“Driven by a virtuous or evil purpose, each living entity performs some work, which has consequences associated with it. After death, the same person steadily reaps all those auspicious and inauspicious results.” (Hanuman speaking to Tara, Valmiki Ramayana, Kishkindha Kand, 21.2)
Karma is one of the well-known terms of Vedic philosophy, for it even plays a prominent role in Buddhism. The term is generally associated with good and bad results coming about from past deeds. If something bad happens to someone unexpectedly, it is common to see others point to karma as the cause. “That person had it coming. They acted nefariously for so long that karma finally caught up to them.” Sometimes we’ll encounter someone who is an expert cheater or someone who is very rude towards others. Subsequently, one day they get hit with some bad luck or misfortune, which will immediately remind others of karma. While positive and negative reactions are certainly a part of karma, the complete definition of the term involves work, the body, and the soul. To learn more about karma, we can reference the teachings of one of the greatest devotees in history, Shri Hanuman.
Lord Hanuman is probably the most famous and well-respected religious figure to come out of India. He is not the original form of Godhead or even a presiding deity of any aspect of creation. Rather, he is a humble, kind, sweet, courageous, and powerful individual, someone who dedicates all his activities towards pleasing the Supreme Lord. Due to this feature, Hanuman is an ideal object of worship, for he grants his devotees all good qualities, culminating with devotion to God, which is the ultimate objective in life. More than just a worshiped divine figure, Hanuman actually enacted many wonderful pastimes directly in the presence of God many thousands of years ago. Hanuman’s object of worship is Lord Rama, an avatara of Lord Vishnu. Hinduism brings with it the three presiding deities of Vishnu, Brahma, and Shiva. Of the three, Vishnu is considered superior because He is a plenary expansion of Lord Krishna, or Vasudeva, the original personality of Godhead. Vishnu has four hands and Krishna has two, but they are the same original God. When Vishnu appears on earth for whatever reason, His expansions are known as avataras.
As Lord Rama, Vishnu came to earth in the guise of a human being, a pious and handsome warrior prince. One of the primary purposes of Vishnu’s descent was to defeat a powerful demon named Ravana. In order to take on Ravana in battle, Rama needed an excuse, something which would eventually come when Ravana would kidnap Rama’s beloved wife, Sita Devi. In the search for Sita, Rama and His younger brother Lakshmana came upon the forest of Kishkindha, which was inhabited by a race of monkeys headed by their king Sugriva. Sugriva had been driven out of his own kingdom by his brother Vali, so he was living in fear of him, “sleeping with one eye open” if you will. Sugriva’s chief minister, Hanuman, orchestrated a meeting between Rama and Sugriva, as the monkeys in Kishkindha could help Rama find Sita’s whereabouts and in return, Rama could help Sugriva defeat Vali and gain his kingdom back.
This is precisely what occurred, as Rama shot Vali in the back while the monkey was engaged in a struggle against Sugriva. After his death, Vali’s wife Tara took the events quite hard. She began wailing and grieving and wondering why such a terrible calamity had befallen her husband. In the above referenced statement, Hanuman is consoling her with kind words of wisdom. While these words were offered to a grieving widow, they also serve as a great description for how karma works and how the results are distributed to the fruitive worker even in the afterlife.
“The Supreme Lord said, The indestructible, transcendental living entity is called Brahman, and his eternal nature is called the self. Action pertaining to the development of these material bodies is called karma, or fruitive activities.” (Bhagavad-gita, 8.3)
In the simplest definition, karma equates to the development of the body. The workings of the body surely seem involuntary, for none of us flick a switch and decide to grow or age. These things happen on their own, with the aid of time. But in reality, the development of the body is due to previous work performed, or karma. A distinction should be made between the body and the soul. Though we may be unaware of it, the soul does not grow or age; it is eternal, something which is immutable and unchanging. The entity we currently take our identity from, the body, is merely a temporary covering of the soul. The soul accepts a body and continues to reside in one for as long as karma is performed. This means that any activity that keeps the soul bound up in a covering composed of material elements can be considered karma.
To gain a better understanding of these concepts, let’s break down the different sections of Hanuman’s statement. Shri Hanuman states that the first aspect to karma is the desire to perform work. A person has a desire to do something, a hankering which can be good or bad. This is pretty easy to understand. We’re looking for some result, so we take to a particular action to achieve that result. In this scope, the activity can be deemed pious. Not all intentions are the same, for some people want to perform activities in the mode of goodness, such as giving charity to worthy recipients, teaching selflessly, and studying scripture, while others want to perform activities in the mode of ignorance, such as taking to violence, intoxication, and excessive sleep. The reason Hanuman mentions both good and bad work, pious and impious, is that the actual motive of the work doesn’t matter. Every action performed under the rubric of karma has an intention attached to it, so the actual nature of the intention is not that important in the grand scheme of things.
The second aspect to karma deals with results. The catalyst for action is intent, or a desire for a favorable future condition, but for the work to be meaningful there must be results. In Sanskrit, these results are referred to as phala, or fruits. It is for this reason that the common English translation for karma is “fruitive activity”. Every act of karma, regardless of the intention, has an associated reaction. In fact, there can be mixed reactions: both good and bad, some good and some bad, all good or all bad, etc. Remembering the simplest definition of karma, any activity that is done for the development of the body must have consequences, for that is how the body will develop. This development doesn’t have to be positive, for a body can deteriorate as well.
The concluding part of Hanuman’s statement says that the reactions of karma steadily come to the person after death. Again, this speaks to the eternal nature of the soul. Death is not the end, for only the current body finishes at the end of life. When we say that karma refers to the development of the body, future bodies are part of the scope as well. This is how the phenomenon of reincarnation works. Reincarnation is very easy to understand; it is simply the further changing of bodies by the soul. Reincarnation even occurs within one’s lifetime, as the body of a child is completely different from the body of an adult. Throughout this changing of bodies, the soul remains the same, so the only difference is the development, or growth, of the outward covering of the soul. The reactions to fruitive activity continue to bear fruit in the afterlife. These fruits, or phala, determine the type of container the soul is placed into in the next life. The fruits come to the living entity in the afterlife regardless of whether they want them or not. That is the nature of karma; it plays no favorites, nor does it make exceptions for anyone under its jurisdiction. If an activity is performed under the umbrella of karma, regardless of the motive of the performer and regardless of the nature of the results, the fruits to such action will surely come.
“O Partha, happy are the kshatriyas to whom such fighting opportunities come unsought, opening for them the doors of the heavenly planets.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 2.32)
Hanuman brought up these salient points to alleviate Tara’s suffering. Vali had committed many acts of karma previously, so it was due to those activities that he had to die in the way that he did. Moreover, the fruits of his work would continue to come to him in the afterlife. He had died on the battlefield while engaged in a noble fight, so according to Vedic tenets and the authorized statements of Lord Krishna found in the Bhagavad-gita, Vali had very good karma coming his way. Even though he fought with Sugriva through ill-conceived motives, the simple act of taking up arms and fighting with an enemy had inherent positive results built in. Warriors who die on the battlefield while fighting honorably are immediately sent to heaven in the afterlife, where they enjoy material opulence for many years. Vali was guaranteed of receiving these fruits, so Tara had no reason to lament.
The ultimate lesson here is that the body is not worth grieving over. Every experience in life, from the good times to the bad, is due to karma. Every person gets what they deserve in the end, so there is no need to pay too much attention to fairness. On an interesting side note, since Vali was killed directly by the Supreme Lord, he was guaranteed of achieving liberation from the cycle of birth and death. While karma leads to the future development of the body, associating with God enables one to transcend karma. This was the example set by Hanuman, who dedicated all his activities towards pleasing the Supreme Lord. He easily can get liberation whenever he wants, but he chooses to remain on this earth for as long as Lord Rama’s story continues to be told. In this way, Hanuman is already liberated without even having to quit his body.
“The activities or desires that relatively help a soul attain his constitutional position are called piety. The opposite are called sin. Since devotional service to Krishna is one’s constitutional position, when one cultivates this service, then nescience, which is the root cause of relative situations in the form of sin and piety, is gradually fried and abolished.” (Shrila Bhaktivinoda Thakura, Shri Krishna Samhita, 10.2 Purport)
If we follow Hanumanji’s example and take up devotional service, we also can transcend the effects of karma. While acts of karma bring good and bad material results in the future, acts of bhakti, or devotion, slowly burn off all the results of karma. Bhakti, when attached to the service of the Lord, is essentially the purified form of karma; hence it is known as bhakti-yoga. The quintessential activity for the bhakti-yogi is the chanting of the holy names of God, “Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare”. By regularly chanting this mantra with love and devotion, we can slowly burn off our karma and be able to focus our mind always on the Supreme Lord and His exalted devotees like Shri Hanuman.