According to the Vedic scriptures, we living entities are spirit souls at our core. The Sanskrit saying is aham brahmasmi, “I am spirit soul.” Yet we are living in this material world clouded by Krishna’s illusory energy known as maya. It is due to maya’s influence that we are falsely identifying with our gross material body instead of our soul. So how did we initially take birth in this material world?
A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada was asked this question many times as he travelled around the world preaching Lord Chaitanya’s message. The answer he would give was that we spirit souls forced Lord Krishna, the Supreme Personality of Godhead, to let us take birth in this material world. God is independent and the ultimate enjoyer. Since we are molded after God, we too wanted our independence and our freedom to enjoy. So against Krishna’s wishes, we were allowed to come to the material world and take birth amongst the 1,400,000 various species of life. At the same time, the Vedas teach us that the soul repeatedly accepts new bodies after death.
“As a person puts on new garments, giving up old ones, similarly, the soul accepts new material bodies, giving up the old and useless ones.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 2.22)
This naturally begs the question of who determines what our next bodies will be? We were given the choice to come to this world, but why are we forced to keep accepting new bodies after death?
To help explain the apparent contradiction, one can look at the example of playing sports, namely American football. The National Football League, NFL, is administered by a commissioner, who in accordance with the owners of franchises in the league, determines the rules and regulations of the sport. The commissioner decides who will be eligible to play football, i.e. how old they must be, what requirements they must fulfill, and what teams they are allowed to play for. Though the commissioner and the owners run the game, the choice to participate is completely up to the player. Players coming out of college choose to participate in the NFL by entering a draft system. Once they agree to play, they are then forced to abide by the rules and regulations of the league, such as wearing helmets, and submitting to drug testing. The NFL gets very high television ratings, and this is due in part to football’s violent nature. In order to be successful in the game, defensive players must tackle offensive players, and offensive players must elude the defenders. Successful defenses are the ones that tackle the hardest. Because of this, injuries are very very common in the NFL. Many times players will by lying on the field motionless after a big hit. The fans in attendance and fellow players are left praying for the player’s welfare. Now the commissioner is not to blame for these injuries. The players made the choice to play football, and they are thus forced to accept the positives and negatives associated with the game. The dualities of victory and defeat, success and failure, pleasures and pains, and happiness and sadness are forced upon football players as a result of the choices they voluntarily made.
In the same way, we spirit souls have chosen to “play” in this material world. Hence we are forced to abide by its rules. The rules of karma, or fruitive work, are absolute. Karma is created when we perform activities with the desire for material results. Our karma in this and previous lives determine what type of body we will accept in our next life. Good karma results in elevation to the higher planetary systems, and bad karma results in travelling to the hellish planets or demotion to a lower grade animal species. Whether in heaven or hell, our merits or demerits eventually expire, and we take birth in the material world again, repeating the cycle of karma.
The laws of karma are absolute for those on the material platform. However, similar to the football player, we have the choice of opting out of this material world. If we change our consciousness to the spiritual platform, then karma does not affect us. Lord Krishna tells Arjuna in the Bhagavad-gita,
“Anyone who quits his body, at the end of life, remembering Me, attains immediately to My nature; and there is no doubt of this.” (BG 8.5)
So our goal in this life is to ensure that we think of Krishna at the time of our death. Lord Chaitanya recommended all of us to constantly chant the holy names of God,
“Hare Krishna Hare Krishna
Krishna Krishna Hare Hare
Hare Rama Hare Rama
Rama Rama Hare Hare”
Lovingly chanting Krishna’s name immediately takes our mind to the spiritual platform. If we practice chanting now, then we are guaranteed to permanently go home after this life, back to Godhead. The choice is ours.