[Advaita-l] On the lack of free will and its abuse

Akilesh Ayyar ayyar at akilesh.com
Tue Feb 18 14:27:39 EST 2020



I recently re-read an interesting passage from Talks with Sri Ramana
Maharshi today and wanted to share my reflections:

Talk 190:

*There is a pet squirrel in the hall which usually retires into its cage
before nightfall. Just as Maharshi was telling it to retire for the night a
visitor who had announced that he had attained the transcendent
consciousness suggested that water might be offered to it, since it was
likely to be thirsty on this hot evening. His presumption to understand
animals evoked no response. He repeated it. After a few minutes’ silence
Maharshi said, “You are probably thirsty after your long meditation in the
hot Sun on the hotter rocks and you would like to drink a jug of water.”*

*D.: Quite so. I have taken water.*

*M.: The squirrel is not so thirsty. Because you were practising
austerities in the heat of the Sun you should feel thirsty. Why prescribe
it for the squirrel?*

*Maharshi added: I noticed him standing on the hot rocks facing the Sun
with eyes closed. I stood there for a while but did not want to disturb him
and came away. These people do as they please.*

*D.: What I did, I did not intend beforehand. It was spontaneous. *

*M.: Oh! I see! Whatever we others do, we do with intention! You seem to
have transcended all!*

*D.: This is not the first time I did so. You yourself inspire me and make
me do all these things. Yet you ask me why I did it. How is it?*

*M.: I see. You are doing actions being controlled by me. Then the fruits
also should be considered similarly to be mine and not yours.*

*D.: So they are undoubtedly. I act not of my free will but inspired by
you. I have no will of my own.*

*M.: Enough of this rubbish! So did Duryodhana of old (in the Mahabharata)

*janami dharmam nacha me pravrittih, *

*janamyadharmam nacha me nivrittih. *

*kenapi devana hridi sthitena*

*yatha niyuktosmitatha karomi.*

*[I know what is dharma, yet I cannot get myself to follow it! I know what
is adharma, yet I cannot retire from it! O Lord of the senses! You dwelt in
my heart and I will do as you impel me to do.]*

*What is the difference between you two?*

*D.: I see no difference. But I have no will and act without it.*

*M.: You have risen high above the common run. We others are acting with
personal will.*

*D.: How, Sir? You have said in one of your works that action can be

*M.: Enough! Enough! You and another visitor behave as transcendental
beings! You are both fully learned. You need not learn more. I would not
have said all this had you not been coming here frequently. Do as you
please. But these eccentricities of the beginner’s stage will become known
in their true light after some time.*

*D.: But I have been in this state for such a long time. *

*M.: Enough!*

What Duryodhana says is highly reminiscent of Romans 7:19 (“For I do not do
the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do--this I keep on
doing.”), as well as of the fact that in the Old Testament, Pharaoh often
is on the verge of letting the Israelites go, but God hardens his heart…
why? So that “my wonders may be multiplied in Egypt.” (Exodus 11:9). Wow,
what a motive for hardening someone’s heart!

Anyhow, free will — for most things — clearly does not exist… it’s
confirmed by the Bhagavad Gita (18:60-61)… human beings are simply pieces
on a machine whirled around by God. And Maharshi himself says “If the mind
is worried over what befalls us, or what has been committed or omitted by
us, it is wise to give up the sense of responsibility and free-will, by
regarding ourselves as the ordained instruments of the All-Wise and the
All-Powerful, to do and suffer as He pleases” and also, the body “is
designed for doing the various things marked out for execution in this
life. The whole programme is chalked out. ‘(Not an atom moves except by His
Will) expresses the same truth, whether you say” that it “does not move
except by His Will” or that it “does not move except by karma.” [i.e. cause
and effect]

So what might be the exception? Well, Maharshi says, a seeker is “always
free not to identify himself with the body and not to be affected by the
pleasures or pains consequent on the body’s activities.” That’s a healthy
thing for a seeker to think. Technically, of course, even the desire to
escape identification with the body and mind is an act of God’s grace.

And at the same time, in a sense the real truth is not that there is no
free will, but that free will and destiny (or God’s will, call it what you
will) are two sides of a coin that the Truth is beyond. The real truth is
that neither free will nor its absence is true; the real truth is beyond
concepts entirely.

Now all that said, there is a matter of contexts. If one talks as if there
are people and events, then in that manner of speaking, there is volition.
There is no real difference between the spontaneous and intentional. To the
one who knows, everything is spontaneous, including intentions.

And there is nothing about regarding everything as spontaneous that makes
for a ‘get out of jail free’ card for the results of one’s actions. And if
you lack free will, then certainly others lack it too, and in punishing or
criticizing you, they too could simply say — “Don’t look at me, I didn’t do
this with any free will.”

So given all this, what is Maharshi’s criticism of the visitor really about?

A sage could say that they are driven by the divine will, but a sage
wouldn’t say it in this context. This is merely pride or vanity dressing
itself up in the spiritual garb. One knows that because of the surrounding
actions and attitudes — because of the seeming desire for the person to
show how spiritual they are.

Maharshi, for examples, quotes Gandhi as saying in a letter to his friend
that he is not thinking, that he is simply acting, and that God’s purpose
is being fulfilled this way. But Gandhi says this not as a way of boasting
but as a means of expressing humble wonder.

If there were arguments brought up against what Gandhi did, or moral
accusations against him, he’d never use the “I wasn’t thinking“ or “I lack
free will” excuse. He would recognize that unconscious intentions might be
selfish and could have driven him in certain ways, and would have tried to
correct those deficiencies. Even if he did things without thinking, he
would still take moral responsibility — because the one who would avoid or
take moral responsibility *is* in a sense the doer, equipped with free
will! The real surrender, the real understanding of a lack of free will, is
that one is not that person, not that *that person* lacks free will.

A lack of free will is not a lack of *will. *Free will is a theory about
cause and effect; will is simply the instrument by which a human does
things consciously.

Nor is a lack of free will is a lack of intentions. And when using a lack
of free will to show how one is superior — that’s self-deception and

In the context here, vanity is at stake. The visitor had announced he had
obtained the  transcendent consciousness. That, first off, is not something
that can be ‘obtained’ and wouldn’t usually be announced in this way. The
visitor had stood, very visibly, on the hot rocks in the Sun to show
everyone else how spiritual they were. He asked for the water for the
squirrel loudly, repeatedly, again to demonstrate his importance and his
spiritual insights. And when he was called on these boastful intentions, he
retreated — denied his own agency and intentions — and attributed his
actions to God/Maharshi, so that he could avoid self-reflection and make
himself seem great.

So there’s a self-deceptive vanity at play, which is an obstacle to a
seeker, and which Maharshi tried to point out. It’s an abuse of the “lack
of free will” concept to protect the idea of the individual self as doer
and experiencer. The one who really felt surrendered wouldn’t get caught up
in this kind and level of self-deception.


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