Monday Morning Greetings 2019 #6 – Can Destiny be Changed?

February 11th, 2019

There are many subtleties to the law of karma. I thus feel impelled to tackle this question from several angles. First a story that sheds some initial light on our inquiry.


Five friends walk into a forest of mango trees to eat. In a very crass tone the first friend advises, “Cut down the tree!” “Why cut down the tree?” the next friend advises, “Just break off one branch.” “Why saw off the whole branch?” the third one protests, “Just break off the part where the mangos are.” The fourth suggest something more sensitive: “Why not just pick the mangos?” The fifth friend is even more considerate: “Why do we have to pick the mangos at all? Why not just take the ripe ones that have fallen on the ground?”[1]


The different friends entering the forest indicate different levels of egocentric acts requiring karmic reactions of progressive intensity for purification. For example, the person who expediently wants to cut the whole tree is the most selfish and requires the heaviest reaction, a reaction that certainly can’t be thwarted. The person who simply eats the fallen ripe mangos is the least selfish and accordingly requires, if any, the least self-correction. His fate certainly can be thwarted.  


The Jain text below hopefully puts the above points in perspective:


If one unwittingly makes an imperceptible and minor mistake in dealing with someone, simply regretting one’s mistake may be sufficient to mitigate the reaction. For a more serious mistake an apology may do. An even more severe offense may require atonement. For the most egregious offenses, however, only by suffering a commensurate reaction to the offense can one be purified of that transgression. In such a case one’s destiny is certainly set in stone.


To sum up the first consideration of our initial inquiry, there are certainly rituals of atonement outlined in various spiritual traditions that may mitigate or change destiny, but their efficacy, if at all, is limited by the severity of the offense originally committed.


As one advances spiritually, however, one’s tact in altering destiny changes. Rather than putting more effort into stopping what is manifest or what is to come, one puts more effort into countering destiny by properly responding to it. After all, the real fruit of karma is the happiness and distress meted out by destiny, which certainly can be changed by the proper understanding and response to it. Socrates condemnation to death is a perfect example of this.


Socrates was sentenced to die by the Senate of Athens for the trumped-up charges of contaminating the youth with his teachings. He accepted his fate peacefully, and simply requested an audience with the Senate to address his accusers. His powerful words recorded by Plato in “The Apology” are worth pondering: “If you think you will harm me, you cannot harm me. You only will harm yourself.” Because Socrates responded to his death with thoughtfulness and dignity his fate therefore did not affect or disturb him, while his accusers were actually karmically digging their own graves. Was not Socrates fate changed by his enlightened perspective? Imagine the fate of a person in a similar situation without his realization of karma and the eternality of the soul. Would not that person’s fate be quite different?


The Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam is filled with many such examples where by a deeper perspective on life, the happiness and distress meted out by the mace of destiny, is altered. I would love to write about King Parīkṣit’s response to being cursed to die, or Vidura’s reaction to being banned from his kingdom. For the purpose of this article I will just share Bhīṣmadeva’s advice to his grandson Yudhiṣṭhira, who inquired from him about how to digest his terrible fate in life.


There is no cause for despondency in life, no matter how trying circumstances get, if one, through understanding destiny as God’s beneficent and absolute will, does three things. One should bow one’s head in gratitude, respond in righteousness, and do so under one’s qualified mentors, thus extracting the fruit of destiny, a personal realization elevating one to a better life.[2]


Let’s sum up again where we are in reference to answering this article’s initial inquiry about changing our fate. We can best counter destiny, which is ultimately our distress and happiness, by appropriately responding to destiny rather than changing it. In this way, by extracting the fruit of destiny, which is the realization meant to elevate our consciousness, we remain free from despondency, and in that sense change the essence of our destiny, which ultimately is our happiness and distress.


Topics like this often raise more questions than are answered. I can never do justice to such a subject in such a short article. I welcome further questions from our readers and perhaps we can have a part two where I attempt to answer them. Although I have now exceeded my preferred word count, I need just a little more time to complete my explanation. Please bear with me for just a half page more as I share three more examples to further drive home the point that while the broad parameters of our destiny are mostly fixed, within those parameters our destiny can very much can be changed by how we view and experience it.


Example 1

A friend of mine was diagnosed with Chrohn’s disease, a serious stomach ailment that he would suffer from for the rest of his life. He reacted responsibly to his fate by a strict diet, and the symptoms of his disease have gradually been alleviated. He lives normally. Has he then not changed his karma? In a sense he has, because he no longer suffers the pain of the disease, but in a sense he also hasn’t because his diet is still restricted due to the disease.   


Example 2

Destiny is like being on a rocky road to a particular destination that we have no choice but to ride. In that sense destiny is fixed. One can, however, pave that road to make the journey smooth. In that sense, destiny is changed. In other words, within the parameters of our fate we can certainly mitigate the reactions of our karma, and in that sense change our fate.  


Example 3

Destiny is like being dealt a bad hand in poker. Your cards are fixed. Still, if you play your cards properly you can minimize your losses or even win. This is a nice analogy to show both the fixedness of destiny and the scope to change it by how we play our hand. 


Can destiny be changed? In the most important way, yes. I will leave you with Rumi:


“When providence seems to be digging a hole to throw us in, it is actually planning to quench our thirst by drawing water from the ground.”



[1] This story is from a Jain treatise on karma that a friend shared with me many years ago when I was preparing a seminar on karma.

[2] This is my summary of Bhīṣmadeva’s instructions from Bhag. 1.9.12-15


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