Human suffering is one of religion’s most compelling mysteries: Why do the innocent suffer? Why does God permit evil? Is God helpless to act or does he choose not to? And if He chooses not to act, does that mean he is cruel? Or merely indifferent?
Vedanta takes the problem out of God’s court and places it firmly in our own. We can blame neither God nor a devil. Nothing happens to us by the whim of some outside agency: we ourselves are responsible for what life brings us; all of us are reaping the results of our own previous actions in this life or in previous lives. To understand this better we first need to understand the law of karma.
The word “karma” comes from the Sanskrit verb kri, to do. Although karma means action, it also means the result of action. Whatever acts we have performed and whatever thoughts we have thought have created an impression, both in our minds and in the universe around us. The universe gives back to us what we have given to it: “As ye sow, so shall ye reap” as Christ said. Good actions and thoughts create good effects, bad ones create bad effects.
Whenever we perform any action and whenever we think any thought, an imprint—a kind of subtle groove—is made upon the mind. These imprints or grooves are known as samskaras. Sometimes we are conscious of the imprinting process; just as often we are not. When actions and thoughts are repeated, the grooves become deeper. The combination of “grooves”— samskaras—creates our individual characters and also strongly influences our subsequent thoughts and actions. If we anger easily, for example, we create an angry mind that is predisposed to react with anger rather than with patience or understanding. As water when directed into a narrow canal gains force, so the grooves in the mind create canals of behavior patterns which become extraordinarily difficult to resist or reverse. Changing an ingrained mental habit literally becomes an uphill battle.
If our thoughts are predominantly those of kindness, love, and compassion, our character reflects it, and these very thoughts will be returned to us sooner or later. If we send out thoughts of hatred, anger, or pettiness, those thoughts will also be returned to us.
Our thoughts and actions aren’t so much arrows as boomerangs—eventually they find their way back home. The effects of karma may come instantly, later in life, or in another life altogether; what is absolutely certain, however, is that they will appear at some time or other. Until liberation is achieved, we live and we die within the confines of the law of karma, the chain of cause and effect.
What happens at death if we haven’t attained liberation?
When a person dies, the only “death” is that of the physical body. The mind, which contains a person’s mental impressions, continues after the body’s death. When the person is reborn, the “birth” is of a new physical body accompanied by the old mind with the impressions or “grooves” from previous lives. When the environment becomes conducive, these samskaras again reassert themselves in the new life.
Thankfully, this process doesn’t go on eternally. When we attain God-realization or Self-realization, the law of karma is transcended, the Self gives up its identification with the body and mind, and regains its native freedom, perfection and bliss.
An Absurd Universe?
When we take a hard look around us, the world doesn’t seem to make much sense. If we go by appearances, it would seem that countless people have escaped the noose of fate: many an evil person has died peacefully in bed. Worse, good and noble people have suffered without apparent cause, their goodness being repaid by hatred and torture. Witness the Holocaust; witness child abuse.
If we look only on the surface, the universe appears absurd at best, malevolent at worst. But that’s because we’re not looking deeply; we’re only viewing this lifetime, seeing neither the lives that precede this one nor the lives that may follow. When we see a calamity or a triumph, we’re seeing only one freeze frame of a very, very long movie. We can see neither the beginning nor the end of the movie. What we do know, however, is that everyone, no matter how depraved, will eventually, through the course of many lifetimes and undoubtedly through much suffering, come to realize his or her own divine nature. That is the inevitable happy ending of the movie.
Doesn’t the law of karma make Vedanta a cold and fatalistic philosophy?
Not in the slightest.
Vedanta is both personally empowering and deeply compassionate. First, if we have created—through our own thoughts and actions—the life that we are leading today, we also have the power to create the life that we will live tomorrow. Whether we like it or not, whether we want to take responsibility or not, that’s what we are doing every step of the way. Vedanta doesn’t allow us to assign blame elsewhere: every thought and action builds our future experience.
Doesn’t the law of karma then imply that we can be indifferent to our fellow beings because, after all, they’re only getting what they deserve?
Absolutely not. If a person’s karma is such that he or she is suffering, we have an opportunity to alleviate that suffering in whatever way we can: doing so would be good karma. We need not be unduly heroic, but we can always offer a helping hand or at least a kind word. If we choose not to do whatever is in our limited power to alleviate the pain of those around us, we’re chalking up bad karma for ourselves. In fact, we’re really hurting ourselves.
Oneness is the law of the universe, and that truth is the real root of all acts of love and compassion. The Atman, my true Self, is the same Spirit that dwells in all; there cannot be two Atmans. Consciousness cannot be divided; it’s all-pervasive. My Atman and your Atman cannot be different. For that reason Vedanta says: Love your neighbor as yourself because your neighbor IS yourself.