Spiritual aspirants often find it difficult to reconcile the contradictory doctrines of man’s free will and God’s grace. They are often confused as to what is the capacity of man to exert his free will and do sadhana and at what stage does divine grace intervene in the life of an aspirant.
Some of the disciples of Sri Ramakrishna raised this matter with him and sought his opinion. He gave a beautiful example from daily life explaining the position of free will as well as divine grace in one’s life.
He said, “Suppose a cow is tied by a rope to a pole. If it wants to satisfy its hunger, then it has to exert itself and move in the area covered by the radius of the rope and eat the grass in that area.” This can be compared to man’s free will.
As long as it is within one’s powers, one should exert oneself and strive to utmost limits to go forward in spiritual life. In the above example, once the cow exhausts all the grass in the area within its reach, then the cowherd ties it to a pole in a new area.
The cow can once again graze by its own effort. The action of the cowherd is very similar to God’s grace. When a man exhausts all his powers and reaches a state of helplessness and surrenders to the divine will, at that time God’s grace descends on man.
Thus, Sri Ramakrishna would explain that there is place for free will or self-effort as well as divine grace in the life of a spiritual aspirant.
A sadhaka must strive his utmost in his spiritual pursuit. Then, a time comes when he feels that he is no longer capable of going further in his spiritual journey. At that time a true spirit of self-surrender comes to him and he takes refuge in God. At that time, God’s grace descends on him.
by Swami Shantatmananda