Fate and Effort

From Conversations on the Science of Yoga — Karma Yoga Book 3: Samsara

Can destiny be influenced by effort?

Swami Sivananda: Prarabdha karma is only the purushartha of previous births. The self-effort of today becomes the destiny of tomorrow, so self-effort and destiny are one and the same.

God and purushartha are synonymous terms; they are two names for the same thing. What is destiny after all? It is one's own make-up. One has created certain things and can also destroy or undo them. One is thinking in a particular way now: 'I am Mr So and So, I am a Brahmin, I am a doctor, I am stout, and I am a householder.'' This is prarabdha karma, the karma which is bound to fructify in the present life. One can change this particular mode of thinking and think: 'I am Brahman, I am omnipotent, I am the witness or sakshi, I am God, I am neither the body nor the mind, I am Truth, I am the all-pervading, pure consciousness.'' This is purushartha.

One is the architect of one's own fate, the master of one's own destiny. One can do and undo things. One sows an action and reaps a tendency. One sows a tendency and reaps a habit. One sows a habit and reaps a character. One sows a character and reaps a destiny. Therefore, destiny is one's own creation — it is a bundle of habits. One can undo it, if one likes. Purushartha is self-exertion — it can give one anything. It is said in Yoga Vasishtha (6(2):157:28):

Na kinchana mahaabuddhe tadasteeha jagattraye; Yadanudveginaa naama paurushena na labhyate.

There is nothing in all these three worlds which is hard to be acquired by means of earnest endeavour and intense application.

Lakshman also says to Sri Rama in the Ramayana (Kishkindha Kanda, 1:121):

Utsaho balavaanaarya naastyutsaahat param balam Sotsaahasya hi lokeshu na kinchidapi durlabham.

Strenuous effort alone is powerful, O worthy sir! There is no might greater than exertion. Indeed nothing what-so ever is difficult to attain in all the worlds for a man given to endeavour.

Character is the determining factor in victory and defeat, success and failure, and in all the issues of life. A person of good character enjoys life herein and hereafter. Thoughts are the bricks with which character is built. Character is not born; it is formed. Determination to build a definite character in life is needed, and it must be followed up with persistent striving. The human being is not a creature of circumstances; one's thoughts are the architects of one's circumstances.

A person of character builds a life out of circumstances, steadily persevering and plodding. He does not look back, but marches forward bravely. He is not afraid of obstacles, never frets and fumes, never gets discouraged and disappointed. He is full of vigour, energy, vim and vitality, ever zealous and enthusiastic. Character is power, it is influence, and it makes friends. It draws patronage and support, creates friends and funds, and opens a sure and easy way to wealth, honour, success and happiness. A person shapes his life by building his character.

Destiny can be conquered by changing one's habits and mode of thinking. Now you think: 'I am the body.'' Start the spiritual anti-current and think: 'I am the immortal, dis-easeless, sexless atman.'' In this way one can conquer death and attain the immortal seat of supreme splendour. Destiny can be disarmed by virtuous deeds and right thoughts. Everyone has freewill to act. By self-exertion Ratnakar became Valmiki, by self-exertion Markandeya conquered death, by self-exertion Uddalaka attained nirvikalpa samadhi, and by self-exertion Savitri brought her husband, Satyavan, back to life.

Therefore, one should apply oneself tenaciously to enquiry and meditation. One should be vigilant and diligent. Overcome tomorrow's evil by today's self-exertion. Destroy unholy desires, ashubha vasanas, through holy desires, shubha vasanas.

Slay unholy thoughts by holy thoughts, and gain victory over destiny. Do not yield to fatalism. Do not become impotent. Stand like a lion. Exert and attain independence, atma swarajya.

There is a magazine of power and a vast ocean of knowledge within. All faculties are latent within. Unfold them and become a jivanmukta, a liberated soul.

Positive overcomes negative; this is the immutable law of nature. Purushartha or self-exertion is a mighty power; it is the lion or the elephant. Prarabdha or destiny is the cat or the jackal. God helps those who help themselves.

If we are subject to destiny, why should any effort be made?

Swami Sivananda: The person who advocates the theory of purushartha says, 'I am not a straw to be tossed about hither and thither. I can change my prarabdha. I have a free will of my own; I will make it pure, strong and irresistible. I will work out my salvation and become free.' Another philosopher says, 'Everything is pre-arranged in the Grand Scheme. God knows the details of a man's evolution from mineral to liberated soul. In reality all is prarabdha, but purushartha is preached to give an impetus for the person to work in right earnest. Otherwise he will become slothful and dull.'' If a person succeeds in an attempt, he calls it purushartha. He says, 'I really exerted myself and I have succeeded.' If he fails, the same man says, 'What can I do? Without God nothing can be done: no atom can move, no leaf can wave in the air.'

Destiny is one's own creation. Life is governed by the law of karma; the law operates and one reaps the fruits of one's actions. The theory of prarabdha does not make anyone a fatalist. No one can remain inactive even for a second, because there is an urge from within to work. The Bhagavad Gita (3:5) says:

Na hi kashchitkshanamapi jaatu tishthatyakarmakrit; Kaayate hyavashah karma sarvah prakritijairgunaih.

Nor can anyone, even for an instant, remain actionless, for everyone is helplessly driven to action by the qualities, or gunas, born of nature.

For a bhakta, all is prarabdha, because he is a person of self-surrender and has to glorify the power of the Lord. For a Vedantin, all is purushartha, because he is a person of self-reliance, who has to glorify the power of his own strong will, atma bala. Both are correct from their own standpoint.

Each soul must fulfil the law of karma to gain divine wisdom. Each soul must sit alone at the gate. The guru can lead him up to the gate, but no one can push him through. Everyone must fight their own battle of self-purifcation, concentration and control of mind. In Manusmriti (7:205) it is said:

Sarva karmedamaayattam vidhaane daivamaanushe; Tayordaivamachintyam tu maanushe vidyate kriyaa.

Success in every undertaking depends on destiny and man combined. The acts of destiny are out of the control of man. Think not of destiny, but act yourself.

Purushartha can do and undo things. If one is ailing, one must do purushartha; instead one takes medicine and leaves the results to prarabdha. Prarabdha is the result of one's own thoughts and actions. One should change the mode of thinking. Fatalism produces inertia, so one should exert oneself. Man is the master of his destiny. An aspirant should think, 'I am the immortal self,' and he will become the immortal self. As a person thinks, so he becomes; this is the immutable law. One's destiny is mapped out by one's thoughts. A person has only as much power as he imagines he has. The limit of a person's thought is the limit of his possibilities. The world around one is as one has willed it to be, because the circumstances and environments are the materialization of one's thoughts. The experiences a person has in the world rise or fall in accordance with his thoughts. Whatever thought is cherished by one in the world will ultimately be realized.

Human effort and divine grace are interconnected. It is true that everything is predestined and pre-planned by the Lord,and everything takes place in accordance with the holy writ. But God has also given the individual free will to do right or wrong, to discriminate between preyo marga, the path of sensorial enjoyment, and shreyo marga, the path of righteousness.

A person endowed with true wisdom as to the feeling and painful nature of worldly enjoyments, can exert himself in the right direction to do or undo his prarabdha, the portion of karmas that has ripened for actual experience in this current birth.