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Free Will and Destiny

How much free will do people actually have? Can anyone "create" his destiny? Indeed, the age-old debate over determinism and free will is absolutely germane to the practice of astrology. If change were not possible, then what would be the point of delving deeply into the karma of the soul? To me, the riddle rests upon a profound paradox, and making sense of it requires a mind tuned to subtle distinctions.

In an absolute sense, "free will" is an illusion, yet that illusion is the basis upon which life depends. In an absolute sense, all there is . . . is Brahman: pure consciousness; the undifferentiated, formless, timeless ground of existence; the One without a second. But in order to experience itself, the One becomes the Many, and thus makes a journey through time and space. From an absolute perspective, the One may be all there is . . . but from a relative perspective (where we exist), the "Many" is reality. As tradition says: "From the point of view of appearances, Shiva is the world; but from the point of view of reality, the world is Shiva." This ancient truism (where Shiva is an expression of Brahman) says it all.

Daily life belongs to the phenomenal world. Our experience is profoundly shaped by time, space and the limitations of consciousness bound within the container of the individual mind. Whether this reality is called samsara or maya or prakriti or Shakti dancing, it is all the same. It involves energy/matter continually vibrating, changing and evolving; and the principle governing it all is karma. It is a principle similar to Newton's Third Law of Motion: "For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction", except that karma operates not just on the physical but the most subtle levels of reality as well. It is the mechanism through which the entire manifestation functions. As Gandhi so aptly put it, "When God invented the law of karma, he could retire."

The sum of karmic forces in the cosmos creates a web infinitely complex and intricate, stretching backwards and forward through time. 
T
he human mind could never grasp its totality, yet this is the subject of Jyotish. When asked what he thought of astrology, my guru Ramesh Balsekar once said, "Indeed, I believe in astrology! It is astrologers I am not always sure of."

The journey of consciousness through time can be likened to a movie or a dream. It is not our dream, it is the dream of Brahman; and we are the "dreamed characters". Just as a movie, it is already complete, with everything that has happened and is going to happen already determined by the interplay of karma. It exists--a finished work--outside time, every minute scene an integral and necessary part of the totality. Brahman wrote the script, Brahman directs the production, Brahman plays all the parts. The reality is that the movie is finished, already in "the can". But for those watching it, those of us in the flow of time, what is going to happen next remains always an uncertainty.

Here is where the paradox becomes subtle. An individual (in this movie, let's say) comes up to a fork in the road, and the question arises: "Shall I go right or left?" It feels like a dilemma, and the choice ahead dependent upon my willful decision in the moment. Let's call this moment the "window of free will", and contrast it to the many occasions when action flows in a more instinctual, automatic pilot kind of manner.

Upon what basis is my choice made? If we unpack the process carefully, it becomes clear that character (based on genes and karma) and conditioning (based upon the sum total of experiences in life so far) determine the decision. None of these factors are freely chosen. They are the result of "happenings" occurring according to the intricate flow of cosmic law.

Indeed, in what sense can there be any free- thinking agent outside of genes, karma and conditioning? "My free will" is exposed as a complete chimera. Where is that separate and independent "me" to be found? Even if I toss a coin and leave it all to chance, the decision to do that depends upon character and conditioning. There is no escape. This supposed "window of free will" is conditioned by what has already been determined, and whatever "I decide" to do has already been established by complex cosmic forces in place since the beginning of time.

But Brahman, it appears, has a great appreciation for drama in "movie-making". Each character in the movie has been given the sense of absolute free will in any given moment. We characters all believe we are creating the movie as it unrolls. And the paradox is this: from our limited perspective, we are. For in the moment, the knowledge that the movie has already been written does not help "me", since I can never know what is supposed to happen next. I need to act "as if" I have free will, because that is how the phenomenal world functions. That is the drama of life.

In any given moment, I can do whatever I think is right. What else is there to do? But once the "decision" is made, it can only be what is meant to be. "It is written," as they say in India. Looking back on the past, therefore, I can know that whatever happened is exactly what was meant to happen, even if that thing is abhorrent from our human perspective. For how could anything happen outside the divine will? Brahman is beyond duality, and that means beyond the polarity of good and evil that we perceive. Peace, trust and acceptance flow from this understanding, and right action is never precluded either, for the desire that arises to struggle for righteous causes is also part of the drama. This is a vital point. It is only guilt and blame that become irrelevant.

An astrological reading belongs to the realm of fresh conditioning. Like any other influence, it adds to the store of conditioning for those minds ripe to receive it. Modifying behaviour based upon it is like taking a coat and umbrella to go out because a weather report has predicted rain. Once again, "knowledge is power", and divine wisdom has endowed the human organism with the desire "to know".

The astrological chart is a portrait of the "mood of God" at the time of birth, when the celestial alignment was optimal for the incarnation of whatever karmic material hovering in the subtle realms was waiting to find expression. It provides insight into the purpose of this incarnation. And with that understanding, right action flows towards the realisation of destiny. The dreamed character proceeds upon his merry way, but at the same time, rests eternally in the heart of the dreamer.

Photos by NASA and Wikicommons are available under a Creative Commons Attribution license

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Meditation for the Month:

"Thoughts come and go.
Feelings come and go.
Find out what it is that remains."
Ramana Maharshi

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