Karma is a subtle law of nature that takes into account our mentality at the time we perform an act.


One morning I was listening to a few devotees discuss a point of philosophy when one of them emphatically said, “The reaction [karma] we receive for our activity depends entirely on the activity and not on our intent while doing it. Regardless of our intent, we’ll get a reaction based on what we do. For example, if a person knowingly kills someone, he receives the same reaction as a person who unintentionally kills.” For evidence, he read from a small book by Srila Prabhupada:

We must understand that our suffering is due to our sinful activity, and sinful activity is due to our ignorance. Sins, or transgressions, are committed by those who do not know what is what. A child, for instance, will naively put his hand in a fire because of ignorance. He is thus burned immediately, for the fire is impartial and does not allow any special consideration for the innocent child. It will simply act as fire. Similarly, we do not know how this material world is functioning, who its controller is, nor how it is controlled, and due to our ignorance we act in foolish ways, but nature is so stringent that she does not allow us to escape the reactions to our actions. Whether we commit an act knowingly or unknowingly, the reactions and consequent sufferings are there. (Raja-vidya: The King of Knowledge)

In other words, when children put their hands in fire, they get burned as much as the knowing adults.

While others accepted this understanding with thanks, I thought, “Wait a minute. That doesn’t sound right!” I didn’t speak up though, because I didn’t have any scriptural evidence to support my dissension. Later I looked into it.

While it’s true that as long as we have a material body it will react in a predictable way with the material elements – fire will burn us whether or not we are aware that fire burns – it’s not true that motivation is irrelevant to karma (the reaction we receive for our actions). Karma is a subtle law of nature that takes into account our mentality at the time we perform an act. Srila Prabhupada writes, “If a person comes with an intent to kill, one can immediately take action and kill in self-defense.” (Srimad-Bhagavatam 5.9.17, Purport)

More explicitly, he writes,

According to Vedic injunctions there are six kinds of aggressors: (1) a poison giver, (2) one who sets fire to the house, (3) one who attacks with deadly weapons, (4) one who plunders riches, (5) one who occupies another’s land, and (6) one who kidnaps a wife. Such aggressors are at once to be killed, and no sin is incurred by killing such aggressors. (Gita 1.36, Purport)

It is possible to kill and incur no sinful reaction for that killing.

Along those same lines, the judge or king who gives a murderer the death sentence is not implicated in the sin of killing a person.

Violence also has its utility, and how to apply violence rests with the person in knowledge. Although the justice of the peace awards capital punishment to a person condemned for murder, the justice of the peace cannot be blamed, because he orders violence to another person according to the codes of justice. In Manu-samhita, the lawbook for mankind, it is supported that a murderer should be condemned to death so that in his next life he will not have to suffer for the great sin he has committed. Therefore, the king’s punishment of hanging a murderer is actually beneficial. (Gita 2.21, Purport)

Similarly, soldiers killing their enemies and brahmanas sacrificing animals are also not implicated in sin:

In the religious law books it is stated: ahaveshu mitho ’nyonyam . . . “In the battlefield, a king or kshatriya, while fighting another king envious of him, is eligible for achieving the heavenly planets after death, as the brahmanas also attain the heavenly planets by sacrificing animals in the sacrificial fire.” Therefore, killing on the battlefield on religious principles and killing animals in the sacrificial fire are not at all considered to be acts of violence, because everyone is benefited by the religious principles involved. The animal sacrificed gets a human life immediately without undergoing the gradual evolutionary process from one form to another, and the kshatriyas killed on the battlefield also attain the heavenly planets, as do the brahmanas who attain them by offering sacrifice. (Gita 2.31, Purport)

Overt Activity and Covert Mentality

Karmically, the intention behind an act makes an enormous difference. The person who intentionally kills an innocent victim has sinned and will suffer karmically. But the person who kills an attacker in self-defense has not sinned and receives no karmic reaction. This principle is also recognized in modern-day courts. Someone who killed in self-defense is not held accountable; someone who killed for self-aggrandizement is.

In addition, the more we’re involved in an illegal action, the more we’re implicated by it. “Not only the performer of the theft but also anyone who assists him, instigates the crime, or simply approves of it must also share the reaction in the next life. According to their degree of participation, they each must suffer a proportionate consequence.” (Srimad-Bhagavatam 11.27.55)

Overtly, it may appear that two people are doing the same activity. But the result they achieve from their activity differs according to their intent. “One who is attached to the result of his work is also the cause of the action. Thus he is the enjoyer or sufferer of the result of such actions.” (Gita 2.47, Purport) On the other hand, one who is unattached to the result of his work does not enjoy or suffer the result. That’s why Krishna advises Arjuna, “You have a right to perform your prescribed duty, but you are not entitled to the fruits of action. Never consider yourself the cause of the results of your activities, and never be attached to not doing your duty.” (Gita 2.47)

In Srila Prabhupada’s words,

What is the difference between bhakti and karma? Karma means you do something and whatever you do there is result. So you take the result also. Suppose you do some business. So the result is one million dollars profit. So you take it. And the result is one million dollars loss. You take it. This is karma. You act on your own account and you take the result. Is it clear? This is called karma. But our activity is for Krishna. So we act. If there is profit it is Krishna’s. If there is loss it is Krishna’s. We are unaffected. (Interview, March 9, 1968, San Francisco)

In materialism one works for sense gratification and receives the karmic reaction for one’s work. The same work, however, performed for the satisfaction of Krishna is spiritual and free of karma.

Krishna spoke Bhagavad-gita to Arjuna to bring Arjuna to the point of acting with transcendental knowledge, for such action is performed with detachment and doesn’t produce adverse reactions. Krishna said, “The doubts which have arisen in your heart out of ignorance should be slashed by the weapon of knowledge. Armed with yoga, O Arjuna, stand and fight.” (Gita 4.42) Fighting with knowledge would free Arjuna from the sinful reactions he feared. But if Arjuna chose to withdraw from the battle to avoid fighting, he would receive sinful reactions for not doing his duty.

What’s more, even if we can’t overtly do what’s right, if we have faith in God and our consciousness is properly situated, we will be released from the reactions of our work. “An ordinary man with firm faith in the eternal injunctions of the Lord, even though unable to execute such orders, becomes liberated from the bondage of the law of karma.” (Gita 3.31, Purport)

The distinction between spiritual and material can be simply the knowledge with which an act is performed: “. . . without attainment of knowledge, sacrifices remain on the material platform and bestow no spiritual benefit.” (Gita 4.33, Purport)

The Transcendental Platform

When it comes to activities like chanting the holy names of Krishna, intent takes a different flavor.

At the moment of his death, Ajamila, who had committed serious crimes throughout his adult life, called for his son Narayana. Because Narayana is a name for Krishna, Ajamila benefited by saying that name. “Although calling for his son, he was unknowingly chanting the name of Narayana, and the holy name of the Supreme Personality of Godhead is so transcendentally powerful that his chanting was being counted and recorded.” (Srimad-Bhagavatam 6.1.26, Purport)

On the spiritual platform, our intent may not be what it should be, but out of His unlimited kindness, Krishna overlooks that: “One who chants the holy name of the Lord is immediately freed from the reactions of unlimited sins, even if he chants indirectly [to indicate something else], jokingly, for musical entertainment, or even neglectfully. This is accepted by all the learned scholars of the scriptures.” (Srimad-Bhagavatam 6.2.14)

The Bhagavatam does not waver on this point: “If a person unaware of the effective potency of a certain medicine takes that medicine or is forced to take it, it will act even without his knowledge because its potency does not depend on the patient’s understanding. Similarly, even though one does not know the value of chanting the holy name of the Lord, if one chants knowingly or unknowingly, the chanting will be very effective.” (Srimad-Bhagavatam 6.2.19)

There is, however, something more to be considered in this regard. Namely, that Krishna knows our heart. We cannot cheat Him. If we act immorally and then chant the holy names to nullify the reactions due us, it won’t work. “One who continues to act sinfully and tries to neutralize his sins by chanting the holy name of the Lord is a nama-aparadhi, an offender to the holy name.” (Srimad-Bhagavatam 6.2, Supplementary Notes)

Ajamila’s chanting was inoffensive because he didn’t chant the name of Narayana to counteract his sins. Ajamila did not know that he was addicted to sinful actions, nor did he know that his chanting the name of Narayana was neutralizing them. Thus, his chanting the holy name of Narayana while calling his son was innocent and potent.

Chanting while scheming to benefit ourselves is in a different category. “Nondevotees may make a show of religion, but it is not very effective because although they ostentatiously attend a temple or church, they are thinking of something else. Such persons are neglecting their religious duty and are punishable by Yamaraja.” (Srimad-Bhagavatam 6.3.26, Purport) Such a mentality is completely different from the mentality of a devotee who unwillingly or accidentally commits sinful acts because of former habits. Such a devotee is excused.

In other words, Ajamila’s chanting was effective because he was not chanting to neutralize the criminal activities he had committed. If that had been his intent, his chanting the same name, Narayana, would not have brought the result it did.

Ajamila’s chanting was inoffensive because he did not chant the name of Narayana with the purpose of counteracting his sins. He did not know that he was addicted to sinful actions, nor did he know that his chanting of the name of Narayana was neutralizing them. Thus he did not commit a nama-aparadha, and his repeated chanting of the holy name of Narayana while calling his son may be called pure chanting. Because of this pure chanting, Ajamila unconsciously accumulated the results of bhakti. (Srimad-Bhagavatam 6.2, Supplementary Note)

Srila Prabhupada summarizes this point:

The chanting of the holy name is so auspicious that it can free everyone from the reactions of sinful activities. One should not conclude that one may continue to sin with the intention of chanting Hare Krishna to neutralize the reactions. Rather, one should be very careful to be free from all sins and never think of counteracting sinful activities by chanting the Hare Krishna mantra, for this is another offense. If by chance a devotee accidentally performs some sinful activity, the Lord will excuse him, but one should not intentionally perform sinful acts. (Srimad-Bhagavatam 6.3.31, Purport)

Krishna’s Kindness

Krishna was watching Ajamila and inspired Ajamila to name his son Narayana and, out of affection for his son, to call out “Narayana” repeatedly during his son’s childhood and especially when he was dying. The extent of Krishna’s kindness to Ajamila and to each one of us is beyond our comprehension.

But in everything we do, devotion and sincerity are the real things. There is a word in Sanskrit: bhava-grahi-janardana. This means the Lord accepts service in devotional emotion. If we are sincere in offering something to the Lord in devotional love, He will accept it. The procedure may not be very right, but the desire being sincere, He accepts our offering. This is also confirmed in the Bhagavad-gita, that He accepts foodstuffs from devotees because they are offered to Him in complete love and affection. (Srila Prabhupada Letter, May 25, 1969)

On the other hand, spiritually we may be doing all the proper activities externally, but if our heart is not in the right place, that is, if we’re materially motivated, we will not attain our spiritual goal. This principle is illustrated in the Chaitanya-charitamrita. When the son of Tapana Mishra, Raghunatha Bhattacharya, left his home in Varanasi to go to Jagannatha Puri to meet Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, he met Ramadasa Vishvasa, who was scripturally learned and an advanced devotee and worshiper of Lord Ramachandra. Krishnadasa Kaviraja writes,

Ramadasa had renounced everything and was going to see Lord Jagannatha. While traveling, he chanted the holy name of Lord Rama twenty-four hours a day. When he met Raghunatha Bhatta on the way, he took Raghunatha’s baggage on his head and carried it. Ramadasa served Raghunatha Bhatta in various ways, even massaging his legs. Raghunatha Bhatta felt some hesitation in accepting all this service.

“You are a respectable gentleman, a learned scholar and a great devotee,” Raghunatha Bhatta said. “Please do not try to serve me. Just come with me in a happy mood.”

Ramadasa replied, “I am a shudra, a fallen soul. To serve a brahmana is my duty and religious principle. Therefore please do not be hesitant. I am your servant, and when I serve you my heart becomes jubilant.”

Thus Ramadasa carried the baggage of Raghunatha Bhatta and served him sincerely. He constantly chanted the holy name of Lord Ramachandra day and night. Traveling in this way, Raghunatha Bhatta soon arrived at Jagannatha Puri. There he met Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu with great delight and fell at His lotus feet. Raghunatha Bhatta fell straight as a rod at the lotus feet of Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu. Then the Lord embraced him, knowing well who he was. (Chaitanya-charitamrita, Antya 13.93–101)

Sri Chaitanya accepted Raghunatha Bhatta and had a close relationship with him. But “When Ramadasa Vishvasa met Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, the Lord did not show him any special mercy, although this was their first meeting. Within his heart, Ramadasa Vishvasa was an impersonalist who desired to merge into the existence of the Lord, and he was very proud of his learning. Since Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu is the omniscient Supreme Personality of Godhead, He can understand the heart of everyone, and thus He knew all these things.” (Chaitanya-charitamrita, Antya 13.109–110)

Ramadasa’s intent was not to please the Lord and His devotees by serving them, but to become one in identity with the Lord. Therefore the result he received was completely different from the result Raghunatha Bhatta Goswami received.

Materially and spiritually, intent matters.