The universal law of action and reaction
The equation Action = reaction is the basis of Newtonian physics, which restricts this formula to mechanical processes. While Newton denied any possibility of cause-effect without a physical connection, modern quantum physics indicates the universal aspects of the cause-effect principle. Pioneers like David Bohm went so far as to propose the existence of a universal quantum potential field that coordinates a hierarchy of explicit orders and thus allows synchronization of non-local physical events.
These are only abstract ideas, but they show that a closer examination of the complex system of actions and reactions, both on atomic and cosmic levels, will lead us to the conclusion that mere mechanic causality cannot explain everything. This is especially true regarding phenomena like consciousness, life, individuality, and destiny.
The Vedic version is that there is no such thing as chance. Everything happens by the arrangement of higher authorities, also known as "providence." Whatever happens has a cause and a higher purpose. However, the propounders of the materialistic world view strictly deny this. They say that cause and effect is valid within the entire universe, but only on the physical level. Life and consciousness, they say, are the products of atomic combinations under the strict laws of physics (based on causality). But they exclude life and consciousness from causality, saying that they were produced by chance and work by chance. This argument is inconsistent, one-sided, and biased.
Still, it can't be denied that the Vedic idea that nothing happens by chance is difficult for Westerners to accept. If chance doesn't exist, do we mean to say that rapes, murders, car accidents, and concentration camps happen due to predestination, that they had to happen because the causes were set for this effect?
The Vedic view of karma can shed much light on these questions. Karma refutes both the materialistic and fatalistic world view. Karma extends cause and effect from the physical level to the nonphysical levels of consciousness and destiny.
There are many misconceptions about karma. Some Christian critics argue that karma corresponds to the principle of "an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth," which is set up by men and denied by God. Propounders of liberalism say that all human beings have free will, that everybody has to decide for himself what is right or wrong, and that there are no absolute standards such as those suggested by karma. These misconceptions arise from misunderstanding. Let us examine what karma means.
Karma is the Sanskrit word for "action." Since the Sanskrit language is multifaceted, karma means much more than this simple translation. Derived from the root kri "to do, to plan, to execute," karma further means "that which is caused and causing," which suggests that no action is independent. Each action or event is part of a big network of causes and becomes a cause for future reactions or events. This network of karma (action) is coordinated according to the "law of karma" -- the law of action and reaction.
Most misunderstandings are due to the confusion of karma and predestination. Karma is not predestination! The Vedic understanding of karma includes both predestination and free will.
The wrong interpretation of karma can lead to amazing extremes. If you think karma is just predestination, then whatever comes can't be changed and whatever happens was sanctioned by karma. This would allow you to think, "I can exploit others for my purpose, kill them in camps, or enslave them. If I can do it, this means it was their karma, and I am not guilty, because if it wasn't their karma, I couldn't do it. But because I can, I am allowed to do it." There are many beings on Earth and beyond who think like that -- more than most humans imagine.
There are two big mistakes in this logic. First, free will exists, and second, karma is not the supreme law in this creation. Sometimes philosophers consider free will to be the ultimate controlling factor of our destiny, but although this proposition is attractive, it is wrong. The Supreme Lord, Krishna, also has His plan for the creation and sometimes causes gross annihilation of the living beings who have become too sinful and disturbing for the Earth to bear.
To understand the implications of karma, we have to understand the sublime synthesis of predestination and free will. Both aspects exist simultaneously. To conceive of this inconceivable reality, we have to consider both sides of the law of karma: the point of view of action, and the point of view of reaction.
Considering the point of view of reaction, we have to accept that whatever has happened to us was predestined, and it was sanctioned by the universal authority (God, or Vishnu, who as Supersoul is present both within the universe and within the heart of each living entity as the omnipresent witness and the universal memory). Whether we accept this point of view or not, the fact that something happened cannot be changed. We may call it chance or bad or good luck, but then we avoid the lesson that we should learn.
To learn the lesson is important because each situation forces us to react. This leads to the second aspect of karma, the point of view of action. Although the laws of karma set up and predestine the circumstance we are now in, we have free will to decide how to react in each situation. But having free will doesn't make us "free" and independent. Free will means only that we can choose how to act under the influence of a specific set of circumstances; however, we cannot control the results of our actions that come upon us according to the higher law of karma.
Human beings are not restricted to act in a specific manner. They have free will. But with this free will comes responsibility, because the way we act determines the reactions. Thus we are free to choose our future, both individually and collectively. Whatever we do creates a reaction that we must enjoy or suffer. We are constantly receiving the reactions of our previous actions that we created using our free will. Therefore we are responsible for our happiness and distress, and the material nature creates the conditions within which we enjoy or suffer. Collective karma is the aggregate of individual karma. If many people do the same thing or support or tolerate some act, then they are collectively responsible for the results and will get a collective reaction, which can be either good or bad according to the act done.
Although the law of karma is such that we are never a passive victim of predestination, we are also never free from the laws of creation, which are fixed according to the will of the creator. The Supreme Lord also has desires concerning how things shall go on in the material world. He is eager to see the living entities become happy and advance in spiritual knowledge. So sometimes He creates situations and causes things to happen that no one can avoid.
Therefore, the best thing is to live according to the will of the creator. This is the ultimate responsibility of the human being: to learn that there is a creator, and to learn how to use everything in harmony with the creator's will. Then we can become free from the entanglement of the seemingly endless network of actions and reactions. The science of getting freed from this material network is described in the Vedic literature and is called yoga. To understand how to practice yoga, please read the essay entitled Yoga.
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