The Action of Karma and the Nature of Suffering

“What goes around comes around” and “karma” both basically indicate that there is a factor in existence that rewards good deeds and punishes bad deeds. But do we really see that things work this way? Is there some divine entity sitting up in the clouds, watching our good and bad actions, and giving us presents when we are ‘good’ and punishments when we are ‘bad’? How do we define good and bad, after all? Is it a moral judgment that varies based on the religion we follow or the culture to which we belong? When we reflect on these questions we can easily see that the simple explanations we tend to favor simply do not work.

We may ask, why does it look like people who do ‘bad’ things look like they are being rewarded, while those who are moral, ethical and upright look like they are being punished? Karma is in essence a law of ’cause and effect’ but it is not targeted or attached to an individual solely. When one unleashes an action in the world, it has its effect, which may indeed rebound on the individual, but may also spread out and affect others, both immediately and through time. The soul utilizes action and its consequences to learn and grow and all along, the consciousness is evolving and developing.

The field of physics holds that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. The movement of energy, whether physical energy as studied in physics, or vital, emotional, mental, psychic or spiritual energy, has its effects and consequences. This is not a moral question, per se, but an energetic question.

Sri Aurobindo notes: “Note that the idea of rebirth and the circumstances of the new life as a reward or punishment of punya or papa is a crude human idea of ‘justice’ which is quite unphilosophical and unspiritual and distorts the true intention of life. Life here is an evolution and the soul grows by experience, working out by it this or that in the nature, and if there is suffering, it is for the purpose of that working out, not as a judgment inflicted by God or Cosmic Law on the errors or stumblings which are inevitable in the Ignorance.”

“Suffering is not inflicted as a punishment for sin or for hostility — that is a wrong idea. Suffering comes like pleasure and good fortune as an inevitable part of life in the ignorance. the dualities of pleasure and pain, joy and grief, good fortune and ill-fortune are the inevitable results of the ignorance which separates us from our true consciousness and from the Divine. Only by coming back to it can we get rid of suffering. Karma from the past lives exists, much of what happens is due to it, but not all. For we can mend our karma by our own consciousness and efforts. But the suffering is simply a natural consequence of past errors, not a punishment, just as a burn is the natural consequence of playing with fire. It is part of the experience by which the soul through its instruments learns and grows until it is ready to turn to the Divine.”

Sri Aurobindo, Integral Yoga: Sri Aurobindo’s Teaching and Method of Practice, Chapter 12, Other Aspects of Sri Aurobindo’s Teaching and Method of Practice, Rebirth, Karma and Destiny, pp. 343-347

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