One problem with understanding the law of karma is that we know only principles and a few hypothetical examples. One could say “these examples are from śāstra and therefore they are not hypothetical” but that’s not what I mean. I mean that we can’t use any of this examples and apply them to real life because our, Kali Yuga real life, is nothing like what is described in Bhāgavatam.
People are supposed to go to hell for all kinds of transgressions and sins are relatively well documented but the number of mitigating circumstances is great, too. For one thing, nearly every educated person on the planet heard the word Kṛṣṇa and probably used it in his speech. Many even said “Hare Kṛṣṇa” at least once in their lives – shouldn’t that count for something? The series of posts about Haridāsa Ṭhākura is about to get to the debate about the power of the holy name, and the way Haridāsa Ṭhākura presented it nearly every human in the world is eligible for liberation.
And then there are other religions, too. The names they use might not be as powerful but the concept of God and serving Him is still the same, it still purifies people. We don’t give much credit to Christianity, for example, but we can’t deny that at the bottom of it is the same sarva-dharmān parityajya mām ekaṁ śaraṇaṁ vraja ahaṁ tvāṁ sarva-pāpebhyo mokṣayiṣyāmi mā śucaḥ promise, except given by Christ, not Kṛṣṇa. The way Christians describe their experience with surrender they are indeed relived of lots of sins.
As we practice our devotional service in ISKCON we know that karma still works, or we wouldn’t be alive, but we have no laws to describe it because devotees’ karma acts under direct supervision of Kṛṣṇa and He can twist it in any way He needs to bring us back to Him as fast as possible.
We might know some karmic laws but in our own lives they are largely meaningless, and same goes for Christians, too, and Muslims, as they all put their fate into God’s hands.
Even atheists seem to be immune to karma as we know it. It will surely catch up with them but if we go by examples from the time of Lord Caitanya where offenses towards Viṣṇu or vaiṣṇavas were punished immediately and severely, it just does not happen anymore. We can’t expect retribution for any of the stuff people say against us, nor should we wish for retribution because bad karma makes it harder for people to accept the Lord and so would go against the mission of Lord Caitanya.
Does Lord Caitanya personally take charge of anyone coming across devotees? Why not? He came here to save the entire world, not dish out cold justice. If an atheist offend either Kṛṣṇa or a devotee he still comes in contact with the Lord and, ultimately, it would lead to his liberation. There could be some punishment first but how much and when depends on Lord Caitanya’s plans for that person, not on karma, and we know what Lord Caitanya’s plans are – to plant bhakti in every heart.
So, we might say that there’s a cold and impersonal universe out there with karma dishing out justice without a care in the world but when it comes to our own lives and lives of everyone who comes across our path it simply isn’t true – Lord Caitanya takes over.
I’d say this again – after we have been recruited in Lord Caitanya’s army everyone who comes in contact with us gets benefited. Whether we like it or not, whether we are qualified or not, but we are all His ambassadors. Some are more powerful and some are less but Lord’s mercy is absolute and even the smallest and the most insignificant among us can channel all of it during tiniest interaction.
Whatever and whoever we see WILL be in contact with the Lord immediately, that’s the benediction bestowed on us by our guru and there’s nothing we can do about it – it’s just there, the Lord is always present with us even when we do not remember Him. This means that we will never ever see “atheists” – the moment we notice them they stop being atheists and start building their relationships with God, and otherwise impersonal karma will have to accommodate both their material desires and Lord’s wish to see them back in His service.
Thinking about it this way convinces me further and further that we can’t ever say “I know how karma works”, we can only say we know what it works towards and that’s all. How is not really important, btw, one way or another karma will bring people back to Kṛṣṇa, it’s only a question of time and patience, and we shouldn’t waste neither time nor patience on something we have no control of – both our time and our patience should be dedicated solely to Kṛṣṇa.
If someone raises an objection “but I need it for preaching, I need to explain to people how karma works”, this objection is born out of ignorance and it is display of ignorance, and therefore it shouldn’t be taken seriously.
First of all, we are not doing any preaching – Lord Caitanya and Lord Nityānanda do, we are just tools taken over by the material energy and put in the right spot at right time to say words that we implanted into our material brains by our guru. We, as spirit souls, have absolutely no control over how any of it happens. More importantly, however, is that no matter what we say, preaching happens within that person’s heart when that jīva establishes a connection with the Lord. We, as our material bodies hanging around, saying words and holding books, are external to this process, instrumental but external.
We should also remember that our level of knowledge and understanding of karma is material, it’s what happens in our material mind and intelligence. It is also relative to what we perceive as “enough” or “insufficient”, it’s not absolute in any sense. At any given moment our memory might get lost and our ability to think might get severely compromised, and at the moment of death it will all be gone forever. Even spotless, pure ācārya like Śrīla Bhaktisiddhānta Sarasvatī Ṭhākura had trouble remembering ślokas when he got older – mind and intelligence are not going to stay clear forever. Does it mean he lost his understanding of karma? Externally, probably yes, but the real measurement must be internal, spiritual, the one that the soul takes with it from one lifeform into another.
This understanding isn’t about how karma works, it’s about how karma is unrelated to us as eternal spirit souls, how it is only a product of illusion. This understanding can’t also be expressed in words, it’s just there, with the soul.
So, it’s not true that we need to learn about karma to preach – we don’t, and whatever our bodies really need is supplied by the Lord anyway in exact quantities, no more no less. Our job is to surrender, His job is to make us dance. Out of our atavistic desire to control, however, we still want to tell the Lord how to do His job. We shouldn’t, He is much better at this then we’ll ever be and we should trust Him.