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Swami Swaroopananda Q&A: Individual Karma vs Collective Karma

Q: Will a person who lives a pure, peaceful and spiritual life still be affected by the collective negative karma associated with the time and place in which they live?

Answer: Yes, of course. Think about the sinking of the Titanic. There were many different kinds of people on the Titanic - evil people, normal people, saintly people, all types of people. When the boat sank, however, everyone who was on board shared in the collective karma, but the experience of everyone on board was different. This is the point. Everyone shared in the collective karma of the sinking boat, and at the same time, the experience of each one was different.

One person had the opportunity to get into a lifeboat but he gave his place to another passenger. Then the boat sank and the person died. This was just one experience, right? The boat is sinking, people are panicking, and this one person gives his place to another person. He saves a life, and in the end he loses his life. Of course the person whose life he saved never forgot this individual, never. So, you see? There was a common experience. Within that common experience – if you know the story of the Titanic you will recall that the orchestra was playing as the boat was sinking, that some people were panicking, some people were peaceful, some people were helpful. At the end of the day, some people’s lives were saved and other people’s lives were not saved.

From a spiritual point of view, what is the lesson? The lesson is that, yes, there is indeed collective karma, but we also have free choice within that collective karma to create our own destiny, and also to help and shape the destiny of others. The life of the person who survives because another person sacrifices his own life will be transformed forever. The sacrificing person not only saved the physical life of the other person, he also helped to transform the other person’s life.

Within a collective karma situation, all of us have choices to make. We have to make them. Yes, in that situation, some of us may physically die and some of us may physically survive. But the choices we make are the most important thing within that situation. Those choices – the free choices within the collective situation – are what make the situation spiritual.

The planet Earth is like a boat, so let’s assume that the boat is sinking. In some parts of the boat, people are saying, “Ah, nothing is happening.” In another corner, people are panicking. In another corner people say, “We are in first class, we should be the ones to survive.” In another corner, people are sacrificing their own lives for the sake of others. It is a collective situation but each of us has free choice, which makes our lives spiritual, and which makes other lives spiritual.

I remember hearing a funny story from a very wise person. There is a boat sailing in the Caribbean. Suddenly, the captain sees on his gadgets that water is rushing into the boat. He actually can see that the water is gushing into the boat through a particular cabin. So he sends the first officer to that cabin to see what is happening because the boat is going to sink. When the first officer enters the cabin, he sees a passenger with a drill, cutting a big hole in the wall of the cabin, and water is rushing in. The first officer says to the person, “Are you crazy? Look what you are doing! The boat is going to sink!” The passenger then replies, “This is not your business. This is my cabin.”

Who is that passenger? We are that passenger. We say, “Oh, this is not your business, because this is my cabin.” This is also freedom of choice.

Yes, there is collective karma. Yes, there is a collective situation. Our free choice within that situation is what is spiritual, and even if our free choice is poor, we can learn from others. Our free choice is often poor, but we are inspired by the free choice of other people – like Mahatma Gandhi, like Mother Theresa, like Swami Vishnudevananda and so on. We are inspired by the free choice of others. The saints also have freedom of choice, even more than us.

Om Shanti, Om Peace.
Swami Swaroopananda, Director