Is faith in Krishna a matter of human choice or divine grace?
Question: Sometimes, faith is said to be a matter of our choice: we need to put faith in Krishna. But at other times, faith is said to be a gift that Krishna bestows when we please him. So is faith in Krishna a matter of human choice or divine grace?
Answer: It is both. Faith in Krishna as expressed through our selecting devotional engagements is a matter of human choice. Faith in Krishna as experienced through deepened conviction in our heart is a matter of divine grace.
Let’s take a closer look at these dual dimensions of faith.
Faith and human choice
In the Bhagavad-gita (4.42), Krishna refers to faith as a matter of human choice when he urges that we use the sword of knowledge to cut doubts to pieces.
To better understand this aspect of faith, let’s compare faith with muscles. We can choose to build our muscles by engaging in appropriate activities, for example, body-building exercises. Similarly, we can build our faith by engaging in appropriate activities, for example, hearing from advanced devotees, studying scriptures along with their authorized commentaries, and seeking answers to specific doubts from learned devotee-scholars. Just as muscle-building activities require us to exert our physical body, faith-building muscles require us to exert our subtle body, that is, our mind and intelligence. We need to exert our emotional muscles by going against our feelings of apprehension about entering a hitherto unexplored devotional dimension of life. We also need to exert our intellectual muscles by going against our metaphysical lethargy, that is, our indifference to pondering the fundamental questions of life and our laziness in studying the philosophical scriptures that address those questions.
Additionally, to build our muscles, we need to avoid activities that damage our health in general and our muscles in specific like, say, abstaining from particular foods. Similarly, to build our faith, we need to avoid activities that damage our devotional attitude towards Krishna like, say, avoiding the association of the faithless and the blasphemous.
Just as our muscles will naturally grow if we abide by the relevant dos and don’ts, so will our faith. At this point, some of us may protest, “Faith is not just the end-result of this process of human choice; it is also the starting-point. Don’t we need a basic level of faith to abide by the scriptural dos and don’ts?”
Yes, we do. But all of us are capable of choosing this preliminary faith, just as all of us can lift a few pounds of weight. Choosing to attend a class on the Bhagavad-gita or to chant Hare Krishna usually requires nothing more than a positive curiosity to know what these things are all about. That’s why shraddha, the first stage among the nine stages of bhakti as given in Rupa Goswami’s classic devotional manual, is initially almost akin to favorable curiosity. As our muscles build, we become ready to lift heavier weights. Similarly, as our initial curiosity gives positive results, we feel inspired to commit quality time and sustained thought, along with the necessary lifestyle refinements. Resonating with this level of faith is Srila Prabhupada’s translation of shraddhanah (the faithful) as “seriously inquisitive” in the Srimad Bhagavatam (1.2.12).
Faith and divine grace
In the Bhagavad-gita, Krishna refers to faith as a matter of divine grace when he says (7.21) that he bestows faith according to our desires. To understand this inner experiential aspect of faith, we can compare it to the feeling of healthiness that results when a medicine cures us. We are all souls who have an original eternal relationship of pure love with Krishna, so having complete faith in him is our natural spiritually healthy state.
When we are sick, taking the medicine is in our hands, but regaining our health is neither in our hands, nor in the doctor’s hands. Though there may be a known physiological process by which a medicine heals, still it is impossible to predict with 100% accuracy if and how a particular medicine will heal a specific patient. From the medical perspective, there may be unknown or unaddressed issues in the past medical history of the patient that may complicate the healing process. From the metaphysical perspective, there may be past karmic consequences that cause similar complications. Many astute doctors acknowledge the critical role in healing of powers beyond their control through pithy sayings like “we treat, he heals.”
Similarly, faith is the feeling of conviction and comfort in Krishna that results when the therapeutic process of devotional service purifies us of all doubts. Engaging in devotional activities is in our hands, but regaining our spiritual health is not. Thought the scriptures delineate the process by which devotional service purifies us, still it is impossible to predict with 100% certainty if and how a specific individual seeker will become purified and develop faith. Karmic factors from our past conditionings in this and previous lives may complicate the process of spiritual recovery. Nonetheless, if we keep engaging in devotional service, we will occasionally experience that some events trigger off a spontaneous chain of thoughts and feelings that culminate in a much-deepened conviction in Krishna. Such experiences can boost our faith so rapidly and massively that they often become defining landmarks in our life-journey.
The Srimad Bhagavatam (1.2.21) refers to this feature of faith as a divine gift when it states that a result of the steady performance of devotional service is: chidyante sarva samshayah “the destruction of all doubts.” Preceding this verse is a systematic description of the dynamics of devotional service: rendering committed service to Krishna’s devotees and thereby attracting their blessings. This combination of service and blessings prepares the ground for the descent of Krishna’s grace that boosts our faith through profoundly transformational experiences.
To conclude, faith as a matter of human choice refers to our capacity to engage in devotional activities and thereby strengthen our faith in slow, incremental installments. Faith as a matter of divine grace refers to the sudden deep convictions that arise in our heart and boost our faith in rapid, quantum leaps. We need to proactively do our part by diligently practicing devotional service and patiently wait for Krishna to do his part according to his sweet will.