When we don’t know what past-life karma caused our present suffering how do we learn?

by Chaitanya CharanNovember 8, 2014

Transcription by-VandanaGoel and Keshav Gopal Das

Question– We are punished for our past life karma but we don’t come to know what was it that we did wrong in our past life because of which we are suffering. So why don’t we learn about this?

Answergahanakarmanogati. In the Bhagwat Geeta Krishna says that the way karma works is very complex and it is beyond human comprehension. Why is that? We have to understand that cause and effect; for our analytical purposes we can say that this cause leads to this effect but in real life there are always multiple factors which come up. One cause can spill over as many effects or one effect may be the result of many causes. And our own caused actions may have multiple kinds of motivations and because of that each different action can have different reaction. Moreover when we are acting as a cause, we can have multiple levels of motivations and that’s why each of those motivations alsoshape the kind of effect that we are going to get. Beyond that when we are receiving the effects we can have multiple levels of consciousness which may affect very well the extent of the reactions that comes upon us.

If a person kills than we could say the person has to be killed or at least given life imprisonment but if a person kills unintentionally; that person thinks that somebody is a thief and attacks and kills but the person doesn’t know that actually the person was on a visit and comes towards to meet was a friend, then should the person be given life sentence? It’s a different issue. Or suppose a woman is being attacked and violated and she kills in her self defense. Should she be killed at that time? Not at all! The point here is; the way actions and reactions work are very complex. And over a frame of multiple life times to understand it becomes extremely difficult. Now if we had to know the cause of everything that happens to us, we would live in a perpetual flashback mode where we would not be able to learn anything, where we would not be able to live at all in life. For example- if I am driving a vehicle and suddenly cuts across me; is this because of my past karma? If I had to find out what is the past karma I have to remember one particular life in which something had happened and how that has caused this? So for everything that happens if we had to know the cause for that, it would be impossible for our human brains to sustain.

The story in the Puranas; how when we human beings prayed to Brahma and asked Brahma, ‘please, give me your intelligence; you are the creator and most intelligent person. He said, ‘No, you cannot sustain my intelligence, your body will not sustain that intelligence. But he insisted, ‘No, give it to me.’ He gave it. And when that person got the intelligence, his brain just exploded. So we cannot actually comprehend everything. Certainly we are not God. And even our brain is so finite!

Then a question may come up if I don’t know what wrong I did for which I got the reaction, how will I rectify it? The rectification is not for some specific wrong thing which we did and which we must avoid in this life time. When we get sufferings it is like asking suppose somebody gets malaria; I want to know which particular mosquito bit me? Well it’s very difficult to know and even if we come to know; what are we going to do after that? Even after that we have to take treatment only. At one level karma is indeed a cause-effect mechanism but ultimately the cause-effect mechanism is not vindictive. You did this wrong so suffer this punishment. As I said, one cause have multiple effects, if one cause is very grievous than that can lead to multiple effects or an effect that can last for a long time. The point here is it’s not meant to be vindictive; it is meant to be actually uplifting. Rather than learning specific wrong doings which lead to specific reaction the important point is to overall cultivate a life of virtue. If we cultivate a life of virtue, overall we will be able to go beyond misery and ultimately attain liberation; attain eternal existence.

We may say, ‘all this doesn’t make any sense’ why should I believe in karma at all; if I cannot know any specific causes? Ok. That is up to every person, whether one wants to believe or not. Simple point is we all accept something. We all have to live in this world and it depends upon us how we make sense of the world. So, essentially when we see this world; we have three choices of why things happen and what we can do about it? So, what are the three choices? Let us understand this with an example.

Let’s consider there is a cricket match and say the two teams are playing. One team has a score of zero and another team has score of say 200. How’s that? How can a team have score of 200? One thing could be; is the score board just working by chance. It just displays any figure it wants. That’s one possibility. The other possibility is that may be the match organizers are partial like some match organizers make a pitch that is favorable for the home team; for their own team so like that have the match organizers rigged the score board so that score for that team looks much better than what it is. These are the primarily two alternatives that people may know about with respect to making meaning in real life. Some people are born poor and others are born wealthy; so these are people with zero score and those who are wealthy are with two hundred score. Or it can be in other way, some people live healthy life other people get terrible sickness; so, the healthy life is two hundred score and those getting sickness is like zero score. Either way when we go through this we have one alternative that is score board just operates by chance, that means everything in life happens by chance and basically the existence is like a lottery; if you are the unlucky guy who has not won the lottery; bad luck! What can be done?

This is a doctrine of hopelessness. It is a doctrine which makes all of us live in a perpetual insecurity. What will go wrong? How will I live? Actually this doctrine is completely counterintuitive that is not the way we live. We work on a moment to moment basis, recognizing cause and effect. This is happened so this is ok. Ex- I didn’t study so I didn’t get marks in exams. I didn’t take care of my health so I am suffering. This is an example how cause and effect works. The idea of chance; blind brutal chance is completely counterintuitive and its hope sucking; hope sapping.

The normal alternative that people have is, yesthere is a God in control and God does what He wants. Just like there is some score keeper and score keeper likes a particular team so that he gives one team the score of two hundred and to the other team a score of zero. So like that God likes some people, therefore good things have happened to those people. God doesn’t like some people so bad things have happened to them. Although God is added to this picture it is very difficult to emotionally connect or devote oneself to such a God, who arbitrarily likes or dislikes some people. And this is the version of God that most people have. The version of God which is there in Abrahamic religions; Judaism, Christianity, Islam; where they say that ultimately all sufferings are test from God. The idea of test is ok because they may say that God may test us and whatever suffering comes upon us is meant for our growth. Yes, in principle it is true but in practice the question that comes is not why there is suffering? The question is why there is differential suffering?

Means, why did the Jews have to undergo the holocaust and why not the Britishers? Why do some things happen only to some persons and not to some other people? If a teacher is conducting an exam; if the teacher is conducting the exam with same paper then its fine but if the teacher gives very easy paper to one person and a very difficult paper to another person then the principle of testing is not what is the question but the principle of differential testing is what is under question. Usually when this question comes up, the answer fromthese types of religions is-‘ultimately we can’t know the will of God. God’s justice is inconceivable to human mind’. Normal retort is. Ok, God’s justice may be incomprehensible but it should be incomprehensible in the sense of being infinitely better than human justice not worse than human justice. So even human beings won’t discriminate like this, how can God discriminate like this? How can God be partial towards some and harsh towards others?

Because of thinking that there are only two choices, either I believe in chance or I believe in divine caprice; divine arbitrary fiat; God’s arbitrariness. People may turn away from theism to atheism because they can’t devote themselves to God who is arbitrary like this. But actually there is third alternative, beyond chance and beyond divine caprice, that is, multi-life progression. The main stream versions of the Abrahamic religions currently do not accept reincarnations and multi-life existence, although there are indirect references to that in their scriptures also. When we bring in multi-life progression, then we can make sense of the world’s apparent injustices with God’s justice.

It’s like there’s a match going on and one team has a score of zero and another team has score of 200, why is this difference? Because it is a multi-innings match. This is a test match and one team has got a lead; another team has not got that lead, so that’s why at the starting point one team may have a lead of 200 over another. This way; neither the score board is working wrong, nor is the match organizer biased. It is just, what the team has done in the past is now being reported and they are being rewarded or penalized for that. Similarly why are certain people born poor and certain people wealthy? The people who are born wealthy are getting that wealth because of their past life karma and poor are getting poverty because of their past life karma.

This is definitely far better explanation of either of the other two. That is; the things happen by chance or the things happen by arbitrary will of God. When we accept that things are happening because of our own past karmas then at one level it gives us intellectual acceptance although of course yes, emotionally not knowing what specifically caused what happened may affect us. But the important principle is the scripture also guides us of how we should act. If the team plays well then they can get over that lag or they can score more also. Overall in all the world’s traditions God has given revelations to the theistic traditions bywhich right and wrong conduct is delineated and then people mould themselves accordingly, then they gradually get cured. The principle of karma is what enables us to make generic sense of the nature of existence. Specific sense of individual suffering is impossible for us to comprehendbecause of the tininess of the human intellect but in a generic sense the principle of karma is what enables us to make sense of the nature of existence; more than make sense, it is the principle that gives strength and hope.

In the ‘Razor’s Edge’ which is the famous novel by famous novelist WSomerset Maugham, he says that if our sufferings are because of our past misdeeds then it gives us both the sense of acceptance and hope. We can accept them knowing that we are suffering because of our past misdeed but we have hope that if we act virtuously now then we will have a brighter future ahead of us. This way we can actually get strength and hope in moving forward in life. So rather than seeing in terms of our understanding karma as a principle of specific cause and effect we can see karma as a generic curative process that enables us to rise us in our consciousness towards virtue and purity; virtue and selflessness and ultimately devotion by which we can move out of the world and attain eternal happiness at the spiritual level and even in this world if we absorb ourselves in devotion we can endure whatever sufferings are coming to us better. When we accept the principle of multi-life progression, not only the length of our existence gets expanded but also the breadth of our existence gets expanded. Breadth means we are not just the body, but we are body, mind and soul.

When this breadth gets expanded then we realize the deeper layer of existence that give us protection from the suffering that may come at the outer layers. That means when we understand that we are souls and we are connected with God, then going deep into our spiritual nature through meditation, through prayer, through devotion that enables us to tolerate and transient the suffering that come at external level.

Yes! even if, some injustice happens but devotees sees or a wise person can see them not as a deprivations not as injustices but as realizations, as opportunities. Whatever discriminations happen, they happen at an outer shell of our existence at the material level. To grow spiritually we need to go out of the outer shell go from matter to spirit. So devotee can see that as an opportunity and moves towards deeper inner core of existence where our fulfillment does not depend on anything external. Ultimately what happens at the external body level is temporary. As long as we are caught up in the temporary we suffer when temporary things go wrong. But if our awareness is risen to a higher level then we don’t suffer because we are not there, our consciousness is not caught in that.

Suppose India-Pakistan plays and India looses. Indians would be devastated. Suppose they are watching a cricket match on T.V, and they say they are suffering as they lose so the people would be devastated but somebody has no attachment to cricket and doesn’t watch the cricket match on the television, the consciousness is not caught in the TV; the consciousness is not caught in the cricket, the person doesn’t suffer. When our consciousness is not caught into material things then upheavals of the material level will not cause us to suffer. We will be able to withdraw our existence from the outer levels of reality, thereby we will find inner happiness. That inner happiness can keep us safe and secure amidst all the ups and downs of this world and ultimately take us to an abode beyond this world.

The principle of the karma is ultimately meant to enable us to move us towards an overall life of virtue. Ok this action I did in the past, therefore I got this reaction so I should not do such and such actions. That level of microscopic knowledge; our human intellect is incapable of possessing that knowledge and we don’t need that specific knowledge, what we need is a generic education about virtue, a generic process by which we can move towards virtue and the ability to endure whatever inevitable suffering comes while we are moving towards virtue and all these are offered by God through scripture, through the process of devotion which gives us knowledge of right and wrong, triggers or activates our conscience and gives us impetus to move towards right and which gives us absorption in spiritual level of reality that buffers; minimizes whatever suffering may come up at the material level.

Thank you

Hare Krishna

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Chaitanya Charan

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