Transcending the Laws of Karma
from Back To Godhead Magazine #16-11, 1981
by Satsvarupa Dasa Goswami
Nadine is the mother of four children. Her son Ravi, age seven, was born deaf and dumb. The other day, using sign language, Ravi asked his mother why he cannot speak or hear like his brother and sisters. Nadine, who has recently taken up Krishna consciousness, answered by explaining in a very simple way the law of karma. Ravi understood.
Nadine feels that had her son asked this question prior to her coming to understand the law of karma, she would have been unable to give him a satisfying explanation. Surely such questions as this are perplexing. Why does one person enjoy, while another suffers? But the answers to such questions are crucial to all of us, because they give us a direct clue to how we can become free from all future suffering.
Nowadays people tend to accept only explanations based on the authority of material sciences, such as physics, mathematics, and chemistry. Ideologists also stress economic, political, psychological, and sociological explanations, as well as philosophical speculations, the interpretations of astrology, and the dogmas of sectarian religions. But none of these explanations for good and ill fortune is as scientific, or as intellectually and morally satisfying, as the Vedic literature’s explanation of the law of karma.
According to the Vedic literature, karma is the law of cause and effect: there is a reaction for everything we do. If we throw a coin up, it will come down. If we regularly put money in the bank, our wealth will accumulate. If we drink too much, we’ll get drunk. These are natural laws of cause and effect. Similarly, the law of karma states that if we do something sinful we shall get a bad result and if we do something pious we shall get a good result.
According to the Vedic literature, the activities we perform in our present life determine the happiness and distress we meet in our future life. The body we have now is not our real self but is only a covering. Our real identity is the atma, the eternal spirit soul within the body. Impelled by the law of karma, we, the atma, transmigrate from one species to another, suffering and enjoying the results of our activities in the human form of life.
The Vedic literature distinguishes between karma, acts which are allowed, and vikarma, acts which are forbidden. Vikarma will bring us unfortunate reactions in this life and the next. These unfortunate reactions are sometimes popularly referred to as “bad karma.” Our present sufferings—chronic disease, poverty, and so on—are the bad karmic reactions of our past sinful activities.
These are not the beliefs of a particular religious faith; they are natural laws governing all activities in the material world. There is individual karma and collective karma. Individual karma accounts for our personal misfortune, and collective karma accounts for the sufferings of an entire nation: an epidemic, a war, a natural holocaust. Society’s sins of abortion and cow- killing, for example, must eventually result in severe collective bad karma. On the other hand, one who acts piously may be rewarded by a good birth on this planet or even on higher planets, where there is greater longevity and better enjoyment than on earth.
In the ultimate sense, however, all karma, whether good or bad, is bondage. Even pious activities bind us to the cycle of repeated birth and death. Whether rich or poor, weak or strong, learned or ignorant, beautiful or ugly, pious or impious, famous or obscure, everyone in the material world must suffer, birth after birth. As Lord Krishna states in Bhagavad-gita (8.16), “From the highest planet to the lowest planet, all are places of misery wherein repeated birth and death take place. But one who attains to My abode, O Arjuna, never takes birth again in this material world.” Therefore, until we become free of all karma, we have to undergo repeated birth and death.
Neither God nor the laws of nature are responsible for our karma; we make our own destiny. Out of our particular desires to enjoy this world in various ways, we create our own good or bad karma. We can attain freedom from karma only when we give up acting according to our material desires and instead act to serve the Supreme Personality of Godhead. When we are purified of all material desires and repose all our thoughts, words, and actions in loving service to Krishna, then only can we transcend the law of karma. Otherwise karma, good or bad, will lead us to repeated suffering, birth after birth.
We have to understand that the law of karma is actually operating, and then we can consider extricating ourselves from karma’s influence. Even if a mother can educate her deaf and dumb child by alternative methods and help him adjust to his handicapped life, the main problems of material life still remain. There are no material means for avoiding karma. Freedom from karma is possible only when we understand how to act transcendentally.
Nadine understands the laws of karma and was therefore able to solve her son’s dilemma. Usually psychologists, doctors, and parents of deaf and dumb children can explain only the immediate cause: “During pregnancy your mother was very sick.” “You had meningitis when you were a baby.” But such explanations don’t really answer the question. And Ravi’s reaction to such explanations had been like that of so many other handicapped children: “Yes, but why me?” Therefore he had remained dissatisfied.
Then Nadine had learned about Krishna consciousness and the Vedic literature’s explanation of karma. So one day when her son approached her in great frustration, demanding to know why he was deaf and dumb, she showed him a painting in Bhagavad-gita As It Is, by His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada. The painting depicted the soul as it transmigrates from birth to childhood to youth to adulthood to old age and finally, at death, to another body. Pointing to the picture, Nadine told Ravi that during one of his many previous lives he must have performed sinful activities and because of those sinful activities he was now being forced to accept the karmic reaction. Ravi looked up at his mother and smiled, and then he looked down at the picture again for a long, long time. He was no longer complaining, and he didn’t hit her or blame her as before. He just kept looking at the picture, satisfied.
Nadine is also satisfied. Ravi will learn to use his life so he won’t have to take another birth and suffer the results of his karma.