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Conceptions of Grace (part 1)

From: Mani Varadarajan (
Date: Wed May 07 1997 - 10:36:35 PDT

Dear Bhaktas,

A few days back, our learned friend Krishna Kalale stirred
the pot with some thoughtful opinions on the role of grace
and effort when it comes to the spiritual path.  The
issues he brings up for discussion are very significant
ones: what is the nature of God's grace, and to what
degree does our individual history and actions play a part
in all this? Is the Lord's grace uncaused (nirhEtuka) or
induced by us (sahEtuka)?

The answers are tricky, and are not, I think, as black and
white as the words sahEtuka and nirhEtuka lead us to
believe.  I have pondered over these questions for several
years now, both with Krishna and others.  Very often I
have found that the popular perceptions of the views of
our acharyas are vastly different from their actual
thoughts on the subject.  Desika's view is sometimes
misperceived as a commercial, effort-centered transaction
for grace; Sri Pillai Lokacharya's view is criticized as
denying free-will and tending toward fatalism.  It is my
objective to dispel some of these myths in this
discussion, and to show how their philosophies of grace
are best only improperly reduced to either sahetuka or

There are three main questions brought up in Krishna's original

        1) To what degree does the individual have freedom to act?
           Does our philosophy preach fatalism?
        2) To what degree does the actions of an individual play
           a part in the bestowal of the Lord's grace? Is this action
           itself a result of the Lord's grace?
        3) With what motive should actions be performed by the

I realize that Krishna's criticisms may not have been aimed
at any acharya in particular, but I do know that he is trying
to reflect Sri Desika's viewpoint accurately, and I do think
that his words can easily mislead the reader.  I shall try to
point these out specifically below.

Let me begin with the question of individual freedom. From
everything I have read, including Sriman Sundara Rajan's initial
note and the treatises of Swamis Desikan, Pillai Lokacharya,
and Manavala MaamunigaL, no one denies that the freedom to act
is part of the fundamental nature of the individual.  Pillai
Lokacharya is explicit about this in the "Tattva traya" as is
Desika in numerous places.  So we may easily dispense with this
question -- the issue is not one of whether we have the ability
to act, but what actions we are to do, and what, if anything,
we are to do to have the Lord shower His grace upon us.

This leads us to the second question, which concerns the
Lord's grace and its interplay with our behavior. In response
to Sri Sundara Rajan's reference to Tirumangai Alvar's
statement "adhuvum avanadhu innaruLE", and that the spiritual
path is not to be regarded as an input-output situation,
Krishna replied:

> This is a serious controversy between "nirhetuka krpa" and
> "sa hetuka krpa" (grace without reason and grace with reason.

I do not think that there is any tension between nirhEtuka and
sahEtuka kRpa here; furthermore, contrary to popular opinion,
the differences between Desika and Pillai Lokacharya cannot
be reduced to one of  effort vs. pure grace, or caused grace vs.
uncaused grace.  This is where I also part company with my
friend Mohan Sagar -- what exactly does he mean by "nirhetuka
kRpA"? I believe the phrase is wonderful in a devotional context,
but superficial in a technical discussion of the spiritual path.

Similarly, I object to this statement of Krishna's:

> But special karuna - or special grace is showered only to the
> deserving based on karma.  one element of karma is the free-will which
> should be excercised to evoke God's grace.

The Lord's grace does not need to be "evoked". It is always
there, and according to Swami Desika, our self-surrender is
a mere "vyAja", an excuse or pretext for Him to shower it
upon us. He is ever existent as the siddhopAya, waiting
at all times to save us, but we regularly refuse to give 
Him the opportunity.

This may sound like nit-picking or hair-splitting, but
we are after all discussing a delicate topic that requires
very careful terminology.

An anecdotal sloka ascribed to Swami Sri Desika and narrated
to me by a learned maami elaborates on the nature of the Lord's

        mukunda caraNau vande mUgdheshv adhikavatsalAm |
        yat kRpA parivAhas tu nirhetuka sahetukam ||

The flow of Mukunda's mercy is both caused and uncaused, and
flows especially toward the innocent, as the mother's love for
a dull son.  The dayA flows like a river ready to irrigate any
field, so it is nirhetuka.  But one must open the gate to allow
the grace to flow, so it is sahetuka.  In actuality, since one
does not have to pay for this life-giving water, it is also
nirhetuka, but sahetuka in the sense that some inclination or
effort is needed to allow the grace to pour through.  This is
the position of Desika.

I do not think it correct to say that the flow of grace
is based on one's karma, as Krishna wrote -- that strongly 
implies that one deserves the grace, something akin to a 
commercial transaction. Karma after all is nothing but the 
law of action and reward.  It is much better in my opinion 
to say that the self-surrender is the individual's "opening 
of the floodgates" -- there are no more obstructions presented 
to the Lord's grace. [Karma may certainly play a role -- 
but I will get to this issue later.]

This view, while differing in many subtle ways, is also very
similar in spirit to Sri Pillai Lokacharya's words from the
"sri vacana bhUshaNam":

        66. "unmanaththaal en ninaindhirundhaay" engirapadiyE
            praapthikku upaayam avan ninaivu.

            Just as [Thirumangai Alvar's words] tell us, "What
            are you thinking in your mind?", the Lord's thinking
            [of our welfare] is the means of attainment.

        67. adhu dhaan eppOdhum undu.

            That [thought] indeed is [there] at all times.

            [The Lord is thinking of the soul at all times.]

        68. adhu palippadhu ivan ninaivu maarinaal.

            When [the jIva's] thought changes, [the Lord's thought]
            bears fruit.

            [When the jIva gives up the thought of relying on
             his own efforts for protection, the Lord's grace pours

The word "palippadhu" or "phalippadhu" is very important here.
The Lord's grace _bears fruit_ at the individual's mental
attitude.  So in one sense again, even according to Swami Lokacharya,
the kRpA is sahetuka.  But at all times we are to remember it
is also nirhetuka because His grace is ever existent as the
siddhopAya. Granted there are differences between Desika's view
and Pillai Lokacharya's view -- but that does not concern us
here. What is important is that all of our acharyas avoid
both the extremes of commerciality on the one hand and
arbitrariness or fatalism on the other hand.  They teach this
in common: the Lord's grace is always there, and at minimum
we need to make the proper mental affirmation for it to bear

But this brings up the question of whether even this mental
affirmation is a result of His grace alone.  Does His grace
extend so far as to cause us to do prapatti (self-surrender)
to Him? What then happens to our free-will?

Here is what Swami Desika says about the subject:

        upAyas svaprApter upanishad adhIta svabhagavAn
           prasattyai tasyokte prapadana nidhidhyAsanagasRtI |
        tadArohaH pumsas sukRtaparipAkena mahatA         
           nidAnam tatrApi svayam akhilam nirmANam nipuNaH ||

        The Lord has said in the Upanishads that He is the
        means for attaining Himself. Devout meditation (bhakti-yoga)
        and self-surrender (prapatti) are ordained to receive
        His grace.  Because of great merit, a person can do
        either of them.  To do this too, the Lord who can do
        anything is Himself the cause.

                                [Rahasya Traya Sara,
                                   upAya vibhAgAdhikAra (ch 9.)]

        mukhyam ca yat prapadanam svayam api sAdhyam   
           dAtavyam Isa kRpayA tad api tvayaiva |
        tan me bhavat caraNasangavatIm avasthAm
           paSyann upAyaphalayor ucitam vidheyAh ||

        O Lord, that perfect prapatti [that I am to do]
        should be accomplished by You Yourself and should
        be granted by You out compassion.  Seeing my
        condition who am attached to Your feet, You should
        do the needful with respect to the means and the

                                [Saranaagati Dipika 55]

The emphasis is always on the Lord's grace, almost mysteriously
so.  In another instance, Desika says that the cause of the
bestowal of the Lord's grace is very difficult to determine
("arudhiyida aridhaayiruppadhoru bhagavath kataaksham,"
from "munivaahana bhogam".)

I mention these examples to point out that there is no 
uncertainty concerning grace in Desika's philosophy. Everything
is because of the Lord's grace -- He is the Way and the Goal.  
However, the Lord has also granted us free-will and has given 
us guidelines, and these are also a result of His paramount grace.
These are granted to all, for He is partial to no one, and
it is up to us to use this freedom properly.  This freedom
only need be used to show the correct inclination.
[Rahasya Traya Sara, carama sloka adhikaaram (ch. 29)]

This inclination itself is brought about in part by karma,
as traditionally understood in Vedanta. The effects of our
past deeds, from time immemorial, present us with circumstances
and impressions under which we operate.  At some point in time,
this combined with our ability to think leads to inclination
towards the Lord.  The Lord, campaigning for us to turn toward
Him for so long, uses this excuse to shower us with His
grace and destroys our past karma:

	hitam iti jagad dRshtyA klRpter aklRptaphalAntaraiH
	   amativihitair anyair dharmAyitaSca yad drcchayA |
	pariNatavahucchadyA padmAsahAyadayE! svayam
	   pradiSasi nijAbhipretam naH praSAmyad apatrapA ||

	O Mercy of Padma's Consort! We perform some acts that
	the world considers proper, some acts without knowing
	their nature, and which are not meant to yield any
	other fruits. We perform acts which accidentally
	turn out to be good, as well as other kinds of deeds.
	Without any sense of shame, You Yourself grant us 
	what we desire, based on this pretext.

					[Daya Satakam, v. 74]

Pillai Lokacharya, writing earlier than Desika, presents
an identical viewpoint:

	386. aakaiyaal ajnaathamaana nanmaigaLaiyE paRRaacaakak
	     kondu kataakshiyaaniRkum.

	     Therefore it is seen that good things done unknowingly
	     are taken as a qualification [for accepting the self.]

					[Sri Vachana Bhushana]

Once again, I hasten to point out that in neither acharya
is there a hint or arbitrariness on the part of the Lord,
nor is there a hint of being "deserving" of grace.  There
are so many places where Desika renounces the thought that
his prapatti was an upAya that automatically gave moksha.
He explicitly condemns the view that prapatti is to be
seen as a barter for grace. [Saranagati Gadya Bhashya --
I am indebted to Smt. Prof. Vasudha Narayanan's thesis for
bringing this to my attention.]

At all times, all our acharyas take great pains to point out
that it is the siddhopAya who accomplishes our salvation
through His grace, and anything that we do (or do not do)
serves as a pretext or excuse for this grace to flow upon
us.  How else can we cut asunder our countless sins from
time immemorial? Through *our* surrender of our self? 
No -- the surrender is just an excuse, and His grace cuts away
the karmas that bind us.

I have yet one more question to discuss -- the correct
motivation behind all our actions as our acharyas have
advised us.  I will take this topic as well as other
incidental issues up a concluding post.