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Nearly every religion employs the idea of prayer, and most people view prayers as a way to alleviate their suffering. If such a thing were possible, it would encourage the sinner to continue sinning and use prayer to be pardoned. Conversely, if such a thing were impossible, then the skeptic could ask: If God can take away my suffering, then why doesn’t He? Is He too weak to take away the suffering or is He not kind enough to pardon my sins? Both alternatives present problems, and this post discusses why sometimes prayer works, and other times it does not. It also discusses the purpose of prayer, which is not to remove the external causes of suffering, but the internal attitude that creates it.

The Legend of Queen Kunti

Mahabharata describes that when Kunti was still a maiden, she was given a mantra by Durvasa Muni to call upon any demigod and ask them for any benediction she desired. Just to test the efficacy of the mantra, Kunti called upon Surya and was astonished to find that he arrived. Even though Kunti did not want any benediction, Surya gave her a son—Karna—promising that she would remain a maiden even after the childbirth. Kunti subsequently used the same mantra to obtain three more sons—Yudhiṣṭhira from Dharmaraja, Bhima from Vayu, and Arjuna from Indra. Indeed, she also helped her co-wife Madri to obtain two sons—Nakula and Sahadeva—from the twins Ashvni Kumara. Technically speaking, her sons were not conceived with her husband Pandu, and yet they were called Pāndava.

One could argue that if these sons were not born, then there would be no battle of Mahabharata, and hence they were the cause of the deaths of hundreds of thousands of soldiers. But, ironically, their birth was caused through a mantra, which we might call a prayer to the chosen demigod. Clearly, then, the prayer appears to produce results which would have otherwise deemed impossible. Since Kunti is the cause of their birth, does that make her responsible for all the deaths subsequently?

The problem seems even more confusing because Lord Kṛṣṇa tells Arjuna in Bhagavad-Gita that the warriors on the battlefield of Kurukśhetra had already been killed by Him, and Arjuna only had to become the nimitta or the instrument of destiny. If the actions of Pāndava were instruments in the death of Kaurava, then were Kunti’s actions only instruments in the birth of Pāndava?

We must understand that the birth of the Pāndava was inevitable. Similarly, it was Kunti’s destiny to bear children, although her husband was not capable of conceiving those children. Therefore, nature arranged the encounter with the demigods for the birth of these children. Similarly, the Kurukśhetra war was predestined and Kunti wasn’t responsible for causing the war. When Lord Kṛṣṇa says that all the warriors have already been killed by Him, and Arjuna is only an instrument, it means that their deaths are inevitable, although Arjuna can become the mechanism of Kṛṣṇa’s will on His command.

The Action of Karma

These are good illustrative examples through which we can understand why the worship of demigods doesn’t cause that which is not already destined, although the demigods can be asked to directly provide what is otherwise achievable through other means. For instance, Kunti could have had her sons through her husband, but she got them through the demigods because she had the requisite karma for the bearing those children, but her husband did not have the karma to conceive them.

This is important because people think that the worship of demigods will give us something that is not already in our karma, or that their worship can be used to contravene karma. Under such a view, many people imagine that their worship is like a prayer that alleviates their suffering when the fact is that the demigods can only give to the worshiper what is already in their karma. If that karma is not being achieved directly through the means directly visible to a person, then a demigod can intervene directly to fill that gap. But the demigods cannot contravene the dictates of previously created karma.

This means that prayer may not yield the desired results, if that prayer requests relief from suffering, when a person’s karma has destined them to suffer. God doesn’t pardon a living entity’s karma because if such pardoning actually worked, then there would be no need to punish anyone; all living entities could just go on sinning and offer prayers requesting to be pardoned. A living entity’s sins cannot be pardoned just because he or she “confesses” to the sin, and/or prays for forgiveness. The person has to be punished according to the laws of nature, because the moral system has to be fair and just.

How Paramātma Helps the Soul

Nevertheless, karma isn’t just producing adverse circumstances; it is also responsible for the abilities in our senses by which we can counteract the circumstances. Just as adverse circumstances and disabilities cause us to suffer, similarly, conducive conditions and abilities are also created by karma. When one is undergoing a bad situation, there may be simultaneously the possibility of counteracting this situation by the conducive conditions and abilities that are also manifesting at the same time. However, unlike the adverse situations that are forced, the conducive conditions and abilities are not forced. That is, one is not required to spend the capital of good karma in counteracting the effects of bad karma.

When we pray to God or the demigods, and they appear to cancel the adverse effects of previous bad karma, they are only consuming the good karma which was otherwise lying unused. Similarly, upon prayer, we might obtain the intellect and be reminded of our abilities and opportunities by which we can counteract the adverse situation, or even surpass it. These “magical” effects of prayer are not magical at all, nor are they counter to the moral laws of nature. They are simply methods of fulfilling our desires by consuming the good karma to counteract the bad karma. This counteraction is possible only when the good and the bad karma are fructifying simultaneously. If only bad karma fructifies, then it would be impossible to counteract its effects. This means that sometimes the prayer appears to work, and at other times it doesn’t. The underlying mechanisms for both the situations is the same.

God Helps Those Who Help Themselves

Paramātma can provide the intelligence to take what is available or possible in a given situation over and beyond what you are automatically receiving. God’s inspiration is like pointing the correct door to open to take the reward. It is within my reach, and I am entitled to it. But I may not have the intelligence to see how what I desire is entirely within my reach—i.e. that what I want is behind the door and I have to open the door and take it. Paramātma tells us from within which door should be opened.

Thus it is said “God helps those who help themselves”. The God in question here is Paramātma. He can help us if we desire the help, and are prepared to make the effort. However in so helping Paramātma is not violating the law of karma or pardoning the sins of the soul. Instead, Paramātma is pointing a path in which a person can counteract their bad karma with good karma. For example, if you are suffering from a disease which you are unable to cure through conventional medicine, then Paramātma may give an inspiration from within—“why don’t I try alternative medicine?” And sometimes when you make the attempt, you actually cure the disease, provided you have the karma to do so.

Similarly, if you don’t have the necessary karma and yet you desperately want to do something to achieve it, then Paramātma will also take away the intelligence—i.e. give false ideas. Due to these false inspirations, the soul is misled into dark alleys where he wastes his time trying to achieve the impossible. Both remembrance and forgetfulness thus arise from the Paramātma.

Misunderstanding Regarding Prayer

Most people arrive at erroneous conclusions regarding such inspiration. First, they might think that God gave them the inspiration by which a disease got cured, so God must have “pardoned” my sin, when the fact is that two instances of karma got cancelled. Second, they might attribute the inspiration to their own intellect and claim the credit for it; for example, when God inspires scientists to search in a certain direction, the scientists attribute their successes to their own intellect, and not to God’s inspiration. No scientist has stood up and said that he would have never found the answer were it not for God’s inspiration. We don’t understand how God is giving us answers to help us enjoy our karma when we only have a strong intention (in the ego) but no ideas (in the intellect) on how to fulfill them. God can appear as a new insight in the intellect to fulfill the intent in the ego. Third, some people erroneously conclude that if a particular solution worked for them in the past, then it will work for others too; for example, if I’m able to cure my diseases using alternative medicine, I might think that everyone should be able to cure their diseases in this way. The problem is that we forget that what allows us to cure (or not cure) is karma. Internal inspiration (from Paramātma) or external guidance (from our friends or family) can work only when there is requisite karma to allow us to cure the problem.

Paramātma is not helping us overcome the sins. He is just helping us use our own karma. God responds to prayers, but only by letting you tap into your own bank of karma in case you are unaware that you have a bank account of karma from which you can draw at the moment. If you don’t have a bank account that can be drawn from, then God will not respond to prayers seeking a pardon. Similarly, He will not inspire you if you don’t pray, even if you have the bank account from which you can draw. In that sense, God’s response to prayers is not in violation of natural laws. It is an act of reminding the soul that his suffering can be mitigated by consuming the medicine he is carrying in his pocket.

Spiritual Life Depends on Good Karma

Anyone who has taken a casual interest in astrology knows that there are periods in which you can make significant advancement in spiritual life—this advancement pertains to new realizations either coming because of external triggers or due to internal inspiration when the soul seeks to find answers to difficult questions—which help us decrease our material desires and increase our purification. Anyone who has come to spiritual life can go back in time and look at the possibilities entailed by their horoscope and they will find favorable influences driving them towards greater knowledge.

All our encounters are arranged by karma, and when suitable karma arises we can meet the right kind of person. However, whether we are inspired to listen to such a person, and whether we continue that engagement, often depends upon us: the karma may still allow us to engage, but our desires may not. As our desires change, Paramātma also changes His stance: He stops inspiring us in spiritual life, and starts inspiring us in materialistic activities. This is the nature of karma: it affords us both kinds of encounters with spiritual and materialistic options, so that we can prefer one over the other. If we forego the karma of an encounter with a spiritual person, then that karma remains dormant; it is still in our bank, and it exists like a medicine we keep in our pockets while suffering the disease.

Abuse and Betrayal in Spiritual Life

Even when a person comes to spiritual life, their karma doesn’t end. Owing to this, even spiritualists can suffer in ways worse than the suffering of the materialists—which often prompts them to go away from spiritual life. Stories of abuse and betrayal are legend in all religious institutions and much of the problem is due to the shock we experience in having been abused or betrayed by a person who isn’t expected to do so. We must realize that karma is blind. It acts as betrayal or abuse when it has to, regardless of how much we trust the person who abuses or betrays. Clearly, if you don’t trust the person, the same betrayal would have a smaller effect on you—because you already expect something to happen—than if you have placed a huge amount of trust in the abuser. The events of abuse or betrayal can be the same, but their effects on us can be different based on our trust.

This doesn’t absolve the abusers from heinous actions; on the contrary, by indulging in such actions, they are misusing their position far more, and the repercussions would therefore be far greater. Nevertheless, the victims must understand that abuse and betrayal are results of previous karma. That bad karma is delivered through someone they trust spiritually doesn’t absolve the perpetrator from future consequences, but because karma is blind, it doesn’t care how much you trust the person who abuses or betrays you. Our trust is therefore independent of the abuse and betrayal; the fact that we trust the wrong person is a lesson to be learnt on how to determine trustworthy people.

The pain of such abuse can only be dealt with through knowledge. First, we must separate the events from their psychological effects; the objective events are due to karma, but the psychological effects are due to our trust. Second, we must recognize that trust is our individual responsibility when we are grown, and the responsibility of the elders, parents, or guardians, when we depend on them; all these parties may be implicated in creating the illusion of trust, when none should have existed. Third, even though one might deserve suffering due to previous karma, the perpetrators—especially when in positions of responsibility and acting heinously—ensure a very prolonged period of personal suffering. Retribution cannot be the solace for one seeking advancement, but retribution is nature’s law.

God’s Pardon in the Bhagavad-Gita

Towards the end of Bhagavad-Gita, Kṛṣṇa says to Arjuna:

sarva-dharman parityajya
mam ekam saranam vraja
aham tvam sarva-papebhyo
moksayisyami ma sucah

Abandon all varieties of religion and just surrender unto Me. I shall deliver you from all sinful reaction. Do not fear.

The verse appears to indicate that if one surrenders to God, He will take away all the sinful reactions, i.e. bad karma, which then seems to directly counter all that we have said above. And yet, we also know for a fact that even those who have surrendered to God are sometimes seen to suffer adverse material conditions. What is then the nature of God’s pardon, and when does it apply or not apply?

This verse should be read as a whole, and not piecemeal. In the verse, Kṛṣṇa says that Arjuna should abandon all varieties of material duties and just surrender to Him. Now, when we normally abandon our material duties, there is negative karma naturally created. For example, if you are working in a job and you don’t do your job correctly, there is adverse karma. However, when you neglect your job because you are serving God, there is no negative karma. For instance, you might not adequately perform your job duties because you are spending most of your time reading Kṛṣṇa’s pastimes. In such a situation, when the person has surrendered to God and prioritizes His service over material duties, Kṛṣṇa assures Arjuna that He will free such a person from adverse karma. In other words, there is material dharma or duty, and there is an even higher dharma—service to Kṛṣṇa. When material duties are neglected to perform this higher dharma, there is no adverse karma. This is not a blanket freedom from all karma created by the person in the past. It is rather freedom from karma after you have surrendered to God.

This verse becomes confusing only when we think that God gives freedom from all karma—including karma acquired from previous lives and previous activities—when Kṛṣṇa is only alluding to the karma that is created by the neglect of material duties in lieu of surrender and service to Him. Kṛṣṇa assures Arjuna to not worry because it is commonly feared that neglecting our duties leads to adverse karma.

Does Guru Take Away Karma?

It is said that Jesus suffered the sins of his followers. Śrīla Prabhupāda also mentioned that the guru takes a disciple’s sins. But if we see the lives of spiritualists, we can often find them suffering—diseases, betrayal, disrespect, etc. In what sense does the guru take away the sins if the followers are still suffering? Furthermore, how can the guru take away the sins when God Himself doesn’t do so?

The short answer is that the guru takes the karma of the disciple in the same sense that Kṛṣṇa promised to free Arjuna from karma—it is freedom from the karma arising due to dereliction of material duties when this neglect manifests due to the service of guru. More than anything, it points to the fact that whenever we neglect our material duties, adverse karma is created. The reprieve from this karma is not universal; it is rather very specific and for the cases when we follow the guru’s instructions.

The idea that Jesus took everyone’s sins (even from the past) just because they accept him as their teacher is therefore false. Jesus took (and will take even in the present) a person’s sins if they truly follow his teachings even when the teachings appear to contradict the edicts of society. For example, the society might enact laws that force you to lie, cheat, or kill, and you might think that it is your duty to abide by such laws but the fact is that if you truly follow Jesus you can disobey the social laws and Jesus will take the adverse karma. You might appear to disobey your authorities, and you may be even punished for doing so, but that punishment comes as the result of previous karma, and not from the dereliction of duty. The karma produced by the dereliction of duty, when that duty is against the teachings of Jesus, would be taken by Jesus. In that specific sense, Jesus can take away the sins on your behalf, because he is instructing you to follow his rules.

The fact is that when we accept employment from someone we are obliged to follow his command because that person compensates us for the services rendered. The material dharma therefore tells us to obey our employer. But a discriminating person might realize that their employer is not honest, and they may therefore decide to ignore his commands. Since the person is still being paid by the employer, there is—technically speaking—a dereliction of duty, and therefore there must be bad karma. However, when this neglected duty is pursuant to moral principles, then the guru takes the adverse karma.

The True Purpose of Prayer

Our suffering—in Vedic philosophy—is an outcome of two things: guna and karma. When we are suffering, the karma constitutes the adverse circumstances and our inability to counteract it. But we still have the free will to interpret the adverse situations in different ways: (1) we might blame the situation for our suffering, (2) we might blame ourselves for having landed in the situation, and (3) we might recognize that the suffering is inevitable and it we must be cautious about the law of karma. These reactions are respectively in the modes of tamas, rajas, and sattva. When we blame our situation we get frustrated and suffer even more. When we blame ourselves for having landed in trouble, we have a better attribution of responsibility but it is only partially true because we don’t realize that the situation was inevitable. Only by attributing suffering to past karma is our reaction completely true.

This tells us that the situation is not always in our control but the interpretation of that situation can be changed by choice. Our suffering is only partly due to the circumstances. Most of the suffering is due to the inner frustration, fear, and anger at the situation. Even when we cannot change the situation, we can overcome the frustration, fear, and anger, and apply our intellect—in conjunction with prayer—to find the best counteraction for the situation. If we have the requisite karma, then we might be able to counteract the situation through intelligent action. But even if we cannot change the situation, there can be substantial reduction in suffering simply by changing our attitude towards the situation.

Knowledge of karma therefore comes handy in reducing the fear, anger, and frustration, which then quietens the mind and allows the intellect to find the best possible mitigation. If we also pray to God, then He can provide an answer by which we can overcome our situation, provided there is requisite karma. Ultimately, we have to bear out all the karma from the past, but a lot of the bad karma can be counteracted against the good karma if we have the knowledge and use it intelligently.

In that sense, by praying to God we can become almost completely free of suffering even when we have a considerable pile of karma because we are able to intelligently counteract bad karma against good karma, and when this counteraction fails we are not angry, frustrated, or fearful. These are tactical solutions to the problem. Ultimately, however, we have to stop creating good or bad karma, by surrendering to Kṛṣṇa. For the intelligent devotee, therefore, life can be almost free of suffering if he accepts Kṛṣṇa as the controller without foregoing his own sense of responsibility.

The purpose of prayer is to help us find answers by which we can apply our intelligence to trade off good karma against bad karma. The purpose of prayer is also to focus our mind on God so that we are free of the interpretations under tamas and rajas, which will help us overcome fear, anger, and frustration. Finally, the purpose of prayer is to realize that our free will is limited and therefore held accountable as opposed to God who is totally free and hence His actions have no counter reactions. These are valid uses of prayer, but the idea that by praying we can destroy our past sins is false.