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Good Karma and Bad Karma – an Eternal Dance?
Anna: In recent satsangs, I heard Ramji saying that good karma depends on bad karma. I understand the concept of karma, good or bad karma, the concept of likes and dislikes but I don’t see how good karma can depend on the bad karma and vice versa. It must be simple, but I don’t see it?!
Rory: Saying that good karma depends on bad karma reminds me of the line in the Tao Te Ching that “good fortune hides in bad fortune and bad fortune hides in good fortune.”
In a duality such as this, there’s no escaping the opposites of life. They simply have to be endured, as Krishna says in the Gita. What comes to mind is that old story about the man who kept experiencing both good fortune and bad fortune, and each time his response was a non-committal, “We’ll see…”
Life being what it is, you can never really tell how events will turn out. No matter what you do in life, how much you follow dharma and how well you conduct yourself, there will always be someone who finds fault with you. Even if you go about life smiling and doing your best to help others, you can still never please everyone. Doing a favour for one person might annoy somebody else. Sometimes the person you did a good deed for might even resent you for it! Therefore you get bad karma for doing good karma! It really is a zero-sum game. All we can do is accept that with the karma yoga mindset.
The word karma of course refers to not just action but the results of action. Another way of looking at the statement is that sometimes what we take to be good karma (good results) is the fruit of bad karma (adharmic actions).
Sadly, the prosperity we enjoy in the West is often a result of the adharmic way our governments have conducted themselves, i.e. through conquest and empire, plundering the resources of other countries, starting economically-driven wars, exploiting the planet and manipulating economies to deliberately keep poor countries poor, etc.
Of course we then have the ability to take positive action to deal with such things. We can campaign for social, environmental and ecological justice. So out of bad karma comes good karma.
Finally, something I’ve noticed time and time again is that people very often come to Vedanta and other spiritual paths after experiencing significant suffering in their lives. Those who are completely happy and satisfied with their material lives have little need to pursue self-knowledge, because samsara is working for them (for the time being, at least!).
There’s a great quote from Kahil Gibran which you may have heard: “Your pain is the breaking of the shell that encloses your understanding.”
I myself experienced physical and emotional suffering from quite a young age. I now see it as my prarabdha [karma], and the catalyst that ignited my quest for self-knowledge. Without it, I’d probably just have been another selfish jerk in samsara. ☺
That’s an example of good karma depending on bad karma. Most crucially, it’s by our actions that we can transmute the bad into the good.
Anna: Here is my take: when you have had good karma for a while, it automatically will transform into bad karma for a while, until it becomes good again, as mentioned in our previous discussion on evil.
Rory: Good karma won’t necessarily become bad karma. I mean, it could. If someone gets you a delicious birthday cake (good karma) and you eat the whole thing, you may end up with terrible indigestion (bad karma). But if you practise discernment, dharma, and plain common sense, you can generally avoid the downswing of the karmic see-saw.
But, as I said, it gets tricky because you can’t always be sure how your actions will turn out. You can try to do your best by somebody or in a situation, and find you get the opposite result intended. This is just sadly a risk inherent in dealing with the transactional world. Karma yoga helps transmute all results into good results though – because even if it’s not the desired result, it can be turned into something positive by taking it as prasad and using it as an opportunity to purify and refine the mind.
Anna: But if, theoretically, a jiva would accumulate only good karma by doing right dharmic actions, should he not continue to enjoy the fruit of good karma until even the good karma is neutralized and all karma is dropped altogether through identification solely with Self???
Rory: Ideally, yes. One should continue to do dharmic actions. Dharma is Isvara. Most of the time dharmic actions naturally reward us with good karma, so that’s the way to play the game. The fly in the ointment is that living in an often adharmic society with adharmic values means that not everyone will appreciate your dharmic actions. That’s why karma yoga is the great insulator.
An important point to add is that the mumukshu isn’t interested in balancing the karmic books. Moksa isn’t a matter of making sure that our karma is 100% positive. Perfection is unattainable in an imperfect world. The key is, as you say, to neutralise karma by shifting your identification from the doer to the self. Then the karma, whether good or bad, no longer belongs to you (it didn’t really to begin with – you just thought it did). It belongs to Isvara and is Isvara’s to deal with. For the jnani, the knower of the self, the karmic account is closed. Like a wheel already in motion, prarabdha karma will continue to exhaust, but there’s no new karma accrued. There’s no one there to be billed. Like a letter returned to the sender because the occupant has moved, the invoice is returned because there’s no longer an addressee. ☺