Does our past karma affect our present free will?

by Chaitanya Charan dasMarch 1, 2017

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Time- 12 mins

Transcribed by- Nayanasundari Devi Dasi

Question: What is prarabdha karma, its role, and how does it affect our free will or choices we make?

Answer (short):
• Prarabdha karma refers to the resources (body and mind) that we receive due to reactions from past. It doesn’t refer to the way we use those resources. We always have the free will.
• Expertise of the bhakta is to translate every situation into a situation favorable for Krishna bhakti.
• By our prarabdha karma, we may get unfavorable situations, but even within that we can try to practice bhakti. That is our free will. To what extent we can use our free will in that situation will depend on the association we have.

Answer (long): Prarabdha karma refers to sinful reactions from which one is suffering at present. It cannot be changed. The body that we get is a result of prarabdha karma. Prabhupada gave a simple example of a car to explain how our prarabdha karma cannot be changed. Different people have different cars to drive from one place to another. One car may be not as good as the other car. However, for the journey, we have no choice but to use our car only, however efficient or inefficient it may be. Similarly, we all have different bodies. Some may have a healthy body, while some may have a diseased body. Similarly, different people also have different minds with varying intellectual capacity. Prarabdha karma refers to the tools or the resources we have i.e. the body’s capacity and the mind’s inclinations all combined together.

Prarabdha karma is something which we all have to go through. If we see life of Srila Bhakti Vinod Thakur, he battled through a lot of sickness and diseases. He was an exalted devotee, descended from the spiritual world, but still the sickness troubled him throughout his life. We cannot change the body or the mind that we have. Whatever is associated with the body or the mind, we have to live with it. In that sense, prarabdha karma is not changeable.

Now the question is, how much impact prarabdha karma has on the choices we make. For example, we may have a mind which is attached to watching movies, but does that mean we have to watch movies or do we have the free will to detach ourselves from it? Let us understand this form one instance in Mahabharata.

In Mahabharata, when Vidura tells Dhritarashtra to stop Duryodhana from his terrible antagonism towards the Pandavas otherwise Kuru dynasty will be destroyed, Dhritarashtra tries to rationalize Duryodhana’s wrongdoings by using destiny as an argument. Dhritarashtra says, “If it is the will of the almighty destiny that our dynasty be destroyed, then who am I, a tiny mortal, to stop the working of almighty destiny.” That time Vidura cuts through his rationalization. Vidura says, “O King, destiny determines the consequences of our actions, not our actions themselves.”

Another example of a student can be given here. A student may prepare very diligently for exams but because of destiny doesn’t get good marks. The result of student’s actions is determined by the destiny but destiny does not control student’s actions. If the student doesn’t study for the exam saying, “I am not studying because of my destiny,” that is not destiny, but irresponsibility. Here, there may be some variation in the scope. Some students may study for long hours, but some only for few hours. However, to use destiny as an excuse for not studying is not right.

Prarabdha karma refers to the resources (body and mind) that we have. It doesn’t refer to the way we use those resources. We always have the free will to decide on the choices we make. To some extent the scope of our free will may be limited by destiny, but free will is always available to us and never taken away. For example, one person may have very healthy body and can lift 50 kg but other person with not so healthy body can lift only 10 kg. The other person may improve the muscles by exercise or hard work and may lift little more weight, say 20 kg, but expecting a lift of 50 kg is something not possible.

How can we apply our understanding of prarabdha karma or free will when unfavorable circumstances manifest in our lives? This can be done at multiple levels. Let us understand from Prabhupada’s life. At one level, we can say it is leela. Everything that Prabhupada did was orchestrated by Krishna so that his extraordinary glory could be manifested to the world. Another level is that we see it as the expertise of the bhakta to translate every situation into a situation favorable for Krishna bhakti. We also see examples of such expertise in Bhagavatam where Bali Maharaj is cursed and loses everything but still he says, “O my Lord, how merciful you are to me. I was attached and you have taken everything away from me so that I have nothing but you now.”

However, this does not necessarily mean that the unfavorable circumstance is necessary for bhakti. Sometimes we hear about some devotees who get affected by cancer and then they become very serious about bhakti. One may feel, “I am not serious about my bhakti. Maybe I should pray to Krishna to give me cancer.” Well, cancer is not the producer of bhakti. Somehow those devotees in cancer, took shelter of Krishna and by his mercy the devotees took up bhakti very diligently. The expertise of a devotee can make an unfavorable situation favorable for the practice of bhakti, but that does not mean that unfavorable situation itself is essential or desirable.

By our prarabdha karma, we may get unfavorable situations, but even within that we can try to practice bhakti. That is our intelligence or our free will. To what extent we use our free will, will depend on the association we have. Association gives inspiration and guidance to move forward towards Krishna.

It is not that the prarabdha karma determines and controls our free will completely. We can control the scope of the free will. I will give an example. When Rupa and Sanatana Goswami were under the Muslim rule they had to convert to Islam. They had to adopt the externals of Islam. They had a beard and they wore Islamic cap. However, privately they created their gupta (secret) Vrindavan for their bhakti.

Rather than getting too much in to the analysis of what is controlled or not controlled by past karma, we can focus on – “What can I do to serve Krishna right now?” As we keep taking steps forward, soon we will find the circumstances change and we get more time to practice bhakti. Krishna primarily sees our surrender. How much of our heart are we offering to him? Our externals are an expression of our heart. Sometimes if we cannot offer externally, we can also offer in meditation. Krishna accepts that too.

To summarize, prarabdha karma does limit us to the resources that we have but it doesn’t completely control our free will. By using our free will to serve Krishna, gradually we go closer to Krishna. In due course of time, Krishna may arrange favorable circumstances for us to move towards him also.

About The Author
Chaitanya Charan das

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