Monday Morning Greetings 2023 #35 – Forced to Act Helplessly

August 28th, 2023

Agency means the ability to initiate and control actions and thoughts. Various schools of Indian thought have various views on this.[1] The Bhagavad-gītā seems to say that the soul has no agency:


“The spirit soul bewildered by the influence of false ego thinks himself the doer of activities that are in actuality carried out by the three modes of material nature.” (Bg. 3.27)


But how can that be? If we have no ability to initiate and control action, then what is the meaning of the law of karma? How can we then be held responsible for that which we have absolutely no ability to initiate?


This is a deep and debated philosophical concept in the Indian philosophical tradition far beyond the scope of my posts. I am therefore not going to pretend to have exhaustively argued my own position that there is agency in the soul, but it is obvious that that is what Śrīla Prabhupāda taught. We therefore understand a deeper meaning to the above verse—to the extent we are acting against our constitutional nature as devotees of God is the extent to which we have surrendered our agency and are forced to act helplessly by the modes of material nature. In other words, one can compromise one’s agency by how one associates with the modes of nature, but it is not that the soul has no agency.


I am going to do something in this Monday Morning Greetings that I have never done before: print another person’s article. The article was sent to me by a close friend during a personal discussion with him. I thought it was so relevant to what I wanted to write, and it was penned with such clarity and force that I decided to make an exception and share it here. The article was written by Śrīla Bhaktisiddhānta’s disciple, Professor Sanyal, who was his English editor, but just as renowned for his devotion. Above, I wrote just a few words to introduce the concept of agency. I will say a few more words below to introduce the article and explain briefly its relevance to our discussion:


The article explains how although we cannot know God by our own initiative alone, we do have the agency to cultivate the will and humility to depend on His grace, to allow God to do the rest and act through us. I won’t go further. I will allow Professor Sanyal to elucidate the subject further. I think you will enjoy it.


“We must stop and reflect on the cause of our perpetual and utter failure. If we do so sincerely we make the real discovery with Kant that we cannot know the Truth by means of our present faculties. But we need not, therefore give up the quest as hopeless. We are to question again and then we shall get the true answer. That answer will be that the Absolute Truth for Whom our souls hanker is not a dead thing or relations of dead and limited things or thoughts but something Who is akin to ourselves. He is something that is living or self-conscious. He is also Spirit like our souls. The next question that will arise in our minds will be, why cannot we see Him? The answer will be, ‘Because He does not show Himself to us.’ If we ask again, ‘Why does He not appear to us?’ We shall be told that He is so because we do not seek for Him. We never seek for the Truth but always seek for the half-truth. That is the disease. The real Truth Himself comes to us the very instant we seek for Him. And we seek for Him only when and as soon as we really understand His nature. This is the vicious circle. At present we have no real idea of the Truth and so whenever we seek for anything that thing is necessary untruth. Then at last the conviction dawns on our understanding that the whole process hitherto pursued requires to be reversed and we begin to understand the mystic words of the scriptures. ‘Give up once for all the empiric quest for the Truth and wait for Him to take the initiative. You cannot go up to Him. When you try to go up to anything of your choice you go away from it. So you must submit to be enlightened. He has the power and the will of making Himself known to you.’


“At this stage one naturally asks, ‘Shall I then sit idly and do nothing?’ And now Truth answers in a definite manner, ‘No, let your mind and body do what appears to them to be their proper functions but you yourself stand apart and do not identify yourself with them, but wait for communications from Me. Rely wholly on Me and I shall guide you to the goal which is Myself.’ Thus faith is kindled in the doubting heart and we are in a position to profit by the instructions of the good preceptor whom Śrī Krsna sends to us the moment we really seek to be enlightened in perfect humility. Then we are also able to understand the words of the good preceptor as being identical with the words of the scriptures. Being now convinced of the real ability of the good preceptor to guide us on the path of the Absolute we take hold of his hand that is ever extended to us and submit to be led without hesitation and much questioning at first. As we gradually learn to walk in the path of service our vision slowly clears up and we see The Truth for ourselves. Then only we understand what it really is.”



Yes, we are forced to act helplessly, but if we are humble enough to muster the will and humility to beg for His Grace, then we do have the agency to change ourselves and even change the world. That was the teachings of Śrī Caitanya and what Śrīla Prabhupāda taught us.



[1] Free Will, Agency, and Selfhood in Indian Philosophy, Matthew Dasti and Edwin Bryant, Oxford University Press


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