Karma in the life of a devotee is a very complex subject. In sastra it is said that chanting a mere reflection of the holy name of Krishna (namabhasa) has the power to destroy one’s manifest (prarabdha) karma. In his book Madhurya Kadambini, Visvanatha Cakravarti Thakura also describes how prarabdha karma is eradicated through the perfection of sadhana bhakti. This is in keeping with the idea that one’s karma is destroyed at the time of initiation, in as much as initiation being part of sambandha-jnana is completed when one graduates from sadhana bhakti. According to Sri Jiva Goswami, prarabdha karma is the last vestige of karmic bondage that a devotee must undergo. In other words, the unmanifest stages of a devotee’s karmic bondage are destroyed first, and the prarabdha karma is the last to be removed by the grace of Bhakti devi.
What happens to a devotee who has become free from the fetters of karma but has not yet developed pure love of Krishna (prema)? The Lord takes over the devotee’s body and sustains it himself so that the devotee can further cultivate prema. This, however, does not mean that such a devotee will be free from sickness, calamity, or distress. It means that none of these are due to prarabdha karma. They are the special arrangement of the Lord to make his devotee more dependent on him, to increase the devotee’s eagerness and love.
Therefore, a fully qualified Vaishnava guru does not suffer from karma. If the guru has attained the stage of nistha (fixed devotion), hindrances resulting from good and bad karma are completely eradicated (purna-nivrtti), although there is still the minute possibility that anarthas arising from karma may reemerge. When he or she attains asakti, the last stage of sadhana bhakti wherein the mind is completely attached to Krishna, karmic impediments are absolutely eradicated (atyantiki- nivrtti). This is the terminology of Sri Visvanatha Cakravarti Thakura. Sri Rupa Goswami has also explained that sadhana bhakti frees one from all distress (klesaghni) appearing in the form of karma, the root of which is ignorance (avidya). How so? Bhakti is the highest knowledge (raja vidya).
Although it is said that the guru takes the karma of the disciple, this means that the guru takes it away by engaging the disciple in sadhana bhakti and blessing him or her. Hearing and chanting about Krishna under the guidance of sri guru combined with the guru’s grace destroys one’s karma. Of the two, effort in sadhana and the grace of the guru, the latter is more important, linga bhuyastvat tad hi baliyah tad api (Vs. 3.3.45). Thus the guru must have the power to bless the student and engage him or her in sadhana bhakti. Such a qualified guru does not have to experience the karma of the students in a Christ-like fashion.
Srila Prabhupada has said, “This is Christian theory. ‘You do something, and I suffer for that.’ No. You have to suffer. You have done something wrong; you must suffer. This is the real philosophy.” He also said, “He (someone) committed the murder, but he thinks his father should suffer the punishment! Is that a sane proposal? ‘No, you have committed the murder; you must be hanged.’ Similarly, when you commit sinful activities, you must suffer—not Jesus Christ. That is God’s law.”
This tells us that the guru, being free from karma, does not again come under the influence of karma when he or she initiates disciples. Nor does the guru have to suffer karma. However, Rupa Goswami says that if the guru accepts too many unqualified disciples this constitutes an offense that can disturb bhajana. This means that should the guru’s disciples misbehave the guru will have to deal with their misbehavior, and that will make the guru’s work that much more difficult. Also, if the disciple leaves the guru’s service, karma that has been suspended so that the disciple can engage in sadhana bhakti will again come to arrest such a wayward disciple. This will certainly trouble the guru’s mind and heart. In these ways, the guru’s bhajana may be disturbed. One should not burden the guru in this way.
Sometimes Srila Prabhupada humbly spoke like this about himself, saying that he accepted too many unqualified disciples and had to suffer as a result. Certainly it was clear that he was disturbed by some of their activities. Yet if one scrutinizes his teaching, it also becomes clear that the karma of the disciple is gradually destroyed in proportion to his or her adherence to the guidelines of sri guru. Thus if the guru is qualified, the onus is on the disciples to follow sincerely. If they do so, the disciples will themselves become free from karma as they attain Krishna consciousness.
Srila Prabhupada states, “An initiated devotee is given the chance for becoming free from the entanglement of karma wheel. Initiated means beginning, not perfection. The spiritual master’s business is to guide him to the perfectional point. But if one does not strictly follow the guidance of a bona fide spiritual master, his initiation does not bear any meaning. The initiation performance is an agreement by the disciples to abide by the order of the spiritual master. Therefore, if the spiritual master is bona fide and the disciple is serious to abide by his order, then the success is sure. But if a disciple follows strictly the devotional way of life, he is no longer a karmi and all his activities, which may appear to be like ordinary work, or it may be activity according to scriptural injunction, are counted as devotional service. And devotional service in all circumstances is free from the actions and reactions of karma.”