Hell is a topic closely related to atonement, it’s the punishment aspect of it. Atonement itself, however, is all about avoiding hell. If you didn’t manage it on time, down to purgatory you go. Why?
I mean the answer is obvious – atone your sins now or else, but it’s not so clear from the karmic POV. Sins are the same but results are clearly different – performing sacrifices or living through hell. How does that work? Generally we don’t mix results from karmic actions – good stays good and bad stays bad. When karma comes we experience it like a mix, like pleasure of relaxing on a tropical island with an annoyance of local mosquitoes, but each composite strand is still distinct.
Is it possible to mix and match karma at all? Suppose it is – where does it stop? We still need the variety, we don’t want to reduce the entire spectrum of our karmic reactions to one single result, however correctly it might summarize all our past actions.
Imagine a painting with different colors. It’s possible to scan it, calculate exact value of each color, brightness, surface area, etc, sum it all up and create a monotone covering the whole canvass. Technically, it would be an equivalent, practically, it won’t be a painting anymore.
Similarly, if we are destined to relax in a hammock AND suffer mosquito bites we can’t mix pleasure and pain of both to create a summary situation where there are no mosquitoes but the hammock is not as relaxing. Perhaps it won’t be a hammock at all, once you expand the karmic area you want to average to include all the work that has been done to earn this holiday. Perhaps it would be something in between a hammock and an economy class plane seat.
Summarizing and averaging karma just doesn’t make a lot of sense and looks impossible. So how is this atonement is supposed to work? Why should it be possible to create new karmic reactions to nullify previous ones? And yet somehow it’s expected to work just fine. It’s prescribed in the Vedic scriptures, after all.
Take an example of a murderer. Scriptures say that a murderer must be hanged by the order of the king and if that happens then he will be free from the obligation to visit his assigned hell. In this case it’s not even the person himself who should seek the atonement but it’s done by the government. They catch you, sentence you, execute you, and you don’t need to go to hell anymore. Same action, therefore, might lead to almost totally different result, and it’s largely out of your control.
What if there’s no capable government, no working justice system – how can you atone for the sin of killing then? No choice but to suffer through hell? It’s a bit confusing. Did you deserve the hell or not and why is it up to someone else to decide your final destination?
So far I’ve been talking only about karma-kāṇḍa, work-for-work reactions. What happens to those who decide to pursue the path of knowledge? Would they have to live out the accumulated karmic results first or is it possible that some of the reactions will be eliminated through one’s realizations? Kṛṣṇa makes it sound as if it’s totally possible.
It is also possible to live out the rest of one’s karma while not associating with the results anymore. If one understands that it’s the body that enjoys or suffers the results he probably won’t be personally affected even if the body will.
Will such a person go to hell, though? Suppose he achieves perfection, which means liberation, which means he won’t get another birth, but what if his sin of killing has not been atoned yet? Does he have to take another birth to see his karma run out or not?
This whole business with discrete births is hard to comprehend, too. Once you get born you have to live your whole life out, tens of years, lots of pain and suffering. Tons of food consumed, air breathed, wanter drank – it’s a major commitment on the part of karma. And while you are doing all those things you earn yourself a new one, too, even if you are doing them in perfect knowledge.
Then there’s a whole story about earning karma only on this planet, Earth, and nowhere else in the universe. That can’t be true. Maybe it’s relatively easy to earn karma down here but there’s a law of action and reaction even for Lord Indra, it’s in the Bhāgavatam, Indra even gets cursed. Other celestial beings get results for their actions, too – sons of Kuvera, Nalakūvara and Maṇigrīva, are the prime example. They did something quite ordinary for playboys of their status but Nārada Muni suddenly passed by and they had a duty to straighten themselves up in the presence of the sage. They neglected it and got cursed to be born as Yamala-arjuna trees in the courtyard of Nanda Mahārāja where they got to meet Kṛṣṇa Himself.
Unlike demons, however, these two did not get liberation but returned to their “respective abodes”, wherever they are. That was strange, too. They said all the right things, offered perfect prayers, asked for devotional service, got the blessings, and still it wasn’t enough to deserve a place in the spiritual world. As trees they have died, they saw Kṛṣṇa face to face at the moment of death, and still it wasn’t enough.
Their sin has been atoned, however, but not through performance of prāyaścitta – they went through a kind of “hell” – that’s what time on Earth probably feels like for the residents of heaven. Prāyaścitta implies you do something now, in this life, before your karma gets credited to your next incarnation, which leads to my original, still unanswered question – why does the law of karma allow for multiple, forked pathways?
Perhaps I’m looking at it from a wrong angle – each time a question doesn’t lead to an obvious answer there might something wrong with the question itself. Unfortunately, in this particular case I don’t know what. Maybe it’s because I have abandoned by usual “no free will” stance and started looking at karma as a result of one’s choices in life. I sense if I go back to “we are not the doers” philosophy all the doubts raised in this post will dissipate like morning fog.
Oh, and I haven’t even started on the how atonement works for devotees, a very tasty topic in itself. Probably tomorrow.