Fatalism – Apathetics Anonymous

 My teacher, Hari Prasad Shastri, brought out particularly strongly that we must not be fatalists.   Some holy text can be used to support fatalism, to make people members of apathetics anonymous. “Whatever will be, will be”, they echo the rich gentry and aristocrats in the last act of the Viennese Opera Die Fledermaus. These are people with the false serenity of the rich who feel that whatever will be, they will have the financial resources to meet it. “If God is busy, I have my cheque book”.   They feel, too, that they are especially worthy of their favourable circumstances: “Call me a philosopher if you will, but what I say is, if we didn’t belong on top, we wouldn’t be on top.”

These fatalists twist the doctrine of karma to excuse themselves from making efforts.   In the famous case presented by Jesus, a Jew coming down from worshipping at the Temple in Jerusalem is attacked by thieves who leave him for dead on the wayside. A passing priest assumes the man is dead;  it would be a pollution for him to touch a dead body, and he would have to purify himself for a week before resuming his duties.   So he passes by on the other side.

Similarly, a Levite, chosen as the village representative to serve in the Temple for two weeks does not want to disqualify himself by touching a dead body.   He too passes by on the other side.

The third man is a Samaritan, a foreigner despised by orthodox Jews as unclean. He examines the injured man, finds he is not dead, washes his wounds and takes him to a hostel where he pays them to look after him.

Now the fatalist argues that the priest and the Levite did no harm to the victim. If it was his karma to be picked up and looked after then he would be picked up and looked after, as indeed he was.  And if it was his Karma to die then and there, nothing the Samaritan or anyone else could do could save his life. What had to be, had to be.

This is a sort of fatalism which leads to apathy and pure tamas, darkness as our teacher repeatedly said, can be extended indefinitely.  Suppose I have promised to buy a ticket to a concert for an old lady who particularly wants to hear it.   Somehow I forget to buy it in time and she cannot go.   Now the pseudo-fatalist argues to himself:  “If her karma did not justify her getting to the concert she could never get to it. And her karma clearly did not justify it because she did not get there, and could never have got there. Even if I had not forgotten to buy the ticket she would not have got there; the taxi would have had an accident on the way, or perhaps she would have been taken ill suddenly. But she could never have got there, because her karma did not allow it.   So, in a way, my forgetting was a good thing for her – Perhaps it saved her from an accident or illness or some other Karmic catastrophe.”

These surface fatalists do not apply the same reasoning when someone carelessly upsets a hot saucepan full of soup over them. They don’t say, “Oh, it had to happen” but shout “Why don’t you take more care, damn it.”

In these ways, he said, holy texts can be distorted into fatalism and the corresponding inertia.   Some of them even quote the Gita:  “Every man follows his nature; what will restraint avail?”   They argue that if one’s nature is laziness physical or spiritual it must therefore to be useless to struggle against it.   They do not know the next verse in the Gita, which shows as S’ankara says that man frees himself from his nature by giving up his tight clutching hold on his likes and dislikes.

But if we examine the Gita we shall find that words based on the route ‘yat’ meaning to strive, occur more than thirty times and many more times in the commentary of S’ankara.  The Gita says at the beginning of Chapter VII:  ‘ among thousands of men one perhaps strives for perfection; and of those who strive and are perfect, one perhaps attains…’ and many similar examples.   Any apparent fatalism, depending on supposed impossibility of changing one’s basic nature is ruled out by the many references to striving accompanied with detachment.   And it is also ruled out by many passages in the Gita beautifully summarised in the word of Jesus ” What is impossible for man is possible for God.”

Then in one of the places where S’ankara sums up his teaching on a particular point, he says (Chapter II commentary) he says: “As everywhere with the Adhyatma teaching, the qualities natural to the one who has succeeded are given as goals to be achieved by effort, for the aspirant.”


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