Over the years i have met a number of Hindus who have not been able to accept recent negative life events as something that should have happened. They lament, “Our family has been living a virtuous and dutiful life, and that fact should keep all negative happenings away from us. This is something that should not have happened to us.” In extreme cases, their faith had been shaken by their inability to answer the question, “How could God allow this to happen?” The answer I give explains their dilemma in terms of a key Hindu concept—karma, defined as follows in our online lexicon.
Karma: “Action,” “deed.” One of the most important principles in Hindu thought, karma refers to 1) any act or deed; 2) the principle of cause and effect; 3) a consequence or “fruit of action” (karmaphala) or “after-effect” (uttaraphala), which sooner or later returns upon the doer. What we sow, we shall reap in this or future lives. Selfish, hateful acts (papakarma or kukarma) will bring suffering. Benevolent actions (punyakarma or sukarma) will bring loving reactions. Karma is a neutral, self-perpetuating law of the inner cosmos, much as gravity is an impersonal law of the outer cosmos.
Some religions teach that God metes out rewards and punishments for one’s actions. Hinduism, however, explains that it is all handled through the law of karma. I like to compare karma to computer software or a computer game. God has created a software program and installed it in the universe. The program contains all possible human actions and the corresponding “fruits of actions.”
Our actions in past lives have created karmic fruits, some of which are to be experienced in this life. It’s as though there’s a big magnet inside of us that attracts these experiences to us, both positive and negative. Living a good, dharmic life in the present is not sufficient to totally eliminate the negative karmic fruits created in past lives. However, the performance of selfless service (seva) can proactively soften the intensity of the karmas we are yet to experience.
When we do not accept the rightness of a negative happening, we become disturbed and distracted. This takes up a lot of mental real estate. Accepting the happening as self-created, on the other hand, allows the disturbance and distraction to gradually fade away.
A common response to a negative event is to focus on those who were involved. It is human nature to be upset with them and possibly even plan to get back at them, to exact some form of revenge. Such responses clearly lead to additional mental anguish while simultaneously missing the main point—you were destined to have this experience as a “fruit of karma,” your own self-created karma. If these individuals didn’t treat you wrongly in this way, others would do so in the future. Karma, like gravity, is a never-failing principle; it cannot be entirely averted.
My guru, Sivaya Subramuniyaswami, spoke strongly against blaming others: “Each time you blame another person for what has happened to you, or cast blame in any way, tell yourself, ‘This is my karma which I was born to face. I did not come into a physical body just to blame others for what happens to me. I was not born to live in a state of ignorance created by an inability to face my karma. I came here to spiritually unfold, to accept the karmas of this and all my past lives and to deal with them and handle them in a proper and a wonderful way.’”
Not blaming others is the first step. To make the second step—erasing any hard feelings toward those who mistreated you—you can follow this high-minded advice from the Tirukural: “If you return kindness for injuries received and forget both, those who harmed you will be punished by their own shame.”
Being the recipient of a negative “fruit of action” offers the opportunity to learn from the experience. We are treated by others as we treated others in the past. If we swindled money from a business associate in the past, we will someday have that same experience—not immediately, but in time. The karmaphala, what the youth might call comeuppance, forces us to experience what the victims of our actions felt when we mistreated them. Such a realization can be seriously upsetting and disruptive, motivating us to never swindle others again. In this way, karma is our teacher. It teaches us to better understand the consequences of our behavior and, if we are attentive, improve it.
Gurudeva spoke on the importance of learning from our experiences: “The basic laws of life are so simple that many people don’t heed them. Why? Generally because the opportunities afforded us to fail these tests are so plentiful that we generate very good reasons for not paying attention to our lessons. Shall we say it is normal to fail some of these tests? Yes, isn’t this like getting a failing grade on a report card in school, not passing some of the tests and having to take a course over again? We must learn from our experiences or find ourselves repeating them again and again.”
Another question that Hindus regularly ask me is why is there so much violence in the world today. The most extreme form of this challenging question is, “How can God exist if there is so much violence in the world?”
The Wikipedia page entitled “List of Ongoing Armed Conflicts” contains 60 active conflicts of large, medium and small scale. The cause of these armed conflicts has nothing to do with God. It has everything to do with mankind. Unfortunately, there is still a significant amount of “tribalism” on the planet. Tribalism is defined as “tribal consciousness and loyalty, especially exaltation of the tribe above other groups.” In other words, individuals involved in conflict want their group’s ways of belief, culture, language, etc., to be followed by others. There is a lack of tolerance for other ways of life.
In contrast, many countries today are known for their sense of pluralism, defined as “a state of society in which members of diverse ethnic, racial, religious or social groups maintain and develop their traditional culture or special interest within the confines of a common civilization.”
My advice is to adopt the perspective that violence and warring conflicts have nothing to do with God; they arise from individuals holding a belief in tribalism. Holding this view can take away any mental disturbance caused by the high level of hurtfulness we see each day. My guru taught: “Gain the perspective first that it is a wonderful world, that there is nothing wrong in the world at all.”
Two more key Hindu viewpoints can help us face life’s difficulties: 1) Hindus do not accept the concept that some individuals are evil and others are good. Hindus believe that each individual is a soul, a divine being, that is inherently good. 2) The whole world is one family, “Vasudhaiva kutumbakam.”
Nearly everyone in the world is family oriented. The goal of most human effort is to benefit all members of our family. We want them to be happy, successful and religiously fulfilled. When we define family as the whole world, we wish everyone in the world to be happy and fulfilled.
In conclusion, negative events will continue to occur in our life as the fruits of our actions in this and prior lives are magnetized to us by the neverfailing law of karma; but these events do not have to be a source of disturbance, distraction, doubt about God and blaming of others. Rather, we can accept them as our own self-created karma, learning from life’s difficulties to avoid repeating the cycle again. As for the world, we can accept what is happening as the working out of the remaining tribalism, as the mass consciousness gradually shifts toward a global pluralism; We can also be proactive in sharing our Hindu belief in the divinity of all people and the perspective that the whole world is a one family.
अयं बन्धुरयं नेति गणना लघुचेतसां उदारचरितानां तु वसुधैव कुटुम्बकं Ayam bandhurayam neti gaṇanā laghuchetasām udāracharitānām
tu vasudhaiva kuṭumbakam.
“Only small men discriminate, saying: ‘One is a relative; the other is a stranger.’ For those who live magnanimously, the entire world constitutes but a family.” Maha Upanishad, Chapter 6, Verse 72.