Free Will – does it exist? What does Vedanta say?

Our body-mind complex can not and does not have free will. Yet if there is no free will then there will be no way to distinguish between morally good or bad karma. Machines are not capable of doing bad or good karma (acts). Thus the question of free will changes to the question, ‘what is the nature of our “I” which seems to have free will?’

Sri Ramakrishna says, “One ultimately discovers God by trying to know who this ‘I’ is. Is this ‘I’ the flesh, the bones, the blood, or the marrow? Is it the mind or the buddhi? Analyzing this, you realize at last that you are none of these. This is called the process of ‘Neti,neti’, ‘Not this, not this’.

One can neither comprehend nor touch the Atman. It is without qualities or attributes. ‘I’ and ‘mine’ – that is ignorance. By discriminating you will realize that Krishna is Spirit, His abode is Spirit, and everything about Him is Spirit.

What you call ‘I’ is really nothing but Atman. Reason it out. Are you the body or the flesh or something else? At the end you will know that you are none of these. You are free from attributes. Then you will realize that you have never been the doer of any action, that you have been free from virtue and faults alike, that you are beyond righteous and unrighteousness.”

The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna

The free will of our ‘I’ is really that of the Atman or Brahman, the Ultimate Reality, that is behind the human body-mind complex.

The Lord surely knows our Agami karma.

This universe, which is the grossest of the gross entities, is the form of the Lord. In this Cosmic Form all the past, the present and the future subsist. Permeating this universal cosmic form, with its seven sheaths – consisting of five elements, egoism, and the universal intelligence – there is the Viratpurusha – the Cosmic Divinity. He is the real object of concentration.

Srimad Bhagavata Purana II.1.24-25

You should remember that Lord Krishna showed Arjuna in the Gita the entire Mahabharata war before a single arrow was fired. If there was free will then such a thing will not be possible.

Only Divine will is free

Brahma said, ‘No embodied being can counteract His will by austerity, meditation, Yogic power, intellectual skill, or worldly power. Neither with the help of others nor by oneself alone can one do so. Man takes on the body given to him by that mysterious Power for the very purpose of undergoing the experiences it subjects him to – birth, death, work, bereavement, grief, infatuation, fear, happiness, misery etc. We all offer our tribute of works as offerings to Him as cattle pulled by their nose strings do to their masters. The Veda consisting of sounds is the cable to which we all are tied with the smaller but stronger strings of the three Gunas of Prakriti and works springing from them. He controls and directs us with this rope, as their owners do their draught animals. O dear one! We are like a blind man, directed entirely by another with eyes. The Lord gives us each a body according to our eligibility through our nature and karma, and with that we undergo the sufferings and enjoyments He awards us.

Srimad Bhagavata Purana, V.1.12-15

So does a jiva have free will?

Vaidyanath: “Sir, I have a doubt. People speak of free will. They say that a man can do either good or evil according to his will. Is it true? Are we really free to do whatever we like?”

Master [Sri Ramakrishna]: “Everything depends on the will of God. The world is His play. He has created all these different things – great and small, strong and weak, good and bad, virtuous and vicious. This is all His maya. His sport. You must have observed that all the trees in a garden are not of the same kind.

As long as a man has not realized God, he thinks he is free. It is God Himself who keeps this error in man. Otherwise sin would have multiplied. Man would not have been afraid of sin, and there would have been no punishment for it.

“But do you know the attitude of one who has realized God? He feels: ‘I am the machine, and Thou, O Lord, art the Operator. I am the house and Thou art the Indweller. I am the chariot and Thou art the Driver. I move as thou movest me; I speak as Thou makest me speak.'”

The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna, April 15, 1883

Sri Ramakrishna: “People who have realized God are aware that free will is a mere appearance. In reality man is the machine and God is the Operator, man is the carriage and God its Driver.

The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna, January 5, 1884

The Younger Naren: “Sir, have we any free will?”

Sri Ramakrishna: “Just try to find out who this ‘I’ is? While you are searching for ‘I’, ‘He’ comes out. ‘I am the machine and He is the Operator.’ You have heard of a mechanical toy that goes into a store with a letter in its hand. You are like that toy. God alone is the Doer. Do your duties in the world as if you were the doer, but knowing all that time that God alone is the Doer and you are the instrument.”

The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna, July 14, 1885

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2 Replies to “Free Will – does it exist? What does Vedanta say?”

  1. Disclaimer – What i am writing is not vedanta..

    Matter in this Universe can be looked at as ‘Information’ or ‘entropy’ (say of some virtual ‘Atman’). So we are, in a way, the ‘thoughts’ of that Atman (or say, ‘will’ of that Atman), which is continuously evolving. Then there are our ‘thoughts’ (our will) in our brain, which are also continuously evolving.

    Our ‘Free will’ is as ‘free’ as the ‘free will’ of that Atman (which are the matter and beings of the Universe). Something similar is what Ramakrishna is saying in the above (I think).

    Some thoughts here based on the discussion that I had with Partha Desikan in this site, some time back..


  2. Making sense of free will.

    Trying to get knowledge of free will is like quest for Absolute you don’t gain anything if you have it, but if you do not have it then you lose a lot. We have neither immediate need nor practical use of knowledge or concept of free as per Vedanta will as it is not part of our daily lives. It is not something, we can internalize or experience by reading or discussing. This is where Yoga helps as it is something we can experience and internalize after all humans have inherent limitations of embodied consciousness.

    Yoga, according to him (KCB), is all about “willing,” as he puts it. It is about freedom in the realm of action (action and will are two sides of the same coin), parallel to freedom in the complementary realms of knowledge and emotion. In (the non-Euclidean) geometry of freedom, parallels do meet…… (see source)

    KCB, synoptic as ever, therefore writes that if abhyāsa to is the “positive exercise of freedom,” then vairāgya is the “negative annulment of unfreedom.. (see source)

    KCB works with freedom in the realm of knowledge through Advaita-Vedānta and Sāṃkhya. He thinks of freedom in the emotive realm through Rasa aesthetics. And through Pātañjala-yoga and Kant’s philosophy, he conceptualizes freedom in the realm of action…. (see source)

    KCB summarizes …. There is no knowledge except through vṛtti, and freedom though achieved through knowledge, is freedom from knowledge itself; freedom as the super-conscious activity of the mind to stand like the self, to be and not to know. (see source)

    So, what exactly is freedom or free will? We have following answer from Samkhya Yoga

    Verse 62 of the Sāṃkhya-Kārikā, the root-text of the Sāṃkhya tradition, the “sister tradition” of Pātañjala-yoga, suggests that (see source)

    No one is bound, no one released. Likewise, no one transmigrates [or “belongs” to the saṃsāric, worldly cycle]. Only prakṛti, in its various forms, transmigrates, is bound and is released. (see source)


    Article source: Rethinking Pātañjala Yoga Through the Concepts of Abhyāsa and Vairāgya by Daniel Raveh

    KCB = Krishnachandra Bhattacharyya
    abhyāsa = spiritual practice/discipline
    vṛtti = contents of mind/though-wave/concept
    vairāgya = dispassionate detachment
    prakṛti = nature

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