This article first appeared in Hinduism Today. It is reprinted here with permission of Vedic Astrology.

The question of karma, destiny and free will has baffled the scholars and philosophers from time immemorial.
It is the most misunderstood and misinterpreted subject in the philosophy of life. However, the ancient sages were very clear in understanding this subject and have tried to elucidate us through their teachings. Here, Vedic astrology plays an important role in trying to explain the role of karma, destiny and free will. This is a very complicated and difficult subject to deal with. However, I am trying to throw some light as I understand it.

The quest for knowledge, truth and happiness is as old as life itself and all the choices we make are aimed at attaining this happiness and avoiding unhappiness. Astrology seeks to guide one in this natural urge towards greater fulfillment by revealing one's past karma and the resultant samskaras, which determine the way one perceives the world.

Karma is the activity of doing and being, and it is action born of desire, which holds the self in bondage. The sages have understood that the problem of life is how to live with acceptance of one's limitations yet at the same time maximize the opportunities for growth.

What is karma? The cardinal doctrine of karma is the law of cause and effect in accordance with the maxim "as you sow so shall you reap." Karma is due to our actions and our actions are due to our thoughts. Karma is what we have already created by our actions in the past that will bear result in the future.

Therefore, the future is based on the past. There is no favoritism in the determination of the law of karma as everyone is treated equally, and equal opportunity for growth is given to everyone as well. We have to experience our karma of the past. The astrologer only reads the planetary influences that simply indicate the results of the previous karmas. Therefore there is nothing like fate in the absolute sense, controlling our lives. It is only the law of karma, therefore, which impels human beings to live a right kind of living, for failure to do so may create bad karma which will make us suffer. Having this knowledge helps regulate our actions, thus making the individual wiser and better.

This brings us to the question of what is free will, and how it operates. Our ability to exercise will without the interference or influence of any factor outside of ourselves, gives the impression that we have the freedom to act at will. But Professor Einstein is stated to have observed, "Honestly, I cannot understand what people mean when they talk about freedom of the human will." Similarly, Professor Schoperhauer has stated that "Man can do what he wills but he cannot will what he wills." These statements from scientists also indicate that they seem to think a kind of determinism that exists in the nature of human beings.

In a matter of fact, our free will is subject to the influence of our samskaras caused by our past karmas. The real situation regarding karma and free will, as explained by astrology, is that we human beings are partly free and partly determined. The circumstances of the major events of our life such as birth, death, or initiation into spiritual life may be due to the uncanny operation of destiny. In other words, one's physical nature, heredity, and the social position of one's family or position in the cosmos are determined. Thus, one cannot change one's parentage, one's nationality, one's place geographically in his country, and even one's innate temperament, or the fund of one's life energy are all natural endowments. These are, in the main, determined.

Nevertheless, these constitute our resources, which are in a position to make use of either gaining a lofty status in life, or to suffer a downfall in the ultimate analysis of values.

Nature has endowed human beings with sufficient freedom to make or mar their own self.

Astrology never disputes the fact that, since the spark of divinity is present in all of us, sincere efforts to perform actions in the right way will be rewarded.

However, in another sense, our life is predetermined to the extent that each one of us enters the world with impressions (which in Sanskrit are called "samskaras"), which are the primitive emotions and tendencies that motivate our lives. They are impressions carried over from our past lives in our subconscious minds which motivate desires, and in turn produce our thoughts and actions. Thus, human beings reflect their inner ideas on the outside world and their perceptions are colored by their past experiences.