Free Will—Self-Control vs. Other-Control

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Free Will in Abrahamic vs. Vedic Religion

In Abrahamic religions, free will is defined as the soul’s capacity to control matter. The soul is said to be free in the sense that it can do whatever it wants with material things. Conversely, the soul shouldn’t do such things to other souls, unless they acquiesce, because they too are free. Since animals and plants don’t have a soul (and consequently free will), therefore, anyone can do anything with them. Genesis in the Bible states: God created the world and gave man dominion over it.

This idea is the foundation of the experimental method in science, including animal and plant testing. Since man has been given the dominion to control matter, therefore, it can do anything with nature. In short, you can use your free will as you please, when it concerns matter. But that free will should be curtailed with regard to other souls (i.e., human beings) through some laws, covenants, social contracts, or mutual agreements.

In Vedic philosophy, the soul—while primordially free—is in bondage in the material world. Nature has bound the soul like ropes bind an animal, and religion is the process to escape this bondage. In general, nobody is born free (except liberated souls who take birth to liberate other souls). Thus, we are not free by birthright. Matter forces desires on us, constrains our abilities, and limits our opportunities. Liberation is an escape from these forced desires, constrained abilities, and limited opportunities.

Thus, by a religious process, we earn back our freedom. The process of liberation is to dissociate from some desires and associate with others. Free will is not the power to control matter but the power to escape its control. We don’t have dominion over matter; matter has dominion over us. We escape this dominion by detachment, and we then persist in that state by attachment to the transcendent reality.

These two distinct ideas of free will are immensely important for understanding the role of conscious choice in the world. They play a huge role in the concepts of science, economics, and social laws. Therefore, if the fundamental idea of what free will is, and what it entails, is flawed, then everything derived from or based upon that idea also is naturally flawed. In this article, we will discuss several different notions arising from different claims about free will.

The Constraint of Chitta

In Sāñkhya philosophy, the soul is covered by three things—chitta, guna, and karma. I will discuss what these are one after another, beginning with the discussion of chitta to explain how matter controls the soul. Those interested in this subject can refer further to the commentary on Sāñkhya Sutra.

The chitta is the repository of past impressions and constitutes all that I can imagine. It is produced over lifetimes of impressions. If something is absent from our chitta, then we cannot imagine it. Even if we are told about it, we cannot understand it. We have to see it to believe that it is possible. Therefore, it is impossible to understand many scientific and philosophical ideas if those impressions are absent from the chitta. For example, after the dawn of classical mechanics, most scientists could not imagine the possibility of action at a distance, and it was contested for a long time because only action by contact seemed feasible. Likewise, most people at present cannot understand the nature of atomic reality. Even if we tell them about it, they cannot understand or accept it, because those impressions are absent in their chitta.

The chitta covers the soul and limits its power of imagination. If you think that something is impossible, then you will not make an attempt to get it. You will never progress into judging whether it is true, right, or good. You will never ever try to grasp the mechanisms that can make it real. You will never act via your knowledge senses to try to perceive it, or your action senses to act in order to attain it. You will be completely controlled by the limited power of imagination, which says: This is not possible. We can imagine only what we have seen before and it exists as a dormant impression in the chitta. This is the first type of limitation on the soul; it controls everything else by limiting our imagination.

The Constraint of Guna

The gunas constitute our desires, and they too are stored in a separate repository of habits, which is called a person’s prakriti. This repository defines what we like or dislike. We are born with instinctive likes and dislikes. Some people are naturally attracted to music, others to art, others to science, others to politics, others to sports, etc. In modern science, this predisposition toward certain things is attributed to our genes, although nobody can find the genes for music, art, science, politics, sports, etc. This is because the prakriti is much deeper than genes. It is the habits of enjoyment formed in the past.

What we like or dislike is generally a subset of what we think is possible. If we repeatedly consume certain things, then we not only develop a strong impression in the chitta (i.e., that such things are possible) but also a strong habit in the guna (i.e., that such things are pleasurable or enjoyable). What we think is pleasurable or enjoyable is simply the result of our past habits of consumption. If we try to change these habits, the guna repository takes us back to the old habits again and again. It is hard to change our prakriti.

The conditioning of habits further constrains the soul. Even if something is imaginable, we might not be inclined toward it. We don’t enjoy knowing or doing it. For example, we can imagine sports. But not everyone is inclined toward sports. They might prefer reading or eating or sleeping or chatting.

This process is described by saying that a possibility emerges from the chitta and then interacts with the guna, to be liked or disliked. Since what we can like or dislike can be a subset of what we can imagine, therefore, the gunas are said to be a part of the chitta. However, the part plays a different role than the whole. The whole determines what we can imagine, and the part decides whether we will like it. Liking is essential to develop a possibility into action.

But guna is not necessarily a subset of the chitta. For example, people may want continuous economic growth, but they will also call it a pipe dream. They might desire a peaceful and loving society, but they cannot imagine that such a thing could actually happen. This is because they have enjoyed in a certain way in earlier lives, but they were denied such enjoyment in later lives. The desire for such enjoyment exists in guna, but the impressions of conceivability have practically disappeared. Due to the relative variation in the strength and power of chitta and guna, guna is not necessarily a subset of chitta.

The general principle is that guna is initially a subset of chitta (when the soul enters the material world), but over time, they can separate, overlap, and chitta can even become a subset of guna. Hence, we might sometimes get a desire, and then we temper it with conceivability. If something is unimaginable, then we suppress the desire and focus on things we consider conceivable.

The Constraint of Karma

Karma constrains our opportunities, and it is stored in a separate repository called niyati. This repository also has many layers, such that there is long-term karma (to be faced over many lifetimes), this-life karma (to be faced over the course of this life), and short-term karma (to be faced immediately, or in the immediate future). We are born with a destiny that limits our opportunities.

For example, some people are born in a prosperous society and family, and they naturally have better access to education, loving relationships, career options, and luxuries. Others are born into poor societies and families, and they don’t have good access to some or all of these things. This is due to karma.

The conditioning of karma further constrains the soul. Even if something is imaginable, and we like it, we may not have the opportunity to get it. Many poor people, for instance, can imagine a good life and they want it. But they cannot get it, because karma will prevent or hinder all such opportunities. They will be either born or forced into a situation that doesn’t afford those opportunities, and no matter how hard they try, they cannot get out of that situation. All attempts to go to a better situation fail. This is due to karma.

Since our opportunities are a subset of what we like, therefore, karma is said to be a part of guna. However, that part plays a different role in the whole. The whole (guna in this case) decides what we want, and the part (karma in this case) determines whether we have an opportunity to get it.

Karma, however, is not necessarily a subset, because it forces circumstances upon us that we don’t like. If karma was always a subset of guna, then we may not fulfill some desires, but we will never get anything contrary to our desire. Since that happens too, therefore, karma is not always a subset of guna. Rather, karma may limit our opportunities, and we start desiring something from the available opportunities. Likewise, even if an opportunity exists, but we cannot understand it or we think it is impossible to achieve it, we will not take the opportunity because it seems inconceivable or unimaginable to us.

The Development of Mind and Body

Sāñkhya describes how progressively the moral sense, ego, intelligence, the mind, senses, sensations, and sense objects develop through the mixing of the chitta, guna, and karma. For example, if the dominant impression in the chitta is that life is solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short (as Francis Bacon believed), then you cannot imagine the possibility of love, prosperity, honesty, peace, and harmony. Your desires will be focused on how to make the best out of a bad deal and use the opportunities to survive in the world. You will develop theories of human nature, society, and lawfulness based on fear of suffering and death.

This problem is seen while trying to teach Vedic knowledge. Most people cannot imagine living in a loving and peaceful society, because their latent impressions are about individualism, competition, the struggle for survival, and often loneliness. Since they have these impressions about the material world, they cannot imagine a spiritual world where love and peace are de facto and de jure. Everything else boils down to their incapacity to imagine the possibility of love and peace. Even if we tell them about a loving and peaceful world, they think: This is impossible; hence, it must be false. To teach spiritual knowledge, a competitive, survivalist, and individualistic society is a hindrance because people are unable to imagine a completely different kind of world.

Even if such people want to be happy, their inability to imagine its attainment through a spiritual process forces them into a materialistic life. If we give them the opportunity to learn about the spiritual world, they say: This is so much sacrifice with uncertain outcomes. I will enjoy what I can right now.

What we perceive as time and place (i.e., duration and distance) has no fundamental reality. It is just an appearance. It is created by the mixing of chitta, guna, and karma. The real space is the hierarchical structure within chitta, guna, and karma. The real time is a causal entity that mixes different parts of chitta, guna, and karma to create a perceived space, time, and objective reality. Thus, for example, the fact that you are in some place, time, and body is the causal byproduct of the mixing of chitta, guna, and karma by time.

This mixing also creates our judgments (truth, right, and good), thoughts (in the mind), actions (in the senses of action), and sensations (in the senses of knowledge), by embedding us in a particular time, place, and situation as a result of some combination of chitta, guna, and karma. If we have good karma, then we get into a time, place, body, and relationship where we can enjoy. If we have bad karma, then we are forced into situations where we suffer. Sometimes we get into a time, place, and situation that we could never imagine. We feel confused and are unable to figure out what to do. Finally, based on our guna, we adjust our likes and dislikes to the current possibilities and opportunities.

The Role of Time and Choice

This mixing of chitta, guna, and karma is controlled by Causal Time, a form of God called Lord Shiva. As time passes, new kinds of desires arise in us automatically. New ideas appear as flashes of insight out of nowhere, making us believe that such things are possible, leading to new theories and technologies. And situations around us change dramatically in ways that we did not anticipate or could not foretell. Causal Time is responsible for the evolution of the universe, as well as the evolution of our individual lives.

The chitta, guna, and karma exist as unconscious realms (i.e., we are not aware of their existence). When they are mixed by Causal Time, they become our experience, if we associate with them. The soul, however, also has a choice to associate or dissociate from a mixture created by time. Due to the effect of time, nature is deterministic—time will cause different effects in different places and people. However, due to the presence of choice in the soul to associate or dissociate with the mixture produced by time, determinism is not contrary to free will. Choice and determinism are completely compatible.

However, the soul’s choice is visible (as an effect) only when the soul dissociates from a mixture by withdrawing its consciousness from a certain judgment, thought, sensation, body, desire, pleasure, or circumstance. You can be in a room full of people, and yet be not aware of what is going on. You can live in this world, and yet not read the news, watch television, talk over the phone, or browse social media to know what is going on. Our choice is about associating and dissociating with the world, not about changing the world.

If the soul dissociates, then the mixture (created by time) disappears from its vision. That doesn’t mean that the mixture has ceased to exist. The mixture can still exist, but it stops being our experience. We are no longer aware of what exists, and hence we don’t enjoy or suffer. We also don’t create additions to chitta, guna, and karma. If, however, the soul associates with the mixture, then its continued acceptance of the mixture looks like the absence of choice. Free will in this world is detected by the practice of free won’t (detachment).

When we withdraw our consciousness from an idea, we stop experiencing that thought. However, that thought still exists. By our withdrawal, it stops developing into desires, judgments, actions, and perceptions. Therefore, it is said that the presence of some consciousness is necessary to develop a subtle reality into gross reality. But it may not always be our consciousness.

One standard mistake while trying to control our minds is to withdraw our consciousness and then try to check if the thought still exists. We get an irresistible urge to see if it is still there. When we peek, we find it again, and we get frustrated: I tried to control my mind, and it is uncontrollable. The trick is to never peek because it is a reality caused by time and it exists objectively. If you want to control your mind, don’t check to see if it is still there. It will disappear after some time on its own, and not because you want it to disappear.

Two Ideas of Free Will

The Western idea of free will—given by its religious doctrines—is dominion over matter. It manifests in other ideas about changing the world, and making a difference to this world, by our choices. This dominion is impossible. Even if we enjoy the body, it is due to a mixture of chitta, guna, and karma. It is governed by time, and hence deterministic. And when we suffer through the body, it is again due to a mixture of chitta, guna, and karma. That too is governed by the effect of time, and hence deterministic. This determinism makes science possible because if we are always attached, we move deterministically.

A change in the world will happen when its due time arrives, governed by the influence of Causal Time. Then, Causal Time will trigger the desire in someone to change the world, create a new world, etc. But the fact that we have that desire and we act upon it, isn’t the cause of worldly change. That change would have happened even if we did not act; Time will recruit another actor to partake in His drama. Likewise, if the time hasn’t arrived, we can try as much as we like, but there will be no change to the world. We are the cause of something if we are necessary and sufficient to produce it. If we are neither necessary nor sufficient, and Causal Time is both necessary and sufficient, then Causal Time is the real cause. God is in control of the world but we can control ourselves.

The soul’s choice lies in associating or dissociating itself from matter and thereby changing the chitta, guna, and karma. For instance, as we associate with the world, we form new habits, impressions, and consequences of the association. When we dissociate, the old habits, impressions, and consequences slowly disappear. Through selective association and dissociation, we change our chitta, guna, and karma. When these three change, the successive mixtures produced by time also change. This is how we change our life—associate and dissociate, alter the chitta, guna, and karma, and then alter our life. Hence, free will is about changing our life rather than changing the world. If Causal Time finds no suitable actor for His drama, He appears Himself or sends someone from the spiritual world capable of playing a role in the cosmic drama.

How Material Nature Compels Us

When we dissociate from a mixture, some of the things that could have happened due to the association stop. This is just like you go to a store and ask the storekeeper for something specific, and you find that he is busy on the phone and not attending to you. Seeing that he is not interested, you can go to another store to get what you want. But this doesn’t always happen. It is also possible that you cannot stand being neglected by the storekeeper, and you demand what you want more aggressively. The storekeeper is now compelled to listen to you, and you get—after showing your aggressiveness—what you want.

Matter works in the same way. Sometimes, as we withdraw our consciousness from a mixture, Causal Time moves its effect to recruit another actor to fill the positions in His drama. On such occasions, we don’t feel nature’s pressure—like you might quietly go from one shop to another to get what you want. But on other occasions, Causal Time acts more aggressively to demand what He wants to be done through you—quite like you might demand a shopkeeper to give what you want aggressively, especially if there are no other stores nearby, or if you have already passed through a couple of stores. Thereby, it is not always easy to withdraw our consciousness from the mixture. Nature forces itself on you.

This aggressive behavior by nature is the reason that the soul is said to be bound by nature and time. As you try to extract yourself from worldly trappings, nature and time will drag you back in. They will create a mixture of chitta, guna, and karma that you simply cannot resist or ignore. It could be a far stronger desire, an unavoidable circumstance, or a new possibility that did not seem feasible previously. If you don’t struggle against this aggressive action of time and nature, then you fall back into the trap. You create additions to chitta, guna, and karma, which will perpetuate the bondage into the future.

This is how our free will is tested. We pass that test if we are resolute in our detachment. This is also the reason why many people who seem to be spiritually advanced often fall back into nature’s traps. The reason is that nature will subject us to more attractive possibilities, irresistible desires, or unavoidable circumstances. Nature and Causal Time are the customers shopping for goods, and we are the shops to get them the things they want. Sometimes they move from shop to shop, and sometimes they demand aggressively. If there are many ways to get something done, they will leave a withdrawn shopkeeper alone. But if we are the sole shop or the shop that comes after moving through a few shops, then the aggression can be high.

The Devil is Not Evil

Since Nature and Causal Time have goals and intentions, therefore, they are personified as Durga and Shiva, respectively. They are divinities that dogmatically chase the soul in this world. But they are not evil. Their goal is to make the soul understand the importance of detachment from the world, and going back to the spiritual world. The process of that change, however, involves attracting the soul to do unwanted things and then punishing it for its choices. These things are attributed to the Devil or Satan in Abrahamic religions. The material world is devilish or satanic in the sense of its devious, deceptive, and manipulative nature. However, the material world is not evil, because the entrapment is not permanent. It exists only to cure the soul of its attachments. The Devil or Satan does not delude a person eternally. His primary aim is to cure the false idea of dominion in the soul by demonstrating its futility.

Since the goals of Causal Time and Nature evolve, therefore, different things happen at different places and times. Since these goals can be achieved in many ways—e.g., through many individual souls—hence there is a choice about who should be engaged in which kind of activity. The situation is sometimes presented as an animal, a rope, and the animal’s master. The master decides which animal to use for which task. The owner can let some animals rest after they have been sufficiently used. He can choose to deploy different animals for different tasks. Or, the master can push some animals more than others. Whatever the case may be, the master’s sole aim in pushing these animals is to release them. Based on his decision, the master pulls on some animals forcefully and loosens the pull on other animals for the moment.

When the soul falls into the material world, we could say that it has been ensnared by the Devil. When it enjoys the fruits of its past actions by doing abominable things, we can say that it has come under the control of Satan. Then when the soul suffers the fruits of its past actions, we can say that the Devil is torturing it for its past deeds. All these things are found to varying extents in Abrahamic religions. What is absent is the fact that you can also worship the Devil or Satan to release you from His clutches and He will help you get out.

This is why there are Shaiva and Shakta systems of worship in Vedic philosophy. You could say, in some perverted sense, that they worship the Devil or Satan. But that worship is to obtain release. Hence it cannot be considered evil.

God is Multifaceted

Factually, there is no evil in Vedic philosophy. Even the entrapment and aggressive behavior of Nature and Causal Time are tests to check the soul’s resolve and readiness to be released from the material reality. The practices given in Shaiva and Shakta Tantras have the same purpose as those in Vaishnava texts. They are just aimed differently—the Shaiva and Shakta scriptures assist detachment from the material world while the Vaishnava scriptures assist attachment to the spiritual world. Attachment and detachment are two sides of the same coin. Hence, they are also understood as modalities.

God takes different forms—i.e., exists in different modalities—to produce attachment and detachment. The attachment modality is superior to the detachment modality. Hence, the forms of God found in the spiritual world are superior to the forms of God that control the material world. But they are not different Gods! They are different aspects of God, like the head and tail of a coin. When you see the tail of a coin, you cannot say that it is not a coin. It is a coin. And yet, it is not the head of the coin. The superiority and inferiority of different forms of God are therefore not polytheism. It is aspectism. God has many “faces”, which He reveals to different people, depending on their natures. Some face is more beautiful than another. Other faces are harsher and uglier. They are seen by different souls, depending on their proclivities.

The Shiva and Shakti forms of the Lord are combined in Dionysus in Western traditions. Through these, and other deities, the Vedic culture existed all over the world to different extents, and to various levels of understanding. The modern “monotheistic” religions destroyed that culture. But in the process, they did not replace it with something better. Nor did they improve our understanding of reality. Instead, they instituted false ideas like the Devil is evil, choices are our dominion over matter, and hell or heaven is eternal.

Adverse Effects of False Ideas

We can now turn toward the adverse effects produced by the false ideas about free will. There are too many of these to compile an exhaustive list, but we can still try to list a few of them here. This list is certainly not exhaustive.

  • The idea of dominion over nature has led to reckless exploitation of natural resources, the killing of animals and plants, or using them as testbeds for human benefit. Today moralities are not discussed because God has been evicted from science. But even in the past, moralities could not be discussed because exploitation was a God-given right of dominion for men of faith.
  • Since our freedoms are constrained by the freedoms of other humans, therefore, anything that we do to each other based on mutual agreement is not immoral. This idea can be twisted if we remove the alternatives for others leaving them no choice but to do what we want them to do. When they choose the only alternative that we have left them, we call it their choice.
  • All ideas of self-realization and self-knowledge are thrown away because we are nothing but freedom. So, we can choose whatever we want to be, rather than know what we are. We don’t need self-control if others have no power but to agree to our power. Self-correction is required only if others have some power over us. If they don’t, then we don’t need correction.
  • When scientific studies show that matter controls the soul, then based on the prior hypothesis that the soul controls matter, we reject the existence of the soul and descend into materialism. Now, there is no life after death, because we are nothing but the body and the body perishes after death. There is no need for religion or God. Life reduces to materialistic enjoyment.
  • With technological advances, the past is rejected as ignorance, and any technologically backward society is considered intellectually, morally, and spiritually backward too. Technology is the sole measure for advancement. Any truth that could slow technological progress must be destroyed because there is no other measure for progress or betterment other than gadgets.
  • People cannot see that whatever they call freedom is actually slavery to matter. Nature attracts the soul by presenting new possibilities, triggers hard-to-resist desires for enjoyment, but then punishes the soul simply for acquiescing to those proposals. Choice exists not merely if we actively instigate something, but even if we passively acquiesce to the instigation.

Every single immoral, unscientific, and harmful idea in modern thinking can be partially or fully traced to the false notion of free will. The religion that created such false ideas and the science that equates the rejection of the false idea to the rejection of free will, are equally false, immoral, and destructive.

Self-Interest and Other-Control

The soul is defined by its free will. But that free will pertains to the self—self-knowledge, self-awareness, self-correction, self-improvement, and self-control. We have a choice to know ourselves or not, correct ourselves or not, improve ourselves or not, and control ourselves or not. Our self-interest lies in using the choice correctly—i.e., to know ourselves, correct ourselves, improve ourselves, and control ourselves. If we don’t use the choice correctly, then we are acting against our self-interest—it leads to suffering. This is self-consistency.

The self is also governed by logic, but the self is not monolithic. The self has six aspects, which can become mutually inconsistent. For example, we can have self-interest without self-control. This is self-inconsistency, due to which loss of self-control results in loss of self-interest and we do things that are contrary to our interest creating our suffering. If we get back self-control, then we also get back self-interest, namely, happiness. Life becomes eternal when the six aspects of the self are consistent. It becomes temporary when the six aspects are inconsistent. This is the logic for all reality. It is not binary logic, but modal logic. It permits self-inconsistency (seen as A is not A in binary logic) between different aspects of the self. And it evolves to produce self-consistency.

When we accept self-interest but reject all the other aspects of free will that involve its correct use, then we produce a false caricature of free will. Under this caricature, free will means self-interest through the control and exploitation of others. That is, free will = self-interest + other-control.

Even those who reject free will do not reject self-interest. They don’t ask: If a ball has no self-interest and exists only for our interest, then why should we be self-interested as an agglomeration of tiny balls? Materialism uses double standards for people over nature, people over animals, and some people over other people. If humans, animals, and nature are the same thing—i.e., nature—then why should something exist for something else? Isn’t each thing a thing in itself? Why does human survival matter more than the survival of animals? If we apply the theories of materialism consistently, then we will run into so many contradictions that we will end up denying self-interest. That will undermine rights, laws, contracts, and scientific and technological progress because all these things exist only to facilitate and fulfill our self-interest.

Self-interest necessitates the existence of a self—a unity in diversity. Our bodies are comprised of so many atoms that constitute the diversity in our bodies. What keeps them unified into a body? This is a scientific question, but it has no answer in materialism because the cause of that unity is the self. When that self leaves the body, the body disintegrates because the unity in the diversity is lost.

The problem of unity in diversity changes everything else because the self as the cause of unity can exist without diversity (the material body). The self comes under the control of matter if it believes it has a self-interest but substitutes self-control with the control of others. Whatever people have rationalized based on their supposed dominion over nature is the very reason for their slavery under nature. Do you think you can control nature? As long as you think so, nature will control you. In fact, nature will abuse your false sense of free will by instigating you and then punishing you for getting instigated.

Two Powers of Material Energy

Vedic texts describe material energy as two tendencies called āvaraṇātmika (the power of covering) and prakṣepātmika (the power of throwing). The power of covering acts in many ways—(a) it’s alright, relax, there is nothing to worry, (b) you have full control over your surroundings and possessions, (c) you are a free individual with the power to do as you please, (d) you are enjoying your life based on your power and freedom. Similarly, the power of throwing also acts in many ways—(a) I’m going to die, I fear for my survival, and death is just around the corner, (b) I have no control over my situation and I don’t know what to do, (c) I’m not free to choose, I cannot control my life, I don’t have the opportunities that I want, (d) I’m being exploited, abused, and manipulated, and I must retaliate, or at least, try to defend and protect myself from abuse.

Nature deludes us by creating these feelings of safety and insecurity alternately. The feeling of safety is called āvaraṇātmika or the power of covering and the feeling of insecurity is called prakṣepātmika or the power of throwing. Like a dog goes to sleep when it feels safe, and then wakes up at the slightest noise to bark at strangers who are just passing by, similarly, the soul also alternately sleeps and barks under the delusional control of the material energy.

In one sense, there is no reason for security because everybody dies. In another sense, there is no reason for insecurity, because the soul is eternal. Thus, both the sense of safety and insecurity are false. But Nature creates these false ideas to manipulate us in many ways. The most powerful people often feel very insecure. And those who have nothing often remain quite complacent.

The Effects of Material Control

Religion and science are both byproducts of this deluding energy when they instigate a false sense of safety and insecurity. For example, a false sense of safety is created in religion by saying that if you just accept a savior you will go to eternal heaven. Then, a false sense of insecurity is created by saying that if you reject that savior then you will go to eternal hell. Likewise, a false sense of safety is created in science by saying that we have created so many technologies to solve all the problems that if we just trust the scientific method then we will automatically create a rational and prosperous world. Similarly, a false sense of insecurity is created in science by saying that if we reject the method of modern science then the world will go back to the dark ages, or the times of doom and gloom. This falsity is manipulative and it binds us to this world.

It is not that science is always created by a deluding agency while religion is always created by an honest power. Religions that create the false ideas of dominion over nature are as much the byproducts of the deluding energy, as is the science that says we have no free will to escape this delusion.

Nature is not inert, unconscious, or governed by laws. Nature is so wicked that She shows the soul unprecedented opportunities, previously inconceivable possibilities, and a desire to use these to create new types of enjoyment before taking away all those opportunities, destroying the possibilities, and creating a type of pain and loss that borders on the sense of hopelessness. However, Nature is not evil, although Her wicked sense of humor and the proclivity to mock our false sense of propriety and entitlement seems just like evil. She enjoys Her wicked jokes on us but also waits for us to realize our folly. The moment we realize it, She immediately becomes the most loving mother.

The Process of Self-Control

We must give up the false idea of free will as the power of dominion over others. We don’t even have dominion over our bodies and minds; we are controlled by our past habits, impressions, and consequences of actions, mixed by time, enticing us to act contrary to our self-interest. Escaping this delusion of dominion is the goal of true religion. Any religion that extends the false sense of dominion is also a product of deluding material energy. Any science that rejects the power of self-control to separate us from material control is also a product of the same deluding material energy. They are just false in different ways.

Real science pertains to this understanding of Nature and real religion pertains to the actions that will liberate us from the cycle of hope and despair. Both science and religion can be combined into a simple conclusion—our free will is not about controlling others, but about controlling ourselves. This self-control manifests in the choice of selectively associating or dissociating with this world. That choice always exists, but it might sometimes be overwhelmed by an aggressive Nature and Causal Time. If we resist this instigation, then the aggressive control by Nature and Causal Time declines over time.

Fallen Yet Saintly Souls

BG 9:30 states: Even if one commits the most abominable actions, if he is engaged in devotional service, he is to be considered saintly because he is properly situated.

This verse from the Bhagavad-Gita is often the bone of much contention in judging the qualifications of those endeavoring on the spiritual path. The contention arises in the case of spiritual aspirants who committed abominable actions. Are they fallen or saintly? A false view of free will lies hidden behind this question—if someone has committed a mistake, then it must be because they willed it, and their body simply complied to their will. If they were saintly, then they would not will it, and the abominable actions would not exist.

There is a misunderstanding about the nature of free will here. The fact is that the body proposes and the will disposes. If the will refuses the body’s demands, then the body demands more aggressively. Under the increasingly aggressive demands of the body, the soul can succumb to abominable desires.

However, as Lord Kṛṣṇa states, such souls are not to be equated with materialistic people if they are engaged in devotional service. They are, of course, not perfect either. They are practicing perfection, and they are being tested by Nature and Causal Time. Their abominable actions indicate that they failed a test. That doesn’t mean that they haven’t passed previous tests, or that they will always fail in the future. If they continue on the path, they will learn from their mistakes and realize that perfection is a journey. It takes time to become completely detached from the material world and be attached to the spiritual world. If we are not hasty in proclaiming our perfection before we are perfect, we will save ourselves the embarrassment that comes with abominable actions. Premature haste increases the humiliation and embarrassment.

It is important to realize that just because we seem to be able to control our mind and senses right now doesn’t mean that we will be able to control them always. As we progress in the spiritual path, the tests will get harder. Nature and Causal Time will test our resolve before they are convinced of our convictions. Passing these tests requires self-control. It has to be perfected before liberation.

Six Types of Self-Control

Śrī Rūpa Gosvāmī describes the eligibility for someone to become a guru in Upadeśāmṛta as six kinds of self-control—the control of speech, mind, anger, tongue, belly, and genitals. It is easy to see that if someone breaks the condition of genital control, they are not qualified to be gurus. Most people accept this failure easily, due to the traditional opposition between sex and religion.

However, this is the last of the six types of self-control. We could call it the grossest of breakdowns of self-control. Far more common are the other five types of failures of self-control that often go unnoticed. For example, does a person talk too much, or talk unnecessarily, on topics unrelated to spiritual life? If so, he is not qualified to be a guru. The exception to this rule is that those topics may be temporarily their socially mandated duties, or they might be performed in service of devotion. Then, they are also perfect.

Likewise, one who has an uncontrolled mind—i.e., that jumps from topic to topic and cannot focus on the job at hand—is also unqualified to be a guru. Anyone who loses control under the influence of anger (which excludes someone who uses the least amount of anger to achieve the desired result) is also disqualified. Then, people who eat a lot to satisfy their tongue, or are always seemingly hungry due to substituting other types of enjoyment with food, are also considered to be equally disqualified to be a guru.

Accordingly, as we practice spiritual life and we get over gross abominations like alcohol, drugs, meat-eating, gambling, and illicit sex (i.e., sex outside marriage), Nature and Time will exert greater demands in these six areas. If some of these demands remain unfulfilled, a person often substitutes them with abominable activities. The practice of spiritual life is about passing all these inducements produced by the body and mind, under the control of Nature and Causal Time. One who is resilient to such tests is qualified to be a guru.

Śrī Rūpa Gosvāmī uses the terms viṣaheta (tolerance) and dhīraḥ (sobriety) with regard to these six types of self-control. Tolerance means that the body and mind may exert increasingly aggressive demands, but the soul tolerates them. Sobriety means that these things can happen repeatedly with growing intensity, but one must not become disturbed in their practice due to their occurrence.

A common fallacy in the life of a spiritual practitioner is that when the mind or senses get disturbed by desire, then the practitioner loses hope and enthusiasm. He might say: If these things are happening to me after so many years of spiritual practice, it means that the process of spiritual upliftment is not working. This is a classic case of the absence of tolerance and sobriety and related to a false idea of free will where we think that if the body and mind are not in our control, then we haven’t progressed in spiritual purification.

The fact is that we never have any control over the body and mind. During the course of ordinary life, when we seem to move our senses by our will, it is the mind and/or body proposing and the soul acquiescing to the proposal. For liberated souls, the soul proposes and Nature agrees to the proposal. But even then, the soul does not control Nature. Rather, Nature agrees to fulfill the soul’s wishes and decides to not bother the soul (who has passed all of Nature’s tests) with aggressive demands. Liberation is not the soul’s control over matter. Liberation is Nature and Causal Time agreeing to release the soul.

Therefore, if the mind or body is disturbed, there is no need to get frustrated because these were never in our control to begin with. We should rather learn to ignore these demands, like a parent ignores the temper tantrums of a demanding child, rather than getting depressed about why the child is throwing a tantrum at all. This is called viṣaheta or tolerance. It is a test to be passed.

The Importance of Free Will

As we can see, free will plays an essential role when we associate with the byproducts of the mixing of chitta, guna, and karma to create our experience. These associations then further reinforce or modify chitta, guna, and karma, causing a deterministic evolution of the soul if that soul refuses to detach itself from these mixtures. Even if a soul dissociates from this mixture, Nature and Causal Time achieve their goals by recruiting some other soul to fulfill their schemes and plans. Therefore, the universe is what-deterministic but who-indeterministic. However, Nature and Causal Time are not evil.

Once we understand how event determinism is compatible with actor free will, then we can perform spiritual practices to liberate ourselves from this material control. However, this process is also beset with challenges as Nature and Causal Time test us with increasingly aggressive demands. If we don’t understand that we are being tested, then we can get quickly demoralized. If instead we prematurely declare victory over the body and mind, we are certain to perform abominable acts under inducement, which will almost certainly lead to embarrassments of personal failings, and derail our progress.

If we deny the existence of free will under a flawed interpretation of event determinism in science, because we are unable to ignore material inducements, then the result is materialism. Similarly, if we think that we have the power to control matter by our will, as a result of God-given dominion over the world, the result is a cycle of safety and insecurity that never leads to liberation.

The Need for the Science of Free Will

A proper understanding of free will is necessary to (a) reject the false materialistic ideas in modern science, (b) reject the false sense of propriety and entitlement over nature found in many present religions, (c) understand the causal process by which nature creates our bodily and mental experiences based on previous impressions, habits, and consequences of actions, (d) understand how we can get detached from this bondage just by correctly using our choices to associate and dissociate with the experiences produced by the body and mind, and (e) realize that as we try to perfect self-control, there are pitfalls and tests to be endured that can derail progress if we are not careful.

This understanding of free will is easily testable. The theory underlying this understanding is also easily testable. However, both the theory and its verification depend on introspection. We cannot test these by instruments; instruments can only observe events preceding our choices, leading us to the false conclusion that the body causes our choices when it only creates a proposal for acceptance or rejection by choice. The experimental method of science is fundamentally incapable of grasping the enormously complex working of our psyche, how it controls us, and how we can get liberated from this control. Introspection and meditation are the only methods.

By using the correct method, we progress in demystifying this complexity through direct experience. Vedic texts complement this understanding with a description of the psyche, not because they are primarily interested in the psyche, but because this understanding is essential to understanding free will.

Cite this article as:

Ashish Dalela, "Free Will—Self-Control vs. Other-Control," in Shabda Journal, July 12, 2022,