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