There are several Sanskrit words that carry the sense of free will but, if we look at these a little more closely, a pattern quickly emerges.
A voluntary action, ‘acting of one’s own free will’ is kAmakAra. The kAra part is the ‘doing’ and kAma means ‘wish, desire, longing’. Even more specifically, sakAma – ‘acting of one’s own accord or free will’ –literally means ‘with desire’. svachChanda is another variant: sva means ‘one’s own’ and Chanda means ‘pleasure, delight, appetite’. svatantra indicates ‘independence’ or ‘self dependence’. saMkalpa means ‘will’ or ‘volition’ in general and yatna is an ‘activity of will or volition’. Possibly the closest in meaning is svechChA. which means ‘one’s own wish or will, free will’; svechChAra means ‘acting as one like, doing what is right in one’s own eyes’. But here again, breaking up the word svechChA gives us sva ichChA – ‘one’s own wish, desire or inclination’. Basically, what the scriptures seem to tell us is that having ‘free will’ means acting in accordance with our own wishes or desires.
Whether or not our own desire influences an action or not is how Aristotle differentiates actions. If the cause of an action is external and we do not contribute anything to it, then it is ‘involuntary’. If the action is triggered by our personal desire or after appropriate deliberation about whether or not to act, then it is voluntary.
“Contrast, for example, the following two cases. (1) You are hurled across the yard by a blast of wind so that you hit a bottle of milk and knock it over. (2) You are thirsty and see a bottle of milk; your desire is aroused and as a result your hands move so that, controlled by perceptual feedback, they tip up the bottle to pour out the milk. In both cases, the bottle empties because of something you do (in a very broad sense), and in both cases what you do is a segment within a causal nexus. Nevertheless, Aristotle would say that in case (2) the causes of the action are such that it counts as a voluntary act, while in case (1) your doings are involuntary.”
[The Philosophy of Mind: An Introduction, Peter Smith and O. R. Jones, Cambridge University Press, 1986. ISBN 0 521 31250 7. An extremely readable introduction to this fascinating topic, albeit not terribly relevant to advaita, of course! Buy from Amazon US or UK.
So the question seems to boil down to whether or not you consider that desires and deliberations constitute free will or are deterministic. When a tiger chooses to chase after an innocently grazing deer rather than share the ample supply of grass that is all around, is this ‘freely’ chosen? When the toddler insists upon playing with the wrapping paper rather than the expensive gift that was contained within it, is she choosing to be ungrateful? Aristotle would say that neither is (yet) capable of discursive thought and is therefore not actually choosing. As soon as we begin to think about the rights and wrongs of a situation and how a course of action may impact upon the future, then free will enters the equation.
But again, you have to consider that we do not choose to have a particular desire and our ability to weigh different options, rationalize and predict possible outcomes, is determined by the skills that we acquire as part of our education. Whether we prefer coffee or tea is determined by opportunities given to us during childhood, opinions of parents and peers and so on. And if there are no determining factors in mind and memory at all, and we effectively choose ‘randomly’, can that really be considered to be free will?
It is extremely difficult to find any references to free will in the scriptures and this, in itself, is very telling. The entire Indian ethos is bound up in the concepts of dharma and karma. This quotation from the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad summarizes this position well: “As it (Brahman identified with intellect, mind, vital force etc) does and acts, so it becomes; by doing good it becomes good, and by doing evil it becomes evil – it becomes virtuous through good acts and vicious through evil acts.”
The basic teaching of Advaita regarding the law of karma does not imply that there is no free will; it is simply that our past actions limit the extent to which we are able to act now. In ‘The Book of One’, I used Edward de Bono’s metaphor of pouring hot water onto jello (jelly in the UK). The very first time that we do this, the water will make feint channels in the surface of the jello. The next time, there will be a tendency for the water to flow into the same channels as before. With repetition over time, the channels will become deep and it will be very difficult to get the water to flow anywhere else. This represents the formation of habitual modes of behavior.
Because this is so ingrained in the Indian mind, the idea that one could choose to somehow ‘go against’ one’s karma does not really arise. It would be almost like thinking that a heavy object, when dropped, might not fall downwards – karma is a natural law, just like gravity. Our past actions have brought us to where we are now; our present actions will dictate where we end up next.
Swami Parthasarathy says: “Destiny may be compared to your bank balance; self-effort to your capacity to earn or lose, to credit or debit your account. Your present bank balance is the aggregate of all your past credits and debits. Whether your balance is in red or green, your present capacity to earn or lose is independent of it. Use this capacity positively – your bank balance increases. Use it negatively – your bank balance decreases. Similarly, the law of karma goes on. If you use puruShArtha (self-effort) to your advantage you rise. If not, if you abuse it, you fall. The law is infallible.”