Karma, Destiny and Free Will

[This essay originally appeared in the November, 2007 issue of Tirumala Tirupati Devasthanams’ Illustrated Monthly ‘Sapthagiri’ which is slightly modified here].

                                                                     Are we free or puppets?

 Life is a creation. But are we merely playing the role already created for us, or can we create our own pages in any chapter of life? Can we determine our destiny or does destiny determine us? Opinions differ. The question, however, remains — how much of our lives can we actually control?

The one theme that almost all religions proclaim is crystallized in these words: “The Divine will is better” (ishvarechcha gariasi) for the Hindus; "Thy will be done" for the Christians; Inshallah—"God willing" for the Muslims Or to put it in Buddha's words: "Events happen, deeds are done, and there is no individual doer thereof."

One of the greatest and everlasting debates in human history is about the role of destiny in the lives of human beings. There was a time when it was almost an accepted fact of life that each and every event was governed by destiny of human beings. With the advent of modern science and technological development the importance of the role of destiny as a concept got eroded and today it is considered as a blind faith without any rationality behind it.  A majority of the so called successful and progressive people do not subscribe to the supremacy of destiny and emphasize man’s free will in shaping one’s own life.

Different viewpoints
There are three main streams of thought on the subject which are discussed below.

1. The most prevalent view seems to be the one which says that there is nothing called destiny or fate. This line of thinking says that human beings have the option to take decisions using their free will.  All our successes, failures and actions are governed by the decisions we take. If we take correct decisions and act accordingly, no one can prevent us from achieving what we want to. If we fail, it must be due to something gone wrong on account of our own shortcomings.

In this line of thinking, destiny is considered a superstition at worst and at best one can regard it as a psychological defense system to cope with the failures in life as we are never ready to accept that it is we who are responsible for the failure due to some bad planning, lack of efforts in the right direction or outright failure to correctly judge the realities.

This theory leaves many questions of life unanswered. For example, it does not answer the question of differences between different people at the point of their birth. Why one is born to rich parents and another to poor ones? Why are some children born healthy and some sick or crippled in some way? And such other similar questions.

2. The second school of thought says we are free to take the first step, but as soon as we take it, our second step becomes inevitable and predictable.  We become bound by the different laws of life which govern the outcome of an act.

For example, say, we are going to plant a tree. As long as we have not done it, we have plenty of options. We may choose not to plant the seed at all. We may choose the type of tree we wish to grow etc. But once we have taken that decision and acted upon it, our freedom is curtailed by many causes. If we plant a mango tree, then no matter what we do we cannot get any other fruit than the mango from that tree. We cannot guarantee that the seed we just planted will grow to a big healthy tree at all. It may also happen that the tree grows, bears fruit, but we cannot taste even a single fruit on account of various reasons. In other words, our freedom is limited to the actions we take but not to the outcome of that act. This is logical because the outcome of any act depends on so many other factors over which we have no control. That is why even the best laid out plans of the mightiest and most intelligent people end in complete failure and utter chaos. This concept is called "Law of Karma".  The word karma means: kar=actions, ma=my i.e. ‘My actions’.

Karma is a comprehensive term for processes whereby impressions are formed and imprinted on the mind-field to bear certain fruits in a strict application of the law of cause and effect. The theory of Karma common to many oriental religions states that there is a universal accounting system in which each individual must experience the consequences of all his actions (Karmas) .None of us, no matter how rich, powerful or influential we are on the world stage, can avoid facing these consequences. Our lives and destiny are created by the sum total of these consequences, both good and bad. The personality we have been born with, the way we look, the parents we were born to, the religion and country we belong to, our relationships, have all been created by consequences of actions performed in some past life.

Karma manifests through the samskaras (vasanas) or impressions accumulated in us. Every thought, word and deed creates a samskara or impression that alters us and eventually changes our destiny.  As our thoughts create our lives, karma begins with thoughts. Good thoughts generate good karma while angry or negative thoughts reap bad karma. Good or bad karma is determined by our motivation. The same act may generate good or bad karma depending on the reason why we are doing it. Giving a meal to a beggar out of compassion or out of a desire to get rid of some old food, will have different consequences.

In the eastern philosophies like Hinduism or Buddhism, the concept of reincarnation occupies a pride of place. It says, we all keep taking birth after birth. This cycle of birth and death has been continuing since eternity, and will keep on repeating itself till a human being attains "Enlightenment" which is the ultimate goal of life (purushartha). This state of enlightenment has been described differently by different sages. Some have called it Self-Realization, some have called it Self-Actualization. It is also known as attaining Moksha, Nirvana or Kaivalya. Only after one achieves it, one can come out of the shackles of this relentless cycle of birth and death.

Karma therefore goes hand-in hand with reincarnation since rebirth is the means to exhaust all the consequences of our karma. Our present has been created by our past and our future is taking shape through every moment that we live - through every thought, word and action.

The Bhagavad Gita has been advocating nishkama karma - desireless action - since time immemorial. It says “Your choice is in action only, never in the result thereof. Do not be the author of the result of action. Let your attachment not be to inaction” (2-47)

The reincarnation theory also states that the consequences of actions (Karma Phala) need not necessarily be experienced in the present life; they can be carried over into future lives. Because of this, several sub-divisions of Karma have been postulated. The following classification is common to many Hindu schools of thought.
•    Sanchita Karma. The store house of unexhausted Karmic end results accumulated from previous births.
•    Prarabdha Karma. That part of one’s Sanchita Karma which started bearing fruit and must be worked out in the present life. Prarabdha is often translated as destiny.
•    Agami Karma. Consequences of new Karma getting accumulated in the present lifetime on account of current actions which is carried forward into future lives.
This theory implies that all events are predestined. There is nothing called free will. We are all like instruments in some grand design and nothing else. All our thoughts and actions are predestined.

3. The third school contends that both destiny and free will work side by side in human activities. It says that free will is not exclusive but is included in destiny. Hindu philosophy does not entirely accept any one theory viz. destiny or free will. If destiny is the only deciding factor how is it possible then that the seeds for future births can be sown in the present birth which is dependent on one’s free will? If no initiative is taken in life and everything is left to destiny it is a mere escape from responsibility to perform one’s own duties and is fatalism. Bhagavad Gita reiterates that none can remain without performing action even for a second.  On the other hand if absolute free will alone is going to be the determining factor, then why many of our efforts result in failures despite sincere and honest efforts while many other actions succeed where no sincere efforts are made?

Destiny and free will
This leads us to the next question what this destiny is and can it be altered by the sheer force of human free will?

To find out an answer to this question we must start with the premise that there is some purpose in creation of the universe and everything therein works in accordance with a pre-arranged sequence wherein there is no chaos and man is just a small component of the whole marvel.  The purpose of human life in this scheme of things is to make man perfect and thus free him from the cycle of repeated births and deaths (moksha)

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