Ramana Maharshi on Free Will and Destiny

The Ordainer controls the fate of souls in accordance with their past deeds. Whatever is destined not to happen will not happen, try how hard you may. Whatever is destined to happen will happen, do what you may to stop it. This is certain. The best course, therefore, is to remain silent.

(Sourcehttps://www.sriramanamaharshi.org/ramana-maharshi/at-arunachala/)

Questioner: “Are only important events in a man’s life, such as his main occupation or profession, predetermined, or are trifling acts in his life, such as taking a cup of water or moving from one place in the room to another, also predetermined?”

Ramana Maharshi: Yes, everything is predetermined.

Questioner: Then what responsibility, what free will has man?

Ramana Maharshi: What for then does the body come into existence? It is designed for doing the various things marked out for execution in this life. The whole programme is chalked out. “Not an atom moves except by His Will” expresses the same truth, whether you say “Does not move except by His Will” or “Does not move except by karma”. As for freedom for man, he is always free not to identify himself with the body and not to be affected by the pleasures or pains consequent on the body’s activities.

(SourceDay by Day with Bhagavan, 4-1-46 Afternoon)

Free-will and destiny are ever-existent. Destiny is the result of past action; it concerns the body. Let the body act as may suit it. Why are you concerned with it? Why do you pay attention to it? Free-will and Destiny last as long as the body lasts. But wisdom (jnana) transcends both. The Self is beyond knowledge and ignorance. Should anything happen, it happens as the result of one’s past actions, of divine will and of other factors.

(SourceTalks with Sri Ramana Maharshi, Talk 193)

Whose will is it? ‘It is mine’, you may say. You are beyond will and fate. Abide as that and you transcend them both. That is the meaning of conquering destiny by will. Fate can be conquered. Fate is the result of past actions. By association with the wise the bad tendencies are conquered. One’s experiences are then viewed to their proper perspective.

I exist now. I am the enjoyer. I enjoy fruits of action. I was in the past and shall be in the future. Who is this ‘I’? Finding this ‘I’ to be pure Consciousness beyond action and enjoyment, freedom and happiness are gained. There is then no effort, for the Self is perfect and there remains nothing more to gain.

So long as there is individuality, one is the enjoyer and doer. But if it is lost, the divine Will prevails and guides the course of events. The individual is perceptible to others who cannot perceive divine force. Restrictions and discipline are for other individuals and not for the liberated.

Free-will is implied in the scriptural injunctions to be good. It implies overcoming fate. It is done by wisdom. The fire of wisdom consumes all actions. Wisdom is acquired by association with the wise, or rather, its mental atmosphere.

(SourceTalks with Sri Ramana Maharshi, Talk 209)

M.: “All right. What need be said has been said. Well. What is destiny? There is no destiny. Surrender, and all will be well. Throw all the responsibility on God. Do not bear the burden yourself. What can destiny do to you then?”
D.: Surrender is impossible.
M.: Yes. Complete surrender is impossible in the beginning. Partial surrender is certainly possible for all. In course of time that will lead to complete surrender. Well, if surrender is impossible, what can be done? There is no peace of mind. You are helpless to bring it about. It can be done only by surrender.
D.: Partial surrender – well – can it undo destiny?
M.: Oh, yes! It can.
D.: Is not destiny due to past karma?
M.: If one is surrendered to God, God will look to it.
D.: This being God’s dispensation, how does God undo it?
M.: All are in Him only.

(SourceTalks with Sri Ramana Maharshi, Talk 244)

Make no effort either to work or to renounce work. Your effort is the bondage. What is bound to happen will happen. If you are destined to cease working, work cannot be had even if you hunt for it. If you are destined to work you cannot leave it; you will be forced to engage in it. So leave it to the Higher Power. You cannot renounce or hold as you choose.

(SourceTalks with Sri Ramana Maharshi, Talk 268)

D.: Has man any Free-Will or is everything in his life predestined and preordained?
M.: Free-Will holds the field in association with individuality. As long as individuality lasts so long there is Free-Will. All the sastras are based on this fact and they advise directing the Free-Will in the right channel. Find out to whom Free-Will or Destiny matters. Abide in it. Then these two are transcended. That is the only purpose of discussing these questions. To whom do these questions arise? Find out and be at peace.

(SourceTalks with Sri Ramana Maharshi, Talk 426)

D.: What is the relation between my free-will and the overwhelming might of the Omnipotent?
(a) Is omniscience of God consistent with ego’s free-will?
(b) Is omnipotence of God consistent with ego’s free-will?
(c) Are the natural laws consistent with God’s free-will?
M.: Yes. Free-will is the present appearing to a limited faculty of sight and will. The same ego sees its past activity as falling into a course of ‘law’ or rules – its own free-will being one of the links in that course of law.
Omnipotence and omniscience of God are then seen by the ego to have acted through the appearance of his own free-will. So he comes to the conclusion that the ego must go by appearances. Natural laws are manifestations of God’s will and they have been laid down.

(SourceTalks with Sri Ramana Maharshi, Talk 28)

Question: I don’t understand what work I should do and what not.
Ramana Maharshi: Don’t bother. What is destined as work to be done by you in this life will be done by you, whether you like it or not.

(SourceDay by Day with Bhagavan, 3-1-46 Afternoon)

Mrs. P. C. Desai quoting the Bhagavad Gita asked Bhagavan, “If (as Arjuna was told) there is a certain work destined to be done by each and we shall eventually do it however much we do not wish to do it or refuse to do it, is there any free will?”
Bhagavan said, “It is true that the work meant to be done by us will be done by us. But it is open to us to be free from the joys or pains, pleasant or unpleasant consequences of the work, by not identifying ourselves with the body or that which does the work. If you realise your true nature and know that it is not you that does any work, you will be
unaffected by the consequences of whatever work the body may be engaged in according to destiny or past karma or divine plan, however you may call it. You are always free and there is no limitation of that freedom.”

(SourceDay by Day with Bhagavan, 3-1-46 Afternoon)

K.M. Jivrajani: In the early stages would it not be a help to man to seek solitude and give up his outer duties in life?
Bhagavan: Renunciation is always in the mind, not in going to forests or solitary places or giving up one’s duties. The main thing is to see that the mind does not turn outward but inward. It does not really rest with a man whether he goes to this place or that or whether he gives up his duties or not. All that happens according to destiny. All the activities that the body is to go through are determined when it first comes into existence. It does not rest with you to accept or reject them. The only freedom you have is to turn your mind inward and renounce activities there.
K.M. Jivrajani: But is it not possible for something to be a help, especially to a beginner? Like a fence round a young tree. For instance, don’t our books say that it is helpful to go on pilgrimage to sacred shrines or to get satsang.
Bhagavan: Who said they are not helpful? Only such things do not rest with you, as turning your mind inward does. Many people desire the pilgrimage or sat sang that you
mention, but do they all get it?

(SourceDay by Day with Bhagavan, 1-6-46)

G. Mehta had also asked a personal question: Whether he should remain abroad or return to India, but to that Bhagavan said: “Don’t worry what you should do. Things
will happen as they are destined to happen.”

(SourceDay by Day with Bhagavan, 19-6-46)

Khanna: Is there destiny? And if what is destined to happen will happen is there any use in prayer or effort or should we just remain idle?
Bhagavan: There are only two ways to conquer destiny or be independent of it. One is to enquire for whom is this destiny and discover that only the ego is bound by destiny and not the Self, and that the ego is non-existent. The other way is to kill the ego by completely surrendering to the Lord, by realizing one’s helplessness and saying all the time: ‘Not I but Thou, oh Lord!’, and giving up all sense of ‘I’ and ‘mine’ and leaving it to the Lord to do what he likes with you. Surrender can never be regarded as complete so long as the devotee wants this or that from the Lord. True surrender is love of God for the sake of love and nothing else, not even for the sake of salvation. In other words, complete effacement of the ego is necessary to conquer destiny, whether you achieve this effacement through Self-enquiry or through bhakti-marga.

(SourceDay by Day with Bhagavan, 28-6-46)

Another visitor asked, “The present is said to be due to past karma. Can we transcend the past karma by our free will now?”
Bhagavan: See what the present is, as I told you. Then you will understand what is affected by or has a past or a future and also what is ever-present and always free, unaffected by the past or future or by any past karma.

(SourceDay by Day with Bhagavan, 3-1-46 Afternoon)

I [Mercedes de Acosta] sat in the hall with Bhagavan three days and three nights. Sometimes he spoke to me, other times he was silent and I did not interrupt his silence. Often he was in samadhi. I wanted to stay on there with him but finally he told me that I should go back to America. He said, “There will be what will be called a war, but which, in reality, will be a great world revolution. Every country and every person will be touched by it. You must return to America. Your destiny is not in India at this time.”

(Source: Face to Face with Sri Ramana Maharshi, No. 114)

Q: Is it possible to overcome, even while the body exists, the prarabdha karma which is said to last till the end of the body?
A: Yes. If the agent upon whom the karma depends, namely the ego, which has come into existence between the body and the Self, merges in its source and loses its form, how can the karma which depends upon it survive? When there is no ‘I’ there is no karma.

(Source: David Godman, Be As You Are, Chapter 21)

13 Comments

  1. If as per Shri Ramana Maharishi, everything is predestined right from big events such as marriage, death and right upto small events such as lifting a cup of water and all this predestination is due to past actions then by that logic he says a person’s present is governed by his past action and his future will be governed by his present actions but then if his every small action such as lifting a cup is predestined then how is he responsible for creating any future karma ?. Is it not contradictory ?.

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    1. You become responsible for karma only if you erroneously think you are the one doing the action. See my posts “Ramana Maharshi on Sense of Doership” and also “Ramakrishna Paramahansa on Sense of Doership”.

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    1. Pure Consciousness or Self or Brahman transcends the mind/intellect. Mind/intellect are mere forms or one of the manifestations of the Pure Consciousness. Still, for easy grasp it is said that the Pure Mind/Intellect understands or apprceiates the reality of Self that transcends it. It is the wrong identification of one’s identity with mind/intellect-and-body as being oneself, which is nothing but the Ego (or Ahamkara), that goes. And, Mind, which goes by the name of Antahkarana in Sanskrit, is supposed to have four functions, namely receiving impressions (manas or mind), judging and deciding (Buddhi or intellect), memory (Chitta, memory), and I-thought (Ahamkara or ego). So, in Self-realization, what happens is that knowledge about one’s true identity dawns and the Antahkarana stops functioning as Ahamkara or Ego, but continues its other three functions because false identity has been seen through and the mind is no longer deluded.

      If the above is confusing, then please give me your email and I will write to you my mobile number on it and we can talk to clarify things.

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      1. Thank you for the explanation. This perfectly clarifies my question. Another question if I may, having understood in theory and perhaps fully convinced in the philosophy of non dualism, what is the best method for someone who is committed to body-mind duties, to transcend and stabilize in the state of pure consciousness, yet carry out the duties with non attachment? Karma Yoga, Bhakti Yoga, Gyana Yoga? Is it a stepwise process?

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        1. Hi Preethi,

          The “best method” depends on one’s temperament, inclination and level of understanding. Since you are a thinking and questioning person, the best method for you is Jnana Yoga. However, the beauty of Jnana Yoga is that it helps you understand the correct method of following other paths also, especially because as you say you have “body-mind duties” to discharge. For instance, Jnana Yoga makes you understand that “Karma Yoga is action done without the sense of doership”, which you can understand as below:

          The only way to escape karma and its effects is to realize that you are not the doer. I refer you to these blog posts of mine on the falsity of the “sense of doership” – https://self-realization.blog/2022/02/01/false-sense-of-doership/ ; https://self-realization.blog/2020/01/05/sense-of-doership/ ; https://self-realization.blog/2020/05/08/ramakrishna-paramahansa-on-the-sense-of-doership/ ; https://self-realization.blog/2018/10/09/ramana-maharshi-on-sense-of-doership-karma-and-karma-yoga/ ; https://self-realization.blog/2021/08/06/bhagavad-gita-on-the-sense-of-doership/

          Also, consider this logic: Are you the thinker of your thoughts? Clearly not because it’s not as if you are sitting in your mind and choosing the thoughts you think. Thoughts just pop into your head, and you keep thinking and feeling that you are the thinker of those thoughts, though clearly that is not the case. Thoughts are dependent on the whole of your biological past and past life experiences and knowledge that have made you into the person you are today, or more specifically, the way they have conditioned your mind to be the way it is in the present, AND the environmental cues and influences impinging on you in the present and interacting with your mind. It is this interaction between your mind conditioned by the past and the present environment in which it finds itself that determines what thoughts are produced in your mind, in which you as a person have no say. Thus, if you are not the thinker of your thoughts how can you be the doer of your actions, because it is thoughts that determine and drive your actions.

          Now, similarly, Jnana Yoga, especially through its instructive analogy of name-and-form (or pot-and-clay) helps us understand that the whole world is nothing but names-and-forms, and those forms are nothing but forms or manifestations or appearances of Pure Consciousness or God. Thus, one realizes that the whole world, including oneself, is nothing but a manifestation or appearance of God. Thus, since one loves oneself naturally, by looking upon oneself as a form of God, and realizing that all the others are not different from oneself but that they are also forms of God, one naturally develops love (Bhakti) not only for God but also for all the other beings of this world. I refer you to these blog posts of mine to better understand about name-and-form analogy:

          https://self-realization.blog/2019/10/02/clay-pot-analogy-name-and-form/ ; https://self-realization.blog/2018/09/18/everything-is-consciousness/ ; https://self-realization.blog/2018/09/20/consciousness-is-everything/

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          1. Thank you for the instant reply. I would like to spend sometime reading and grasping your blogs and the references. I am sure that I will gain a lot of perspective and understanding but simultaneously have several doubts. Will seek your help. For now, I am glad that I found this site and am able to have this conversation. Grateful.

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            1. All spiritual sadhanas, such as nishkama karma, mantra japa or meditation, are only to make your mind and intellect pure and fit enough to understand Jnana Yoga (Path of Wisdom). Jnana Yoga consists of only 3 stages – Hearing of the Truth (Sravana) from guru or scripture, reflection upon and understanding beyond any doubt of the Truth heard (Manana), and finally, upon completion of Manana, to constantly dwell on the Truth (Nididhyasana) in one’s heart under all circumstances whatever be the action you are engaged in to carry out your duties in this world.

              Karma Yoga is…1. Excellence in action, 2. Action done without an eye on the fruits of action, 3. Offering the fruits of action to the divine, 4. Action done as a means of worshipping the divine, and 5. Action done without the ‘sense of doership’, with these five conceptions being almost in an ascending fashion.

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  2. Thank you for the instant reply. I will take some time to read and understand your blogs and references. I am sure it will give me a lot of perspective and understanding and I will have several doubts also. I will take the liberty of reaching out to you for these discussions. For now, I am glad I found this website and an opportunity to learn. Grateful.

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  3. After hearing and understanding the Truth, where I am personally finding it challenging is to be able to dwell in the state of Truth (pure consciousness) with stability (Nididhyasana). Should I practice meditation? Will true devotion and love of God help (Bhakti Yoga)? Or just direct all my energies into fulfilling my duties with non attachment (Karma Yoga)? Or pursue the path of Jnana Yoga? All these methods seem relevant and gratifying. How can I bring in an organized approach?

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    1. First spend all your energies during the time you can spare to understand Jnana Yoga thoroughly. Listening to Swami Sarvapriyananda’s videos on YouTube will help in this regard. I will share a Playlist of some essential videos of his below. Once you understand Jnana Yoga, you yourself will come to understand how to practice Karma Yoga and Bhakti yoga, especially in the manner I have outlined in my previous reply. As far as meditation is concerned, yes, you can certainly spend an hour everyday in it. Choose any technique of meditation that appeals to you and looks easy to practice.

      These 5 videos of Swami Sarvapriyananda will cover the essence of Vedanta – listen to them carefully – In these videos, Swamiji establishes what one’s real nature is (Who Am I?) through the four prakriyas (methodologies) – Avasthatraya Viveka (Analysis of the Three Staes of waking-dream-deep sleep), Drk-Drsya Viveka (Discrimination between the Seer and Seen), Panchakosha Prakriya (Analysis of the Five Sheaths), and Kaarana-Kaarya Prakriya (Name-and-Form Analysis or Clay-and-Pot example) – https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLrQVi2McAqJrYbCkqtKy54iAAhJjlgnM8

      Good luck!

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