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If bad Karma gets bad reward, why do we still act badly?
Author Acharya Prashant
Acharya Prashant
7 min
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Questioner (Q): Sir, you have said that “right action is its own reward; the wrong action is its own punishment.” Basis your quote, the common man must choose right action and be naturally aversive to the wrong action but that does not happen. Kindly, throw some light on it.

Acharya Prashant (AP): “Right action is its own reward; the wrong action is its own punishment but people still seem to be aversive to right action and going for the wrong action.”

So, why this contradiction? That’s the question.

To whom are these rewards or punishments coming? You have to understand this, if someone has lived an entire lifetime based on wrong decisions, wrong actions then what is has started appearing right to this person?

But before we proceed, we must revisit what the right action or decision means?

Right action is the action that brings peace and relaxation to you. Right action leaves you with reasonless contentment.

It leads to a diminishing of inner uncertainty and anxiety. That’s the right action. And that also defines the wrong action for you conversely.

So, right action brings peace to you. But what if you are someone who’s entire life is built on a sequence of wrong actions? You have become totally conditioned; totally acclimatized; you have invested a lot in the wrong- ‘the wrong has strongly started appearing right to you.’ Now, when you make a truly right decision what comes to you is truly the right reward but that right reward is incompatible with your pre-existing life structure. So, you suffer and this explains why people avoid right action.

‘People avoid right action because right action is incompatible with the entire edifice, the entire structure of their life.’

People do not operate from a clean slate. Were people operating from a clean slate, from a zero base with no past, no biases, no carry overs whatsoever then everybody would have chosen in favour of the right action and decision. But people have a history and that history is often full of wrongness. Not only have we lived wrongly in the past, we have raised great stakes in what is wrong. We are now caught –‘stuck’.

Now, even if we accidently make a right decision that right decision comes as a jolt to all that we have. It shakes up our foundations. Though, actually, that’s the best thing that can happen to us.

But, that right thing, that best thing comes to us accompanied by a lot of suffering. Remember the right thing is not bringing suffering to us; suffering is because we have lived wrongly so far. But how would it appear on the surface? It would appear that life was smooth, there was hardly any suffering and then I deviated from my normal course, took a so-called ‘right decision’ and that right decision has brought unnecessary suffering to me.

So, what does one do? One drops the right and one goes back to his dated pre-existing ways. So, the reward indeed did arrive but we didn’t like the reward. The reward was uncomfortable.

If, there is this kid and the kid has been playing in mud or drenched, the kid comes back. The right thing to happen to the kid is that he is put in the bathtub and then scrubbed, shampooed. That’s the right thing. But this right thing will make him uncomfortable. It will make him uncomfortable as he was very comfortable with all the mud and dust sticking to him, plastered to his body. Was he not?

There was a stink arising from his clothes but he had grown used to it in four-five hours. And after playing in the mud for so long he was tired. He wanted to sleep but the mother picked him up put him in the bath and the scrubber was really hurting. Was it not? And some of the shampoo entered his eyes and the eyes burnt.

So, the reward did come. If you are so unclean, is cleanliness not a reward? So, right action is its own reward.

What is the right action? Taking a bath was the right action. What is the reward? Cleanliness is the reward. So, the reward definitely came but the reward made the person uncomfortable.

Now, you know why people choose the wrong even though the right thing definitely brings its own reward. But who likes that reward? We are lazy people. We are lazy people and often dirty too- ‘Lazy and dirty.’ Think of the kid. The kid is dirty and feeling too lazy to take a bath. That’s how most of us are.

Now, look at the wrong action in the same condition. The wrong action is ‘yes, you can go and happily sleep now’. You can go and happily sleep and spoil the bed sheet as well and the pillow covers as well.

Now, the wrong action has come along with punishment. What is the punishment? One, you will keep stinking; Second, your skin will suffer; Third, you have spoiled the bedsheet, the pillow, and everything. But with this wrong action, the kid will feel quiet and happy and comfortable with.

So, the punishment is there but what if you start liking the punishment? What if you start liking the punishment?

Now think of an imagined and an ideal scenario. If the kid is not yet drenched in mud and he is given an option –‘do you want to stay clean or do you want to stay dirty?’ What would he choose? He would choose cleanliness. From a neutral position, he would definitely go for the right thing because he has not yet invested in the wrong thing. Because he does not yet have a history. He is at point zero. He is at time zero. At time zero it is quite likely, quite possible to take the ‘right decision’.

But please understand that none of us operate from a clean slate; none of us operate from point zero. We have a history and the history has become us. That is what is called ‘conditioning’. Your history takes your name. You are no more free being.

You are somebody who is determined by your history and if you are determined by your history then it requires discipline, determination to take the right action.

Then, the temptation to take the wrong action is very high. Most people succumb to that temptation. You should not.

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