The Issue of Free Will
The dilemma of free will or no free will is a common source of discussion among satsangis but in spite of all the debate around the topic, it remains a grey area for many of us. Probably, the prime motivation behind all the attention we give to this subject is that we find it extremely difficult to accept that we are not the doers in this production we call life.
But, as Shakespeare and the mystics tell us, “all the world’s a stage” and we are merely performers moving about on the instructions of the director. We, the individual players, don’t carry out a single action without being instructed by the director – our Master. And as with stage directors, there is no discussion or opinion passed between player and director. We simply do what we are directed to do.
For some reason we find it hard to believe that we are actually helpless. But this gives rise to the question: why are we so eager to be in control and the initiator of all the actions we perform, the creator of the situations we find ourselves in? The simple answer is our ego. Even if we believe that the real doer is our Master, our sneaky, inflated ego will be whispering to us in the background, “There can only be one doer and that doer is me.”
The Google definition tells us that “free will is the ability to choose between different possible courses of action, unimpeded.” So in the spiritual context (and generally), free will would imply that any action we take or choice that we make would have to be made without any external influence.
But this, we are told by the Masters, can only apply either in our initial pure spiritual state before descending to this worldly plane, or when we have conquered the mind, realized our true self, and returned to our true, original home.
Clearly then, the controversy around free will has to take into account how we interpret the word ‘unimpeded.’ So many factors have influenced and continue to influence everything we do, including the nature of our friendships, the culture into which we are born, the type of people with whom we mix, the upbringing and education we have received, the type of food we eat, the nature of our day-to-day lives, and the influence of our many past lives.
In this light there appears to be no scope for any free will at all. We don’t appear to make any decisions which are independent. At the very most, we can claim to have limited free will.
This even applies to our initiation. We, of our own choice, cannot choose to be initiated. This choice is determined by the Lord and implemented by our Master. Before our initiation we were slaves of the senses, functioning entirely under the influence of mind. Clearly our initiation is a gift from the Lord, and in this life we will never know why we were chosen for this incredible privilege.
With the guidance and grace of the Master, and with much focused and regular meditation, we begin to understand how the mind manipulates us. It is only then, after persistent focus on our spiritual work, that we begin to function with less and less interference from the mind.
By providing us with the guidance of a true Master, the Lord has enabled us to act in a way which pleases him. In spite of this, we still sometimes create negative karmas. In other words we do not have absolute free will at all, as our soul still operates under the influence of the mind. So until we are able to conquer the mind, we cannot say that we have any free will at all.
In Spiritual Perspectives, Vol. II, Maharaj Charan Singh tells us:
Everything is destined in the sense that when the Lord wants us to go back to him, he creates those circumstances, that atmosphere which makes us think about him, about the path, the way leading back to him. Without his grace, we will never come on the path or on the way of devotion; or, in other words, we will never come in contact with the saints at all without his grace.
What is interesting about what Maharaj Ji says here is that even our thinking about the Lord is of the Lord’s doing and has nothing to do with any initiative of our own. That eliminates any egotistical thought that we might at least provide the inclination to meditate – but even that inclination is not of our making. As Maharaj Ji says:
When He wants us to come back and to merge into Him, then only all these processes start; then only we come in contact with the saints; then only we start meditating. But we, ourselves have to work, we have to make ourselves receptive of His grace. He will create the atmosphere for us in which we can work our way back up to our home. So, when He wants us to do so, then only do we work. But unless we make the effort and work, we cannot reach our destination.
So it seems that the ‘when’ and the ‘how’ of our spiritual practice is determined by our destiny, under the direction of our Master. But the bottom line is that we have to do our bit. Our daily two and a half hours of meditation is the active role that we have to play.
This reveals that we do have at least some free will, in the form of applying ourselves to our meditation. In addition to this, we also have some free will in the attitude we adopt. If our attitude is positive, our efforts will be of more value. If the negative prevails, little that is meaningful will result.
Maharaj Ji explains our situation further:
Three-fourths of what we go through in this life is nothing but our pralabdh karmas, seeds which we have already sown. One-fourth, practically speaking, are new seeds we are going to sow, and they are conditioned by our parentage, our environment, our education, our associations.
Spiritual Perspectives, Vol. I
So any new seeds which we are sowing today are influenced by all that – which means that even these new actions and their consequences are not examples of any free will we might believe we still have. We have no unimpeded free will, whichever way we look at it.
Maharaj Charan Singh sums up this issue by saying:
In the long run you can’t say that you have any free will at all. If you sow chillies you have got to gather chillies.
Spiritual Perspectives, Vol. I
Practically speaking, we have no free will now at all. But we have a limited free will. Whatever we have sown in the past, we are reaping the harvest now. … So whatever we are sowing now, for that we have some free will.
Spiritual Perspectives, Vol. I
In conclusion, it is important that we exercise the limited free will that Hazur Maharaj Ji refers to in the light of the guidance that he has given us. This we do by living in accordance with the principles and making the best decisions that we can under the circumstances in which we find ourselves. We often find ourselves faced with situations where we need to make decisions. It is up to us to make the decision that seems right to us and take the appropriate actions. Only then can we leave the outcome in the hands of our Master.