We see apparently good men who suffer and bad men who prosper. We find this unaccountable in a world in which a just God rules and we expect the good to get rewards and the bad to be punished. When this does not occur in this lifetime, some religions put it off to a “heaven” or a “hell” after death in which God’s judgment about our lives is carried out upon us for eternity.
Even those who subscribe to rebirth and karma as the mechanism for a progression through lives tend to add on a type of ethical element to this to explain why it is that we see bad getting away with things apparently and the good facing inexplicable obstacles and suffering. It then gets explained away as a result of that particular “person” in a past life having done good or bad deeds which are now being rewarded or punished here; and similarly, the good or bad deeds in this lifetime will carry into future lives.
A deeper review of this however makes it clear that there is no such divine ledger being kept that automatically metes out exactly what each individual has “earned” in terms of rewards or punishments across multiple lifetimes. To truly begin to understand the concepts of rebirth and karma we need to first address these unfortunate accretions that have been formed around them.
Sri Aurobindo comments on this issue: “For it is intolerable that man with his divine capacity should continue to be virtuous for a reward and shun sin out of terror. Better a strong sinner than a selfish virtuous coward or a petty huckster with God; there is more divinity in him, more capacity of elevation.”
“And it is inconceivable that the system of this vast and majestic world should have been founded on these petty and paltry motives.”