Chapter 4

Karma and Reincarnation

In human society, if one kills a man he has to be hanged [or punished]. That is the law of the state. Because of ignorance people do not perceive that there is a complete state controlled by the Supreme Lord. Every living creature is the son of the Supreme Lord, and He does not tolerate even and ant's being killed. One has to pay for it.

- Srila Prabhupada

Capital punishment is the state's ultimate act of reprisal, and no sacrifice surpasses offering one's life for the sake of others. But although we seemingly attach great value to life, each year in America hundreds of millions of defenseless animals are butchered. This wholesale slaughter of animals is not necessary to prevent us from starving. Moreover, it is economically extravagant and ethically reprehensible. Most seriously, however, animal killing violates the universal law of karma, which is similar to the modern scientific principle of action and reaction.

Scientists clearly understand how the physical law of action and reaction ("for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction") applies to material objects, but most are unaware of the more subtle laws of action and reaction in the realm of consciousness. Nevertheless, we do have a kind of instinctive awareness that somehow we all create our own happiness and distress. This realization dawns upon us when in response to some mishap we reflect, "Well, maybe I had that coming to me."

In fact, we sometimes find people jokingly attributing unfortunate occurrences in their lives to "bad karma." But the law of karma insures that those who cause violence and suffering to other living beings must themselves experience equivalent violence and suffering - immediately or in the future.

Karma, as many in the West now know, is intimately related with the principle of reincarnation. In India's greatest spiritual classic, Bhagavad-gita, Lord Krishna describes the soul as the source of consciousness and the active principle that animates the body of every living being. This vital force, which is of the same spiritual quality in all beings, is distinct from and superior to the matter comprising the temporary material form. At the time of death, the indestructible soul transmigrates into another physical body, just as one changes clothing. All living beings (not just a few select individuals) undergo this process of reincarnation, lifetime after lifetime. The Bhagavad-gita states, "As a person puts on new garments, giving up old ones, similarly, the soul accepts new material bodies, giving up the old and useless ones."

The Journey of the Soul

The Vedas explain that the soul, known as the atma, may inhabit any of 8,400,000 general species of material bodies. The physical forms vary in complexity, beginning with the primitive microbes and amoebas, continuing on through the aquatic, plant, insect, reptile, bird, and animal species, and culminating in human beings and demigods. In consequence of its own desires to enjoy matter, the atma continually journeys through these various bodies, on an endless voyage of births and deaths.

The action of the mind is the prime force compelling the living entity to transmigrate from one body to another. The Gita explains, "Whatever state of being one remembers when he quits his body, that state of being he will attain without fail." Our minds are constantly recording all of our thoughts and desires, and the totality of these memories floods our consciousness in the last moments of life. The nature of our thoughts at this critical juncture propels us into the appropriate physical body. Thus the body we now occupy is an accurate physical projection of our state of mind at the time of our last death.

The Bhagavad-gita explains, "The living entity, thus taking another gross body, obtains a certain type of eye, ear, tongue, nose, and sense of touch, which are grouped around the mind. He thus enjoys a particular set of sense objects."

According to the Vedas, a soul in a form lower than human automatically evolves to the next-higher species, ultimately arriving at the human form. But because the human being possesses freedom to choose between matter and spirit, there is a chance that the soul will descend again into the lower species. The laws of karma are so arranged that if a human lives and dies with the animalistic mentality of a creature such as a dog, then in the next life he will be able to fulfill his doglike desires through the senses and organs of a dog. This is certainly an unfortunate occurrence, but such a fate is a definate possibility for a person immersed in ignorance. The Gita declares, "When he dies in the mode of ignorance, he takes birth in the animal kingdom."

So the soul in the body of an animal may once have inhabited a human form and vice versa. Although a soul may successively occupy plant, animal, and human bodies, its intrinsic nature remains the same. Because the soul is pure spiritual energy, it cannot be altered in any way by matter. Bhagavad-gita explains that the soul is "immutable and unchangeable." It is only the bodily covering, with its particular combination of mind and senses, that temporarily restricts or releases the conscious energy of the soul.

The Equality of All living Things

The basic and transcendental equality of all conscious entities is not an abstract notion but is obvious to everyday sense perception - if only we look beyond the superficial differences in the varieties of material bodies. Anyone who has ever had a pet or visited the zoo has experienced that animals behave much like humans as they search for food, protect their young, play, sleep, and fight. The outstanding difference is that their intelligence and emotions are less developed, but this distinction is insufficient to discount the far more numerous and significant similarities in thinking, feeling, and willing that clearly point towards the universal equality of the consciousness within all bodies.

In nonhuman species, the living being is stringently controlled by his natural instincts. He is deprived of freedom of choice in eating, sleeping, mating, and defending, being compelled by bodily demands to follow rigid behavioral patterns. For this reason, the atma dwelling within forms of life lower than human is not responsible for its actions and thus does not generate new karma. A similar principle operates within our everyday experience - a dog chasing a cat across the roadway is immune form any traffic citations. Animals are not expected to understand or obey a sophisticated set of laws. On the other hand, in both the social order and the universal order, a human being is obligated to be informed and obedient.

Therefore, when a human unnecessarily takes the life of another entity, especially under conditions of great pain and suffering, this act of overt aggression produces a severe karmic reaction. And, if year after year millions of animals are mercilessly butchered in huge, mechanized slaughterhouses, the accumulated negative karma produced by all those participating is almost unfathomable.

In his Bhagavad-gita commentary, His Divine Grace A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada sternly warns about the karmic danger of animal slaughter. "In human society, if one kills a man he has to be hanged. That is the law of the state. Because of ignorance people do not perceive that there is a complete state controlled by the Supreme Lord. Every living creature is the son of the Supreme Lord, and He does not tolerate even an ant's being killed. One has to pay for it."

"Do Unto Others ..."

This same instruction is present in all religious teachings. The Bible emphatically states, "Thou shall not kill," and Lord Jesus Christ, who always displayed deep compassion for all living beings, stated, "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you." Lord Buddha also taught the principle of ahimsa, nonviolence, specifically to protect innocent creatures from being slaughtered.

People who find that personally killing an animal is too gruesome tend to believe that merely eating flesh does not implicate them in violence. But this opinion is shortsighted and unsupported by any valid spiritual authority. According to the law of karma, all those who are connected to the killing of an animal are liable - the person who gives permission for the killing, the person who kills, the person who helps, the person who purchases the meat, the person who cooks the flesh, and the person who eats it. (These six guilty parties are enumerated in the Manu-samhita, ancient India's book of civic and religious codes.) In a court of law all those who conspire in a murder are considered responsible, especially the party who purchases the assassin's services.

Psychological and emotional growth are essential to a progressive life, and all our thoughts and actions influence our character development. The Bible explains, "As you sow, so shall you reap." And the subtle laws of karma inform us that negative personality traits such as hostility, cruelty, depression, arrogance, apathy, insensitivity, anxiety, and envy are the psychological harvest of those who directly or indirectly make killing a regular feature in their life. When someone adopts a vegetarian diet, it is much easier for him to remain peaceful, happy, productive, and concerned for the welfare of others. As the brilliant physicist Albert Einstein said, "The vegetarian manner of living, by it's purely physical effect on the human temperament, would most beneficially influence the lot of mankind." But when human consciousness is polluted by the effects of the negative karma resulting from destructive and injurious actions, its good qualities become covered.

The Cause of Violence

At present, despite impressive progress in science and technology, the world is faced with a crisis of unremitting violence in the shape of wars, terrorism, murder, vandalism, child abuse, and abortion. More than 140 wars have been fought since the United Nations was formed in 1945, and in America alone, 20,000 people are murdered each year. With social and political solutions conspicuously failing, perhaps it's time to analyze the problem from a different perspective - the law of karma. The callous and brutal slaughter of countless helpless animals must be considered as a powerful causative factor in this wave of uncheckable violence.

In his purports to the Srimad-Bhagavatam, Srila Prabhupada has pointed out how the widespread violence among humans is a karmic reaction to animal slaughter. "In this age the propensity for mercy is almost nil. Consequently there is always fighting and wars between men and nations. Men do not understand that because they unrestrictedly kill so many animals, they must also be slaughtered like animals in big wars. This is very much evident in the Western countries. In the West, slaughterhouses are maintained without restriction, and therefore every fifth or tenth year there is a big war in which countless people are slaughtered even more cruelly than the animals. Sometimes during war, soldiers keep their enemies in concentration camps and kill them in very cruel ways. These are reactions brought about by unrestricted animal-killing in the slaughterhouse and by hunters in the forest."

The question is sometimes raised that if the atma (soul) is completely transcendental to the material body, why should killing, if great pain is avoided, be considered wrongful violence? Even the Bhagavad-gita states, "For the soul there is neither birth nor death. He is not slain when the body is slain." In his Srimad-Bhagavatam purports, Srila Prabhupada addresses this question. "All living entities have to fulfill a certain duration for being encaged in a particular type of material body. They have to finish the duration allotted in a particular body before being promoted or evolved to another body. Killing an animal or any other living being simply places an impediment in the way of his completing his term of imprisonment in a certain body. One should therefore not kill bodies for one's sense gratification, for this will implicate one in sinful activity." In short. killing an animal interrupts its progressive evolution through the species.

We can also appreciate the unjustness of animal-killing by seeing that the body is a dwelling place for the atma residing within. An individual unexpectedly driven out of his comfortable home suffers great inconvenience and distress. Such merciless and unjustified action is undoubtedly criminal. Furthermore, in order to receive his next material body, the living being must suffer extended prebirth tribulations. For the human being this involves months of being tightly packed in the darkness of the womb, where one is constantly disturbed by infections, acid fluids burning the skin, jarring motions, and discomforts resulting from the eating and drinking habits of the mother.

Is Killing Vegetables Wrong?

Another common metaphysical question is, "If all living entities are spiritually equal, then why is it acceptable to eat grains, vegetables, etc., and not meat? Aren't vegetarians guilty of killing vegetables? In response, it may be pointed out that vegetarian foods such as fruits, nuts, milk, and grain do not require any killing. But even in those cases where a plant's life is taken, the pain involved is much less than when an animal is slaughtered, because the plant's nervous system is less developed. Clearly there is a vast difference between pulling a carrot out of the ground and killing a lamb. But still, one must undoubtedly suffer karmic reactions even for killing plants.

For this reason, Lord Krishna explains in Bhagavad-gita that not only should man eat only vegetarian foods, but he should also offer these eatables to Him. If we follow this process of sacrifice, the Supreme Lord, Krishna, protects us from any karmic reactions resulting from the killing of plants. Otherwise, according to the law of karma, we are personally responsible. The Gita states, "The devotees of the Lord are released form all sins because they eat food that is offered first for sacrifice. Others, who prepare food for personal sense enjoyment, verily eat only sin."

Srila Prabhupada elaborates on this principle of spiritual vegetarianism. "Human beings are provided with food grains, vegetables, fruits, and milk by the grace of the Lord, but it is the duty of human beings to acknowledge the mercy of the Lord. As a matter of gratitude, they should feel obliged to the Lord for their supply of foodstuff, and they must first offer Him food in sacrifice and then partake of the remnants." By eating such sanctified food - prasadam - one is protected from karmic reactions and advances spiritually.

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