How Free Are We?
Published on May 29th, 2017 | by Harmonist staff23
By Vrindaranya dasi
America, with its idealization of the rugged individual, is called the land of the free. The struggle between government intervention and individual freedom continues to be a hot topic in American politics, recently surfacing in the national health care debate. In such a climate, we tend to take our freedom for granted. But viewing our lives through the lens of the Bhagavad-gita, it is valid to question, “How free are we?”
Bhagavad-gita 3.27 says, “All actions are performed by the gunas. One who misidentiﬁes with the body due to false ego imagines, ‘I am the doer.’ ” A surface reading of this verse leaves one with the idea that the Bhagavad-gita advocates a type of determinism in which one has no free will. Indeed, this is a common misperception about Hinduism. This idea is dispelled, however, by Baladeva Vidyabhusana in his Gita commentary, where he points to Krishna’s own words in the eighteenth chapter that shed light on the intended meaning of this passage.1
“The seat of action (the body), the performer of action, the senses, the life airs with various functions, and, last but not least, God, or fate, are the five causes of whatever action, appropriate or inappropriate, a person performs in body, speech, or mind” (Bg. 18.14). From this verse we see that the soul does have qualified free will: the soul initiates action, which is then carried out by the body, senses, and life airs, as long as the desire is sanctioned by God. Thus although the soul has qualified free will, it is not independent in its action, as the body, senses, and life airs are provided by the Lord and the Lord must sanction the action. Moreover, the soul does not have absolute free will due to the limitations these four other factors impose. In this way, the soul is both hindered and facilitated in executing its desires.
The first limitation is our body, which we get as a product of our karma. It is easy to see how our free will is impinged upon by our body. We have little hope of being a famous football player if we are a 100-pound woman with a knee problem. Our chances of being a successful astrophysicist are slim if we don’t have a knack for math. Our bodies in old age do not have the capacities we had in youth. Our senses also define and limit our experience. For example, we can only hear within a certain range, so we can’t hear pitches that are either higher or lower than that range. And consider the difference of experience between a soul in an ant’s body and that of a human being. Although both souls are equal and may even be inhabiting the same room, they have entirely different experiences based on what body and senses they have been given.
Thus according to our body, senses, and life airs, a certain range of activities is available to us: we are able to perform certain actions not others. For example, we may be able to walk or swim, but we can’t fly in the sky as a bird does or travel through time. Our activities are also defined by the framework of life on planet Earth, and so too does our nation of birth mold us, as different nations have different laws, customs, and predispose us to certain biases and ways of seeing. Last but hardly least, our will requires God’s sanction in order that it be fulfilled. Will as we may, not a blade of grass moves without God’s permission.
Due to the various hindrances to free will that are imposed on souls in the material world, the Vedic literature has compared experience in this realm to life in a prison. Just as our freedom is restricted if we break the law and end up in prison, so too in a greater sense is our freedom restricted if we flout the authority of the Absolute. In contrast, how great is the freedom of those who have broken free of the chains of the material world? The very name Vaikuntha means freedom from all anxiety. But for the greatest measure of freedom, we have to look beyond those who perfectly follow the rules and regulations of scripture, God’s law. Krishna says, “Knowing my opulences, the whole world looks upon me with awe and veneration. But devotion made feeble by such reverence does not attract me.”2 What is the freedom of those who have attracted the Absolute? The Absolute himself is bound up by Yasoda’s love, and Krishna becomes a pet animal in the hands of Radhika.3 Whereas in old age we are lucky if we can control our bowel movements, those fortunate inhabitants of Vrindavana are able to control the supreme controller. This is the power of love properly centered.
To love is to serve, and although being a servant in the material world puts us in a low and undesirable position, the secret of loving service is that if properly centered it has the power to conquer all, even the Absolute. This is the implication of Vrindavana. There the inhabitants can get whatever they desire. Unlimited desire trees stand ready to grant their wishes. But the measure of their inner wealth is so great that they don’t desire anything for themselves. They desire only to serve Krishna. Thus at the center of reality, we find the paradox of complete freedom and complete bondage. Such is the nature of love.
- Baladeva Vidyabhusana addresses the issue of the free will of the jiva at greater length in Govinda-bhasya, his commentary on Vedanta-sutra (2.3.30–38). [↩]
- Cc. 1.3.16. [↩]
- See Jiva Goswami’s commentary on SB. 11.5.34. [↩]