From Back to Godhead
Are we the makers of our destiny or is life pre-destined? Find out here . . . .
In the Mahabharata, Vidura explained to Dhritarastra, “Destiny determines the consequences of our actions, not our actions themselves.” This means that we are not like programmed robots that have no free will, or no choice. Our past karma does determine what will happen in our life, but it does not determine how we will react to it.
Destiny is something like a weather forecast on a journey. A weather forecast can tell us whether our journey from one place to another is going to be snowy or sunny. But it does not determine what we do during the journey.
With respect to destiny, there are two schools of thought karmavada and daivavada. Karmavada means to think, “By my karma I will be successful. If I work hard enough and smart enough, then I will become the next Bill Gates. By my sweat and muscles, I will succeed.” But if you look at the reality of life, so many people work hard and not all of them are successful. Therefore karmavada, the idea that everything depends on my actions, brings frustration and the people who follow this doctrine tend to develop an inferiority complex because in reality it is not our action alone that determines results.
Many times, we feel sorry when we study hard but don’t get good marks. But if we are honest, we will admit that there are times in our life when we don’t study very much other than the few hours before exam and still get good marks. So the law of karma works both ways. Sometimes due to our past good karma we get good reactions even when we don’t do proper action.
On the other hand, daivavada means to think “everything is determined by destiny, what can I do?” Dhritarastra was trying to use daivavada to justify his inaction when Duryodhana was doing atrocities on the Pandavas. Vidura told him, “Stop your son Duryodhana from waging war against the Pandavas. Let him accept Krishna’s peace proposal.” Dhritarastra replied, “No, if it is a will of destiny, then who am I, a tiny mortal, to stop the will of almighty destiny?” Vidura reminded him, “You have your duty; you have the freedom to choose to do your duty or not. So you should try to stop your son to the best of your capacity.”
Many western thinkers and westernized Indians misunderstand the Vedic philosophy. They think that the Vedic philosophy is fatalistic because everything is predestined, and thus this notion preempts any purposeful activity. But actually, Indians were never lazy. The world’s biggest poem is the epic Mahabharata, which has 110,000 verses. This is seven times bigger than the world’s next two biggest poems the Illiad and Odyssey combined together. Could lazy people have composed such a massive masterpiece? Literature, architecture, art, and even science and mathematics had reached great heights in Vedic times. All this cannot be the products of lazy people. Thus, Vedic philosophy is not daivavadi.
The real Vedic understanding is that the results of our actions are determined both by our actions of this life and the reactions of the actions of past life. For example, the sowing of seeds and the ploughing of fields is the karma of the farmer. But whether it will rain sufficiently or not is the daiva. Simply by sowing the seeds and ploughing the fields there will be no harvest unless there is sufficient rain. Similarly, simply by sufficient rains, without sowing the seeds and ploughing the fields, there will be no harvest. Therefore, the Vedic scriptures explain that you must just do your duty, the right karma, and not bother about the daiva part. Not bothering about daiva means not letting our destiny discourage us from doing our duty, whatever it is. This is so because if we do our karma now, it will give fruits if daiva is favorable now. But even if daiva is unfavorable now, then this right karma is still creating the favorable daiva for the future. Therefore there is no reason to get discouraged or disheartened while performing one’s prescribed duty.
It is important to note that even if a person does good karma, that good karma will bring good reactions and this means he has to still stay in the material world to enjoy those good reactions. For example, if somebody offers free water taps in charity, that is certainly good karma, but the reaction for it is that he has to take another birth in which he will never suffer from shortage of water. He might take birth near a lake or a river. Similarly, if somebody gives school textbooks in charity, then in his next life he might become the owner of a printing factory. But birth in the material world means he has to grow old, get diseased, has to die, and has to suffer the three-fold miseries of material existence.
Thus, even by good karma we don’t get out of the material world, because good karma is not necessarily godly karma or akarma. As long as we are forgetful of God, we stay on in the material world. The real way to come out of this material world, which is the place of suffering, is by developing our bhakti, which is actually akarma.
Empowerment by knowledge
Social: The understanding of karma has a lot of bearing on the present state of society. Only when we understand karma will the call to morality have any meaning. Imagine you come to a city where it reads, “Welcome to our city. There is no police force in this city; please follow the laws.” Do you think anybody will follow the laws? Nobody will. Today’s society has become like that. The legal system is known to be weak and corrupt. People think, “If I am clever enough, influential enough or cunning enough, then I can do whatever I want, and I can get away with it.” So if we want morality in society, we need to educate people to understand the law of karma. Then and then alone will the call to morality, or the call to ethics, have any meaning. That’s why it is said that fear of God is the beginning of wisdom, just like for a child, fear of his father is generally the main impetus for him to study. How many of us have been chastised by our parents and forced to study? Almost everyone, sometime or the other. At that time, we didn’t find it pleasant, but later on we appreciated our parents for it. If at that time we wouldn’t have studied, we would have been in trouble. So here it is seen that fear is very often an impetus for doing our duty. Similarly, if there is no proper understanding of the law of karma and the fear of the karmic reactions, most people will have no impetus to do good karma.
Individual: Perhaps even more important is that the understanding of the law of karma helps us to make sense of our present condition and gives us the strength to face suffering. Actually, a person without spiritual knowledge is like a person who is blindfolded and is beaten from top, bottom, left, right, front and back without knowing from where the next blow is coming and why. At any moment, one can be put into such situations for which one is left groping for answers for questions like “Why me, why now or why this?”
When we become well versed with the science of karma, it’s like the blindfold is removed. It’s a big relief.
When I was in a hospital for several months due to sickness, I was looking at other patients and talking to them. One of the things they couldn’t understand and was emotionally crushing them was, “All my relatives and friends are happy; they are in their homes, they are in their parties and enjoying life (nobody is really enjoying life actually, but that is the illusion). Why am I suffering alone here?” This thought crushes people completely when they face tough situations in life. But for me as a devotee, I knew that it was just my karma, “Just let me endure it and it will be over.”
In this way, the knowledge of the law of karma helps us to make sense out of our suffering and face it with calmness.
Secondly, it helps us prepare for the future with confidence. It is not that just by knowing about karma, we will become free from suffering. But we become like a sick patient who has understood what the disease is and how to cure it. The pain is still there, but it is going to decrease. But for the person who doesn’t know the cure, his pain is going to increase and, on top of that, he will feel helpless and dejected. But a knowledgeable person knows sooner or later all the sufferings will come to an end.
Thus, the science of karma is not a science of condemnation; it is science of redemption. Its message is not “You are sinful, so suffer.” But its message is, “Whatever be your past karma for which you are suffering now, just surrender to God and His grace will come upon you, and you will be saved.”
Freedom by Bhakti
Beyond good karma, there is akarma, devotional service, which brings the ultimate freedom from karmic entanglement. Let’s see how. Devotional service provides us with four great gifts:
1. Discrimination of right and wrong
When we practice devotional service, the Lord as the Paramatma in our heart grants us the knowledge to make the right choices. All of us can, at some time or the other, hear the voice of conscience (viveka-buddhi in Sanskrit). When we start doing something wrong, then the voice from inside warns, “Don’t do this.” If you want to do something right, this voice says, “Yes, do this now.” So, when we chant the holy name of Krishna, when we practice devotional service, this inner voice becomes stronger and it guides us to make the right choices in life. Thus devotional service can grant us the knowledge to gradually become disentangled from all karma.
2. Determination to follow right and avoid wrong
Devotional service saves us from doing further bad karma and the craving to do bad karma.
Chanting of the holy names gives us the inner satisfaction that enables us to say no to all the sinful pleasures of this world. Thus, we not only know the right choices, but we also get the willpower to make those right choices.
3. Minimization of sinful reactions
Certain reactions are going to come to us from the past. But devotional service helps us minimize those reactions. For devotees, the Lord gives just a token reaction instead of the complete one. That token is given so that the devotee does not forget the miserable nature of this world.
4. Inner strength to face suffering
Whatever the residual karma that comes upon us, devotional service grants us the strength to tolerate that suffering. One of the names of Krishna is Karuna-nidhi, reservoir of compassion. Our acharyas give an example of how Krishna gives us strength to endure our sufferings. When a child is going to school, the mother knows, “Today my child has not done his homework properly and the teacher is going to beat him on his hand with the stick.” The mother doesn’t want the child to be beaten and at the same time wants the child to be disciplined. So she sends the child to school, but gives him thick gloves to wear. When the teacher beats him, he feels the impact but he doesn’t feel the pain. Similarly, when a devotee is supposed to get suffering because of his misdeeds from material nature (who is like the teacher), Krishna (who is like the mother) gives His devotees His holy name, chanting which gives them the strength to tolerate and transcend their pain. So externally a devotee may seem to be in pain, but internally because of his remembrance of the holy name, he doesn’t feel the suffering. And the more advanced a devotee is, the more he can experience the reality of this protection from Krishna.
In conclusion, irrespective of our past karma, the spiritually scientific process of devotional service is the best path to the highest happiness in this life and the next.