In our last letter, Devi wrote about karma and free will. I would like to look at another aspect of this fascinating question.
Once, during a satsang, Swami Kriyananda was asked, “How much of what happens to us is determined by our karma?” His reply brought a gasp from the audience, “Virtually everything is pre-determined, even the choice of the shirt you put on this morning.”
Although no one actually spoke it aloud, one could feel the reaction of the audience: “That’s unfair! Don’t I have any freedom of choice?”
The answer to this question is tricky and depends almost entirely upon how we define “I.” If we think of ourselves as the ego (the soul attached to this body and personality), then we have little free will. But the soul, free from ego, has a great deal. This illustration may be helpful:
Recently I dreamt about trekking in the Himalayas, no doubt because we will visit Babaji’s cave in a few days. In this dream, one character represented “me.” It moved through the time/space of the dream world and interacted with other characters. Just as in this world, there was a clear sense that only this one actor was “me” and all the others were, well, “others.” When I awoke I realized, of course, that the dream, the mountains, and all the many characters were simply creations of my own mind.
So, what if that dream “me” suddenly demanded to have free will, wanting to change his shirt color, or walk ahead of one of the other dream actors, or be alone? Is his lack of free will unfair? Not really, because at another level, as the creator of the dream, I was in control. Similarly, freedom of choice in this life rightly belongs to the real you—your awakened soul rather than the dreaming ego.
If the purpose of life is to awaken from the dream of maya, do we really want the limited ego to be in charge? Isn’t it better to joyfully cede control to the soul, allowing the soul to draw the karmic lessons that will help it become free? The whole drama of life is, as Paramhansa Yogananda said, “for our education and entertainment.” And then he wryly added, “But how few are either educated or entertained.”
Although our conditions are largely determined by past karma, how we (the soul acting as the ego) react to our circumstances is very important. Enlightened reactions such as gratitude, love, and forgiveness free us, while ego-centered reactions create more bondage. Gyanamata, Yogananda’s most advanced woman disciple, once faced a difficult test. When she asked God what prayer He would hear, the answer came, “Change no circumstance of my life. Change me.”