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Free Will

by Swami Sivananda

How far a man is a free agent of his actions must be intelligently understood in the light of Vedanta. Then only can one get a satisfactory answer and solution. In the West, various competent men have discussed this matter from various standpoints. They have not yet come to any definite conclusions. They have taken the present only into consideration. This is a sad mistake. The present is only a fragment of infinity. If the infinite past and infinite future are also taken into consideration, they will surely arrive at a definite conclusion that will bring peace and solace to the restless mind. Just as the man who has seen one side of the shield only fights with another man who has seen the other side of the shield only, so also people who know partial truths only fight amongst themselves and engage in useless controversies and debates. Just as the man who has seen the two sides of the shield can easily settle the dispute of two persons who have seen one side of the shield only, so also a Vedantin alone, who has full knowledge of the whole truth can settle the dispute of those people who are trying to find out whether and how far man is a free agent of his actions.

Determinists say that the will of a man is as much bound by the law of causation as the rest of the phenomena of the universe. Ethics will fall down to pieces if there is no freedom for a man. There cannot be surely any moral responsibility where there is no freedom. How could a man he made to account for his action, unless he is a free agent of his deeds? How could reward or punishment be meted out with justice to a man if he has done an action out of compulsion, but not out of free choice? Man will be like an automaton or block of wood, his hands and feet being chained down tightly.

The consciousness of the Self makes a man feel that he is ever free. This idea of freedom is ingrained in the mind of every man. It is hidden in the consciousness of the Self. Though he has nothing to eat, though he is in very adverse circumstances, there is a peculiar instinct in man that prompts him to think that he is always free. Because the Nitya-Mukta (ever free) Atman is at the back of his mind, sentiments and feelings, he feels that he is free. He knows that he is bound and that he is encased in this tabernacle of flesh. He is fully aware that he is a slave of Maya and Avidya: and yet something inside tells him that he is free at the same time. He has this double feeling because in essence he is the all-pervading mass of wisdom (Vijnanaghana Atman). He gets these flashes or glimpses of freedom even while he labours under straitened circumstances. There are encouragements for the struggling soul that come from within. He is in a dying condition. Doctors have pronounced the case as absolutely hopeless. Yet there is a shrill inner voice from within that says: 'I am immortal, I am free.' He cherishes an inherent feeling: 'I am free though I appear to be apparently bound. This bondage is illusory.'

Let me repeat here the words of Lord Krishna in the Gita, that bespeak of the freedom of man in doing Karma:

Uddharet Atmana Atmanam Natmanam Avasadayet
Atmaiva Hyatmano Bandhuratmaiva Ripuratmanah.

"Let a man raise himself by himself, let him not lower himself; for he alone is the friend of himself, he alone is the enemy of himself." Ch. VI-5.

Bandhuratmatmanastasya Yenatmaivaatmana Jitah
Anatmanastu Satrutve Vartetatmaiva Satruvat.

"To him who has conquered himself by himself, his own self is the friend of himself, but to him who has not (conquered) himself, his own self stands in the place of an enemy like the (external) foe." Ch. VI-6.

The Upanishads also echo the same idea:

Uthisthita Jagrata Prapya Varan Nibodhata.

"Awake, arise, and, having approached a learned teacher, learn." (Katha Upanishad).

In conclusion I wish to point out once more that man is a free agent. He is Svatantra or independent in doing actions. Whatever his present condition may be, he can have a glorious future through right exertion and right thinking. Many have achieved success and greatness, many have reached the goal of life through right exertion. This holds good for all. Man is ever free. May freedom be the goal of thy life! May all of us exert in the right direction to achieve freedom, the birthright of man! May that supreme Being, the Antaryamin, guide us in all our actions!

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