The Freedom of the Purusha

The Sankhya philosophy differs from that of the Gita particularly in the understanding and treatment of the position and role of the Purusha, the true Self, the Witness consciousness. The Sankhya essentially sets up a duality of Purusha and Prakriti, the Purusha constituting the non-acting, silent witness that provides the sanction to Nature, and the Prakriti as the executive Nature that “acts” under the passive sanction, but non-intervention of the Purusha. The Purusha’s role is to either provide a sanction, at which point it is at least apparently bound by the actions of the modes of Nature, or withdraw the sanction, which leads to renunciation of action and works in the world, and a dissolution into the pure, silent witness consciousness.

The Gita, however, does not rest satisfied with this conclusion and the implications of this duality. The Gita presents the idea that the Purusha can go beyond passive acquiescence in the action of Prakriti to active mastery over Nature. This comes about through the key concept of there being a larger being that carries within itself both Purusha and Prakriti as two complementary aspects of itself. When we are able to pass beyond the frame that encompasses Purusha and Prakriti, we are able to experience the true freedom of the Purusha and exercise mastery over the action of Prakriti.

Sri Aurobindo examines the Gita’s position: “In the Sankhya Soul and Nature are two different entities, in the Gita they are two aspects, two powers of one self-existent being; the Soul is not only giver of the sanction, but lord of Nature, Ishwara, through her enjoying the play of the world, through her executing divine will and knowledge in a scheme of things supported by his sanction and existing by his immanent presence, existing in his being, governed by the law of his being and by the conscious will within it. To know, to respond to, to live in the divine being and nature of this Soul is the object of withdrawing from the ego and its action. One rises then above the lower nature of the Gunas to the higher divine nature.”

Sri Aurobindo, Essays on the Gita, First Series, Chapter 22, Beyond the Modes of Nature, pp. 217-218


The False Choice Between Free Will and Determinism

The argument goes along the lines of human beings either having “free will” or else, everything is “pre-determined” and we have no free will. If it is not the one, it must be the other. This debate, however, represents actually a “false choice” inasmuch as both sides are bound within the framework of the ego-sense within the machinery of the modes of Nature. Thus, our apparent free will is an illusion and is in fact determined by the action of the modes of Nature. The Gita, as Sri Aurobindo explains, does not get caught in this false choice, by virtue of the fact that the Gita recognizes that one cannot truly understand the frame within which one is bound until one steps outside that frame and views it from a new standpoint. This is the key recognition that there is a divine standpoint that can observe, participate and master the workings of Nature that still resides outside the action of Nature. It is at this level that free will, in identification with the divine consciousness, actually resides.

Sri Aurobindo describes the situation thus: “But the rejection of free will must not be a mere fatalism or idea of natural determinism in the understanding without any vision of the real Self in us; for then the ego still remains as our sole idea of Self and, as that is always the instrument of Prakriti, we still act by the ego and with our will as her instrument, and the idea in us brings no real change, but only a modification of our intellectual attitude. We shall have accepted the phenomenal truth of the determination of our egoistic being and action by Nature, we shall have seen our subjection: but we shall not have seen the unborn Self within which is above the action of the Gunas; we shall not have seen wherein lies our gate of freedom. Nature and ego are not all we are; there is the free soul, the Purusha.”

Sri Aurobindo, Essays on the Gita, First Series, Chapter 22, Beyond the Modes of Nature, pp. 216-217

The Actual Basis For Our Conception of Free Will

While the Gita rejects the idea of free will at the level of Nature and the actions of the egoistic personality, it nevertheless asserts that free will is real. The distinction comes about through the conception of the separation of Purusha and Prakriti, and the true Self and the egoistic personality bound within the action of the Gunas of Nature. To the extent that we identify ourselves with the human personality, we believe we have free will, but analysis shows us that we do not truly have it. When we transfer our view and standpoint to the divine standpoint, outside the workings of Nature, then we identify with the divine Consciousness, the true Self, and at that level, free will exists and can master the actions of Nature.

Sri Aurobindo discusses this further: “The self-assertion of ego-sense is the broken and distorted shadow in our minds of the truth that there is a real Self within us which is the master of all and for whom and at whose behest Nature goes about her works. So too the ego’s idea of free will is a distorted and misplaced sense of the truth that there is a free Self within us and that the will in Nature is only a modified and partial reflection of its will, modified and partial because it lives in the successive moments of Time and acts by a constant series of modifications which forget much of their own precedents and are only imperfectly conscious of their own consequences and aims. But the Will within, exceeding the moments of Tim, knows all these, and the actions of Nature in us is an attempt, we might say, to work out under the difficult conditions of a natural and egoistic ignorance what is foreseen in full supramental light by the inner Will and Knowledge.”

It becomes thus a matter of standpoint and identification that determines whether we are able to exercise free will or not.

Sri Aurobindo, Essays on the Gita, First Series, Chapter 22, Beyond the Modes of Nature, pp. 215-216

The Value of the Illusion of Free Will in the Human Being

The Gita’s analysis has shown that human actions, including those that are based predominantly on the action of sattva, are operations of the Gunas of Nature and thus, do not constitute the action of free will. Nevertheless, our internal experience continues to contradict this knowledge and leads us to assert that we are exercising free will. Some philosophies or religions attribute this purely to the action of Maya, the cosmic Illusion, and they point to this sense as being evidence of the extent of our delusion.

Sri Aurobindo does not, however, casually dismiss even this illusory sense of free will in man. “And error or not, illusion or not, this idea of our will, of our action is not a thing of no consequence, of no utility; everything in Nature has a consequence and a utility. it is rather that process of our conscious being by which Nature in us becomes more and more aware of and responsive to the presence of the secret Purusha within her and opens by that increase of knowledge to a greater possibility of action; it is by aid of the ego-idea and the personal will that she raises herself to her own higher possibilities, rises out of the sheer or else the predominant passivity of the tamasic nature into the passion and the struggle of the rajasic nature and from the passion and struggle of the rajasic nature to the greater light, happiness and purity of the sattwic nature.”

“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. If it be said, as it has been said, that Nature deludes man to fulfil her behests and that the idea of a free individual will is the most powerful of these delusions, then it must also be said that the delusion is for his good and without it he could not rise to his full possibilities.”

Sri Aurobindo, Essays on the Gita, First Series, Chapter 22, Beyond the Modes of Nature, pp. 214-215

The Need to Rise Above the Modes of Nature to Achieve Liberation

An intensive examination of even the most high and refined human actions, leads us to see that they remain fully subject to the action of the modes of Nature, the 3 Gunas. An increase in the element of Sattva creates a higher and purer intelligence and understanding, but it is still subject to being clouded over or overrun by the inevitable uprush of Tamas or Rajas. The sattwic ego is considered to be an especially tenacious form of ego because of the self-delusion that the sattwic personality has that fails to see the egoism that has a deep hold on him.

Sri Aurobindo discusses the ongoing interaction of the Gunas even in a predominantly sattwic personality: “When we think that we are acting quite freely, powers are concealed behind our action which escape the most careful self-introspection; when we think that we are free from ego, the ego is there, concealed, in the mind of the saint as in that of the sinner. When our eyes are really opened on our action and its springs, we are obliged to say with the Gita …’it was the modes of Nature that were acting upon the modes.’ ”

The true liberation only can come about when we go beyond the action of the Gunas: “Only when we cease to satisfy the ego, to think and to will from the ego, the limited “I” in us, then is there a real freedom. In other words, freedom, highest self-mastery begin when above the natural self we see and hold the supreme Self of which the ego is an obstructing veil and a blinding shadow. And that can only be when we see the one Self in us seated above Nature and make our individual being one with it in being and consciousness and in its individual nature of action only an instrument of a supreme Will, the one Will that is really free. For that we must rise high above the three Gunas, become trigunatita; for that self is beyond even the sattwic principle. We have to climb to it through the Sattwa, but we attain to it only when we get beyond Sattwa; we reach out to it from the ego, but only reach it by leaving the ego. We are drawn towards it by the highest, most passionate, most stupendous and ecstatic of all desires; but we can securely live in it only when all desire drops away from us. We have at a certain stage to liberate ourselves even from the desire of our liberation.”

Sri Aurobindo, Essays on the Gita, First Series, Chapter 21, The Determinism of Nature, pp. 212-213

Human Nature and the Question of Free Will

We experience as human beings a consciousness that includes a discriminating intelligence and will (buddhi), and we believe that this represents “free will” now operative. The Bhagavad Gita, however, asserts that the increased operation of sattva, and the reflective light that comes with it, acting upon what after all is one of the instruments of nature, the Buddhi, is still the operation of Nature and not outside of the play of the Gunas or the influence and control of the forces of Nature. It therefore asserts that this does not represent free will.

Sri Aurobindo takes up the thread of the discussion, speaking of our will to action: “…that will is created and determined not by its own self-existent action at a given moment, but by our past, our heredity, our training, our environment, the whole tremendous complex thing we call Karma, which is, behind us, the whole past action of Nature on us and the world converging in the individual, determining what he is, determining what his will shall be at a given moment and determining, as far as analysis can see, even its action at that moment.”

Buddhism seized on this aspect to deny the existence of the individual self as an ongoing entity, that there is simply the stream of energy in the form of cause and effect, Karma, which occurs, and through attachment the ego believes it is the actor and the true existent. Whether we accept this position or not, on an ultimate basis, the analysis certainly speaks to a truth of existence that recognizes that the individual, bound within the action of the world, is not exercising free-will in any real sense.

The Gita recognizes a Self and the validity of the concept of free will, but not within the framework of the operations of Nature and the play of the Gunas. The human being remains an instrument and plaything of Nature as long as we are subject to the Gunas, even the most refined, self-reflective form of sattva.

Sri Aurobindo, Essays on the Gita, First Series, Chapter 21, The Determinism of Nature, pp. 211-212

The Gunas Operating In the Human Being

At the stage of human evolution, we see the emergence of a self-consciousness (ego-sense, called ahamkara in the texts) and a discriminating intellect and will, called Buddhi in the Sanskrit literature. The nature of Buddhi indicates the active presence of the quality or mode of sattwa, bringing light and intelligence into the action of the gunas. Tamas and rajas remain active, and in fact, can color the action of the intelligent will by encouraging it to justify whatever desire or line of action happens to occur.

Some people believe that the action of the intelligent, self-conscious intellect gives the human being “free will”. Others point out, as the Gita itself does, that the mixed action of sattva along with rajas and tamas shows that the human being in its normal state is still subject to the Gunas of Nature and thus, does not actually exhibit free will in its ultimate sense.

Sri Aurobindo takes up the discussion: “Man is not like the tiger or the fire or the storm; he cannot kill and say as a sufficient justification, ‘I am acting according to my nature’, and he cannot do it, because he has not the nature and not, therefore, the law of action, svadharma, of the tiger, storm or fire. He has a conscious intelligent will, a buddhi, and to that he must refer his actions. If he does not do so, if he acts blindly according to his impulses and passions, then the law of his being is not rightly worked out…, he has not acted according to the full measure of his humanity, but even as might the animal.”

“…in man sattva is awake and acts not only as intelligence and intelligent will, but as a seeking for light, for right knowledge and right action according to that knowledge, as a sympathetic perception of the existence and claims of others, as an attempt to know the higher law of his own nature, which the sattwic principle in him creates, and to obey it, and as a conception of the greater peace and happiness which virtue, knowledge and sympathy bring in their train. he knows more or less imperfectly that he has to govern his rajasic and tamasic by his sattwic nature and that thither tends the perfection of his normal humanity.”

Sri Aurobindo, Essays on the Gita, First Series, Chapter 21, The Determinism of Nature, pp. 210-211

The Gunas Acting In the Animal Nature

We see in the emergence of the animal creation, the increasing operation of awareness, which occurs through the increased operation of Rajas within the basic framework of Tamas that governs the material creation and nature. We also see a somewhat increasing effect of the quality Sattva beginning to emerge, although clearly not in control.

Despite this increased consciousness, the animal creation remains clearly subject to the determinism of nature and does not exhibit “free will” in any sense that we would like to understand it.

Sri Aurobindo describes the limitations and conditions of the animal consciousness: “…no responsibility can be attributed to the animal for its actions. The tiger can no more be blamed for killing and devouring than the atom for its blind movements, the fire for burning and consuming or the storm for its destructions. If it could answer the question, the tiger would indeed say, like man, that it had free will, it would have the egoism of the doer, it would say, ‘I kill, I devour’; but we can see clearly enough that it is not really the tiger, but Nature in the tiger that kills, it is Nature in the tiger that devours; and if it refrains from killing or devouring, it is from satiety, from fear or from indolence, from another principle of Nature in it, from the action of the Guna called Tamas. As it was Nature in the animal that killed, so it is Nature in the animal that refrained from killing.”

“The animal like the atom acts according to the mechanism of its Nature, and not otherwise…., as if mounted on a machine….”

Sri Aurobindo, Essays on the Gita, First Series, Chapter 21, The Determinism of Nature, pp. 209-210

The Principle of Tamas In the Ascending Scale of Consciousness

The key to unlocking the solution to the issue raised by the Gita regarding determinism versus free will has been provided by Sri Aurobindo, who points out that there is an ascending scale of manifested consciousness. The more “involved” the consciousness is, the fewer characteristics of free will it is able to manifest; while the more consciousness has evolved, the more we see signs of the development of a free will. This in turn corresponds to the predominance of one or another of the Gunas of Nature at each stage.

Sri Aurobindo provides an analysis, starting with the level that predominates in Tamas. “How the passage from subjection to mastery works out is best seen if we observe the working of the Gunas in the scale of Nature from the bottom to the top. At the bottom are the existences in which the principle of Tamas is supreme, the beings who have not yet attained to the light of self-consciousness and are utterly driven by the current of Nature. There is a will even in the atom, but we see clearly enough that it is not free will, because it is mechanical and the atom does not possess the will, but is possessed by it.” “Tamas, the inert and ignorant principle, has its grip on it, contains rajas, conceals sattva within itself and holds a high holiday of mastery, Nature compelling this form of existence to act with a stupendous force indeed, but as a mechanical instrument….”

With the development of plant life, the quality of tamas remains primary, but we begin to see an increasing action of rajas and the initial responsiveness of sattva entering slowly into the picture. Once we move beyond the evolution of plants, we see tamas receding as first rajas, then sattva play a larger role, and as this occurs, we see the exercise of a more independent action than the purely mechanical action of the plane of Matter dominated by tamas.

Sri Aurobindo, Essays on the Gita, First Series, Chapter 21, The Determinism of Nature, pp. 208-209

Mastering the Lower Nature

After evaluating the distinction between the true essential nature and what Sri Aurobindo calls the “accidental” aspects of action, the seeker is faced with the need to address the workings of desire and gain control over the deviations caused by desire in the lower nature. Sri Aurobindo clarifies that there is “…a distinction implied too between coercion and suppression…and control with right use and right guidance, samyama.

The Gita takes issue with those who would perpetrate violent austerities or suffering on the nature in order to try to “discipline” the lower Nature. It points out that this type of extreme action tends not to succeed, but rather brings about a reaction that is retrogressive. “The former (coercion/suppression) is a violence done to the nature by the will, which in the end depresses the natural powers of the being…; the latter (right use and right guidance) is the control of the lower nature by the higher self, which successfully gives to those powers their right action and their maximum efficiency,–yogaha karmasu kausalam (“yoga is skill in works”).”

The Gita asks us to relate to the lower nature in a way that elicits its “cooperation” rather than “opposition” to the change in action being sought. “To the man is his self a friend in whom the (lower) self has been conquered by the (higher) self, but to him who is not in possession of his (higher) self, the (lower) self is as if an enemy and it acts as an enemy.”

The result is described: “When one has conquered one’s self and attained to the calm of a perfect self-mastery and self-possession, then is the supreme self in a man founded and poised even in his outwardly conscious human being….In other words, to master the lower self by the higher, the natural self by the spiritual is the way of man’s perfection and liberation.”

Sri Aurobindo, Essays on the Gita, First Series, Chapter 21, The Determinism of Nature, pg. 208