From Back to Godhead
Are we simply puppets, helplessly manipulated by the strings of our past activities?
I look on with dismay as the tow truck drives away with the wreck that used to be our car.
“It’s all right,” my wife tries to console me. “Probably some bad karma.”
I consider her words. She has just mangled our car by driving it into the rear end of a truck, and she seems quite eager to let destiny take responsibility for her actions. I wonder if it’s really bad karma, or just bad driving.
Are we simply puppets, helplessly manipulated by the strings of our past activities, or do we have the freedom to act? If everything is predestined, what control do we have over our activities? What exactly is the interplay between destiny and endeavor?
Apparently, similar doubts had also beset Satyavrata Muni, a great king and a sage in ancient times who was able to get his doubts addressed authoritatively by Lord Matsya, an incarnation of Sri Krishna. Their conversation has been recorded in the Matsya Purana.
Satyavrata Muni inquires, “O Lord, which is superior: fate or one’s own exertion and effort? I have doubts on this; kindly resolve them.”
Satyavrata Muni is raising the perennial philosophical conundrum of predestination versus free will. In reply, Lord Matsya explains that three elements—fate, effort, and time—conjointly affect the course of one’s life. He gives the example of a farmer, whose crop depends on three factors: planting, rain, and time. Planting represents effort, and rain represents fate. If the farmer plants but there’s no rain, he’ll have no crop. And if it rains but he hasn’t planted, he’ll have no crop. Both fate and effort are required, as is time.
If we act properly and perform pious activities, we are awarded good fortune, and if we act sinfully, we have to suffer. Over time, good fate manifests as situations favorable to our endeavor and bad fate as unfavorable situations. Destiny may even give us enjoyment or suffering without much endeavor. Winning a lottery, being born in a rich family, or diseased body are examples of this.
The relationship between endeavor and destiny seems quite straightforward, at least conceptually. By our endeavor we create our destiny: We reap what we sow. But not so apparent is the reverse, the relationship between destiny and endeavor, which started me on this train of thought. If we are fated to enjoy or suffer, will our efforts somehow lead us down a predestined path? Are all our activities completely bound by the dictates of destiny, or do we have free will?
Sri Krishna explains the effect of destiny in the Bhagavad-gita (15.15). The Lord says, “I am seated in everyone’s heart, and from Me come remembrance, knowledge, and forgetfulness.” Later (18.61) Krishna reiterates: “The Supreme Lord is situated in everyone’s heart, O Arjuna, and is directing the wanderings of all living entities, who are seated as on a machine, made of the material energy.” In his purport Srila Prabhupada elaborates: “After changing bodies, the living entity forgets his past deeds, but the Supersoul, as the knower of the past, present, and future, remains the witness of all his activities. Therefore all the activities of living entities are directed by this Supersoul. The living entity gets what he deserves.”
According to our past activities, remembrance and forgetfulness are supplied to us and are revealed as our propensities, desires, and aspirations. What we ultimately get is a combination of what we desire and what we deserve. For instance, many people would like to be millionaires, but only a few will work toward the goal, and only a small fraction of them will actually achieve it. On the other hand, some people are born to inherit wealth without any endeavor. Performing pious activities is like making a deposit into the karma- account: When the deposit matures, one may withdraw it and enjoy it. So one who desires to be wealthyand has enough pious credits may be born wealthy, another with fewer credits may have to work for it, and yet another with insufficient credits may not achieve it despite hard work.
Destiny sets the stage for us to perform our activities. A cow tethered to a post is free to move only as far as the rope will go. Similarly, the scope of our present endeavors depends on our past activities. A person born in a rich family is offered greater opportunity and freedom than one in a poor family. An extreme example is the animal or plant forms of life, which a soul gets as a severe reaction to past sinful activities. Here the living entity has practically no free will and simply acts out the acquired modes of material nature. That is why the human form of life is considered so special. Only in this form does the soul have some degree of freedom to shape its destiny. But with free will also comes accountability, which is why only in the human form does one accrue good or bad karma. The law of karma does not apply to animal or plant life, where the soul’s promotion to higher life forms is automatic.
Even though being in an accident, suffering from a disease, being poor, being rich, and so on, are all predestined, that does not mean we can now start driving negligently, ignore our health, and stop taking care of ourselves. Let’s assume we do start driving negligently. The law of karma dictates that this irresponsible action will yield an undesirable reaction. It may be an accident, or it may be something else. But it will come.
The law of karma is so complex that conclusively determining the precise outcomes of our activities is impossible. Ultimately, our endeavor shapes our destiny, and that is why the scriptures give us so many guidelines about what to do and what not to do.
The scriptures also warn us that understanding the law of karma should not make us callous to the suffering of others. The soul is intrinsically compassionate, and even though people are suffering as a result of their past actions, the scriptures enjoin us to per-form the pious activities of giving in charity and helping the distressed.
Changing Our Karma
An important point to understand is that the reactions to our prior activities can be altered. There are two processes for this. The first is prayashcitta, or atonement, and the second is devotional service.
The Vedic way of life prescribes atonement for sinful activities. With atonement, a person voluntarily accepts some penance to offset the reactions to previous sinful activities. It is like a criminal voluntarily surrendering in exchange for a lighter sentence. But atonement is like trying to relieve the symptoms rather than cure the disease. One reaction to sinful activities is a desire to commit more activities that are sinful. While atonement may soften the suffering from past sins, it does not lessen the stockpile of desires that motivate one to commit such activities. That is why Sukadeva Goswami says (Srimad-Bhagavatam 6.1.11), “Persons who subject themselves to the rules and regulations of atonement are not at all intelligent.”
Furthermore, pious activities condition one to the resultant enjoyment and thus provide the motivation to perform more activities that are pious. Since a soul is forced to accept a material body to live out these reactions, the self- perpetuating reactions of any endeavor bind one to the cycle of birth and death.
In Bhagavad-gita Sri Krishna offers a way out. While Krishna concedes that “One cannot even maintain one’s physical body without work,” He goes on to explain that by abandoning attachment to the results of one’s activities, one becomes free of karmic reactions. Such a person is satisfied by gain that comes of its own accord, is undisturbed by success and failure, and is never entangled although performing actions. For such a person the cycle of karma ceases. In verse 18.66 Sri Krishna emphatically states, “Abandon all varieties of religion and just surrender unto Me. I shall deliver you from all sinful reactions. Do not fear.” It is important to note that Sri Krishna is recommending that one abandon all varieties of religion, including pious activities, since such activities will also bind one to the material world.
While activities performed in the mood of detachment do not have any reactions, devotional service, performed only for the pleasure of the Lord, goes one step further. It not only stops the cycle of karma; it relieves one from one’s due distress and eradicates the unmanifest desires in various stages of maturity. In Bhakti-rasamrita-sindhu (1.1.17), Rupa Goswami describes devotional service, or bhakti, as kleshaghni shubhada, which means that if one takes to devotional service, all kinds of unnecessary labor and material distress cease entirely and one achieves all good fortune.
In Srimad-Bhagavatam (11.14.19) Krishna explains: “Just as a blazing fire turns firewood into ashes, devotion unto Me completely burns to ashes sins committed by My devotees.” The conclusion is that one should not strive too hard for mundane things that may come of their own accord and bind one to material existence, but rather use one’s valuable time in the service of the Lord.
Sharing The BlameThe Intricacies of Endeavor, Fate, and Time
A couple of weeks later, our car is back from the repair shop, more or less restored to its old glory, and I think I now have a better insight into the event that started me thinking about these points. My wife’s accident was predestined, a result of some past sinful activity she committed. Or maybe the accident was an immediate reaction to negligent driving.
I explain this to her one day during another drive.
“So ultimately it’s my fault?” she asks.
“I guess so,” I reply.
“Well, you had to take the car for repair, pay for the damages, and so on, right?”
“Yes,” I say.
“So you suffered too—which means it was also a reaction to your sinful activities. So in that sense, it’s your fault too,” she concludes triumphantly.
“I guess you’re right,” I reply, “but please watch out for that truck!”
Endeavor is activity performed in various circumstances. Even with the guidance of scripture, determining conclusively what is pious and what is not is difficult, because of considerations such as time, place, circumstance, and the consciousness of the doer. For instance, the Srimad- Bhagavatam relates the story of a king named Nriga who would give countless cows to brahmanas in charity. Once, without the king’s knowledge, one of the cows he had already given in charity wandered back and was given to another brahmana. Since King Nriga was now guilty of misappropriating the property of a brahmana, albeit unknowingly, he had to suffer for a long time in the body of a lizard. So seemingly pious activities done with the best of intentions may by circumstance become impious.
Fate, or destiny, is the enjoyment or suffering in store for us as the result of our past actions. The Bhagavad- gita states that by performing pious activities one may get promoted to heavenly planets and live a long life of opulence there. But as it is difficult to always determine whether an activity is pious or not, it is more difficult to determine the precise results of an activity. While general indications are given in the Srimad-Bhagavatam and in the sections of Vedas that deal with fruitive activities (called karma-kana), predicting the exact outcome of activities is almost impossible.
Destiny and endeavor are linked by a third factor: time. Some actions may yield instant reactions, while the results of others may come after several lifetimes. For instance, if I were to punch someone, the reaction would be swift and immediate. But if I were to criticize someone secretly, the reaction would be delayed. In Bhakti-rasamrita-sindhu Srila Rupa Goswami classifies reactions as already manifest (prarabdha) and waiting to manifest (aprarabdha). Some people may perform many pious activities and continue to suffer, while others may be performing sinful activities with apparent impunity. Looking at them we can understand that one reason for this is the factor of time, which separates them from the results of their activities.
One can compare the law of karma to a giant computer that constantly creates situations for us by analyzing our past activities and time. How we act in those situations becomes a part of the ongoing computation for the future, and in this way the cycle of karma goes on eternally.