‘I have lost all faith in God. He never answers my prayers.’
‘Why do good people suffer so much? Is there no God?’
How is God responsible for the consequence of one’s own karma or actions, I wonder? No action or thought, is without a reaction. For us Hindus, God is not an authoritarian entity, separate from us. The Supreme is within us and the realisation of this Truth is what sets us free from the cycle of birth and death – to attain moksha. Our heaven and hell are not for eternity as in Abrahamic religions. Swarga and naraka are but transit points before the soul takes rebirth in some living form, depending upon its karmas.
Often, we are shocked to see some evil or cruel person (most politicians) seemingly thriving despite his or her actions, and want to see them suffer just as badly for their deeds. But who are we to decide on someone’s karma? If it is his past karma that is keeping him in his position now, his present misdeeds and evilness are sure to bear their fruit. We might not able to see it, but it is sure to happen. The law of karma does not always apply instantly or even in this life. It is an inexorable system of justice whose wheels grind surely, even if slowly at times, sometimes spanning several lifetimes. You can read my post on this aspect, here).
I am reminded of a story from Bhagavatam, which I have heard many times in different forms. It is about a wealthy man who is an arrogant person, who believed that his wealth was due to his own efforts in this life. He didn’t believe in daana-dharma and neglected the worship of the family deities too. One of his daughters-in-law, who came from a very dharmic family felt very sad and thought of a plan to reform him. So whenever anyone from her parental home or town came to visit and asked after her welfare, she replied, ‘We are well, eating leftovers.’ Members of her in-law’s family were shocked.
This went on for quite sometime till one day the mother-in-law confronted her. ‘How can you lie like this to your people? You know very well that we never have leftovers in this house and cook fresh food for every meal.’
The daughter-in-law remained quiet. The next day she served chana-gud (roasted gram and jaggery) to her father-in-law at breakfast. The furious man wanted to know how she dared serve him a poor man’s food when he was so wealthy.
The girl calmly replied, ‘I am only preparing you for your next birth when you might only get this to eat, if you are lucky. We are eating leftovers of the good karma of your past lives, so the leftovers are good. But if you don’t do your dharmic duties in this life, chana-gud might be the food in your next life.’
The story goes that the man was brought up short by her calm words and mended his ways.
The concept of daana-paani (grain-water) also is similar. We keep moving in life – up, down and from place to place. I have heard elders say that we move on when we have completed the karmic circle in a particular situation or place. Like the run of misfortunes for a period followed by prosperity or vice versa. Or, moving from place to place – having completed the karmic transactions – be it material or otherwise, with the people in one place.
Don’t we feel an unexplainable kinship with some people, as if it were some leftover relationship from a previous life? There are inexplicable meetings and partings, which can also be attributed to some pending karmic transactions having been completed, rather than by destiny.
It takes several lifetimes for one to work off one’s karma, which means there is no eternal heaven or hell, but multiple rebirths to work off the accumulated karma. According to elders, every life form goes through 84 lakh births spanning every form of life including plants. That is why it is said that one should not waste the human life in useless pursuits but should aim to break free of this cycle. And it is not just bad karma that one needs to work off. Even good karma has to be nullified till the slate is well balanced with no karma on either the credit or debit sides. That is when one attains moksha or oneness with the Supreme. There are no more births for such jeevas — which is the goal of every devout Hindu. Such a state is admittedly very difficult to attain because even thoughts create karma and we know that it is next to impossible to control them!
Unlike Abrahamic religions that have strict injunctions for humans on how to behave, our dharma gives us the freedom to choose our actions. What a democratic concept this is! We can decide what we want to be – a dharmic or adharmic person and, here is where the crux is: we should be prepared for the consequences of our actions.
Under no condition karmic consequences can be removed with some prayaschit or penance. Everyone has to work off their karma. It is not like going for confession and the priest gives a penance of a certain number of Hail Marys to be repeated for the sin to be condoned by God – and walk out of the confession booth with a clean slate, so to speak. Western sensibilities have coined the term Karma is a bitch, as if it is something extraneous like the Abrahamic God sitting in high heaven and deciding the fates of humans based on His whims. I have so often wondered and searched in vain for some explanation as to how a compassionate God can arbitrarily decide on the fates of human beings. How they can be so varied, if all humans are the sinful descendants of the ‘original sinners’ Adam and Eve? Shouldn’t then the scale of suffering/happiness be the same for everyone?
In this respect, the law of karma is the logical explanation for this unequal world of ours. Our puranas are replete with stories and anecdotes on how inexorable karma can be, catching up with us sooner or later. Even the Supreme deities Shiva and Vishnu are not above its inexorable justice. Bhikshatana’s Brahmahatti dosha (killing of a Brahman), for having plucked off the fifth head of Brahma, saw him wandering the earth with the skull stuck to his hand and begging for food. The skull emptied even as it was filled with bhiksha. It was Annapurani of Varanasi, who finally filled the skull with food and released him from the curse.
Likewise, in Krishnavatar, the arrow from the hidden bow of Jara pierced his ankle and led to his leaving his avatara body. Puranas have it that it was the karma incurred by Vishnu during Ramavatar, when he had shot at Vali hiding behind a tree and that Vali had returned as Jara to complete the karmic circle.
The western perception is flawed about karma. ‘Karma is a b****h’, is one such statement. It is as if karma is some entity and not the result of one’s own actions. The other is that belief in karma makes people passive as well as insensitive. On the contrary, the plight of an unfortunate person can act as a wakeup call to us to mend our ways and pay heed to our actions. Our culture is built on compassion and daana. Distinct from the western concept of charity that puts the giver on a higher place than the receiver, daana can be done by even the poorest of poor and is not measured in terms of material things. Again, we have innumerable stories and legends in our puranas illustrating this.
One question that many might ask is, ‘If karma can make or mar my life, why don’t I stop all actions so that I am free of rebirths?’ Not possible, my friend.
The most often quoted verse in the Bhagavad Gita tells us to give up the fruits of our actions. But there is another one where Krishna cautions us about giving up all action to avoid creating karma:
न कर्मणामनारम्भान्नैष्कर्म्यं पुरुषोऽश्नुते |
न च संन्यसनादेव सिद्धिं समधिगच्छति || 4||
One cannot achieve freedom from karmic reactions by merely abstaining from work, nor can one attain perfection of knowledge by mere physical renunciation. Chapter III, Verse 4
Under the circumstances, surrendering all thoughts and action to the Supreme is the most prudent thing, which can save us from mindlessly creating karma. If the surrender is complete, there is no way one would indulge in either adharmic thoughts or action and our karmas are bound to become pure. Guided by the Supreme, it would ultimately pave the way to moksha.