Fate, Free Will and God’s Will
Sri N. Ananthanarayanan
This article is a chapter from the book What the RiverHas Taught Me.
Strange are the world’s ways. Strange is the working of the human ego. When egoistic people succeed in some of their puerile pursuits they boast on every side: “I did this. I did that. Nothing can stop me from succeeding. Nothing can prevent me from doing what I want to do”. They take upon themselves all the credit for their success. When these very people fail in some other direction, they say, “It’s all fate. See, idiots are prospering. It’s my bad luck”. They tap their foreheads with their fingers and exclaim, “Taqdeer! Kismet!”. Thus, when they succeed, they attribute their success to their own dynamic ability, and when they fail, they trace their failure to some vague ‘destiny’. They lay the blame on Taqdeer. They do not want to take the blame upon themselves.
Did I succeed? Ah, yes. I exercised my free will. Did I fail? Fate willed it so. This is convenient logic. This is fooling oneself. This is self-contradictory. But the whole world talks in this fashion. At the back of this false logic is the human ego.
Lord Acton said, ” Power corrupts. Absolute power corrupts absolutely”. Likewise, success also corrupts the mind. The successful man’s head swells. He begins to forget God. He begins to think high of himself. He begins to brag. He will talk to his friends on the limitless possibilities of human achievement. He will talk contemptuously of those who meet with failure in life. He will sermonize on free will.
What is this free will? In Hindu scriptural lore, whole treatises like the Yoga Vasishtha are devoted to glorifying free will or Purushartha. Stories, like those of Markandeya and Savitri, are cited in support. In his “Sure Ways for Success in Life and God-realisation”, Sivananda himself names some persons who rose from poverty to power by their own self-effort.
But then, in this world, for every person who is able to raise himself by his own free will or self-effort, there are any number of others who are tied down to adverse circumstances by that unseen power called fate. In the same Hindu religious lore which glorifies free will, there are any number of passages and stories to declare and assert the inevitability of destiny or Prarabdha.
The question naturally arises: “Which is more powerful? Fate or free will? What is the truth of the matter?”.
The question itself is wrong and is based on the misconception that fate and free will are two separate entities. Sivananda clears this misconception. He says that the destiny or Prarabdha that we enjoy or suffer in this life is the result of the exercise of our free will or Purushartha in previous lives. He adds that our actions in this life will shape our destiny in future lives. Prarabdha and Purushartha, fate and free will, are not two different entities, but only two different names to indicate the same set of actions viewed from a particular point of time and from a particular angle of metaphysical speculation.
What then is the use of the Theory of Fate and the Theory of Free Will? Theorising has its own utility. The Theory of Fate or the power of destiny and stories in support of it, in illustration of it, are intended to console and comfort the person in distress. The Theory of Free Will, and stories to exemplify that theory, are designed to boost the morale of the very same person buckling under the weight of repeated onslaughts of unfavourable forces and adverse circumstances. In other words, we tell the person in distress, “Do not grieve. Whatever has to happen will happen. Do not weep over the inevitable. Endure bravely”. Having thus consoled him by expounding the Theory of Prarabdha, we proceed to exhort him, “Suffering is only Karmic purgation. Your past sins are now washed out by this suffering. Now, rise up. Exert. The whole future is in your hands. Hard exertion now will shape for you a glorious future destiny. In your hands is your future. You now have the free will to make or mar your future by your present actions. Plod on. Persevere”.
Thus, there is absolutely no contradiction between fate and free will. Both the theories are necessary and should be used together. It is a wrong popular notion, based on one-sided and limited understanding, which views the Theory of Fate and the Theory of Free Will as diametrically opposed concepts.
But, if the question be asked, “Which is more real, Fate or Free Will?”, the correct answer would be, “Neither is real. Neither Fate nor Free Will. They are just theoretical concepts. They are merely philosophical formulations. The formula of Fate and the formula of Free Will are both fictitious. The only Reality is God’s Will”.
It is God’s Will which operates everywhere and at all times. It is infallible. It is the only Truth. It is the only Power. Behind the actions of the good man and the bad man, behind the movement of birds and insects, behind the erupting volcano and the rumbling earthquake, behind all growth and decay, behind everything everywhere, the propelling force is God’s Will. God’s Will is the life in all creation. It is the living force. Without it there will be nothing. Without it your mind cannot think, your senses cannot operate.
There is neither fate nor free will. There is only God’s Will. It is the human ego, it is mere vanity, which makes man claim for himself all the credit whenever he succeeds. It is his vanity again which makes him disclaim all responsibility for his failures and throw all the blame on a concept called Prarabdha. In truth, God is responsible for both success and failure. A man succeeds or fails, because God wills it so. God’s Will is supreme. It is the power or force which upholds the universe. It is the substance behind the world-show. The man who understands this is wise. He will have no cause to complain.