“Fate” comes from Latin, where it means, “Spoken.”Like if a judge sentences a criminal, the sentencing is called a “Fatum”. The common people thought that the gods sentenced human beings to various rewards or punishments. This is a half-truth. The gods do enforce a sentence, but like a judge, they are not the origin of the need for a sentence to be passed. The criminal is the origin. Similarly the living being is the origin of the sentence declared by the gods as fate.
In short the word “Fate” should convey the understanding that the gods enforce certain results upon us, but that we are the root cause of the reward and punishment we experience.
“Destiny” also has Latin origins. “de-stinare” means to make something stable. In other words, when something is decided. Again, common people thought that the gods whimsically decided what rewards and punishments to bestow on people, but this is foolish. Like judges, the gods decide what we should experience only as a result of seeing the decisions we make.
Both words should convey the understanding that the freewill of a living being is the cause of his or her destiny / fate, which is merely adjudicated and enforced by the powers-that-be in the universe.
In Sanskrit, the word दैव (daiva) is often used in practically exactly the same way we use “destiny.” It means “what comes from the gods” / the “decisions of the gods.”
But there is a much better Sanskrit word that really clearly conveys the truth behind freewill and fate. It is कर्म (karma), a single word that simultaneously denotes the action you perform and the reaction it warrants. Referring to both action and reaction with a single word, karma, demonstrates the inseparability of the two and clearly conveys the understanding that our actions are the cause of our destiny.
Q: Do we really have freewill? Every decision I make seems to be impelled by some external force.
Vedantic philosophy (including Bhagavad Gītā 18.14) explains that every decision and subsequent action has five factors involved.
adhiṣṭhānaṁ tathā kartā
karaṇaṁ ca pṛthag-vidham
vividhāś ca pṛthak ceṣṭā
daivaṁ caivātra pañcamam
First of all the environment plays a role in the decision to act. The tools at our disposal also affect the decision and action. One’s potency / strength also affects it. And certainly the fateful momentum of ones previous acts and decisions has a large effect. But the core of any decision or action is called the “doer” – who is identified as the sentient individual himself / herself.
The doer supplies the will to act in a certain way. And then the action is carried out as far as possible through the environment, tools, and strength at the doers disposal, and within the confines of fate. For example, if I decide to become a rock-star, that decision comes from the doer (soul, the individual) and can become true as far as the environment, tools, strength, and fate at my disposal will permit. The source of the decision is my individual freewill, but the limitations involved in realizing the decision are the other four factors.
Further, the other four factors will limit and condition my ability to decide on an action. For example, if my environment is the 1800s, how can I decide to become a rock-star? Rock and roll didn’t even exist in that environment. If I have no eyes in my toolbox, I will not be likely to make the choice to see the sunrise. Etc. So the four external factors limit and condition the central cause of action, the doer.
Some say that the doer is ahamkara, not ātmā. Although this is partially true, ahamkara only has potency due to receiving energy from the ātmā by proximity. Therefore whatever the ahamkara does is attributable to the ātmā although it is technically not directly done or conceived by the ātmā. For example, in an online community or multiplayer game, the persons involved have virtual identities within the electronic world. These identities have personality and perform actions only because the player controls them. Ātmā is analogous to the player and Ahamkara to the player’s “avatar” in the online world. So, will and doership is invested into the ahamkara by the atma, not visa versa.
Advaita schools try to claim that it is visa versa, but their argument has the flaw of suggesting that an inferior substance (ahamkara) can modify a superior substance (ātmā / brahman). Non-advaita schools are much more sensible because they recognize that if an avatar can express will in a virtual world, it means that the controller or programmer of the avatar much has at least as much will. They recognize that the superior substance (in terms of power) influences the inferior, not visa versa.
Coming back to the main point – external circumstances certainly condition, limit, and shape our will, but still the central principle in each and every decision and action we make at every moment is our freewill.
Q: The dictionary defines “free” as: “exempt from external authority, interference,restriction, etc., as a person or one’s will, thought, choice, action, etc.;independent; unrestricted.“
Freedom can exist within limits. It is not that because there is a limitation there cannot be any freedom at all. For example, on a plane from Newark to Tokyo I have no freedom to go to Chicago, but I still have freedom within the plane to watch this or that movie, eat this or that snack, sit down or stand up, etc. etc.
Our will is not absolutely free from restraint. The four factors mentioned about impose restraint upon it. But it is still called “free” will because at the core it has no causality. Sentience possesses the divine ability to generate effects without cause — We can make a choice without being forced by any condition, even though (because our sentience is infinitesimal) the four conditions will modify and limit our ability to realize or conceive our choice.
Q: Isn’t muhurta itself is a tool to harmonize with the forces of the nature and improve our chance of doing the right thing in the right time?
Muhurta is proof of freewill. In the west it is called “elective astrology” because the individual elects the proper action for the proper moment. If the living entity had no vote, no will, there could be no election — selecting an ideal moment would be meaningless, because an entity with no choice cannot make a “selection” at all.
Q: Isn’t it correct that astrology begins with the premises that we are conditioned by the planets and the stars?
No, astrology begins with the premise that every action has a reaction. The next premise is that actions and reactions unfold over time. The third premise is that the movements of objects within space describe the unfolding of time, and therefore imply symbolic information about the actions and reactions unfolding.
Even if we believe that the planets and stars condition our will, still it is merely a conditioning, not an extinguishing of will. However in my opinion, having studied the subjects considerably, we are not conditioned by planets and stars. The planets and stars are merely visible signs describing the conditions in the universe at a given point in time. Much like the hands on a clock do not make the clock work, they merely are a way that we can read the workings of the clock.
I encourage you to read my book, “The Great Big Crystal Ball in the Sky, Part I”
to really learn about this in detail, if you are interested.
Q: An astrologer says (or, so I misunderstood) that the area of choices are also predetermined.
Mr. Rao’s observation that you are not always able to follow through on the choices you make does not demonstrate that there is no freewill and everything is predetermined. It only demonstrates that our freewill is not all-powerful – it is contained within the boundaries of four other factors: environment, tools, strength, and destiny’s momentum.
We can make decisions, but it doesn’t mean that they will be successful, because our decision is only 1 of 5 factors that determine the outcome of an endeavor. This is what I tried to explain with reference to Gītā 18.14.
Q: Theoretically I am able to understand what you have been explaining. However, I am finding it difficult to apply it to the major events of my life. For example: my spiritual path is bhakti. A great astrologer had predicted it for me at a time when i was not even thinking about it. If it was predictable, how is it freewill?
Probably if you understand the fifth factor more deeply you will see the whole thing more clearly in the real world.
The five factors in the outcome of a decision/action are
1) The soul’s will to initiate the action (kartā)
2) The environment (adhisthana)
3) The tools (indriya)
4) The power (ceṣṭa)
5) “Fate” (daiva)
So you have to understand what the 5th is, thats the real kicker.
The fifth is the momentum generated by your previous choices.
If you are driving down the road at 80mph, when you suddenly decide you want to make a sharp left turn, you can’t… because the momentum of your previous choice to drive 80mph won’t allow a sharp left turn. Its not that you have no freewill and therefore can’t make a sharp left turn, its that the way you used your freewill just previously has created a momentum that impacts the way you wish to use your freewill at present.
Similarly the way you wish to use freewill at present will create a momentum that impacts your future.
So we can look at your horoscope and say “you will become a bhakta” because in the horoscope we see symbols that tell us how you have used your will in the past (past lives) and what momentum that delivers to your present situation. A prediction is based on probability. When there is a lot of momentum in a given direction, the probability of a predictable outcome is high.
It doesn’t mean there is no freewill, it means that the system of action, reaction and will is complex and sophisticated, and each thing affects the other. But when you unravel it down to the core you find freewill at the original root of everything and as the key factor in each and every point along the way.
– Vic DiCara (Vraja Kishor dās)