Saturday, September 12, 2015

Question & Answers - 2 - Fate vs Free Will

Q2a: A friend of mine exclaimed after revealing a bunch of woes that it seems it’s in one’s fate to go through all these miseries. It appeared to her that no matter one works so hard, one will go through what one is destined to.

Q2b: Another friend once argued that the entire world was in one’s hands. A fellow conversationalist then reminded, everyone wants success and happiness, but not all seem to achieve it. Even amongst the ones who are working hard, to some success remains elusive, WHY?

Q2c: A third online friend emailed me, out of the blue, asking what would be my opinion about Horoscopes, how one should approach as different people have different results?

Ans: Fate, also known as luck or fortune is usually used to describe one born with a silver spoon or someone wallowing in great misery. There seems to be a mysterious force guiding us. Many can testify to strangers showing up to help in times of dire needs or someone who is feeling like being on the top, suddenly dashed to the ground.

            There is an equally mysterious, Free-Will, the ability to whatever one chooses to. We also see lots of great books like Yoga Vashishta, which glorify the Purushartha (self effort). We hear numerous stories like Markandeya, Savithri, who even defy death through their Purushartha. We see in our daily lives people defying the odds, rising from abject penury or serious handicaps.

            Now rises an interesting question, in this tussle, which is more powerful.  Depending on one’s experiences in life, people take sides. They often present convincing testimonials. Is there a real answer to evaluate which of these two mysterious forces holds the upper hand, or is it a timing thing?

            Let us jog our memory on what are the three types of Karmas. All the karmas we have accumulated in our past (one must emphasize life or death doesn’t make a difference to this accounting system according to Hindus) is called Sanchita Karma. Only a fraction of it fructifies at any given time, this is called Prarabhda Karma. This also controls the basic tendencies or Vasanas. This Prarabhda shapes our current situation along with what we had done with it. The Karmas generated by current actions, be it prompted by our Vasanas or independent free will, are called  Kriyamana or Agami Karma.

            Simple analogy, a store owner may have lots of inventory in the warehouse. This is Sanchita Karma. At any given time, he may choose to display some fraction of his inventory. This is Prarabhda Karma. Due to the transactions of supply and demand, he may restock more of some products or liquidate some. These actions are like Agami Karma.

            The advocates of Fatalism fail to recognize that it promotes inertia, weakness of will and laziness. They will point out, it does offer some sort of solace or explanation. But fatalism destroys faith. On contrast, free will can cheer up the more forlorn person and raise their spirits. It gives hope and promotes one to strive their way out of their current situation. There is an emphasis on evolution, ownership of one’s future. Instead of throwing up our hands and blaming God for everything, we can take responsibility to deal with our life. If we are playing cards, our Prarabhda is deals the set of cards in our hands. But what we do with it will determine the course of actions. It is literally in our hands.

            The case for pitting fate against free-will only shows a lack of our understanding. They are two aspects of the same thing. Our Past actions sculpted our Present. Our Present will impact our Future. Irrespective of why we do an action, every action reinforces a subtle tendency. Every action generates a fruit, be it good or bad due to its interaction with the Universe. Krishna tells in Bhagavad Gita that HE alone is the dispenser of fruits. But it must be noted that he is talking of the timing thing when an action will fructify. Every action has a double impact, it reinforces a samskara or tendency internally and manifests as fate externally. This samskara will continue to prompt us in a certain direction. This explains why one whiff of cigarette or drug can make some addicted for life as this reinforcement keeps happening till a chemical takeover happens in the brain.

The following quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson in The Selected Writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson, aptly summarizes this process from western verbiage:

Sow a thought and you reap an action; sow an act and you reap a habit; sow a habit and you reap a character; sow a character and you reap a destiny.

            It can be evident that once a tendency takes root and starts auto piloting one’s life, it can be altered; but requires tremendous will power sustained by reinforcing good vasanas. This will be an uphill battle. Let us take a simple example that is realistic. Most of us tend to lead sedentary lives and we are settled into this tamasic way of life as we find it is easier to slouch on a couch than do some exercise. First step is to recognize that one needs a change. Even to register this requirement is a herculean task, not to talk about actually doing exercises. This internal pressure of tamasic vasanas cannot be merely overcome by mere viveka (discrimination) or vairagya (dispassion). It is easier to deploy a third arsenal in our tool kit, emotions, our dreams, and aspirations. This provides the fertile ground for our viveka and vairagya to germinate.

            To aid this process, we can also make use of Yoga Vashishta’s insights of using PROPER ASSOCIATION to support our dreams and sankalpas. It is very important to note that even the choices available by free-will are factored and colored by our past choices.

            Ramakrishna Paramahamsa was noted for his beautiful parables crystallizing the wisdom of the sages. In this parable, he simplifies our understanding of Karmas. Let us imagine a cow tied to a stake with some rope. The length of the rope is determined by Prarabhda Karma. The cow has the free will as determined by the Prarabhda. You and I do not have wings to fly like birds for instance. The cow can knot this free will by its own current actions, Agami Karma, and curtail its own freedom. We see people making poor choices, not living up to their own potential. Which smoker or drug addict or alcoholic will ever alter the way easily? The free will in this case gets colored by the vasanas which keep the desire to abandon as an almost inexistent possibility. The cow on the other hand, if truly desirous of freedom, if it keeps tugging all the time, keeps weakening the Prarabhda. At some point, if the Prarabhda is not strong enough, gives way to the present actions.

            Krishna seems to emphasize on Karma in so many places in Bhagavad Gita. In the eighteenth chapter, towards the end, Krishna’s last message to Arjuna is sufficient to highlight the importance of free will. After having given the essence of Vedas in eighteen chapters, Krishna informs Arjuna that he has given all the knowledge that is available and the next steps are in Arjuna’s hands. It must be noted that earlier on in other chapters, he even informs Arjuna that he cannot escape the divine will to act.

इति ते ज्ञानमाख्यातम् गुह्याद्गुह्यतरम् मया

विमृश्यैतदशेषेणा यथेछसि तथा कुरु|| 18.63

Iti te jnaanamaakhyaatam guhyaad guhyataram mayaa;

Vimrishyaitadasheshena yathecchasi tathaa kuru.

Thus has wisdom more secret than secrecy itself been declared unto thee by Me; having reflected over it fully, then act thou as thou wishest.

            So we saw that fate is nothing more than our own past karmas and can be a real potent force. We also saw that free will has the ability to even modify fatalistic or deterministic endpoints. Is that all? We see all the time Bhaktas talking highly about the Supreme Will. Jnanis talking of Divine Will. God’s Will is the only force that actually exists. Just like we saw the fallacy of separating the force of Karma into Fate and Free Will, we can understand that this universe and all the Laws are nothing but the GRACE of GOD. It definitely takes a subtle mind to effectively make this small jump. Even if someone argues, that I did all the work, like Krishna mentioned, it is HIS GRACE that determines the timing of the fruits. He is the Phala-data, giver of the fruits of action. Some have used the phrase of the entire Soul willing. In our cow parable, this is akin to the owner of the cow, releasing the cow by untying it from the stake.

Free Will, as we noted earlier gets constantly colored by our vasanas. When one removes the coloring of the EGO that constantly keeps interfering in our decisions, then HIS will merely shines through ours. It is the EGO that has differentiated DIVINE GRACE as HIS will and ours, which is the same as that seemingly, sees fate and free will as two different forces. This factor, EGO, is the most potent force which the DIVINE WILL deploys to make this Universe dance to HIS tunes. The potter sees clay in all his creations, but the one with ego sees the different utensils. Similarly the goldsmith sees gold in all the forms of gold ornaments.  May the DIVINE GRACE help us overcome our vasanas and EGO to see HIS WILL shining in all aspects of our lives. May HIS GRACE make us effective in all our endeavors. May HIS LOVE help us overpower the deathly grasp of Karmas. Krishna has given all that wisdom in Bhagavad Gita. May we have enough Free Will to read and apply these teachings in our lives. If we can make one step in this direction, DIVINE GRACE rushes towards us a million steps, eager to embrace us and lift us to a higher state of being. 

Om Tat Sat

Suggested Reading:
  1. The riddle of Fate and Free-will solved – Swami Chandrasekhara Bharati, Sringeri Mutt


  1. True ego if removed from mind the whole universe will look beautiful. All will be seen as god

  2. True ego if removed from mind the whole universe will look beautiful. All will be seen as god

  3. Thanks for the Masterclass.....