“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)
You arrive at the construction site in the morning, ready to continue working on the new building that has to go up. You have certain procedures that you’re supposed to follow, guidelines that must be adhered to in order to see a successful completion. This building is important, as it will house many people on each given day. Suppose, however, that on one aspect of the construction you are a little lackadaisical. You don’t give it your full attention, but you think that it doesn’t matter because the building is so complex that what harm is one incorrectly built section going to do? This same mentality is quite commonplace in other activities as well, and it is a contributing factor in the disbelief in God and a higher power.
What will the result be if the section of the building is not constructed properly? For starters, the proper construction guidelines are there for a reason. Someone did not come up with them on a whim so that they could personally serve as a dictatorial controlling figure who wants to be in charge of every aspect of the worker’s life. Rather, the instructions are there to bring about the stated objective, which in this case is a safe and sturdy building. Defiance of the guidelines due to laziness or poor judgment will obviously jeopardize the meeting of the end-goal.
Interestingly enough, the negative reaction to the spotty work may not be witnessed by the worker who perpetrated the deed. The incorrectly built section could cause a wall to collapse or a floor panel to be loose or, worse yet, the entire building to crumble. The worker may be long gone when the time arrives for this disastrous event; thereby making it difficult for them to realize the consequences to their actions. Nevertheless, in spite of how long it takes for the negative reaction to arrive and whether or not the worker himself is affected, the consequence to impious deeds comes all the same.
The Vedas, the original scriptural tradition of India, reveal that this system of cause-and-effect operates universally and at both the microscopic and macroscopic levels. Known to most as the system of karma, fruitive work undertaken has consequences, or phala. The fruits aren’t always sweet in taste, and they may not manifest immediately. With the case of the poor building procedure, the bitter fruit arrived much later on, and it affected others who weren’t involved in the initial transgression. But karma is so fair that the person who commits the horrible deed reaps their due reward at the proper time as well. Indeed, every negative reaction we encounter in life, even if it arrives seemingly due to the actions of others, is the result of past work, or karma.
In the famous Ramayana, a remark made by the lead character, the chivalrous and pious prince of Ayodhya, Lord Rama, reveals the same truth. During the time of the included events, the Treta Yuga, a band of night-rangers was terrorizing innocent sages residing in the forest of Dandaka. Imagine a priest being attacked, killed and then eaten up right as they were delivering a sermon. This is similar to what was going on, except the situation was even worse. The priests in this case, brahmanas, were alone and simply desirous of fostering God consciousness, which is the ultimate aim of life. The night-rangers had no just cause for attacking, other than their hatred for dharma, or religious principles.
The perpetrators were apparently getting away with it. They were successfully harassing the sages and eating their flesh after killing them. Then along came the prince of Ayodhya to give them their just rewards. In speaking to Khara, one of the lead night-rangers, prior to battle, Rama informed him that the sinner gets his fruit at the appropriate time, just as the trees blossom flowers during the proper season. In addition, the reward they get is as ghastly as their initial deed. Khara would get the reward due him, punishment by death, delivered personally by Rama, who was an incarnation of the Supreme Personality of Godhead.
Karma is helpful to know about because it explains the many situations we encounter. Karma must span beyond the current lifetime because of the variety in circumstance in birth. We can talk all we want about the difference between matter and spirit and how the sober human being should be able to tolerate the ups and downs that material life brings, but if a person is constantly harassed by material nature, put into regular discomfort and fear over the future wellbeing of both themselves and their family members, how will they have the opportunity to sit down and peacefully contemplate the highest truths of spiritual life? How will they make the best use of their valuable human form of life, which carries the highest potential for the assimilation of wisdom that can provide the most beneficial end?
“The living entity in the material world carries his different conceptions of life from one body to another as the air carries aromas.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 15.8)
The fact that one person is born into peaceful circumstances and another into turmoil is the result of past karma. As the soul is the essence of identity, the death of the living being is not the end of the road. Neither is death the ultimate punishment, for consciousness pervades into the next life, just as the air carries aromas. If a person thinks they can escape troubles through the end of life, the active propensity of the soul must continue on, which means there must be a future destination. Those born into rotten circumstances, where they face tremendous hardships at every corner, obviously had bad karma from the previous life. It is unkind to mention this, but no other explanation can be given for their condition.
Indeed, when karma is taken out of the mix, all the philosophies pertaining to spirituality and even atheism crumble. For instance, if there is no karma and God just wants us to acknowledge His existence during the “one” life we get to live, what about those people who never make it out of the womb? What about the children who never mature to the point that they can acknowledge God? Are they eternally damned to hell, or are they automatically sent to heaven? The punishment to hell seems rather harsh, considering the fact that children are innocent and need guidance. The automatic ticket to heaven also seems unfair, as it would make premature death a boon rather than a tragedy.
Under atheism, there is no concern given to cause and effect. The body, a collection of material elements, is taken to be the identifying aspect, though it constantly changes. In atheism there is no regard for piety and sin, with the thought being that consequences just come on their own. Under this model, birth in the animal kingdom would actually represent advancement, for the mental worries pertaining to earning a living and maintaining a family would be absent.
Even if one wants to deny the influence of karma as a fact of spiritual life, fruitive action still proves to be the determining factor to circumstances. The person born into a poor family may not have done anything wrong, but the poverty is there for a reason. The parents that were in troublesome situations arrived there through the result of their work and the work of others. Therefore action always has consequences, regardless of whether we see them or not. The Vedas just complete the picture by revealing that the reactions to work carry over into the next life.
The concept of a life is relative, as it is sort of like a chunk of a timeline cut off and used for analysis. We break down events based on days, weeks and years, but these are just relative measurements. The time continuum hasn’t stopped nor will it in the future. We refer to last year so we can better gauge the difference in circumstances between the present and the past, but there has been no shift in identity. In a similar manner, the spirit soul has a perpetual existence, with the different “lives” serving as markers for the various body types the soul assumes.
Knowing that the thief who regularly steals will eventually get robbed later on in life is comforting, but the human brain is meant to go beyond karma. Karma manages fairness in terms of fruitive activity, but there is one person who is above the influence of karma. Not surprisingly, that person is God, who is known by many names in the Vedic tradition. Some call Him Krishna, while others refer to Him as Rama or Vishnu. Some even worship Lord Shiva as the Supreme Person, though his position is actually somewhere in between Lord Vishnu and the living entities, who are tiny expansions from the original spiritual storehouse of energy.
Karma is instituted to manage the affairs of the spirit souls not desirous of personal association with God. Think of karma as the referees in a sporting event, except its judgment is not flawed. The offensive lineman may get away with a hold every now and then in American football, but in the grand scheme of life, the higher authorities note down every action and manage to deliver the appropriate reaction at just the right time through nature’s influence. As human beings are part of nature, they sometimes unknowingly deliver someone’s due rewards to them.
Karma stops for the Krishna conscious soul, who is always desirous of connecting with the Supreme Spirit. The beginning of Krishna consciousness is hearing about Krishna and becoming familiar with His transcendental features. As Bhagavan, Lord Krishna is the wisest, most famous, most renounced, strongest, most beautiful, and wealthiest. In the beginning one will have to accept these truths on faith, but through adhering to devotional principles, Krishna’s position is validated. The knowledge of karma comes from Krishna Himself in His discourse on Vedic philosophy known as the Bhagavad-gita. Rama’s statement to Khara is another example of Bhagavan’s supreme intelligence.
If, after hearing, the seed of the creeper of devotional service is sown and further desire to connect with Krishna springs forth, the next step is to chant the holy names, “Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare”. All the saintly figures of the Vedic tradition, the most famous acharyas teaching devotional service through their example, follow the chanting routine as their life and soul. Not all recite the same mantra, but the key ingredient in their chanting is the holy name. For example, Shri Hanuman, Rama’s most faithful servant, always chants Rama’s name. In pictures Hanuman is shown to be chanting the glories of Sita and Rama. Sita is Rama’s eternal consort, and the couple’s features are fully represented in their names. Just in Rama’s name alone are found the beneficial features belonging to both the Personality of Godhead and His closest associates.
As further taste is developed in chanting, increased dedication to the path of bhakti results. Activities in bhakti look awfully similar to acts of karma, but the difference is in the nature of the consequences. In karma, the resultant reward must bear fruit, and since the nature of the activity is sense driven, the reaction must apply to the body accepted by the living being. If one is extremely pious and follows religious rituals throughout their life, the reward they get is ascension to the material heavenly planets. Thus the rewards of karma are still there for the pious, and a commensurate body is required.
In pure bhakti, the only desire is to continue bhakti, to be able to worship Krishna, chant His names, hear about Him, and speak about His glories to others. Therefore the reactions to work don’t require a material body. The work in bhakti is free of karma, but it is not free of beneficial rewards. The bhakta is guaranteed to be put into conditions which are conducive to devotional service. Externally the conditions may not appear to be auspicious, but through remembrance of Krishna even the horrible conditions end up being supremely beneficial. It is guaranteed in the Bhagavad-gita that the departing soul who is Krishna conscious attains the Lord’s nature, which is blissful, knowledgeable and eternal. That combination exists in the spiritual world, where Krishna resides.
“And whoever, at the time of death, quits his body, remembering Me alone, at once attains My nature. Of this there is no doubt.” (Lord Krishna, Bg. 8.5)
The interest in karma can lead to Krishna, so the negative reactions we witness in life can actually bring us to the right place. Therefore karma, material nature, ignorance, and other things apparently not related to Krishna aren’t universally harmful. Rather, anything that brings one closer to their constitutional position of servant of the Supreme Personality of Godhead can be considered favorable. Though the thief thinks that since no one is looking he will get away with the crime, the system of karma will take care of him all the same. Taking the pure version of the same principle, even if we don’t think God is watching us while we chant, He hears our sincere recitations of the holy name and duly rewards us at the appropriate time.
Thinks with his crime away he is getting,
To avoid consequences world is letting.
Doesn’t know that from above being watched,
Higher authorities make sure he gets caught.
The resultant actions karma to deliver,
Severe too, can’t escape forever.
Know that karma has the final say,
From its influence can’t get away.
Know Krishna and His devotees are above reaction,
In bhakti taste sweet transcendental interaction.