The tussle between “freewill” and “destiny” has been primordial. There is one famous Greek play titled “Oedipus Rex” by Sophocles. The main character Oedipus has the tragic destiny of marrying his own mother revealed to him by the soothsayer. Shaken by the revelation, he decides to escape his fate by leaving his royal parents and his kingdom, but ironically the more he tries to give a slip, nearer he gets to the prediction. Finally the fate takes the better of him. He later learns of the commission of the most heinous sin – marrying his own mother and having even children from her. He relinquishes his kingship, blinds himself and moves from one place to another as he repents for the sin from which he had in fact tried to save himself. He is forsaken and alone but he makes himself adorable by the manner in which he reacts to his destiny. His desire to purge, do prayashchit for his inadvertently committed sin brings out the beauty in his character, he rises to such a height that from being one who is scoffed at by everybody, whose presence had once caused epidemics, death, draught in his country; later turns to a harbinger of good times, his death is said to bring good luck to the place where he would leave his body.
It beautifully brings forth the beauty and significant role of “freewill” in our lives. Bhagavad-gita explains the wonderful attributes of the soul besides the minuteness of soul. It is just one ten-thousandth part of the upper portion of the hair point in size.* The minute “freewill” of this super-micro soul has created so much of furore that there are 14 planetary systems and countless universes, and further sub- and sub to sub-systems to place everybody according to their “freewill”! So wonderful is freewill! This differentiating factor from non-living beings can make a heaven of hell or hell of heaven. It is therefore important that we learn to exercise it judiciously. It is because of this we are separated from the Lord. Though we are suffering because of misuse of freewill and are sentenced to serve our prison term in the bhuloka. At the same time bhuloka is also karmabhoomi, where we have the possibility of decision making (thus freewill) and accordingly designing the future body and destiny.
Freewill has been a subject which has attracted the attention of philosophers, spiritualists and scientists (especially neuroscientists, psychologists and physicists) alike. There are a few scientists (for instance Nobel Laureate Gerard who gave a theory suggesting predetermined status of behavior of particles and thus ourselves) who believe in non-existence of freewill and claim that they can predict each and every move of every studied individual with greatest accuracy*. Their perception reduces one to mere robots without any emotions and free will. A few non-atheists also find it confusing to see freewill in the face of the Lord being considered as “sarva karna karnam” (the cause of all causes – BS 5.1). Let us try to study it.
However before I try to do so, I consider it important to confess that I am neither a philosopher, nor a spiritualist nor even a scientist. I am a mere practicing devotee who had been struggling to understand it till some time ago. Freewill can be compared to free periods that we had in our student days. As a child in the school, every class was given one or two free periods besides other regular periods for teaching Maths, Science, English, Hindi or other such subjects. In the free periods the students were free to do anything, they could play, draw, study, sleep, read in the library or anything that they wanted to do. Though this was a free period and one was free to pursue their interests, yet at the same time it entailed a few implicit understandings:
– The duration of free period and its very presence is because the authorities have gracefully chosen to give us so
– It has to be exercised within the restrains of rules of the school and of general decorum
– Free period can be used according to one’s temperament, it can be used or even abused
Free will is no different. It does exist and comes in measures as given by the Lord. If He does not wish to give us free will and freedom to exercise it, there is no possibility of we having it.
Swedish man (3): Is there free will?
Prabhupada: Yes, yes. Just like you are sitting here. If you don’t like, you can go away. That’s your free will. There is free will.
Free will exists, but how much? -Only as much as the Lord wants us to have. The conversation between Srila Prabhupada and Syamasundara prabhu is worth reading:
Syamasundara: Does the hydrogen molecule have an independent desire?
Prabhupada: No, but within the hydrogen atom, there is Krishna; therefore it is combining. Not this hydrogen atom as matter is combining, but because Krishna is within that hydrogen atom existing. He knows that by combination this thing will come about, that will come out, that will come out…
Syamasundara: But the individual soul has a little independence to choose?
Prabhupada: No, no.
Syamasundara: Has no independence?
Prabhupada: No. The individual soul does not. In Bhagavad-gita it says that anumanta, individual soul, wants to do something and Krishna gives orders. Man proposes and God disposes.
Syamasundara: So we have no free will?
Prabhupada: No. Without sanction of Krishna we cannot do anything. Therefore He is the ultimate cause.
Syamasundara: But I thought you had been saying that we have a little independence.
Prabhupada: That independence that Krishna wants me to do something but I want to deny it. But unless Krishna sanctions, you cannot do that also.
… So far as we get information, our knowledge is from the Vedic information, andantara-stha paramanu: Krishna is within, the Paramatma. It does not say the soul is within, the Paramatma.
So, how much control do we have over our free will? — We have only as much free period (free will) as much as the school authorities (the Supreme Lord) will allow or sanction. Even within the allowable limits, when we exercise it, we need to follow the law of the school (nature). One cannot violate them. Misuse of free period or abuse of freewill is followed by misery of punishment by the respective executive and judiciary authorities.
Devotee (4): Prabhupada, we’re in this material world, in this human body, we’re having to work with this intelligence, with mind, material things. So there is a group of philosophers that say that actually because we’re a product, our mind, the way we’re thinking now is a product of our upbringing and our past, that actually we have no free will, but we’re forced to think and act in a certain way.
Prabhupada: Then that you have to admit that you are conditioned by some authority. When you are put into jail, you cannot act independently. You have to act according to the jail superintendent’s order.
… Devotee (4): So he admits he’s conditioned, but still, there’s no free will. He says, “Yeah, so I’m in the prison. I’m imprisoned. I’m conditioned.”
Prabhupada: No, no, no. Free will… Just like a man commits theft by his free will. But when he is put into jail, then no more free will. He has to act according to the jail superintendent. But his beginning of jail life is free will. Nobody asked him that “You go to jail.” But why he has come? He knows also that “When I am put into jail, I will lose all my freedom.” He knows that. Still, he comes. Why does he come? He knows that. That is called ajnana. Mudha. That is called mudha. He knows; still, he does. [Ref. VedaBase> Morning Walk – 14 July 14, 1975, Philadelphia]
There is another discussion reinforcing the same thought:
Prabhupada: Yes, freedom. Our present condition is not freedom. We are completely under the laws, te ‘pi svatantra rudhani vardhya (?). They are tied up by the ropes of material nature, hands and legs, and still they are thinking, “I am free.” That is illusion. Nobody is free. Daivi hy esha guna-mayi mama maya duratyaya [Bg. 7.14]. We are seeking freedom but nobody is free. Nobody is free. Prakriteh kriyamanani [Bg. 3.27], they are pulled by the ear, “Do this.” Prakriteh. You have to do this.
Syamasundara: He says that the free will, which creates itself or realizes itself is the truest of all realities.
Prabhupada: Yes. So if by free will if you choose to surrender to Krishna then you’ll get your real free will, freedom. Otherwise you are under the clutches of maya. Daivihy esha guna-mayi mama maya duratyaya [Bg. 7.14]. You cannot surpass the stringent laws of material nature, that is not…
So, working within the stringent laws of nature, one can misuse the gift of free will and bind himself in the vicious circle of death-birth-death. In the Bhagavad-gita (5.13) the Lord says that He is not the cause of anyone’s particular work, nor the authority, nor the result of such work–but that all these come out of the various modes of nature. Thus, all acts performed by the living entity-except those with transcendental results-are self-created engagements arising from an abuse of the freewill, and therefore such acts or engagements are never to be considered as if the works and the results were somehow ordained by the almighty Godhead. Such works are all material and are therefore conditioned and directed by the modes of nature. The Personality of Godhead dissociates Himself from such works.
One cannot be without work, how can we work without getting entangled in the karmic reaction of that work? If we surrender all our actions or work to Him, we can but how do we do it? Conditioned with the three modes of nature or gunas, how can one take the right decision? If the freewill is so dangerous, should we repress it altogether? How should the freewill be used that it does not prove self-injurious due to our ignorance?
Though we are suffering in this material body because of our earlier misuse of free will; yet it is His causeless mercy that the Lord has not abandoned us. Keen on bringing us back to Him, even in this situation He has given us the way out, an escape route from this prison house. He has given us free will, but He has also given the instructions to use it properly to return to Him. Prabhupada explained it beautifully:
“I am now talking to you the most confidential words.” (Sarva-guhyatamam) “You stop your so-called freewill. Just surrender to Me.” This is the most confidential. “If you surrender to Me, that is good for you. But if you go on keeping your free will you’ll not be happy.” There is also free will. When you come to the platform of Krishna consciousness you serve Krishna with freewill, not that you become a stone. There is freewill. Just like our devotees they are dressing Krishna nicely, is there no freewill? They are cooking for Krishna. Is there no freewill? The freewill is there. The Mayavadi philosopher says, the Buddha philosopher says, that “Stop this freewill, and then you become happy.” But our proposition is not to stop freewill but purify freewill. Purify. Not stop these eyes. Just if it is suffering from cataract, cure that cataract. Keep the eyes. And their proposition, “Get out these eyes and throw it. Then there will be no more seeing what is right and wrong.” That is their proposition. Nirvisesha-vadi. Nirvisesha means no specialty, no varieties. That is nirvisesha. And sunya, zero. When it is zero, then there is no question of right and wrong. So our philosophy is not that. There is no zero, and there is no variety. We don’t say. There is, but its purified varieties. Tat-paratvena nirmalam [Cc. Madhya 19.170]. Nirmalam means purified. So our process is to purify everything.”
Our job is therefore to purify our freewill and thus dovetail our freewill with His Supreme will – Easier said than done.
sadrisam ceshtate svasyah / prakriter jnanavan api
prakritim yanti bhutani / nigrahah kim karishyati [Bg 3.33] [Even a man of knowledge acts according to his own nature, for everyone follows the nature he has acquired from the three modes. What can repression accomplish?]
Repression fails and dovetailing is difficult, bordering on impossibility? How do we do that while being puppets in the deft hands of mayadevi and her tools of three gunas? She keeps us in the prison house using the trident of three gunas? It is very difficult to transcend the gunas. This concern was expressed by Arjuna himself to the Lord and He even agreed to it, but He gave a solution to that too. Even while working within gunas, using freewill according to one’s gunas, one has the option of coming out. One needs to be just what one is. Just perform one’s duty according to one’s nature or “svabhava” – according to one’s varna and guna – or simply following the principles of daiva varnasrama – “svabhava-niyatam karma / kurvan napnoti kilbi sham” [Bg. 18.47]. It is worth noting that the system of varnasrama, has been created by Him and is thus perfect. catur-varnyam maya shrishtam / guna-karma-vibhagasah [Bg. 4.13] Simply by performing one’s karma within the varnasrama set up ensures that our freewill is not abused.
The Lord is so merciful! He has created varnasrama for us. For the soul who has abused the freewill. For the soul which is just one-thousandth of the hair tip in size. Being His creation to protect the erring; varnasrama is in complete congruence with the Supreme will and is thus capable of giving one an opportunity to make the best of our human life within the limitation of svabhava and gunas. The set up varnasrama ensures that one is on the path of gradual spiritual evolution without resorting to “unnatural” methods of achieving transcendence. Hare Krishna!
* The Svetasvatara Upanishad (5.9) says:
balagra-sisata-bhagasya / satadha kalpitasya ca
bhago jivah vijsheyah / sa canantyaya kalpate
[Translation: When the upper point of a hair is divided into one hundred parts and again each of such parts is further divided into one hundred parts, each such part is the measurement of the dimension of the spirit soul.]
* New Scientist, 4 May 2006, pp. 8.