The Karma Conundrum
The Karma Conundrum
Decoding the Direction of Destiny*
Abstract and Keywords
In this essay Badrinath mentions that the question of determinism versus free will has remained throughout history a central question of human life everywhere. In Indian thought, it was viewed from six different angles. Karma had held the individual so completely responsible for what he made of himself that the burden of it seemed far too much to bear alone. In the domain of karma there is neither grace nor reprieve. One is alone with one’s acts and their inevitable fruition.
Karma had held the individual so completely responsible for what he made of himself, that the burden of it seemed far too much to bear alone. In the domain of karma there is neither grace nor reprieve. One is entirely alone with one’s acts and their inevitable fruition. This, the freedom to choose but subjection to the fruits thereof, was something which man, weak and irresolute, could not live with. Hence his emotional need for something beyond himself, greater and more powerful than he, even if mysterious and enigmatic, a cosmic force, to which he could transfer the responsibility that belonged to him.
That need was answered by three major shifts in the perspective of karma, each one of them growing into a philosophic controversy as to the factors that govern a person’s circumstances, and all of them leaving in several ways visible marks upon human behaviour. In the first place, there arose the belief in fate, daiva, as a force over and above human endeavour. But however consoling that might be, fate seemed a little too capricious and inaccessible. (p.147) Secondly, fate was identified with ‘time’, kala,1 and then with God. It was most comforting to believe that, in the last count, one’s situation in life is willed by God, to whom one can pray for His grace, and may occasionally even abuse, for He is accessible, not remote, nor deaf. Freedom implies strength of the mind and character; grace, their weakness. Thirdly, in order to negate the awesome burden of choice and history, karma came to mean mostly ritual-acts. In them, there is no choice, no decision, no personal accountability. But this, on the very face of it, was the very opposite of the true meaning of karma.
The question of determinism vs free-will has remained throughout history a most central question of human life everywhere. In Indian thought, it was viewed from six different positions. Events of a person’s life are attributed, one, to personal endeavour alone; two, solely to providence or fate; three, entirely to the innate disposition of persons and their inter-action; four, to the combination of the preceding three; five, to God’s will alone; and the sixth view was that it is one of those questions about which no definite statement can be made, and is to be left open. That is the position of the Mahabharata, after it had stated each of those views at its strongest. The most vigorous advocacy of personal endeavour, paurusha, as the source of all success, is to be found in the Yoga-vasishtha.
In the Mahabharata, faith in the power of endeavour was based on the argument that to act would be meaningless if one’s efforts did not have their recompense, in which case people would look only to the unseen fate and give up effort altogether. In that event there will be no progress and everything will perish. Those who (p.148) are inferior begin nothing for fear of obstructions; the middling abandon a thing no sooner than there are obstructions; but the superior persons do not leave what they began even if they be hurt by a thousand obstacles. Even if providence and effort were linked with each other, the noble-minded always exert, only cowards talk of providence.
The Yoga-vasishtha is the most passionate advocate of the nobility and grandeur of human effort. Some friends, who have studied this work, were a little confused when, in an earlier article in these columns on the characteristics of Indian philosophy ([TOI], 16 November 1996), I had said that the question of fate vs free-will was left open, and had quoted Vasishtha in the Mahabharata indicating that, by his saying that he had no special knowledge of that subject; whereas the Vasishtha here, speaks of endeavour alone, in the strongest of voice. The fact is that the two Vasishthas were clearly two different persons. The Mahabharata was composed sometime around 1000 B.C., and the Yoga-vasishtha in the sixth century A.D.
The author of the Yoga-vasishtha dismisses fate, or daiva, as ‘a piece of imagination, just a word, crafted by fools; for there exists no such thing as “fate.”’ If words like ‘fate’ and ‘destiny’ are nevertheless used, it is to explain, in a manner of speaking, the accumulation of one’s own endeavour: there is no destiny other than one’s past efforts coming to fruition now as good or bad. In actual fact, ‘fate’ refers to nothing substantial than what aids or obstructs one’s endeavour. And endeavour is concrete, visible action; whereas fate can neither be seen nor inferred legitimately. The human person, a self-determined entity, determines his, or her, destiny.
Indeed, those who depend wholly on their own efforts, have the power of overcoming the effects even of acts done in a previous life, although in a sense it is true that the latter account for one’s circumstances in this life. However, even those can be changed by manly effort, but never through the absurd belief in fate. This optimism of the Yoga-vasishtha is based on the argument that just (p.149) as the wrong acts, hurtful, wounding, destructive acts, of yesterday can be corrected today, so the efforts in this life can overcome the effects of those of the previous one.
Vasishtha holds that ‘Among those with weak intellect, fate is only a consolation in sorrow. It is a comforting word. In actual reality, there is no fate.’ In a conversation with my friend Samir Jain, he brought up the important distinction, in the context of fate or free-will, between what is ‘diagnostic’ and what is ‘prescriptive.’ The notion of fate is prescriptive at best, coming into customary usage as an emotional consolation in personal situations that arise but seem to have no rational explanation. If it helps, that is alright. But the diagnostic, knowing something by its symptoms, is a different thing altogether. The Yoga-vasishtha makes concession to human weakness that finds comfort in the notion that the fate had decided so, or God had so willed. But the true diagnosis of events, according to that work, lies in the truth that one’s world is fashioned neither by fate nor by God, but by the desires and perceptions of the individual. ‘Destiny is according to thought.’
And thought is always in relation to something. It is on the quality of that relation, determined by the mind, that will depend whether we, as individuals, or as societies, or as nations, create for ourselves and for others a world of grasping, violence, and degradation, or a world in which there is for everyone the joy of life in its manifold variety. The Yoga-vasishtha says to us: ‘There is no other refuge than the conquest of the mind.’
(*) First published in The Times of India on 21 March 1997.
(1) Sanskrit for time. In the Mahabharata this is explored at three different levels: as the determining cause of all that is and that is not, in a combination with the proper place and the person concerned, desha and patra, as a measure of the appropriateness and meaning of an act, and as history—past, present, and future. For a fuller treatment, see Badrinath’s The Mahābhārata.