of us have been chastised by our parents and forced to study? Almost everyone, sometime or the other. At that time, we didn’t find it pleasant, but later on we appreciate our parents for it. If at that time we wouldn’t have studied, we would have been in trouble. So here it is seen that fear is very often an impetus for doing our duty. Similarly, if there is no proper understanding of the law of karma and the fear of the karmic rections, most people will have no impetus to do good karma.
Perhaps even more important is that the understanding of the law of karma helps us to makes sense of our present condition and gives us the strength to face suffering. Actually, a person without spiritual knowledge is like a person who is blindfolded and is beaten from top, bottom, left, right, front and back without knowing from where the next blow is coming and why. At any moment, one can be put into such situations for which one is left groping for answers for questions like “why me, why now or why this?”
When we become well versed with the science of karma, it’s like the blindfold is removed. It’s a big relief.
When I was in a hospital for several months due to sickness, I was looking at other patients and talking to them. One of the things they couldn’t understand and which was emotionally crushing them was, “All my relatives and friends are happy; they are in their homes, they are in their parties and enjoying life (nobody is really enjoying life actually, but that is the illusion). Why am I suffering alone here?” This thought crushes people completely when they are faced with tough situations in life. But for me as a devotee, I knew that it was just my karma, “Just let me endure it and it will get over”.
In this way, the knowledge of the law of karma helps us to make sense out of our suffering and face it with calmness.
Secondly, it helps us prepare for the future with confidence. It is not that just by knowing about karma, we will become free from suffering. But we become like a sick patient who has understood what the disease is and how to cure it. The pain is still there, but it is going to decrease. But for the person who doesn’t know the cure, his pain is just going to increase and, on top of that, he will be feeling helpless and dejected. But a knowledgeable person knows sooner or later all the sufferings will come to an end.
W Somerset Maugham, in his book The Razor’s edge writes, “Has it occurred to you that transmigration is at once an explanation and justification of the evil of the world. If the evil we suffer is the result of sins committed in our past lives, we can bear them with resignation and hope that if in this one we strive towards virtue, our future lives will be less afflicted.”
Thus, the science of karma is not a science of condemnation, it is science of redemption. It’s message is not “You are sinful, suffer.” But it’s message is, “Whatever be your past karma for which you are suffering now, just surrender to God and His grace will come upon you and you will be saved.”
Complete Freedom From Karma
By Devotional Service
Beyond good karma, there is akarma, devotional service, which brings the ultimate freedom from karmic entanglement. Let’s see how. Devotional service provides us with four great gifts:
1. Discrimination of right and wrong
When we practice devotional service, the Lord as the Parmatma in our heart grants us the knowledge to make the right choices. All of us can, at some time or the other, hear the voice of conscience (vivek buddhi in Sanskrit). When we start doing something wrong, then the voice from inside warns, “Don’t do this.” If you want to do something right, this voice says, “Yes, do this now.” So, when we chant the holy name of Krishna, when we practice devotional service, this inner voice becomes stronger and it guides us to make the right choices in life. Thus devotional service can grant us the knowledge to gradually become disentangled from all karma.
2. Determination to follow right and avoid wrong
Devotional service saves us from
a) doing further bad karma, and
b) the craving to do bad karma.
Chanting of the holy names gives us the inner satisfaction that enables us to say no to all the sinful pleasure of this world. Thus, we not only know the right choices, but we also get the willpower to make those right choices.
3. Minimization of sinful reactions
Certain reactions are going to come to us from past. But devotional service helps us in minimizing those reactions. For devotees, the Lord gives just a token reaction instead of the complete one. That token is given so that the devotee does not forget the miserable nature of this world.
Once, a devotee cut his finger when he was cutting vegetables. He went to Srila Prabhupada and asked why his finger got cut, even though he was cutting the vegetables for Krishna. Prabhupada told him that his neck was supposed to be cut, but since he has become a devotee, the Lord only gave him token reaction in the form of the cut finger.
4. Inner strength to face suffering
Whatever be the residual karma that comes upon us, devotional service grants us the strength to tolerate that suffering. One of the names of Krishna is Karuna-nidhi, reservoir of compassion. Our acharyas give an example of how Krishna gives us strength to endure our sufferings. When a child is going to school, the mother knows, “Today my child has not done his homework properly and the teacher is going to beat him on his hand with the stick.” The mother doesn’t want the child to be beaten and at the same time wants the child to be disciplined. So she sends the child to school, but gives him thick gloves to wear. When the teacher beats him, he feels the impact but he doesn’t feel the pain. Similarly, when a devotee is supposed to get suffering because of his misdeeds from material nature, who is like the teacher, Krishna, who is like the mother, gives his devotees his holy name, chanting which gives them the strength to tolerate and transcend their pain. So externally a devotee may seem to be in pain, but internally because of his remembrance of the holy name, he doesn’t feel the suffering. And the more advanced a devotee is, the more he can experience the reality of this protection from Krishna.
In conclusion, irrespective of whatever our past karma may be, the spiritually scientific process of devotional service is the best path to the highest happiness in this life and the next.
(The above article is a transcript of a talk given by the author to a gathering of college students)