A Unified View of Free Will and Determinism

Sri Aurobindo points out that taken on its own, the specific passages of the Gita that assert determinism of Nature are insistent on the lack of free will in human action. He asserts, however, that the Gita is not so trenchant and one-sided in its thought, and that it would be incorrect to adopt the one assertion without taking into account the other aspects that the Gita brings up. What we see here is the inability of a linear presentation, necessary when using human thought and language, to provide a complete, holistic and multi-faceted truth. The attempt to therefore understand the Gita from the human fragmented viewpoint is doomed to extreme formulations that distort the more complete truth to be seen from the divine standpoint that encompasses all aspects within one integrated view.

Sri Aurobindo amplifies this point: “But we must take, here as elsewhere, the thought of the Gita as a whole and not force its affirmations in their solitary sense quite detached from each other,–as indeed every truth, however true in itself, yet, taken apart from others which at once limit and complete it, becomes a snare to bind the intellect and a misleading dogma; for in reality each is one thread of a complex weft and no thread must be taken apart from the weft. Everything in the Gita is even so interwoven and must be understood in its relation to the whole.”

When we look, therefore, with a more complete view, at the question of determinism versus free will, we find there is an actual basis for each viewpoint. Those forms and forces under the control and influence of the Gunas of Nature are subject to determinism. We see this in the world of Matter in particular. Those who have gone beyond the Gunas to the divine standpoint are able to achieve freedom through identity with the Divine Will. In the middle ground there is the human situation where there is what may be called the “illusion of free will” whereby our mental function allows us to believe we have freedom to choose. The Gita however reserves “free will” for the divine standpoint, not the intermediate human consciousness.

Sri Aurobindo, Essays on the Gita, First Series, Chapter 21, The Determinism of Nature, pp. 202-203