The sages of ancient India tell us that the goal of human life is to escape from the endless cycle of reincarnation. Don't come back, they warn.
All in all, the situation of the living entity caught in the cycle of birth and death is somewhat like that of the Greek hero Sisyphus, the king of Corinth, who once tried to outwit the gods but was sentenced to a no-win fate. He was given the punishment of rolling a massive stone up a hill, but each time the stone reached the summit, it rolled down again, and Sisyphus was forced to endlessly repeat his arduous task. Similarly, when a living entity in the material world ends one life, he must, by the law of reincarnation, begin another one. In each life, he works hard to achieve his material goals, but his endeavors always end in failure, and he must begin anew.
Fortunately, we're not Sisyphus, and there is a way out of the cycle of birth and death. The first step is the knowledge that " I am not this body." The Vedas declare, aham brahmasmi: "I am pure spirit soul." And as spirit souls we all have a relationship with the supreme spirit soul, Krsna, or God. The individual soul may be compared to a spark emanating from the fire of the Supreme Soul. Just as the spark and the fire are of the same quality, the individual soul is of the same spiritual quality as the Supreme Lord. Both share a spiritual nature comprised of eternity, knowledge, and bliss. All living beings originally exist in the spiritual world as transcendental loving servants of God, but when the living entity gives up that relationship, he comes under the control of the material energy. The eternal soul then becomes implicated in the cycle of repeated birth and death, taking different bodies according to his karma.
In order to become free from reincarnation, one must thoroughly understand the law of karma. Karma is a Sanskrit term that defines a law of nature analogous to the modern scientific principle of action and reaction. Sometimes we say, "I had that coming to me." We often instinctively realize that we are somehow responsible for the good and bad things that happen to us, although the exact mechanism escapes us. Students of literature use the term "poetic justice" to describe the unhappy fates of ill-motivated characters. And in the realm of religion, theologians debate the meaning of such aphorisms as "An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth" and "As ye sow, so shall ye reap."
But the law of karma goes beyond these vague formulations and aphorisms and encompasses a complete science of action and reaction, especially as it applies to reincarnation. In this life, by our thoughts and actions, we prepare our next body, which may be higher or lower.
The human form of life is very rare; the soul gets a human body only after evolving through millions of lower species. And it is only in the human form that the living entity has the intelligence to understand karmic laws and thus become free from reincarnation. The human body is the only loophole by which one can escape the sufferings of material existence. One who misuses the human form and does not become self-realized is no better than a dog or an ass.
The reactions of karma are like dust covering the mirror of our pure, original spiritual consciousness. This contamination can only be removed by the chanting of the Hare Krsna mantra, which is comprised of the Sanskrit names of God [pronounced Huh-ray; Krish-na; Rahm-uh]:
Hare Krsna, Hare Krsna
Krsna Krsna, Hare Hare
Hare Rama, Hare Rama
Rama Rama, Hare Hare
The power of this mantra (often called the great chant for deliverance) to free one from karma is described throughout the Vedic literature. Srimad-Bhagavatam, the cream of the Puranas, advises, "Living beings who are entangled in the complicated meshes of birth and death can be freed immediately by even unconsciously chanting the holy name of Krsna."
In the Visnu-dharma it is said, "This word Krsna is so auspicious that anyone who chants this holy name immediately gets rid of the resultant actions of sinful activities from many, many births." And the Brhan-Naradiya Purana extols the chanting of the Hare Krsna mantra as the simplest means of achieving liberation in the present degraded age.
In order to be effective, however, the Hare Krsna mantra must be received from a bona fide spiritual master in the disciplic succession descending from Lord Krsna Himself. It is only by the mercy of such a qualified guru that one can become free from the cycle of birth and death. In Caitanya-caritamrta, Lord Caitanya, who is God Himself, declares, "According to their karma, all living entities are wandering throughout the entire universe. Some of them are being elevated to the upper planetary systems, and some are going down into the lower planetary systems. Out of many millions of wandering living entities, one who is very fortunate gets an opportunity to associate with a bona fide spiritual master by the grace of Krsna."
How can one recognize such a bona fide spiritual master? First of all, he must be situated in the authorized line of succession descending from Lord Krsna. Such a genuine spiritual master receives the teachings of Lord Krsna through the disciplic chain and simply repeats these teachings, without alteration, just as he has heard them from his own spiritual master. He is not an impersonalist or a voidist but, rather, a representative of the Supreme Personality of Godhead. Moreover, the bona fide spiritual master is completely free from sinful activity (especially meat-eating, illicit sex, gambling, and intoxication) and is always absorbed in God consciousness, twenty-four hours a day.
Only such a spiritual master can free one from reincarnation. Material existence may be compared to a vast ocean of birth and death. The human form of life is like a boat capable of crossing this ocean, and the spiritual master is the captain of this boat. He gives the disciple directions by which he can regain his original spiritual nature.
At the time of initiation, the spiritual master agrees to accept the remaining karma of the disciple. If the disciple perfectly follows the instructions of the genuine guru, or spiritual master, he becomes free from the cycle of reincarnation.
Srila Prabhupada, the founder-acarya of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, once wrote, "The guru takes on a very great responsibility. He must guide his disciple and enable him to become an eligible candidate for the perfect position -- immortality. The guru must be competent to lead his disciple back home, back to Godhead." He often guaranteed that if one did nothing more than sravana, hear about Krsna, the supreme controller and cause of all causes, he would be liberated.
Practical Techniques for Becoming Free from Karma and Reincarnation
Activities of sense gratification, meant only to please one's mind and senses, are the cause of material bondage, and as long as one engages in such fruitive activities, the soul is sure to continually transmigrate from species to species.
Lord Rsabhadeva, an incarnation of Krsna, warned, "People are mad after sense gratification. When a person considers sense gratification the aim of life, he certainly becomes mad after materialistic living and engages in all kinds of sinful activity. He does not know that due to his past misdeeds he has already received a body, which, although temporary, is the cause of his misery. Actually, the living entity should not have taken on a material body, but he has been awarded the material body for sense gratification. Therefore, I think it not befitting an intelligent man to involve himself again in the activities of sense gratification, by which he perpetually gets material bodies one after another. As long as one does not inquire about the spiritual values of life, one is defeated and subjected to miseries arising from ignorance. Be it sinful or pious, karma has its resultant actions. If a person is engaged in any kind of karma, his mind is called karmatmaka, or colored with fruitive activity. As long as the mind is impure, consciousness is unclear, and as long as one is absorbed in fruitive activity, he has to accept a material body. When the living entity is covered by the mode of ignorance, he does not understand the individual living being and the supreme living being, and his mind is subjugated to fruitive activity. Therefore, until one has love for God, he is certainly not delivered from having to accept a material body again and again." (Bhag. 5.5.4-6)
But becoming free from the cycle of birth and death requires more than just theoretical understanding. Jnana, or knowledge that one is not the material body but a spirit soul, is not sufficient for liberation. One must act on the platform of spirit soul. This is called devotional service, which includes many practical techniques for becoming free from karma and reincarnation.
1. The first principle of devotional service is that one should always chant the Hare Krsna mantra, Hare Krsna, Hare Krsna, Krsna Krsna, Hare Hare/ Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare.
2. One should also regularly study the Vedic literatures, especially Bhagavad-gita and Srimad-Bhagavatam, in order to develop a thorough understanding of the nature of the self, the laws of karma, the process of reincarnation, and the means for becoming self-realized.
3. One should eat only spiritualized vegetarian foods. In Bhagavad-gita, Lord Krsna says that one should eat only food that is offered to Him in sacrifice; otherwise, one will become implicated in the reactions of karma.
patram puspam phalam toyam
yo me bhaktya prayacchati
tad aham bhakty-upahrtam
"If one offers Me with love and devotion a leaf, a flower, fruit or water, I will accept it." (Bg. 9.26) It is clear from this verse that Lord is not interested in offerings of liquor, meat, fish, or eggs, but simple vegetarian foods prepared with love and devotion.
We should reflect on the fact that food cannot be produced by men working in factories. Men cannot eat gasoline, plastic microchips, or steel. Food is produced by the Lord's own natural arrangements, and offering food to Krsna is a form of recognizing our debt to God. How does one offer food to Krsna? The technique is very simple and easy to perform. Anyone may keep a small altar in one's home or apartment, with a picture of Lord Krsna and the spiritual master on it. The simplest form of offering is to place the food before the pictures and say, "My dear Lord Krsna, please accept this humble offering," and chant Hare Krsna. The key to this simple process is devotion. God is not hungry for food, but for our love, and eating this purified food that has been accepted by Krsna frees one from karma and inoculates him against material contamination.
4. The positive principle of offering vegetarian food to Krsna automatically includes the negative principle of avoiding meat, fish, and eggs. Eating meat means participating in the business of unnecessarily killing other living beings. This leads to bad karmic reactions in this life or the next. The laws of karma state that if one kills an animal to eat it, then in his next life the killer will also be killed and eaten. There is also karma involved in taking the lives of plants, but this is negated by the process of offering the food to Krsna, because He says He will accept such vegetarian offerings. One should also give up intoxicants, including coffee, tea, alcohol, and tobacco. Indulging in intoxication means associating with the mode of ignorance and may result in one's taking a lower birth in the next life.
5. Other techniques for becoming free from the cycle of reincarnation include offering the fruit of one's work to God. Everyone must work for simple bodily sustenance, but if work is performed only for one's own satisfaction, one must accept the karmic results and receive good and bad reactions in future lives. The Bhagavad-gita warns that work must be performed for the satisfaction of the Lord. This work, known as devotional service, is karma-free. Working in Krsna consciousness means sacrifice. The human being must sacrifice his time or money for the satisfaction of the Supreme. "Work done as a sacrifice for Visnu has to be performed, otherwise work causes bondage in this material world." (Bg. 3.9) Work performed as devotional service not only saves one from karmic reaction, but gradually elevates one to transcendental loving service of the Lord -- the key to entering the kingdom of God.
It is not necessary to change one's occupation. One may be a writer and write for Krsna, an artist and paint for Krsna, a cook and cook for Krsna. Or, if one is not able to directly engage one's talents and abilities in serving Krsna, one may sacrifice the fruits of one's work by contributing a portion of one's earnings to help propagate Krsna consciousness throughout the world. One should, however, always earn one's living by honest means. For example, one should not work as a butcher or gambler.
6. Parents must raise their children in God consciousness. The Vedas state that parents are responsible for the karmic reactions of their children. In other words, if your child incurs bad karma, you must suffer some of that karma yourself. Children should be instructed about the importance of obeying God's laws and avoiding sinful behavior and should be taught how to develop love for the Supreme Lord. And parents should make them thoroughly familiar with the subtle laws of karma and reincarnation.
7. Krsna conscious persons should not engage in illicit sex, i.e. sex outside of marriage or sex not for the purpose of conceiving a child. It should also be noted that abortion carries a special karmic reaction -- those who participate in killing unborn children may be placed in the womb of a mother who chooses abortion and themselves be slaughtered in the same horrible way. But if one agrees to no longer commit such sinful acts, one can become freed from karmic reaction by inoffensive devotional chanting of the holy names of God.
8. One should regularly associate with people who are trying to become free from the influence of karma and who are attempting to break out of the cycle of birth and death. Because they are living in harmony with the spiritual principles governing the universe, devotees of Lord Krsna become transcendental to the influence of material nature and begin to display genuine spiritual characteristics. So just as one can contact a disease by associating with a sick person, one can gradually reawaken one's own transcendental qualities by associating with Krsna's devotees.
By following these simple techniques, anyone can become free from the effects of karma. Conversely, if one does not follow them, one is sure to become entangled in the actions and reactions of material life. The laws of nature are very strict, and unfortunately, most people are unaware of them. But ignorance of the law is no excuse. One who is arrested for speeding will not be excused if he tells the judge that he was not aware of the speed limit. If a person is ignorant of the principles of hygiene, nature will not excuse him from incurring disease. And a child ignorant of the nature of fire, if he sticks his hand into it, must be burned. Therefore, in order to free ourselves from the endless repetition of birth and death, we must understand the laws of karma and reincarnation. Otherwise, we will have to come back to this material world again and again; and we must remember that we may not always return as human beings.
The soul in its conditioned state perpetually travels through time and space. By the cosmic law of karma, it takes up residence in different bodies on different planets within the material universes. But wherever the soul journeys, it encounters the same conditions. As Lord Krsna says in Bhagavad-gita (8.16): "From the highest planet in the material world down to the lowest, all are places of misery wherein repeated birth and death take place. But one who attains to My abode .. never takes birth again." The Gita and other Vedic literatures are instruction manuals that teach us the real goal of life's journey. By understanding the science of reincarnation, we free ourselves from the forces of karma and return to the antimaterial regions of knowledge, bliss, and eternity.