“Why do bad things happen to good people?” may seem cliché, yet it’s still a question for which contemporary culture or fundamentalist dogma can’t seem to come up with an answer.
Growing up in a religious Texan family in the 1970’s and 80’s left me with a sentimental outlook on spirituality and an almost bi-polar perspective on the world around me. People, events and things were either good or bad, and simply believing that the story of Jesus was non-fiction awarded one boundless eternal absolution. While I’m grateful for my start in life, it wasn’t long before some big existential questions challenged my simplistic faith.
“Why do bad things happen to good people?” may seem cliché, yet it’s still a question for which contemporary culture or fundamentalist dogma can’t seem to come up with an answer. The older philosophical systems of the world, however, immediately address such concerns and confirm that such questioning is what differentiates us from the animal species.
Kṛṣṇa describes in his Bhagavad-gītā that the living entities in this world are essentially spiritual beings but are seated as if they are on a machine made of material energy. Ignorance (avidyā) of our original spiritual nature by identifying with this external “machine” is, as depicted in the diagram below, the root cause of our suffering. Thus we are forced to act either selfishly or with a sense of extended selfishness for family, friends, fellow countrymen or followers of our particular religious system. When selfish behaviour disregards religious principles (pāpam) we are bound to a cycle of sinful action and reaction (karma). Conversely, selfish behaviour done according to religious principles (puṇyam) awards us with a similarly binding proclivity towards further pious deeds. Neither afford us relief from suffering in any absolute or existential sense.
Good and bad deeds do, however, accumulate in what is essentially a bank account of unmanifest reactions (aprārabdha). From this, a tendency is developed towards more pious or impious deeds (kūṭam) and the seeds of reactions (bījaṁ) are created. This concept runs parallel to that which I was taught at church as a kid, “Whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap. (Galatians 6:7)”.
When such seeds fructify, they are considered manifest reactions (prārabdha). In the case of pious reactions, they can be seen as wealth, beauty, peaceful family life and other fortunate circumstances. Impious reactions are the source of disturbance in our lives such as misfortunate “accidents”, mental disorders, violence, legal trouble etc.
Operant Conditioning is a theory explored by behaviourist BF Skinner that attempts to modify behaviour through award or punishment. Skinner proposed that the individual will gradually make the association between their behaviour and its consequence, and thus learn to choose appropriate ways of interacting. In a sense, our entire experience can be seen as a similar educational program, however, it is important to note that whether we do good or bad deeds, we are subject to suffering (kleśa). There are three basic categories of suffering:
sufferings of the mind and body (adhyātmika) such as depression, anxiety and physical pain
sufferings of the natural world (adhidaivika) such as extreme heat or cold, earthquakes, tsunamis
suffering inflicted upon us by other living entities (adhibhautika) such as insects, viruses or violent people
This paints a rather dark picture. Whether we aspire to do good or bad, we still are bound to suffer. The Padma Purāṇa offers a solution:
kūṭaṁ bījaṁ phalonmukham
For those who are engaged in devotion to God, all sinful reactions, whether unmanifest, in the form of a seed, or fructiﬁed, gradually vanish.
Śrī Rāmānujācārya from the Śrī Vaiṣṇava devotional lineage simplified this directive:
“If you cannot purify yourself by any endeavor whatsoever, then just go sit with the Vaiṣṇavas and you will achieve all auspiciousness.”
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No part of this text was generated with artificial intelligence; just “flawsome” human thoughts here … with, of course, homage to The Algorithm that abides over us all.
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