Advaita Vision

Advaita for the 21st Century

Reconciliation of Fate and Freewill
Ramesh Krishnamurthy, Kuntimaddi Sadananda and Shyam Subramanian

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For more information about Shyam Subramanian, read his blog 'Self Knowledge'.
You may also read his other contributions at this site.

The following were posted to the Advaitin Egroup in May 2009.

1. Kuntimaddi Sadananda

Free will is there… until I am free from will.

Here is a beautiful shloka from Bhagavan Ramana in ‘sat darshanaM’ (‘Forty Verses in Reality’). He says, as always in his characteristic style of brevity:

vidheH prayatnasya cha ko.pi vAda -
tayordvayormUlamajAnatAM syAt|
vidheH prayatnasya cha mUlavastu
sa~njAnatAM naiva vidhirna yatnaH||

The controversy whether fate is stronger than free will or vice versa
Is only for those who do not know their source.
Those who know the individual for whom they pertain
Remain untouched by them.

Vidhi stands for fate and prayatna stands for freewill. He says that the debate of fate and freewill is a universal and unending debate. Some say it is fate and some say it is freewill that controls our lives. Efforts determine our fate and fate determines our freewill. What I have is fate and what I do with what I have is free will. At anytime, I have  these two things simultaneously, since I have no choice but to choose - kartum shakyam akarturm shakyam, anyathA kartum shakyam - to do, not to do or to do another way. These choice-less choices are presented for me to deal with due my fate.

Now which comes first - is it fate or free will? That question is invalid because ignorance is anAdi - beginningless. Birth, sustenance and death are cyclic and there is no beginning and no end until I get out of this cycle. How do I get out of it?

Bhagavan Ramana says: this discussion is there only because one does not understand - tayor dvayoH mUlam. Here, mUlam is the adhiShTaanam or the substantive of both the freewill and the fate. Both arise with the notion of ahaMkAra - the notion that I am an individual separate from the jagat, the universe, and hence separate from Ishvara, the creator of this universe.

Hence, Bhagavan recommends that we not indulge in this useless discussion of ‘is it freewill or fate which is final’. What is final is the substantive of both - the very existence-consciousness that I am, where jIva, jagat and Ishvara resolve into one and where both freewill and fate get transcended.

Hence he says, vidheH prayatnasya cha mUlavastu sa~njAnatAM. For those who know the substantive of both the fate and free will (the very existence-consciousness because of which both seem to exist and because of which one is aware of both), for the one who know that mUla vastu or absolute reality, naiva vidhiH na yatnaH - there is no freewill or fate.


2. Shyam Subramanian

This debate between freewill and fate is by default never-ending - because the proponents of free-will will ever exercise their free-will in explaining their position and the determinism of those determined to defend determinism is of course pre-determined!

In the Bhagavad Gita, Bhagvan Krishna makes his stance ambiguously clear!

First he emphasizes this (18.59): yada ahankAram Ashritya na yotsya iti manyase mithyaisha vyavasAyaste prakRRiti tvAm niyokshyati

If by harboring or resorting to a notion of doership, you think "I will not act (fight)", then this is your error; you will be impelled - nay - compelled to act by your own intrinsic nature.

Shankara too in his bhAShya adds - na mantavyam - don't think - svatantra aham - I am free (to act)!

Krishna again reiterates (18.60) svabhavajena kaunteya nibaddhaH svena karmanA kartuM nechChasi yanmohAtkarishyasyavashopi tat

What through this delusion (of freedom) you don't desire to do, bound by your own work (which have led to vAsanA-s) borne of nature, you will inevitably do.

Krishna also emphasizes next (18.61) that it is ever the Lord alone that causes all beings to revolve as though they were wooden puppets mounted on a machine yantrA rUdhAni (the robots of that age!)

But just when you take this as a clear and unequivocal endorsement of determinism by the Lord, he advises Arjuna very soon (18.63) "yathaichChasi tathA kuru" - after taking into consideration all these 18 chapters of advice that I have patiently given you, "please act as you wish". You alone have the freedom - nay - the responsibility to decide what it is that you need to do now - to do or not to do - to fight or not to fight - the choice is yours. The Lord Himself, has just told Arjuna, that as the wielder of mAyA, he impels beings to act as though they were mere puppets. And the very same Lord now tells Arjuna - "please now think, and then do as you see fit". Whence is the need for these words from Krishna if, as the All-knowing Lord, He knew full well that Arjuna would have no choice but to fight?

Thus it is that we see Krishna emphasizing the twin concepts of determinism and free will in almost back-to-back shloka-s in the Bhagavad Gita. We can "freely" draw our own conclusions and hopefully come to our own "pre-determined" understanding!


3. Ramesh Krishnamurthy

The debate between "fate" and "free-will" is an endless one, and although the Vedantin may have something to say on this (on the basis of the law of karma), it is not his approach to get caught in this cycle. Rather, the Vedantin points out that the very premise for the existence of fate/will, viz., the sense of agency, is illusory.

Actually, fate and free-will are two sides of the same coin, the coin itself being the sense of agency. As long as I have the bhAva of being a kartA and a bhoktA (doer/enjoyer), I will see that some of my wants get fulfilled and others don't. On one occasion, I might decide to go to Sringeri and do so with ease. Hence my "free-will" has worked. On another occasion, I really want to go but am unable to because of an emergency at the office. Hence, "fate" has stalled my plans.

As long as there is a sense of agency, which in a way is the key to our sense of individuality, both free-will and fate influence our lives.

mokSha involves the understanding that the sense of agency is avidyA. Hence the mukta does not identify with the causal cycle and is liberated from both fate and free will.

Interestingly, the illusory/erroneous nature of the sense of agency is stressed by all the Indian philosophical traditions, though they explain it in different ways.

The advaitin uses the framework of avidyA which is the attribution of knowerhood and doerhood to the Atman. The saMkhyan, in a similar way, says that the puruSha identifies himself as the doer due to a mistaken identification with the modifications of prakRRiti. Most bhakti-oriented traditions would attribute doerhood to Ishvara (divine play etc), with the jIva being only an instrument. The bauddha-s would say that the doer and the deed arise co-dependently, therefore neither is inherently real, and so forth.

Hence, if you are a follower of any Indian philosophical tradition, the riddle of fate and free-will is "transcended" (through the understanding that the sense of agency is mistaken) instead of being resolved in favour of either fate or free will. In fact such a resolution cannot happen because the two are two sides of the same coin.

The vipra-s [sages] of the ancient past, while pouring their offerings into agni, contemplated on their actions and the relationship between the sacrificer and the sacrifice, the doer and the deed. Hence, 'karma' and 'yaj~na' took on increasingly philosophical meanings, and spawned the insightful darshana-s that we have inherited today.


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