By Sri Aurobindo (1910)
A question which has hitherto divided human thought and received
solution, is the freedom of the human being in his relation to the
Power intelligent or unintelligent that rules the world. We strive
for freedom in our human relations, to freedom we move as our goal,
and every fresh step in our human progress is a further approximation
to our ideal. But are we free in ourselves? We seem to be free,
to do that which we choose and not that which is chosen for us;
but it is possible that the freedom may be illusory and our apparent
freedom may be a real and iron bondage. We may be bound by predestination,
the will of a Supreme Intelligent Power, or blind inexorable Nature,
or the necessity of our own previous development.
The first is the answer of the devout and submissive mind in
its dependence on God, but, unless we adopt a Calvinistic fatalism,
the admission of the guiding and overriding will of God does not
exclude the permission of freedom to the individual. The second
is the answer of the scientist; Heredity determines our Nature,
the laws of Nature limit our action, cause and effect compel the
course of our development, and, if it be urged that we may determine
effects by creating causes, the answer is that our own actions are
determined by previous causes over which we have no control and
our action itself is a necessary response to a stimulus from outside.
The third is the answer of the Buddhist and of post-Buddhistic Hinduism. "It
is our fate, it is written on our forehead, when our Karma is exhausted,
then alone our calamities will pass from us";--this is the
spirit of tamasic inaction justifying itself by a misreading of
the theory of Karma.
If we go back to the true Hindu teaching independent of Buddhistic
influence, we shall find that it gives us a reconciliation of the
dispute by a view of man's psychology in which both Fate and Free-will
are recognised. The difference between Buddhism and Hinduism is
that to the former the human soul is nothing, to the latter it is
everything. The whole universe exists in the spirit, by the spirit,
for the spirit; all we do, think and feel is for the spirit. Nature
depends upon the Atman, all its movement, play, action is for the
There is no Fate except insistent causality which is only another
name for Law, and Law itself is only an instrument in the hands
of Nature for the satisfaction of the spirit. Law is nothing but
a mode or rule of action; it is called in our philosophy not Law
but Dharma, holding together, it is that by which the action of
the universe, the action of its parts, the action of the individual
is held together. This action in the universal, the parts, the individuals
is called Karma, work, action, energy in play, and the definition
of Dharma or Law is action as decided by the nature of the thing
in which action takes place,--svabhava-niyatam karma. Each separate
existence, each individual has a swabhava or nature and acts according
to it, each group, species or mass of individuals has a swabhava
or nature and acts according to it, and the universe also has its
swabhava or nature and acts according to it. Mankind is a group
of individuals and every man acts according to his human nature,
that is his law of being as distinct from animals, trees or other
groups of individuals. Each man has a distinct nature of his own
and that is his law of being which ought to guide him as an individual.
But beyond and above these minor laws is the great dharma of the
universe which provides that certain previous karma or action must
lead to certain new karma or results.
The whole of causality may be defined as previous action leading
to subsequent action, Karma and Karmaphal. The Hindu theory is that
thought and feeling, as well as actual speech or deeds, are part
of Karma and create effects, and we do not accept the European sentiment
that outward expression of thought and feeling in speech or deed
is more important than the thought or feeling itself.
This outward expression is only part of the thing expressed and
its results are only part of the Karmaphal. The previous karma has
not one kind of result but many.
In the first place, a certain habit of thought or feeling
produces certain actions and speech or certain habits of action
and speech in this life, which materialise in the next as good fortune
or evil fortune. Again, it produces by its action for the good or
ill of others a necessity of happiness or sorrow for ourselves in
another birth. It produces, moreover, a tendency to persistence
of that habit of thought or feeling in future lives, which involves
the persistence of the good fortune or evil fortune, happiness or
sorrow. Or, acting on different lines, it produces a revolt or reaction
and replacement by opposite habits which in their turn necessitate
opposite results for good or evil. This is the chain of karma, the
bondage of works, which is the Hindu Fate and from which the Hindus
If, however, there is no escape from the Law, if Nature is supreme
and inexorable, there can be no salvation; freedom becomes a chimaera,
bondage eternal. There can be no escape, unless there is something
within us which is free and lord, superior to Nature. This entity
the Hindu teaching finds in the spirit ever free and blissful which
is one in essence and in reality with the Supreme Soul of the Universe.
The spirit does not act, it is Nature that contains the action.
If the spirit acted, it would be bound by its action. The thing
that acts is Prakriti, Nature, which determines the Swabhava of
things and is the source and condition of Law or dharma. The soul
or Purusha holds up the swabhava, watches and enjoys the action
and its fruit, sanctions the law or dharma. It is the king, Lord
or Ishwara without whose consent nothing can be done by Prakriti.
But the king is above the law and free.
It is this power of sanction that forms the element of free will
in our lives.
The spirit consents not that itself shall be bound, but that
its enjoyment should be bound by time, space and causality and by
the swabhava and the dharma. It consents to virtue or sin, good
fortune or evil fortune, health or disease, joy or suffering, or
it refuses them. What it is attached to, that Nature multiplies
for it; what it is weary of, has vairagya for, that Nature withdraws
from it. Only, because the enjoyment is in space and time, therefore,
even after the withdrawal of consent, the habitual action continues
for a time just as the locomotive continues to move after the steam
is shut off, but in a little while it slows down and finally comes
to a standstill. And because the enjoyment is in causality, the
removal of the habit of action is effected not spontaneously and
freely, but by an established process or one of many established
processes. This is the great truth now dawning on the world, that
Will is the thing which moves the world and that Fate is merely
a process by which Will fulfils itself.
But in order to feel its mastery of Nature, the human soul must
put itself into communion with the infinite and universal Spirit.
Its will must be one with the universal Will. The human soul is
one with the universal Spirit, but in the body it stands out as
something separate and unconnected, because a certain freedom is
permitted it in order that the swabhava of things may be diversely
developed in different bodies. In using this freedom the soul may
do it ignorantly or knowingly.
If it uses it ignorantly, it is not really free, for ignorance
brings with it the illusion of enslavement to Nature. Used knowingly,
the freedom of the soul becomes one with surrender to the universal
Will. Either apparent bondage to Fate in Nature or realised freedom
from Nature in the universal freedom and lordship of the Paramatman
and Parameshwara, this is the choice offered to the human soul.
The gradual self-liberation from bondage to Nature is the true
progress of humanity. The inert stone or block is a passive sport
of natural laws, God is their Master. Man stands between these two
extreme terms and moves upward from one to the other.
Suggested Further Reading
Source: This article was originally published
in the Essay from the KARMAYOGIN (1909-1910) 29 January
1910. It is currently in the public domain and reproduced
here as per the international conventions on copyright laws.