Karma, Free Will and Jyotisha

The following article from Hinduism Today addresses a number of issues concerning ‘fate’ and self-effort’ and whether we could rely on ourselves for results or whether we should leave it to fate to determine our future.

Karma, Free Will & Jyotisha, 

Parts 1-3

(Mar-May 1996: 

Hinduism Today)

Sri Chakrapani Ullal

Part 1

The questions of karma, destiny and free will have baffled scholars and philosophers from time immemorial. These are among the most misunderstood and misinterpreted subjects in the philosophy of life. However, the ancient sages were very clear in their understanding and tried to elucidate it to us through their teachings. Vedic astrology plays an important role in explaining the interrelatedness of karma, destiny and free will. This is a very complicated and difficult area to deal with. However, I will try to shed some light as I understand it.
The quest for knowledge, truth and happiness is as old as life itself. All the choices we make are aimed at attaining happiness and avoiding unhappiness. Astrology seeks to guide one in this natural urge toward greater fulfillment by revealing one’s past karma and the resultant samskaras (impressions on the subconscious mind), which determine the way one perceives the world. Karma is the activity of doing and being, and it is action born of desire which holds the self in bondage. The sages have understood that the problem of life is how to live with the acceptance of one’s limitations, yet at the same time maximize the opportunities for growth.
The concept of karma is manifold. 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.
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. The astrologer simply reads the planetary influences which indicate the results of the previous karmas.
Therefore, 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.
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 is, our free will is subject to the influence of our samskaras, mental impressions caused by our past karmas.
The real situation regarding karma and free will, as explained by astrology, is that we human beings are partly free and partly determined. The circumstances of the major events of our life, such as birth, death or initiation into spiritual life, may be due to the uncanny operation of destiny. In other words, one’s physical nature, heredity and the social position of one’s family or position in the cosmos are determined by our past karmas.
Part 2
Nature has endowed human beings with sufficient freedom to make or mar themselves. Astrology never disputes the fact that, since the spark of divinity is present in us, sincere efforts to perform actions in the right way will be rewarded. However, in another sense, our life is predetermined to the extent that each one of us enters the world with impressions (called samskarasin Sanskrit) that are the root emotions and tendencies that motivate our lives, all reflected in our birth chart. They are impressions carried over from our past lives in our subconscious minds which motivate desires, and in turn produce our thoughts and actions.
Thus, human beings reflect their inner ideas on the outside world, and their perceptions are colored by their past experiences. Alan Leo, an eminent astrologer of the West, rightly stated, “Those who have studied astrology know that it does not teach absolute fatalism. We are not utterly bound; neither, on the other hand, are we entirely free. All our misfortunes are the result of our imperfect knowledge. Had we even but a little more knowledge, there would be so much less suffering.” Our actions follow the avenues of our own karma in tracing us, but our will at each moment is free to fashion our future karma. It is determinism to the extent that it is shadowed by the unchangeable law of karma, our past, but life which is guided by free will does not follow any preordained pattern. Vedic philosophy has always denied the existence of a merciless fate which would play with human beings as it pleases. On the contrary, the sages have undeniably declared that human beings do have control over their actions.
Part 3
Many people have questioned whether the sidereal astrology of Jyotisha is meant for Easterners, and tropical astrology is meant for Westerners. The truth of the matter is that Jyotisha is knowledge from Vedic seers, which is timeless and universal. Vedic astrologers say that there are two forces, Daiva and Purushakara, fate and individual energy, and the individual energy can modify and even frustrate fate. Moreover, the stars often indicate several fate possibilities. For example, the astrology chart might indicate that one may die in mid-age, but that if through determination (self-effort) it can be overcome, one can live to a predictable old age. Thus astrology does not say that events must and should happen, but gives the benefic and malefic tendencies which can be directed or modified through conscious effort.
Then, how would one define astrology? It is the philosophy of discovering and analyzing past impulses and future actions of both individual and nations in the light of planetary configurations. Astrology explains life’s reactions to planetary vibrations. It can also be defined as a science of correlation of astronomical facts with terrestrial events. Astrology has been called the science of indications, but it does not follow that the stars rule our destiny. The stars record a destiny that has already been formed. They are then a symbol (in our birth chart), not a force, or if their actions constitute a force, it is a transmitting energy, not an originating power. The planets do not dictate, but indicate the energies that are influencing a situation in a given time.
The birth horoscope reveals the general path of destiny by way of the disposition of the planets. The timing of events is indicated by the Dasa and Bhukti periods because they show when each planet will come into its relative strength or weakness. The exact timing is further determined by the transiting planets (where the planets are today) which are influencing the Dasa or Bhukti lords. The Dasa and Bhukti cycles are unique to Vedic astrology and are an essential component to the astrologer’s accuracy of prediction.

Sri Chakrapani Ullal is a world-renowned Vedic astrologer from South India.

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