Destiny and Endeavour by Bhayahari Dasa
Posted July 2, 2012on:
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 verses 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.