There is a destiny or karmic pattern to our lives. Whatever exists in the realm of time must follow the rhythms of time and the law of cause and effect. The present fruit must be of the same nature as the previous seed. Whatever we are in body and mind must be the result of our previous physical and mental patterns. This destiny for some people is very fixed.
For others it is capable of modification, though its basic features cannot be changed. For example, we cannot change our parents, nor can we alter the country or time in which we are born. Some people have such a developed nature along a particular line that we can say that they were destined to be great or destined to be a criminal, almost regardless of circumstances.
This is not to say that our Being is predestined but only the outer pattern of our actions, which themselves can be modified for the future. Our consciousness, not being a product of time, is inherently free. Karma and destiny belong only to the body-mind complex, which is not really our’s anyway but belongs to the world of Nature. Our ultimate destiny, which is inherent, is to realize our immortal Self. Everything else is an accident or illusion.
Are We Punished for Wrong Actions?
Reward and punishment are concepts of an undeveloped mind. The Divine Being is not some great parent or judge in Heaven dealing out rewards and punishments. There is a natural law (dharma) and its consequences according to the law of cause and effect (karma).
If you put your hand into a fire you get burned. God is not punishing you for the sin of putting your hand in a fire by burning you. It is not a sin but a matter of ignorance of natural law and consequent experience of pain or limitation. Just as there are physical laws, like fire’s capacity to burn, so there are mental and spiritual laws. Violence, for example, brings eventual destruction upon its perpetrator. But one is not punished for violence, violence as a negative state of mind with negative consequences creates its own punishment.
The problem is that the long term effects of our actions are not as obvious as their immediate results. For example, if we eat food, like too much sugar, which tastes good but is bad for us its negative effect will not manifest immediately, like fire burning us, but will take time, causing eventual disease through poor digestion which may manifest as arthritis, heart disease or any number of problems. Because of the time lap involved between the cause and effect of our actions we may not recognize the connection between the wrong food and the disease.
On the level of behavior, anger is destructive to our finer sensitivities and prevents us from developing higher consciousness. However, if our minds are not properly evolved we may not recognize this pain, we may indulge in anger and find pleasure in it. But eventually we must experience the consequences of the forces we set in motion, both on a short term and a long term level. Our anger, fear and attachment must lead us into situations that make us suffer. Wrong action itself is its own punishment because it causes the constriction of our consciousness into the outer realm of life, which always results in unhappiness.
Do Heaven and Hell Exist?
Sanatana Dharma recognizes that the soul or reincarnating consciousness is one with the Divine and Eternal Reality. The soul is immortal and by its very nature ever blissful, free and happy. However, veiled by ignorance, it falls into darkness and confusion and through misconceptions about the nature of Reality makes various mistakes about life which lead to suffering in different incarnations.
Souls by their karma, the power of their own actions, create their own destiny, which leads to various happy or unhappy states of existence. A very happy state could be called heaven and a very unhappy state, hell. Yet there is no eternal or absolute heaven or hell. Any embodied state being bound by time must be transient and come to an end after a certain period of time. Nor does any realm contain such extremes of pleasure and pain that the ordinary idea of heaven and hell portrays. All embodied states must bring some degree of both pleasure and pain, joy and sorrow.
Moreover an unlimited result cannot arise from a limited action, any more than a limited seed can produce an unlimited plant. Therefore an unlimited or eternal heaven or hell can never result from limited creaturely actions, such as occur in an ordinary human life, which must lead to repeated incarnations, not to any final heaven or hell.
The actions that we do in one life do not have eternal ramifications but only those into a corresponding field of time. Wrong actions lead to suffering but such suffering is equal to the nature of the action. There cannot be an eternal result through transient action.
The idea of an eternal heaven or hell is irrational and shows an ignorance of the basic nature and laws of the universe. Hindus believe in a loving God who would never condemn any creature to an everlasting hell. To them, such a God would be the worst of tyrants and unworthy of worship.
Heaven and hell have been used by various priests to entice or frighten people into certain beliefs. Such heavens and hells do not exist. This heaven and hell idea appeals to the basic reward-punishment conditioning mechanism of the undeveloped mind. It does not promote real ethical behavior so much as creating emotional imbalance and sometimes religious fanaticism. It is important to recognize that our actions have their consequences in both this and future lives, but to hang the specter of an eternal heaven or hell over people is only to promote fear and ignorance.