Many western student while discovering the law of Karma and the notion of Dharma are puzzled and asked me" but then, do we have free will?". Here is an attempt to answer with more details to this profound and immemorial question.
What is free will?
“Free will” or the ability for a human being to make a choice freely. By opposition, our capacity to make a free choice could be prevented by events or situations that may have pre-existed or that are present at the moment of making a choice.
Free will is apparently the opposite of a determinist view in which every event is dependent on previous causes and conditions. A situation where destiny or fate are linked to a fixed natural order, greater than the maker of the choice, that would pre-determine all future events and therefore preclude any possibility of influence on the events, hence making all form of choice obsolete or just a mere illusion of freedom.
Free will and the law of Karma
We understand the law of Karma as a form of Universal or Moral Responsibility by which human are bound to take responsibility for all their past actions. Unless certain conditions are gathered (like acting without attachment to the fruits of the actions, the major tenet of the Baghavad Gita), all humans must pay their dues and hence some form of destiny is applicable to their current life. Until they are freed from all karma (meaning they do not produce new karma and exhaust all karma from past lives), human are not free. Can humans have free will until they are free from Karma?
Free will and awareness
With just a small amount of awareness most humans know that our decision process is attached to the way we see the world, the way our brain and mind define our "reality". Perception, leads to cognition, then recognition and finally choice / action. The process of matching our current perception (present) to a library of experiences (past) tend to weigh toward the seemingly determinist view of karma. We are reproducing machines. To have free will would therefore require any candidate to have control over this natural process, starting with control over the senses.
Free will and desire, anger and fear
Obviously we all fall for desire, anger or fear (this list not exhaustive!) even if only at a very subtle level. How much of free will can we claim having when our actions are driven by any element of this triad? So beyond just awareness of our mind processes we also need the strength and courage to contain and redirect (or transform) desire, anger and fear, before we can claim free will.
Free will, but who is willing?
Of course we would also need to define what is a human being. Which part of the human being is willing? The body? The mind? The soul? The self or the Self? So in order to be able to say I have free will we would need to define who is this “I”. Not an easy task either for it seems the small self cannot be free and the great Self cannot want.
Freedom and will
Now can freedom and will co-exist? From the deluded, un-enlightened mind there can not be any freedom because there is no awareness. Mostly we are told the enlightened minds are free or liberated but do they still have a will of their own? Can we not even contemplate the possibility that freedom and will are opposed and therefore it would make the idea of free-will a paradoxical concept?
We live in a world where we are taught that choice is freedom, but is it? In many way choice is alienating, it brings confusion, doubt; energy and time are wasted in trying to select and many get lost in the confusion created. Choice often leaves us with the bitter taste that we may not have done the right choice, wasting further energy in the process.
What Krishna says
There is ample reference in the Bhagavad Gita that there are some laws to follow, be it Dharma (or svadharma) or the compelling Gunas born of Prakriti / Cosmos etc. It is made clear to Arjuna that there is no avoiding these rules without incurring sin, without failing to his gruesome duty. In the current situation Arjuna seems to have no choice, he must fight, he must kill and this wether he wants it or not. This is his destiny and apparently he has no free will.
In addition, for Krishna to know the future, there must be some law that governs it, hence some degree of predetermination.
But at the same time, despite Arjuna his enticed to act, he is not forced to do it. More precisely he his explained how to act, how to see the act under a different light, from a different stand point. He is told what to do while acting, in order to act within the laws. He is told to make a choice now, to be free tomorrow. He is warned against the difficulty of the choice in the current context. He is shown the door, but he has to walk through it.
Other messages encourage Arjuna to inquire into the nature of the “I”. For if “I am not the doer” then who is doing? Can I be acting from a different and deeper level? Can I free my act from karmic consequences? Can I be held responsible for something I am not doing?
Krishna’s dialogue is ambiguous in appearance. But is it really? What would be the point of Krishna’s activist gospel if all was already determined? And why not then use his infinite power to simply compel Arjuna’s to act according to His will?
On the contrary, Arjuna is given the tools for freedom, be it Yoga, or Sacrifice or Faith etc, he is shown many path to choose from. What would be the point of all these path if he had no grip on the situation? If all was predetermined? Why so many path if the choice would not matter?
Krishna is not even trying to manipulate Arjuna, on the contrary he want him to awaken, to see for himself but from a different stand point, and from there realize what the situation really is. This does not seems to give Arjuna a choice (he still has to fight) but it will give him freedom. So he will be free but with no choice?
Arjuna is made to realize that his apparent “will” comes from the part of him that his not free because deluded, and that the part of him that his free has no will of its own. He will follow his duty in the end he declares: “I have obtained recollection. I am resolved; all uncertainty is gone. I will do your bidding!” 18:73
He does not say he his willing to do it, he says he will do Krishna’s bidding! To many this may not seem like freedom and definitely not the definition of free-will of most people.
I believe this misunderstanding comes from the definition of “I”. If we do not know who we are, how can we have free will? Even if I think “I” have free will, who is the “I”?
We may adopt a “compatibilist” view, where the coexistence of destiny and free will is possible.
We have some laws to abide with (Karma, Dharma, Prakriti-3 Gunas etc) but in the present we are free to choose our course of action. We can choose between the divine or the demonic form, to lean into the laws or to swim against the currents, in all case we are making a choice and we will reap the fruits of our actions because we choose freely.
In the present, with sufficient awareness, we can act without creating new karma, hence there is some level of freedom. How could it be otherwise? If we were compelled to act by old karma only, there would be no freedom in the present, hence how could we be considered responsible of our current actions? Karma would be the most unjust law of all to ask us to pay for actions we had no freedom to perform.
Quoting the words of Paramahansa Yogananda in “Saying and Utterance” 1907:
“Therefore we see at once that there cannot be any such thing as free-will; the very words are a contradiction, because will is what we know, and everything that we know is within our universe, and everything within our universe is moulded by conditions of time, space and causality. ... To acquire freedom we have to get beyond the limitations of this universe; it cannot be found here”.
From another school we can also quote Laotze: "The free-will and liberty of man consist mainly in his mental view point and attitude towards things as he finds them and very little in the making of his own environment and condition of life"
So there you go, for Laotze our freedom is to change the way we see things, similar to Krishna's message. Our only freedom is to chose how we see things, but our all universe is in the mind and in the way we see things, hence we are free to create a complete new reality. That's ultimate freedom!
In any case, we can always choose to do the right thing now and it will bring freedom tomorrow. I found this best explained in the words of Chandrashekara Bharathi 3 (1892-1954)
“Fate is the result of your past free will”
With Love&Light, Gaby