Karma, Destiny and Free Will

Views of the sages and scriptures:
Bhagavan Ramana Maharshi

Sri Ramana Maharshi accepted the validity of the laws of Karma but said that they were only applicable as long as a person imagined that he was separate from the Self. At this level (the level of the ajnani or the ignorant), he said that individuals will pass through a series of pre-ordained activities and experiences, all of which are the consequences of previous acts and thoughts. He said that every act and experience in a person’s life is determined at birth and that the only freedom one has is to realize that there is no one acting and no one experiencing. However, once one realizes the Self there is no one left to experience the consequences of actions and so the whole structure of Karmic laws then becomes redundant.

Sri Ramana Maharshi made it clear that if the agent, upon whom the Karma depends, namely the ego, which subsists between the body and the Self, merges in its source and loses its form, how can the Karma, which depends upon it, survive? He says when there is no ‘I’ there is no Karma. The essence of Karma is to know the truth of oneself by enquiring ‘Who am I, the doer, who begins to do Karmas?’ Unless the doer of Karmas, the ego, is annihilated through enquiry, the perfect peace of supreme bliss, which is the result of Karma Yoga, cannot be achieved.

To the question “Is there such a thing as free will? Sri Ramana Maharshi asks: Whose will is it? So long as there is the sense of doer ship, there is the sense of enjoyment and of individual will. But if this sense is lost through the practice of self-enquiry (Vichara) and one becomes self-realized the divine will act and guide the course of events. He clarifies that free will holds the field only in association with individuality. As long as individuality lasts there is free will. All the scriptures are based on this idea and therefore advise us to direct the free will towards right goals.

When the question “If what is destined to happen will happen is there any use in prayer or effort or should we just remain idle?” Ramana Maharshi says: There are only two ways to conquer destiny or be independent of it. One is to enquire for whom is this destiny and discover that only the ego is bound by destiny and not the Self, and that the ego is non-existent.

“Destiny is the result of past action. It concerns the body. Let the body act as may suit it. Why are you concerned with it? Why do you pay attention to it? Should anything happen, it happens as a result of past actions, of divine will and other factors”. This idea is embedded in the common term ‘namaste’ we use in our day to day social interactions. This word can be split up as na+ma+te+astu meaning thereby “ I am not” (na ma) “You are” (te astu) implying a complete wiping out of the notion of “I-ness” and “My-ness” and surrendering to “You- The Supreme Lord.”

“The other way is to kill the ego by completely surrendering to the Lord, by realizing one’s helplessness and saying all the time, ‘Not I but Thou, O Lord’, giving up all sense of "I" and ‘mine’ and leaving it to the Lord to do what He likes with you. Surrender can never be regarded as complete so long as the devotee wants this or that from the Lord. True surrender is love of God for the sake of love and nothing else, not even for the sake of liberation. In other words, complete effacement of the ego is necessary to conquer destiny. It is immaterial whether you achieve this effacement through Jnana Marga - self-enquiry or through Bhakti Marga - path of devotion.”

The supplication of the elephant in Gajendra Moksha and of Draupadi when she was being humiliated in the open court of Duryodhana in the presence of her husband’s and other elders are illustrations of absolute surrender to The Lord.

Sri Ramakrishna Paramahamsa

Sri Ramakrishna also echoes similar thinking. When he was asked by his disciple are we really free to do whatever we like he replied: “Everything depends on the will of God. The world is His play. He has created all these different things - great and small, strong and weak, good and bad, virtuous and vicious. This is all His maya, His sport. You must have observed that all trees in a garden are not of the same kind.”

“As long as a man has not realised God, he thinks he is free. It is God Himself who keeps the error in man. Otherwise sin would have multiplied. Man would not have been afraid of sin and there would have been no punishment for it.”

“But do you know the attitude of one who has realized God? Such a person feels: I am the machine and You, O Lord, are the Operator. I am the house and You are the Indweller. I am the chariot and You are the Driver. I move as You move me. I speak as You make me speak. The desire to argue (which is very powerful in the state of ajnana) disappears when a man attains wisdom.”

Bhagavad Gita

The Song Celestial tells us: The forces of Nature do all works. But due to delusion of ignorance people assume themselves to be the doer. (3.27) The one who knows the truth about the role of the forces of Nature in getting work done does not become attached to the work. Such a person knows that it is the forces of Nature that get their work done by using our organs as their instruments. (3.28) The wise who knows the truth thinks: "I do nothing at all." In seeing, hearing, touching, smelling, eating, walking, sleeping, breathing; and speaking, giving, taking, as well as opening and closing the eyes, the wise believes that only the senses are operating upon their objects. (5.08-09) The one who perceives that all works are done by the powers of material Nature truly understands, and thus does not consider oneself as the doer.(13.29)

As breathing, winking and similar processes are automatic and man claims no agency for them, he being conscious of the processes only when disease or similar causes afflict them. In a similar manner all his activities should be automatic, without his arrogating to himself the agency or responsibility thereof. A man of charity does not even know that he is doing charitable acts, it is his nature to do so, he cannot help it. This detachment can only come from a tireless endeavor and God's grace.

Gita lays stress that work is a function of nature and depends on God’s grace for its success. It says “Learn from Me, O mighty-armed Arjuna, these five factors, as declared in the Sankhya doctrine, for the accomplishment of all actions. The seat (body) of action, the doer (ego), the various sense organs of perception, the different functions of organs of actions and the presiding Deity also, the fifth. Whatever action a man performs by his body, speech and mind, whether right or the reverse, these five are its causes.” (18.13-15)

The concept of work is analyzed in these verses. When it was told that action can be done without egocentric desires and attachments to fruits the consequential question is what constitutes action or work.

Sri Krishna says that there are five aspects of action or five-fold division of work. The five components of action are
1. The body -Adhishthaanam -the gateway for the entrance and existence of stimuli.
2. The ego -Karta- which seeks fulfillment of the action through the body.
3. The organs of perception - Karanam - through which the inner personality comes into contact with the field of enjoyment and satisfaction.
4. The organs of action and
5. The presiding deities of the organs of perception which make them work properly.

The deities represent the non-human factor that interferes and disposes of human effort. In all human actions, there is an unpredictable element which is commonly called luck or X-factor in modern language or traditionally as destiny or fate or the force accumulated by the acts of one's past lives. It is called here daiva. The task of man is only to plant the seed but his reaping the harvest lies in the hands different from his own.

Valmiki’s Ramayana

We find more or less the same ideas in Valmiki Ramayana also. (2/22/13-24) When Sri Rama was banished to the forest Lakshmana got very much angry over Kaikeyi and started reprimanding her in very strong terms. Sri Rama pacifies Lakshmana telling him that Kaikeyi was not responsible for his banishment and put the entire blame on his own destiny. Sri Rama’s dissertation here on the role of Divine Will in human lives are gems of the Valmikian thought process and a masterpiece in Vedanta.

He says: “O Lakshmana, on my going to the forest dressed up in the bark of trees and deer skin, sporting matted hair-locks, the mind of Kaikeyi will be at rest. Surely, I should not give offence to Providence by overlooking His purpose, as it is by Him that this idea of sending me away into the exile has been planted into the mind of Kaikeyi through the machinations of Manthara. I shall accordingly be going into the forest; let there be no delay on this account.”

“Divine intervention alone should be regarded as responsible for sending me into the exile as well as for taking back from me the kingdom of Ayodhya offered to me. But for the prompting of the Providence, how could the decision to persecute me by banishing me into the forest enter the mind of Kaikeyi, my own mother? O brother, you are aware “As such I cannot hold anything other than the will of the Providence responsible for her prevailing upon the king with pungent words urging him to stop my installation and send me to the forest. How else could she, a princess of gentle disposition and possessing rare qualities of head and heart, speak, like a cruel woman in the presence of her husband, words intended to torment me?”

“That which cannot be foreseen is surely a decree of providence and it cannot be set aside by any among created beings. It is therefore evident that by the will of Providence or destiny the unexpected has befallen me as well as her. Again, who can dare challenge destiny, of which no indication can be found other than the consequences of the act itself? Joy and sorrow, fear and anger, gain and loss, birth and death and whatever similar experience comes to a particular individual that is unquestionably the work of Providence.”

“Strongly impelled by destiny, even sages practicing severe austerities are led astray leaving aside restraint and get ruined by lust and anger. It is indeed nothing other than an act of destiny which unexpectedly and for no ostensible reason creates obstacles for an action commenced with herculean preparations. Again it is common knowledge that one gets a windfall of fortune with little effort, with practically no resources. That is fate".

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