ARTICLE : The Karma Conundrum - Decoding the Direction of Destiny

Posted By Ashok V Chowgule (
Sat, 22 Mar 97 21:54:10 EST

Title : The Karma Conundrum - Decoding the Direction of Destiny
Author : Chaturvedi Badrinath
Publication : The Times of India
Date : March 21, 1997

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.

3 Major Shifts

That need was answered by three major shifts in the perspective Of
karma, each 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, lava, as a force over
and above human endeavour. But however consoling that might be,
fate seemed a little too capricious and inaccessible. Secondly,
fate was identified with 'time', kala, 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 face of it, was the very opposite of the true meaning
of karma.

The question of determination 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 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 (November 16,
1996), it was stated 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 voices. The fact is that the two Vasishthas were
clearly two different persons. The Mahabharata was composed some
time around 1000 BC., and the Yoga-vasishtha in the sixth century

Grandeur of Effort

The author of the Yoga-vasishtha dismisses fate, or lava, 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 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.

Conquest of Mind

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 recent conversation, a friend
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 all
right. 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 fate had
decided so, or God had so willed, but the true diagnosis of events
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
on 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 refuge other than the conquest of the mind."