Fatalism or Pragmatism?
By Chaitanya Charana Dasa
Understanding the concept of destiny disempowers passivity and empowers a focus on duty.
Indian thought is sometimes deemed fatalistic, holding that everything is destiny, predetermined by our past actions, and thus leaving little room for human initiative. While Indian literature is filled with diverse thoughts, some of which may be fatalistic, the bhakti literature, which is among the most influential Indian literature, offers a far more nuanced and empowering outlook on life.
Ancient Echoes of Modern Concerns
The Ramayana features an emotionally and intellectually riveting conversation about the interplay of destiny and human initiative. This conversation occurred at one of the epic's defining moments: the moment when Rama, about to be crowned prince regent, was instead sentenced to forest exile for fourteen years.
While Rama gracefully accepted the exile as the will of destiny, His faithful younger brother Lakshmana was outraged by the injustice and called for rebellion. Rama calmly responded that He considered His exile the will of destiny and so intended to accept it. He said that nothing else could explain how His stepmother Kaikeyi, who had loved Him like her own son and whom He had served like His own mother, had suddenly become so malevolent towards Him. Rama hadn't done anything to offend Kaikeyi and certainly didn't deserve to be exiled. Yet His exile was the boon that Kaikeyi had extorted from her husband, the monarch Dasharatha. Rama deemed obedience to His father His duty, one He intended to follow unflinchingly.
If some of us find Rama's deference to destiny too docile, we may be intrigued to know that so did Lakshmana. Rather than ascribe Rama's exile to destiny, he sought to lay the blame on the human actors involved: the scheming Kaikeyi and, more importantly, the complicit king. He alleged that the king had become infatuated with his beautiful wife and so had abandoned his duty of protecting his own son. To Rama's deference to destiny, the incensed Lakshmana countered that only the impotent accept injustice passively as the will of destiny; the strong fight injustice to protect their rights – and the kingdom was Rama's right. Lakshmana's arguments may make us feel that his is an intriguingly modern voice railing against the fatalism prevailing in those times.
Seeing Through the Stereotype of Fatalism
Significantly, Rama was not fatalistic, as was evident from His dynamic response to other adversities, such as the abduction of His wife, Sita. He didn't passively accept her abduction as an act of destiny. When she was abducted, He had no guards, servants, or royal resources to find her. He could well have seen His destitute condition as the arrangement of destiny and passively accepted Sita's abduction. But the thought of such passivity didn't even cross His mind.
To the contrary, He always actively, even proactively, discharged His duty of protecting her. Throughout their stay in the forest, He always ensured that either He or His brother was at hand to protect Sita. And the moment He discovered she was missing and found signs of a scuffle that pointed to her abduction, He immediately started searching for her. To rescue her, He formed an unlikely alliance with monkey forces, marched hundreds of miles through difficult terrain, and fought against a formidable foe who had bested even the gods.
If Rama responded to Sita's abduction so resourcefully, then why did He accept His own exile so passively? If He didn't ascribe Sita's abduction to destiny, why did He ascribe His own banishment to destiny? Because the defining decider of His responses was the consideration of not destiny, but duty. For Rama as a husband, protecting His wife was His prime duty, and He didn't even consider abandoning that duty in the name of destiny, no matter how difficult it was. For Rama as a son, obedience to His father was His prime duty, one He did even when it required renouncing His right to the kingdom.
So the Ramayana's message is not that we passively give in to destiny, but that we gallantly stick to duty. And if in the course of duty some inconceivable calamity strikes, we can attribute it to destiny and continue to do our duty.
Throughout the bhakti literature, this subtle relationship between right, duty, and destiny plays out fascinatingly. Let's analyze events from two other jewels of Indian literature: the Mahabharata and the Srimad-Bhagavatam.
Destiny Doesn't Justify Passivity
The Mahabharata depicts and decries an attempt to abuse the concept of destiny to rationalize one's own passivity. Before the fratricidal Kurukshetra war, Vidura urged his brother, the blind Dhritarashtra, to correct the evil Duryodhana, Dhritarashtra's son. The stubborn prince refused to grant his cousins, the Pandavas, their half of the kingdom. Vidura warned that Duryodhana's obstinacy would cause the extermination of the entire Kuru dynasty.
In response, Dhritarashtra invoked destiny to justify his passivity. He argued that if destiny willed that their dynasty be destroyed, who was he, a tiny mortal, to stop the workings of almighty destiny?
Vidura responded by reminding the king that destiny determines the results of our actions, not our actions themselves. We all need to do our duty – that will bring auspiciousness in our life in all circumstances. If our destiny is favorable, then the auspiciousness will manifest immediately. If our destiny is unfavorable, then we will have to undergo some unavoidable reversals, but our dutifulness will create positive karmic credits that will shape a brighter future for us.
An agrarian analogy can illumine this point. For farmers, plowing the field is the duty, whereas the occurrence of timely rains is destiny. Both are needed for a good harvest. Destiny determines whether the plowing will yield a harvest, but it doesn't determine whether the farmers plow or not. If they don't plow, then even if the destiny is favorable, rains will cause the growth of weeds, not crops. Significantly, this understanding of the dynamics of duty and destiny is empowering: It offers impetus to do duty even when destiny is unfavorable. Though the farmers may get no harvest when destiny is unfavorable, still their diligent performance of duty will create positive karmic credits that will contribute to their benign future destiny. After all, our destiny is formed not by some unknown arbitrary force, but by our own actions – the accumulated karmic reactions to our past actions make up our present destiny. So, our present execution of duty, even when it doesn't produce any result immediately, doesn't go in vain – it is good karma (action that produces favorable results) and thereby contributes to the congenial destiny that will bring auspiciousness.
Given this pivotal role of duty in shaping destiny, the question Dhritarashtra should have asked was not whether or not the war was destined but whether or not he was doing his duty. As the king, it was his duty to ensure that justice was done for all his citizens, especially his own nephews, and even more so because they were fatherless and he was expected to act like a surrogate father to them. To let his son continue the atrocious exploitation of his nephews was a grievous dereliction of duty on Dhritarashtra's part. Vidura rightly reproached his brother not only for abandoning his duty but also for falsely invoking destiny to whitewash that abandonment.
Destiny as a Check Against Unrighteousness
An episode from the devotional classic Srimad-Bhagavatam depicts the right use of destiny in an argument. When Vasudeva and Devaki, Krishna's future parents, got married, their wedding procession threatened to become a funeral procession. Devaki's cousin Kamsa was driving the newlywed's chariot. On hearing a celestial prophecy that Devaki's eighth son would kill him, the benevolent-seeming Kamsa turned violent – he grabbed his sister by the hair and raised his sword to decapitate her.
Vasudeva tried to check the vicious Kamsa by reasoning with him. One of the arguments he used centered on destiny: If destiny had decreed Kamsa's death, then nothing, not even killing Devaki, would stop destiny from taking its course. Why then should Kamsa accrue bad karma by committing a triple sin: killing a woman, killing on the sacred occasion of marriage, and killing his own sister?
Vasudeva could well have applied the destiny argument to Devaki's situation. He could have asked himself: "If she is destined to die, why should I strive to prevent it?" Why didn't Vasudeva argue thus? Because his focus was not on destiny but on duty. It was his duty to protect his wife, and he was going to do his best to protect her, while knowing that destiny would determine whether his effort would be successful or not. But destiny didn't decide whether or not he would do his duty – that was in his hands, and he did it resourcefully and fearlessly.
Kamsa, on the other hand, was giving up his duty by trying to kill his sister. So Vasudeva reminded him about destiny to get him back on the path of duty or to at least stop him from doing the opposite of his duty – killing the very sister he was dutybound to protect.
Duty Is the Best Response to Destiny
While the relationship between free will and destiny is complex, it can be summed up in a broad principle: what happens to us is destiny, how we respond to it is our free will. And we can choose the best response by sticking to our duty, as given in scripture and guided by the bhakti tradition.
Here it's important to note the different connotations of the word duty. Nowadays, the word is often used in the sense of a burden, something one is expected to do or that has to be done. So if someone exhibits stellar qualities and does something extraordinary, we laud the action as "going beyond the call of duty." In the bhakti tradition, duty is often the translation of the Sanskrit word dharma, which refers to activities that help us achieve our latent potential. By acting according to dharma, we help bring out the best within us: our godly, spiritual side. Doing one's duty, in this sense, is not about stoically carrying a burden allotted by externals, but about resourcefully bringing out one's inner potential by making scripturally guided choices.
Continuing with this burden-free connotation of duty, the highest duty, the para-dharma, is that of pure love: kevala-bhakti. The various interactions among Ramayana characters can at one level be seen as reciprocations of such spiritual love. But at another level, for our own edification their actions can be seen as demonstrating principles for choosing the right course of action. When seen in this sense, the Ramayana demonstrates that the best way to use our free will is not resignation to destiny, but is dedication to duty.
To further understand how destiny relates with free will, consider, as an analogy, a card game: Destiny determines the hand we get, but we determine how we use it. Claiming there's no such thing as destiny is like claiming we have full control over the hand we get – patently untrue. In the game of life, we all get different hands; we are all born with different sets of talents and resources, and throughout our life we face different challenges. Duty as understood in the sense of dharma enables us to make the best use of this hand.
For Rama as an obedient son, His duty was to serve His father. He would normally have done so by accepting the post of prince regent and eventually king. But when extraordinary circumstances conspired to have Him banished, He stuck to His duty, although in a drastically different form – not as a prince, but as an ascetic. And He attributed those extraordinary factors that changed His circumstances to destiny; inconceivable, inexorable destiny had moved His stepmother to express an uncharacteristic greed for power.
Rama rejected Lakshmana's call for rebellion not because He was fatalistic and feeble, but because He was resourceful and courageous enough to do His duty even when it was exceptionally difficult. To Lakshmana's charge about King Dasharatha's motivation, Rama pointed out that the king had acted not because of infatuation but because of obligation: he had long ago promised Kaikeyi two boons and was honor-bound to grant them, even when doing so caused him heartbreaking agony. Rama stressed that the king's readiness to keep his word demonstrated not his weakness but his truthfulness.
Rights Don't Trump Responsibilities
Rama's refusal to seize His right to the kingdom meant sacrificing His responsibility as a son. This is instructive. Though something may be our right, it may not always be right for us to claim it. We need to balance considerations of our rights with deliberations on our responsibilities. We live in a culture that frequently champions rights and downplays responsibilities. Parents often find it extremely difficult to raise children when the children feel entitled to lots of things without feeling they need to do anything to get them.
John F. Kennedy's exhortation "Ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country" was a call to shift the focus from rights to responsibilities. Such a shift comes much easier when we have a spiritual conception of life, when we understand ourselves to be souls and see life from a multi-life perspective wherein results for dutifulness are guaranteed, but not always in this life.
When we are faced with problems, we can deal with them better if we approach them with a positive attitude. Illustrating how spiritual wisdom engenders positive outlook, Rama responded to His banishment by stating that He didn't see any cause for distress: He had the satisfaction of ensuring that His father's word was honored; He had the joy of ensuring the enthronement of His younger brother, who was like a son to Him; and He had the opportunity for spiritual growth by the association of sages in the forest, an opportunity He would otherwise have gotten only towards the end of His life when He retired to the forest. Thus, Rama's spiritual vision grants Him extraordinary positivity. He accepts the adversity of banishment not with hand-wringing and teeth-grinding, but with dignity and determination, looking to make the best of the situation.
That Rama ascribed to destiny the adversity that befell Him is significant because He, being God Himself, is the Lord of destiny. But He had descended as an avatar not so much to demonstrate His supremacy as to demonstrate the life of an ideal human being. And He did so by exemplifying how to maturely respond to adversity. If we focus too much on our rights, we may end up beating our head against a wall, trying in vain to get things we think are our right but have been taken away by unchangeable circumstances – by the will of destiny. On the other hand, if we focus too much on destiny, we may end up doing nothing at all, thereby depriving ourselves of our authentic rights and letting the world walk all over us. Acceptance of destiny is not a recipe for sentencing oneself to weakness and helplessness; it is the pathway for the most constructive channeling of our energies.
The sense of dutifulness can help us in our spiritual life too. In our devotional practices, if we focus too much on our rights – especially if we imagine and expect that higher spiritual happiness is our right because we are practicing bhakti-yoga – then, during the dry phases of our spiritual life, we will sentence ourselves to dissatisfaction and doubt, worrying unnecessarily whether or not bhakti works. By cultivating dutifulness, we can practice bhakti steadily until we eventually relish the higher happiness that comes from purification and the mercy of the Lord, who is pleased by our selflessness.
The bhakti literatures teach not fatalism but pragmatism: the sound practical intelligence that refuses to buy the lie that everything is in our control. By remembering that there is much we cannot control, pragmatism urges us to focus our energy on those things that we can control.
Nowadays many people suffer from such psychological problems as depression, an inferiority complex, and suicidal urges. A major reason is underlying misconceptions about controllership: they are led to believe they can control everything, and when they can't control things, they think something is intrinsically wrong with them and sink into self-flagellating thought patterns. That's why a proper understanding of destiny can be salutary; it can prevent dissipation of our energy in fruitless fantasies or lamentations, and can channel it towards growth-inducing choices.