Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Astronomers tell us with great precision when the next eclipse will occur, on which day and year the next planetary conjunction will come about, etc. It would appear that in the astronomical realm, the world is functioning in such a way that the course of events are well determined. The question that arises is: Is this true of every aspect of the world. Is the course of events on our earth thus strictly determined? This is not an easy question to answer.

Some religious traditions imagine a fate-etching God to have done the job of writing the script for the universe. The idea of an irresistible and all-powerful force beyond human control which determines whatever happens in the lives of individuals has been expressed by poets and philosophers in many different ways. In ancient Greek religion there was Moira who held sway over all humans and also over the gods, for it was even more powerful than the gods. In fact, there was a whole class of them, the Moirai or Fates, who directed the course of lives human and divine.  Zeno, the Stoic  of ancient Greece declared that “Fate is the endless chain of causation, whereby things are.” In pre-Islamic Arabia there was Manat, the goddess of Fate, who was regarded as one of the three daughters of Allah. An in the notion of talai-ezhuttu  in Tamil,  and the popular song Que serà serà,  people in many cultures accept events as predestined. 

This view of occurrences in human lives is known as fatalism, or less poetically, as “Whatever will be, will be.” In this thesis of the pre-ordained nature of events, the future  remains hidden from our view, time serving as the unveiler of events already determined. In the words of Omar Khayyam,

The First Dawn of Creation wrote
What the Last Day of Reckoning shall read.

From this perspective, we are only witnessing what was to happen anyway. Religion attributes the course of events to the will of God. Fatalism could imply that whatever happens or is to happen is entirely dependent on God’s will: Deo volente, as it says in the Bible. The corresponding term in the Islamic world is inshallah: if God wills. The notions of kadar: that which has been written or spoken out by God, and of taqdir: that which has been ordained for each one of us, are central in Islamic theology. Many thoughtful commentators have written and debated on their significance. Interestingly, in the Hindu world only atheists subscribed to the idea of fatalism by which they meant, somewhat like physicists, that events inevitably occur as a result of the blind forces of nature.

It is, however, important to make a distinction between looking at the past and into the future in fatalistic terms. In the first instance, the fatalistic view is an analytic statement: it does not really say anything significant about the world. Nor does it circumscribe in any way our capacity for action. On the other hand, in a fatalistic view about the future we are saying that the future is (already) cast in concrete. There is nothing we can do about it. Even if we think we are doing something to alter the future, in fact this too has been pre-ordained, and we are merely acting within the fatalistic groove.

Unlike the tautology of the principle of fatalism in the past, futuristic fatalism has moral consequences. As Seneca reminded us long ago, fate in this sense exonerates everyone of any wrong-doing. After all, the criminal could say that his action had been pre-ordained, etched in the unalterable cement of fate. This is one reason why some ethicists and philosophers are reluctant to accept fatalism. This is also why in Christianity freewill is taken as an important doctrinal principle. [This, of course, need not be a consideration because the judge in the court could still convict the criminal and say that too had been pre-ordained.]

Nevertheless, the argument is that God gave us the capacity to choose between good and bad, and fatalism deprives us of this choice. We are not robots behaving as per divine programming. The difficulty here is that in the Christian framework, the choice is really not free, because there are weighty consequences, pleasant or pleasant, in what we choose to do. Choosing between a cup of tea and a cup of coffee, or from among different flavors of ice-cream, is not exactly what one means by the exercise of free-will. If we are told that by deciding to act sinfully we will go to a very hot and painful place, there to remain for a very long time, are we really given freedom to exercise our will? From this perspective, the Islamic condemnation of infidels to Hell does not seem to be fair, at least to the infidels, because that is how Allah had written it to be. In one translation of the Qu’ran we read (xviii, 58) that Allah threw veils over the hearts of unbelievers “lest (they) should understand the Koran, and into their ears a heaviness; and if you bid them to the guidance, yet even they will never be guided.”

And yet, when God gave us the freedom to chose or blinded us so that we may not choose whatever is good, even when we are not responsible for our wrong actions, unpleasant things occur, such as the birth of a sickly child or the death of innocent people in natural disasters. Is this also the will of God? Why did the divine blueprint for the world include pain and suffering? In this context, the Hindu perspective is an ingenious  blending of fatalism and freewill. It regards our current experiences as predestined, not by God but by our own previous actions (in other incarnations), and it allows for freewill in our current conscious state. Our present conduct will determine our future states. In this way it explains the present predicament (which fatalism does, but freewill does not), and gives freedom to human actions (which the doctrine of freewill does but fatalism cannot).