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The Psychology of Freewill

Wednesday, 27 June 2012 / Published in Articles / 4,630 views

By Bhakti Raghava Swami

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.


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The article originally appeared in “The Eight Petals” a free e-newsletter in support of Varnsrama Dharma.]


  1. 0
    bbd ( User Karma: 0 ) says:

    Respected Maharaja,

    The concept of free will is a conditioned state of the jiva. Self realization is attained when one understands and realizes that Radha Krishna is the ultimate contoller of everything & everyone 100% of the time. That is the conclusion of sastra and the previous Gaudiya acharyas.

    BG 3.27: The spirit soul bewildered by the influence of false ego thinks himself the doer of activities that are in actuality carried out by the three modes of material nature.

    BG 4.11: As all surrender unto Me, I reward them accordingly. Everyone follows My path in all respects, O son of Pthā.

    BG 9.10: This material nature, which is one of My energies, is working under My direction, O son of Kuntī, producing all moving and nonmoving beings. Under its rule this manifestation is created and annihilated again and again.

    BG 13.30: One who can see that all activities are performed by the body, which is created of material nature, and sees that the self does nothing, actually sees.

    BG 15.15: I am seated in everyone’s heart, and from Me come remembrance, knowledge and forgetfulness. By all the Vedas, I am to be known. Indeed, I am the compiler of Vedānta, and I am the knower of the Vedas.

    BG 18.59: If you do not act according to My direction and do not fight, then you will be falsely directed. By your nature, you will have to be engaged in warfare.

    BG 18.60: Under illusion you are now declining to act according to My direction. But, compelled by the work born of your own nature, you will act all the same, O son of Kuntī.

    BG 18.61: The Supreme Lord is situated in everyone’s heart, O Arjuna, and is directing the wanderings of all living entities, who are seated as on a machine, made of the material energy.

    SB 3.26.28: The mind of the living entity is known by the name of Lord Aniruddha, the supreme ruler of the senses. He possesses a bluish-black form resembling a lotus flower growing in the autumn. He is found slowly by the yogīs.

    SB 11.13.24: Within this world, whatever is perceived by the mind, speech, eyes or other senses is Me alone and nothing besides Me. All of you please understand this by a straightforward analysis of the facts.

  2. 0
    bbd ( User Karma: 0 ) says:

    From Bhaktivinoda’s Jaiva Dharma (the word potency below is being used as the English translation of shakti):

    “Advaita: Brother Digambara, please don’t be angry. After so many days you have seen me again. I want to make you happy. If I say ‘the maya potency of Lord Visnu’, how have I become small-minded? Lord Visnu is the all-knowing Supreme Personality of Godhead. All that exists is His potency. The word ‘potency’ does not mean a substance. Rather it means the quality that a substance possesses. Therefore the statement that a potency is the root of all existence goes counter to the truth. A potency cannot exist apart from its substance. An original substance with a spiritual form must first be accepted. After all, the commentary on Vedanta-sutra declares:

    “The potency and the possessor of the potency are not different.”

    The meaning, then, is that the potency does not exist apart from its substance. The only true substance is the Supreme Personality of Godhead, the master of potencies. The nature of the potency is either to be a quality of the Supreme Lord, or submissive to His will. When it is said that the potency has pure consciousness, that means that because the potency and the master of potencies are not different, therefore, like the master of potencies, the potency also has a form of spiritual consciousness, has desires that are at once fulfilled, and is beyond the touch of the three modes. It is not a mistake to say these things. Will and consciousness are qualities of the Supreme Personality of Godhead. By itself, the potency does not possess will, but rather it carries out the will of the Supreme. For example, you have power, and by Your will, your potencies act. If you say, ‘the power acted’, then that means that the possessor of the power was actually behind the action. To say that ‘the power acted’ is only to use a figure of speech.”

  3. 0
    bbd ( User Karma: 0 ) says:

    From The Harmonist, May 1932, issue number 11. Article originally titled, Sree Chaitanya in South India. Pages 325-326. By Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati Thakur

    “The world stands in no need of any reformer. The world has a very competent person for guiding its minutest happenings. The person who determines that there is scope for reform of the world, himself stands in need of reform. The world goes on in its own perfect way. No person can deflect it even the breadth of a hair from the course chalked out for it by providence. When we perceive any change being actually effected in the course of events of this world by the agency of any particular individual, we must know very well that the agent possesses no real power at any stage. The agent finds himself driven forward by a force belonging to a different category from himself. The course of the world does not require to be changed by the agency of any person. What is necessary is to change our outlook on this world. This was done for the contemporary generation by the mercy of Sri Chaitanya. It can only be known to recipients of his mercy. The scriptures declare that it is only necessary to listen with an open mind to the name of Krishna from the lips of a bona fide devotee. As soon as Krishna enters the listening ear, he clears up the vision of the listener so that he no longer has any ambition of ever acting the part of a reformer of any other person, because he finds that nobody is left without the very highest guidance. It is therefore his own reform, by the grace of God, whose supreme necessity and nature he is increasingly able to realize, by the eternally continuing mercy of the Supreme Lord.”

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