If God is the cause of everything, how do we have free will?
Transcribed by: Keshavgopal Das
Question: If God is the cause of everything, how do we have free will?
Answer: God is the cause of all causes, but he is not the cause of all effects. I will explain what do I mean by this. If any vegetation grows on the earth, the rain is the cause of the vegetation. Without rains no vegetation will grow but which vegetation grows where, that is not determined by the rains. That is determined what kinds of seeds are sowed at what place. Hence, some places crop may grow but other places fruits or weeds or grass may grow. Rain is cause of growth of all vegetation, but rain is not the cause of which specific vegetation grows where.
In Bhagavad-gita 5.15, Lord Krishna says he does not accept anyone’s sinful of pious activities:
naadatte kasyacit paapam, na caiva sukṛtam vibhuḥ
ajnaaneaavṛtaṁ jnaanam, tena muhyanti jantavaḥ
“Nor does the Supreme Lord assume anyone’s sinful or pious activities. Embodied beings, however, are bewildered because of the ignorance which covers their real knowledge.”
In the next verse, the Lord continues to say:
jnaanena tu tad ajnaanaṁ, yeṣaam naashitam aatmanaḥ
teṣaam aaditya-vaj jnaanam, prakashayati tat param
“When, however, one is enlightened with the knowledge by which nescience is destroyed, then his knowledge reveals everything, as the sun lights up everything in the daytime.”
God is Supreme and he is the ultimate reality. He is the cause of all causes. At the same time, by his arrangement, he has given us free will, so that we can have reciprocation of love, so that there can be bhakti.
Suppose there is a boy who falls in love with a girl and offers him a rose and says, “Please marry me.” But the girl refuses. On this the boy immediately takes out the gun and shouts, “Marry me!” Where is the love here? If there is force, then there can be no love. If the boy does not give any choice (or free will) to the girl, there is no love.
Krishna is omniscient and omnipotent. He is Supreme, but he has given all of us free will, so that we can reciprocate with love. Now how can our free will exist with his omnipotence or supremacy? This is explained in verse BG 9.6:
yathakasha-sthito nityam, vayuḥ sarvatra-go mahan
tatha sarvani bhutani, mat-sthanity upadharaya
“Understand that as the mighty wind, blowing everywhere, rests always in the sky, all created beings rest in Me.”
If we conceive the sky like a upside down bowl, we understand the air flow is not limited by the sky. The air can move up or down or left or right. However, the area of movement of air is limited to the sky, the movement of air itself within the sky is not limited. God’s controllership is like the sky and within that we can move about. We have unlimited free will within a limited framework. For example, as humans, we can talk. Each of us can choose to talk sense or nonsense or good words or foul words or remain silent. We have a free will. However, we cannot sing like a parrot or we cannot communicate through sounds like animals communicate. Therefore, we have certain limits. We have a body by the arrangement of the Lord, but that body has limitations. We have unlimited freedom within a limited framework. If a horse is tide by a rope to a pole, it cannot go beyond the radius of the rope. However, within the radius, it can run or stand or move back or forward or do various things. Therefore, our free will exist by the arrangement of the Lord but the way our free will and God’s supreme will is reconciled, that is by God’s will.
Different people have different scopes of free will. If a tree comes on the path of a small ant, it will have to change its course. However, a giant elephant may knock down the tree and continue to move without changing its course. An elephant is given a body by which it can have a greater influence. Similarly, in human form also, some people are very charismatic, they can influence hundreds of people, others may influence only very few people. In Bhagavad-gita, such sphere of influence is called as kshetra. Prakriti refers to general material nature, kshetra refers to the specific area of material nature over which we have been given control. This kshetra is determined by our past karma. People who have done punya in their past life, they have a large kshetra in this life. Such people may have lots of money, intelligence, popularity etc. However, when their karma runs out than there kshetra shrinks. Somebody may be a famous cricketer, millions of people are their fans but after they retire, the number of people admiring them may go down substantially. Bhagavad-gita says that we have a free will, but we are not absolutely free. There are two ideas: (i) we have no free will or (ii) we have absolute free will. We don’t have absolute free will. We are definitely controlled but we are not absolutely controlled.
At the end of Bhagavad-gita, Krishna acknowledges Arjuna’s independence and appeals to Arjuna’s intelligence. In 18.63, Krishna says:
vimṛshyaitad ashesheṇa, yathecchasi tatha kuru
“Thus, I have explained to you, knowledge still more conﬁdential. Deliberate on this fully, and then do what you wish to do.”
Here “deliberate deeply” means he is appealing to Arjuna’s intelligence and then “do as you desire” means Arjuna is independent to choose how he wants to act. On hearing this Arjuna says after using my intelligence, I decide to harmonise with you. In BG 18.73, Arjuna says, karishye vachanam tava (I will do as per your instruction).
The free will that we have is like a scope. The scope can decrease or increase not just by karma from previous life but even in this life. How? We form certain habits during our lives. The habit limits our independence. An alcoholic as soon as he sees alcohol bottle, he picks it up and drinks it. The space between impulse and response is too little. Similarly, for smokers. This means that greater the distance between impulse and the response, greater is our freedom. More we keep a particular activity, more we become habitual. Once habitual, the distance between impulse and response becomes lesser and lesser and at one time the two are just tied together. Therefore, in this life also the way we act can decrease or increase the scope of our free will.
End of transcription.
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