In Western philosophies, the binary of free will versus determinism underlies the discourse on human action—are we entirely free to choose what we can do, or are these choices constrained in some way? In the Subcontinent, these conflicting ideas about the extent of personal freedom are most creatively discussed in a radically different vocabulary in classical stories. In our myths and epics, characters have their actions contained and circumscribed by karma as well as by boons and curses. What they can do is often determined by their deeds in the past, sometimes even by the deeds of others. Further, the gods and powerful sages can intervene in the course of a character’s life by bestowing boons or curses as rewards and punishments.
If karma and powerful supernatural forces are what shape the lives of characters, where do we place free will in these narratives? We could argue that the moment of free will, however limited, occurs when characters have to make choices. Dharma, ie, what they pick from among several obligations that appear before them, is where free will resides in this complex universe of constrained choices.
Rama was exiled into the forest for 14 years because his father, Dasharatha, was cursed by the parents of a young man that he accidentally killed while he was hunting. The aged and infirm couple cursed the king that he, too, would be denied the comfort of his beloved son in his old age. Dasharatha is also bound by the boons that he gave Kaikeyi, his wife, when she saved his life in battle. When she demands that Rama be sent away, he cannot refuse her. Another story that seeks to explain Dasharatha’s actions is one where, in order to marry Kaikeyi, he had promised her father that her son, and not the sons born of his other wives, would rule Ayodhya. Nothing that Rama has done is the reason for his exile—for this cataclysmic event, he is acted upon entirely by forces outside his own life.
Rama’s moment of choice comes when he has to decide whether or not to respect his father’s outrageous decree. He chooses to be a dutiful son rather than a rebellious prince when he accepts the command and leaves for the forest with his wife and brother. Once Rama has been exiled, the choices he makes are relatively freer in terms of being defined by royal obligation and familial duty. In the confrontation with Shurpanakha, for example, Rama chooses not to kill the aggressive rakshasi but he does encourage his brother to attack her fiercely. Later, he ignores Lakshmana’s warnings and decides that he will chase the golden deer because Sita is so enamored of it and he will do anything to make her happy. Rama chooses Sugriva as an ally and then kills Vali as part of the pact of friendship that he has made with the exiled monkey. At the end of the war, Rama asks Sita to undergo a public test of her chastity, even though (apparently), he knew in his heart that she had done no wrong. And in the final act of the Ramayana, Rama the king, chooses to banish his wife because she does not have the trust and confidence of his people.
Nestled within the idea of free will is the corollary of being responsible for consequences of the choice that has been made, however painful they may be. Dasharatha had to choose between his obligations as a king and his promises as a husband when Kaikeyi asked him to send Rama away. He chose to be a husband. Rama was confronted with the same dilemma when he heard his citizens’ gossip about Sita—he had to choose between his duties as a public figure who must respect the opinions of his people and those of an ordinary man who loved his wife. He chose his public self, he chose to act as a king. The consequences of the choices that both Rama and Dasharatha make are devastating for them—each nurses a broken heart for the rest of his life, brutally aware that the situation in which he finds himself is of his own making.
Dharma lies not in the act itself or in the consequences of the act but in taking responsibility for what we have done
What happens when a character refuses to take responsibility for her or his actions or non-actions? In the Mahabharata, Bhishma renounces not only kingship and the company of women, he appears to renounce action itself. He will not save Amba when she returns to him after Shalva has rejected her, he will not prevent the assault on Draupadi and her humiliation in the grand assembly, he will not stop the war between his nephews. Whatever his unfathomable reasons, the grand patriarch of the Kaurava clan chooses not to act. Bhishma can choose not to act because he is powerful. He does not need to act in order to maintain his political position or his moral stature, both of which devolve to him simply because of who he is. Bhishma chooses the dharma of the renunciant where detachment is the ultimate value despite the fact that he remains a part of the family elders at court. He does not take responsibility for the multiple and bloody tragedies that happen around him, many of which are the consequences of his silence and inertia. Bhishma can choose the time of his own death and so it is that he dies 58 days after he has been felled by Arjuna’s arrows on the battle-field. Surely, it is not without some irony that we honour and respect Bhishma Pitamaha for giving discourses on dharma and right action at the end of a life that has been primarily about avoiding action and responsibility altogether.
If we think of Bhishma as not acting at all, we can think of Lakshmana as acting rather too much. Apart from what he does for and by himself, he also acts on his brother’s behalf. In doing so, Lakshmana assumes responsibility for the choices that others have made. To begin with, he chooses to follow Rama and Sita into the forest even though he himself has not been exiled. Once there, he absorbs not only Rama’s anger, but also performs the acts of violence that his brother will not. For instance, Lakshmana mutilates Shurpanakha and guards Sita when Rama chases the golden deer. It is Lakshmana who builds the fire in which Sita will prove her chastity to Rama after she has been won back. But most poignantly of all, it is Lakshmana who drives a pregnant Sita into the forest (under the false pretence of visiting the sages’ wives) when Rama banishes her from Ayodhya. As he leaves her by the banks of the river in the gathering gloom of twilight, Lakshmana breaks down and weeps openly, unable to endure the cruelty and injustice of what he has been asked to do.
No one and nothing has compelled Lakshmana to take on these additional deeds which, some would argue, more rightfully belong to his brother. He has chosen to do these things, acting as a good brother should, performing a dharma that he has selected for himself. But what of the burden of their consequences—where does that lie? Of course, Rama’s life is irrevocably changed, desolate, when he loses his wife forever. But Lakshmana, too, feels the weight of all that he has done at his brother’s command. At the end of the Valmiki Ramayana, Time arrives to see Rama and asks for a private meeting with him. Time says that whoever interrupts the meeting will die. Lakshmana himself stands guard at the door. An angry Durvasa demands to see Rama because he is hungry. He swears that he will curse Rama’s kingdom and all his people if he is not allowed to meet the king. Knowing what awaits him, Lakshmana opens the door and interrupts Rama’s meeting with Time. Time reminds Rama that Lakshmana must die for what he has done. To spare his brother the pain of having him killed, Lakshmana walks alone to the banks of the Sarayu, where he withdraws his senses and stills his breath.
Perhaps unwilling to carry these heavy responsibilities any more, Lakshmana placed himself in a position where he knows death would come to him. Or, perhaps he knew that Time had come to signal the end of Rama’s life on earth and since he, Lakshmana, could not bear to live alone in the shadow of all that he has done for his brother, he decides that he, too, must exit the world. Either way, whether out of desperation or a sense of completion, Lakshmana chooses to die when he might have lived. But, how different is Lakshmana’s lonely death from that of Bhishma’s celebrated one! Bhishma could choose the moment of his death because of a boon, he dies covered in glory and mourned by the royal family that he leaves behind. Lakshmana seeks out the moment of his death. His choice stands out in this universe of determinism, seeming more like the act of a modern Existentialist than that of a warrior prince in a classical epic.
In our contemporary lives, we are being increasingly coerced to adopt ways of thinking and being that are articulated in ancient texts. What would it be like if we used the past as a template for the present? If we turn to the Mahabharata, then it would appear that we live in troubled times—for, like Bhishma, the powerful do not speak, do not act and abjure responsibility for what they have unleashed. If we look to the Ramayana for ways to understand where we are and seek models for action, then the king must banish those who tarnish his image.
Without being literal and stifling our imaginations, there are ways that might expand the remit of these stories such that they speak to our lives and deepen our understanding of our own deeds in the real world. In the 21st century, whether or not we subscribe to a rigorously retributive theory of karma, we believe, in the main, that it is our own actions that chart the course of our lives.
If we like, we can also believe that, like the characters in the stories we have grown up with, dharma is what we choose to do when we are presented with a range of choices. Further, once we choose, we are responsible for our actions and their consequences. However, choosing to do the right thing does not always have good and happy consequences, as we learn from the story of Rama. Perhaps dharma, the right and the good, lies not in the act itself or in the consequences of the act, but in taking responsibility for what we have done. If determinism denies us a sense of responsibility for what happens, then free will hands it back to us. If it is karma that has made our lives what they are, then it has to be dharma that makes us the people we are.