Free Will or Not?
If we are asked the question: “Do we have free will?” the answer will depend on what level we interpret the question. At a very literal level, the answer is: yes, we all have free will. We can all make decisions on anything. Every day we are faced with situations that have several options and we make decisions and act accordingly. In fact for most of our lives, and in respect of all choices we face, we exercise our freedom of choice and take decisions we each think are appropriate at that time.
We have been making decisions ever since we were little children and have always acted on the basis that we had free will. The question of whether we had free will or not, probably hadn’t entered our minds until we heard of the teachings of saints. If we always had free will and have always acted on that basis, what do the teachings of the saints have to say about it, and do they have an alternate view?
Saints point out that from the perspective from which we view it, we do have free will and we act as if we have free will. They also point out that from a higher perspective the free will is not so free. We therefore need to try and understand the saint’s perspective and the relevance of their perspective.
They teach us that from a higher perspective, we have very limited or no free will. Now how is that possible? The Saints explain that we are souls embodied in this human frame. Our soul is a drop of the ocean of god and that means that the soul is pure, untainted and possesses all the attributes of God. When creation began the souls were sent into creation. On arrival they were pure and without karmic burden because they were still actionless. At this stage, it could be said that we had free will. But after our very first act, we sowed a seed and created a corresponding reward that we had to reap. As we continued to act, we continued to accumulate karma and create a limit on the free will we once had.
Maharaj Charan Singh explains this concept by using the game of chess as an analogy. He would say that when we make our first move in chess, we have several choices or free will. But once we make our first move, our next move is conditioned by what we have already done. This means that our first move automatically limits our second move. As in the case of chess, as we make each of our next moves we further limit our options for the move thereafter.
Hazur explained that our existence in creation is no different. He would say that the present birth we have taken is a consequence of all the previous karmas that we have accumulated. That is why we had no choice as to where we are born, whether we are male or female, which parents we are born to, how many brothers and sisters we have, what race, colour or religion we are born into. If we carefully analyze the situation we will agree that we had no freedom of choice at all in these matters. That is why saints teach us that we have very limited free will if we look at it from a higher perspective.
The Saints further teach us that in addition to us not having free will in the circumstances into which we are born, these conditions go a long way in moulding and shaping us and our thinking. The way we speak, dress and act as well as all our mannerisms and thinking is influenced by factors over which we have no control. Although we may think we have taken the decisions to be what we are and where we are, we neglect to consider the extensive influence and impact all the surrounding circumstances had on our decisions. In reality, what we have been exposed to had a great influence in our choice and therefore limits our choice, just like each move on the chess board limits our next move. So the apparent freedom of choice or free will we have is just an illusion.
Just as these subtle circumstantial factors influence our decisions, there is another great determinant in our decision-making process: our destiny. Although we may think that we make our decisions independently, the reality is that destiny is an extremely subtle factor that influences us in both the direction we take and the destination we are meant to arrive at. So if we are destined to be an engineer, in addition to all the factors that influence us in that decision, our thinking is also guided and drawn towards making the decision that will fulfil our destiny.
In effect we have two forces that eliminate our free will. The one force is the way we have been moulded by our past experience and external influences which, in effect, push us to make a decision we think we make freely by our choice. The second force is the one that pulls us towards our destiny. Although these forces are subtle and almost invisible to us, the Saints advise us that from a higher level it is very clear that these forces are at work.
So our awareness or perceptibility of free will depends on which level we view it from. If we view it from the level we operate at, without an awareness of the influence of everything around us, then clearly we have free will. We have freedom of choice. We make decisions. We choose what we can do or want to do. At this level, we are the ones that choose how we act.
However, from a higher level of consciousness it is clear that the choices we have are limited by our past experiences and our destiny.
From an even higher level of consciousness – from the level of the consciousness of God – we have absolutely no free will. The reason is that God created the entire creation and is the director, while we are mere actors on the stage and we do as we are directed. From that level of consciousness we are mere pawns in the play and we are moved by His will.