Are we right in believing that we control our decisions and choices, and hence the course of our lives?
As we grow older, we learn that we have little control over circumstances or people around us. We learn that at the end of all knowledge is the realization that we know nothing at all. We learn that no matter what we planned for our lives, circumstances overtake us and the life we live is quite different from what we planned it to be. Are we then not in control of any aspect of our lives? We have been brought up on the concept of individualism as the ideal-the belief that we alone are capable of controlling our minds, and responsible for the decisions we take, thus directing the course of our lives. But could it be that these decisions are not fully under our control? In short, are we the active drivers or the passive observers of our lives? A sense of control is very reassuring. Humans need to feel in control in order to feel secure. Rituals, social norms, and values help give us a sense of control. Where there are rules, there is a need to keep people in check. And so, either someone assumes that control or cedes it to another, trusting and empowering another to do the needful, as Sonia Gandhi did when she appointed Manmohan Singh Prime Minister instead of assuming charge herself. A plethora of bestselling books in recent times based on neuroscience research suggests that our decisions are neither the result of our free will nor of rational, logical thinking. The premise is that humans are lazy, myopic and herd-followers and so our choices and decisions come mostly from learned behavior or from societal influences. Our brains and our decisions are influenced by our prejudices, emotions, learned behavior and even by external circumstances as basic as the weather, people around us and what our senses are experiencing. Malcolm Gladwell’s book, Blink: The Power of Thinking without Thinking argues that spontaneous decisions are as good as carefully considered ones and that prejudice operates strongly even from an unconscious level. Jonah Lehrer’s book, The Decisive Moment: How the Brain Makes up Its Mind, argues that decision-making also depends on emotions. Nudge, by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein, talks about how the brain is primed to be influenced by inputs from others and how then these become patterns that influence our choices. Choice, the big buzz word of our times, the foundation of our sense of control and individuality, is manipulated all the time. We are bombarded with choices, and yet insidiously messages are relayed to influence our decisions. So, a supermarket may give you multiple brands of shampoo, but keep within reach only the ones they wish to promote. And so it seems, we are not really in control. What do our scriptures say about the influence of KARMA and our ingrained gunas, on the way we live our lives? Devdutta Pattanaik says in his book My Gita, that we are all helpless with limited control over the world. We are not agents, but instruments of the world. Every organism’s capabilities and capacities are determined by one of the three guna or qualities that dominate: tamas(inertia, darkness, impure), rajas(desire, activity) or sattva (purity, balance). Guna, in turn, is shaped by our Karma.
Pattanaik further says, In humans, the sattva gun dominates, which is why only humans are able to trust and care for strangers, empathize and exchange, but amongst humans, there is a differential distribution of all the three gunas. They impact not just matter, but also the mind. Guna influences our karma and karma results in Guna and that is the fluidity of the universe. We can at best judge hope to understand not influence it. The book quotes from Bhagavad Gita, ‘’Arjuna, there is none born on earth or heaven who is free of the influence of the three tendencies. Lately, advances in neuroscience reveal the social nature of the brain and also its plasticity-the ability to change with influences or with our own efforts. And it is the latter that we can latch on to with a modicum of positivity. If we cannot change our Guna or our lives, maybe we still can shape our brains to create new habits and responses. That would surely change the way we respond to our Destiny, even if we cannot change it? —-Vinita Dawra Nangia