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Fate, Free Will, and the Laws of Karma


In most people's minds, "free will" has two relatively distinct properties. The first is the idea that what one does is in some sense "free", that is "not determined by something else". The second is the idea that one can onself control what one does.


Greek philosophers


The question of free will does not seem to have presented itself very clearly to the early Greek philosophers. Some historians have held that the Pythagoreans must have allotted a certain degree of moral freedom to man, from their recognition of man's responsibility for sin with consequent retribution experienced in the course of the transmigration of souls. With Socrates, the moral aspect of all philosophical problems became prominent, yet his identification of all virtue with knowledge and his intense personal conviction that it is impossible deliberately to do what one clearly perceives to be wrong, led him to hold that the good, being identical with the true, imposes itself irresistibly on the will as on the intellect, when distinctly apprehended. Plato's views were more or less same. However, sometimes Plato seems to suppose that the soul possessed genuine free choice in a previous life, which there decided its future destiny. Aristotle disagrees with both Plato and Socrates, at least in part. He appeals to experience. Men can act against the knowledge of the true good; vice is voluntary. Epicurus, with his modern hedonistic followers, advocates free will and modifies the strict determinism of the atomists, whose physics he accepts, by ascribing to the atoms a clinamen, a faculty of random deviation in their movements. His openly professed object, however, in this point as in the rest of his philosophy, is to release men from the fears caused by belief in irresistible fate.




Buddhism has always presented an empirical psychology that both reveals and rests upon a philosophy of process. The Buddha's analysis of the human condition was

1. that it is unsatisfactory;
2. that craving and misunderstanding cause this suffering;
3. that it can be ended; and
4. that a path of emotional and cognitive realignment leads to such liberation.

These truths are less a statement of fact than a call to act. We are called to understand fully that ordinary life is suffering; cease from the causes of suffering; realize liberation; and cultivate the path. Throughout, the emphasis is on human experience, and the path to liberation from suffering is seen as attainable only by understanding experience and the ways to improve it. Buddhism does not propose beliefs of the supernatural or transcendent, but offers a practice: the cultivation of cognitive, emotional, and physical practices to bring about change.The no-self of Buddhism refers to the lack of some unchanging essential self, but does not deny a contingent transactional processual self, or one based on processes, such as thinking, feeling, and acting, rather than product. Buddhism posits sufficient free will to allow for intentional practices to augment awareness, to foster wholesome thought and action, and to defuse unhealthy reactions. Buddhism teaches that happiness or suffering in this life is the result of our deeds (karma) in past lives, or past actions in our present lives. Karma is "intentional action, that is, a deed done deliberately through body, speech, or mind." The effects of karma may be evident either in short-term or in the long-term. Karma can either manifest its effects in this very life or in the next life or only after several lives. Karma is the Buddhist explanation for unexplained or unexpected suffering. According to the idea of karma in Buddhism, an individual has free will, but he carries the baggage of deeds done in previous lives.

(Note: The Bible teaches each individual is responsible for his own life (Ezekiel 18:4,20; Romans 14:12; 2 Corinthians 5:10). We do not inherit the sins of our ancestors, nor do we inherit sins from previous lives).

Beyond this we must return again to intention—in this case the intention of dharma, which is the search for liberation. Outside this, Buddhism is little concerned about free will. For Buddhism is not concerned with ontology, or indeed with knowledge for its own sake. Such are questions that the Buddha refused to answer.




The problem of free will assumed quite a new character with the advent of the Christian religion. The doctrine that God has created man, has commanded him to obey the moral law, and has promised to reward or punish him for observance or violation of this law, made the reality of moral liberty an issue of transcendent importance. Unless man is really free, he cannot be justly held responsible for his actions, any more than for the date of his birth or the colour of his eyes. All alike are inexorably predetermined for him. St. Augustine stands pre-eminent in his handling of this subject. He clearly teaches the freedom of the will against the Manichæeans, but insists against the Semipelageians on the necessity of grace, as a foundation of merit. He also emphasizes very strongly the absolute rule of God over men's wills by His omnipotence and omniscience -- through the infinite store, as it were, of motives which He has had at His disposal from all eternity, and by the foreknowledge of those to which the will of each human being would freely consent. St. Thomas Aquinas developed the teachings both in theology and philosophy. Will is rational appetite. Man necessarily desires beatitude, but he can freely choose between different forms of it. Free will is simply this elective power. The Dominican or Thomist solution, as it is called, teaches in brief that God premoves each man in all his acts to the line of conduct which he subsequently adopts. It holds that this premotive decree inclines man's will with absolute certainty to the side decreed, but that God adapts this premotion to the nature of the being thus premoved. A leading feature in the teaching of the Reformers of the sixteenth century, especially in the case of Luther and Calvin, was the denial of free will. In his controversy with Erasmus, who defended free will, Luther frankly stated that free will is a fiction, a name which covers no reality, for it is not in man's power to think well or ill, since all events occur by necessity. In reply to Erasmus's "De Libero Arbitrio", he published his own work, "De Servo Arbitrio", glorying in emphasizing man's helplessness and slavery. With Calvin, God's preordination is, if possible, even more fatal to free will. Man can perform no sort of good act unless necessitated to it by God's grace which it is impossible for him to resist.



Hinduism has dealt with the problem of free will in great detail and has related it to the "laws of karma", "rebirths", and the knowledge of the SELF (Atman). Hinduism maintains that there is no conflict between the concepts of fate and free will. fate is nothing extraneous to ourself, but only the sum total of the results of our past actions. As God is but the dispenser of the fruits of actions, fate, those fruits are not his creation, only ours. Free will is what we exercise when we act now. 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.


The cardinal "doctrine of karma" is the law of cause and effect in accordance with the maxim, "As you sow, so shall you reap." "A karma" is an experience created by our actions, our actions being rooted in our thoughts. Karma is also what we have created by our past actions. Karma is the law of action and reaction which governs life. The soul reaps the effects of its own actions. If we cause others to suffer, then the experience of suffering will come to us. If we love and give, we will be loved and given to. Thus each soul create its own destiny through thought, feeling and action. Karma is a natural law of the mind. The soul carries with it the mental impressions it received during its earthly life. These characteristics are collectively called the karma of the soul. Karma literally means "deed or act", and more broadly describes the principle of cause and effect. Karma is not fate, for God endowed his children with the power to act with free will. Esoterically, karma refers to the totality of our actions and their concomitant reactions in this and all previous lives, all of which determine our future.

Therefore, the future is based on the past. There is no favoritism in the determination of the law of karma, for everyone is treated equally, and equal opportunity for growth is given to everyone as well. We have to experience our karma of the past. Thus, in the absolute sense, there is nothing like fate controlling our lives. It is only the law of karma, which impels human beings to act and live as they do. Having this knowledge helps regulate one's actions, thus making the individual wiser and more mature. The present is before us and, by the exercise of free will, we can attempt to shape it. The past is past and is therefore beyond our vision and is rightly called adrishta (the unseen). How do we expect to find a solution to the problem of fate and free will when the former by its very nature is unseen?


A natural question arises "does this mean that we must resign ourselves to fate?"


NO, says Hinduism. We must devote ourself to free will. By exercising our free will in the past, we brought on the resultant fate. This is the "natural law", as described in Bhagwad Gita

"Under the influence of false ego, one thinks oneself to be the doer of activities, while in reality all the activities are carried out by nature." Bhagwad Gita 3:27

By exercising our free will in the present, we may wipe out our past record if it hurts us, or to add to it if we find it enjoyable. In any case, whether to acquire more happiness or to reduce misery, we have to exercise our free will in the present.

Hinduism does not teach fatalism or determinism. Infact, intense action is at the heart of the basic teachings of Bhagwad Gita.(see More thoughts on Laws of Karma)

"Not by non-peerformance of actions does a man attain actionlessness; nor by mere renunciation does he attain perfection" Bhagwad Gita 3:4

This brings us to the questions: what is free will, and how does it operate? Our ability to exercise will, without the interference or influence of any factor outside ourselves, gives the impression that we have the freedom to act as we desire.


The truth, according to Hinduism, is that our free will is subject to the influence of our samskaras, which are the mental impressions caused by our past karmas. The real situation regarding karma and free will, as explained in Hinduism, is that we human beings are partly free and partly determined. It is not quite correct to say that fate places obstacles in the way of free will. By seeming to oppose our efforts, it tells us the extent that free will is necessary now to bear fruit. Ordinarily, to secure a single benefit, a particular activity is prescribed; but we do not know how intensively or how repeatedly to pursue or persist in that activity. If we do not at first succeed, we can deduce that in the past we exercised our free will in the opposite direction, that the result of that past activity must first be eliminated and that our present effort must be proportionate to that past activity. The obstacle which fate seems to offer is just our gauge to guide our present activities.

For example, the fact that our actions on earth are governed by the law of gravity does not mean that we are frozen in place and cannot move about. It simply means we have free will within limitations. We can run, for instance, but we cannot fly.


Similarly, the fact that our experiences in life are governed by the law of karma does not mean that we are helpless and live at the mercy of fate. Again, it means we have free will within limitations. We can purposefully improve our lives, but not without facing and accounting for past misdeeds.


Hinduism leaves man quite free to act, but tells him at the same time what is good for him and what is not. He cannot escape responsibility 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. We are the master of our own destiny. It is for us to make it, to better it or to spoil it. This is our privilege. This is our responsibility.



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