Janma or Karma: Which came first ?

1) Duryodhana's Alibi

The Puranas and Ithihasas are ripe with stories of people blaming God as the reason for their wrong-doings. The most famous of them is that of Duryodhana in the Mahabharata. Duryodhana tells Shri Krishna that he knows what is righteousness (Dharma) but is unable to do it; He says that he also knows what is unrighteousness (Adharma) but is compelled to do it. He blames it on the Lord that is situated in his heart, and that he just does what it impels him to do.

दुर्योधन उवाच ।

जानामि धर्मं न च मे प्रवृत्ति-

जानम्यधर्मम् न च मे निवृत्तिः ।

केनापि देवेन हृदि स्थितेन 

यथा नियुक्तोऽस्मि तथा करोमि ॥ ५७॥ 

Duryodhana uvacha,

Janami dharmam na cha me pravrttih,

Janamyadharmam na cha me nivrttih;

kenapi devena hrdi sthitena 

yatha niyuktosmi tatha karomi

2) God just enlivens - just like light and electricity

In the Bhagavad Gita, it is very clearly outlined that the higher nature of "God", is pure consciousness and is also called "Para prakriti". This consciousness or God, enlivens matter (including the human mind). In other words it acts just like light. Light illuminates everything. That is its only purpose. One cannot blame the light for a robbery nor can one praise light for a successful neurosurgery.

Another example used in Vedanta is that of electricity. The same electricity in the grid flows through various gadgets and enlivens them but how each gadget acts depends on the nature or function of the gadget. For example, a fan only produces air-flow and a light bulb only produces light.  Electricity cannot make a bulb produce air-flow.

Similarly, the consciousness or God in its highest nature, cannot make a person do good or bad things. That is determined by the Guna (the mental composition) of the person. Sometimes, even great Yogis forget this fact and accuse God for all the problems in the world.

3) Rishi Uttanka threatens to curse Krishna for the world's problems

After the Mahabharata war was over, Krishna wanted to return to Dwaraka to continue his governance of the kingdom after a long absence, caused by the war. However, one or another problem prevented his departure. Krishna had to patiently attend to all these, and solve them. This included Yudhishtira's reluctance to ascend the throne and Arjuna's requesting Krishna to once again give him the knowledge of the Bhagavad Gita, which Krishna, though irritated at first, out of compassion, taught him again, in the form of what has come to be known as "The Anu Gita". In the 14th chapter of the Mahabharata, called the "Ashwamedika parva", just as Shri Krishna was about to step into the chariot, after Yudhishtira's cornonation, to go back to Dwaraka, a rishi by the name Uttanka accosted him.

Uttanka told Krishna,"Please tell me the glorious details of how you managed to mend the relations between the Pandavas and Kauravas.  Has that trust, O son, which I had always reposed on thee, borne fruit with regard to the Kauravas?". To this, the surprised Krishna said, "I did my best to establish peace but the Kauravas would not listen. When, I could by no means succeed in establishing them on the path of peace, it happened that they along with all their kinsmen and friends who fought for them, met with death".

On hearing this, the Rishi became angry and told the blessed Lord, "Though you were fully capable of preventing this, you let it happen", to which the blessed Lord said, "I have no control over their Karma. Their Karma caused this to happen". 

Uttanka interjected him and said, " But what caused their bad Karma ?". The blessed Lord patiently replied, "It is their actions in this and past Janmas (births).". To this the Rishi said, "But what about their first Janma when they had no previous bad karma ? You were the one responsible for making them do bad karma and therefore I am going to pronounce a curse on you for letting this mass slaughter happen". 

The Lord, smiling as it were, uttered these words, "O' great rishi, the scion of the Bharata dynasty, please listen to what I have to say in detail. You may choose to utter your curse after that. No man, by a little ascetic merit, will be able to put me down.  O' foremost of ascetics, I do not wish to see the destruction of all your penances which have been achieved with so much effort since childhood through the practice of Brahmacharya." 

Krishna, then, went on to tell Uttanka the gist of what he had told Arjuna, in the form of the sacred Bhagavad Gita, before the war. The content of what Krishna told Uttanka is illustrated in the next section in the form of shlokas from the Bhagavad Gita

4) Creating existed forever - either in manifest or unmanifest form

Bhagavan Krishna explains the common misconception about how one accumulated karma in the first Janma when they started with a clean slate, without previous karma. Was God sadistic enough to play a game where he gave some jivatmas bad character and others good character ?

Bhagavan's answer is that there was never a first Janma and that the jivas existed forever.

सर्वभूतानि कौन्तेय प्रकृतिं यान्ति मामिकाम् |

कल्पक्षये पुनस्तानि कल्पादौ विसृजाम्यहम् || 9.7||

sarva-bhūtāni kaunteya prakṛitiṁ yānti māmikām

kalpa-kṣhaye punas tāni kalpādau visṛijāmyaham

All beings, O’ Son of Kunti, reach the Parkriti (nature) belonging to me, at the time of dissolution of a kalpa (an era). I send them forth again at the beginning of a kalpa.

अव्यक्तादीनि भूतानि व्यक्तमध्यानि भारत |
अव्यक्तनिधनान्येव तत्र का परिदेवना || 2.28||

avyaktādīni bhūtāni vyakta-madhyāni bhārata
avyakta-nidhanānyeva tatra kā paridevanā

Beings are unmanifest in the beginning, then they are manifest in the middle and become unmanifest again in the end. What is there to grieve over this ?

अव्यक्ताद्व्यक्तय: सर्वा: प्रभवन्त्यहरागमे |
रात्र्यागमे प्रलीयन्ते तत्रैवाव्यक्तसञ्ज्ञके || 8.18||

avyaktād vyaktayaḥ sarvāḥ prabhavantyahar-āgame
rātryāgame pralīyante tatraivāvyakta-sanjñake

At the start of the creation, all manifest beings proceed from the unmanifested. At the coming of the pralayam (dissolution), they verily dissolve into that which is called the unmanifested. 

5) God remains detached in the creation and dissolution of the Universe - like a disinterested person

न च मां तानि कर्माणि निबध्नन्ति धनञ्जय |
उदासीनवदासीनमसक्तं तेषु कर्मसु || 9.9||

na cha māṁ tāni karmāṇi nibadhnanti dhanañjaya
udāsīna-vad āsīnam asaktaṁ teṣhu karmasu

O’ Dhananjaya, those actions do not bind me who am unattached with those actions and who remain like an indifferent person

नादत्ते कस्यचित्पापं न चैव सुकृतं विभु: |
अज्ञानेनावृतं ज्ञानं तेन मुह्यन्ति जन्तव: || 5.15||

nādatte kasyachit pāpaṁ na chaiva sukṛitaṁ vibhuḥ
ajñānenāvṛitaṁ jñānaṁ tena muhyanti jantavaḥ

The Lord  does not take on anyone’s puṇyaṁ (merit) or pāpaṁ (sin). Knowledge is covered by ignorance and because of this people are deluded .

6)  Krishna gives Uttanka the Vishwarupa Dharshana (the divine view of the cosmic form)

After telling Uttanka about the nature of God at its highest form, Krishna started to mount his chariot. Then, Uttanka, with folded hands, fell at Krishna's feet and asked him for the Vishwarupa Dharshana. Krishna obliged and thus, Uttanka, became one of the few people along with Arjuna and Sanjaya to have seen the divine cosmic form of the Lord.