Does Hinduism support free will?

Hinduism does not give a single answer that fits everyone; depending on whether the spiritual seeker believes in a non-dualistic or dualistic philosophy, the person’s stand on free will may be different.

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From the non-dualist’s perspective

The Advaitin or non-dualist believes that events of the physical universe are like waves rising from an ocean, symbolizing God. This viewpoint supports no free will. All human actions, in reality, find their source in God. If an egoistic feeling of free will is present, it is due to illusion or due to the absence of God-realization. For the God-realized saint who has experienced the oneness of the self and God, the question eventually becomes redundant.

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From the dualist’s perspective

Many believers of dualism support the existence of free will, even if they are not aware of this. It is even possible that free will was granted to human beings by God. The existence of free will does find some support in the early chapters of the Bhagavad Gita, depending upon which translation/interpretation is used. The scripture holds that karma of the past are responsible for our circumstances in the present moment. Supporting free will puts the blame of a human’s present circumstances (and of distress in the world) on the human being rather than on God. For most people, having some free will is a better answer for many purposes, even if it is not true. In spite of being an Advaitin, Sri Aurobindo (b. 1872), a famous Hindu philosopher, has stated, “The sense of free will, illusion or not, is a necessary machinery of the action of Nature, necessary for man during his progress, and it would be disastrous for him to lose it before he is ready for a higher truth [1].”

As for God-realized devotional saints (bhakti saints), their answer may not differ from that of the Advaitin. People in the refuge of God act in accordance with God’s wish, for they become God-inspired. Because most classical books on Hindu spirituality have been written by God-realized people, books generally discourage free will in Hinduism. The devotional, even if dualistic, generally discourage free will as they find it egoistical, in relation to God.

Reality may be perceived differently by a commoner in comparison to a saint; it is possible that reality is dynamic, and it changes for the spiritual seeker as he or she evolves spiritually. Even if free will is initially present and has been granted by God (while creating the universe), it may get renounced on our path towards God.

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Free will and predeterminism

If a group of 50 people are requested to select between vanilla ice cream and chocolate ice cream, would God know the outcome beforehand? Would he know how many people would choose vanilla and how many would choose chocolate? Yes, he should; every choice will depend on one’s disposition, which, in turn, depends upon samskaras or karmic impressions. Choices made within the karmic field, if present, are in accordance with the laws of nature [2], defined by God. This does not mean that free will is not present; God can still figure out the future and stop an act if He wants to.

God may have hidden some answers from us while creating the universe; the existence of free will may be one of them. But devotional spirituality aims at recognizing the God-centricity of the universe, working in accordance with God’s wish, and aspiring to eventually reach God.

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[1] Essays on the Gita by Sri Aurobindo

[2] According to Hindu philosophy, Nature binds all eternal souls to the material world through her three modes – goodness, passion, and darkness. Please check out this article for an introduction to these modes of nature.

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