This is the transcript of the fifth episode of my podcast. In this episode we talk about the nature of karma and how it is created. We discuss how karma is created as a consequences of actions, different from cause and effect, and to the extent that science only deals with causes and effects, it is incomplete. The episode goes on to talk about how time only creates possibilities out of which our desiring (guna) and deserving (karma) create actual events for an individual observer. So karma is a natural concept and morality that deals with consequences of actions is a natural law. The episode talks about many questions surrounding karma such as why we don’t remember the past lives when karma was created, how we can be punished for deeds even when we don’t remember our actions, and why sometimes some people remember their past lives. We talk about how karma is just like money—it can be earned and spent, and the method of earning and the method of spending can be different. This means that how karma is reaped cannot tell us how it was previously earned.
Table of Contents
- How Does Karma Work?
- The Insufficiency of Cause and Effect
- Causality in Vedic Philosophy
- Ability, Opportunity, and Desire
- The Analogy of a Drama
- Why Don’t I Remember My Past Lives?
- Memories of Past Lives
- Is Karma Blaming the Victim?
- Does Repentance Take Away Karma?
- Juvenile Punishment
- Do We Come Back to Collect the Debts?
- Fatalism and Optimism
- Are Rewards and Punishments Acts of God?
How Does Karma Work?
OK, let’s start. Let me begin with the observation that the word ‘karma’ has now entered the Western lexicon and people equate this idea with justice and retribution – sort of like punishment for the deeds of the past. Phrases like “instant karma” are sometimes used to describe the immediate punishment that follows a misdeed. But how this karma works is a mystery to most people. So, even though many people may use this word, they don’t understand the workings of karma. Given this problem, I want to begin by asking – “How does karma work?”
Karma is a different model of causality than the causal model in modern science. In modern science we think of causality as cause and effect – or two parts. In the theory of karma, causality is three-way: it involves causes, effects, and consequences; the “consequences” is the third element. These consequences are different from the effects. We can understand this idea through an example.
Suppose that a person with a gun pulls the trigger and the bullet hits someone who is hurt by the bullet. In this situation, the pulling of the trigger is the cause, and the person getting hurt is the effect. Scientific causality deals with these two things – cause and effect. But in everyday life we also will talk about whether the shooter was performing a legitimate action, and whether he or she should be punished or rewarded. For example, if the shooter was a soldier shooting an enemy then he may be rewarded for performing a legitimate duty. But if the shooter is a criminal, then he may be punished. So, pulling the trigger is the cause, the death of the person who is shot is the effect, and reward or punishment is the consequence.
The reward or punishment coming from the shooting involves another cause and effect. For example, if the soldier is given a medal for his brave efforts, then the cause of the medal is the government of the country which recognizes and endorses the soldier’s valiant actions. And the effect of the government action is that the soldier may receive a medal, a commendation, and other types of rewards. So, even when the soldier is being given a reward, there is a cause and an effect. However, this second cause and effect is connected to the first cause and effect of the soldier pulling the trigger. So, when we talk about consequences we are talking about the connection between two pairs of cause and effect.
So when we speak about karma we are talking about a different causal model which has a 3rd element of “consequence”, and karma is the “consequence” of any action. We cannot see this consequence at the time of the action, just like the reward or punishment of an action doesn’t come to us immediately. The consequence rather lies dormant for some time, and then it creates a new cause.
The Insufficiency of Cause and Effect
Many people are going to have a problem with the idea of a third element of causality. They might say that we just have causes and effects, and these are sufficient to explain everything. How do you respond to this criticism? What is the basis on which we can justify the induction of consequences?
Obviously to introduce this idea in the context of causality we must show that the current causality is insufficient. Then the idea of consequences can be used to complete the causal chain. So let’s talk about why current causality is incomplete. The main reason is that matter is a possibility rather than a reality. If matter existed as a reality then only one cause would act, and the effect would be deterministically defined by that cause. But if matter exists as a possibility then there are many possible causes which can produce many different effects. Which of these causes will actually act is not determined by the laws of nature. So the causality is incomplete because the present exists as a possibility, and we have to choose one of the possible causes to create an effect.
In everyday practical life, we see that the present is not sufficient to explain the future. There are many things in the present which can change the future in different ways, but we cannot predict which of these things will become real. For example, an employee may work very hard in his job, but due to economic downturn or politics in the workplace he or she may not get the proportionate rewards. We normally attribute this type of outcome to “luck” and we may say that I was unlucky. But what is this luck? Can we understand luck scientifically? This is where we have to realize that we need a mechanism to explain how one of the possibilities becomes reality and this needs something additional.
In classical physics, the world is always reality and never a possibility. But in atomic physics, the world is always a possibility which is converted into a reality, which means one of many possibilities can be converted into reality. I might prepare well for an exam, but I might fall sick before the exam, or may be hit by truck while going to the exam, and there are so many possibilities which can become reality and change the outcome. But only a very small number of all these possibilities actually become real.
When the present is a possibility rather than reality, then luck becomes important. And to explain this luck we need to invoke the past, and say that some possibility from the present becomes a reality due to the consequence of something that I have done in the past. If we don’t invoke the past, then we cannot explain luck; our explanation will simply say that some people are lucky and others are unlucky.
Causality in Vedic Philosophy
It is interesting that you are connecting the causality from the past to the fact that the present exists as a possibility. And you are saying that this possibility is related to the discoveries in atomic theory where the present is described as a possibility rather than a reality. Can you elaborate?
Yes, in classical physics, matter always exists in a definite state. So, there is only one thing that can happen at any given time, and that this is always the reality. Therefore, classical physics is deterministic, because there is always only one alternative. Atomic theory is indeterministic because many things are possible and one of those things becomes real at any given time. How one out of the many possible things is selected to create a reality remains an open problem in atomic theory. There are many schemes proposed to overcome this conversion of possibility to reality, which are called different interpretations of atomic theory, but no scheme is universally accepted today.
For example, John von Neumann said that perhaps consciousness makes a choice to convert possibility into reality. There are other proposals such as decoherence where many possibilities are eliminated when the possibilities from different systems are overlapped and we try to find the overlapping or common possibilities across many systems. There are some proposals such as the many-worlds interpretation which say that there are infinite universes and in each universe only one possibility becomes real which means that in one universe the soldier gets a medal after returning from a battle and in another universe the soldier doesn’t get a medal even after doing the same actions.
The theory of karma also presents a solution to the same problem. In this solution there are three parts of the choice by which one of the possibilities become reality. These three parts are called guna, karma, and kala, or desiring, deserving, and time. Time represents all that is possible right now. For example, the possibilities of the world are always changing; even in atomic theory the wavefunction which collects all the possibilities evolves with time, which means that a different set of possibilities are created at every moment. These possibilities exist as the ability of the body to do things. For example, you may have the ability to swim but that doesn’t mean that the ability is being used. So the ability exists as a possibility which has to be converted into a reality, and this conversion needs two things.
The first thing is called guna or our desire, which basically says that I want to swim. The second thing is called karma or deserving, which basically means that to swim I need a swimming pool. So by our desire we can move our body and thereby transform the ability into an activity. But this activity cannot be performed in a vacuum. I must have the right environment in which I can swim. But the environment is not available to everybody. Some people get the environment or the opportunity to use their ability. So, that’s why there are three things – my ability to swim, my desire to swim, and the opportunity to swim. When all these three things are combined then the phenomena of swimming is manifest.
So, the present simply exists as a possibility or ability. It has to be complemented by guna or my desire, and karma or the opportunity. When the guna and karma are present then ability becomes reality. Out of these two, the karma is due to consequences created in the past, which means that even if I have the ability and the desire to do things, I cannot swim unless I have the karma because I will not get access to a swimming pool. My abilities need an opportunity, and karma determines the opportunities.
So, this is the model by which we can say that the world at present is simply a possibility but we convert this possibility into a reality by adding desires and opportunities. Now, John von Neumann simply spoke about choice or desire in his interpretation of atomic theory as being sufficient. His interpretation therefore claims that if I have the ability to swim then if I want to swim I will be swimming. That’s only a partially true conclusion because it misses the fact that we also need the opportunities.
Ability, Opportunity, and Desire
The idea that matter exists simply as a possibility which has to be converted into a reality by the addition of additional factors seems to be entailed by modern science and yet it is very counterintuitive for most people who think of the external world as something fixed. So many people speak about determinism in science without realizing that it has failed in modern science. Can you elaborate some more on the idea that matter or our body is simply a possibility?
Yes, when we say that the body is changing from one step to another, we are only talking about the fact that the abilities of the body are changing. For example, as an infant we don’t have the ability to walk or speak, but as we grow up we acquire these abilities. Similarly, as we get older and the body gets weaker then we lose the ability to lift heavy weights or run which we had when we were young. So the body’s abilities are constantly changing, and that’s what we mean by the body—abilities. Just because a child has the ability to run doesn’t mean he is always running. The ability exists in a potential form, and it is converted into an activity by the application of choice. So, this is the reason why the science of the body doesn’t explain everything; it only tells us how the body can potentially behave, not the actual behavior.
The different types of species have different abilities. Thus the fish can swim, the birds can fly, the carnivores can hunt, and the humans have the ability for language. Depending on how the soul wants to enjoy, he picks one body type, or rather, the body type is automatically picked based on guna which are the objectified representation of our material personality such as likes and dislikes. So our guna are selecting the body type, but the body type is preexisting. So when we say that there is choice, the most fundamental form of choosing is choosing the type of the body. In Vedic philosophy, nature allots the soul different types of bodies based on the guna or the material personality. Therefore, as our personality changes, new bodies are automatically allocated after the present body dies.
Once the body type has been chosen, then there is the choice of the ecosystem, environment, society, or culture in which the body will interact with other bodies. The body may have many abilities, and you may even enjoy those abilities, but you must have the opportunities to enact them. For example, you may have the ability to read a book or watch television, but which does the environment afford, books or television? The selection of the objects in our environment is called karma. It puts each body into different situations—some of which we may like, others we may dislike. For example, as a human, I may be interested in acquiring knowledge, but due to bad karma I may be placed in a situation where I cannot find a good teacher. So, even though by my desires for knowledge I have received a human body where the intelligence is more developed, due to my karma I would be placed in a situation where these desires cannot be fulfilled. So, desiring doesn’t mean I get whatever I want. This is a wrong notion about desires. Desires simply mean a subtle unconscious realm of reality that can convert ability into reality provided it receives the right type of opportunity. Desires are useless if there is no opportunity.
So, the proper understanding of atomic theory is that the world is all the things possible. A subset of these possible things are allowed at a given time. Then based on our desires we choose some of these possibilities to form our body which has the abilities. And finally we wait for karma to give us the right opportunities. Every observation is the combination of possibility, desire, and opportunity. So, when you observe all three things are present. We cannot distinguish between these three things with our senses. We have to distinguish between them conceptually or using a theory. Therefore, you cannot say – show me the possibility if you claim that it exists – because you cannot see possibility by the senses. The moment you see that possibility it has already become reality. Likewise, you cannot say show me karma if you claim that it exists – because when you see karma it is already become a fact. We have to be able to see these things without sense observation if we want to understand them.
The Analogy of a Drama
It seems to me that in a way you are trying to answer not just the question of how luck plays a role in our lives, but also connecting this role of luck to the problem of choice in atomic theory. You are saying that this choice is not just our wishes but also time and destiny. Can you elaborate some more on how this causal model works? How can think of this model in terms of a future theory?
You can think in terms of a drama. There is a script to be enacted which has many types of roles. I may desire to play a certain role, but I deserve to play only some roles. So by the limitation of what I deserve, I pick the best thing I desire. So, the roles in the drama are fixed by my desiring and deserving.
For example, it is possible that that I want to play the role of an action hero, who beats up villains, but by my karma I will only get the role of an action villain who can satisfy the propensity for action, but ultimately he gets beaten up by the hero. Even in the role of a villain my propensity for action is being satisfied, because it is possible that I’m simply incapable of playing comedic or romantic roles. So at least I’m being given an action role instead of comedic or romantic role. But I don’t get to play the hero; I only get to play the villain. So, time creates the drama, and guna and karma put the soul into a role.
Therefore, when we talk about karma we cannot just understand this idea in isolation, because karma works in conjunction with guna and time. Basically, there are four stages of material existence. The first stage is pure possibility which is eternal. We can think of this possibility as the collection of all possible drama scripts. The second stage is possibility at a given time, or the script of a particular drama. The third stage is which type of role I would prefer to play in the drama. Finally, the fourth step is that whichever role I choose my interactions will be based on the consequences of past actions.
So the world is created from pure possibility to pure fact through four stages. In classical physics, the world is only these facts. But in Vedic philosophy there are multiple stages in which a pure possibility becomes a pure fact, and there are intermediate levels of reality in which there are facts with reduced possibilities which are therefore facts and yet uncertain. So, we have to understand how uncertainty becomes certainty through a succession of stages. Once this model of possibility becoming reality is understood, then we can delve into the three stages of this conversion, and each stage of this conversion constitutes one element of a complete scientific theory.
In modern atomic theory we are able to speak about possibilities at a given time but not their further reduction, which as we saw above are caused due to guna and karma. So out of the three agencies creating certainty we only know one of them. Then we also don’t have a very good understanding of the possibility that precedes the creation of certainty. For example, we think that these possibilities are physical, so we keep trying to find a physical way to convert the possibility into reality. And this is not very easy, because how can we desire energy or momentum or spin? These things are not desirable. Similarly how can we deserve mass and charge? It makes no sense. To formulate a theory of desiring and deserving apart from time, we have to say that the possibility is itself meaning such as color, red, sweet, tables and chairs, beliefs, etc. Then we can desire and deserve these things. So because we don’t properly understand the possibility, we don’t know how to complete the theory. But if we said that possibility is the possibility of meaning, then we can formulate a theory of how it becomes reality. So it is not enough to just add guna and karma to time and possibility. We have to first redefine the nature of possibility, and once that redefinition has occurred, then guna and karma are relatively easy.
Why Don’t I Remember My Past Lives?
I see you’re connecting this conversation about karma to our previous conversations about meaning and the incompleteness of science. Since science deals with the world physically rather than with meaning, it also becomes incomplete, and now you are saying that the incompleteness of atomic theory is also because we cannot add desiring and deserving without meaning. Let’s shift the conversation from the physics and causality and talk a little bit about how this idea of karma is understood. People say that if I have done certain things in the past, I should remember it. If I’m not remembering those things then why should I be punished due to karma?
Karma is not what we did in the past but the consequences of what we have done. For example, suppose you have killed people in the past, then karma is not exactly how these people were killed. It is rather the consequences of those actions, which means that a person who has deprived other people of their valuable life has a destiny that they will suffer in the same way. So, you cannot remember the past because karma is not the past, but the consequences of actions in the past. The past doesn’t exist in the present, but the consequences of the past exist in the present. These consequences will be seen when they are converted into reality, which means they have to combine with guna and time. When the right time arrives, the consequences combine with our desires and are converted into experience.
The consequences of past actions exist as one part of the unconscious mind. There are two main parts of the unconscious—guna and karma. The unconscious called guna exists as our unconscious desires and habits. For example, anxiety and fear can become unconscious reactions to normal situations if we develop the habit of anxiety and fear to situations. We also have so many deep desires or fantasies that are normally hidden from others and even ourselves. Freud spoke about the repressed mind as the cause of psychological illnesses. Karma is also part of the unconscious just like our desires.
Conscious experience is created from the unconscious when the parts of the unconscious combine. As we discussed, experience is produced from the combination of guna and karma. So we can think of the guna and karma like an acid and an alkaline which separately don’t create a reaction. But when the two things are mixed, a reaction is produced. So, time is the agency that mixes the guna and karma, and produces an experience. Thus, conscious experience emerges from the unconscious.
When we go into deep sleep, time stops mixing guna and karma and therefore conscious experience is not created. If we want to know the unconscious or guna and karma, then we have to go beyond the conscious experience and be awake during deep sleep. This consciousness during deep sleep is called in Vedic texts as susupti. In the mystic yoga tradition, the purpose of yoga is develop that wakefulness such that we are not just aware during the waking state but also during the sleeping and deep sleep states. So, if someone says that they want to know the karma they have to develop the ability to be aware during the deep sleep state. Then they can see their guna and karma.
In contrast to deep sleep, the waking and dreaming states are called jagrata and svapna. The dreaming state has conscious experience but there are no external objects corresponding to that dream. The dream is a fantasy. In the waking state there is conscious experience backed by an external world. So, there are two kinds of conscious experience (dreaming and waking) and then the unconscious. The agency called time is beyond even this unconscious state and is called turiya or transcendent. So waking, dreaming, deep sleep and transcendent are the four stages of reality, and transcendent state called time mixes the guna and karma in the unconscious and from this mixing conscious experience is created.
In modern science people think that there are material objects from which the body is constructed and this body is then having states of dreaming and deep sleep. But in Vedic philosophy, the conscious experience of dreaming and wakefulness is produced from the unconscious or deep sleep. The memories we hold in this lifetime are part of the waking experience, and we forget our waking experience during the dream. We think we have become someone else. So if someone argues that we don’t remember our past life, then we don’t remember even the present life during dreams.
But there is a science of how the conscious is created from the unconscious, and the purpose of spiritual life is to extend consciousness from waking, to dreaming, to deep sleep, to transcendent. When the consciousness has advanced to the deep sleep state, then we can see the unmixed state of guna and karma and that’s when we can know all the consequences of past actions. From these consequences we can infer some things about our past lives but we still don’t know the past lives fully. Only when we go to the transcendent state or timelessness, then we can see even the past lives. So, knowing the past lives is possible but it is a matter of spiritual advancement. Past lives are not part of our conscious experience. Even the consequences of past lives are in the unconscious state, and past lives are known in the transcendent state when the past, present and future become so insignificant that we can treat them all as the present. That’s when we can know all the material bodies we have taken in the past.
Memories of Past Lives
There have been some scientific studies on reincarnation where children remember the exact circumstances in which they died in the past lives, and sometimes they can recall intimate details of the past lives. If the past lives are known only during the transcendent state, how are some people able to recall their past lives even during the waking experience?
I had a friend during my college days who used to say that he was his uncle in his past life. His previous wife who was now his aunt was still alive and he could recount details of his marriage to his aunt or his former wife. There have been many formal studies on children who died during accidents and they could recollect their past lives. So you’re right that this has been proven out many times.
The reason for this recollection is that both guna and karma are like trees, organized into trunks, branches, leaves, etc. As we reap the results of previous lives, the leaves, branches, and trunks of this tree are cut. Similarly, as we create new consequences in this life, the tree also develops new leaves, branches, and trees. So, some part of the tree is growing and another part of the tree is withering away. Each lifetime is like a trunk of the tree, and this trunk has to be fully cut down by the exhaustion of karma for a given life. If the karma is very little, then the person will have a short life, but if the karma is significant then the person will have a long life. This means that a person with a long life has a trunk with many branches and leaves, and a person with a short life has fewer branches and leaves.
The hierarchy of guna and karma create the body, senses, mind, intellect, ego, and morality of the soul. The branches and twigs of the trunk will be responsible for the morality, ego, intellect, and the mind, while the leaves growing on these branches and twigs will be responsible for the senses and the body. So the body is growing according to karma and guna and when one type of karma is finished, the soul is transferred to another body compatible with the remaining guna and karma.
Sometimes, a person has sufficient karma to lead a long life, but their life is prematurely terminated due to adverse circumstances such as an accident. In such a situation, the trunk that was supposed to be destroyed in the previous life is not fully destroyed, although some branches and leaves of the trunk have been cut. The branches and twigs remaining on the trunk will recreate the morality, ego, intellect and the mind, even though the leaves of the senses and the body are quite different. Therefore, even though the person is in a new body, he will have recollections of the past lives.
Our memory is part of intellect, and it comprises of beliefs such as a person’s bodily identity. For example someone might be a fighter pilot and his intellect identifies him as such. If this fighter pilot dies prematurely, and there is leftover karma that constitutes the branches of the tree then in the next life he will have the memory of being a fighter pilot because the intellect is carried over. This is an anomaly because generally a person is supposed to cut down the entire trunk meant for a given life, and nothing is expected to be carried over. But if it is carried over, then memory is recalled from the past.
So this recall can be understood when we understand that causality and time are hierarchical. In astrology we talk about good and bad periods. These longer good and bad periods are like branches which last for longer time. Growing from the branches of these longer periods there can be leaves of shorter periods which are also good or bad. So sometimes we get a good period in the midst of an overall bad period, and sometimes we get a bad period in the midst of an overall bad period. So, we have to understand time hierarchically because it creates an experience comprising of a longer periods within which are shorter periods within which are even shorter periods and so on. So when a person dies prematurely, and is reborn, he continues in the same longer period that was going on in the previous life, and the experiences of that trunk are felt as if experiences of this life.
Is Karma Blaming the Victim?
A fact often observed is that of children born with terminal diseases. The theory of karma would say that these children must have performed bad deeds in their past lives which is why they must be suffering. So, this suffering is in some sense rightfully deserved. Now this idea of rightful punishment makes it harder to have compassion for the person suffering. Just like we may not have compassion for the criminal who is sent to jail, based on the theory of karma we may not have compassion even for the child who may be suffering from some terminal disease such as cancer. And if we don’t have compassion then we appear to be cruel. How do you respond to this criticism?
People forget that parents also punish their children in order to improve them. Even in modern times, prisons are called “correctional institutions” so the idea is not to damn a person due to their crimes but to correct and improve them to make them better citizens. A fundamental cornerstone of a correctional institution is that the punishment is not permanent. The punishment is limited because there is the belief that the person would be reformed by the punishment. So, the common idea about justice is that punishment is about correction and reformation, and the justice system is based on compassion for the citizens—it is to correct the person. And this intention is demonstrated in a finite punishment.
But still many people in the West have a vindictive view of punishment due to Christianity because God in Christianity sends the heathen soul eternally to hell. Since their presence in hell is eternal, the intent underlying punishment cannot be correction because fundamentally a person never gets corrected and resurrected out of this hell. And if the person never comes out of punishment then the purpose of the moral law cannot be correction; it has to be eternal damnation. So the Christian hell cannot be regarded as a correctional institution because the sentence can never be reduced even if you reform.
Under this Christian sense of morality there is no compassion for the sinner. The sinner has to be eternally sent to hell. So all punishment of the sinner is not out of compassion but out of condemnation. Many people start with this idea that in a religious understanding any punishment must be damnation and its intention cannot be correction. Since there is no room for correction, there is never an end to punishment. And since there is no freedom from punishment there can be no compassion. All these ideas about morality are tied together with the Christian idea of a hell where God punishes the soul not because He wants to reform the soul, but because He is forever condemning the soul.
But in the Vedic system, the hell is not eternal. People go there to reap their karma and come back to normal life. Which means that the purpose of hell is to repay your debts and then be free of them. So the purpose of the hell or punishment is to correct the person, not damn him or her. The law of karma has to be seen in the same light. Even a child suffering from a terminal disease is not damned or cursed. He is punished for the misdeeds. And the purpose of punishment is to repay the debts of the past. Thus, there is compassion even in the act of punishment because the punishment is finite, which entails that the punishment is meant to reform out of compassion, rather than condemn the person.
Does Repentance Take Away Karma?
How is the karmic punishment of a two year old child, who has no understanding of what is happening to him suppose to reform him? A prisoner suffering in prison has time to reflect on their deeds, see how they have hurt others and then begin to feel bad and repent. But how is a two year old dying of cancer going to repent if he doesn’t even understand what’s happening?
Repentance is a Christian concept. By repenting you can stop doing the same things again, but that doesn’t mean you can avoid having to pay the price for what you have already done. Just like if I borrow some money from a bank, I cannot tell the bank that I repent borrowing it and I will not borrow it again, so the bank must excuse me from repaying the loan because now I’m repenting my extravagant ways.
Whether or not I repent borrowing the money from the bank, I have to pay it back. So repentance is not an excuse. If you repent you will not do it again, and that is good for you. But you have still done something and you have to pay the debt back. So, nature is extracting the debt back. Just because you repent doing something, nature is not going to show mercy. It has to extract the debt.
In Christianity it is supposed that if you repent or confess to your sins the sins are washed away. And that’s why people keep repenting and sinning again and again, because one moment you repent and the other moment you do not. If nature washes away karma just because you repent what will nature do if you stop repenting and do the same thing again? The whole pardoning thing will be a waste.
So nature is not relying on your repentance. If you repent it is good for you. If you do not repent, it is bad for you. Either way, nature is simply going to give you back what you have done. And the reason is that unless you have paid the debt in full repentance is superficial. People repent doing something and if they get away by so-called repentance they naturally do it again. So, the Christian concept of repentance doesn’t work. It just reinforces the repetition of bad behavior. Now it is possible that someone has a genuine regret and has truly reformed. Such a person will have full cognizance of what they did and that realization makes them welcome the punishment. True regret means that you don’t resent the punishment. The person who has realized his guilt will not say that I don’t deserve it. Only the people who haven’t realized their guilt say that they deserve better. So, this argument that I don’t deserve the punishment because I have repented is a sign of entitlement and imminent repetition.
In fact austerity is the only way to purify oneself even if you are grown and have a developed intellect. It is not an intellectual understanding that changes a person. The fact is that many people know right and wrong intellectually, but they still cannot control their habits. For example, you can ask any smoker or alcoholic if he knows smoking and drinking is bad for their health. Practically every smoker or alcoholic will say that I know it is bad for my health but I’m unable to stop myself from doing it. So, intellectual understanding of right and wrong doesn’t mean there is correction of behavior. What one needs is suffering because when the person suffers the fear of pain causes automatic reformation.
In all religions therefore the method of purification is austerity. In the system called karma-yoga you perform your duties without desire for results. That is generally hard, because if you are not getting the results you will be inclined to renounce your duties. So just going on performing your duties even when you don’t get results is austerity. Similarly, in jnana-yoga one has to perform mental and intellectual austerities in trying to understand the nature of reality. Most people are mentally and intellectually lazy and do not want to do the rigorous thinking. They want someone to give them the answers, but even if the answers are given to them the conviction is missing because they haven’t done the thinking for themselves. So, even though there is some knowledge, the understanding is remains superficial because the intellectual austerity of looking at the alternatives and removing them was not performed. This means that even when you get knowledge from others you still must eliminate the doubts by thinking through those ideas by yourself to convince yourself of the truth by eliminating alternatives.
Similarly in dhyana-yoga there are severe austerities of mind and body. One has to drastically reduce their eating and sleeping, completely renounce sex, live in solitary place and subsist on raw food rather than cooked food and delicacies. By this austerity the personality is purified. Similarly in bhakti-yoga one has to give the independent mentality or inventing things whimsically or doing whatever one wants to do. One has to surrender to the wishes of the guru and serve him with humility and dedication. All these things are very hard and constitute austerity. If one doesn’t perform the austerity then there is no purification. One may have all the intellectual knowledge but the personality remains unchanged. That means the person doesn’t develop detachment from falsities and attachment to truth. One remains theoretically aware of the true path, but keeps leading a life of the materialistic path.
So, karma–when it causes pain and suffering—forces austerity upon us. The spiritualist inflicts austerity upon himself in order to accelerate the purification. But even if one doesn’t inflict a voluntary austerity nature will force austerity on you. And this forcing of austerity is the only way to reformation.
But in our justice system we don’t really send kids to jail even if they do bad things, under the assumption that they are not mature enough to understand what they are doing. If karma is about repaying the debt then the debt must be the same for a grown person or child. How and why should we distinguish between an adult and a child if the debt of the borrower is the same?
This idea of justice is based on the notion that the mind is blank slate at birth, and we impart knowledge of morality by educating the person about right and wrong. And therefore juveniles should not be convicted of crimes because they haven’t had enough time to grasp the nature of morals. It’s a false idea. Morality is not given to us by society. Morality is innate, and in fact the deepest level of reality above the ego which carries the intentions. So our intentions are formed based on morals.
In the case of juveniles, and in the case of adults, we have to always check the intention. If the intention wasn’t to hurt someone or perform a bad deed, and something bad happens due to a mistake or inadvertently, then the moral value underlying the intention is not bad, because the intention was not bad. For example, a child may be playing with a gun and may accidentally shoot someone. That is not a punishable offence because the intention wasn’t to commit a crime. So, to judge a crime we have to go deeper into the intentional and moral state and determine if the crime is premeditated.
If the crime is premeditated then it doesn’t matter if it is committed by a child or by an adult. The exception is that the person was not acting in self-defense, which applies equally well to juveniles and adults. So the main thing is that the intention and moral has to be taken into account. If the intention and morality are bad, then the result of the action is same for adults and juveniles. The modern Western concept of morality is based on Lockean idea that the mind is tabula rasa or blank slate at birth. So, the child cannot be held responsible because he hasn’t had a time to grasp morals. This is a wrong idea because the mind is not a blank slate due to reincarnation of the soul through many lives.
Do We Come Back to Collect the Debts?
It is sometimes said that if you have hurt someone the same person will come back and hurt you in the same way. This creates a problem that if the other person doesn’t want to hurt you, he will be compelled to do so just because of karma. So karma appears to implicate not only the sinner but also the person against whom the crime has been committed. What do you say to this idea?
Karma is not exactly a reverse of the previous activity. It is not that if you have hurt someone else you will be hurt in the same way by others. Rather, the consequences of your actions will be applied to you in the way that is painful or enjoyable to you. For example, if someone loves money and you take away their money through excessive taxes, you have created bad karma. Now you may yourself not love money, so taking away your money is not going to give you pain. Instead you may love eating good food, and karma will deprive you of food. So, if you are not getting food doesn’t mean you have deprived others of food in the past. It may be that you have exerted excessive taxes on others and deprived them of the wealth they needed, and now you will be deprived of the food that you need in this life.
So by suffering we don’t exactly learn about what happened in the past, or the mistakes of the past lives. If you are not getting love in this life doesn’t necessarily mean that you have deprived others of love previously. It means that you have deprived someone of something they loved, and because you desire love so much in this life you will be deprived of that love. Karma is relative to your guna. If you change your desires, the new desires will again be frustrated. Even if you move to spiritual life, and want to do spiritually elevating things, karma will hinder the performance of these activities. Many people think that because they are practicing spiritual life so there is no karma for them. That is a false idea. Even spiritual people fall sick, have bad relationships and divorces, have to live through poverty, etc. Karma is unavoidable, and it will mutate into the exact form suited for the individual.
Karma is just like money. You may work in a factory to earn money, but that doesn’t mean that when you spend that money you buy those exact products you built in the factory. You can rather spend money in various ways of your choosing. Similarly, if you have debt because you took a loan on a house, you don’t have to necessarily return the house to pay the debt. You can also pay by cash, or sell another house, or sacrifice something else that you were going to get. But this repayment is mediated by nature. For example, if I have borrowed from a bank I don’t necessarily have to pay the debt back if someone else pays it on my behalf. The bank only maintains the accounts. So, if I commit a crime against someone, we don’t ask that person to take the law in their own hand. We rather expect the government to punish the sinner. Likewise, when you commit a sin against someone, that person is not necessarily going to come back to collect. Rather nature will ensure that someone will collect. That person who collects desires to collect, and you will have to pay. In this way, the debts you have created in life can be collected by anyone. Nature ensures that you don’t have to pay beyond your debt. Therefore, even in very bad situations, some people are affected badly but others are saved without effort. It is because the laws of nature ensure that the bad situation only affects the previous sinners.
Fatalism and Optimism
A number of people argue that the theory of karma is fatalistic. Since karma entails destiny therefore our futures are fixed. If we cannot change the future, then why should we even try? How would you respond to the idea that the theory of karma and destiny makes everything fatalistic?
Karma determines what will happen to you, but not how you will respond to the situation. For example, if you are treated badly by others, you can choose to respond to them badly or nicely. You cannot change the kind of circumstances you will encounter, but you can change how you respond to those circumstances. As you respond properly, good karma is created and in the future you will have better circumstances. If instead you respond poorly, bad karma will be created and in the future your situation will remain equally bad or even get worse. So, this argument that karma makes things fatalistic is incorrect. Destiny is being continuously created at each moment in life by our present actions. So when we respond to a situation positively we create a different destiny than when we respond negatively. So, karma and destiny are not permanent. Rather we create our destiny by our actions.
Instead of making the world fatalistic, karma makes us fully responsible for our choices. If we did not have karma then the outcomes of previous choices would have no bearing on the present, and a person could indulge in heinous acts and still not have to pay for them. Karma makes this impossible. Every action is being accounted for by nature. We may think that our actions are hidden from other people, our family, society, or the government, and we can cheat our way through life. But nature cannot be fooled. As we indulge in actions a subtle causal reality is created which remains unconscious for the moment, and we think that it has no effects because it is not yet manifesting. But over time this unconscious becomes conscious and it creates a different body and its interactions.
So morality is a natural law when the present is a possibility because choices are needed to convert this possibility into reality, and these choices have consequences which have to be borne later. This morality is not related to the social and cultural norms, because it is a natural law. So even if our social and cultural norms allow us to do something, we are still creating karma if these actions are not in accordance with the natural law. The fact that everyone is doing the same thing doesn’t make our actions more morally acceptable. Rather, the moral law implicates everyone in consequences.
Are Rewards and Punishments Acts of God?
This idea that morality is a natural law seems quite different from modern thinking where morality is based on social norms. In many religions, this morality is defined as God’s judgment. Can you comment on the relation between morality and God as they appear in different religions?
Actually religion has very little to do with morality. Religion is about the relation between the soul and God, while morality is about the relation between different souls within this material world. The moral rules pertain to chastity within marriage, honesty in business dealings, hard work, kindness to other living entities, paying one’s due to family and society, taking care of children and elders, etc. These things have very little to do with the understanding of God, because even the most moral person may have no understanding of God. However, it is also true that the immoral person also cannot approach the knowledge of God. Therefore morality is a necessary but not sufficient condition for religion.
Most people confuse morality with religion; they think that religion defines social conduct and that conduct itself constitutes the practice of religion. This is a false understanding of religion. Owing to this view about religion, most modern religions fight each other over social customs and cultural traditions, because they think that being born in a certain culture is itself the definition of religion.
In Vedic philosophy, morality is material and religion is transcendental. Morality pertains to the proper organization of society, obedience to laws, the organization of the economic conditions, such that one can peacefully practice religion. Therefore, morality is a stepping stone toward religion, but not religion itself. Just like if your body is sick, you cannot practice transcendence as your mind will be preoccupied with the bodily condition. You have to become healthy before you can divert your focus to a higher topic. Similarly, society must be peaceful, stable, and healthy in order for people to take their minds off the problems of society and focus the mind upon the pursuit of transcendence. Therefore, morality is the enabler of religion, just like a healthy body and mind are enablers of religion. Healthy body and mind are not religion itself, similarly, a healthy and peaceful society is not religion. To the extent that these are necessary preconditions for practicing religion, they are important, but not the ultimate goals.
Nature has sufficient laws to deal with miscreants that break nature’s laws. God is not involved in this judgment. So it is also false to think that God is sitting in judgment over our actions. God is not so cheap that He has to judge every type of crime being committed. All these judgments are automatically happening due to the laws of choice and responsibility. God is busy enjoying with those who are devoted to Him. He has no business with the moral judgments of the material world. If a religion claims that God judges the soul for his actions, it makes God very cheap—almost on the same level as the court judge or jury who passes rulings on the actions of criminals. The judge and jury are our peers, but God is not our peer. He has delegated the responsibility of judgment to the laws of nature.