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, advaita Vedānta 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.
Because Western philosophers do not make this distinction, contradictions arise when they attempt to describe our actions in term of our motives. One extreme view is that thoughts arise outside our conscious control, automatically triggering other thoughts until an action eventually results, all in a totally mechanistic way. This indicates a complete absence of free will and is what Western philosophy labels ‘universal determinism,‘ the belief that anything that happens does so necessarily as a result of the causes that precede it. We may feel that we have to act in a certain way, that we are subconsciously coerced by family or society and are thus unable to act freely according to our desires. Nevertheless, the opposite view of ‘indeterminism,‘ wherein all that we do is effectively random, scarcely seems plausible and is equally incompatible with free will.
According to the traditional teaching of advaita, our ability to choose is restricted by what has happened in the past. This is one element in the theory of karma. Edward de Bono’s metaphor of pouring hot water onto jelly explains how this element operates. The first time that we do this, the water will make faint channels in the surface of the jelly. The next time, there will be a tendency for the water to flow into the same channels. With repetition, over time the channels will become deep and it will be very difficult to get the water to flow anywhere else. This is how habitual modes of behavior come into being. We can employ willpower to overcome these habits and forge a new path, but it is not easy.
Karma is really just the law of cause and effect operating at the level of matter. The real Self is not affected and simply witnesses the actions, but, in our ignorance, we mistakenly think ‘we‘ are acting. The Bhagavad Gītā (5.8) says: ‘Whether seeing, hearing, touching, smelling, eating, walking, sleeping, or breathing, the knower of truth should think ‘I do nothing at all.’‘ This also means, of course, that I do not have free will, because ‘choosing‘ is itself an action. But we must remember that as soon as we speak of the ‘real Self,‘ we are adopting the absolute, or pāramārthika, viewpoint.
Most people believe that they are the body and mind and those are affected by our actions. A diabetic, eating sweets without careful consideration, may end up in a coma. Someone who argues with everybody and openly insults others is likely, eventually, to receive a punch in the nose. The Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad says that, as we act, so we become. A person doing good becomes good, one doing evil becomes evil. This is all from the empirical, or vyāvahārika, viewpoint.
Traditional advaita explains this using the concept of saṃskāra. Whenever someone performs an action with the desire for a specific result (whether for oneself or another), a saṃskāra is created for that person. These accumulate and determine the situations we will be presented with in the future. Our saṃskāra-s will influence the scope of our future actions and also the tendencies that we have to act in a particular way (vāsanā). Any saṃskāra that is not exhausted in this life will carry forward to determine the nature of our birth in the next.
Many modern teachers, especially the neo-advaitins, attempt to speak only from the absolute standpoint. Thus, they tend to ridicule the notion of free will. Such teachers are, however, confusing advaita‘s levels of reality. Certainly the nondual Self has no free will, because it does not act (as indicated by the Bhagavad Gītā quotation). But at the level of the world, a person is obliged to act, working to feed and clothe the body, at the very minimum.
Science tends to support claims that we don’t have free will. The experiments of Benjamin Libet (reported in Behavioural and Brain Sciences, 1985) and Daniel Wegner (American Psychologist, 1999) demonstrate that what we feel to be a conscious decision to act actually takes place in the brain after the action has already been initiated as a result of mechanical cause-effect processes. It is as though, after the initial input X, there are two separate neurological paths. There is a subconscious process whereby X directly causes the action A. Quite separately, X gives rise to the conscious thought Y, which is followed by the decision to act D. Because D occurs before A, we imagine that D causes A, and thus have the illusion of free will.
Practically speaking, this does not change anything (few people are even aware of these experiments). But the implications are quite significant and highlight the fundamental tenets of advaita philosophy. We believe we are these bodies and minds, but we are not. They carry on quite happily without interference. They are simply waves, rising and falling on the ocean of consciousness. The problems arise when we identify with them. Although already free, perfect, complete, and unlimited, we then believe ourselves to be suffering individuals trapped in imperfect and mortal frames. From the absolute viewpoint of advaita, there is no duality. There is therefore no ‘actual‘ creation: there are no people, no objects, and no action. Consequently, there are also no concepts, including that of free will.
And this resolves the seeming paradox of free will. Whether or not we are deemed to have it depends upon the viewpoint we are adopting. It is actually the body-mind of matter that acts and suffers the consequences of those actions. The sense of free will is a part of that system. Accordingly, if we are identified with the body, we will seem to have free will and be subject to the law of karma. From the standpoint of absolute reality, there is only the Self, the ultimate sense of ‘I.‘ There is no action because there are not two things; thus the ‘actor-action-acted upon‘ triad does not exist. Consequently, the very notion of free will is meaningless. Enlightenment entails the realization that karma relates to the body-mind and not to the real Self.
Another helpful way to think about it is in terms of the extent that we are in the present and directing our attention. If we are miles away, we inevitably do things in a habitual mechanical manner. On the other hand, if we are alert, there is an opportunity for the discriminating faculty of the mind to choose between various possible courses of action, depending on which action we perceive as most appropriate. Although this act of choosing may still be mechanical in the sense that it is determined by what we have learned in the past, the nature of the action is clearly quite different. In stillness, other factors, such as morality, can also influence the outcome. Discrimination, as opposed to habit, becomes the driving force. Therefore, the guidance of karma yoga is that we should be in the present, with a still mind, so that discrimination (viveka) may operate and make the correct ‘free‘ choice.
The key technique in advaita is to speak to us initially about our actual experience in the world, and at our present level of understanding. As this understanding grows, these explanations are superseded by increasingly subtle ones. The process is called adhyāropa-apavāda-the provisional, erroneous explanation is later rescinded. Ultimately, it is acknowledged that there is no real world existing separate from brahman. As the Chāndogya Upaniṣad tells us: sarvam khalvidam brahma, all this [world] verily is brahman.
For a more extensive discussion of the topic, see the five-part article beginning at https://www.advaita-vision.org/free-will/.