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.

Alan Leo, an eminent astrologer of the West, views karma and free will thusly: "The idea seems to be prevalent that astrology teaches fatalism. Those, however, who have studied the subject knows that it does not teach absolute fatalism. We are not utterly bound: neither, on the other hand, are we entirely free. We are limited and restrained by ignorance. All our misfortunes are the result of our imperfect knowledge. Had we even but a little more knowledge, there would be much less suffering."

Our actions follow the avenues of our own karma in tracing us, but our will at each moment is free to fashion our future karma. It is determinism to the extent that it is shadowed by the unchangeable law of karma, but life which is guided by free will does not follow any preordained pattern.

Vedic philosophy has always denied the existence of a merciless fate that would play with human beings as it pleases. On the contrary, the sages have undeniably declared that human beings have control over their actions, but their actions have no control over their results.

Astrologers say that there are two forces, Daiva and Purushakara, fate and individual energy. The individual energy can modify and even frustrate fate. Moreover, the stars often indicate several fate possibilities; for example, that one may die in mid-age, but that if, through determinism it can be overcome, one can live to a predictable old age.

Thus, astrology does not say that events must and should happen, but gives the benefic and malefic tendencies that can be directed or modified through conscious effort.

Then, how would one define astrology? It is the philosophy of discovering and analyzing past impulses and future actions of both individual and nations in the light of planetary configurations. Astrology explains life's reactions to planetary vibrations. It can also be defined as a science of correlation of astronomical facts with terrestrial events.

Astrology has been called the science of indications, but it does not follow that the stars rule our destiny. The stars merely record a destiny that has already been formed. They are then a symbol, not a force, or if their actions constitute a force, it is a transmitting energy, not an originating power. The planets do not dictate, but indicate the energies that are influencing a situation in a given time.

The birth horoscope reveals the general path of destiny by way of the disposition of the planets. The timing of events is indicated by the Dasha and Bhukti periods because they show when a planet will come into its relative strength or weakness. The exact timing is further determined by the transiting planets which are influencing the Dasha or Bhukti lords. The Dasha and Bhukti cycles are unique to Vedic Astrology and are an essential component to the astrologer's accuracy of predictions.

The relationship between karma and astrology can be likened to that of a thermometer and body temperature. The thermometer does not bring about a fever, just as the planets do not cause events to happen. Rather, they indicate the challenges one has to face in life's pilgrimage due to causes generated by the individual's past actions. This is called "karma," the ultimate law of justice which rules all life. It again suggests a kind of determinism exists in nature.

Further, astrology does social good by propagating, though indirectly, that one must try to sow better that one might reap better.

So the correct understanding of Vedic Astrology is that it is a blend of free will and fatalism. But this does not mean that astrology implies any fatalism or rigid determinism.

Of course, there are persons to whom astrology does not apply, in which case such persons are masters of their own destiny. Such people are sages who control their own senses and also the five elements of the Universe. They control the time and the creation; in other words, they control the planetary effects. Such great beings' free will prevails over the tendencies of the planets. They can do and undo things. This is why the great sage Parashara says: "Oh! The Best among Brahmins! I tell you the maximum longevity for various beings: for gods and sages it is limitless."

So astrology has been given to humanity to help guide them by making them conscious of their patterns and tendencies in this life according to what are called the four Parusharthas, or guidelines for conscious living.

They are:

  • Dharma (right conduct)
  • Artha (wealth and finances)
  • Kama (pleasure and entertainment in the earthly domain)
  • Moksha (ultimate liberation)
  • That is why when astrology is practiced with right knowledge and understanding and the client has the right spirit, it helps them rise above the challenges thereby enabling one to reach higher goals and evolution of life towards God consciousness.

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