Friday, March 19, 2021

Free Will, Fate and Bhagavad Gita

Are all of our actions and thoughts up to us? Or, are they determined by forces over which we have no control?  Some believe that we are free to think and act while others argue that we are not in control of what we do and have no free will.

The philosophical question of fate versus free will is very ancient and is still on. Most of us may be inclined to think we are free; we can make our life as we want and certainly achieve our ambitious goals. We find it hard to accept that we are not the captain of our ship as it might be against our instinct, morality and our existence itself. Many theories, along with their various supporting arguments, exist in favor of both free will and determinism. Here in this article, we will have a look at the concept of free will and determinism and how they fit in Bhagavad Gita philosophy.

Starting with determinism, it is that idea which says everything that happens is determined because of the conditions that preceded it. Many philosophers are satisfied that we live in a deterministic world, and that we could not possibly have free will in the sense that we normally think we do. One argument for determinism is a metaphysical argument with aphorism “Every event must have a cause”. Another, strong argument in favor of determinism seems to come from modern science  because the discoveries in the fields of psychology, physiology, and pharmacology indicate that we may be able to predict all aspects of life of a child before he lives it , through the examination of his biological and psychological characteristics and further findings  regarding human motivation and  human attitudes makes a strong favor case for determinism.

Yet, others argue in favor of free will. There are certain things that make sense only when we are free, our feelings of regret and guilt make no sense if our lives are strictly deterministic. Murder and other evil crimes are no longer immoral and regret for things we have done becomes ridiculous, for what is the use of regret and guilt if evil acts cannot be avoided at all and this also raises further legal and ethical questions.

Amidst the debate of free will and determinism, there is philosophy from Bhagavad Gita, which harmonizes the fate-and-free-will controversy. This may be astonishing for many of us as it embraces the idea of karma. According to the general popular notion of the law of karma, all human actions are the result of some previous action, which vividly shows the deterministic concept and we may wonder how free will has a place in it. We definitely can get our understanding of the integration of fate and free will from the Bhagavad Gita. The first relevant message in Gita says that we are not our material bodies rather eternal spirit souls. This taken into consideration, we can go on to understand the extent to which we are determined or have free will. Bhagavad Gita says as living entities are all part and parcel of the original and supreme spiritual independent person, God and we are qualitatively of the same nature as God but in minute ways having minute independence, free will. Although we have free will, still, because of our minuteness, our position is to be controlled by God. Our minute free will is to choose between staying under Krishna’s control in the spiritual world, or coming to the material world.

Nature conditions us to forget our original position and nature. This condition is called, maya, illusion and this illusion makes us try seeking happiness and enjoyment in this world. Gita further tells us that we cannot control the material energy of God and our body being material are subjected to the laws of nature and we are free only to desire according to our conceptions of material enjoyment and the material nature fulfills such desires. The misidentification of the body as the real self makes us foolishly think of ourselves as the doer of activities which in reality are the activities carried out by three modes of material nature.

Our freedom is like that of cattle bound by a rope on a circular field who has the privilege to choose the grass to eat within that perimeter. This can be simplified as our free will in this material world is limited only to choices within the modes of nature. The cattle have choices, but at all times, it is bound by rope and is still in that circular field. Like that rope, the three modes of nature restrict our original free will and we have limited choices only.

Our destiny in this material world is determined by a combination of our limited free will and the three modes of material nature as according to our previous karma, we are destined to face certain situations in this life an in those situations, we have a certain amount of freedom to choose how we want to react and accept consequences either good or bad.

Conditioning by the modes of nature is so strong that we tend to make the same choices again and again and this supports determinists in being able to gather so much scientific data in support of their theory. Furthermore, we can understand that in spite of the law of karma, ethical and legal judgments, our feelings of guilt and regret seem relevant, as we have some limited choice to react in a moral or immoral way to the various situations, we encounter due to our past karma.

The Bhagavad Gita gives us a message that we needn’t necessarily remain here as it isn’t our natural position to be here in the first place, the use of our limited free will in this world is of relatively little significance and we can be free by properly understanding our position and reality of this world. 

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