Understanding Karma and How to Stop It

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Everyone has heard of karma, but hardly anyone knows how it works.

The Sanskrit word karma has gained mainstream acceptance today and found a place in the English dictionary. Karma as a philosophical principle, however, is little understood. Simply put, the law of karma states that every action we perform has a reaction. In the Biblical tradition this is phrased as "As you sow, so shall you reap."

Is the Law of Karma Scientific?

Yes and no. Yes in the sense that the law of karma is, like the other laws of nature discovered by modern science, a foundational principle governing the world we live in; no in the sense that it involves the interaction of non-quantifiable parameters like consciousness, free will, and motivation that are beyond the ken of classical physics.

Science has discovered that nature obeys laws for any interaction of any kind, from the microscopic level to the macroscopic level. In fact, classical physics is nothing but the study and application of nature's laws. If laws govern all of nature, wouldn't it be patently unscientific to claim that humans alone are the law-exempt odd man out? Of course, humans have subtle endowments like consciousness and free will, which insentient matter doesn't have and which are beyond the capacity of classical physics to precisely discern, quantify, and explain. However, does the inability of classical physics to explain a phenomenon automatically make that phenomenon nonexistent? The reality of consciousness is undeniable; all of us know it as a self-experienced reality. Even skeptics who deny the existence of consciousness are able to deny because they are conscious. Thus, consciousness is such an inescapable foundational ground-reality that its attempted denial becomes its undeniable proof. Given the inadequacy of classical physics to explain an aspect of reality as fundamental as consciousness, wouldn't it be unreasonably narrow-minded to exile out of our notions of reality so vital a field of knowledge as the interactions of consciousness by labeling it as “unscientific”? Wouldn't the human quest for knowledge be checked and choked by such narrow-mindedness? Physicist David Bohm calls for open-mindedness by reminding us that the realm of scientific study is potentially open-ended: “The possibility is always open that there may exist an unlimited variety of additional properties, qualities, entities, systems, levels, etc., to which apply correspondingly new kinds of laws of nature.”

One such new level has been uncovered by quantum physics, which has supplanted classical physics in many fields. And quantum physics is increasingly recognizing consciousness as an integral aspect of reality. So it's possible that future development of quantum physics may acknowledge as scientific such concepts as the law of karma that are today deemed unscientific.

Moreover, the law of karma can be said to be scientific in another sense: We can use reason and logic—the basic cognitive faculties that undergird the scientific spirit of enquiry—to gain a general understanding of the workings of karma.

As one saying goes: We can never break God's laws; we can only break ourselves against God's laws. If a group of people say, "We don't believe in the law of gravity" and jump from the top of a ten-storey building, what will happen? They will definitely not break the law of gravity, but will surely break themselves against the law. Similarly, we can never break any of God's laws. Just as the law of gravity impartially acts on physical objects without discrimination, the law of karma impartially acts on living beings without discrimination.

Doubts About Karma

1. Why not action-reaction in one life?

The Vedic literature tells us that we eternal souls transmigrate from one body to another after death, taking our karmic reactions with us. Somebody may ask, "Why should I suffer now for my actions in a previous life? Why the delay?"

Every action we perform is like a seed sown. Just as different seeds, such as rice seeds or mango seeds, bear fruits at different rates, so do different karmic seeds. But while we can discard ripe produce if its turns out bad, we can't discard the bad fruit of our karmic seeds. We have to eat—suffer—every single karmic fruit we have sown.

Krishna says in the Bhagavad-gita (4.17) that karma works in complex ways difficult to understand. God knows best what reaction has to be given at what time and under what conditions. Therefore, some reactions may come in this lifetime, some in the next, and some in a distant future lifetime.

The workings of karma tally with another saying: "The mills of God grind slowly, but they grind exceedingly fine." Sooner or later, every single action will be accounted for.

2. Why are the ignorant not excused?

A citizen who breaks a state traffic law can't claim ignorance of the law as an excuse. A citizen using the roads provided by the state has the duty to learn the state laws. Similarly, because we are living in this world and taking air, water, sunlight, and food from nature, we need to know and follow the rules laid down by God, who gives what we need to live, including the knowledge of how to live. A system of religious and spiritual morality is found in almost every human society, and the onus is on us to take the education and orient our lives accordingly.

Another reason we can't use ignorance as an excuse for breaking God's laws is that we cause our own ignorance—because ignorance is the consequence of sin. For example, prisoners may lose access to good counsel and other aids to their betterment if they constantly reject the aids when they are available. Similarly, if we never get to know about the law of karma, then that's because by our actions we have shown God, "I am not interested in knowing about your laws; I don't care. I will do whatever I want."

So, people do wrong because of ignorance, and the wrong reinforces their ignorance, impelling them to further wrongdoings, thus creating a vicious cycle. The most practical and powerful way to break free from this cycle is through the process of devotional service, which the Lord teaches throughout history through his representatives or by descending Himself. To understand how devotional service frees us from the karmic cycle, let's look at the three types of action Krishna talks about in the Bhagavad-gita (4.17): karma, vikarma, and akarma.

Three Types of Action

The word karma has several connotations. It can mean an action, its reaction, or the whole system of action-reaction known as the law of karma.

In a scriptural sense, karma primarily means actions done in accordance with one's duties prescribed in the revealed scriptures. Vikarma refers to actions done contrary to the scriptures by the misuse of one's free will. Vikarma takes one down to the lower forms of life. The four main vikarmic activities, as mentioned in the Srimad-Bhagavatam (1.17.38), are intoxication, meat-eating, gambling, and illicit sex. These four lead to severe karmic reactions, which come both in future and in present lives. In this life, illicit sex leads to a variety of diseases; meat-eating leads to heart problems, cancer, and other diseases; gambling causes people to lose their self-control and eventually everything else. Intoxication, which people think is very enjoyable, is actually a ritual of self-torture. What starts with "Cheers!" often leads to tears; under the spell of intoxicants, people act in ways that cause them to lose their self-respect, their bank balance, their families, and sometimes even their lives.

Finally, akarma, which translates literally as "no activity," doesn't mean inactivity, but activity that brings no reaction, activity that frees one from the cycle of birth and death.

Complete Freedom From Karma

Devotional service to the Lord is akarma. It brings the ultimate freedom from karmic entanglement because by its very nature it is a transcendental activity. It also provides us with, among other things, four great gifts that help us progress to the pure spiritual platform.

1. The ability to distinguish right from wrong. When we practice devotional service, the Lord as the Supersoul in our heart grants us the knowledge to make the right choices. All of us can, at some time or other, hear the voice of conscience (vivek buddhi). When we start doing something wrong, the voice from inside warns, "Don't do this." When we want to do something right, the voice says, "Yes, do this now." When we practice devotional service and chant the holy name of Krishna, this inner voice becomes stronger, guiding us to make the right choices in life. Thus devotional service can grant us the knowledge to gradually become disentangled from all karma.

2. The determination to do right and avoid wrong. Devotional service saves us from (a) doing further bad karma and (b) the craving to do bad karma. It gives us the inner satisfaction that enables us to say no to all the sinful pleasure of this world. Thus, we not only know the right choices, but we also get the willpower to make those choices.

3. The lessening of sinful reactions. Certain reactions are destined to come to us from the past. But devotional service reduces those reactions. Instead of the complete reaction, the Lord gives devotees a token reaction so that they don't forget the miserable nature of this world.

4. The inner strength to face suffering. Whatever residual karma comes upon us, devotional service grants us the strength to tolerate the suffering. The more spiritually advanced, the more the devotee experiences the reality of this protection from Krishna. So externally, pure devotees may seem to be in pain, but internally, because of their remembrance of the holy name, they don't feel the suffering.

Regardless 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.