Chosen People Or People Who Choose?
The rich theology of the Vedic literature can end speculative attempts to resolve the apparently contradictory concepts of predestination and free will.
Kimberly picks up a tape by a rock band known for its satanic image and clicks it into her Walkman. Putting on the earphones, she turns the volume way up.
“Maybe I was just made evil,” says Kimberly to herself. That leads to another thought. “Maybe some people are made good. Like Heather. Everything always seems to go right for Heather. God seems to like her.”
Kimberly’s not a theologian, but she’s contemplating something that Western theologians have discussed for centuries without reaching any definite conclusions. The question is this: Does God choose certain individuals or groups for salvation? In other words, are there chosen people? And, alternatively, are certain persons selected for condemnation?
The technical term for the matter under discussion is predestination, a word which implies that our final destination, be it heaven or hell, is programmed into our souls from the beginning of our existence. Thus the question of predestination is closely connected with the concept of free will.
A lot has been spoken and written about all this, but most of it is highly speculative. Not surprisingly, many of the views expressed contradict each other.
Speaking of the Judeo-Christian tradition, C. T. McIntyre writes in his article on predestination in The Encyclopedia of Religion, “Advocates of all positions have appealed to the scriptures, although the scriptures do not contain doctrines of free will and predestination, nor even these words.”
It would be too bad, however, if we had to rely on theological speculators to answer such questions. It’s hard to trust them, because the human mind is so limited and prone to error. That’s why God gives scriptures in the first place.
According to the sages of India. God has given different scriptures to different people at different times and places according to their level of understanding. Some scriptures therefore give more information than others. The Bible and the Koran, for example, give only very limited information about the soul and the important questions of free will and predestination. The Vedic scriptures of India, however, give more detailed information, which will help us examine these questions without going off into the insecure realm of imagination and speculation.
The basic message of Vedic literature on the question of predestination is that the choosing is done by the individual soul and not by God. We are choosing people, not chosen people.
God says He is neutral. In Bhagavad-gita (9.29), Lord Krishna, the Supreme Personality of Godhead, says, “I envy no one, nor am I partial to anyone. I am equal to all.” We could say that God is the original equal opportunity employer.
Yet Krishna goes on to state in that same passage of the Gita, “But whoever renders service unto Me in devotion is a friend, is in Me, and I am also a friend to him.” God exhibits no special favoritism to any particular person or group. But if someone voluntarily behaves in a friendly way toward Him. He responds in kind.
Now one might object: “Ha! So if you’re not friendly to God, then He zaps you, right? That’s not very cool.” But no, you zap yourself, so to speak.
The Vedanta-sutra (2.1.34) says vaishamya- nairghrinye na sapekshatvat tatha hi darshayati: The Lord neither hates nor likes anyone, though He appears to.” He surely does appear to, one might be tempted to say.
The reason God appears to hate one person and like another is related to the fact that He arranges to fulfill the desires of each individual, giving each his or her justly deserved reward or punishment A perverted desire yields a bad result A good desire yields a good result. Mixed desires yield mixed results. Because the results come by God’s arrangement it looks like He is to blame. But He’s not really.
Consider the example of a judge. One person comes before the judge and receives an award of a million dollars in a lawsuit against an insurance company. Another person comes before the judge and is sentenced to ten years in prison for fraud. The judge is responsible for neither the award of a million dollars nor the ten-year prison sentence. The law is there, and in the final analysis the persons who come before the judge have by their own behavior determined the results they will receive. The judge is neutral—at least he should be.
One difficulty with the suggestion that God is fulfilling our desires is that we do not appear to always get from God what we consciously want. If I want a million dollars, then why don’t I get it? Right away!
The reason is that the results of our desires and activities accumulate over the course of many lifetimes, as we take on one material body after another. If in a past life we unlawfully deprived others of wealth, we may now have to suffer for that by having unfulfilled desires for riches. In other words, what we desire is weighed against what we deserve.
Another consideration is that the desire to get rich quick by demanding large amounts of cash from God is a perverted desire. Our desires are evaluated according to a standard not of our own making. And it is according to that standard, whatever it may be. that the results of the specific desires are calculated. Maybe those results will match up with our expectations, and maybe they won’t. But as the Bhagavad-gita teaches, whatever we get is exactly what we deserve, which might be the pain of poverty, or a struggling middle-class existence, or being rich but not rich enough.
So to sum up. God sets up the system but is not responsible for what we get. The responsibility lies squarely with each one of us. As Krishna says in the Gita (4.13), “Although I am the creator of this system, you should know that I am yet the non-doer.” He also says in the Gita (9.9), “I am ever detached from all these material activities, seated as though neutral.” And in Chapter Thirteen He says, The living entity is the cause of the various sufferings and enjoyments in this world.”
Now, if you want to criticize God for setting up the system as He did (so that we get bad results for certain desires and actions), you can. But it really doesn’t do much good. Srila Prabhupada says it well in his purport to Srimad- Bhagavatam 7.2.39:
The Lord does not create this material world at anyone’s request …If one argues. “Why does He act in this way?” the answer is that He can do so because He is supreme… .The answer is that to prove His omnipotence He can do anything, and no one can question Him. If He were answerable to us concerning why He does something and why He does not. His supremacy would be curtailed.
Certain people will be satisfied with a statement like this; others will feel extreme dissatisfaction, even repulsion. Here we are getting to the heart of the whole question.
By nature we are capable of liking God or disliking Him, of obeying His orders or disobeying them. More accurately, according to the Vedas our natural position is to serve God with love; and if we so desire we can give up that position and attempt to serve our own selfish desires.
The Vedic literature gives reliable information about the fundamental nature of the living being. The Vishnu Purana states:
vishnu-shaktih para prokta
kshetrajnakhya tatha para
tritiya shaktir ishyate
“The potency of Lord Vishnu is summarized in three categories, namely the spiritual potency, the living entities, and ignorance. The spiritual potency is full of knowledge; the living entities, although belonging to the spiritual potency, are subject to bewilderment; and the third energy, which is full of ignorance, is always visible in fruitive activities.”
In other words, God has three main energies: the spiritual energy, the energy composed of the innumerable living entities, or souls, and the material energy. The living entities are known as the tatastha-shakti, or the marginal potency of the Lord, because they have the ability to identify with either matter or spirit to exist in full knowledge or in total illusion.
By nature, however, the soul belongs to the spiritual potency. This is confirmed in the Bhagavad-gita (15.7), wherein Lord Krishna says, mamaivamsho jiva-loke jiva- bhutah sanatanah: “The living entities in this conditioned world are My eternal fragmental parts.”
We have always been around. As God has always existed, we have always existed. Some theologians speculate that the soul comes into being when the present body comes into being. This is not only illogical (how can something eternal have a beginning?) but unsupported by scripture.
The Vedic scriptures further state, vasanti yatra purushah sarve vaikuntha-murtayah: “In the spiritual planets everyone lives in bodies featured like the Supreme Personality of Godhead’s.”
So if in our original condition we were eternal beings living in the spiritual world, in spiritual bodies like God’s, then what happened to us? What are we doing here. subject to birth and death?
An obvious question and a good one. Lord Krishna tells us in Bhagavad-gita (7.27).
sarge yanti parantapa
“O scion of Bharata, O conqueror of the foe, all living entities are born into delusion, bewildered by dualities arisen from desire and hate.”
So one component of the reason for our being in the material world rather than the spiritual world, our real home, is that at some point we developed a desire to enjoy separately from the Supreme Lord, Krishna. Instead of serving Him with love, we desired to serve our own false ego. Although Krishna knows we can never be satisfied without serving Him in our natural position. He nonetheless respects our independence and free will and allows us to act out our impulses to enjoy separately from Him in the material world.
A second component of the reason for our being in the material world is our hatred for, or envy of, the Supreme Personality of Godhead. One aspect of envy is the desire to usurp the position of the envied person. For example, if one envies a wealthy person, one may desire to become the enjoyer of that person’s wealth. Similarly, the envious soul may desire to take the Lord’s position as the supreme enjoyer. This necessarily involves partial or total forgetfulness of God’s existence.
One thing to keep in mind is that no one can honestly say, “The devil made me do it” According to the Vedas, God has no competitor battling with Him for souls. God is described asamaurdhva, “having no equal or superior.” If we are apart from God, we can blame no one but ourselves, our own desire and hatred.
There is no irreversible, eternal condemnation. Each soul always has the opportunity to exercise its free will. If a soul is “eternally” condemned, it is only because of its own continuing unwillingness to love God. One can always turn back to God, even from the most fallen position. Srila Prabhupada explains:
The Supreme Personality of Godhead expanded Himself into many for His ever-increasing spiritual bliss, and the living entities are parts and parcels of this spiritual bliss. They also have partial independence. but by misuse of their independence, when the service attitude is transformed into the propensity for sense enjoyment, they come under the sway of lust. This material creation is created by the Lord to give facility to the conditioned souls to fulfill these lustful propensities, and when completely baffled by prolonged lustful activities, the living entities begin to inquire about their real position.
Although the Vedic literature doesn’t talk of Satan, or the devil, it does describe Maya, the goddess in charge of the material energy. Maya is a servant of Lord Krishna who performs the unpleasant but necessary task of creating the temporary world of illusory happiness and distress for the souls who desire to forget Krishna and enjoy themselves apart from Him. And if a soul somehow develops a desire to return to Krishna, Maya is always there to test him with allurements: “So you think you love God? Well what about this ... ? And this … ?”
So if that’s our position now, then what is to be done? The answer is simple. We should use our independence to reestablish a friendly relationship with the Supreme Lord, Krishna, and thus end our unpleasant stay in the material world. This is the most important business of human existence.
We should choose to make ourselves pleasing to God. And everyone has an equal opportunity to do that. It is not that any particular group of people has a monopoly on salvation.
Every soul has the opportunity to achieve the highest goal. pure love for God. In his introduction to Bhagavad-gita As It Is. Srila Prabhupada explains, “The ways and the means for ultimate realization, ultimate attainment, are stated in the Bhagavad-gita, and the doors of this knowledge are open for everyone. No one is barred out. All classes of men can approach Lord Krishna by thinking of Him, for hearing and thinking of Him are possible for everyone.”
Lord Krishna Himself says in the Gita (9.32), “Those who take shelter in Me, though they be of lower birth … can attain the supreme destination.” It doesn’t matter if one is male or female, higher or lower in social status.
The real chosen people are those who choose to endear themselves to God by their behavior. And in the Bhagavad- gita (12.20) Lord Krishna explains who is dear to Him: “Those who follow this imperishable path of devotional service and who completely engage themselves with faith, making Me the supreme goal, are very, very dear to Me.”
The imperishable path of devotional service begins with hearing and chanting the glories of the Supreme Personality of Godhead. Lord Caitanya taught the simple method of awakening love of God through the congregational chanting of His holy names: Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna , Hare Hare/ Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare.
Lord Caitanya was Krishna Himself, appearing as a devotee of Krishna. In other words, He was God showing by His own example how to please God.
Lord Caitanya prayed, “O son of Maharaja Nanda [Krishna], I am Your eternal servitor, yet somehow or other I have fallen into the ocean of birth and death. Please pick me up from this ocean of death and place me as one of the atoms at Your lotus feet.”
When a devotee petitions Krishna in this way. Krishna responds. He says in Bhagavad-gita (12.6-7): “Those who worship Me, giving up all their activities unto Me and being devoted to Me without deviation, engaged in devotional service and always meditating upon Me, having fixed their minds upon Me, O son of Pritha—for them I am the swift deliverer from the ocean of birth and death.”
One can best meditate upon Krishna and fix one’s mind upon Him by chanting His holy names. In this way one can escape the cycle of birth and death and become situated at Krishna’s lotus feet Lord Caitanya prayed:
O my Lord, Your holy names alone can render all benedictions to living beings, and thus you have hundreds and millions of names, like Krishna and Govinda. In these transcendental names You have invested all Your transcendental energies. There are not even hard and fast rules for chanting these names. O my Lord, out of kindness You enable us to easily approach You by Your holy names, but I am so unfortunate that I have no attraction for them.
Here Lord Caitanya is revealing our problem. We are trapped in the material world because we misused our independence. Even so, Krishna has made it possible for us to return to our original position simply by chanting His holy names. The method is easy; even a child can perform it. And it is guaranteed to be effective. Yet we are so unfortunate that we are not attracted to chant. We remain reluctant, attracted to other things.
Still, Krishna is non-different from His name. And in the form of His name, He is waiting for us to choose to accept Him into our hearts once more. If we can do so, we shall also enter into Krishna’s heart. Krishna says in the Srimad- Bhagavatam (9.4.68).
The devotees are always in My heart, and I am always in the hearts of the devotees. The devotee does not know anything beyond Me, and I also cannot forget the devotee. There is a very intimate relationship between Me and the pure devotees. Pure devotees in full knowledge are never out of spiritual touch. and therefore they arc very much dear to Me.
So, although we are "choosing people," in a sense there are also chosen people—the devotees. Because they have chosen God, God has chosen them. And He guarantees that their destination will be His eternal, spiritual abode.