Why me! What did I do to deserve this? – Understanding Karmic Justice
Question: “Why me! What did I do to deserve this?” This is a question that many outraged people who feels unfairly singled out by cruel providence. Do the Vedic scriptures offer any answer to this question?
Answer: Yes, the philosophy and logic of karma offers an answer that is both intellectually satisfying and emotionally hope-giving. Let’s discuss how.
Why bad things happen to good people is a question that may haunt us when we see virtuous people victimized by painful reverses in life. The “problem of evil” has been the bane of Western theologians and thinkers for centuries. Simply stated, the problem is, Why does evil exist in the world despite the presence of an almighty God?
The Vedic scriptures give a clear understanding of the problem of evil. They explain that evil comes upon us because of our own bad acts. That’s called karma. But when our due suffering reaches us, we’ve forgotten the wrongs we did in the past. Hence the indignant outburst, “Why me?”
Ralph walks into his house and sees an ugly burn on his father’s right hand. Shocked, he cries out, “Dad, what happened?”
Early one morning, Mrs. Choy calls her family physician. “Doctor, my stomach really hurts.” The doctor promptly asks, “What did you have for dinner last night?”
Rahul is having respiratory problems. After examining him, the doctor asks, “At what age did you start smoking?”
These simple, everyday incidents imply acceptance of an idea similar to the concept of karma. On seeing a particular effect, we want to know its cause. This is what the law of karma is about: for every action there is a reaction. The law of karma is similar toNewton’s third law, except that it involves, not the physical level, but subtler concepts like higher powers and cosmic justice. Nonetheless, just as Newton’s law is not a belief but a principle of physical science, the law of karma is a principle of higher-dimensional science.
The Mystery of the World
Karma is a simple, logical, and satisfactory explanation for suffering, but often our observations don’t seem to confirm it. Corrupt politicians amass fortunes without being punished; criminal rogues live in style as underworld dons; shady businessmen who earn millions illegally are considered the success stories of the times. On the other hand, the upright crusaders of truth are sidelined, the innocent are punished, and the honest languish in poverty. Where is justice? Could the concept of reincarnation become the basis of justice?
Reincarnation forms an integral part of the Vedic explanation for the seeming contradictions in karma. The first point to understand is that we’re eternal; our life doesn’t begin with birth or end with death. Lord Krishna says in the Bhagavad-gita that just as a person gives up old and worn out clothes and puts on new ones, we souls give up old and worn out bodies and accept new ones at the time of death. That’s reincarnation.
We souls, as the active principle in the body, are responsible for all our good and bad acts. Therefore, we have to reap the fruits, either in this life or in a subsequent one. So an apparently virtuous person suffering greatly is reaping the effects of bad activities performed in this or previous lives. Conversely, a bad person may enjoy temporary prosperity now because of past good acts.
An analogy may help clarify the workings of the law of karma. In villages, grain is often stored in huge vertical containers; fresh grain is poured into the top, and old stored grain is taken out from the bottom. A farmer may have produced poor quality grain of, say, brand Z for the past four years and stocked it in his container. This year he produces high quality grain of, say, brand A and stores it at the top. He is therefore exasperated when he finds grain of brand Z coming out from the bottom. This illustrates how seemingly innocent people suffer in this life.
Do Bad Things Happen to Good People?
What makes the workings of karma difficult to appreciate is that most people have a karmic record that is neither white nor black, but shades of gray. That mixed record leads to reactions that often appear arbitrary. A question that vexes many when they see bad things happening to good people is, If these people were really so bad in their earlier lives as to deserve a severe reversal in this life, then wouldn’t they have continued with their lower nature from their previous life into this one? If they were sinful in their past lives, how could they have been virtuous in this life for so long?
There are several possible answers. We often see even upright people occasionally succumbing to temptation and perpetrating abominable misdeeds. Of course, their virtuous nature rectifies them quickly, but still the fact remains that they did commit a greatly sinful act and are therefore liable for a reaction. So the wrongdoing, like an ugly black spot on their otherwise clean karmic slate, will result in a severe reaction in an otherwise happy future life. Shift this scenario one lifetime backwards and we have the answer to the above question. The harsh affliction coming to a good person may thus be due to an occasional but grave transgression in the previous life.
Also, one’s behavior in this life is not determined only by one’s tendencies in the previous life; upbringing and association in this life also play a significant role. So if a person with bad inclinations is born into a good family because of some good karma, his congenial upbringing and surroundings may empower him to shed his baggage of sinful propensities. Thus he may become a moral person in this life, but his sins from his previous lives will make him suffer despite his rectified conduct now.
Moreover, most sinful desires and tendencies manifest in adolescence, when lust starts making its presence felt. So a child may appear innocent in this life, but may have a very dark karmic record in the previous life. And the consequent sinful proclivities, though strong, may remain dormant in seed form in the heart till the teenage years. Owing to the past sins, the seemingly innocent child may even undergo a traumatic victimization, which may appear totally unwarranted from the limited perspective of this life, but which is not undue when seen from the perspective of the total karmic account. (This does not, of course, absolve their abusers of guilt. Just because the child is due to suffer does not give the perpetrators the right to take the karmic law into their own hands. They too are accountable for their actions and so will have to suffer grievously for victimizing the child.)
Thus the principles of reincarnation allow us to view life with a much broader perspective—not from the standpoint of one brief lifetime, which is nothing more than a flash in time, but from the standpoint of eternity. With this broader vision we can understand how each of us individual souls is alone responsible for our own karma. Understanding this universal and infallible system of justice is the basis of lasting peace and real happiness.
The writer W. Somerset Maugham got it right when he wrote in The Razor’s Edge, “Has it occurred to you that transmigration is at once an explanation and a justification of the evil of the world? If the evils we suffer are 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.”
Ignorance Is No Excuse
Implicit in the above discussion is the idea that certain things are wrong because they’re against God’s rules and that doing them gives bad reactions. But people sometimes ask, “What if I didn’t know they were wrong when I did them? Why should I suffer now for doing what I didn’t know was wrong?”
In the court of divine justice, a human being cannot claim innocence on the grounds of ignorance. The laws of nature are impartial and inescapable. Fire is going to burn anyone who puts his hand into it, even an ignorant child.
Consider this story: Once a traveler going through a forest saw a light a short distance away. When he reached there, he found, to his pleasant surprise, a magnificent palace. As no one seemed to be around, he ventured inside. He found himself in an elegant hall with furniture, cushions, fans, and other luxuries. He also saw a dining table full of delicacies. Seeing no one around, he ate, relaxed on the sofa under the fan, and had a good time.
One doesn’t have to be an expert moralist to figure out that the traveler was not doing the right thing. The amenities were not his to enjoy. Although the owner might not be immediately visible, it was the traveler’s duty to find out about the owner and act according to whatever rules the owner might have formulated for visitors. The owner has every right to punish a trespasser.
Similarly the world we live in is like the palace: all our needs—air, water, heat, light, and so on—are provided for. So before using these gifts, every human being must inquire about the maker and the owner of the world—God—and the rules according to which he expects the inhabitants of the world to operate. Action without such basic common sense invites trouble. A human being cannot presumptuously exploit everything around him, harm others for his own selfish interests, and then claim protection from the law of karma on the grounds of ignorance.
Moreover, our being ignorant about the laws of karma is not accidental or arbitrary; it is a result of past bad acts. We may be born in an environment where we get little or no opportunity or encouragement to know about God, and so we may be ignorant about karma. But we may get such a birth because in our previous life we had the chance to hear about God but we didn’t care. Therefore, in response to our past desire to avoid God, we are now born into a situation where we don’t have to hear about him.
Still, irrespective of our past acts, God does not want us to be victimized by ignorance. Therefore he gives us scriptures, which are like the manual for life, and he sends his devotees to spread awareness about the scriptural principles. Krishna explains in the Gita (15.10–11) that the transmigration of the soul under the laws of karma is visible for the wise, who see with the vision of scriptural knowledge, but is invisible for the deluded, who insist on seeing with material vision.
Good without God?
“Of course I believe in karma,” someone may say. “But I don’t bother myself with doubtful sectarian religious concepts like God. I just believe in being good and doing good to others, in living honestly and not harming others. I don’t deserve to be punished.”
Here’s another story: Once a gang of thieves robbed a bank and fled to the forest, where their leader turned to the others and spoke with utmost gravity, “We should all be honest, principled gentlemen. So let’s not try to cheat each other, but share this money equally among ourselves.”
Obviously, such honesty among thieves has no value. Similarly, we have not created even one of the things in the world we reside in, not even the bodies we live in. The Isopanishad (Mantra 1) asserts, “Everything animate and inanimate within the universe is owned and controlled by the Supreme Lord.” So when we neglect God, claim his property as our own, and decide to be “good” among ourselves without even acknowledging God, how are we better than the “honest” thieves? In the eyes of the universal government, we are thieves and will be penalized by the inexorable law of karma.
Thus goodness without God will not save us from the clutches of karmic reactions. It is important to understand the definition of sin in this connection. Sin is more than just activity that harms others. From the absolute standpoint, Srila Prabhupada explains, “the root of sin is deliberate disobedience of the laws of nature through disregarding the proprietorship of the Lord.” (Isopanishad, Mantra 1, Purport). So even goodness without God is sinful.
One might correctly conclude at this point, “Okay, I’ll learn all of God’s rules, follow them strictly, and guarantee myself a future with no suffering.”
Well, that’s easier said than done. There are so many rules that it’s impossible to not break any of them. For example,Krishnadoesn’t want us to kill any living being. But just by walking, driving, chewing—living!—we end up killing germs, insects, and other living beings. And even if we manage to live a largely sinless life, we still have to suffer the inevitable miseries of material existence: birth, death, old age, and disease.
So what’s the solution? We have to act only for Krishna, under the guidance of a genuine spiritual master. That not only frees us from karmic reactions, but it gradually awakens our innate love for Krishna. We are all his beloved children, and when we learn to love him we become entitled to live an eternal, enlightened, and joyful life in his abode, the kingdomof God. And that’s the real goal of life, not trying to make ourselves comfortable through repeated births in the material world. Therefore Krishna concludes the Gita (18.65–66) by urging us to go beyond ordinary good acts to pure devotion and assuring us that we will then not only be saved from all sinful reactions, but will also return to him to live happily forever.