Finally! A clear, concise explanation of karma, reincarnation, good karma and bad karma. Understand what reincarnation actually means, what karma is, the different reactions to good and bad actions, whether good karma is desirable and most importantly: how to be released from the cycle of reincarnation. An enlightening talk by Jagad Guru Siddhaswarupananda, one of the world’s leading authorities on the subject of reincarnation.
Your Questions Answered: Karma And Reincarnation
Jagad Guru: We hear so many people talking about the subject of reincarnation and people talking about the subject of karma. We always hear people saying, “Oh, you have good karma.” Or, “That’s bad karma.” So what we’re going to do today is look at the question of reincarnation and its connection with karma. What is karma in its relationship to reincarnation?
We have previously discussed reincarnation, explaining that reincarnation basically means the transmigration of the spirit soul, the living entity, a non-material spark of God from one material body to another material body at the time of death. When you leave your body, in other words, you take on another material body. This is reincarnation.
So you are not the material body. The material body is like a vehicle that you have that you’re using. The body is like a shirt, a pair of clothes that you’re wearing and you try to enjoy with this body. Then when this body is finished, you have to leave this body. You still have desires in your mind. There is still the desire to enjoy, okay? And so by material nature’s arrangement, by God’s arrangement, because God is in control of material nature, by God’s arrangement then you take on another material body according to your desires.
So you, the spirit soul, eternal spark of God, are temporarily really covered by two sorts of bodies. One is a gross physical body, flesh and blood and all that. And the other is a subtle material body which is composed of the material desires and plans, okay?
So when you leave your gross physical body at the time of death, you still have covering you the subtle material body, the mind, material desires. And so God knows your desires and it’s automatic that He lets you take on another material body to try to fulfill your desires, to try to satisfy the desires that you still have. We discussed this in depth in our last program so we won’t go into it much further today. But try to understand that when you die, if you still have material desires, that God knows what those desires are. It is said that God is like another spirit soul sitting within this body. In other words, let me put it this way: that I’m within this body. I’m not the body. I’m the spirit soul within this body, a spark of God, okay, but next to me is an expansion of God called the Paramatma or the Lord in the heart. And the Lord in the heart is described in the Vedic scriptures as not taking part in the enjoyment or the suffering but rather just sitting there and observing the spirit soul, as the spirit soul, the individual soul tries to enjoy the fruits of the body.
Actually, the analogy is given of two birds on a tree. There’s the Supreme Soul, the expansion of God, Who’s within the heart of all of us. He’s sitting there next to each of us. I’m in my body and next to me is an expansion of God watching me try to be the enjoyer of the world. Now God is so close to me, right there in my heart. He knows what I want. He knows my desires and then He provides accordingly another material body. By material nature’s arrangement, He organizes it so that I get to take on another material body. This is described here in the Bhagavad-gita As It Is. Srila Bhaktivedanta Swami says as follows,
“The Lord is the constant companion of the living entity as the Supersoul or the Lord in the heart, and therefore the Lord can understand the desires of the individual spirit soul as one can smell the flavor of a flower by being near it. Desire is a subtle form of conditioning of the living entity. The Lord fulfills the living entity’s desires as the living entity deserves. Man proposes the God disposes. The individual is not therefore omnipotent in fulfilling his desires, the Lord however can fulfill all desires and the Lord, being neutral to everyone does not interfere with the desires of the minute independent living entities.”
Srila Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupad – Bhagavad Gita As It Is
So here is a description of how God knows what I want and then He gives me, He arranges it so that I can take on a material body accordingly, whether it’s an animal form or a human form that just meets with my desire. He knows my heart and then He provides my next body.
So karma… let’s get to karma now. Karma means action. Now although God provides me with this body that I want to enjoy, like right now at home, you’ve got a body. I’ve got a body here. We’ve all got bodies. Now the bodies we have, we have because of previous desires that we have had in our past life to enjoy in a certain way, okay. For example if a person wants to enjoy in a particular way, for example being a mother, enjoying the joys of motherhood, then this desire then manifests as a female form. In other words, if I want to enjoy in that way the pleasure of being a mother, this is made possible by material nature’s arrangement. Okay.
So we’ve all got bodies and we’ve all got all kinds of different things, you know, different types of tongues and noses and ears and, you know, different… there’s different species of life. For example, maybe someone else lives in your house who has the body of a dog and they’re enjoying in their way, okay? And God provided them with the kind of body they wanted.
Now just because God provides us with the body according to our desire, does not mean however that God is responsible for the actions and the reactions that take place by my having that body. It’s my own free will that I want to be enjoying in a certain way, that I want to be the enjoyer. “I don’t want to be serving God. I don’t want to be next to God. I don’t want to be in God’s kingdom. I want to be enjoying in the world.” So God gives me a specific type of form in order to help fulfill my desire; but God is not responsible for the actions and the reactions that take place due to my living in that body and trying to enjoy in that way.
Karma means action. Karmic reaction means that for every single action that I take in my attempt to enjoy, every action that I take has some reaction. As you sow, so shall you reap, as Jesus Christ put it, “As you sow so shall you reap.” You engage in particular actions today and in the future there will be some reaction to those actions and you will have to suffer the reactions to those activities. The activities you engage in today, you’re going to have to, in the future, enjoy or suffer according to the nature of your activities.
So the material reactions are divided into good and bad, good reactions and bad reactions. Good karma therefore means doing things which will have a good reaction. Good in this sense means basically pleasurable to oneself, and bad means, of course, you make others suffer for example then you get… you suffer back, bad karma, okay.
You know how everybody’s always saying, you know, somebody gets hurt or they hit their hand with a hammer or something, and so he says, “Oh, bad karma.” You know, or whatever, yeah it’s bad karma. In fact, it’s true. It’s true. That actually now in this life, in the body that you have now, while you’re trying to enjoy as you’re going along now in the body that God has given you to try to fulfill your desires that you had when you left your last body, you’re however now experiencing the reaction to actions that you took in your last body, okay. So in your last form, you were engaging in many activities: some good, some bad. And now you’re experiencing the reaction to those activities in this life, in the form of suffering or happiness.
Sometimes you experience pleasure and sometimes you experience pain. So there’s good karma and there’s bad karma, good reactions and bad reactions. Now the thing with karmic reaction is this: that both so-called good karma and bad karma, both necessitate a person’s taking on another material body. As long as the person has karmic reaction in store that has to come back to him, then he needs a material body for that karmic reaction to come back to him with. In other words, for him to experience his good karma or his bad karma, he needs some sort of material body with which to experience that reaction. The spirit soul, without any kind of material body, cannot experience karmic reaction, good or bad. So really, a person who wants to transcend the wheel of birth and death, they want to get off the wheel of reincarnation, they don’t want to reincarnate again, they don’t like good karma or bad karma.
Most people they are interested in good karma. They want good karma. But a wise person, an enlightened person doesn’t want even good karma. He doesn’t want any kind of karmic reaction.
In all the scriptures of the world it describes hellish planets and heavenly planets. Heavenly planets are for those that have very good karma. They have good karma and for a certain amount of time they get to go to heavenly planets and have greater amounts of material pleasure and less, smaller amounts of material pain. This is due to their good karma, their good actions, their pious activities, their welfare activities, their different pious or good, in the material sense activities, good material activities, okay. So this reaction is there for people who have good karma. Heavenly planets they get to enjoy.
And then there are those who engage in heinous activities, terrible activities and they actually have to suffer because of it, and this is called bad karma. So bad karma causes a person to, after the death of the body, experience very hellish life, very hellish experience. Some people say they don’t believe in hell, but in fact, there are hellish planets in the universe. There are all kinds of different hellish planets and these are described in the Srimad Bhagavatam for example, and they are very, very painful. If a person for example, causes other living entities in this life great amounts of pain, then they must experience that back.
They must suffer because of this. Its not that there is no reaction to that. There is a reaction. That person must suffer because of this. So he must have a hellish experience, after they leave this body, then they live in a hellish dimension, for some time, until the stock of that bad has been repaid.
Similarly, if a person engages in good activities and they go to heavenly planets, there’s a certain stock, like a certain amount of fuel, good fuel and bad fuel. You got like good credit and bad credit, okay. And your credit runs out one way or the other, okay. It runs out. It’s not eternal in other words.
Some so-called Christians say that someone suffers in hell eternally. You know, they are doomed to hell eternally and they have no chance after that. But those who accept or understand the reality of reincarnation understand that if a person has bad karma, then they will suffer in a hellish condition until the stock, or until their debt is paid for that bad karma. I guess the bad karma you could compare to debt and good karma you could compare to credit. You have a certain debt to be paid with bad karma and then when your debt is paid, then you are again allowed to enter into a human form of life in a middle planet, what’s called a middle planet, like earth, where the suffering is not very great and the pain is not very great, relatively speaking, the pleasure is not very great. It’s like a middle planet, meaning in balance between pleasure and pain in that sense.
Now if you have a good karma and you enter into the heavenly planets, it’s more in the mode of goodness, it’s peaceful and calm, just like some people, when they have outer body experiences at clinical death. Maybe they get in a car accident or something. You might have heard about this. Have you heard about that? People have really pleasant experiences. They may be actually seeing a temporary entrance into a heavenly type condition due to their good karma and they’re getting a glimpse of the peace and the calm that they would feel there, that they’re just getting a glimpse of it.
So we should not confuse this with the spiritual world, entering the spiritual world, the kingdom of God. It’s not the same thing. We’re talking about higher material planets, heavenly planets. It’s still matter, okay? And it’s still material enjoyment. So, however, after a person has a certain amount of existence in that, however many years it is, thousands of years or whatever it is, then when their credit runs out, then they again take on a human form of life, in a middle planet. And then again they engage in either good activities or bad activities and they, in this way take on another material form or they enter into a hellish condition or a heavenly condition.
So people, actually the spirit soul who by nature is not material at all and is not really meant to be living in a material body, either in a middle planet like earth or the hellish planets or the heavenly planets, the spirit soul, the spark of God who’s really meant to be with God in the spiritual world, finds herself going from one body to the next over and over and over again, reincarnating.
So this is a long subject; the discussion of karma and reincarnation. The important thing to try to understand here is that karma means action. And anytime a person is engaging in activities for their own enjoyment, for their own sensual pleasures or even engaging in activities to be able to get the fruit from those activities; for example, working in order to get the money in order to be able to enjoy the money. Or even the activity of good actions, of doing some good action like opening a hospital or feeding an orphan but for the purpose of enjoying the fruit or the result of that so that I’ll go to heaven or so that I’ll have good karma or so that society will like me, or so that I’ll get a medal, okay. All such self-centered activities create karmic reaction and a person must experience the reaction to those actions and must be reborn. So he can’t transcend the wheel of birth and death by such activities.
How does a person transcend this karmic reaction? It is by the process of karma yoga. In other words, yoga meaning union with God, karma – action; so action in connection with God. Instead of engaging in actions for your own self, sensual pleasure or heavenly pleasure or whatever, instead of engaging in fruitive activities, engage in the loving service of God. Then there’s no karmic reaction. This is the whole science, the subject of karma yoga, we’ll get to that as soon as we can.