We have seen that the pure ātman does not have free will, simply because desire implies knowledge, and knowledge is not intrinsic to the ātman. And yet, the śāstras mentions duties and responsibilities for people in society. Such discussions appear to suggest that the jīva has free will. Here we examine the different conceptions of ‘free will’ on the three different paths of jñāna, karma and bhakti.
The jīva has zero free will because the mind is not the jīva’s energy but Bhagavān’s energy. Although everyone thinks that they are free to make decisions, a simple point for introspection is that we are not in control of our thoughts. One cannot predict what the next thought is going to be. Thoughts come, and then we become conscious of them, and then incorrectly own them as ours. As all desires are a form of thought, naturally desires are also not under our own control.
However, even though we don’t have any free will, we inevitably assume that we do. The śāstras recognize this, and in fact, discuss three paths whose practitioners have distinct conceptions toward free will.
For those that think there is complete free will, there is the karma mārga on which one is allowed to make the assumption that one has 100 % free will. Therefore the emphasis is on dharma or duty, and the person is supposed to diligently follow the prescriptions of scripture. Once one follows the karma mārga, that is, one assumes responsibility for one’s actions, then one is obligated to perform their dharma correctly. Performance of dharma brings positive rewards, while not performing them reaps negative consequences.
On the jñāna mārga, the person thinks (correctly) that he/she has zero free will. The jñāni takes the role of an observer, and knows that all actions are performed in the body, all desires originate in the mind, and the ātman is not active. The jñāni assumes zero responsibility or ‘my-ness’ for his or her actions, and therefore reaps neither positive nor negative consequences for performing them. In general, the jñāni avoids action, which is the path of nivṛtti.
The bhakti mārga is the middle path. Jīva Goswami does not favor the zero free will view, nor the 100% free will view, but rather accepts both realities. That there is no free will is ontological reality, but to function on the path of bhakti, one must assume that there is some free will as ultimately, bhakti is a path of pravṛtti or action. Thus, on the bhakti path, one knows that one has no free will, but acts as if one has it. One thinks that one is acting, but one also knows that it is only by Bhagavān’s power that one acts. Therefore, the bhakta acts only for the pleasure of Bhagavān, and eschews acts that displease Him.
Once one decides to follow a specific path, then one has to stick to that path. For example, if one chooses karma yoga, there is not the option now of rejecting the consequences by thinking that there is no free will. One cannot simultaneously take responsibility and disavow it.
There is a fourth class of people who are confused about free will- they are neither following karma yoga properly nor jñāna yoga nor bhakti yoga. Kṛṣṇa would like people to take up a path and stick to it, rather than shifting their ground continuously. The scriptures are amazing in this way- they acknowledge that different people have different tendencies toward free will, and therefore prescribe different paths accordingly.
*This article is based on a lecture by Śrī Babaji on the Bhagavat Sandarbha, Anuccheda 23