When we are not the doers – material nature is – why are we held responsible for our actions?
Transcribed by: Geetanjali Nath
Edited by: Nikhil Fernandes
Question: When we are not the doers – material nature is – why are we held responsible for our actions?
The Gita does not exactly say that we are not the doers. Krishna does say one who thinks – I am the doer, is in illusion. The Bhagavad-gita 3:27 states: prakṛteḥ kriyamanani, gunaiḥ karmani sarvashah. But at the end of Bhagavad-gita in 18. 63, Krishna says to Arjuna, vimrshyaitad asheṣeṇa, yathecchasi tatha kuru – now deliberate deeply and do as you desire. Krishna instructs Arjuna to do as he desires. In other words, he tells Arjuna to be a doer. Ten verses later, when Arjuna responds, he says kariṣhye vachanam tava – I will do your will. So, at one level Gita is telling Arjuna that you are not the doer, but then Krishna is also telling Arjuna – now you do as you desire, and Arjuna says, I will do as you [Krishna] desire. This controversy is resolved in the sixteenth verse of eighteenth chapter where Krishna says the illusion is to think that we are the only doers.
tatraivam sati kartaram
aatmanam kevalam tu yaḥ
na sa pashyati durmatih
One who thinks that the soul alone is the doer, that person is in illusion. Let me explain this point.
While I am speaking, I am the doer. If I did not want to speak nothing would come out. But if I get a sore throat I will not be able to speak, even though I may want to speak. In this way, I am the doer, but I am not the sole doer. At the very least, we have the capacity to desire. Having the desire is one aspect of doer-ship. Along with that, we can also do action at a small level. A person with a fractured arm may be instructed by the doctor to perform exercise even though in that state they may be unable to use their entire arm. They are advised to start by exercising a single finger and then the hand and eventually they will be able to exercise their whole arm. Although our free will is never taken away, by our conditioning, the scope over which we can execute our free will, can be limited. In the Bhagavad-gita 9.6, Krishna says
vayuḥ sarvatra-go mahan
tatha sarvaṇi bhutani
We can think of the sky like upside down bowl with the wind moving within it. The sky does not prevent the wind from moving, but it limits the area over which the wind moves. Similarly, for us, we do not have absolute freedom, but even within our limited scope we do have freedom. For example, if somebody is an alcoholic and just cannot give up alcohol, when they get the urge, they are unable to stop themselves from drinking. When the urge hits they temporarily may have no free will, but in between urges they do. If in between the urges they are doing something to improve – may it be counselling, being purified by spiritual impressions, then they will become stronger and be in a better position to resist the urge in the future. Take another example, in which I am very conditioned and require ten hours of sleep a day. I may not be able to suddenly reduce that to six hours. However, I can decide that instead of ten hours, I’ll try to make do with ten minutes less. In our situation if we can use our free will even at the microscopic level, with baby steps, then those baby steps will help us to grow in spiritual life eventually. This is how, by using whatever free will we have right now properly we show Krishna that we want to use our free will properly and then we expand the scope of our free will.
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