“Unseen and indefinite are the good and bad reactions of fruitive work. And without taking action, the desired fruits of such work cannot manifest.” (Lakshmana speaking to Lord Rama, Valmiki Ramayana, Aranya Kand, 66.17)
Wayne Gretzky is considered to be the greatest hockey player in history by most fans of the sport. Playing for over twenty years starting in the late 1970s, Gretzky rewrote the record books, shattering previously established records for goals, assists, points, hat tricks, playoff points, most points in a season, and a host of other records. Almost every offensive record of any importance is held by Gretzky, who thus acquired the nickname, “The Great One”. Since Gretzky was such a great hockey player, it made sense that media and fans would look to him for words of advice on what it takes to achieve greatness. One of his more famous quotes is, “You miss one hundred percent of the shots that you don’t take.” Though the semantics of this sentence may be flawed, the underlying principle is undoubtedly true and can be applied to spiritual life as well.
It should be noted that Gretzky’s statement always evaluates to “false” for the very reason that technically a “shot” is only recorded as such if it actually goes on goal. In hockey terminology, a “missed shot” is a puck which was intentionally fired by an offensive player which either ended up on goal or missed the net. Therefore it is impossible to miss a shot that was never taken. It also must be said that many times passes inadvertently end up going in the net, either through deflections off the goaltender or other defenders. Regardless of the structural flaws, based merely off the intention, the premise and conclusion of Gretzky’s statement are very easy to understand. This statement is so famous that it is invoked quite often, even appearing once on the American television sitcom, The Office.
In hockey, the objective is to score more goals than your opponent by the end of the game. In order to score a goal, a player must shoot the puck towards a net which is defended by a goaltender. Since Gretzky was the greatest goal scorer of all time, it makes sense that he was also one of the greatest shooters of all time. The point of Gretzky’s statement is that if you want to score, you have to be willing to take shots. This is indeed true as the players who lead the league in goals-scored each season are often also the leaders in shots taken. Another legendary player, Brett Hull, was notorious for shooting the puck from any place on the ice. In fact, great scorers are often criticized if they don’t shoot the puck enough.
There is another side to this argument however. What if we don’t shoot the puck? Can we still score? We can, but we have to rely on other players. This is a passive approach, but one that can certainly yield results. Even in Gretzky’s case, we see that early on in his career he was a great shooter, amassing fifty-goal seasons without a problem. Later on, however, he changed his focus to passing. He became the perennial league-leader in assists, which is a statistical category that gets credited to a player who passes the puck to another player who ends up scoring the goal.
“Every living being is born according to his past karma and leaves this life simply taking the result of his present karma. Everyone is born in different types or species of life according to his past activities, and he gets his next birth according to the activities of this life.” (Lord Krishna, Krishna, the Supreme Personality of Godhead, Vol 1, Ch 24)
When a player decides to pass instead of shoot, he is essentially deciding to sit back and let another player, or entity, worry about the desired result, that of scoring a goal. Material life can be thought of in the same way. Many of us believe in the concept of fate or destiny, and according to the Vedas, destiny actually exists. Though fate is seen as an invisible hand which brings a series of events together, the Vedas shed a little more light on the subject. It is undoubtedly true that the events around us happen on their own, but there is still a root cause to everything. This root cause is karma, or fruitive activity. The results of karma are delivered through the forces of nature, which can be referred to as time, destiny, or the divine influence.
Every action we perform on the material platform has a commensurate result, or fruit. In Vedic terminology, fruitive results are referred to as karma-phalam. This concept of cause and effect can be easily understood by studying our own lives. Prior to our birth, we existed somewhere, for the soul inside of us is eternal. As Lord Krishna states in the Bhagavad-gita, the soul never dies, nor does it ever take birth. It cannot be cut into pieces, burned up, or made wet. The soul can transmigrate, however, through various material bodies. Each one of these transmigration events is known as a birth. The circumstances of each birth are determined by, you guessed it, past karma.
We performed so many activities in the past over the course of so many lifetimes, and thus we are experiencing those results today. Though the results come to us, we don’t exactly know what caused them, nor do we know what their nature will be. For example, many children are killed in the womb today through the abortion process. This is the result of past negative karma. The soul, however, has no knowledge of what the actual result will be or when it will bear fruit. Lord Rama tells us that sinful reactions blossom in season, just as trees bring forth flowers at the right time each year. When these results bear fruit, they are ghastly in nature, thus matching the intensity of the original sin that was committed.
Because karma operates in this manner, many of us throw our hands in the air. “Okay, I don’t have to worry about anything. Everything happens due to my past karma anyway, so I don’t really have any control.” In many respects, this is a good attitude. We should not be overly dejected over bad fortune, nor should we overly rejoice over good fortune because both of these come on their own due to our past karma and the karma of others. In this way, we see that everything does happen by chance, but that chance has a name: Krishna.
In the Vedic tradition, Lord Krishna is considered the Supreme Personality of Godhead; the original form of God. The Supreme Lord is for everyone, irrespective of what language they speak or who their parents are. Since He is all-pervading, His original form must be attractive to everyone. Thus Lord Krishna fits the bill, for no one is more attractive than He. Though Lord Krishna controls the system of chance, we should not think that the events of chance are random or lacking in intelligence. On the contrary, the system of karma is completely scientific and fair. Though Krishna Himself doesn’t personally manage this system, He deputes highly advanced living entities to institute the rules fairly and evenly.
“One who sees inaction in action, and action in inaction, is intelligent among men, and he is in the transcendental position, although engaged in all sorts of activities.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 4.18)
On the one hand we see that our actions have consequences, and on the other we see that everything in this life is a result of past karma. So which avenue should we choose: action or inaction? The answer to this question can be found in Krishna’s teachings. Lord Krishna tells us that the wise person sees action in inaction and inaction in action. This seems like a circular statement which is cleverly worded, but it has deep import. The secret to life is that we should most certainly perform our prescribed duties which will benefit us spiritually and, at the same time, avoid those activities which will harm us spiritually.
This point of view was confirmed by Lakshmana, the younger brother of Lord Rama, many thousands of years ago. In the above referenced quote, Lakshmana is offering some sound words of advice to Rama, who has just realized that His wife has gone missing from the forest. Rama was an incarnation of Krishna who appeared on earth many thousands of years ago to reinstitute the principles of dharma and kill the demon class. On one particular occasion, Rama’s beautiful and chaste wife, Sita Devi, was kidnapped from the forest while Rama and Lakshmana were not with her. Upon returning to their cottage, Rama realized that Sita was gone and He immediately gave way to lamentation and anger. He was ready to destroy the entire world out of vengeance.
Lakshmana, the ever well-wisher of his elder brother, stepped in at this point and offered some sound words of advice. In the above referenced statement, Lakshmana makes two very cogent points. The first truth he states is that though there are reactions to fruitive work, those reactions can’t be easily seen, nor does one know how long the results will last. This means that we may have performed some great activity in the past, but we have no idea whether we have seen the corresponding results yet. Moreover, the results may have come to us already and expired. For example, if we take birth in a pious or well-to-do family, it is most certainly the result of past pious activities. However, once we reach adulthood, the fruits of this reward go away, for we are on our own. Having good parents is certainly beneficial to us in the early years of our life, but once we become adults, we are independent and forced to manage our own affairs.
Lakshmana also states that unless one takes action, he can never realize the results he desires. Herein lies the similarity to the issue of missing one hundred percent of the shots you don’t take. “You can’t win if you don’t try” is essentially what Lakshmana is saying. But from the first part of Lakshmana’s statement, we see that the results of our actions are indefinite. So this begs the question of whether or not performing activity is worth it. For example, we may shoot the puck as many times as we can, and score goals every now and then, but if the other team ends up winning, what was the point to our shooting?
“Men in this world desire success in fruitive activities, and therefore they worship the demigods. Quickly, of course, men get results from fruitive work in this world.” (Lord Krishna, Bg. 4.12)
The solution to this dilemma is to work for that thing which provides a permanent result; a fruit which never goes away. This type of result can only be achieved through spiritual activity. If we work on the platform of karma, or material work, our results will most certainly come, but they will be short-lived. The highest material reward is ascension to the heavenly planets. Yet from Vedic information, we see that residence on a material heavenly planet is not permanent, for there is every chance of falling back to earth. Once the merits of our activities expire, we will be forced to take birth in a material body again.
“A person acting in Krishna consciousness is naturally free from the bonds of karma. His activities are all performed for Krishna; therefore he does not enjoy or suffer any of the effects of work.” (Shrila Prabhupada, Bhagavad-gita, 4.18 Purport)
Spiritual activities, however, are considered above karma, so they are without material reactions. This doesn’t mean that there are no consequences though. Those who engage in spiritual activities throughout their lifetime and perform their prescribed duties with detachment will ascend to Krishna’s spiritual abode in the afterlife. One who goes to the eternal spiritual sky never has to take birth again.
So what constitutes spiritual activity? Anything done for the benefit of the Supreme Lord or one of His bona fide representatives can be considered activity in devotional service, or bhakti-yoga. Does this mean we simply have to abandon all activity and just sit in quiet meditation all day? On the contrary, we should continue to perform our prescribed duties, keeping God in mind throughout. This was the path taken by Rama, on the advice of Lakshmana. Since Rama is God Himself, naturally He is free from karma and its effects. His body is never material, nor are His activities. Nevertheless, Rama was playing the part of a human being, so He wanted to set a good example for future generations on what the proper code of conduct is.
As a member of the warrior class, Rama’s duty was to provide protection to the innocent. This involves running government, punishing miscreants, and giving charity to the brahmanas, or the priestly class. Being a warrior is not an easy job, for one must encounter ups and downs in life just like anyone else. Sita’s kidnap was certainly a low point in Rama’s life. He loved His wife very much. Yet at the same time, His prescribed duty was that of a protector, so it was incumbent upon Him to search after Sita and punish her captor, the Rakshasa demon Ravana.
This was precisely the route Rama would take. Sita’s rescue may or may not have happened on its own due to the system of karma. Yet there was no way for Rama to achieve His desired result of Sita’s rescue without taking action. By undertaking an intense search for Sita’s whereabouts and taking on Ravana in battle, Rama at least gave Himself a chance to see Sita again, safe and sound. By the same token, we may or may not achieve our desired result of going back to Godhead in this lifetime through the taking up of devotional service. But at the same time, we can be rest assured that by sitting back and doing nothing, we will most certainly not achieve success in spiritual life. Therefore the choice is an obvious one. It is better to take matters into our own hands and choose action in spiritual life over inaction. By regularly chanting “Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare”, we can greatly increase our chances of reaching Krishna’s eternal abode after our life is over.
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