“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)
Negative and unintended side effects form one of the subtleties of spiritual life. Religion typically carries the promise of removing all troubles through a connection formed with the Supreme Lord. This link, known as yoga, is deemed the most powerful relationship, something which leads to the forgetfulness of all troubles and brings immunity from all other ailments. Indeed, it is the absence of this connection that forms the root cause of all problems in life. Spiritual life, the most pure form of which is known as bhakti-yoga, is aimed at purifying the individual from the effects of all activity, both good and bad. What’s interesting to note, however, is that there are still unintended consequences that result from executing bhakti-yoga, but as we’ll see, these consequences turn out to be blessings in disguise.
In the above referenced statement, Shri Hanuman is explaining how living entities take to certain activities with a purpose. The activities adopted may be pious or sinful depending on the angle of vision, but some intention is there nevertheless. Moreover, this activity automatically brings with it various fruits, either palatable, unpalatable, or both. The resultant auspicious and inauspicious results even carry over into the afterlife, as fruitive activity is known as karma, which means any action that leads to the further development of the body, which is a type of consequence machine for the soul. The soul continues to exist in the afterlife, so the fruits of action are related to the future body that is acquired. The results of action also play a role in determining the type of body, the circumstances of birth, and the inherent qualities assumed.
One of the interesting aspects to this definition of karma is the notion of good and bad fruits, or phala. Regardless of our intentions, all work performed under the jurisdiction of karma has reactions associated with it. There are innumerable examples to illustrate this point, but we will highlight a few. Since we live in a technologically advanced age, food production is at its peak. Never was there a time in recent memory where as much food was produced by so little human labor as is done today. As a result, people living in industrialized nations have a bevy of options when it comes to eating. Since food is so readily available, problems of obesity and other health related issues have increased. One of the more common problems is diabetes, a disease which forces a person to limit their sugar intake. Products with high sugar content are certainly quite tasty, so diabetics are left with a dilemma: do they eat sugar-rich foods and take the health risks, or do they avoid such foods and miss out on the enjoyment?
Since even food production is a business, entrepreneurs have found a way to tap into the market of sugar-intake-conscious eaters by introducing artificial sweeteners. These food additives produce a similar taste to normal sugar, except they have minimal effect on insulin levels. Therefore, diabetics and others harmed by higher sugar intake can partake of these foods without having to worry about jeopardizing their health. While there have been several controversial studies linking these sweeteners with various diseases, since there is no direct perceived health damage associated with these additives, they remain a popular alternative with those seeking substitutes for sugar.
On the surface it seems that someone who takes to eating foods that contain these sweeteners will only reap positive consequences. After all, the intention, which is based on the desire to avoid damage to one’s health, is noble enough. But karma is not so kind; every action performed has positive and negative consequences, with the exact classification being subject to the angle of vision of the performer. With the artificial sweetener example, one of the unintended negative consequences has been the increase in soda pop consumption. If a person were to drink soda enriched with sugar or high fructose corn syrup, they would likely limit their consumption for fear of increasing their sugar levels and also their weight. Artificially sweetened soft drinks are labeled as “diet soda” because they don’t have any calories and thus don’t have an effect on weight.
If we can drink calorie-free soda, we will surely drink as much of it as we can. But when our soda consumption increases, there are other issues to contend with. Most of the popular sodas are colored with caramel; hence an increase in consumption leads to a yellowing of the teeth. Avid soda drinkers will have to either walk around with discolored teeth or invest in teeth-whitening treatment. Another issue is that most sodas have caffeine in them, so an increase in consumption leads to a bodily addiction to this drug. While low doses of caffeine certainly aren’t as dangerous a form of intoxication as is alcohol, the body still does form an addiction to it. If one accustomed to drinking diet soda on a regular basis tries to go without caffeine, they can become lethargic and suffer from headaches.
This same cause-and-effect sequence can be extrapolated to all areas of life. Karma is such a complicated system that no one can accurately take stock of all the effects of action. Fruits continue to manifest even in the afterlife. Advanced transcendentalists gather all of this information and use it to their benefit. Though lamentation isn’t an enjoyable activity, it is certainly very common among conditioned individuals. Shri Hanuman’s statement quoted above was made to alleviate a grieving widow’s pain caused by excessive lamentation. The monkey-king Vali had just been shot and killed by an arrow shot by Lord Rama, the Supreme Personality of Godhead. Tara, Vali’s wife, upon seeing his dead body, began to wail and moan and question why such a tragedy had befallen her.
In response, Hanuman informed her of how karma works and how one shouldn’t lament over the changes to the body. These changes occur due to the results of previous work performed, both good and bad. Working off of this knowledge, the self-realized souls understand that since karma is so complicated and intricate, it is better to take to an engagement which transcends it. That activity is known as bhakti-yoga, or devotional service. Bhakti is technically the purified version of karma. Karma equates to work, and bhakti is the same work performed for the satisfaction of the Supreme Lord rather than the body.
“When the embodied being is able to transcend these three modes, he can become free from birth, death, old age and their distresses and can enjoy nectar even in this life.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 14.20)
Does this purified work result in only favorable consequences? Eventually it does, but on the surface the same system of positive and negative consequences is seen. Taking the example of an aspiring transcendentalist, let’s say that such a person decides to sincerely take up bhakti-yoga by regularly chanting, “Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare”, and reading books like the Ramayana and Bhagavad-gita. The positive effects of this work are that the individual becomes closer to God and slowly but surely develops their loving attachment to Him. The negative effects relate to time and bodily relationships. If a person spends all their time chanting Hare Krishna and reading about God, naturally they won’t have as much time for other things, such as talking to their friends and spending time with their family. Moreover, the enjoyment derived from these lower priority activities will also start to diminish as a result of the higher taste of bhakti-yoga. The friendships formed outside the realm of spiritual life will suffer, as will the familial relationships. This is true of dedication to any endeavor. One of the reasons movie stars have such a difficult time remaining married is that both parties end up spending so much time shooting movies. The life of a movie star surely seems glamorous, but behind the scenes there are hours and hours spent on set doing take after take. A movie can take almost a year to complete, and all this time away from home can do great damage to the relationship with the spouse.
“Being completely freed from the attraction of material attachment, one gives up the attachment for this material world, family, home, wife, children and everything which is materially dear to every person. Being dispossessed of all material acquisition, one makes his relatives and himself unhappy. Then he wanders in search of Krishna, either as a human being or in other species of life, even as a bird. It is very difficult to actually understand Krishna, His name, His quality, His form, His pastimes, His paraphernalia and His entourage.” (Shrimati Radharani speaking about what results from hearing about Krishna, Krishna, The Supreme Personality of Godhead, Vol 1, Ch 46)
So if bhakti-yoga also brings unintended negative consequences, how is it different from regular activities in karma? The difference between karma and bhakti is that the negative effects of bhakti are cancelled out by the Supreme Lord Himself. Since bhakti leads to the soul’s elevation to a higher realm, all the negative consequences relating to the body become nullified. Of what use are familial relationships to those souls ascending to the spiritual planet of Krishnaloka – the realm where Lord Krishna, the original form of Godhead, resides – after death? This transcendental realm is reserved for the purified souls, those who performed bhakti-yoga without ulterior motives during their lifetime. The aim of bhakti is to shift one’s desires from the material world to the spiritual world. So in this regard, there are really no tangible side effects to performing bhakti-yoga; the consequence machine eventually stops working. The Supreme Lord takes care of the surrendered soul, so there is no reason to not take to His service and transcend the effects of karma.