Friday, December 20, 2013
The Riddle of Fate and Free-Will Solved
(A dialogue between His Holiness Shri Chandrashekhara Bharati
Mahaswami and a Disciple): [His Holiness was the Sringeri Mathadhipati
H.H. : I hope you are pursuing your studies in the Vedanta as usual?
D. : Though not regularly, I do make some occasional study.
H.H. : In the course of your studies, you may have come across many doubts.
D. : Yes, one doubt repeatedly comes up to my mind.
H.H. : What is it?
D. : It is the problem of the eternal conflict between fate and free-will.
What are their respective provinces and how can the conflict be
H.H. : If presented in the way you have done it, the problem would baffle
even the highest of thinkers.
D. : What is wrong with my presentation? I only stated the problem and
did not even explain how I find it to be a difficult one.
H.H. : Your difficulty arises in the very statement of the problem.
D. : How?
H.H. : A conflict arises only if there are two things. There can be no
conflict if there is only one thing.
D. : But here there are two things, fate and free-will.
H.H. : Exactly. It is this assumption of yours that is responsible for your
D. : It is not my assumption at all. How can I ignore the fact that the
two things exist as independent factors, whether I grant their
existence or not?
H.H. : That is where you are wrong again.
D. : How?
H.H. : 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.
D. : Still I do not see how they are not two distinct things.
H.H. : Have it this way. 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.
D. : But the difference in time is a vital difference which we cannot
H.H. : I do not want you to overlook it, but only to study it more deeply.
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.
Even if you see two wrestlers right in front of you, you cannot
decide about their relative strength. For, one may have weight, the
other agility; one muscles and the other tenacity; one the benefit of
practice and the other coolness of judgment and so on. We can go on
building arguments on arguments to conclude that a particular
wrestler will be the winner.
But experience shows that each of these qualifications may fail
at any time or may prove to be a disqualification. The only practical
method of determining their relative strength will be to make them
While this is so, how do you expect to find by means of
arguments a solution to the problem of the relative value of fate
and free-will when the former by its very nature is unseen!
D. : Is there no way then of solving this problem?
H.H. : There is this way. The wrestlers must fight with each other and prove
which of them is the stronger.
D. : In other words, the problem of conflict will get solved only at the
end of the conflict. But at that time the problem will have ceased to
have any practical significance.
H.H. : Not only so, it will cease to exist.
D. : 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.
H.H. : Just so. In either case, it is profitless to embark on the enquiry
as to the relative strength of fate and free-will.
D. : Does Yor Holiness then mean to say that we must resign ourselves to
H.H. : Certainly not. On the other hand, you must devote yourself to free-
D. : How can that be?
H.H. : 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
I any case whether for acquiring more happiness or for reducing
misery you have to exercise your free-will in the present.
D. : But the exercise of free-will however well-directed, very often
fails to secure the desired result, as fate steps in and nullifies
the action of free-will.
H.H. : You are again ignoring our definition of fate. It is not an
extraneous and a new thing which steps in to nullify your free-will.
On the other hand, it is already in yourself.
D. : It may be so, but its existence is felt only when it comes into
conflict with free-will. How can we possibly wipe out the past
record when we do not know nor have the means of knowing what it is?
H.H. : 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, forgetfulnes 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
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.
D. : Our ignorance of the past may be useful in not deterring the exercise
of the free-will, and hope may stimulate that exercise. All the
same, it cannot be denied that fate very often does present a
formidable obstacle in the way of such exercise.
H.H. : 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
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
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.
Thus, the obstacle which fate seems to offer is just the gauge
by which we have to guide our present activities.
H.H. : The obstacle is seen only after the exercise of our free-will; how
can that help us to guide our activities at the start?
H.H. : It need not guide us at the start. At the start, you must not be
obsessed at all with the idea that there will be any obstacle in
Start with boundless hope and with the presumption that there
is nothing in the way of your exercising the free-will.
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 your 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
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.
D. : But even so, the relative intensity can be realised only at the end
of our present effort in a particular direction.
H.H. : It is always so in the case of everything which is adrishta or
unseen. Take, for example, a nail driven into a wooden pillar. When
you see it for the first time, you actually see, say, an inch of it
projecting out of the pillar. The rest of it has gone into the wood
and you cannot now see what exact length of the nail is imbedded in
the wood. That length, therefore, 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 out, can you tell me
how many pulls will be necessary and how powerful each pull has to
D. : How can I? The number and the intensity of the pulls will depend
upon the length which has gone into the wood.
H.H. : Certainly so. And the length which has gone into the wood is not
arbitrary, but depended upon the number of strokes which drove it in
and the intensity of each of such strokes and the resistance which
the wood offered to them.
D. : It is so.
H.H. : The number and intensity of the pulls needed to take out the nail
depend therefore upon the number and intensity of the strokes which
drove it in.
D. : Yes.
H.H. : But the strokes that drove in the nail are now unseen and unseeable.
They relate to the past and are adrishta.
D. : Yes.
H.H. : 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?
D. : Certainly, as practical men we adopt the latter course.
H.H. : Adopt the same course in every effort of yours. Exert yourself as
much as you can. Your will must succeed in the end.
Function of Shastras:
D. : But there certainly are many things which are impossible to attain
even after the utmost exertion.
H.H. : There you are mistaken. 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
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.
D. : The success or failure of an effort can be known definitely only at
the end. How are we then to know beforehand whether with our
present capacity we may or may not exert ourselves to attain a
particular object, and whether it is the right kind of exertion for
the attainment of that object?
H.H. : Your question is certainly a pertinent one. The whole aim of our
Dharma Shastras is to give a detailed answer to your question.
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 resposibility 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
D. : I quite realise this. But often it so happens that I am not really
master of myself. I know, for instance, quite well that a particular
act is wrong; at the same time, I feel impelled to do it. Similarly,
I know that another act is right; at the same time, however, I feel
powerless to do it. It seems that there is some power which is able
to control or defy my free-will. So long as that power is potent,
how can I be called the master of my own destiny? What is that power
H.H. : You are evidently confusing together two distinct things. 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 great 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 first time a man steals, he does so with great effort and
much fear; the next time both his effort and fear are much less. As
opportunities increase, stealing will become a normal habit with him
and will require no effort at all. This habit will generate in him a
tendency to steal even when there is no necessity to steal. It is
this tendency which goes by the name vasana. 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 the 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
D. : But the number of vasanas or tendencies that rule our hearts are
endless. How can we possibly control them?
H.H. : 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
currents, the good and the bad.
If you try to dam up the entire stream, there may be danger.
The Shastras, 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
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 Shastras enunciate in detail what vasanas are good and
have to be encouraged and what vasanas are bad and have to be
>When, by dint of practice, you have made all your vasanas
good and practically eliminated the charge of any bad vasanas
leading you astray, the Shastras take upon themselves the function
of 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 coloring due to any vasanas.
At 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.