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Fewer Mentions of Determinism

The “Free Will vs Determinism” debate is long-standing. After a great deal of research, I could clearly see that the issue was too complex for mere mortals like me to fathom; so I decided to seek divine intervention and turned to the Song of God, the “Bhagavad Gita”.

Throughout its 18 chapters, the “Bhagavad Gita” is replete with verses that imply the significance of free will, too many to list here. That did not come as a surprise since the Gita’s main narrative is Lord Krishna persuading the reluctant Pandava prince Arjun to do his duty and fight the just war against his kin, to annihilate evil forces and establish a virtuous society. Such a tall order could not be accomplished without application of some free will. 

What was surprising, however, was how little the scripture had to say about determinism; in all of its 700 verses, I could find only 18 that implied determinism.

Free Will is Straightforward, Determinism is Not

The concept of free will is pretty simple, mundane, and straightforward, and doesn’t require much explaining. However, the concept of determinism is not only complex, mystical, and philosophical, but also subject to interpretation.

Below is a list of 18 verses on determinism that I found. The translated verses are from “​​Bhagavad Gita, The Song of God, Commentary by Swami Mukundananda”.

Bhagavad Gita 2.47 
You have a right to perform your prescribed duties, but you are not entitled to the fruits of your actions. Never consider yourself to be the cause of the results of your activities, nor be attached to inaction.

Bhagavad Gita 3.27 
All activities are carried out by the three modes of material nature. But in ignorance, the soul, deluded by false identification with the body, thinks of itself as the doer.

Bhagavad Gita 3.28 
O mighty-armed Arjun, illumined persons distinguish the soul as distinct from guṇas and karmas. They perceive that it is only the guṇas (in the shape of the senses, mind, and others) that move among the guṇas (in the shape of the objects of perception), and thus they do not get entangled in them.

Bhagavad Gita 3.33 
Even wise people act according to their natures, for all living beings are propelled by their natural tendencies. What will one gain by repression?

Bhagavad Gita 5.8 – 5.9 
Those steadfast in karm yog, always think, “I am not the doer,” even while engaged in seeing, hearing, touching, smelling, moving, sleeping, breathing, speaking, excreting, grasping, and opening or closing the eyes. With the light of divine knowledge, they see that it is only the material senses that are moving amongst their objects.

Bhagavad Gita 5.13 
The embodied beings who are self-controlled and detached reside happily in the city of nine gates free from thoughts that they are the doers or the cause of anything.

Photo Credit: Anshuman Abhishek on Unsplash

Bhagavad Gita 5.14 
Neither the sense of doership nor the nature of actions comes from God; nor does He create the fruits of actions. All this is enacted by the modes of material nature (guṇas).

Bhagavad Gita 11.32 
The Supreme Lord said: I am mighty Time, the source of destruction that comes forth to annihilate the worlds. Even without your participation, the warriors arrayed in the opposing army shall cease to exist.

Bhagavad Gita 11.33 
Therefore, arise and attain honor! Conquer your foes and enjoy prosperous rulership. These warriors stand already slain by Me, and you will only be an instrument of My work, O expert archer.

Bhagavad Gita 11.34 
Dronacharya, Bheeshma, Jayadratha, Karn, and other brave warriors have already been killed by Me. Therefore, slay them without being disturbed. Just fight and you will be victorious over your enemies in battle.

Bhagavad Gita 13.30 
They alone truly see who understand that all actions (of the body) are performed by material nature, while the embodied soul actually does nothing.

Bhagavad Gita 14.19 
When wise persons see that in all work there is no agent of action other than the three guṇas, and they know Me to be transcendental to these guṇas, they attain My divine nature.

Bhagavad Gita 14.22 – 14.23 
The Supreme Divine Personality said: O Arjun, The persons who are transcendental to the three guṇas neither hate illumination (which is born of sattva), nor activity (which is born of rajas), nor even delusion (which is born of tamas), when these are abundantly present, nor do they long for them when they are absent. They remain neutral to the modes of nature and are not disturbed by them. Knowing it is only the guṇas that act, they stay established in the self, without wavering.

Bhagavad Gita 18.59 
If, motivated by pride, you think, “I shall not fight,” your decision will be in vain. Your own nature will compel you to fight.

Bhagavad Gita 18.60 
O Arjun, that action which out of delusion you do not wish to do, you will be driven to do it by your own inclination, born of your own material nature.

Bhagavad Gita 18.61 
The Supreme Lord dwells in the hearts of all living beings, O Arjun. According to their karmas, He directs the wanderings of the souls, who are seated on a machine made of material energy.

Divine Determinism and the Power of 18

I was surprised to find exactly 18 verses on determinism in the 18 chapters of the “Bhagavad Gita”. This may be a coincidence, but I would like to believe that it was the result of divine affirmation, providing legitimacy to the principle of determinism, especially, in light of the fact that 18 is deemed a sacred number in Hinduism.

Significance of 18 in Hinduism 

In his Speaking Tree blog, Vasanth Anvekar enumerates several instances that indicate the significance of the number 18 in Hinduism. Here are a few:

  • The first Veda, believed to be protected by Lord Brahma himself, had 18 chapters. Later, Sage Veda Vyasa divided it to create the four Vedas: Rigveda, Yajur Veda, Sama Veda and Atharava Veda. Each of these Vedas had 18 chapters.
  • There are 18 puranas, 18 upa-puranas and 18 dharma-shastras (Smritis).
  • The number 18 predominates the “Mahabharata”. It is written in 18 parvas or books. The Mahabharata war was fought with 18 divisions of the army (11 on the Kauravas side and 7 on the Pandavas). The war lasted for 18 days. Finally, it is said that only 18 people survived the war.

Reconciling Free Will and Determinism

After a great deal of reading and pondering over the issue, I have come to the conclusion that both free will and determinism are valid and valuable concepts; which concept takes precedence over the other in a specific situation depends upon the context, the perspective, and the reference point.

From the perspective of the material world, in which one identifies with one’s body and mind instead of the soul – which is one’s True Self – free will makes perfect sense. After all, a meal doesn’t prepare itself and a house doesn’t get built without effort or free will. 

From the perspective of the spiritual world, however, in which one identifies with the soul that is temporarily having physical, emotional, and intellectual experiences through the body-mind complex, all work is done through Material Nature (Prakriti), while the soul is just a witness. The material energy or Prakriti, is not antithetical to God; rather it is one of the innumerable powers of God. Thus, from a spiritual perspective, whatever happens in the material world, in the final analysis, can be attributed to God, which implies determinism. No wonder, Hindu scriptures have declared God to be the “cause of all causes” (sarva karana karanam). This brings to mind the famous line from Goswami Tulasidas’ “RamcharitManas”, “Hoi hai soi jo ram rachi rakha” (Everything happens as per Lord Rama’s will)

The best advice on how to reconcile free will with determinism was provided in “Yoga Vasistha”, in which Maharishi Vasishth tells Lord Ram, “Ram, while working, externally exert Yourself as if the results depend upon You; but internally, realize Yourself to be the non-doer.” 

As India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, once said, “Life is like a game of cards. The hand you are dealt is determinism; the way you play it is free will.”

References 

  1. Bhagavad Gita; The Song of God; Commentary by Swami Mukundananda
  2. Significance of No. 18 in Hinduism!, Vasanth Anvekar, The Speaking Tree

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Pradeep Srivastava

Pradeep Srivastava is a retired engineer, who currently lives in Albany, California. He has been writing for more than three decades. Column: A Grandpa’s Guide To Getting By - Our grandpa-in-residence...