Free Will and Choice in the Dualistic World

S&T is a creature of S and T!
In the absence of S and T, S&T gets asphyxiated; S&T doesn’t survive.

Perhaps, you have already guessed S&T stands for Science and Technology; S and T are Space and Time.

Science and Scientists work where Space, Time and Substance (material) exist out there facilitating an observation. Their entire edifice is based on causal relatonships – a prior cause, p1, giving raise to an effect, p2, over a time interval. The mAdhyamika Buddhist philosophy also is based on this principle. A given effect in the present is said to result from summation of all the antecedent causes. The cause-effect relationship invokes “Mind space,” when there is no tangible physical space present,

But what happens if Space and Time are merely “unreal or imaginary”? Can causal relationships exist without a mind?

The ancient Indian Advaita Vedanta tackled these questions and emphatically answered millennia of years ago that when space, time and mind subside, a unique unthinkable, unimaginable, formless, featureless, unborn and immutable Oneness prevails (7, mANDUkya Upanishad; 6.2.1, chAn.U.; 2.20, BG); It’s beyond hunger and thirst (3.5.1, B.U.); It’s pure Sentience (2.4.12, B.U.); It’s Bliss (3.9.27 (7), B.U.); It’s pure Beingness-Knowingness-Infinity (2.2.1, taittirIya); and so on.

Advaita Vedanta does not just stop with establishing what is present transcending time-space-mind; It exhorts all of us to lift ourselves beyond the morass of the time-space-causational world (6.5, BG; etc.)

That prompts the Big Question: Is that “Choice” available for us? Are we not inescapably bound by the forces of nature, mere helpless victims swayed by unknown and unknowable causes in a deterministic universe?

Of course, it is an old debate; several experts argued the pros and cons of it with no sight of a reasonable conclusion being reached. This controversy is rekindled by the well-known Neuroendocrinologist and Primate researcher, Dr. Robert Sapolsky of the Stanford University, USA with the publication of his latest book, “Determined: A Science of Life without Free Will,” a couple of weeks ago.

Though, deeply sensitive to the fact that the subject matter is quite controversial, the author does not hesitate to state, “As a central point of this book, those are all variables that you had little or no control over. You cannot decide all the sensory stimuli in your environment, your hormone levels this morning, whether something traumatic happened to you in the past, the socioeconomic status of your parents, your fetal environment, your genes, whether your ancestors were farmers or herders. Let me state this most broadly, probably at this point too broadly for most readers: we are nothing more or less than the cumulative biological and environmental luck, over which we had no control, that has brought us to any moment. You’re going to be able to recite this sentence in your irritated sleep by the time we’re done.”

The controversy becomes more marked as one moves on to apply the  conclusions of the author to legal jurisprudence and delivery of justice. However, we shall not go into those issues here. We will try to examine the availability of a “choice” to us, as human beings, aspiring mokSha following the Non-dual Path of Knowledge (jnAna mArga).   


Our birth itself, (and the circumstances into which we are born), is neither random or happen at the mercy or whims and fancies of a supernatural power. The scriptures tell us very clearly that the desires we strongly hold on to and the last thoughts at the time of death that occur to us impelled by those desires govern our birth (2.72, BG; 8.6, BG; 4.4.5 etc., B.U.). 

Nor does any God assign good or bad life for us (5.15, BG). Shankara too explains to us that the Creator God cannot be blamed for the type of life we get (2.1.34-35, BSB). Thus, each individual is responsible for the type of life s/he faces. 

Choice in the Dualistic World:

Sage Vasishta ridicules the term “Destiny or Fate” calling it just a concept of “solace.” He exhaustively deals with the scope of intentional action taken with determination as “puruSha yatna.” He discusses these issues in the 2nd Chapter: “Behavior and Conduct of a Spiritual Aspirant” in Yogavasishta. Please read the short Sections 32-40 at this link:

We have from chAndogya:

अथ खलु क्रतुमयः पुरुषो यथाक्रतुरस्मिंल्लोके पुरुषो भवति तथेतः प्रेत्य भवति स क्रतुं कुर्वीत ॥   — 3.14.1, chAn Upa.

Meaning:  Now. really, the Man consists of Volition. According as his Volition is in this world, so does he become on departing from here. Hence, he should exercise Volition.

So, though Neuroscience says that “a man is his hormones,” the  Upanishad does refer to his/her ability “to will” (“volition”). It exhorts us to use it!

Lord Krishna says in the BG to Arjuna:

इति ते ज्ञानमाख्यातं गुह्याद्गुह्यतरं मया ।

विमृश्यैतदशेषेण यथेच्छसि तथा कुरु ॥ —  18.63, BG

Meaning: “Thus is the wisdom, more secret than all that is secret, has been declared to you by Me; you reflect over it and act as you please.”

If there is no free will on our (Arjuna’s) part, why would Krishna say that?

Shankara says in his bhAShya (1.1.2, BSB) that a human being has freedom to do an action as prescribed in the scripture or not to do or to do in a different way. If there is no freedom, why would he say so?

If everything is pre-decided, a human being has NO “Exit gate” at all and s/he will perish going in unending closed loops forever without redemption from samsAra.

There will be no scope for ‘mokSha‘ and all our scriptural teaching will be meaningless.

So, there is scope for an individual jIva to examine an issue and take action as per the scriptural guidance.

kaTha Upanishad tells us:

श्रेयश्च प्रेयश्च मनुष्यमेतस्तौ सम्परीत्य विविनक्ति धीरः ।

श्रेयो हि धीरोऽभि प्रेयसो वृणीते प्रेयो मन्दो योगक्षेमाद्वृणीते ॥  —  1.2.2, kaTha U.

Meaning: There are two approaches to the mankind — the Path of Welfare and the Path of Pleasurables. The man of intelligence, having considered them, separates the two. The intelligent one selects the Path of Welfare (i.e. Self-realization). The unintelligent one selects the path of pleasure (i.e. enjoyment in life, sex, luxuries etc.).

Why would the Upanishad lie to us?

In summary, it can be said that, as per Advaita, brahman being Alone in the Absolute state, there is no scope for a “choice” and free will for one who is identified with the Supreme Self. For all those who still maintain a claim of ownership to the body and retain some sense of attachment to the body-mind and the world where multiplicity exists, there is a choice – either to continue on with the unfolding cycles of births and death in a dualistic world or to choose to attain Self-realization and thus step out of the space-time-causational world.

One thought on “Free Will and Choice in the Dualistic World

  1. Samsara is Nirvana. All dualities are mental/comceptual.
    ‘Ananké’: Necessity, is the essence of things. Choice is an anthropomorphic notion, same as causality. (Ask David Hume).

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