“Just as a tree starts to blossom during the proper season, so the doer of sinful deeds inevitably reaps the horrible fruit of their actions at the appropriate time.” (Lord Rama speaking to Khara, Valmiki Ramayana, Aranya Kand, 29.8)
Nature’s laws are in motion at every second of every day of the year. The calendar year can be divided into four distinct seasons which each have specific climatic characteristics. Autumn is the season right before winter, and inevitably during this time each year, leaves and other flowers fall off trees and eventually die. This is because these plants can’t survive the cold conditions of winter. Nevertheless, during the next spring season, new flowers and plants are guaranteed to appear again, signaling a new birth. These facts of nature serve as a great metaphor for describing how the process of karma works.
Karma has many different definitions, but in its simplest form, it means work. Work means action. One cannot live without performing action. Even if we sit idly by, just thinking to ourselves, we are still performing some work with our mind. Karma is an energy created by God, which along with guna, helps the material world function. The spirit soul is originally part and parcel of Lord Krishna, the Supreme Personality of Godhead. Lord Chaitanya, Krishna’s most recent incarnation on earth, tells us that the spirit soul, being initially very blissful and happy in its relationship with God, somehow or other forgot (bhuli' gela) its true nature and instead wanted to be just like God. Thus since time immemorial, the living entity has been part of the material energy, forced to repeatedly go through the processes of birth and death. Since the spirit soul wants to forget God, the Lord gladly obliges such a request.
Karma represents the antithesis of spiritual life. Work and action can be performed for many different reasons, but all paths eventually lead to the same end-goal, that of wanting to be God. The Lord is the Almighty, being all-powerful and all-pervasive. Illusioned by the forces of maya, the living entity thinks that by working in a certain way, it too can be just like God. “God produces, so why can’t I? God destroys, so let me do that too. God enjoys very nicely, so I will try to enjoy just as much as Him.” These sentiments represent a flawed system of logic. Eventually, there is a limit to our material wealth, fame, and beauty. The ultimate equalizer comes at the time of death, when we are forced to renounce all of our possessions, relationships, and acquired strength. The important point is that this renunciation is not voluntarily, for almost no one wants to die. Only God is infallible, thus He is known as Achyuta.
For karma to function properly there must be reactions to the work that we perform. God doesn’t stand in our way of our pursuit to be just like Him. At the same time, He is completely fair. He doesn’t play favorites, picking and choosing who will win and lose in this pursuit which is destined to fail. Rather, He creates karma, guna, and maya, and then stands back and witnesses as a neutral observer. The reactions of karma are fair and absolute. For every action that we perform, there is a commensurate reaction, either good or bad. In actuality, there really is no good or bad on the material platform, but sometimes people take certain outcomes to be good and others to be bad. For example, pious works result in ascension to the heavenly planets after death. This certainly seems like a good thing, but residence on the material planets, such as those occupied by the demigods, is temporary. Once the merits acquired from our pious deeds expire, we are forced to take birth again. This same principle holds true for the sinful. They suffer in hell for a certain period of time, and then eventually work their way back to the human species of life.
We don’t always have to wait for the afterlife to see the results of our actions bear fruit. Just as the spring season always sees new flowers growing, the sinful are guaranteed to feel anguish when the time comes for them to reap their fruits. Sometimes people think they can act however they want to, and that if no one is looking, no one will know that they did something bad. This is certainly not the case. God and His deputies keep a ledger on our activities. At the time of death, our consciousness is measured along with the activities we performed during our lifetime. These two things then determine the type of body we receive in the next life. The sinful think that they will never suffer for their actions, but karma plays no favorites.
In modern day governments, we see that laws exist on the books that are supposed to apply to all citizens without any preference. Yet we always see that those who are responsible for executing these laws, the government officials and courts, certainly do pick and choose when to punish people. For example, in the United States there are strict immigration laws. Those who want to come live in the United States must either be sponsored by an employer or be related to someone who is already a citizen. There are tight limits set on how many immigrants can come to the country each year. For those who come here legally, the government keeps a close eye on them, making sure they are abiding by immigration guidelines. At the same time, we see that there are millions of people who already live in America illegally. The majority of these people entered the country through the Mexican border, and have remained here living under the radar of the government. Actually, the government is fully aware of their presence but they refuse to do anything about it due to socio-economic and political reasons.
"It is the living entity's constitutional position to be an eternal servant of Krishna because he is the marginal energy of Krishna and a manifestation simultaneously one and different from the Lord, like a molecular particle of sunshine or fire. Krishna has three varieties of energy.” (Lord Chaitanya, CC. Madhya 20.108-109)
Karma doesn’t work the way our governments do. Karma applies to everyone, including sinners. There are varying degrees of sins, but the worst kinds are those perpetrated against devotees of God. This is because God has promised to protect His devotees. There are essentially two energies that exist in creation; the spiritual and the material. The spiritual energy is anything that is directly associated with God, while the material energy is that governed by guna and karma. The jiva-tattva, or living entities, are technically part of the marginal energy because they have a choice as to which energy they want to associate with. The laws of karma are absolute but one has a choice as to whether or not they want to participate in material activity. God is certainly neutral to those who fall under the jurisdiction of karma, but He is anything but passive when it comes to His bhaktas, or devotees. As God’s faithful servants, the devotees realize that the material world is a temporary place full of miseries. At peace with their constitutional position as servitor and friend of the Lord, devotees exclusively interact with the spiritual energy, only performing activity which is related to serving Krishna and other devotees. For such saintly people, the Lord has promised to always provide them protection against those who wish them harm.
“…O son of Kunti, declare it boldly that My devotee never perishes.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 9.31)
During the Treta Yuga, God personally came to earth to make good on that promise. At the time, a clan of Rakshasas, headed by a demon named Ravana, was ascending to power. Every living entity possesses the three qualitative modes of nature (goodness, passion, and ignorance) to varying degrees. Rakshasas are living entities similar to human beings, except they live mostly in the mode of ignorance. They are expert in black magic and spend all their time drinking wine, eating meat, and having sex with as many different people as possible. They have an insatiable appetite for sex. Not only do they live a life dedicated to sin, but they think there is merit to this lifestyle. “Life is short, why not enjoy as much as I can? The demigods are there to grant material benedictions which will then lead to happiness.” With this fatally flawed mindset, Rakshasas view any truly pious person as an enemy. Not only do they hate devotees of God, but they do anything in their power to disrupt their devotional service.
Krishna came to earth in the form of a pious prince named Rama specifically to put a stop to the harassment inflicted by the Rakshasas. At the time, Ravana and his associates liked to prey on the sages living in the forests. One of the primary activities of a brahmana, or sage, is yajna, or sacrifice. There are different types of Vedic sacrifices, but they all usually involve some sort of fire. Forest life is ideal for the performance of fire sacrifices and the practice of tapasya, or austerities. Who could ever think of bothering a peaceful person living in the forest performing such pious deeds? These sages weren’t inflicting harm on anyone, nor were they even a burden to other members of society. Yet these Rakshasas decided to disrupt the sacrifices in the dead of night. Rakshasas are expert in illusion, so they used to assume various guises and initially approach the sages in a peaceful way. Once the brahmanas let their guard down, the Rakshasas would assume their original form and start to attack. After killing the sages, the Rakshasas would feast on their flesh.
These demons were so foolish that they thought there were no consequences to their actions. Taking their material body to be the beginning and end of everything, they were unaware of the forces of karma. Normally, sinful activity can bear fruit in various forms such as bad fortune or descension to hell. These demons were a special case however. For the sin of killing brahmanas, Lord Rama personally came to deliver the fruits of their sin. In the above referenced quote, Lord Rama is talking to one particular demon, Khara, prior to killing him in battle. Rama and His family were stationed in the forest of Janasthana. Ravana sent 14,000 Rakshasas to kill Rama, but the Lord easily defeated them all by Himself. Rama here is reminding Khara that punishment is guaranteed for the sinful, just as new flowers are guaranteed to grow on a tree in season.
"Anyone who quits his body, at the end of life, remembering Me, attains immediately to My nature; and there is no doubt of this." (Lord Krishna, Bg. 8.5)
Khara and the other Rakshasas were so sinful that they got the benediction of being killed by God Himself. Ironically, if God personally comes to kill you, you are guaranteed liberation from the cycle of birth and death. This may seem strange, but it is so because these Rakshasas were thinking of Rama, or God, at the time of death. If such a reward is available to God’s enemies, one can only imagine what is in store for His devotees. If we always keep the Lord on our minds, we are guaranteed to always be on His.