Fate and Free Will


Very often, people get confused with what fatalism is and to what extent free will can be exercised to guide their life to get the best out of it in this world. This question arises particularly with reference to astrological predictions. The common belief is that the natal chart indicates certain events in life, which cannot be overcome through free will. This notion is false; life's experience and attainments are a mixture of both past and present actions and the theory of absolute fatalism is a misconception. Man is endowed with a sixth sense with a view to discriminate between good and bad, and act in such a manner that will be beneficial to him in the long run to emancipate his soul from the cycle of births and deaths. If this were not so, man will have no control over his past karmas and will be subjected to untold misery and punishments during his life time, which is not the intention of the Creator. Every religion talks about pardon for past sins and suggests specific actions to wipe them out. No religion ever says that a man should suffer for his past actions beyond redemption.

The predictions that can be given through astrological charts are only indicative trends in a person's life and are not conclusive or unchangeable. These generally reflect the result of one's past karmas or actions. (The fruits of past karmas are called fate and those of present karmas are represented by free will). To what extent a man can change the result of his own past karmas or actions in the present life depend on the extent, nature and the severity of the past karmas. Free will can alter the fruits of bad past karmas easily if such karmas were not intense or strong. Where such karmas are very strong, sustained efforts are necessary to overcome them, including propitiation and intense prayers. Equally, it is possible to improve on the effects of good karmas.

Questions from a Reader

One of the Internet readers[1][1] had raised some questions on this explanation. I give below his questions and my answers to him.

Question:  Your web page is well written, tremendously impressive in its contents and arguments. To my mind, the controversial aspects (in the Vedic Astrology Section) arise from your premise that free will can be exercised to overcome the effects of the karmas. Over the many years of my practice as an Astrologer, I have come to conclude that fate must take enact its role in accordance with its make up and character. If a lot of evil had been accumulated by the native and thus forms the basis of the constitution of the Fate, then apart from perhaps mitigating the effects, one cannot   possibly unload the evil that has to come. The evil has the power, potency and the strength to manifest in its form for the purpose ascribed to it.  That is why predictions made in astrology occur as per its readings and forecast. If anything, the astral remedies that is often talked about and found in the astrological literature, go towards to minimizing, not overcoming the evils by the exercise of one's free will and mental power.   

It is nice to motivate a person but to all intents and purposes, is it not a plain irrefutable fact that one is limited by several factors in overcoming evil? What has to happen has to happen at least in its elementary form or shape. Can one really say the use of mere free will can overcome the planetary trends (the by- product of Fate)? I say no.

You are to be praised for your forthright views and your consistent statements. I find your views are the ones that would trigger off more discussion.

Answer: The thought of "free will" is an age-old concept and has been propounded by the very religion, which has made "Jyotish" as part of  "Vedas".  The numerous rituals prescribed under the Hindu Dharma go on the basic premise that human action goes beyond "Prarabtha Karma'; the man can act independently to reduce the effect of the bad karmas and improve on the good ones.  Sensibly, religion teaches us ways to get release from the cycle of birth and death, through any of the three yogas (margas) and attain the feet of the Lord. Be it Advaitha or Dhwaitha in Hindu religion, the path may be different, but the goal is the same. In other religions also, free will action is promoted to get redemption by surrendering unto the Lord, by promoting good thoughts and by performing good acts.

I have always felt that the basic difference between an animal and a man is the latter's ability to act freely without succumbing totally to the effects of the assigned "prarabtha  karma". In fact, the Hindu lore talks about total release of the soul from the  "vasanas" only through the "Human Form" and it is only in this form one can act towards such freedom. If this is so, how can "prarabtha karma" over ride all "free will’ actions? Human effort is necessary to get release from bondage and free will actions are not necessarily the result of  "prarabtha karmas".  

If the theory of fate is accepted, it will not only negate religion but also astrology. The advice to be given by the religion should have then be: "Subject yourself to the effect of “prarabtha” or fate and no matter what you do, you have to undergo and perish, depending upon how you have acted in the past lives”.

Astrology is a science of tendencies indicting the effects of "prarabtha karma" over one's life cycle, precisely to guide him to act wisely and to do everything possible to get out of his bad "vasanas".  I do concede there are limitations in this, limitations on account of mental faculties and physical disabilities. In rare cases, like the spastic child, there is unfortunately no scope for free will actions, denoting the sever intensity of karmas and the indication that several lives are ahead. In others too, there could be some limitations brought about by various factors. This precisely explains the several births one undergoes; in each birth, religion promotes ways to get the "vasanas" reduced and bring one closer and closer to final emancipation.

You are asking about energies to fight "fate".  The three margas (Jnana marga, Bhakthi marga and Karma marga) give us the clue. Positive and right thinking and a will to act with optimism on the lines indicated in the religion (it does not matter what religion it is) are the only methods to fight "fate".  The so-called "fate", which is the effect of "vasanas", does nothing to a man with the right understanding of life and thought. In "Kali Yuga", it is said, to a large majority of people, bhakthi yoga is the best and easy method to reach “Brahman”.

When "Adharma" prevails over "Dharma", surrender unto God is the only answer to fight "Adharma".

Question:  Your viewpoint is something positive and one that would give hope and expectation to the readers. Let us all desire for good to happen in everyone's lives. Can you explain to me in what manner or form can  "free will" be exercised? What energies can be converted from within a human being that would go fighting fate? Is it the application of 'positive thinking" or is the regimented use of astral remedies as prescribed by the savants? Kindly elaborate what actually amounts to the usage of 'free will"?

(The reader then quotes an experience of one of his clients who was “quite moral in his ways and quite helpful to people around”. In Rahu Dasa he got tricked and had to undergo prison sentence despite prayers and religious thoughts.)

The reader then asks:  Now, was it fate that got him entangled in this mess or was it an exercise of his free will when he got involved in the wrong doing (trickery apart)?

Did his good thoughts desert him and land him in distress; or can we say that it was the planet Rahu, his character being consistent with 8th house placement that brought about this unhealthy situation. Man of God, priests in temple, pastors in churches, leaders of groups representing noble causes etc all come under sudden attack to their personality. If free will is what it is, why did they fall or become subject to these attacks and taunts?

Am I right in saying that free will loses its potency and status once the wrong is acted upon? Is it only to be used as a shield not as a sword?

Answer: Apart from astrological factors you are talking about, it is an undeniable fact that "Prarabtha Karma" has serious effects on natives, when the past karma is intense and very bad. Be it men of God, priests in temples, or men with noble thoughts in their current life, the difficulties that they face have no immediate relevance to the good karmas they do in the current life. If all of them undergo misery not justified by their current status, such misery is the direct result of their past actions in their previous lives. The great science of astrology can forewarn them about their serious nature; prophylactic action is to some extent possible to reduce the ill effects, if the astrologer's warnings and guidance are taken seriously and acted upon. If not, "Prarabtha Karma" will have its toll. Wisdom should prevail and free will actions can certainly reduce the ills brought about by the devastating circumstances. I have several instances in my experience, where people have benefited from such advice and prevented and/or reduced the ill effects.

Sastras say that death is the only one which is certain and impossible to change. The degree of the efforts to be made to get over the Karmas or minimize their effects depends on their severity, as is wonderfully explained in the example of nail given by Sarada Peetham Swamiji. (See later).

The Swamiji says:

"Religion does not fetter man's free-will. It leaves him quite free to act, but tells him at the same time what is good for him and what is not. The responsibility is entirely and solely his. He cannot escape it by blaming fate, for fate is of his own making, nor by blaming God, for he is but the dispenser of fruits in accordance with the merits of actions. You are the master of your own destiny. It is for you to make it, to better it or to mar it. This is your privilege. This is your responsibility."

The Sastras enunciate in detail what vasanas are good and have to be encouraged and what vasanas are bad and have to be overcome. When, by dint of practice, you have mad all your vasanas good and practically eliminated the change of any bad vasanas leading you astray, the Sastras take upon themselves the function off teaching you how to free your free-will even from the need of being led by good vasanas.”

In the case you cited, the spiritual aspects of free will actions are more pronounced than the material aspects; here is the sword you are talking about. Prayers and proper understanding of the purpose of human life do bring about a quitened mind and ability to withstand adversities and adversaries.

Right thinking is a free will action. A quitened mind and a "satvik" disposition is a pre-requisite to final emancipation. What planets do when they hit one hard is to make the person understand the futility of material comforts and pleasures of life and lead him to philosophical thoughts. If the person affected has no right thinking, he can be devastated. Think of two different persons in the same situation cited by you, one with the right attitude and the other with a confused mind and weary, doubtful thoughts of life. Tell me what would happen to them. Are not the planets and the circumstances the same? In these cases, the first one is wiser by experience and the second one devastated by the very same events, which made the former wiser. Are these not the result of "free will" and the absence thereof? Can anyone subject himself to the miseries of life without thinking about what caused them and how he should benefit from these experiences?   

An Erudite Explanation from a Religious Preceptor

A beautiful and erudite explanation to the theory of fate and free will is given by one of the saints of India who lived in the early twentieth century, namely his holiness, Sri Chandrasekhara Bharati Mahaswami of Sharada Peetham at Sringeri in South India. This explanation was given by the Swami in the form of answers to questions posed by a disciple to him and is published in the June / July 1997 issue of a magazine called: Tattvaloka: The splendour of Truth, published from Mumbai, India. I have given excerpts from the article published in that magazine below:

The Riddle of Fate and Free Will Solved

NOTE: Excerpts from an article published in the June / July 1997 issue of a magazine called: Tattvaloka, published from Mumbai, India. The publisher has been requested for permission to place these excerpts on this site. The italics and bold letters supplied in these excerpts are not found in the magazine.

As a follower of our Sanatana Dharma, you must know that fate is nothing extraneous to yourself, but only the sum total of the results of your past actions.

As God is but the dispenser of the fruits of actions, fate, representing those fruits, is not his creation but only yours. Free-will is what you exercise when you act now.

Fate is past karma; free-will is present karma. Both are really one, that is, karma, though they may differ in the matter of time. There can be no conflict when they are really one. The present is before you and, by the exercise of free-will, you can attempt to shape it.

The past is past and is, therefore, beyond your vision and is rightly called adrishta, the unseen. You cannot reasonably attempt to find out the relative strength of two things unless both of them are before you. But, by our very definition, free-will, the present karma, alone is before you and fate, the past karma, is invisible.

The problem of conflict will get solved only at the end of the conflict. But at that time the problem will cease to exist. That is, before the conflict begins, the problem is incapable of solution; and, after the conflict ends, it is no longer necessary to find a solution. In either case, it is profitless to embark on the enquiry as to the relative strength of fate and free-will.

This does not mean to say that you must resign yourself to fate. On the other hand, you must devote yourself to free-will. Fate, as I told you, is the resultant of the past exercise of your free will. By exercising your free will in the past, you brought on the resultant fate.

By exercising your free-will in the present, I want you to wipe out your past record if it hurts you, or to add to it if you find it enjoyable. In any case, whether for acquiring more happiness or for reducing misery, you have to exercise your free-will in the present.

Except to a very few highly advanced souls, the past certainly remains unknown. But even our ignorance of it is very often an advantage to us. For, if we happen to know all the results we have accumulated by our actions in this and our past lives, we will be so much shocked as to give up in despair any attempt to overcome or mitigate them. Even in this life, forgetfulness is a boon, which the merciful God has been pleased to bestow on us, so that we may not be burdened at any moment with a recollection of all that has happened in the past.

Similarly, the divine spark in us is ever bright with hope and makes it possible for us to confidently exercise our free-will. It is not for us to belittle the significance of these two boons-forgetfulness of the past and hope for the future.

It is not quite correct to say that fate places obstacles in the way of free-will. On the other hand, by seeming to oppose our efforts, it tells us what is the extent of free-will that is necessary now to bear fruit.

Ordinarily for the purpose of securing a single benefit, a particular activity is prescribed; but we do not know how intensively or how repeatedly that activity has to be pursued or persisted in.

If we do not succeed at the very first attempt, we can easily deduce that in the past we have exercised our free-will just in the opposite direction, that the resultant of that past activity has first to be eliminated and that our present effort must be proportionate to that past activity.

If you do not succeed, tell yourself then that there has been in the past a counter-influence brought on by yourself by exercising your free-will in the other direction and, therefore, you must now exercise your free-will with re-doubled vigour and persistence to achieve your object. Tell yourself that, inasmuch as the seeming obstacle is of your own making, it is certainly within your competence to overcome it.

If you do not succeed even after this renewed effort, there can be absolutely no justification for despair, for fate being but a creature of your free-will can never be stronger than free will. Your failure only means that your present exercise of free-will is not sufficient to counteract the result of the past exercise of it.

In other words, there is no question of a relative proportion between fate and free-will as distinct factors in life. The relative proportion is only as between the intensity of our past action and the intensity of our present action.

It is true that the relative intensity can be realised only at the end of our present effort in a particular direction. It is always so in the case of everything which is adrishta or unseen. Take, for example, a nail driven into a wooden pillar. The length (that has gone inside the wood) is unseen or adrishta, so far as you are concerned. Beautifully varnished as the pillar is, you do not know what is the composition of the wood in which the nail is driven. That also is unseen or adrishta.

Now, suppose you want to pull that nail our, the number and intensity of the pulls needed to take out the nail depend upon the number and intensity of the strokes which drove it in. But the strokes that drove the nail in are now unseen and unseeable. They relate to the past and are adrishta.

Do we stop from pulling out the nail simply because we happen to be ignorant of the length of the nail in the wood or of the number and intensity of the strokes which drove it in? Or, do we persist in pulling it out by increasing our effort? Adopt the same course in every effort of yours. Exert yourself as much as you can. You will and must succeed in the end.

There is nothing which is really unattainable. A thing, however, may be unattainable to us at the particular stage at which we are, or with the qualifications that we possess. The attainability or otherwise of a particular thing is thus not an absolute characteristic of that thing but is relative and proportionate to our capacity to attain it.

Religion does not fetter man's free-will. It leaves him quite free to act, but tells him at the same time what is good for him and what is not. The responsibility is entirely and solely his. He cannot escape it by blaming fate, for fate is of his own making, nor by blaming God, for he is but the dispenser of fruits in accordance with the merits of actions. You are the master of your own destiny. It is for you to make it, to better it or to mar it. This is your privilege. This is your responsibility.

Fate is a thing quite different from the other one, which you call a power. Suppose you handle an instrument for the first time. You will do it very clumsily and with effort. The next time, however, you use it, you will do so less clumsily and with less effort. With repeated uses, you will have learnt to use it easily and without any effort. That is, the facility and ease with which you use a particular thing increase with the number of times you use it. The repeated and familiar use will leave behind a tendency to use it.

The power which makes you act as if against your will is only the vasana which itself is of your own making. This is not fate.

The punishment or reward, in the shape of pain or pleasure, which is the inevitable consequence of an act, good or bad, is alone the province of fate or destiny.

The vasana which the doing of an act leaves behind in the mind in the shape of a taste, a greater facility or a greater tendency for doing the same act once again, is quite a different thing. It may be that the punishment or the reward of a past act is, in ordinary circumstances, unavoidable, if there is no counter-effort; but the vasana can be easily handled if only we exercise our free-will correctly.

The essential nature of a vasana is to seek expression in outward acts. This characteristic is common to all vasanas, good and bad. The stream of vasanas, the vasana sarit, as it is called, has two current, the good and the bad. If you try to dam up the entire stream, there may be danger. The Sastras, therefore, do not ask you to attempt that. On the other hand, they ask you to submit yourself to be led by the good vasana current and to resist being led away by the bad vasana current.

When you know that a particular vasana is rising up in your mind, you cannot possibly say that you are at its mercy. You have your wits about you and the responsibility of deciding whether you will encourage it or not is entirely yours.

The Sastras enunciate in detail what vasanas are good and have to be encouraged and what vasanas are bad and have to be overcome. When, by dint of practice, you have mad all your vasanas good and practically eliminated the change of any bad vasanas leading you astray, the Sastras take upon themselves the function off teaching you how to free your free-will even from the need of being led by good vasanas.

You will gradually be led on to a stage when your free-will be entirely free from any sort of colouring due to any vasanas. As that stage, your mind will be pure as crystal and all motive for particular action will cease to be. Freedom from the results of particular actions is an inevitable consequence. Both fate and vasana disappear. There is freedom for ever more and that freedom is called Moksha.

[1][1] Mr.  Francis de Cruz, an Indian Lawyer from Malaysia who is also the President of the Malaysian Chapter of a world wide astrology body.