During discussions with people, especially youth, one question that often comes up is this: How do we decide what is good and what is bad?
This question assumes three things:
- I have the freedom to choose.
- My action will lead to an appropriate result, for which I am responsible. That is why I am worried about what I choose.
- I have priorities of the various things that I want in life. That is why I want to choose rightly.
When we understand these three points well, the answer to the question comes to light automatically.
All my aspirations and effort are based on the assumption that I have freewill. Of course, I have limitations. I cannot fly out of the window like a bird. I cannot remember what I ate for breakfast last year on the same date. The body and mind have their own limitations. Still, when I have done an action, I know that I had the freedom to do it or not to do it. Thus, there is a gap between the situation and my response to situation, during which, I have the freedom to decide my response.
This freedom to choose also implies that there is an order in the world. My action will result in an appropriate effect. Without the fixed relationship between action and result, there is no basis for me to decide my action. If I am hungry, if I eat, my hunger will go. This relationship is fixed. It is not random that, sometimes my hunger will go without eating, sometimes my hunger will remain even after eating, sometimes my friend’s hunger will go by my eating, etc. If I eat, only my hunger will go. Similarly, my action will have its effect on my life and I am responsible for it. This is called law of Karma.
Freedom to choose indicates freedom from the influence of matter. If my thoughts and decisions are only a product of my physical body, then it is no freedom at all. My identity as the holder of freewill has to be different from my physical body for my freewill to be really free. Thus, I am not my body. And, the responsibility for my decision lies in me and not my body. So, to face the consequence of my decision, some of which may be taken near the time of death, I should survive the death of the body. Similarly, what I am facing today should be the result of my decisions earlier, some of which should have been in a past life. Thus, my continuity of existence before the birth of this body and after the death of this body is a logical conclusion based on the assumption of my freewill. Thus, I have to face the consequence of my decisions, if not in this life, in a subsequent one. There is no escape.
Now, I have a number of long term goals in life. I want to be alive. I want to lead a healthy life. I want to be happy. I want to have a good name in society. I want my parents to be proud of me. I want to earn money. I want to contribute to society. At any point of time, I also have a number of short term wants in life. I want to watch a match. I want to go out and play. I want to watch a movie. I want to eat a nice sweet.
There is no confusion when my short term want does not conflict with my long term goal. It becomes complicated when there is a conflict. For example, I have an exam tomorrow, for which I still have a lot to study. There is also a cricket match on TV, which I want to watch live. I cannot have both. I need to choose. Any choice of a short term want that conflicts with a long term goal is called “bad”. Any sacrifice of a short term want that conflicts with a long term goal is called “good”. Usually, the short term want is more attractive because the result will be got almost immediately. But, the damage that it can cause to my long term goal will be very painful to repair. And, any amount of repair done will leave an ugly scar behind. Prevention is always better than cure.
There are times when the consequence of my action is clear, like watching a cricket match when I should be studying for the next day’s exam. Sometimes, the consequence is not clear. The situation is complex and there are several known and unknown factors contributing to the result. That is where we need to understand the law of Karma to help us make a wise decision. Every action has an appropriate result. As I sow, so shall I reap. If I cheat someone, I should be ready to get cheated. If I tell a lie, I should be ready to be lied to. It is very clear that I don’t want to be cheated and I do not want to be lied to. What I do not want others to do to me, I should not do to others, for the simple reason that what I do will come back to me.
Thus, by knowing my priorities in life and by applying the law of Karma, what is “good” and what is “bad” becomes a logical conclusion. However, I cannot be making these analysis every time in my life. The situation may not wait for me. And, doing the analysis every time is inefficient. It is like working out every problem in Physics or Maths based on the fundamental axioms. If we do it, we will not be able complete the exam in time. We need to remember the well-proven theorems and formulas so that we can make quick calculations. Similarly, with the basic axioms like I want to be secure, I want to be peaceful, I want to be happy, I want to be free, etc. the wise people have worked out the thumb-rules. These are the general moral rules like “speak the truth”, “do not hurt others”, “have a decent attitude towards people of the other gender”, “do not have unfair possessions”, “lead a simple life”, “give in charity”, etc. These can be applied to most of the situations in life. Where the situation is complex and not straight forward, we can always apply the fundamentals and derive what is “good” and what is “bad” from the basics. There will be exceptions, like a judge needs to grant punishment to a criminal, which would surely be hurting to the criminal. But, exceptions are exceptions. They should not be confused with the general rules. When not sure, the general rules are always a safer bet.
Thus, by understanding these principles, we can decide what is “good” and what is “bad”. If there is a confusion between them, it indicates that the person’s priorities in life are not clear. When the priorities are made clear, what is “good” and what is “bad” become clear automatically.