“A man engaged in devotional service rids himself of both good and bad actions even in this life. Therefore strive for yoga, O Arjuna, which is the art of all work.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 2.50)
One of the heavier truths of Vedic philosophy to digest is the fact that there is really no good or bad, for what is favorable to one person may not be to another. Even something favorable can later on turn out to be unfavorable for the very same person, with the shift sometimes occurring within seconds. Think of taking an evening stroll to relieve tension. Seems like a harmless enough act, something which doesn’t cause any harm. Feel the evening breeze on your face, look to the sky, keep your body in motion, fight off inertia, and clear your head. But while you’re looking for peace, the mosquitos can come out and start biting you. They play no favorites in this regard, and neither will they cease to attack once they have tasted your flesh. Thus the apparently favorable activity of taking an evening walk becomes unfavorable almost within seconds. Lord Krishna, in the Bhagavad-gita, tells His disciple Arjuna to follow real yoga, bhakti, in order to be rid of all good and bad work and their reactions. On the surface the instruction appears contradictory, for by persuading someone to follow yoga, you’re essentially telling them to take action. Since actions are known to produce favorable and unfavorable results, what is the difference between following yoga and following anything else?
The answer is that yoga is meant for the soul, which is beyond duality. Good work and bad work are considered harmful because they give man the impression that he is the creator of his fortunes. But isn’t he? If I eat a satisfying meal and my hunger goes away, should I not take credit for the result? If I commit a crime and get punished for it later on, is my perilous condition not my fault? Can I blame someone else for my punishment? The issue is a little tricky to understand, as good and bad reactions certainly do follow fruitive activity. The term “karma” originates with the Vedas, the ancient scriptures of India. Karma essentially means work, but it has a specific connotation. The work must carry results, or fruits. The fruits can be bitter or sweet in taste, can manifest immediately or many years into the future, and can remain in existence for a long or short period of time. Regardless of the nature of the reaction, there is always an initial action which serves as the cause.
“Unseen and indefinite are the good and bad reactions of fruitive work. And without taking action, the desired fruits of such work cannot manifest.” (Lakshmana speaking to Lord Rama, Valmiki Ramayana, Aranya Kand, 66.17)
Reactions to work arrive even without knowledge of karma, so fundamental is the system. Considering these facts why would anyone argue that good and bad are the same or that they need to be eschewed? Also, how can thinking that I am the shaper of my destiny be harmful? The material elements consist of earth, water, fire, air and ether, along with mind, intelligence and false ego. Though we are responsible for the actions we take, and ultimately for the good and bad karma that follow, the living entity is actually not the doer. He is situated on a machine which follows nature’s dictates.
“The Supreme Lord is situated in everyone's heart, O Arjuna, and is directing the wanderings of all living entities, who are seated as on a machine, made of the material energy.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 18.61)
This same fact is revealed in the Bhagavad-gita, which further adds to the work’s value. A book that can provide profound truths, which are presented in an easy to understand manner, which are not available in any other work, becomes the most valuable reference tool, containing knowledge most worth gathering. The spirit soul is transcendental to both the material and subtle elements. What are good and bad relate only to the body, which we don’t have much control over, even though we might think otherwise. By taking a specific action and receiving a certain fruit, we think that we are the cause. But who controls the beating of the heart? Who makes sure that we breathe in and out when we’re not paying attention? Who creates the material elements that produce the fruits that we need?
The simplest example that can be used to understand these higher concepts is the planting of a seed that eventually sprouts fruits. This is the perfect analogy because the results of karma are referred to as phala, or fruits, in Sanskrit. Let’s say you get a plot of land, plant a seed, water it regularly, and then wait for the plant to blossom. At the stage of maturation, you’ll get some nice fruits to eat. When the fruits finally arrive, who is ultimately responsible for the enjoyment, the favorable condition? Is it the person who poured the water down, planted the seed, and picked the fruit?
Though the living entity took the impetus for action, none of the results could have arrived without outside intervention. For starters, a severe rainfall could have flooded the entire area and made the land unsuitable for raising crops. On the flip side, a drought could have befallen the area, thus not allowing the plant to get the water it needed. Some misery could have stricken the person planting the seed, rendering them unable to tend to the plant and pick the fruit when it was necessary. Meanwhile, the sun is rising and setting at regular intervals. If the living entity is responsible for the outcomes to action, what did he do to create the sun?
The young child has no concept of money, earning a living, or responsibility. Whatever they have they take for granted, taking their possessions to be aspects of life that will always be there. The child thinks that “my room” is where “I do everything”. Never mind the fact that I did nothing to purchase this room, nor do I pay rent. The playroom is filled with toys given by my parents, so anything I create in there is actually not due to my efforts. Without the hard work of the superiors, no one would be able to do anything in the various rooms of the house.
The material creation, which is the largest room one can imagine, operates in a similar manner. The Supreme Lord, the original cause, created the material nature and put into place a system of management to distribute the necessary rewards to man. You’ll notice that the animal community does not have rules governing sin and piety, i.e. they have no good or bad work. Their necessities are provided by nature, which does not favor or disfavor anyone. Therefore if the animals have no concern for good and bad work, why do the human beings?
The human form of life is the opportunity for understanding God, which is aided through learning about the differences between matter and spirit and what the purpose to one’s existence is. Good and bad actions are presented to the neophyte lacking any knowledge of the true nature of spirit so that at least some acknowledgment of a higher power can exist. The more we understand that we are not the doer, that we have scant influence in this inconceivably large universe, the greater our chances will be for finding God, serving Him, and relishing the fruit of our existence.
If we keep life’s ultimate mission in mind, we see that good work and bad work divorced of their relationship to God are all the same. Whether a particular athlete is extremely successful or perpetually a loser really makes no difference in the end. Once their career is over, the past memories are forgotten very quickly, leaving the person in a neutral state. The same goes for those enjoying material amenities on a large scale. The person sleeping on a mattress set to its own firmness level and the person sleeping on the bare ground really aren’t in different situations. The urges of the senses will be present in both individuals, so there is no such thing as good or bad sleeping conditions.
By following bhakti-yoga, or devotional service, the reactions of good and bad go away. The reason for this is that karma has no place in yoga. For the yogi material nature essentially turns into a poisonous snake which has its teeth removed. The elements are still there but they no longer shape the fortunes of the soul. The controller of both matter and spirit, the fountainhead of all energies, takes the devoted soul under His wing and guides Him through different situations. What were previously considered good or bad all of sudden become universally auspicious.
How does this work exactly? In karma, competition results in success or failure, with elation after victory and dejection after defeat. In bhakti, competition is spiritualized, so regardless of the outcome, the consciousness of the individual will remain pure. If I perform devotion better than someone else, I will feel good, but my desire will focus on continuing to love God even more. If I see someone else serving the Lord better than I am, I’ll take that as an impetus to step up my efforts.
In the bigger picture, there is no such thing as being better or worse at devotional efforts than someone else. There is no quantitative analysis with respect to the results of bhakti-yoga because each person is born with different inherent qualities. For instance, if one person is adept at cooking and another at writing, it doesn’t mean that the person writing books is a better devotee than the person cooking food in the home and offering it to a deity of the Lord. The offered food then turns into prasadam, which is spiritualized. Any person fortunate enough to eat the remnants of foodstuff offered to Shri Krishna - the same person worshiped around the world by the name of God - gets tremendous spiritual merits.
The book written by the devotee may affect a larger number of people than the prasadam cooked in the home, but the results are never within the hands of the doer. The living entity is a spirit soul at the core situated in a machine that is ever-changing. In bhakti, the results are controlled directly by the Lord. What the spirit soul does control, however, is the degree to which the potential for action is used. Therefore it is not the quantity of the engagement but the commitment to it that counts. If sincerity is there, if the person is trying their best, then there is no difference between the large and small outcomes in bhakti.
Under karma, good and bad create a false sense of proprietorship over outcomes. In the Bhagavad-gita, when Krishna tells Arjuna to follow yoga and thereby remove the reactions to good and bad action, it seems like He is advising Arjuna to take to a specific course, which would make Arjuna the cause of the resulting reaction of Krishna consciousness. If I tell you to follow a specific activity to reach a certain end, and you follow my advice, are you not the cause for the resultant reaction? If you think you are the cause, how is your behavior any different from that performed under karma? The difference is that bhakti-yoga is followed under the direction of the Supreme Lord, who broadcasts the science of self-realization through the mouthpiece of the spiritual master, the guru who assumes the difficult task of teaching the highest truths of life and presenting the Vedas to those sincerely interested in transcending karma.
The living entity is not the doer in either case, in karma or bhakti. The distinction results from the fact that the reactions in karma are never favorable, even if the actor thinks they are. Meanwhile, in bhakti, irrespective of the particular outcome, the conditions are always favorable. Even Arjuna’s lamentation on the battlefield of Kurukshetra was beneficial, for he was immersed in bhakti by being in Krishna’s company. Outwardly Arjuna appeared to be concerned over the welfare of the fighters of the opposing army prior to a war to end all wars, but he was actually just in Krishna’s company and instigating a transcendental talk that would liberate countless future generations. If under karma, Arjuna’s concern over good and bad action would have resulted in a neutral condition regardless. In bhakti, Arjuna’s concern created an opportunity for becoming even more immersed in bhakti, or divine love.
The actor following bhakti creates favorable circumstances through the divine will of the Lord, who controls the spiritual energy personally. The material energy also operates under His direction, but it lacks a personal oversight. This means that no one is really favored or disfavored by the material energy; the reactions that are due them arrive at just the right time. The follower of real yoga, however, remains firmly fixed in the devotional consciousness by regularly chanting, “Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare”. Through chanting they slowly get pulled out of the trap of good and bad actions and realize that the only auspicious activity is found in bhakti, which provides endless opportunities for actions which maintain Krishna’s loving association.
Follow good and bad to get a reaction,
But either case brings same condition.
The body is only temporary after all,
Same is meteoric rise and catastrophic fall.
In bhakti results controlled by the Supreme,
Negative reactions of devotee does He clean.
Is not the cause of action in bhakti the same,
Auspiciousness the devoted worker’s gain?
Difference is that for bhakta Krishna controls the result,
Thus in behavior always guru’s teachings do you consult.