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Are our actions our own or does Ishwara use humans as mere instruments to carry out certain actions?

In other words, do we have a choice or free will, such as using our buddhi to decide what actions we must carry out, or could it be that all our actions (which we think are carried out by our buddhi) are infact carried out by the 3 gunas?

If it's the 3 gunas (qualities of Ishwara's prakriti) that compels us to act in good and evil ways, then why do the jivas have to reap the results?

3 Answers 3

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Free will is accepted in Hinduism. Using free will, one can try to perform self-effort for betterment.

Are our actions our own or does Ishwara use humans as mere instruments to carry out certain actions?

There are two components of actions -

  1. Past actions, that cannot be changed (destiny).

  2. Present actions, that one can try to control using free will.

When past karma is strong, one is a mere puppet in the hands of Ishwara, who is the giver of karma phala. But it does not imply that there is no free will.

Yoga Vasistha, Mumukshu Prakarana

Self-effort is of two categories: that of past births and that of this birth. The latter effectively counteracts the former. Fate is none other than self-effort of a past incarnation. There is constant conflict between these two in this incarnation; and that which is more powerful triumphs.

What is called fate or divine will is nothing other than the action or self-effort of the past. The present is infinitely more potent than the past. They indeed are fools who are satisfied with the fruits of their past effort (which they regard as divine will) and do not engage themselves in self-effort now.

Sometimes it happens that without effort someone makes a great gain: for example, the state elephant chooses (in accordance with an ancient practice) a mendicant as the ruler of a country whose king suddenly died without leaving an heir; this is certainly neither an accident nor some kind of divine act, but the fruit of the mendicant’s self-effort in the past birth.

Sometimes it happens that a farmer’s efforts are made fruitless by a hailstorm: surely, the hailstorm’s own power was greater than the farmer’s effort and the farmer should put forth greater effort now. He should not grieve over the inevitable loss. If such grief is justified, why should he not weep daily over the inevitability of death? (The wise man should of course know what is capable of attainment by self-effort and what is not. It is, however, ignorance to attribute all this to an outside agency and to say that “God sends me to heaven or to hell” or that “an outside agency makes me do this or that”—such an ignorant person should be shunned.

The fruition of self-effort by which one experiences the good and evil results of past action is called fate or daivam by people. People also regard that as fate or daivam which characterises the good and evil nature of such results. When you see that ‘this plant grows out of this seed’, it is regarded as an act of this . But I feel that fate is nothing but the culmination of one’s own action.

Free will in Gita

18.63 To you (Arjuna) has been imparted by Me this knowledge which is more secret than any secret. Pondering over this as a whole, do as you like.

Destiny in Gita

18.61 O Arjuna, the Lord resides in the region of the heart of all creatures, revolving through Maya all the creatures (as though) mounted on a machine!

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Only Divine will is absolutely free

Brahma said, ‘No embodied being can counteract His will by austerity, meditation, Yogic power, intellectual skill, or worldly power. Neither with the help of others nor by oneself alone can one do so. Man takes on the body given to him by that mysterious Power for the very purpose of undergoing the experiences it subjects him to – birth, death, work, bereavement, grief, infatuation, fear, happiness, misery etc. We all offer our tribute of works as offerings to Him as cattle pulled by their nose strings do to their masters. The Veda consisting of sounds is the cable to which we all are tied with the smaller but stronger strings of the three Gunas of Prakriti and works springing from them. He controls and directs us with this rope, as their owners do their draught animals. O dear one! We are like a blind man, directed entirely by another with eyes. The Lord gives us each a body according to our eligibility through our nature and karma, and with that we undergo the sufferings and enjoyments He awards us.’

Srimad Bhagavata Purana, V.1.12-15

Hindu scripture says that the Lord surely knows our Agami karma.

This universe, which is the grossest of the gross entities, is the form of the Lord. In this Cosmic Form all the past, the present and the future subsist. Permeating this universal cosmic form, with its seven sheaths - consisting of five elements, egoism, and the universal intelligence - there is the Viratpurusha - the Cosmic Divinity. He is the real object of concentration.

Srimad Bhagavata Purana II.1.24-25

Lord Krishna showed Arjuna in the Gita the entire Mahabharata war before a single arrow was fired. If there was free will then such a thing will not be possible.

Our body-mind complex can not and does not have free will. Yet if there is no free will then there will be no way to distinguish between morally good or bad karma. Machines are not capable of doing bad or good karma (acts).

So what can we say about free will of a jiva?

Vaidyanath: "Sir, I have a doubt. People speak of free will. They say that a man can do either good or evil according to his will. Is it true? Are we really free to do whatever we like?"

Master [Sri Ramakrishna]: "Everything depends on the will of God. The world is His play. He has created all these different things - great and small, strong and weak, good and bad, virtuous and vicious. This is all His maya. His sport. You must have observed that all the trees in a garden are not of the same kind.

"As long as a man has not realized God, he thinks he is free. It is God Himself who keeps this error in man. Otherwise sin would have multiplied. Man would not have been afraid of sin, and there would have been no punishment for it.

"But do you know the attitude of one who has realized God? He feels: 'I am the machine, and Thou, O Lord, art the Operator. I am the house and Thou art the Indweller. I am the chariot and Thou art the Driver. I move as thou movest me; I speak as Thou makest me speak.'"

The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna, Chapter 9, Advice to the Brahmos

Sri Ramakrishna: "It is God alone who does everything. You may say that in that case man may commit sin. But that is not true. If a man is firmly convinced that God alone is the Doer and that he himself is nothing, then he will never take a false step.

It is God alone who has planted in man’s mind what the ‘Englishman’ calls free will, People who have not realized God would become engaged in more and more sinful actions if God had not planted in them the notion of free will. Sin would have increased if God had not planted in them the notion of free will. Sin would have increased if God had not made the sinner feel that he alone was responsible for his sin.

People who have realized God are aware that free will is a mere appearance. In reality man is the machine and God is the Operator, man is the carriage and God its Driver."

The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna, Chapter 18, M at Dakshineswar (II)

The Younger Naren: "Sir, have we any free will?"

Sri Ramakrishna: "Just try to find out who this 'I' is? While you are searching for 'I', 'He' comes out. 'I am the machine and He is the Operator.' You have heard of a mechanical toy that goes into a store with a letter in its hand. You are like that toy. God alone is the Doer. Do your duties in the world as if you were the doer, but knowing all that time that God alone is the Doer and you are the instrument."

The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna, Chapter 42, Car Festival at Balaram’s House

Free will is an illusion that is planted by God to prevent people from committing sin. All of the past, present and the future are laid out for all of us.

Our body-mind complex is a robot. It has no free will. However in that complex is hiding the Atman which is 100 % free. Our free will depends to what extent we are identifying with the Atman.

The way I understand the whole issue is to think in terms of range. Only God is 100 % free, i.e., absolutely free. A stone is 0 % free. We humans are in between these two values - partly free and partly non-free. We are partly free because our I is really the Atman but we wrongly identify it with our ego. A little bit of the free will of the Atman leaks out to the Jiva. Only the self-realized person (Jivanmukta) is 100 % free because he identifies with the Atman and not the ego.

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There's three divisions of Karmas: Kriyaamaana (free-willed karma), Praarabdha (karma that has been propelled forward) and Sanchita (the total heap of Karma)

Sanchita karma is a total collection of all Karmas that you've done, and the Phala of that Karma is waiting to fructify.

A part of that Sanchita is taken to be experienced in the form of Praarabdha, this is what decides in what Loka you're born in, in whose family, in what time, in what land, with what health, with what type of relationship to your parents, what kind of relationships you have with friends, how intelligent you are, how strong your memory is, how much money you are born into, how much money you get, what kind of body you get (deva/human/ant/bacteria) etc.

Now, within the constraints of the Praarabdha, you have the ability of committing new karma. An ant can never produce the karma of helping thousands of other ants. A human can create a karma of helping billions of others. Clearly, the Praarabdha is a limiting/constraining factor as it decides the body through which you act in the world. That mental, physical and soul (Ahamkaara) form is what experiences the karma, and that same form is the one that commits new Karma.

We know that karma committed as an accident doesn't count in this. For example, you stepping on an ant without realizing, you're not responsible for that sin, it doesn't get added to your Sanchita via the Kriyaamaana. Why is this? It's because your Ahamkaara hasn't identified itself with the Karma. There's no cognition of 'I did this'/'I am doing this'. This is the same reason why enlightened people cannot commit new Karma, good or bad, they're simply going through Praarabdha in a spontaneous way without self effort of the Kriyaamaana. Their Ahamkaara is constantly identifying itself with (Satya Jnaana Ananta) Brahma(n), not with the actions happening in their Ahamkaara (via what it identifies with), or Mind(thoughts/emotions/plans) or body.

Now, an interesting question arises. You didn't get the Karma for the ant dying. But, the ant still did die, right? So, what caused the Ant to die? You can think of it like a natural disaster for humans. As far as we can tell, no one really caused an earthquake, but lots of people died in the earthquake. But, the ant can only die if it was in his Praarabdha to die in that manner, correct?

So, here we can see that you're being used by Ishvara to give Karma Phala to the ant. You're not being held responsible for the good or bad that you did unknowingly. But, good and bad are still occurring to others via you. Of course, Ishvara is not controlling you (to a large extent), it is still based on your own patterns and habits and tendencies and nature of your body that something like this would occur.

So, to come to the main topic:

Are our actions our own or does Ishwara use humans as mere instruments to carry out certain actions?

The answer is that both are true at once.

But, a question that you may ask is, how do you know that your Karma is really yours? What if determinism is true and it just feels like you're doing something, when you actually have 0 control.

Well, then Ishvara would be really cruel, would he not? What even would be the point of Karma? As just some sort of tracking mechanism? This is simply not true, if you're already accepting Hinduism as true, then it cannot be true.

Because, multiple scriptures tell us to do Purushaartha (put in effort to achieve something) and not just rely on Daiva (destiny/fate). If free will wasn't there, then would there even be a point in that?

For example, here's a Gitaa (excerpt) from the Mahabharata.

युधिष्ठिर उवाच। पितामह महाप्राज्ञ सर्वसास्त्रविशारद। दैवे पुरुषकारे च किंस्विच्छ्रेष्ठतरं भवेत्॥ 13-9-1 भीष्म उवाच। अत्राप्युदाहरन्तीममितिहासं पुरातनम्। वसिष्ठस्य च संवादं ब्रह्मणश्च युधिष्ठिर॥ 13-9-2 दैवमानुषयोः किंस्वित्कर्मणोः श्रेष्ठमित्युत। पुरा वसिष्ठो भगवान्पितामहमपृच्छत॥ 13-9-3 ततः पद्मोद्भवो राजन्देवदेवः पितामहः। उवाच मधुरं वाक्यमर्थवद्धेतुभूषितम्॥ 13-9-4 `बीजतो ह्यङ्कुरोत्पत्तिरङ्कुरात्पर्णसम्भवः। पर्णान्नालाः प्रसूयन्ते नालात्स्कन्धः प्रवर्तते॥ 13-9-5 स्कन्धात्प्रवर्तते पुष्पं पुष्पात्संवर्धते फलम्। फलान्निर्वर्तते बीजं बीजात्स्यात्सम्भवः पुनः'॥ 13-9-6 नाबीजं जायते किञ्चिन्न बीजेने विना फलम्। बीजाद्बीजं प्रभवति नाबीजं विद्यते फलम्॥ 13-9-7 यादृशं वपते बीजं क्षेत्रमासाद्य वापकः। सुकृते दुष्कृते वाऽपि तादृशं लभते फलम्॥ 13-9-8 यथा बीजं विना क्षेत्रमुप्तं भवति निष्फलम्। तथा पुरुषकारेण विना दैवं न सिध्यति॥ 13-9-9 क्षेत्रं पुरुषकारस्तु दैवं बीजमुदाहृतम्। क्षेत्रबीजसमायोगात्ततः सस्यं समृद्ध्यते॥ 13-9-10 Source

Translation: Yudhisthira said: Grandfather, of great wisdom, and an expert in all Shastras, which is superior between Daiva (destiny) and Purushaartha (free-willed efforts of man) Bhismha said: There's a history of great antiquity that exemplifies the answer to your question. Yudhisthira, this is about Vashishta's conversation with Brahmaa. Long ago, Vashishtha asked Brahmaa, which Karma is greater between Maanushya (karma derived from man) and Daiva (karma derived from Devas)? Then, king Yudhisthira, the grandfather of the whole world, who was born from a lotus and who is the Deva of the Devas, said with a sweet voice something that contained great meaning and was of great reason. Brahmaa said: From a seed, a sprout arises, from a sprout, leaves arise, from leaves, a pseudo-trunk (hollow tube) arises, from a pseudo-trunk, a trunk arises, from a trunk, branches arise and from branches, flowers arise. From the flowers, fruits arise and from fruits, seeds arise. The seed is said to never be fruitless (i.e the seed contains the fruit). Nothing arises without the seed, not even the fruits. The seed creates other seeds and the seed is understood to create fruits. The type of seed a farmer plants in the field leads him to the appropriate fruit. In the same way, good and bad deeds certainly lead to the appropriate (good or bad) fruits. Just as a seed cannot produce fruits without the field, the actions of man cannot produce fruits without Daiva (aka Praarabdha). The field is said to be the actions of man, and the seed is said to be the Daiva. The crop is only produced after a correct union between the field and the seed.

The thing to take out of this whole thing is, that it clearly suggests that there is free will involved somewhere. If it was just talking about what happens when people do karma in favorable situations, then it didn't need to be in the Mahabharata, any random guy can observe it, the involvement of Brahmaa is not needed. So, we have to take the meaning as the contention between what has been pre decided, or rather not under your control, and in the control of the Devas (Praarabdha) and what the opposite of it is (free willed Kriyaamaan Karma).

But. maybe this isn't convincing enough. In which case, what is the point of separation between the Praarabdha and the Kriyaamaana Karma? If everything was predecided, then all Kriyaamaana would be Praarabdha itself. The actions happening to you (and appearing to you as you doing it yourself) would be in the same category as people doing things to you (which is under Praarabdha) and the body being given to you (also based on Praarabdha). But since the categories are different, we can say with confidence that there's a portion of Karma that is based on free will.

Now of course, it differs based on many factors. While in sleep, you're doing 0 Kriyaamaana Karma, yet actions are happening through your body. An ant, the vast vast majority of it's Karma is not Kriyaamaana, simply because it doesn't have the capacity to make free willed decisions. Part of its Praarabdha is to just execute patterns based on pheromones, day/night cycles, orders of the queen and so on.That appears as Karma done by it, and it is, but it's not being counted as Kriyaamaana and not being added to the Sanchita.

That's where the idea of Karma Yoni and Bhoga Yoni comes in. There's certain births, where you can commit Kriyaamaana Karma (such as being a human), and there's certain births where you just reap the Karma Phala without being given an option to commit new karma (the body of a bacteria or plant).

This probably still isn't enough to dispel the hesitation either, and there's really no evidence that can convince you that your life isn't pre-decided. But the better question is:

Why are you even entertaining the possibility that life is pre-decided when it CLEARLY feels like you're the one making the decisions, moment to moment?

Does it not seem a bit stupid? This is the same sort of argumentation materialists use to say mind and consciousness comes from matter, when it clearly feels like mind is separate, and not to mention, there's no evidence for such a thing. Just as there's no evidence for determinism.

If it's the 3 gunas (qualities of Ishwara's prakriti) that compels us to act in good and evil ways, then why do the jivas have to reap the results?

The 3 Gunas do compel you to do actions however, they do not decide what actions you do.

For example: the father of a child may compel him to study, but the child may play instead. This is the same sort of relationship between Gunas and you.

Just as the father pushes the child to do study (Sattva), the brother pushes the child to play (rajas) and the mother pushes the child to sleep to wake up early tomorrow (tamas)... the three Gunas act. In the same way this happens, the Trigunas change your mental state to when you may want to sleep 10 hours or sit on a sofa for 5 hours and watch a movie(tamas), you may want to go and play and exercise and beat up other people (rajas) and where you may want to just pray, do some work that needs to be done and meditate (sattva). In no situation are you forced to do something. You always have the option to not sleep even if tamas is strong. Only in extreme situations of tamas (such as falling unconscious out of exhaustion), do you not have a choice, but in that case, that karma (and subsequent Phala) is not attributed to you anyways, as you do not identify with it.

TriGunas DO NOT definitvely control your choices, although they certainly do influence them. They're more like structures for you to act inside, similar to the Praarabdha. Trigunas are a part of Praarabdha actually, as well.

No decision exists in a vacuum, there's always factors that influence the decision, the majority of the factors are decided by Praarabdha or Karmas you chose to do previously (in this life) that caused you to get into the current mental or environmental situation.

Hopefully that answers the question.

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