Bharatiyata saw a milestone being established in the form of the Sri Ram Janmabhoomi Teerth Kshetra Mandir Pran Pratishtha on January 22, 2024. Sri Ram has been a pillar of Dharma and Indic civilizational values since times immemorial, to the point that the Indian constitution celebrates him in its illustrations. Everything from ‘Ram, Ram’ for greeting others to ‘Ram Naam Satya Hai’ to bid farewell on someone’s demise is centred around Maryada Purushottam Sri Ram. While building a Dharmic energy-centre on his Janmabhoomi is important, it is even more important to emulate the elements of reality he stood for.
In understanding these truths, one must embrace the teachings of the Yoga-Vāsiṣṭham (योगवासिष्ठम्), the seminal composition of learnings in more than 29,000 verses that is attributed to Maharishi Valmiki. This text is written as an interaction between Maharishi Vashishta and Sri Ram. One of the most fascinating discussions in the Yoga-Vāsiṣṭham is around fatalism and human agency. Over the last millenium, we have faced several invasions and fundamental socio-cultural reorientations, often with conflict being seeded due to vested interests and parochialism. While bearing the brunt of these tectonic shifts, fatalism has become an unfortunate go-to while visualising our civilizational Self. There are tales of how rulers were betrayed or how deceit was used to usurp our power.
While these may be important to keep in mind, we must accept that there were fundamental flaws and issues afflicting our society that made it so vulnerable to outside interference and invasion. For one, prejudice and complacency borne out of self-assuredness and self-righteousness made us impervious to the demand of evolving at the empirical level to counter-balance specific tactical and strategic realities of times past. In spiritual discourses on human existence, discussions around fatalism and absoluteness have long held sway, delving on aspects of resignation in devotion, on the positive front, and helplessness over individuals’ lives, on a more negative one.
However, a closer examination of ancient wisdom, as elucidated in the Yoga-Vāsiṣṭham, reveals a profound alternative philosophy—one grounded in the empowerment of human agency and the rejection of fatalistic thought. At its core, fatalism posits that events are predetermined and immutable, governed by an inexorable fate beyond human control. It oft suggests a passive acceptance of circumstances, attributing success or failure solely to external forces rather than individual effort or choice. In stark contrast, the teachings encapsulated in the Yoga-Vāsiṣṭham advocate for an ethos of non-fatalism—a worldview that champions the supremacy of human endeavour and the transformative potential of conscious action.
Central to the rejection of fatalism is the recognition that fate is not an immutable decree but rather the cumulative result of past actions. Each individual, through their choices and deeds, shapes the trajectory of their destiny. In the Yoga-Vāsiṣṭham, we have this stated as
यथा यथा प्रयत्नः स्याद्भवेदाशु फलं तथा।
इति पौरुषमेवास्ति दैवमस्तु तदेव च॥
which purports to the realisation that whatever one attempts to do, he/she readily meets with its reward: this being the effect of exertion. Here, the intimate connection between effort and outcome is underscored, emphasizing the agency inherent in every human being. Moreover, the texts highlight the fallacy of attributing all phenomena to the capricious whims of fate. It goes on to say,
प्राक्स्वकर्मेतराकारं दैवं नाम न विद्यते।
बालः प्रबलपुंसेव तज्जेतुमिह शक्यते॥
saying that ‘fate’ is nothing but a sum-total of past actions and their attributed Karmic consequence. They assert that just as past actions determine present circumstances, present actions have the power to shape future outcomes. Thus, fatalism is not an inevitable reality but rather a misguided perception rooted in ignorance. It has been clearly highlighted by Maharishi Valmiki in
ह्यस्तनो दुष्ट आचार आचारेणाद्य चारुणा ।
यथाशु शुभतामेति प्राक्तनं कर्म तत्तथा ॥
that anterior ‘fate’ is removed by posterior acts. Present acts have the ability to change or even destroy the effect of the actions of the past. But the exertions of man are always undoubtedly consequential. This assertion challenges fatalistic thinking by affirming the efficacy of present effort in transcending the constraints of past deeds. In this line of thought, Maharishi Valmiki is realistic. The Yoga-Vāsiṣṭham underlines the interplay between human agency and external forces, illustrating that success is not solely contingent upon individual endeavour but also influenced by societal dynamics and environmental factors. In verse 2.6.23, it is said
सर्व एव जगद्भावा जयत्यधिकयत्नवान्॥
which speaks on how all our acts are subject to their proper time and place, and to the modes of their operation and combination according to the course of nature, and therefore, the more diligent we are, the more likely we are to be successful. While human exertion is paramount, it is complemented by the support of virtuous company, moral teachings, and adherence to righteous conduct, as spoken about in the verse,
क्रियया स्पन्दधर्मिण्या स्वार्थसाधकता स्वयम्।
Satsaṅga (सत्सङ्ग ) or good company has always been an important element highlighted in the Shastras and in discussions around Dharmic existence. The importance of communal wisdom and ethical guidance in navigating life’s complexities is underscored, highlighting the symbiotic relationship between personal agency and collective influence. In the verse,
जन्मप्रबन्धमयमामयमेष जीवो बुद्ध्वैहिकं सहजपौरुषमेव सिद्ध्यै।
शान्तिं नयत्ववितथेन वरौषधेन मृष्टेन तुष्टपरपण्डितसेवनेन॥
Maharishi Valmiki highlights how human lives are full of misery, and it is only through actions that the Samskaras (संस्कार) – imprints of actions past (manifested as tendencies, karmic impulses, subliminal impressions or innate dispositions), can be altered towards attaining realization of the Self, and in the process, one can attain tranquillity.
The rejection of fatalism is intricately linked to the cultivation of a resilient mindset—one that eschews despair in the face of adversity and embraces the transformative potential of hardship. The texts caution against the seductive allure of fatalistic resignation, urging individuals to confront challenges with courage and determination. In my formulation of Turiyavād (तुरीयवाद) I had delineated how non-absoluteness is hardwired into the Universe, subject to constraints of ṛtaṃ (ऋतम्) – the laws that govern the working of truths (particularly in the empirical level), as well as ethics. As a result, what is required, more often than not, especially in a world that is increasingly becoming polarised and besotted with the concept of othering, is to chart a path based on one’s consciousness and conscience, informed by truth, unencumbered by absolutist ideology or ways of thinking. It is rather easy, if not downright convenient, to take the crutches of an -ism: capitalism or communism, fascism or liberalism, reductionism or wholism. The onus then is on two things: the rigour of those who initially established these -isms and the safety of the herd, where each follower of the -ism advocates for, and safeguards, the others. Dharma has always been against this, highlighting the non-binary, non-absolutist aspect of the fundamental truth of the Universe, as encapsulated in the Shastras. Sri Krishna has expanded on the conceptualization of Karma beautifully in the Srimad Bhagavad Gita (2.47):
कर्मण्येवाधिकारस्ते मा फलेषु कदाचन|
मा कर्मफलहेतुर्भूर्मा ते सङ्गोऽस्त्वकर्मणि||
which highlights a rather important addendum to the philosophy of the Yoga-Vāsiṣṭham. In this, Sri Krishna talks of us having the right to perform our prescribed duties but not necessarily the fruits of those actions. The Srimad Bhagavad Gita (श्रीमद्भगवद्गीता) warns against considering oneself the cause of the results of one’s activities, without ever being attached to inaction either. In doing this, Sri Krishna brings around the discussion on individual actions, external factors, and faith to a point of promoting action devoid of the sense of narcissism and done with equanimity.
Agency is critical but not narcissism. The fluidic beauty of nature is such that actions reflect in consequences, but the Universe also humbles when the primacy of the individual is asserted. The other extreme of only believing in the primacy of faith and fatalism, not from a space of self-realization and spirituality but from more inferior basis such as defeatism, lethargy, narcissism (in one’s spiritual prowess and one’s ‘higher self’) and parochialism, is also not constructive.
While faith is important in life: faith in oneself, faith in the truths of nature, faith in our essential human nature, blind resignation devoid of exercising one’s consciousness is not. In essence, the teachings encapsulated in the Yoga-Vāsiṣṭham offer a profound antidote to fatalistic thinking, championing the indomitable spirit of human agency and the transformative power of conscious action. They remind us that while fate may shape the contours of our existence, it is ultimately our choices and deeds that determine our destiny. By embracing the philosophy of non-fatalism, we liberate ourselves from the shackles of fatalistic resignation and embark on a journey of self-empowerment, guided by the timeless wisdom of moral virtue, communal support, and unwavering resolve.