The pandemic is an epoch-changing moment . Millions have fallen sick, hundreds of thousands have succumbed to the disease. We have been caught unawares and still do not know how to deal with it. Historic events such as this compel us to raise big questions usually submerged in the hustle and bustle of life: what is and what isn’t in human control? How to make sense of collective helplessness in the face of abrupt changes? What is the place of contingency, fortune and misfortune in our life? Fatalism provides one answer: human agency is insignificant. We are permanent victims of inscrutable forces beyond our control.
With the arrival of the pandemic, the surge of fatalism seems inevitable within popular consciousness. What else can we expect in the land of Karma — the idea that birth, status, marriage, occupation, all life experiences, and death are predetermined? Isn’t our personal destiny inscribed on our forehead or in the lines of our palm? Are we not already allotted a share ( bhaga ) of fortune or misfortune at birth? Isn’t Hinduism virtually synonymous with fatalism? Surely, we must then expect a lot of fatalistic gloom in these times.
The near-absence of fatalism
Yet, there is scarce evidence for it. I don’t see ordinary people resigned to their fate — an inscrutable, unpredictable force that acts on humans against their will, mocks their agency and humiliates them. Instead, they expect governments to take charge, doctors and nurses to save lives, scientists to deliver a cure, fellow citizens to behave responsibly. The poor do not seem to abjectly surrender to their fate either. They are willing to take huge risks and return home, not die of hunger when abandoned by governments. In short, Hindu fatalism seems to be a myth spun by Western, orientalist imagination. Or, perhaps, sustained by the rich who imagine the poor to be victims of fate; it is not what the poor believe about themselves.
This near-absence of fatalism in India is not a gift of modernity. Historically, large segments of Indian thought are non-fatalistic and give an important place to human agency. The philosopher Sukumari Bhattacharji made a plausible case for the absence of fatalism in various ancient texts: the Rig Veda, the Brahmanas, the Samhitas, the Upanishads, the Aranyakas, and in Jaimini’s Purva Mimamsa. The theory of Karma found in the teachings of Buddha and Mahavira are not just atheistic but valorise human agency. Though the idea of fate exists, it is immanent, inscribed in and dependent upon human action spread over many births. Likewise, in Puranic literature, fate and human agency coexist. In the Mahabharata, there are two kinds of Rishis. The pravrtti sages (engaged in the world) draw upon the power of tapas (religious austerity) to dominate their surroundings; the nivrtti sages (renunciates) actively acquire spiritual knowledge by which to escape their surroundings. Both reject the argument that humans are victims of forces beyond their control. In ancient India, perhaps only the atheistic Ajivikas embraced fatalism.
In Indian folk literature, one frequently finds a god or goddess coming to write the bhagya (share of fortune/fate) on the forehead of the new born. Several Indian languages have a term for it: talaiyeluttu and talaiviti in Tamil; haneli barediddu and hanebareha in Kannada; phalalikhita in Sanskrit. In Hindustani too, phrases such as ‘Hamari kismetmein yeh likha hai’ are common.
This is often taken as an affirmation of Indian fatalism. But then the same literature invites us to use one’s wit, to overturn or at least modify bhagya writ on our forehead. Fate can be thwarted by action, particularly by those prepared to take risks. It can also be challenged, especially among the underprivileged, by ‘witchcraft’, or worship of ancestors and local deities. Anthropologists like Kathleen Gough record the derision with which Dalits in Tamil Nadu dismiss ideas of bhagya, phalalikhita , or inexorable fate. For upper castes, astrology appears to perform the same function, for it suggests appropriate strategies to manage bhagya (fortune), or avert durbhagya (misfortune), not surrender to it.
In conditions of extreme, prolonged distress, entire world views may emerge that make human vulnerability permanent, unexpected, unpredictable forces salient, and render human agency, order and reason insignificant. Consider the idea of the absurd which emerged during the Second World War, underscoring the futility of the search for meaning, quite like fatalism that stresses the futility of human action. But extreme action-negating world views like fatalism must not be conflated with perspectives that give importance to fate. Fate is an integral, recurrent feature of the human condition. In every civilisation, such concepts emerge unbidden. All ancient world views had a term for it: moira in Greek, ming in Chinese and bhagya in Sanskrit. Modern world views too must incorporate fate.
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Why? The human world can always be viewed as a great contest between human agency and nature, something currently beyond control. The more humans are able to control their destiny, the less room in their perspective they have for fate. The more the world is comprehended, the less inscrutable it is. But there are times when most human beings feel utterly helpless — say, in times of wars, natural calamities, social upheavals, or personal misfortune. In such moments of extreme vulnerability and loss of control, when things seem beyond rational comprehension, ordinary human beings with their practical consciousness rely on notions such as fate. They submit, surrender, resign themselves to and eventually accept their condition — ‘so be it’, ‘such is my lot’.
Human powers versus chance
In short, an ongoing battle rages between what the Italian humanist Machiavelli calls Virtù (human powers) and Fortuna (chance/fate). We need to constantly experience and evaluate which way the balance will tilt. Individuals, societies and, indeed, humanity must have a realistic view of what is given and the extent to which it can be altered. It is impossible to entirely give up a conception of something beyond us and equally, to entirely reject a modicum of responsibility for one’s actions. We are always in part responsible for what is happening to us, though this contracts or enlarges depending on circumstances. However, one element that perpetually evades control is sheer fortuitousness in our lives — accidents, coincidences, disease, disasters, sudden bereavements — all of which defy human agency and thwart the best of plans. They compel us to rely solely on the idea of fate. Indeed, more than good luck, fate is linked to misfortune and death. No wonder accidents that result in death are called fatal and human beings who perish in disasters are called fatalities.
In sum, while fatalism whose over-valorisation of fate nullifies human agency must disappear, views that introduce the dialectic of fate and human agency to account for contingency, misfortune and bad luck cannot be erased. However, even their relevance or efficacy can be reduced by better understanding, sounder explanations, with the wisdom to know what can and cannot be controlled, indeed by properly evaluating what should or should not be controlled.
Rajeev Bhargava is Professor, CSDS, Delhi