Okay, it’s the Kali yuga that forces us to act contrary to the principles of dharma. If we identify with our bodies and bodily activities we are going to take the reactions personally, too. If don’t identify with our bodies we won’t care for karma because we’d be liberated already. If we perform all our activities as a service to Kṛṣṇa then the Lord will be pleased regardless of our compliance with external dharma.
That last case is a special one, and the second case, that of a liberated person, is unattainable unless we become pure devotees. In real life we always have to deal with the first option – always think about finding and correcting faults and punishing perpetrators. It’s nice to talk about indifference to karma but that’s not our reality at the moment and just as we are forced to act according to material nature we are forced to analyze our actions and assign blame.
Still, there’s a good case against this practice and it’s made right in the beginning of Śrīmad Bhāgavatam. It’s became customary for me to blame Kali yuga whenever anything goes wrong but blaming Kali is unsanctioned, too – we just have to look at the relevant chapter from the First Canto (SB 1.17), which is called “Punishment and Reward of Kali”.
Usually, by reward we mean the permission for Kali to reside in places where illicit activities take place, as well as in gold, but there’s more to this episode than that. The chapter starts with Mahārāja Parīkṣit coming across personified religion and personified earth in the forms of a bull and a cow who were severely beaten by personified Kali in the form of a śūdra dressed as a king. Personally, whenever I read it I spend all my mental energy on trying to memorize four principles of religion and corresponding regs that destroy them. It’s all in vain – I still don’t remember what destroys mercy, for example. Is it meat eating or gambling? Or maybe sex?
Just checked – mercy is destroyed by drinking. Who would have thought? Sex spoils cleanliness, pride spoils austerity, and cheating spoils truthfulness (SB 1.17.25 Purport). How to translate them into our four regs, though? Association with opposite sex destroys purity of the mind – it’s easy, but mercy is destroyed by intoxication and not by meat eating? Not what I expected. Gambling is probably connected to cheating, but what about pride? What regulative principle protects us from pride? In my memory all these four sets of principles, sins, and regs were perfectly mapped to each other but it appears to be more complicated than that.
Anyway, Mahārāja Parīkṣit stopped Kali from beating the bull and the cow and he asked the animals what they thought about the situation. He personally saw Kali beating them and still he repeatedly asked Dharma, the bull: “Who has cut off your three legs?” Mahārāja Parīkṣit really wanted to know who was responsible and he vowed to punish the perpetrator in the name of religion and everything that is holy.
The bull, however, was very very wise. He praised Parīkṣit for his determination to uphold the principles of religion, he flattered him by glorifying his connection to Pāḍṇavas and Kṛṣṇa Himself, but he was not going to play the blame game (SB 1.17.18): “… it is very difficult to ascertain the particular miscreant who has caused our sufferings, because we are bewildered by all the different opinions of theoretical philosophers.” In the purport Śrīla Prabhupāda explains (emphasis mine):
Although the bull, or the personality of religion, and the cow, the personality of the earth, knew perfectly well that the personality of Kali was the direct cause of their sufferings, still, as devotees of the Lord, they knew well also that without the sanction of the Lord no one could inflict trouble upon them. According to the Padma Purāṇa, our present trouble is due to the fructifying of seedling sins, but even those seedling sins also gradually fade away by execution of pure devotional service. Thus even if the devotees see the mischief-mongers, they do not accuse them for the sufferings inflicted. They take it for granted that the mischief-monger is made to act by some indirect cause, and therefore they tolerate the sufferings, thinking them to be God-given in small doses, for otherwise the sufferings should have been greater.
Even if we see the direct cause of our suffering, or any other suffering, for that matter, we should understand that suffering is a fruit of seeds planted a long time ago and the perpetrator is a Lord’s agent carrying out what is prescribed by our karma. As devotees we should also remember that our sufferings are carefully measured by the Lord Himself and no one can harm us against His will.
In the next two verses the bull explained various opinions proffered by theoretical philosophers. Some say that one’s self is responsible because without the self there’d be no activity at all. Material nature fulfills our desires, after all. If we didn’t want something we wouldn’t suffer from reactions.
This view is close to our understanding – we usually say that we suffer because we misuse our independence and if we engage in Kṛṣṇa’s service then all the suffering would go away. I don’t think it’s true, though – suffering won’t go away, we’d just become cool about it, which is not what people who ask us this question usually want to hear. I’m not sure we ourselves are prepared to accept suffering for eternity in exchange for service. It’s a touchy subject – we want eternal bliss, not eternal suffering. We want to escape the world of birth, death, old age and disease, but we also know that pure devotees accept being born here over and over again if it pleases the Lord and advances His mission.
Others say that karmic activities are responsible, meaning that the universe is obliged to provide us with results and God has not actual say in it. We don’t accept this explanation, of course, but it’s still true on many levels – that’s how modern materialists have been able to advance so far. The Lord is usually too far away to care what we do here and so we are left to deal with the impersonal law of karma by ourselves.
There are also others who blame superhuman powers – basically gods. That doesn’t seem right even though our karma IS enforced by higher beings. There are also outright materialists who do not believe in God at all. In this they are just like modern atheists but their understanding of how the material nature works is very different from modern science.
The bull also said that there are philosophers who say that no one can ascertain the true cause of one’s suffering and no one can express it through logic or verbal arguments. It’s beyond our human capacity.
So, when the Mahārāja Parīkṣit asked the bull who was responsible for his injuries the bull refused to blame anyone, including the very man who was standing there with the club and beating him as they were talking.
That’s a bit of wisdom for us – do not blame anyone and do not fall into an illusion that we know who is responsible for our karma even when direct cause of our suffering is present right there. Whenever we feel the urge to name and shame the perpetrators we should remember this lesson from the personality of religion himself.
I mean it impressed even Mahārāja Parīkṣit so we should definitely take notice, too.