Destiny, Karma or Free Will — In the matte of Life and Death

This question has again and again played on the questioning mind. Are we destined to take each and every step that we do take in this journey of life? Is it all preconceived by the Universal Player, and are we just pawns on the chessboard of life? The Pawns have a role to play, just as do the Rooks, Bishops, Knights, and Queen in the game. And each has the ability of certain moves, with the focus on saving the King from being “check-mated” by the opponent, thus heralding the end of the game. The players who move all these pieces are, strangely enough, that unique mix of observer-player…. The better player between the two would undoubtedly be the one who can objectively observe his opponent’s moves and strategy, and with great thought and reasoning move his pieces accordingly. But, once emotionally caught in the play, a desperate move inevitably becomes suicidal.

What then is the trajectory of a player in this game of life? If we have come with a predestined chart … then whether we succeed or fail; whether we die valiantly on the borders of our country defending our people, or whether we hang ourselves because of an inexplicable bid to self-destruct; whether we live out this life hating and torturing others, killing a “George Floyd”, or assassinating a Mahatma Gandhi… are we just the instruments in the universally destined Game of Life? Has the Universal Player predetermined each move so that His script is enacted on the stage according to the exact precision of His direction? If that is so, then why would anyone question or think? Why would anyone struggle and suffer? Where then is the concept of motivation and inspiration? It would be unquestionably logical that to the extent that a human being can exercise his or her will, he or she will stay in the game and then exit when it gets too much! No one knows anything about the life before or the life hereafter…. We have no tangible experience of either. Then why would we stay on in this life if we feel buffeted or helpless?


If it gets to a point when living this life becomes more unbearable than taking one’s life… and that is a big step because we all love our existence, then a person can choose to just exit?

Amazingly, this quandary of “to be or not to be” is the luxury only of the highest living creature, the human being. All living beings have just the drive of existence. In fact, the desire to exist is so fierce in all living beings, that the concept of losing the body-mind complex is the all-encompassing fear! With birds and animals it is undoubtedly instinctive as they do not ‘reason’ the merits of living as opposed to dying, nor do they have the ‘mind’ to reason! It is just a matter of surviving in the body. The greatest drive that we as human beings have is that we do believe in our existence. The veil of Maya, however, lets us believe that our existence is encased only in this psychophysical system. The understanding that we are neither the body nor the mind, and that this body-mind complex is an instrument, the carriage, for us to move on and realize our intrinsic and true identity, comes only if we persevere enough to find out.

According to the Law of Karma, an individual’s past actions influence heavily what he or she experiences in the present. And present acts, in turn, become the background influence for future experiences. All causes have effects; all actions have a reaction or repercussion, and that is the cause of the diverse conditions and differences that we encounter in life.


Buddhism teaches that all people experience substantial dukkha or suffering, which primarily originates from past negative karma, or may result as a natural process of samsara, the cycle of birth and death, and samskara our tendencies, behavioural traits that we carry from one life to another. Other reasons for the suffering are explained through the impermanence of life and that everything is in a perpetual state of flux. Since everything is in a constant state of impermanence or flux, it is believed that individuals get dissatisfied with the fleeting events of life, and thus choose to end it. However, since the first precept is to refrain from the destruction of life, including one’s self, suicide is certainly a negative act.

In Hinduism, suicide is spiritually unacceptable. Taking one’s life is considered a violation of the code of ahimsa (non-violence) and therefore is considered equally sinful as murdering another person. It is seen as “taking a life”. Some of our ancient scriptures state that to die by suicide (and any type of violent death) results in becoming a ghost, wandering the earth until the time one would have otherwise died, had one not died by suicide.

In the epic, Mahabharata, it is stated that those who commit suicide can never attain to regions of heaven. Nevertheless, after the Great War, King Dhritarashtra, his wife Gandhari, the Pandavas’ mother, Kunti retired to the forest, following the tradition of the ashramas, moving from the second stage of Grihastha (householder) to the third stage of Vanaprastha (renouncing and going to the forest), to work towards the final stage of Moksha (freedom). In the forest, they got engulfed by a forest fire, in which they all died. This was not suicide, although when exposed to death they did not try to escape and willingly sacrificed their mortal bodies. The Pandavas, after having ruled the kingdom for long, and after having attended to all their duties, chose to walk to their death. Along with Draupadi, they tried to ascend the Himalaya. One by one they fell to their death, except for Yudhishthira. They did not commit suicide but created a situation where death was inevitable.

Hinduism accepts a person’s right to end his or her life through the non-violent method of fasting unto death. Prayopavesa, as it is called, is for age-old yogis who have no desire or ambition left, and no responsibilities remaining in this life. In my lifetime, I recall Acharya Vinoba Bhave. He was a great crusader, a spiritual leader, and activist. After working relentlessly for the downtrodden, at some stage, he suffered a heart attack. At that point, he chose to fast unto death. That was not considered suicide.

In the epic Ramayana, Sita went into the earth and finished her mortal body, and Rama entered voluntarily into the Sarayu River. And many sages and seers have been known to willing take Samadhi, through their yogic powers. These acts are not considered suicides. After completing the task for which they take birth, these are believed to be good and auspicious ways to give up the mortal body. This show the detachment from the mortal world after the completion of the prescribed duties. Swami Vivekananda chose an auspicious time to give up his body and attain Mahasamadhi. He had completed what he had come into this world to do. His Guru, Sri Ramakrishna had predicted about Swami Vivekananda, that Naren (the pre-monastic name, Narendra) would merge into Nirvikalpa Samadhi at the end of his work. When he realized who and what he really was he would then refuse to remain in the body. “Not long before his departure,” writes Sister Nivedita, “some of his brother-monks were one day talking over the old days, and one of them asked the Swami quite casually, ‘Do you know yet who you were, Swamiji?’ His unexpected reply, ‘Yes, I know now!’ awed them into silence, and none dared to question him further.” Sister further says, “When June closed, however, he knew well enough that the end was near. He said to one who was with him, on the Wednesday before he died. ‘A great Tapasya and meditation has come upon me, and I am making ready for death!’” His last few hours were spent in deep meditation. Swami Vivekananda attained Mahasamadhi on July 4, 1902.

In some cases, the persons who are suffering from severe pain due to incurable physical ailments seek permission for voluntary death. They consciously seek relief from their suffering. While many countries or states within countries permit euthanasia, the jury is still out on this as it is believed that the suffering is also part of the karmic journey, so one must not terminate it untimely. The body and mind are the instruments for the soul to accomplish the four aims of life (DharmaArthaKama, and Moksha). Through the process of righteous living following dharma, working to earn money, have a family, and fulfil desires within — artha and kama, but within the rules of dharma, having completed one’s duties one moves on to seek moksha, freedom. In that way, the great heroes of the Ramayana and Mahabharata and other sages and seers sacrificed their mortal body after accomplishing their duties, or when they thought that they were old enough to do any more duties, they embraced the death. Sati was an ancient funeral custom where a widow chose (or was compelled to choose) to self-immolate on her husband’s cremation pyre or take her life in any another manner shortly after her husband’s death. In the Mahabharata, Queen Madri voluntarily ‘accompanied’ her husband King Pandu, to the other world by ascending his funeral pyre. This practice was officially banned in all jurisdictions of British India on December 4, 1829, by the then Governor-General Lord William Bentinck. The regulation described the practice of sati as revolting to the feelings of human nature. It was very obviously concluded that increasingly, driven by old traditions and superstitions, women were being forced to self-immolate.

But, when a person commits suicide is it because he or she does not have the courage to accomplish the prescribed duties or face the world? It is not only the person in utter despair, overwhelmed by helplessness, or in a state of ‘depression’ who necessarily commits suicide. No matter the level of success or brilliance, many humans beings, at the peak of their so-called success curve choose to end their lives because they cannot ‘bear’ their minds! It is that overwhelming moment where the drastic, irreversible, and fatal action is propelled by a mind that cannot ‘bear’ any more. There is a very revealing perception of karma here in Hindu psychology. It is believed that if we have performed a particular negative action in some lifetime driven perhaps by extreme and grim circumstances, that very action can get so strongly embedded into our unconscious mind that it can become a part of our samskaras, and a repetitive tendency in several lifetimes. The impulse to end one’s life violently can also become a tendency of prarabdha karma!

If we do not work on this system, on this mind, then we are our enemies. Unless we develop this system, our body-mind complex, we cannot function with full awareness! Inevitably we will be overwhelmed by negativity and despondency.


Here we have to look a little deeply at the theory of karma, especially of prarabdha karma, or the collection of past karmas, which need to be worked out in the present body. Likewise, the actions in this life, create a new set of cause and effect, would form the “carry-forward” residue that we would bring with us in the next life as the prarabdha. This cycle of cause and effect, therefore, is apparently unending. Generally, we believe that we are free to make the choices we want to make. And if we are unable to make the choices or exercise our will to make a choice, we immediately find a local cause for the inability to make that choice. For example, a young girl wants to pursue a career but that wish remains unfulfilled as her parents insist that she gets married. That is the local cause, and every time she reflects on the direction of her life, she will always hold her parents responsible for it, especially if it did not work out well. The concept of free will is unimpeded action. Our ability to perform any action as we desire, without the prompting or control by any other factor, But is that the reality? Are we actually free to make all decisions or are these all pre-determined? Do we know for certain what we are doing and why we are doing it? Some recent scientific studies have proved that by taking certain decisions, which we think are “on-the-spot” activities, a series of predetermined actions are already in play in the mind — these are the outcomes of our subconscious and unconscious mind.

There are definite, predetermined processes that influence our actions. Determinism implies that something compels our decisions or actions; that unconscious processes push us to act. 

If this is so where lies the moral responsibility or our action? If our actions are pre-ordained then where do we stand? There is ‘something’ that propels our decisions. But our ability to control or consciously veto an action is equally built into our mind. Free Will is restricted by our motives. But we are more often than not, driven by compulsions and tendencies. There is no freedom in such action. There is however some freedom to veto an action, within our limited free will.

The German philosopher, Arthur Schopenhauer characterized the phenomenal world as the product of a blind and insatiable metaphysical will. He was among the few early Western thinkers to affirm the tenets of Eastern philosophy such as asceticism and the notion of “world as an appearance”. He also said, “Man can do what he wills, but he cannot Will what he wills.” This tells us there is certainly a predetermined push to our “Free Will”. Swami Vivekananda says the purpose of education is to train the mind to ‘will’ correctly. Until we can ‘free’ our will, it cannot become free! How can we bring our unconscious and subconscious thought processes to our conscious level? Our destiny, therefore, lies in our hands only if we are actually free! Functioning through this body-mind complex, within time, space, and causation, we cannot have free will. Swami Vivekananda says, “The will is not free — it is a phenomenon bound by cause and effect — but there is something behind the will which is free.” He further says, “Only the ‘free’ have free will.” And yet he says stand up and be bold! It may sound like a contradiction in terms but it is not. We can work towards a free will, the mind can be made crystal clear. Just now, in this limited body-mind perceptions we are definitely bound by the predetermined cycle of cause and effect. But it is up to us to work towards freeing ourselves, through spiritual practice. It is up to us to focus on living consciously, with an alertness that we are always focused and aware. Usually, the conscious mind is merely like the tip of an iceberg; the rest is embedded in the unconscious and subconscious. The goal is to clear our mind of all the unconscious-subconscious drives, and be present in the here and now with absolute alertness. Increasing the level of awareness by eliminating the thoughts that cloud our awareness has to be the objective. To ‘free’ the will depends on our endeavour to ‘train’ the will. Watch each thought; listen to each voice; think, analyse and understand first, and then act. This is the mantra of an aware, conscious and ‘free’ human being. Such a person is indeed one with ‘Free Will”.



Happiness and peace are dependent on the state of the mind, on the level of awareness of our mind. Our senses decide the content of the mind. If we are focused on the nutritional content of our food to enrich our bodies, isn’t it time to think of the nutrition of the mind and what thoughts we give to it? As soon as self-awareness arises, our will is freed. If we can recognize the intrinsic divinity, which is our birth right, we cannot disregard this invaluable birth and the opportunity to work it out and walk the path of Self-realization. Methods are given, paths are shown, we need to open our minds to perceive. With that freedom, the cycle and bondage of cause and effect can no longer hold us back. We can function in this world as jiva-muktas, the free beings. Ready to do what we can for the other, and be prepared to leave the stage as soon as the calling comes, not a moment earlier or later. Life then is a journey in the true sense of the word, with a destination to reach. “Arise! Awake! And stop not till the goal is reached!” says Swami Vivekananda.


Swami Vivekananda says: “Each soul is potentially divine. The goal is to manifest this divinity by controlling nature, external and internal. Do this either by work, or worship, or psychic control, or philosophy — by one, or more, or all of these — and be free. This is the whole of religion. Doctrines, or dogmas, or rituals, or books, or temples, or forms, are but secondary details.”

 1Pravrajika Divyanandaprana explains this connection between Determinism and Free Will in a talk she gave at IIT Delhi, India in 2019.