In Sydney, Australia, 1993, my good friend showed me one of the most attractive beaches in the world, with crystal-clear water and snow-white sand. As we walked along the beach, I commented that the scenery was extremely beautiful. Then we both reflected on the fact that nothing is permanent in this world and we cannot remain in any situation forever. I thought about how we should use this temporary lifetime to stop the repetition of birth and death and be freed from the clutches of endless karma.
Karma is broadly defined as material activities and their reactions. People commonly paraphrase the concept of karma as “What goes around comes around” or, as the Bible states, “As you sow, so shall you reap.”
Sri Caitanya Siksamrta explains that karma arises from forgetfulness of our essential svarupa, or form our identity as servants of God. Not understanding karma, the living entity keeps trying to dominate material nature, with suffering as the result. Materialistic activities keep us bound within the material realm in an unbroken chain of repeated births and deaths. Without proper direction, the jiva (living entity) can’t escape, like a bird caught in a hunter’s net that futilely flaps its wings. Stuck within the material world, entwined by the three modes of material nature, the living entity thinks that sense enjoyment is the ultimate goal.
The laws of karma are intricate and difficult to understand. The ancient Vedic literature, however, clearly explains entanglement in material nature and how to get free of it. By following the prescription of Vedic philosophy, as taught by pure teachers in disciplic succession, we are sure to cut the bonds of karma and achieve spiritual perfection.
Caught up in Desire
Being part of the Supreme Lord, the living entity is spiritual by nature, but its sheer desire for sense gratification (pleasing the mind and senses) is a prime cause of material bondage. Trying to enjoy in material life, the living entity stays within the unbroken cycle of birth, death, old age, and disease. Continually performing material activities, the soul roams from one species to another without end. This is called reincarnation or samsara-chakra, the wheel of birth and death.
People often have a hard time understanding the concept of reincarnation. First one has to understand the soul, God, and their relationship. Krishna says that the soul is eternally part of Him. As such, both God and the soul are eternal, as is their relationship. Rejecting God, the soul takes on one body after another, supplied by God in response to the soul’s desire to enjoy separately from Him. This is reincarnation. To become free from this bondage, we must endeavor to reestablish our eternal relationship with the Lord.
We stay in the material world because it seems beautiful and attractive to us. But experience should teach us that it contains many cruelties. By the law of karma, we suffer because of our own acts. The Lord gives us independence to act according to our individual propensities, and we reap the results. The most devastating karmic reaction is endless entanglement in the material world, a dangerous place. Scripture explains that in the material world one living entity survives on another (jivo jivasya jivanam). The tiger in the forest catches the deer and enjoys the feast. The rich oppress the poor, and the strong overpower the weak. That is the law of nature.
God is not cruel, but He has created this system to keep balance in nature. It is important to understand that when the tiger kills its prey, it is free of sinful reaction or bad karma. Animals act out of their natural propensity (dharma) to survive. On the other hand, when man does the same activities, such as slaughtering cows or even killing an insect, he is liable to be punished.
Human beings possess a developed brain and the potential to cultivate higher knowledge and reestablish their relationship with the Lord. Of the 8,400,000 species, humans are superior to all others because of their ability to develop spiritual knowledge. By acting in that knowledge, they can become free from the bondage of karma. If we take to spiritual life wholeheartedly, we can cut the bonds of our karma and achieve complete freedom, happiness, and spiritual perfection.
Caitanya-caritamrta recounts a story from Skanda Purana about a hunter named Mrgari (literally “killer of animals”), who was killing many animals and leaving others half dead to suffer. When he took shelter of the great devotee Narada Muni, who became his spiritual master, he gave up his sinful activities and would not even step on an ant. By chanting Hare Krishna on the order of Narada Muni, he came to an elevated spiritual position. His devotional service destroyed the karmic reactions to his sinful activities. (Krishna openly declares that those who render devotional service to Him are exempt from all sinful reactions, but it is a great offense to intentionally commit sinful activities on the strength of devotional service.)
Mrgari was saved by taking shelter of Narada Muni, Krishna’s representative. That’s the authorized way to turn to Krishna. In his Bhagavad-gita commentary, Srila Prabhupada presents the metaphor of two birds sitting in a tree. One bird, which represents the individual soul, is eating, and the other, which represents Krishna in the heart, is simply watching. The eating bird enjoys the fruits of the tree (karma), some sweet, some bitter. But the moment it turns its face toward its friend Krishna, it becomes free from karma. By not taking shelter of the Lord through his devotees, souls suffer the results of their actions until they realize the higher truth that they must surrender to Krishna.
Krishna has given us freedom, but misuse of that freedom results in perpetual bondage in the material world. The material energy conditions us to act in certain ways, in ignorance. Lacking transcendental knowledge, rebellious souls are born again and again because they repeatedly commit sinful acts. They continuously engage their senses in selfish gratification rather than in devotional service to the Supreme Lord, who is Hrsikea, the master of the senses.
The living entities are constitutionally eternal servants of the Supreme Lord. Those who reject His direct service must serve Him nonetheless. Entangled in conditional life, they are forced to serve His material energy (maya). Unlike the Lord’s devotees, they swim in the ocean of karma and never become free from it.
Only pure devotional service can break the bonds of endless karma. Krishna Himself recommends, “All that you do, all that you eat, all that you offer and give away, as well as all austerities you may perform, should be done as an offering unto Me.” (Bhagavad-gita 9.27) Krishna wants us to direct all of our activities toward Him.
The Vedic scriptures recommend that we regularly practice some simple techniques to become pure devotees of the Lord.
We should always chant the Lord’s holy names: Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare/ Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare. Chanting this maha-mantra is the prime process for cleansing our heart, mind, and senses of the accumulated dirt of many lifetimes the “dirt” being material reactions and desires.
To understand higher truths including the self, its relationship with God, the intricacies of karma, the process of reincarnation, and liberation we should regularly study the Bhagavad-gita, Srimad- Bhagavatam, and other Vedic books that promote pure devotion to the Supreme Lord.
To be free from all karma, good and bad, we must eat only food that has been offered to Krishna. He accepts only pure vegetarian food, and we can receive the remnants as His mercy (prasadam). Krishna clearly states, “If one offers Me with love and devotion a leaf, a flower, fruit, or water, I will accept it.” (Bg. 9.26) He wants pure vegetarian food, not meat, fish, eggs, or liquor. When we offer vegetarian food with love, devotion, and deep faith, our offering becomes free of sin and karmic reaction. Those who prepare food for their own sense enjoyment, however, eat only sin. (Bg. 3.13)
Vegetarianism is also important because it means we avoid sinning by killing animals or connecting ourselves with animal killing. The law of karma dictates that those who kill animals and eat them will be killed and eaten in their next life.
We must also seek the association of devotees trying to be free from karma. Just as contact with a sick man can infect one with his disease, so contact with Krishna or His pure devotee elevates one spiritually. We can then be cured of what Srila Prabhupada called “the material disease.”
Cultivating Krishna consciousness reminds us that both suffering and enjoyment come uninvited according to our good and bad activities. But pure devotion to the Lord surpasses everything.
Lord Krishna is known as bhaktavatsala, or one who is very merciful to His devotees. He is more concerned about our going back home, back to Godhead, then we are concerned about Him. He wants us to get out of this miserable material world to join Him in His eternal abode. “As all surrender unto me,” Krishna says, “I will reward them accordingly.” (Bg. 4.11)
The Brahmana And the Cobbler
Here’s an example of two of the Lord’s devotees, showing how He looked at their devotion and rewarded them according to His promise in the Gita.
Once, Narada Muni was going to meet Lord Narayana (Krishna in His four-armed form) in the spiritual world. A smarta brahmana (one attached to rituals but lacking devotion) and a poor cobbler both requested Narada to ask the Lord when they would go back home, back to Godhead. They also asked Narada to report what the Lord was doing when Narada saw Him.
After Narada’s departure, the smarta brahmana kept busy with rituals aimed at gaining wealth and perfection, while the poor cobbler simply chanted Hare Krishna as he repaired shoes to maintain his family.
When Narada returned, the smarta brahmana asked him, “My dear Narada Muni, please tell me what was my Lord doing when you saw Him?”
“Oh!” Narada exclaimed. “The Lord was passing an elephant through the eye of a needle.”
Blinded by false ego and fake devotion, the smarta brahmana said, “That’s impossible! How can an elephant pass through the eye of a needle?”
When the smarta brahmana asked when he would go back to Godhead, Narada Muni replied that he would take as many millions of years as there are leaves on a tamarind tree.
When the cobbler heard about the Lord’s passing an elephant through the eye of a needle, he exclaimed, “Yes! Yes! It is possible! My Lord can make impossible things possible. Nothing is impossible for Him. He can easily pass an elephant through the eye of a needle, just as he packs millions of trees within the seeds of a tamarind tree.”
Narada then told the cobbler he would return to the Lord at the end of that very life.
What a wonderful arrangement of the Supreme Lord! The cobbler’s simple devotion qualified him to be free from the karmic cycle and to go back home, back to Godhead. The smarta brahmana’s pride and pretentiousness were obstacles to his spiritual success.
When, like the cobbler, a person knows the simple process of Krishna consciousness and has some love and devotion for the Lord, his efforts become successful. Others, like the smarta brahmana, fail, despite knowing many things. The smarta failed because of his incorrect motives, while the poor cobbler, in spite of his humble occupation, was favored by the Supreme Lord and became eligible to go back home, back to Godhead.
Why not all of us? Let’s get rid of all our karma. If a poor cobbler can do it, then surely we can. And let’s do it wholeheartedly. Rich or poor, all are subject to the laws of karma, but those who are Krishna conscious surpass everything. Anyone who sincerely chants Hare Krishna, whether a big industrialist or a pauper, can attain the Lord’s abode. The Bhagavatam promises that chanting Hare Krishna can burn all our karma, just as a forest fire burns gigantic trees to ashes and the sun dissolves the fog by its rays.
Spiritual activities are beyond the laws of karma, and therefore no bondage can stop or bind pure devotees within the material world. We too can escape by cutting the bonds of never-ending karma with continuous, unflinching, and determined devotional service. That service will always remind us of our natural position as the eternal servants of Krishna. It is the positive pathway to lead us back to His abode.
Narada Rsi Dasa holds a master’s degree in philosophy and religion. He currently lives with his wife, Mohini Radha Devi Dasi, at Hare Krishna Land, Mumbai, where he teaches Krishna consciousness