We haven’t discussed this favorite topic in Advaita for some time! This is an article I wrote for Yoga International over 12 years ago but it only appeared on-line for a short time at Advaita Academy.
Why do you act the way that you do? If it is because you feel you ought to do something, you probably recognize there is little free will involved. You are being ‘coerced‘ by society or family, or influenced by concerns over what might happen if you don’t act in that way. On the other hand, if you do something because you want to, then perhaps you believe you are exercising free will. But is this true even when you trace the source of your desire? For example, you see a cream cake in the window of a shop, and the thought arises, ‘I would like some cake.‘ Did you freely choose to have that thought? Indeed, can you choose to have any thought? Do they not simply ‘arise‘?
Anyone who has thought deeply about spiritual matters knows that one of the fundamental problems is how to reconcile our day-to-day experience with claims about God or a nondual reality. The first level seems concrete and demonstrable while the second is speculative, to say the least. Among the Indian philosophies, advaitaVedānta is the only one that speaks of ‘orders‘ of reality. There is the absolute nondual reality (paramārtha); the empirical level (vyavahāra); and the illusory level of dreams (pratibhāsa). Correctly differentiating among these levels is essential if we are to understand the subtleties involved in the question of free will.
Reality is non-dual. All Advaitins know that this is the teaching, even if they have not yet succeeded in reconciling this with the appearance of the world and their own apparent individuality.
The Self does not act. The jñānī knows this. The well-known statement in Bhagavad Gita 5.8-9 tells us that: The balanced person who knows the truth thinks: ‘I do nothing at all; it is only the senses relating to their sense objects,’ even whilst seeing, hearing, touching, smelling, eating, going, sleeping, breathing, speaking, excreting or grasping; even just opening or closing the eyes. It is all simply the ‘play of the guṇa-s’, name and changing form, like the movement of waves on the surface of the ocean – all is always only water.
Q: In psychology, there is a popular idea called ‘value judgements;’ it says that all assessments of whether things are good or evil are relative to the condition of one’s mind. The standard for good and bad is constantly changing and relative; good and evil is just a construct. Can this concept be reconciled with the idea of karma, that (to my understanding) can be boiled down to, moral action = positive outcome/happiness, immoral action = negative outcome/suffering. Does an action that constitutes as moral in my eyes, but immoral from another perspective still result in good karma? Isn’t it a bit selfish to assume that the causality of the world revolves around our human construct of morality?
I’d like to hear your perspective on this.
A: Not sure what you mean by ‘causality of the world revolves around our human construct of morality’. Karma operates on a personal basis. Each jIva is reborn according to their past karma. This means both in the ‘appropriate body’ and in the ‘appropriate circumstances’ to enable them to ‘redeem’ their past karma, if you like. So the particular moral outlook of the society into which they are born is relevant, irrespective of how that perspective might change over time or in different societies.
But note that this is more of the initial-interim teaching of Advaita. Since, ultimately, there is no creation and no jIva-s, there is no such thing as karma either.
I don’t disagree with what you say about value judgements but it doesn’t really enter into karma yoga. The way we should act is in response to what is in front of us, without any personal motivation, without thinking about what society might say about how we should act, and without ‘taking anything’ from the result. I.e. whether the outcome is as we might have liked or not is not part of the equation. We ‘dedicate’ action and outcome to God and drop everything after the action is complete.
You might argue that how we respond to what is in front of us is going to be determined by our past environment and genetic factors and that must be true. Can we not ‘choose’ to go against these? That would involve free-will; and that is something else that I don’t believe in!
You should stop worrying about all of these empirical aspects! They are the chains that bind you to saMsAra and will not take you anywhere useful.
Kratu Nanadan, a knowledgeable friend I met in Bangalore through another friend, has made some lucid comments in all aspects of Indian philosophy, including the Puranas, which he shared with me and others. The following is an example:
When a ‘person’ reaches mokṣa, there is no more that ‘person’; there was no person, to begin with. The whole thing, including reaching mokṣa was a story that never happened. It was not even a story, and it was nobody’s story. As the well-known analogy puts it, it is like picking up a handful of ocean water and finding that the ocean’s blueness is absent in it. There is no karma, and all that is is the nondual Ātman-Brahman.
The words of the Taittarīyopaniṣat echo such a realization in many ways, one of them being: “He is not agitated as ‘why did I not do good deeds; why did I do bad deeds’.Having thus known (the Ātman), he elates/invigorates himself, and verily sees both (bad and good karma) as (Param) ātman. Thus, the upaniṣat.”—Taittarīyopaniṣat, Ānandavallī, VI, ii.
Q: We talked earlier about the difference between the direct path and the traditional path.
I was looking through the free will section in your book Back to the Truth and I found this quotation by Franics Lucille:
We are entirely conditioned; therefore, there is no free will. It appears as though we exercise free choice, but in fact we are only reacting like automatons, running through the same patterns of our bio-sociological heritage without respite, leading invariably to the same old reactions, like a vending machine dispensing soft drinks in a train station. As individuals, our freedom is illusory, with the exception of the freedom which is ours at each moment to stop taking ourselves for separate individuals and thus putting an end to our ignorance and our suffering.
On the other hand, at the level of our deepest being, everything flows out of our freedom. Every thought, every perception takes birth because we want it to. We cannot understand this at the level of thought, but we can experience it. When we are totally open to the unknown, the personal entity is absent; then we realize that the tangible and intelligible universe arises out of this openness in the eternal present. We want, create and are at every moment everything in the unity of awareness. (Ref. 8)
[Waite, Dennis. Back To The Truth: 5000 Years Of Advaita (p. 76). NBN_Mobi_Kindle. Kindle Edition.]
Q: I am struggling to reconcile the empirical account of what may be called ‘creation’ (the Big Bang, followed by billions of years of mechanically unfolding interactions with no sense of self, until the absurdly *recent* emergence of consciousness after further millions of years of blind evolution) with the advaitic concept of ‘creation’ (the absolute Being, timeless and changeless, manifesting in Itself as experience).
A: The ‘bottom line’ of Advaita is that there has never been any ‘creation’. There is only Brahman. Everything is Brahman. You are Brahman. The ‘universe’ is simply a ‘form’ of Brahman, to which you have given ‘names’ implying that there are separately existing entities.
The scriptures (from which Advaita derives) certainly give ‘empirical accounts’ of a creation. But these are interim explanations only to satisfy the enquirer temporarily until ready to accept the truth.
Q: According to Advaita, God is ONE, and manifestations are many. The term ‘God’ is also called ‘Consciousness/Awareness’. It is a fundamental principle that there is nothing beyond Consciousness; everything arising from Consciousness is Consciousness only. Dualities such as good-bad are not found in Consciousness.
If all this is the case, can the virus COVID-19, which is shaking the world, also be termed as ‘Consciousness’?
A: Yes indeed – the substantial reality of Covid is also Consciousness, since there is only Consciousness. It is like the metaphor – bangle, chain and ring are all only gold.
But in the empirical reality of the world, the form of Covid brings disease whereas the form of vaccination brings protection from disease. No real problem – Consciousness is not affected by any of it!
Q: Thank you very much for your reply. However I have the grievance that I, the individualized spirit, cannot stop worrying about the distress caused practically , even though my ego mind is convinced with the theory of Advaita.
How can I reconcile the practical difficulties which I face with the teaching of advaita? What you have stated is only based on Advaita theory. I am badly hit by the above disease. Please advise.
Following an extended, off-line discussion, I have added a new sub-section to Volume 1 of my next book, ‘Confusions in Advaita Vedanta’ and I am posting this below. I am currently in the process of editing the proof copy of the book and it will be published by Indica Books in Varanasi, hopefully in 2022. Details will, of course, be provided as soon as it is available. It will be printed in hardback and paperback but unfortunately not in electronic format.
As Sureshvara puts it in his Naiṣkarmya Siddhi (1.73):
“And tell me what possible cause could there be for action on the part of one who is established in the Absolute and has become everything, both individually and collectively, not seeing anything as other than himself.” (Ref. 7)
Q: On your website ‘Advaita vision’” in the article ‘Consciousness, Ego and Self-knowledge’ is the axiom mentioned that the subject (observer) is different from the object (observed): the Seer-Seen discrimination (dŗg dŗśya viveka). Are there other such fundamental axioms within Advaita Vedanta and if so, can you give an overview of the main ones?
A: I would say there are not really ‘axioms’ in Advaita. What there are is ‘prakriyā-s’. These are teaching ‘techniques’ to help you to an understanding. The end-point of the teaching – that there is only Brahman, the world is mithyā and you are Brahman – is not provable. It is ‘realized’ to be true when you have listened to the teaching and cleared any doubts. Hence ‘Self-realization’. Seer-seen discrimination is a practical exercise to bring you to the understanding that anything that you are aware of cannot be ‘you’; that you are the ‘ultimate subject’. Read any good book on the essentials of Advaita and other prakriyā-s will be given.
Q: Thank you for your almost instant reply and clear explanation.
First I would like to complement you with your website, which carries a valuable treasure of information. I am exploring every part. Secondly I would like to ask your reflections on a question I have.
Background In our daily western life I see many people unhappily following the path they are on, not having the strength to make a change. In my view this is mainly the result from the way they are (more fundamentally) conditioned: materialistic, externally and scientifically oriented, as well as having a strict dualistic paradigm. At the same time I see how difficult it is for most of the Westerners to switch to a (more spiritual oriented) approach of introspection, in finding a more profound meaning in life and happiness. As I am convinced the ‘internal way’ is ‘the only way out’ in finding real happiness, I have adopted a personal mission: the endorsing of the spiritual regeneration of people around me. The challenge I faced was finding an approach to make this successful, instead of annoying people with my convictions.
1. If upon the death of a jivan-mukta person, the subtle body dissolves and the person does not have go through the cycle of birth and death, this would imply that my sole motivation for attaining enlightenment should be the liberation of the subtle body that resides inside this gross body (since that is what suffers from one birth to another). Does this not in some way refute the idea of realising myself as the supreme consciousness bliss?
2. How is it that law of karma stops to act only on an enlightened being when in essence we are all liberated from the beginning?
3. On living while following the path of karma yoga, how do I decide what actually is the right thing to do in one’s life assuming I don’t have any desires? What Arjuna did in those days was the traditional work assigned to kshatriyas but in present day, since there is no acceptance of the traditional caste system, how do I come to decide what I should do? As a karma yogi has no desires, does all for the Lord, but the problem is coming to know what is to be done and that too, without any desire or attachment. What occupation should be taken or should one retire as a monk?