How Free Are We?

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. 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.

  1. 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). []
  2. Cc. 1.3.16. []
  3. See Jiva Goswami’s commentary on SB. 11.5.34. []

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22 Responses to How Free Are We?

  1. Another great article, the part about the Lord sanctioning all our actions, makes me think why he sanctions so many actions that are obviously from a material standpoint really awful. Like oils spills and crimes ect. That is a question I have heard been asked a lot before. My first thought of an answer is that the souls reach out for God more often if things aren’t going so well?

  2. Nice article Vrindaranya! I appreciate your stark view of our limitations in this world as well as your highlighting this wonderful paradox of complete freedom and complete bondage at the center of reality.

  3. Wow, all these articles on the Gita could be put together as a new commentary!

  4. Yes, well done. My first reaction was much like Ragatmika’s – why would God ‘sanction’ something awful, like crime or hate? I suppose it’s kind of like sanctioning but with a string attached – the soul has the free will to do as it pleases but it will ultimately pay a price via a karmic reaction?

    Hence, how free are we?

  5. Hey, Ragatmika. I think you’ve put your finger on the essence of it: problems are negative impetus for spiritual life. There’s that point that the heavenly planets aren’t conducive for spiritual advancement because there is too much enjoyment. And of course if we didn’t have the freedom to make wrong choices there would be no free will and if no one received negative results for one’s actions there would be no justice. There’s also cases like that of Kunti devi and the Pandavas in which Krsna arranged so many calamities in order to highlight the glories of his devotees.

    • Reading this article again, I was thinking that just like a number line, where zero is in the middle ect, that the the prison of the material realm, could be on the negative end of the spectrum, and the zero could represent those who have broken free from the material realm that have reverential love for God, and then way on the positive end of the spectrum could be the devotional love of or love properly centered? And then the way to move over to positive end is to practice loving service to the right center or God.
      Another question, is in my normal learning process I try to understand something by comparing it to something else similiar to it, but when I read about the pure love of the inhabitants of Vrindavana there is nothing to compare that to. Even as everyone already knows the material realm seems driven by ‘love’ or the ideal that ‘love’ is the meaning to it all. but still even a child can frustrate his mother or friends can hurt each other, love is not ‘all that’ down here in the material world.

      • Yeah, it can be a pretty dim reflection. And the less spiritually advanced a person is, the more this is the case.

        I believe the relationship between student and teacher is what is classically considered the closest reflection (the least based on selfish motives), but in this day and age that is pretty much out the window.

  6. Free will is of course a huge issue in intellectual discourse both secular and religious. The world of secular science takes a deterministic stance in which there is absolutely no free will but rather only the illusion of free will. However, this position is not one that can be maintained in the long run. It is an aberration, a distortion of reason that dismisses the very basis for our lives as we know them. We carry on because we subjectively experience that we exist as conscious entities with choices. In time the best in science will demonstrate that free will, rather then flying in the face of physical laws, is completely compatible with them.

    Renowned Berkeley physicist Henry Stapp wites in his book Mindful Universe,

    “[Conscious] choices are not fixed by the laws of the new physics,
    yet these choices are asserted by those laws to have important causal
    effects in the physical world. Thus contemporary physical theory
    annuls the claim of mechanical determinism.”

    And he supports this statement well in the book.

  7. Free will is not accepted in many theistic traditions like Madhavas also because of different reasons. They feel God controls everything including material nature and individual soul and their actions are ultimately predestined. There is a difficult situation even for a genuine scientist or a “rationalist” people like Dawkins who condemn religion as irrational. I mean if we have no choice what do these constructs mean anyway. So we have to deal with contradictions all the time and acintya is the world that GV appropriately used to explain them.
    For example if Krsna knows everything about past, present and future and how do we still have free will? How does somebody know about the future and still give you free will? So there is certainly tension between free will and determinism.
    Every evidence is taken differently. Some scientists like Maxwell considered deterministic laws of science to be proof of a God who has made an ordered universe for humans to comprehend. At the same time period, many people thought now that we understood everything through science and naturalism where is the need for God?
    Now after quantum mechanics came, the tables turn. Some scientists blame it it on unordered chaotic universe with no God and some say it explains consciousness and free will. Both have good arguments, but I think there is kind of sukriti or psychology that predisposes one towards atheistic, theistic or agnostic orientations. People only change this predisposition if some overwhelming experience or fact hits them and they have re-evaluate everything in their life.It take courage to do so and therefore, the experience has to be strong enough for the change. But deep down, many people realize that if they are honest they know very less and they have to be dependent on “luck”(if you are atheist) or nature(buddhist etc) or God( theistic orientation) or unknown cause(agnostic) to know anything at all. The more you know, you know that you know less.

    • The task at hand is to demonstrate the rationality of Gaudiya Vedanta’s view on free will, atma, etc. Not to defeat competing views, but to make ours truly competitive. However, this was not the purpose article under discussion. It’s purpose was establish the position of GV on free will based on scriptural reference, and that’s a good start. But unfortunately in order to make ours truly competitive in today’s world one must be more than a Gaudiaya Vedantin.

      Just as the Goswamis were well versed in all the philosophical and scientific currents of their times and capable of articulating their faith in light of these currents of thought, so today one must be as well versed to write convincingly enough to be considered credible. I say unfortunately because to get up to speed is no easy task and is not for those of komala sraddha (weak faith), while those of strong faith may feel burdened by the task in other ways and resort to bhajana instead. For the most part as a religious sect we are secularly undereducated for the task.

      Then again those who can effectively resort to bhajana can become examples that are difficult to ignore and thus attract the the attention of more educated persons who in turn can explain their reality credibly. But it does not help if such relalizers are surrounded by religious fanatics, the likes of which appear in the comments on this site from time to time.

      • Citta Hari dasa

        Then again those who can effectively resort to bhajana can become examples that are difficult to ignore and thus attract the the attention of more educated persons who in turn can explain their reality credibly.

        This brings to mind what the Goswamis did for Mahaprabhu, i.e., that he was absorbed in his internal life and did not really explain it much, while they articulated his experience in terms the intelligentsia of the day could relate to.

    • For example if Krsna knows everything about past, present and future and how do we still have free will? How does somebody know about the future and still give you free will?

      I don’t follow your logic here. Just because Krsna knows what choice you will make doesn’t mean that you don’t make the choice. He doesn’t intervene just because he knows you will make the wrong choice.

      • In general, if somebody knows everything about what actions you will perform in indefinite future( not just immediate future), then it is just hard to see how free will is retained. Something that has flexibility(free will) can be constrained to follow a very rigid path that is known is inconceivable. . When you will align your will with Krsna’s will and become a devotee is already known completely to Krsna, so there is some determinism about the time of each of your actions.
        These arguments are not mine, these are from Madhava school. So it is just about tension between free will and determinism. I understand we can say that Krsna is inconceivable and he can know the indefinite future without interfering with your free will, but doesn’t it tell you how minute your free will is? Somebody with huge free will, how much can his life be predicted?
        Again, I think your arguments are very sound and the presentation is very nice. I just talked about a point of view of a different theistic school.

  8. Thanks for your comments. I really appreciate them and I hope that more and more people can help realizers like yourself make a good presentation in the current times.

  9. I believe that it is very important to feel free. Only when we feel free we can fully develop as a person. It is so important that Lord Krsna goes to a great length making sure we feel free in this world. He always remains hidden, so that our feeling of freedom is not compromised. This world is not really like a jail – in a jail you can not develop love for the Warden. This world gives us a tremendous amount of freedom and with time we can mature into someone who likes the Creator of all we experience.

    Krsna does not tell Arjuna that he is not free, and that he lives in jail. What an absurd concept that would be. Krsna gives Arjuna knowledge and then gives him freedom to decide what to do. That is the essence of our tradition. ‘Please love Mr. Jailer’ is not.

    • The analogy of the material world as a jail pertains to the fact that the material world restricts one’s freedom. As in jail one’s freedom is restricted but one still has some free will, so are we restricted as compared to those in the spiritual world.

      As for “loving the jailer,” the jailer in the analogy is maya. Even in a material jail, the jailer is merely the instrument of the government, which in a democracy is supposed to be an extension of the will of the people (or in a monarchy an agent of the ruler, who is also supposed to act on behalf of the good of the people).

      Although all those in jail may not appreciate that they have been incarcerated, it is obviously appreciated by the majority of those who are free or else the laws would change. Furthermore, to the extent that people in jail are reformed, they come to feel remorse for the action that landed them in jail rather than blaming the jailer or the laws. Because of this, an important factor for a governor deciding whether to give a person a pardon is whether the person shows genuine remorse.

      As for it being an absurd concept that Krsna would tell Arjuna that he is not free, Krsna very clearly elaborates in the Gita the ways in which the three modes of material nature bind the living being. The more one is bound by material nature, the less free one is. For this reason it is said that animals are living out the reactions they created when in human dress. After all, how much free will does an animal have?

      Thus the point of the jail analogy is not that we have no free will (in which case there would be no point of scripture), but rather to highlight the fact that there is more freedom available to us, that there is a world of experience without the limitations that restrict us in material consciousness.

    • Krsna does not tell Arjuna that he is not free, and that he lives in jail. What an absurd concept that would be. Krsna gives Arjuna knowledge and then gives him freedom to decide what to do. That is the essence of our tradition.

      But the knowledge that Krsna gives Ajuna very much includes telling him the nature of the bondage he is in, bondage that he goes so far as to say is insurmountable (duratyaya), etc.

      • I am not arguing that we are free in an absolute way. One can find limits even on God’s freedom, and even celebrate their glory. Our freedom is certainly qualified, but it is also undeniable and essential to our existence. That was my point.

        It is also true that the power of maya is insurmountable, just like the power of an ocean – still, you can pick your destination across the ocean and sail to it in an able boat. We need to focus on our freedom while respecting the realities of the journey. Maha-maya in the spiritual world is insurmountable as well.

        IMO instead of trying to inspire people by reminding them about their shackles, we should try to inspire people by showing them the best way to use our God given freedom.

        • Negative impetus is also an important motivator for spiritual pursuit for almost everyone, if not all devotees at least at sometime in their sojourn.

        • For me, Bhagavad Gita is the gold standard of how to motivate people in the spiritual pursuit. It has the right combination of positives and negatives.

        • Yes, the article is based on verse from the Gita that while seeming deterministic in actuality speaks of our freedom. This is what the article points out.

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