Are We Bound or Free?

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A discussion on the options for the soul under the influence of Krishna's material energy.

A controversy arose during a Sunday discussion at ISKCON's Saranagati Village, in British Columbia, Canada. Some devotees quoted a famous Bhagavad-gita verse (3.27) where Krishna says, “The spirit soul bewildered by the influence of false ego thinks himself the doer of activities that are in actuality carried out by the three modes of nature [goodness, passion, and ignorance].”

In other words, they said, although a person may think he or she is making choices, in fact those “choices” are chosen and that “freedom” is an illusion. We’re bound.

Other devotees read from another section of the Gita where Srila Prabhupada writes, “If one wants, he can develop, by practice, the mode of goodness and thus defeat the modes of ignorance and passion. One can similarly develop the mode of passion and defeat goodness and ignorance. Or one can develop the mode of ignorance and defeat goodness and passion. Although there are these three modes of nature, if one is determined he can be blessed by the mode of goodness.” (Gita 14.10, Purport)

In other words, they said, we're not bound, because according to our desires, we choose how to act.

Prabhupada's purports to the Srimad-Bhagavatam contain similar apparently contradictory statements: “The conditioned soul is forced to act under the pressure of the modes of material nature. The living entity has no independence.” (Bhag. 3.27.2, Purport) And on the other side: “One has to act in such a way that in spite of being in the material nature he is not affected by contamination.” (Bhag. 3.27.21, Purport)

So, are we forced to act by material nature, or do we freely choose how we act?

The answer is multifaceted.

Srila Prabhupada explains that spirit is independent, or free, and matter is dependent, or bound. (Life Comes from Life, Chapter 8) In this world, all living things are spiritual beings – spirit souls – encased in a material body. Lower species are completely controlled by the body they’re in and so, by God’s arrangement, are not responsible for their acts: they don’t incur karma. Srila Prabhupada writes, “Animals, birds, reptiles, and other lower life forms strictly adhere to the laws of nature; therefore there is no question of sin for them, nor are the Vedic instructions meant for them. Human life alone is a life of responsibility.” (Sri Ishopanishad, Mantra 1, Purport)

Krishna gifts humans with intelligence, and according to Srila Madhvacharya, persons above the age of fourteen are considered capable of distinguishing between good and bad and are thus culpable for their pious or sinful actions. (Bhag. 11.21.16, Purport) If we, whether devotees or nondevotees, are responsible for our acts, then it is only fair and logical that we are independently choosing what those acts will be. In other words, if we were forced to act, as the lower species are, then the law of karma would be unjust – we would be punished for doing what’s beyond our control.

If our actions were impelled by Krishna, Krishna would be responsible for our good and bad actions. By making some of us to do good action, resulting in enjoyment, and some do bad, resulting in suffering, Krishna would be partial and cruel. And if He were responsible for our actions, the reward or punishment for them should go to Him.

Although Krishna is the supreme controller and the ultimate doer, He does not accept responsibility for what happens to us. “The Supreme Lord does not assume anyone's sinful or pious activities.” (Gita 5.15)

If material nature forced us to act, it would be responsible for our actions – and their reactions. But material nature is inert matter. It has no consciousness; it simply facilitates our actions and awards us the fruits of our pious and impious material activities. Material nature is not responsible for what we do.

Krishna, the cause of all causes, reciprocates our desires by allowing material nature to fulfill them. Although Krishna has His own desires for us – He wants us to return to Him – He and material nature, remaining neutral, fulfill our desires. What we desire is our responsibility. According to our desires material nature allows us to act and then rewards or punishes us for our actions. So, regarding our desires, we are the doers. Regarding the facilitation and fruition of our desires, material nature is the doer (this validates Bhagavad-gita 3.27). And Krishna is the ultimate sanctioner.

In the purport to Srimad-Bhagavatam 10.87.25, Srila Prabhupada's disciples write:

Srila Vyasadeva refutes this idea [that the soul is inactive] in the section of the Vedanta-sutra (2.3.31–39) that begins, karta shastrartha-vattvat: "The jiva soul must be a performer of actions, because the injunctions of scripture must have some purpose." Acharya Baladeva Vidyabhushana, in his Govinda-bhashya, explains: "The jiva, not the modes of nature, is the doer. Why? Because the injunctions of scripture must have some purpose (shastrartha-vattvat). For example, such scriptural injunctions as svarga-kamo yajeta ('One who desires to attain to heaven should perform ritual sacrifice') and atmanam eva lokam upasita (Brihad-aranyaka Upanishad 1.4.15: 'One should worship with the aim of attaining the spiritual kingdom') are meaningful only if a conscious doer exists. If the modes of nature were the doer, these statements would serve no purpose. After all, scriptural injunctions engage the living entity in performing prescribed actions by convincing him that he can act to bring about certain enjoyable results. Such a mentality cannot be aroused in the inert modes of nature."

As adult human beings, we are responsible for what we desire. That means we have the ability – the freedom – to choose our desires, whether pious or impious. One student works hard and does well; another with equally good intelligence wastes his time and fails. One manager is friendly, another tyrannical. These are choices we, as individuals, make. As a result we individually reap the good and bad consequences of our choices.

The Plot Thickens

There is more to it, however, than this. One may ask, why does one student choose to be lazy, one manager to be tyrannical?

Life is a continuum of birth, death, and rebirth. The body and circumstances we’re in now are not accidents but the results of our actions in previous lives. If in previous lives we ignored scriptural principles and instead tried to control and enjoy this material world, then in this life we will find ourselves proportionately more bound by the modes of material nature that govern this world. The God-given freedom we have as a spiritual being will be more covered. Srila Prabhupada explains, “When you are placed into the sea, you have no control. You move according to the waves. This means that there is a power that is controlling you. However, if you put yourself in better circumstances, you will be able to control.” (The Quest for Enlightenment, Chapter 6) Thus the more our activities contradict our identity as spiritual beings, the more we’re bound by the forces of material nature – goodness, passion, and ignorance.

Due to complex karmic reactions, a student is intelligent but lazy, a manager is qualified but demonic. They are awash in the sea, pushed by its waves of passion and ignorance. Yet, they are not helpless. Although limited, they still have freedom. Otherwise, the reactions they accrue for their actions – their karma – would be unjust. And there is no injustice in Krishna’s creation. This means the lazy student, the ogre manager have the innate free will to overcome their attitudes. The student can become industrious, the manager compassionate. No doubt this change is difficult and takes determination, but it’s not impossible. It can be done and has been. And it’s expected. We are meant to improve.

Devotees of Krishna are not exempt from the influence of the three modes of material nature. Kapiladeva, the son of Devahuti, explains:

There are multifarious paths of devotional service in terms of the different qualities of the executor. Devotional service executed by a person who is envious, proud, violent, and angry, and who is a separatist, is considered to be in the mode of darkness. The worship of Deities in the temple by a separatist, with a motive for material enjoyment, fame, and opulence, is devotion in the mode of passion. When a devotee worships the Supreme Personality of Godhead and offers the results of his activities in order to free himself from the inebrieties of fruitive activities, his devotion is in the mode of goodness. (Bhag. 3.29.7–10)

This is not to say, however, that devotees and nondevotees are the same, for Krishna favors His devotees. He preserves what they have, carries what they lack, gives them the understanding by which they can come to Him, and swiftly delivers them from the ocean of birth and death. “When one desires Krishna, the Lord takes special care and encourages one to desire in such a way that one can attain to Him and be eternally happy.” (Gita 5.15, Purport)

Every one of us has some independence to chalk out the plan of our life. We are not helpless, and nothing is stereotyped. We can change our habits by good or bad association, and we need to become intelligent enough to discriminate between good and bad. We’re the cause of our bondage. “The living entity is the cause of the various sufferings and enjoyments in this world.” (Gita 13.21)

Srila Prabhupada explains:

Because he is a living soul, he has the capacity to desire by his free will. Such desire is fulfilled only by the omnipotent Lord. And so, when the living entity is bewildered in his desires, the Lord allows him to fulfill those desires, but the Lord is never responsible for the actions and reactions of the particular situation which may be desired. Being in a bewildered condition, therefore, the embodied soul identifies himself with the circumstantial material body and becomes subjected to the temporary misery and happiness of life. (Gita 5.15, Purport)

But we can also desire freedom and eternal happiness.

Transcending the Mode of Goodness

We humans are expected to be sane and to follow scriptural regulations to gradually elevate our consciousness. We cannot annihilate our desires, but we can transform them. In a letter, Srila Prabhupada wrote:

You cannot kill the human propensities, but they can be changed for higher purposes. You [spoke] of annihilation of desire, or vasana. But you can think on it very wisely if vasana can be stopped at all. No. Vasana can never be stopped. The vasana is an eternal function of the soul, and as the soul is eternal, or sanatana, so also is the vasana. Therefore vasana can be changed only from one object to another. The mind is always a thinking and feeling organ. It does not matter what [it thinks] but it is a fact that it thinks. I am sure that you cannot probably put the mind completely at rest without thinking something. So the quality of thinking, feeling, and willing has to be changed but we may not attempt to kill the mind altogether. That is an impossible fact because the mind acts even after the so-called death or after the annihilation of the material body. (Letter to Ved Prakashji, undated)

We can pray to Krishna to purify our desires. In the words of the great acharya Bhaktivinoda Thakura,

kanaka-kamini-lobha, pratishtha-vasana
chadaiya shodha more, e mora prarthana

“To You I earnestly pray that You reform my greed for wealth and women and my yearning for name and position.” (Jaiva-dharma, Chapter 5)

In his song "Gopinatha," Bhaktivinoda Thakura also fervently prays:

   O Gopinatha, I can no longer tolerate the pain of ignorance and the cycle of repeated births and deaths.
   O Gopinatha, I am a confirmed servant of lust. Worldly desires are awakening in my heart, and thus the noose of fruitive work is beginning to tighten.
   O Gopinatha, when will I wake up and cast this enemy of lust far away, and when will You manifest Yourself in my heart?
   O Gopinatha, I am Your devotee, but because I abandoned You and thus forgot my real treasure, I have worshiped this mundane world.

When we understand the three modes of nature, their influence on us, and their ultimate controller, the Supreme Personality of Godhead, Sri Krishna, and when we act according to His instructions, we become gradually free of the influence of the material modes. Lord Krishna says, “By refraining from a particular sinful or materialistic activity, one becomes freed from its bondage.” (Bhag. 11.21.18) According to how covered we are by Krishna’s external, material energy, we’re that much bound. Thus the apparently contrary statements above are all valid.

Srila Prabhupada assures us that if we’re enthusiastic, patient, and determined to follow the process of devotional service to Krishna, not only can we be blessed by the mode of goodness but we can also transcend goodness and overcome the effects of karma. Then all the actions and reactions of our past activities will be nullified. In Krishna’s words, “One who engages in full devotional service, unfailing in all circumstances, at once transcends the modes of material nature and thus comes to the level of Brahman.” (Gita 14.26) And, “Abandon all varieties of religion and just surrender unto Me. I shall deliver you from all sinful reactions. Do not fear.” (Gita 18.66)

Simply by hearing about Krishna and His devotees, we will lose our longtime desire to control and enjoy this world, and as we gradually reduce our desire to dominate, we will proportionately enjoy spiritual happiness. A Vedic mantra says that as we associate with the Supreme Personality of Godhead, we proportionately relish our eternal blissful life.

So, eternal blissful life can be ours if we desire and pray for it. “When will Nityananda bestow His causeless mercy upon me so that my desire for material enjoyment will become very insignificant? When will that time come?” (Srila Narottama Dasa Thakura, Lalasamayi Prarthana 2). By the causeless mercy of our transcendental superiors, our desires will no longer be material, but spiritual. At that time the modes of goodness, passion, and ignorance will release their ironlike grip on us. We’ll be completely free.

About the Author: 

Vishakha Devi Dasi

Vishakha (pronounced Vi-shA-khA) Devi Dasi received an Associate of Applied Science degree with honors from Rochester Institute of Technology and shortly afterwards published her first book, Photomacrography: Art and Techniques. In 1971 she traveled to India, where she met His Divine Grace A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, read his Bhagavad-gita As It Is, and eventually became his student. She traveled with and photographed Bhaktivedanta Swami and his students in India, Europe, and the United States.