Free Will at the Inception Point
Long forgotten in an existence outside of contact with the material universes, time, and even our limited conception of space, the individual jīva-souls have their genesis in the realm of undifferentiated consciousness. With some primordial free will they begin their journey of conscious individual discovery. Some gravitate towards the spiritual realm and dedication while others gravitate towards the realm of matter and exploitation – an almost inconceivable inception into this world of janma, mṛtyu, jarā, vyādi (birth, death, old age and disease). We have come into contact with the enervating plane of illusory existence (māyā) which has exacted its toll on us for countless lives and thus we have completely forgotten our origins. In a moment of clarity, a light may spark in our covered consciousness, the soul begins to stir from its slumber and thus begins a homeward journey out of the darkness. Having become disenchanted with this existence and seeking a higher, personal connection with reality we are just beginning to wake up to our real eternal prospect. This is our situation…
This is the gist of what spiritual visionaries like Bhaktivinoda Ṭhākura and Śrīla B.R. Śrīdhara Mahārāja have explained about the origin of the soul. The age-old questions of “Where did we come from?”, “Why do we suffer?” and “Why do bad things happen to good people?” generally culminate in a search for an external culprit. Who is to blame? Is it God? Is it fate? Is it just random chance? Are we simply players at the universal gambling table and were dealt a bad hand?
None to Blame but Ourselves: The Vaiṣṇava Quality of Humility
Even in the sphere of mundane interactions, to take responsibility for one’s own problems and failures is seen as a positive character trait. So what to speak of the spiritual path of bhakti-yoga which is understood as the highest theistic conception ever revealed? An extremely refined personal conception of God and our relationship with Him also necessitates the development of extremely refined personal characteristics and vision. This is what the Vaiṣṇava quality of humility is all about.
tat te ’nukampāṁ su-samīkṣamāṇo
bhuñjāna evātma-kṛtaṁ vipākam
hṛd-vāg-vapurbhir vidadhan namas te
jīveta yo mukti-pade sa dāya-bhāk
“My dear Lord, one who earnestly waits for You to bestow Your causeless mercy upon him, all the while patiently suffering the reactions of his past misdeeds and constantly paying respects unto You with his mind, body and words, is certain to attain your lotus feet, the object of all devotion.” (Śrīmad Bhāgavatam 10.14.8)
We have to understand deep within our own hearts that we are ultimately responsible for our own suffering, past and present, but that there is a possibility of redemption and freedom from this situation. It begins with free will and taking the position of blaming no one but ourselves. Because we are individual units of consciousness endowed with free will then we must accept responsibility for our own actions. We are the architects of our own pain and pleasure, but it is difficult to look back and see past the karmic horizon of this one short life. We have had many lives and have incurred much debt with material nature. If we are so quick to blame others for our troubles then have not understood even the most basic principles of the laws of karma. The path of least resistance is to cast blame and adopt the comfortable position of the innocent victim. Theoretically we hear about free will and karma, but when we are suffering, our classroom realisations flee from our mind and we begin to meditate on who is responsible. In this regard, my Guru Mahārāja, Śrīla B.G. Narasiṅgha Mahārāja has said:
“There is nothing wrong with me! I deserve the best! Why am I cheated?” That approach is very self-centred, and self-centeredness distances us from Divinity. Rather, we should understand that, “the only defect is in me.” This will align us with divinity, and the clouds of so much confusion and misunderstanding will go away, and the sun of Kṛṣṇa will shine bright in our life. No one is cheated in this world; everyone is a self-deceiver, and a self-cheater. There is no one to blame; it is not healthy to blame the environment. It is healthier to blame one’s own self, for in doing so we leave room within ourselves for self-improvement. This is one of the keys on the ring of the secrets of how to progress: do not blame others, blame yourself!
From a relative vision it may be seen that certain circumstances have caused us pain and suffering and we find it necessary to distance ourselves from that. But in our heartfelt meditation on Kṛṣṇa, when we sit and chant the mahā-mantra and try to gain some internal guidance, then we must develop the vision from the absolute standpoint. Śrīla Śrīdhara Mahārāja explains what that absolute vision is.
“Whatever circumstance we find around us is earned by our own karma. The anomalies which I am facing are ātma-kṛta, the product of my own actions. No one else is to blame. The first thing we have to face is that this is the truth – it is a stern reality. Not only are we to adjust ourselves with the present circumstances, but we have to advance more. That is what is more important. This is the necessary medicine at my present stage. We are to take it in that way. It is earned by me so I am to be blamed, none else. Not only that, but the grace of the Lord is always present and eager to help me in the disguise of danger, in the guise of an unfavourable environment as I perceive it in my present experience. But that is also necessary medicine for my own disease, to cure my madness.
“We have to accept our environment in such an optimistic way, not in a reluctant way. Even if the circumstances seem to be averse to me, that should be faced. We are face to face with our friend and not an enemy. We have to welcome any adversity with this spirit, then it will immediately change its face. This is the highest type of medicine, to face danger as a friend. The first state is to accept that this is my own earning, none to blame for this. The second state is that it is the real necessity at this stage, the real medicine to uplift me, because no event can come without the sanction of the Absolute. Without His sanction, no movement is possible and He is a friend and an affectionate Guardian, through Whose hand everything is passing to me. Tat te’nukampāṁ – not to blame the circumstances, but to appreciate that it is He at the back. As my best friend, He is behind everything. Everything is passing through His attentive eyes, so there cannot be any defect there. No wrong can be found there. There must be something wrong in me which has come out in such a form. It is a necessity, so if He has sent this to me and I hesitate, I will have to suffer, so I must welcome it. “This is coming from my Lord!” With this attitude, we can approach the circumstances of any type. Then at once the sky will become clear. “Coming from my Lord, it is for my good.” Welcome it, and very soon it will be finished and you will be liberated from all these troubles.
“To face the danger, the adverse circumstances Śrīmad Bhāgavatam has come to teach us in this way, when faced with adverse circumstances. In this spirit, this real spirit, this should be how we face the troubles and you’ll get relief very soon after. So we are in the midst of this world. This problem is always hunting us and Bhāgavatam has given its advice in this way. Be courageous, don’t allow yourself to go into despair. Don’t be disappointed, but have courage and face courageously with thought, deed and word – kāya, mana, vākya. In word also you try to say – chant the ślokas of Gītā and Bhāgavatam etc. and in thought we also try to take it and in your activities also you can take those advices in your life. Then very soon after, you will get relief. Honorable relief – not by bribing, but by dint of your own right – you will work out your liberated state where you will be eligible for the service of Krsna. That is the negative side.”
If we desire an emotional response to our suffering then there will be an unending stream of it from our own minds and from those who have no idea what our real inner necessity is.
The Philosophical Response to Suffering and the Mood of Jīvera-dayā (Compassion to all Living Beings)
Life is full of suffering, but when a philosophical response comes to us from the sādhus and is somehow able to enter the heart, then we have to work to keep that ideal vision within us. If a philosophical response comes from someone who really cares about our well-being then it will be extremely effective.
I have heard plenty of so-called “philosophical responses” to cases of abuse at the hands of others, intense pain caused by disease etc. but they came from the wrong source. It was book-knowledge being thrown at a problem from an unsympathetic person who is unable to actually understand what is needed and therefore it never entered the heart.
Everyone must individually develop this realisation of personal responsibility and humility, but we cannot apply this in a cavalier manner on those around us. “Oh yeah, it’s his karma, prabhu! He should just realise that and get over it!”
If we cultivate this mentality and are still under the sway of envy, we will become hard-hearted. The first characteristic of a true sādhu is jīvera-dayā (compassion for all jīvas), we must develop this mentality in ourselves before we can help others. In regards to compassion, Śrīla Bhaktivinoda Ṭhākura writes:
“Jīvera dayā (mercy to living entities) is one of the main constituents of Vaiṣṇava dharma. It is the inherent nature of a Vaiṣṇava to be kind to the jīvas. When this nature is not detected, one cannot become a Vaiṣṇava even if one has thousands upon thousands of other external symptoms. Jīvera dayā nāme ruci vaiṣṇava sevana (compassion to the jīvas, a taste for the Holy Name and service to the Vaiṣṇavas) is the only teaching that Śrī Śacīnandana has propagated everywhere.” (From the article, “Jivera Daya – Mercy to the Living Entities”)
The best way to develop real compassion and personal humility will always be through associating with those who possess such qualities. You can’t give what you yourself don’t have.
‘sādhu-saṅga’, ‘sādhu-saṅga’ — sarva-śāstre kaya
lava-mātra sādhu-saṅge sarva-siddhi haya
(Caitanya-caritāmṛta, Madhya-līlā 22.54)
This verse from Caitanya-caritāmṛta gives us the most positive outlook on the company of real sādhus on the path to pure devotion. A moment’s association of a genuine saint, especially in the hour of greatest need, will have the maximum impact to carry us forward. Even if so many things sweep us away from the path of devotional service, those interactions with the sincere devotees who really have our best interest at heart will stay with us and will ultimately help to drag us back to reality when the time is right in this life or the next.
Ultimately the relief comes with the understanding that all adverse circumstances have come to help us clear our debt with material nature so we can disentangle ourselves. If we continue on the path to pure devotion then we are sure to find the sky clearing above us and the bright and positive aspects of Kṛṣṇa pulling us forward.