Volume VIIIa - Sufi Teachings
DESTINY AND FREE WILL
VERY OFTEN those who believe in destiny do not believe in free will. There are some who have had some success in their work and have recognized it as the outcome of that work. Then they think that if anything exists it must be free will; that they have achieved results according to what they have done. And there are others who have tried and not succeeded. In that case they feel that there is something holding them back from getting results, and then they think that there must be such a thing as destiny, and it is that which is holding them back. Many people think that it is a form of laziness to be a fatalist and they call destiny a superstition; and there are others who admit that free will is a conception, an idea, but that in reality all is governed by destiny.
The idea of free will has its meaning, and belief in it has its peculiar benefit in life. At the same time the idea of destiny is very profound; whether a person believes in it or not, there is always an attraction about it. The one who reads the future will always attract both the one who believes in destiny and the one who does not. The believer bows to him with faith; the unbeliever goes his way with a smile. Both are attracted because it is the greatest mystery there is. One's own life in which one is most interested always remains a secret and a mystery, and this mystery is greater than any other in the world. No one can say, 'I have no interest in knowing about my life, in knowing why I have had that past, why I have this present, and what future I shall have'. To know about it is one's greatest desire.
When one thinks about destiny the question arises whether there is a plan drawn up, and whether every occurrence in life must happen according to that plan; and, if it is drawn up, on what grounds, and by whom? If it is God who has drawn it up, how far can He be called just for making one happy and another miserable, one great and another small; letting one enjoy himself and at the same time making another suffer, though living under the same sun and walking on the same earth? And if it is not destiny but man's action, is it then the action of the past which brings about the action of the present, and if it is so, to what degree is man responsible for it? These questions take one to the depths of life's mystery, and once they are solved a great philosophical problem is solved.
The mystic finds the secret of life by knowing how to make a plan according to what he wishes. However, he arrives at this stage by first giving up his plan. For a person who has no power over his plan, it is better to give it up into the hands of God. The more one depends upon the Maker of the plan, the more one is able to make it oneself. It is just like the mother who, as long as her little child cannot walk by itself and depends on holding her hand, does not allow the child to go alone. And even when she allows it to walk alone she holds her hands round it so that it may not fall. When a man takes his own responsibility into his hands, calling it free will, he loses, so to speak, that dependence on God which holds him and which makes God responsible. Therefore it is a saintly person who arrives at resigning himself to the will of God; and afterwards this may develop into his free will, which will then be the will of God. This is what marks the difference between the saintly character and the character of the master: the character of the saint is to be resigned fully to the will of God; and the character of the master is to find the will of God in his own free will.
Very often we ask why, if there is a God and if God is love and is kind and merciful, there should be so much suffering as if people were being punished. But that is our small way of looking at it. In reality if our eyes were open and we could see deeper into life, we would realize that there is no such thing as punishment. In all things there is the mercy of God, but we only call that God's mercy which We can perceive and understand; that which we cannot see and understand we think of as a punishment from God. Whether the parents scold the child or whether they caress it, in both there is their love and nothing else. As Tagore says, 'When Thou tunest me to a higher pitch, then I feel pain. But I know, Lord, that pain is to attune me to the right pitch.'
When we arrive at stilling our agitation and becoming peaceful, resigning our will to the will of God, then we begin to see the love of God in all things, and never again think that God can be anything other than love. That is why the Sufi does not always think of God as a Creator, as a King, or as a Judge; but as a Beloved, as a Lover, and as Love itself.
Most people have a preconceived idea and keep this idea like a wall before them; they do not try to think any further and are content with what they know about it. There is no doubt that a man is born with a plan which is to be accomplished in life; not only of what his instincts or merits or gifts will be, but also the whole plan of how his life will turn out. There is a saying in the East that you can read the life of an infant by looking at its feet. Even the little feet of the infant show the sign of the plan that it is to follow through life.
There is a story that throws some light upon the relation between destiny and free will. There was a seer working as a porter in a rich man's house. Now there is a belief in the East that no sooner is a child born than angels come and write on its forehead the whole plan of its destiny. This porter was a wonderful man. At the door, as soon as the angels came, he said, 'Stop, where are you going? I am master here, you cannot go in unless you promise to tell me about the plan.' So the angels told him. And again the next time that a child was born in that house, the porter took down notes of what was going to happen.
After some time the parents passed away. They had been rich, but they lost their money for some reason or other, and the children had to leave their home and were without a refuge. Then this old porter took upon his shoulders the burden of looking after them, but as soon as they were a few years older the children each went to different countries. One day the porter thought that it was his duty to go and see how they were getting on. Also for a seer it is most interesting to observe the material phenomena of something he has seen inwardly as a vision; it is a satisfaction to him, a delight, when all that he has felt inwardly becomes materialized and he sees it happening on the outer plane. It gives him the greatest pleasure.
So the porter went and saw one of the children working as a horse groom, and he was very sorry about this. He went to the young man and said, 'It could not be avoided, it was meant that you should be what you are. But I want to give you some advice, because it makes me sad to think that you, at whose house there were so many horses, have to work as a horse groom. Here is a little money, take it and go to another city and try to work there as a horse trainer. The horses of the rich men will be given to you to train; and I am sure you will be successful.' The young man asked, 'Can I do anything else?' He said, 'No, that is the only way. You would have been a groom all your life if I had not told you this. There is nothing else you can do; this is the only door open for you. Do it, and then you will have success.' The young man did as he was told and was very successful.
The porter went to the other son and asked, 'What are your circumstances?' He said, 'My circumstances? I wander about in the forest and catch birds and sell them in the city; but I make hardly enough money to live.' In those days there was a fashion among kings to keep a certain bird as a pet; that bird was called Shabaz, the king's bird. And the porter said, 'You must not look for game birds, you must look only for this bird Shabaz.' The boy said, 'But if I cannot find it, then I shall starve and die!' The old man said, 'Do you know what your father was, and what you are?' 'Yes,' he said, 'I know, I have had bad luck.' The man said, 'You will have better luck if you will only listen to me. You need not change; your profession is still catching birds. But catch Shabaz. You can sell it for millions. That is the bird you ought to catch.'
This story makes us realize what the seer does. A definite plan was made for those two young men; at the same time there was scope for free will to work, but within that plan. And if they had not realized that scope they would have had to continue leading a miserable life. It is a great lesson and those who can understand this lesson can benefit immensely by it.
Sadi, the great poet of Persia, has said, 'Every soul is born for a certain purpose and the light of that purpose is kindled in that soul.'
The Hindus believe a person is born with what they call Karma; some action of the past or an impression he has brought with him to the earth as a good influence or a bad influence or as something that he has to pay back. No doubt there is some truth in this idea, and we can see the proof of that truth very often; for instance when a person is placed in a situation where he has to serve, as if he has to pay a debt to someone. He may not have the slightest desire to do so; but at the same time it falls on his shoulders, he cannot help it. It is as if the highest Power has determined that it should be so; whether he does it willingly or unwillingly he must give his time, his thought, his sympathy, and his service to someone else.
Then one sees a person receiving money, comfort, love, and sympathy from someone else, regardless of whether he deserves it all or not. This shows that although from one's birth there is a relation between give and take, yet man is born with certain obligations. It also shows that however powerful and great a person may be, however good the circumstances might seem, when there is to be a difficulty, one cannot help it; the difficulty comes. And then at other times in life, in spite of all obstacles, a way opens; we do not have to do much and everything goes smoothly. This also shows that there is a plan, that it is not only qualifications and cleverness that make us successful. But there are times where we are meant to have an easy life, success, and all we wish; and there are other times when we have to do without it, we cannot help it.
Is it something a person is born with, or is it the effect of a person's action on the earth? Both. Suppose an artist first thought out a design for a certain picture, and while he was making that picture he became so inspired that it suggested to him that he should change the design. And as he went on he changed it to such an extent that it became quite different from the picture he had originally conceived. To the same extent life may be changed by action. A right action, a good action, is productive of power and is creative and it can help far more than man imagines.
The question is to what extent can man help himself. Man has two aspects in him. One aspect is his mechanical being, where he is but a machine controlled by conditions, by his impressions, by outer influences, by cosmic influences, and by his actions; everything working mechanically turns his life accordingly. He has no power over conditions, he is just a tool of influences. The more pronounced this aspect is in man, the less evolved he is. It is the sign of a lesser evolution. But there is another aspect in man which is creative, in which he shows he is not only part of God but linked with God, because his innermost self is God. Be not surprised therefore if you hear stories of sages, masters, saints, and prophets whose command affected the cosmos and by whose will whole peoples moved as they wished them to move. It is nothing to be surprised at. Outwardly every man is about the same size; no man is as tall as a camel or as large as an elephant. Outwardly men vary only a little. But inwardly there is no comparison in the size of the spirit; no comparison between the understanding of one man and of another. One walks, one runs, one flies, and one creeps; yet all walk on the same earth, all live under the same sun, and they are all called men. Nevertheless there is no man who has not a spark of this power, who has not the possibility of changing conditions by his free will, if only he can realize what it is. It is the absence of this realization which make a man a machine.
As to man's destiny, it is not only his own action but also the thought of another that can change a man's life. I have seen for instance many cases where a loving mother was not pleased with her growing child who did not satisfy her. This will always make it suffer in some way or another. The child may become a qualified man, a capable man, but if he has not satisfied his mother that is quite enough for him to have bad luck. A keen study will make one understand how these things work; but from childhood we have been so absorbed in our own life and our own interests that we do not think very much about how we are affected by the thought and feeling of those around us.
A rich man, if he is displeased with his servant and speaks roughly to him or insults him, may not realize it at the time, but perhaps the feeling of this servant who is dependent on him and who is bound to that particular place is hurt. And when this rich man goes to his office, to his affairs, he may get back that pinprick which he gave. He does not know it; he believes he has given a pinprick to a servant who could not return it; but someone else returns it without his realizing that this is the answer to what he has done. The more we think about this the more we shall understand how God works through all beings, even through animals and birds. And then when we are able to believe this, we cannot help believing what Buddha has said: that the essence of religion is harmlessness. Harmlessness does not only mean to refrain from killing. Many are killed without killing; in order to kill a person one does not need to murder him. A glance, a word, a thought can kill a person and that is worse than death.
It is this experience that I had in mind when I said in the Gayan, 'My bare feet! Step gently on life's path, lest the thorns lying on the way should murmur at being trampled upon by you.'
There is no end to consideration, once a person begins to think about it. If there is any religion it is in consideration, considering that feeling which can be hurt by a moment's thoughtlessness. If there is any abode of God, it is in the heart of man. If the heart is touched wrongly it has an effect upon destiny. One does not realize to what extent destiny can be changed by the feeling of another person; it can change it more than our own feeling. One always wishes good for oneself; no one wishes to be unhappy.
There are also planetary influences. What are these planetary influences and what relation do they have to us? The answer is that man is a planet also; and as one planet is related to the other, so in the same way the planets are related to mankind. Naturally a change in the condition of a planet and the effect produced by that planet have an influence upon man's life. One might ask if man is really so small as to be under the influence of a planet. Yes, outwardly; outwardly man is as small as a drop in the ocean. If the planet is an ocean, then the individual is a drop. But inwardly the planet is a drop in the ocean of man; that is the heart of man. Asif, the great philosopher, says, 'My ignorance, the day you depart my heart will be open, and this whole universe will become a bubble in the ocean of my heart.'
Limitation, smallness, and imperfection are the outcome of ignorance. But when the heart is open the whole universe is in it, and the source of destiny, its secret and its mystery are in the hand of man. What, then, is the way in which to believe in destiny and free will? The best way of believing in destiny is to think that all the disagreeable things we have gone through are part of destiny and belong to the past; to think that we are free from it. And the best way of looking at free will is to keep in mind that all that is to come, all that is before us, is the outcome of free will. To keep before us as a concentration that nothing wrong will touch us, that all that is good for us lies before us. It is wrong to think that worse things are in store for us because destiny has preserved our Karma and ordained that we must suffer, and that one has to pay according to one's Karma. For the one who is conscious of Karma will have to pay a high interest; the more conscious he is of it, the higher the interest he will have to pay.
In conclusion one comes to understand that there are two aspects of will working through all things in life. One is the individual will, the other is the divine will. When a person goes along ignoring the divine will, naturally the human will fails and he finds difficulty, for he is swimming against the tide. The moment a person works in consonance, in harmony, with the divine will, things become smooth.
One may object that life has not been smooth for great personalities such as Christ. From childhood there were difficulties; his parents had to flee to the desert, and when the young Jesus was brought among people there were still greater difficulties. And all the great saints and sages had great difficulties all through life; things were not all smooth for them. Did they work against destiny, against the will of God? This question makes us realize that the will of God meets with difficulty on the material plane. In the Bible we read, 'Thy will be done in earth, as it is in heaven', but it is not as easy for His will to be done on earth as it is in heaven.
This suggestion teaches us a great lesson, and that lesson is that there is a conscious will working and that there is an unconscious will working. But conscious working is divine working. It may be that the divine will has difficulty, but at the same time this difficulty has a meaning in it. In other words, success or failure of God and of God's power means nothing because ultimately both are success; but success and failure of man means nothing because in the end both are failure.
If a man succeeds in collecting much wealth or in attaining a high position, what is the end of it? It will belong to someone else who will snatch it from his hand. Therefore whether we have success or failure in life, if it is individual in the end it will be failure. But in the case of godly things, whether it is failure or success, it is always success in the end. It cannot be otherwise; it is the only gain there is. As Nanak says, 'The grain that takes refuge near the center of the grinding mill is saved'. So is the man who keeps close to God. He draws his power and inspiration from God, and when his life is directed by that power and inspiration, whether he has difficulties or not, the way is always smooth and the end is what it ought to be.