I signed up for Facebook a month or so ago (2008) and joined a ‘Teachings of Ramana Maharshi’ group that had just started there. One of the other members mentioned this statement that Bhagavan had made when his mother begged him to return home in 1898:
The Ordainer controls the fate of souls in accordance with their past deeds – their prarabdha karma. Whatever is destined not to happen will not happen, try hard how you may. Whatever is destined to happen will happen, do what you may to stop it. This is certain. The best course, therefore, is for one to be silent.
The person who posted the quote then asked about this ‘Ordainer’.
Before I write a response to this I should explain, for the benefit of those who do not know, the circumstances under which Bhagavan made this pronouncement. Bhagavan’s mother Azhagammal, came to see him in Tiruvannamalai in 1898 and begged him to return with her to the family home in Madurai. Bhagavan knew that such an option was not possible because he knew that it was his destiny (his prarabdha karma) to remain at Arunachala. This written statement was his response. The Tamil and English versions of it can be found on page 66 of Self-Realization, Narasimhaswami’s biography of Bhagavan.
This statement encapsulates several key elements of Bhagavan’s teachings that need to be explained before I can respond to the question that was posed.
First, the term ‘ordainer’ refers to Iswara, the generic personal God of Hinduism, and not to the unmanifest Self. The relationship between the two was explained by Bhagavan in Guru Vachaka Kovai, verses 449 and 1218:
Other than as thoughts, jiva [the individual self], Iswara and the world do not exist. The unmoving basis, the screen, is Brahman. The moving pictures that appear on that unmoving screen are jiva, Iswara and the world. You should know that everything which is perceived [on the screen] is maya.
The mind brings an illusory world into existence, dividing it into a seer and seen: a jiva who appears to inhabit the body, and an external world that is witnessed by it. When this projection takes place, Iswara, the God who supervises this creation, is also created. This God, the God who creates and sustains the world, is a mental creation, meaning that when the mind dies, the jiva, the world and God die with it, leaving Self alone. Iswara allocates karma to devotees and ensures that each devotee experiences the consequences of his and her actions. Here are some interesting answers that Paul Brunton elicited from Bhagavan on Iswara and his role in devotees’ lives:
Question: Is there a separate being Iswara who is the rewarder of virtue and punisher of sins? Is there a God?
Question: What is he like?
Bhagavan: Iswara has individuality in mind and body, which are perishable, but at the same time he also has the transcendental consciousness and liberation inwardly.
Iswara the personal God, the supreme creator of the universe really does exist. But this is only true from the relative standpoint of those who have not realised the truth, those people who believe in the reality of individual souls. From the absolute standpoint the sage cannot accept any other existence than the impersonal Self, one and formless.
Iswara, God, the creator, the personal God, is the last of the unreal forms to go. Only the absolute being is real. Hence, not only the world, not only the ego, but also the personal God are of unreality. We must find the absolute – nothing else. (Conscious Immortality 1st ed, pp. 7, 8, 10, and 180-1)
That is to say, Iswara will exist and run the world while the individual projects creation, but he will cease to exist when the Self is realised and one knows oneself to be unmanifest Brahman. Since Bhagavan defines ‘reality’ as that which does not come and go, and as that which has its own inherent being, Iswara is not ultimately real since he comes and goes with the appearance and disappearance of the jiva. He is not permanent, unchanging being in the way that Brahman is.
How does Iswara, ‘the ordainer’, allocate destiny? Here is Bhagavan explaining the process, using an interesting and novel analogy:
A man might have performed many karmas in his previous births. A few of them alone will be chosen for this birth and he will have to enjoy the fruits in this birth. It is something like a slide show where the projectionist picks a few slides to be exhibited at a performance, the remaining slides being reserved for another performance. (The Mountain Path 1982, p. 23)
And here is a second quote on how this process works:
Individuals have to suffer their karmas but Iswara manages to make the best of their karmas for his purpose. God manipulates the fruits of karma but he does not add or take away from it. The subconscious of man is a warehouse of good and bad karma. Iswara chooses from this warehouse what he sees will best suit the spiritual evolution … of each man, whether pleasant or painful. Thus, there is nothing arbitrary. (Conscious Immortality, 1st ed. p. 376)
The point of the slide-show analogy is that the slides are arranged in a fixed sequence. The choice of slides and the order in which they display are determined in advance by Iswara. This is ‘God the ordainer’ determining which actions a jiva will perform, and in which order.
There is a traditional three-fold division of karma, of which prarabdha karma, mentioned in the original question, is one. Sanchita karma is the store of karma that has been brought forward from past lives. Prarabdha karma is the destiny that one has to undergo in this life, and agami karma is the new karma that is created in this life that is carried forward into future lives. One’s prarabdha karma is thus one’s destiny in this life, the God-ordained sequence of events that one has to experience.
Bhagavan did not seem to regard the laws of karma as being inherent in creation. They were, instead, a ‘divine ordinance’, a rule made by God, rather than a fundamental property of created matter. This was explained in the first verse of Upadesa Undiyar (Upadesa Saram in Sanskrit), which Bhagavan begins with the sentence ‘Action bears fruit by the ordinance of God’. This is Bhagavan’s reply to a question by Krishna Bhikshu, who asked who or what this ‘God’ was in this sentence:
Question: In ‘Karthuragnaya prapyathe phalam’ [‘actions bear fruit by the ordinance of God’] who is the karta [God, or the supreme doer]?
Bhagavan: Karta is Iswara. He is the one who distributes the fruits of actions to each person according to his karma. That means He is saguna Brahman [manifest Brahman]. The real Brahman is nirguna [attributeless] and without motion. It is only saguna Brahman that is named as Iswara. He gives the phala [fruits] to each person according to his karma [actions]. That means that Iswara is only an agent. He gives wages according to the labour done. That is all. Without that sakti [power] of Iswara, this karma [action] will not take place. That is why karma is said to be jadam [inert]. (Letters from Sri Ramanasramam, 11th August, 1946)
A natural consequence of all this is Bhagavan’s remark, ‘Nothing happens except that which is divinely ordained’. (Padamalai, p. 295, v. 12.). While it is easy to see how this is so for embodied jivas who are under Iswara’s rule, it does not explain why Bhagavan, who had realised the Self and transcended the jurisdiction of ‘the Ordainer’, told his mother that he could not come back to Madurai because this event was not in his destiny.
To understand this some further philosophical digressions are necessary. Bhagavan taught that all the actions that a body performs are determined by its pre-destined prarabdha. This includes jnanis, the liberated ones. That destiny is God-given and immutable, but that does not mean that one has to identify with the body that is performing and undergoing its various destined actions. Enlightenment, or Self-realisation, is having the permanent knowledge and the experience that one is the underlying substratum, Brahman, not the temporary and ultimately unreal appearances (the world, the jiva and God) that appear and disappear within it. When one realises the Self, one knows that one is the Self and not the transient body that is going through its allotted activities. Destiny pertains to the body, not to the underlying Self. Bhagavan’s body had a destiny to fulfill, and that destiny did not include returning to Madurai, but the Self that he knew himself to be had no such destiny.
Traditional advaita, going back to Sankaracharya, teaches that jnanis, through their realisation, have transcended agami and sanchita karma, but continue to experience prarabdha karma until their body dies. That is to say, the karma that has accumulated in the past which produces rebirth and suffering has ended, meaning that there will be no more births, but the destiny of the body in this life (the prarabdha karma) has to continue until the body dies. Bhagavan objected to this argument, saying that if one knows oneself to be the Self, then all three of the karmas have ended. He summarised these views with an elegant analogy in Ulladu Narpadu Anubandham, verse 33:
The statement that the jnani retains prarabdha while free from sanchita and agami is only a formal answer to the questions of the ignorant. Of several wives none escapes widowhood when the husband dies; even so, when the doer goes, all three karmas vanish.
Bhagavan accepted that the body of a jnani had a predestined script of activities that it had to undergo, but he would not accept that he had prarabdha karma since he knew that he was not the body that was engaging in all these physical activities. As he remarked in Guru Vachaka Kovai, verse 1146:
Prarabdha will never fail [to take its course] in the case of a body that has been born to exhaust it. But the jivanmukta who has severed the chit-jada knot, and thereby become distinct from the body, has transcended prarabdha.
The jivanmukta is one who has become liberated while still alive in the body, while the chit-jada knot is the process by which pure consciousness attaches and identifies itself with the insentient body. The same idea was expressed more succinctly in Padamalai, p. 294, v 11 where Bhagavan said: ‘In the blissful experience of jnana, the Self, those prarabdha experiences will not cling to the “I”’.
There is one other consequence of realisation that I should mention since it impinges on another reason why Bhagavan could not accept his mother’s plea to return home. When one realises the Self, one no longer has any sankalpas. That is to say, one can no longer choose or decide what one should or should not do. People with minds who identify with bodies assume that they have ‘free-will’, that they can choose or decide what they do or don’t do. Jnanis who know that they are the Self and the Self alone have no such choices or options. When they speak, it is the Self that is speaking, and when they move, it is the Self that is animating them to perform a particular action. There is no intermediary mind that considers courses of action and then executes one of them. Bhagavan did not have a ‘choice’ to return home since the ‘chooser’ in him no longer existed. His body had a destiny to remain at Arunachala, a destiny that was scripted and ordained, but he himself had freed himself of its karmic destiny by abiding in the Self.
To give Bhagavan himself the last word, here are some more verses from Guru Vachaka Kovai (697, 698, 300, 1191, 151) on the topic of transcending prarabdha. They are probably more relevant and useful than my own discussion on what prarabdha is and who it affects:
The purport of the statement, ‘For those who dwell in the firmament [of consciousness] there is no prarabdha,’ is that not even an iota of prarabdha will exist for those who meditate unceasingly on the subtle space of consciousness that flourishes everywhere unobstructed, and which cannot be encompassed even by the vast physical space.
Prarabdha, like a whirlwind, relentlessly agitates and spins the mind that has shrunk through the ‘I am the body’ idea. However, it cannot stir, even slightly, the limitation-free mind that shines as the extremely clear space of being-consciousness when that ego-impurity [the ‘I am the body’ idea] is destroyed by self-enquiry.
It is impossible for the jiva who has become a victim of ego-delusion to overcome even slightly the force of prarabdha. Therefore, unless he subsides in the Heart by relying primarily on God’s grace, he can never, by mere effort, which is the activity of the rising ego, overcome the buffeting momentum of that prarabdha, subside by himself [in the Heart], attain Self-realisation and be freed from fear-causing delusion.
No one can do anything that is opposed to the ordinance of the Supreme Lord who possesses unlimited power and who can do anything. Therefore, to end the illusory anxieties of the mind, which engender an evil discontent, the proper course is to remain under the spell of supreme consciousness, which arises from meditating on the divine feet, with the mischief of the ego subdued.
Siva shines within each jiva as a witness, [enabling] him [the jiva] to experience his prarabdha through his [Siva’s] presence. Whoever knows his nature to be mere being-consciousness, without imagining through ignorance that he is the experiencer of prarabdha, shines as that supreme person, Siva.