Are we free to act or are we forced to act due to destiny? To what extent are we able to exercise our freedom? What exactly constitutes free will and freedom? If everything is pre-destined according to the laws of nature, what is the meaning or purpose of desire?
These and similar questions naturally arise in the minds of those who have no access to factual knowledge. Due to four defects inherent in all human beings, namely the tendency to cheat, to make mistakes, to be illusioned, and to be governed by imperfect senses, we cannot acquire perfect knowledge by ourselves. However, we can easily clear our doubts by hearing from the perennial teachings that have served as a perfect guide to mankind since time immemorial, the book of knowledge par excellence, the “Song of the Lord” known as the Bhagavad-gita. Indeed, Bhagavad-gita is accepted as the most profound book on psychology for it explains in detail the workings of the body, mind and soul.
Our Three Bodies
In the seventh chapter of the Bhagavad-gita titled “Knowledge of the Absolute” Lord Krishna gives clear information of these three levels of existence or three bodies, two being perishable (the gross and subtle body or apara prakriti-inferior nature) and one being eternal (the soul or para-prakriti-superior nature). This basic understanding is referred to in the ancient Vedic scriptures as “atma-jnana”, generally translated as “knowledge of the soul”. The word “atma” however, also refers to the body and the mind. Our understanding of free will is intimately connected with our understanding of the workings of the body, mind and soul. In all the three states however the living entity’s position is that of “prakriti”, subordinate and dependent, as opposed to that of the Lord, being “purusa”, master and fully independent.
Most people have some knowledge of the gross body that is made up of five gross material elements, namely earth, water, fire, air and ether (Bg. 7.4). However, most people have much less information of the subtle body that is made up of three subtle elements, namely mind, intelligence and ego (Bg.7.4). Even fewer people have information of the spiritual body (Bg. 7.5) that is described as “sat, chit, ananda vigraha”, “sat” (eternal), “chit” (full of knowledge), “ananda” (full of happiness) and “vigraha” (form).
The Workings of the Subtle Body
To help us understand about free will, we must know the workings of the mind (manah), intelligence (buddhih) and ego (ahankara). The mind has three functions, namely to think, to feel and to will. The intelligence has two functions, namely to accept or reject. As long as one remains on the platform of “false ego” (ahankara), the intelligence accepting the self to be this gross and subtle body, keeps one’s free will compromised. This “power of discrimination” of the intelligence is the special feature of one who is fortunate to acquire a human form of life. Misuse of such discrimination prolongs one’s existence in the material world through the repeated cycle of birth and death known as the wheel of “samsara”. As long as one continues to nurture material thoughts and material desires, these have to be enacted through a material gross body and a material subtle body. When one dies, one only leaves the gross body but continues to live both within the subtle and spiritual body, thus being forced to reincarnate, continuing to compromise his free will.
The Free Will of the Conditioned Soul
By “conditioned soul” (baddha jiva) we mean someone who is “governed” by the three modes of material nature called as “guna”. “Gunas” are described as the binding ropes of “karmic reaction” in keeping with the laws of material action and material reaction (karma). The root cause of “karma” lies within the “ahankara” or false bodily identification of the conditioned soul. In such a state, the conditioned soul is forced to repeatedly accept a material body, both gross and subtle, and is forced to follow the dictates of the law of karma. In such a condition, one’s freedom and one’s free will is checked or conditioned.
The Free Will of the Liberated Soul
By “liberated soul” (mukta jiva) we mean someone who is freed from the dictates of the modes of material nature. One exists in his natural condition of spirit soul or “para-prakriti”. As “para-prakriti”, the spirit soul who is freed from the material existence experiences full freedom to act on the platform of spirit soul. By constitutional position, however, one eternally remains with limited independence being the part and parcel of the Supreme Lord (Bg. 15.7). At that stage, one can express and experience pure transcendental desires to serve the Lord and to experience fully his natural qualities of “sat, chit, and ananda”, eternality, knowledge and happiness. One’s only desire is to satisfy the will of the Supreme Lord. The highest perfection of life is described “samsiddhir hari-tosanam”, pleasing the Supreme Personality of Godhead, Hari. (SB 1.2.13)
Atah pumbhir dvija-srestha varnasrama-vibhagasah
Svanustitasya dharmasya samsiddhir hari-tosanam
[O best among the twice-born, it is therefore concluded that the highest perfection one can achieve by discharging the duties prescribed for one’s own occupation according to caste divisions and orders of life is to please the Personality of Godhead.]
Real freedom and real free will of the living entity come only when one becomes freed from the shackles of this material body and regains one’s constitutional position as eternal servant of the Lord. “Jivera svarupa haya Krishna nitya dasa”: [Cc. Madhya 20.108] “every individual soul is eternally a servitor”. The easiest method to achieve this exalted position is to take shelter of the Lord by chanting his holy names: Hare Krishna Hare Krishna Krishna Krishna Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama Rama Rama Hare Hare.
— Bhakti Raghava Swami