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The Myth of Personal Destiny

Do you worry about what you are meant to do with your life? What an absurd question, you might think, especially if you have read deeply in yoga philosophy, particularly the Bhagavad Gita.

Undifferentiated consciousness, acting through the ego, leads you to exactly where you are meant to be. All you ever do, as you sit on the precipice of any decision, is whatever feels most right to you in the moment. Character and past conditioning shape that decision (which includes your own unique understanding of “should, must, need, ought, shouldn’t, can’t, want, and have to”). What unfolds is your life trajectory, your dharma, your path.

Do you create your destiny? Popular mind says unequivocally yes. All “self-help” methodologies depend upon this assumption. Classical yoga teachings (and other traditional teachings) have a more nuanced understanding. The question is central to the science of Jyotish. But the answer, in terms of Jyotish and Yoga, is subtle.

What if Arjuna had not met Lord Krishna on the battlefield? Had not learned the secrets of yoga? Instead of realising his true dharma, he might have ended up in mental breakdown and despair. Lord Krishna’s teaching was fresh conditioning of the highest order, giving Arjuna the insight to act with divine intelligence. It lifted the veils shrouding his mind and gave him the conviction to fulfil his ultimate purpose. “Yoga is skill in action,” said Krishna. The universe aligned to bring Krishna to Arjuna, and Arjuna listened.

But the truth is, my friends, on this earth plane of duality, many of us do not realise the full potential of our innate dharma. Our actual lived dharma takes a deviant course, because of various circumstances creating a different karmic path.

In 2009, I smuggled a curry leaf plant from India into Ireland. What an adventure through security that was! The little sapling was wrapped in plastic, its root ball covered with a damp cloth, and hidden in a jug, also well wrapped. I surrounded the jug with dirty clothes and stuffed it into my carry-on rucksack along with many other random items.

Security in Paris stopped me. They searched my carry-on. I was trembling with terror. They came SO close to that poor plant. After pulling umpteen bits and pieces out of my rucksack, the security woman discovered the jug at the bottom, wrapped with brown paper and bubble-wrap and criss-crossed with tape. “What is this,” she asked. “A jug,” I answered, giving as little information as possible. She felt it. Felt like a jug. And then miracle upon miracle, she let it go. She did not unwrap it. With my heart in my stomach, I moved on. Unbelievable. I had made it past the French border and into Europe. My curry plant, tucked stowaway into that cramped jug, was safe. It was on its way to Ireland.

It could have ended differently. The security woman might have unwrapped the jug, found the tiny plant and tossed it into a bin for sharp, sudden death. Instead, the plant made it to my conservatory, where unfortunately, a long slow life of misery was awaiting it. Despite my best efforts, this tropical plant could not adapt to the Irish climate. To this day, it is not dead, a tribute to its stamina and tenacity. But it is a pathetic, truncated specimen, whose few leaves I can’t bear to harvest.

Back in the garden centre in India in 2009, this tiny 10-rupee plant was one amongst hundreds of similar plants for sale. Those that ended up in gardens in South India would be full-sized trees now, vibrant with thick growth and shiny aromatic leaves.

My poor curry leaf plant could have been such a tree! Instead, fate snatched it away from its natural habitat and its dharma unfolded quite differently. Obviously, the plant was passive in this, total victim to its bad luck in being chosen by me that fateful day back in 2009.

A human life is a different matter, however. It is why in India it is said that birth into a human form is most fortunate, better even than a deva, because human life offers the best potential for spiritual advancement.

Why? It is because human life inevitably involves suffering (same as a plant), yet also awareness (same as a deva). Suffering is the First Noble Truth the Buddha taught. It is precisely our suffering–all the different flavors of loss and pain—that motivates us to seek beyond the surface. Worldly things one way or another disappoint. Arjuna was in a state of profound despondency on the battlefield. That is why Lord Krishna came to him and that is why he was so ripe to listen, to listen deeply from the heart. Suffering can awaken the heart to seek; and when it does, it is a form of divine grace.

Yet nobody wants to suffer. We all want the good stuff. We all want to be like those curry trees growing in South India, fulfilling their highest dharma. So can we do it? Can we direct our destiny? We are not plants, after all. We can envisage, we can choose, we can make change.

This is where the question about destiny gets very, very subtle. The answer is yes and no, depending how you look at it. In one sense, the answer is yes. Yes, every action you take contributes to the direction of karma unfolding. Your action helps determine what happens next. It creates destiny, even though so many factors outside “your” control enter in and alter its course. Karma is an intricate, multi-dimensional web.

Why did that security woman in Paris not unwrap my jug? What happened in her life that morning? What unrelated thoughts were running through her mind at the moment of the search? Might there have been something about my appearance or my stuff that triggered her action? I will never know. All possible scenarios explaining it belong to the making of fiction. But you can be sure it was something. On another day, in another mood, she might have scoured the carry-on.

“My” action of smuggling the plant in the first place set the stage for the whole scene. And though the outcome of that action was never in my control, the fact “I” initiated it contributed to the shaping of destiny. So what was behind “my” decision to take that destiny-shaping action? Can we isolate a clearly defined “me” behind it all? No—contrary to the most basic assumption that most people hold— in fact, we cannot.

Each and every part of “me” and “my action” is actually a reaction, triggered by something that appears upon the screen of consciousness and coloured by something “I” experienced in the past. Why did I want a curry leaf plant in the first place? (Something to do with a love of cooking and Indian food—a whole history of events behind that.) Why did I disregard the rules against importing plants? (Something to do with an independent nature–and a history of questioning rules.)

As Somerset Maugham says in Of Human Bondage, “When an action is performed, it is clear that all the forces of the universe from all eternity conspired to cause it . . . ” Any attempt to isolate a “me” will inevitably draw in something that is not strictly “me”. For the “me” (and the “you” as well of course) are parts of a singular web, where all action interconnects, where it is said that if you pull one string, you shake the universe.

So in another sense, the answer to the question about destiny is no. No, “you” do not create your destiny, because “you” are not actually a separate entity initiating action. Every action you take depends upon past conditioning, past karma, and innate character–as mirrored in the pattern of planetary energy at the moment your soul entered this body in time and space. “Your” action is in fact a reaction to something that originated “outside”, and that outside trigger had ITS origin in something “outside” too. It is because ultimately “you” and “me” are fictions, provisional concepts superimposed upon a seamless web of karma. And “inside” and “outside” are ALSO provisional concepts, the border between them arbitrary and illusory.

By the way, this is just the way it is, not something bad or wrong (though awareness of this phenomenon, even as it is going on, is profoundly liberating). It is precisely this hypnosis of “you” and “me” as independently functioning entities that makes the drama of ordinary life possible. This is what the teaching of Maya is all about.

The big cosmic joke is that no matter how you answer the question, action continues to happen through you, replete with surprise. Though you might have one foot in the timelessness of Ultimate Reality, the other foot remains in the flow of time, where something is ALWAYS happening (and you never know what that will be). You have the sense of being at the helm, but it is a joke, it is divine hypnosis. However, at every juncture, every twist and turn, fresh conditioning modifies the flow, for good or for ill.

Is this the place where our awareness might make a difference?

What is happening right now, if you are reading carefully, is fresh conditioning. It will contribute to the next moment of your life. It will participate in what you say or do or think when you put down this blog, and in all the ensuing consequences of that action of “yours”.

The good news here is that certain conditioning, call it right experience or right knowledge, can come your way so that you can better fulfill your highest destiny. That is what happened to Arjuna, when Lord Krishna taught him the deepest truths of Yoga and Vedanta. The Vedic tradition gives us Yoga, a means to transcend this life, deconstruct the karmic chains that keep us whirling through time and space and dissolve into the eternal Oneness of pure consciousness, which is our ultimate nature. Yet it also gives us Jyotish, a means to enhance the unfolding of karma IN our life, realize our highest potential and become like a flourishing curry leaf tree. (And as a matter of fact, that goal is actually what most people truly want, if they are being honest with themselves. It is peace and harmony in THIS life that most hearts seek.)

Knowledge is power. And knowledge is the gift of Jyotish. Jyotish gives you understanding about every aspect of your life. It gives precise insight into the question about what exactly you are meant to do in this life, because it sheds light upon that instrument–the mind-body organism–which undifferentiated consciousness animates. And it empowers you with the right tools to cultivate the right karmic seeds, so that your dharmic potential blossoms fully, producing rich and abundant fruit. Ultimately it will lead to Yoga, because Moksha—that release into timelessness that goes by many names (none of which can truly name IT)—is the destiny of everything manifest, even if the path may meander for eons and eons. That meandering is the dream of life, where the fiction of “you” and “me” plays out.

Yet whether you let the wisdom of Jyotish guide your life, just like whether you follow the path of Yoga, depends of course upon karma, upon your conditioning past and present. Think about it. Fresh conditioning is here and now. Is it calling you to know more?

Om shanti.


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