Please note: The following article was written while I still believed Sathya Sai Baba to be a genuine, honest person, even though I found his reasoning faulty and his ideas often superficial and confused. Since then I have had all reason to reconsider his so-called 'teaching' on this matter and have found it to be a hodge-podge of untenable and tenable standpoint, often conflicting with one another.

Liberated from taking account of what he has stated, I was able to clear away the resulting confusion and present a more unitary view of the issues here involved. See an improved view of Freedom and Fate here The problems with Sathya Sai Baba's views are expounded under 'Sathya Sai Baba and Free Will' here.


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Few words have been used for so many things as 'freedom' has. The term is imprecise and so can have many different meanings. As preliminaries for discussing the nature of freedom and trying to decide what is true or false about the subject, we may try to make it clearer by asking 1) freedom from what? and 2) freedom for what?


Political freedom is desired from supression of individuals or groups and for individual justice appropriate in each case. Nations or races seek freedom from certain external forces, whether military , economic or otherwise and for socio-economic and political justice. Democracy is based on the freedom of the individual to vote on who should govern. That such freedoms can and do exist is a historical and social fact. But the particular extent or scope of such 'social freedoms' obviously varies with time and place.

Social freedom is also for the good of all society, being the rights a person should have so as to be able do his duty (dharma) as a member of society. It is not a right or an open license to do whatever one wants; that is anarchy. Our 'human rights' are whatever is necessary or reasonable to enable us to serve our fellowmen and thereby also God. Whatever denies human beings the minimum of means of doing those duties is a compulsion from which they must seek freedom. Some examples of compulsion are the suppression of the right of religious belief or worship and the denial of the general opportunity of caring for others through work (and of not being an undue burden oneself).


"At first the will is your own which has to be strengthened by the thought of God until you convert it into the almighty will of God." (My Baba and I p. 144)

Christians hold that freedom implies the capacity to deny God and err from the right way (i.e. dharma). Some people use their freedom to act well, some to err. Moreover, Saint Augustine held that God would not want to be loved as if by slaves, but to be loved only out of the soul's free option of surrendering.

The will is what enables us to choose a course of action and decide to follow it, after having arrived at a judgement of how to act in the given circumstances. The freedom to discriminate morally (or not do so) is a human faculty which other living beings do not have, nor do they suffer as we must from the necessity of having to choose.

When Baba always asserts that we must discriminate and make efforts to do good, not bad, He is therefore also referring to individual freedom, even though it is always bounded by limiting circumstances. If our choices between alternative actions were not willed 'voluntarily', all moral exhortation would be futile because moral effort (exertion of will power) would be impossible. There could be no such thing as responsibility and no philosophy other than fatalism could be true. To hold anyone responsible for their conscious acts (such as in law) would be an injustice if they had no freedom to do otherwise.


At the same time, Baba has said that no blade of grass can move without God's will and that we are all but actors in a vast play written and directed by God, one of which we do not know the whole script or the outcome. He even uses the image of 'puppets on a string' to describe our predicament. Though probably no-one can claim to know what Baba really means by this, it surely cannot be in support of fatalism. At the same time Baba insists that we try to play our parts well! I take this to mean that everything, including the power we have to exercise a limited 'free will', depends for its existence on God's all-sustaining Will, just as does the entire cosmic continuum of space, time and matter. I can see that we are like puppets in that nothing we do, from moving our limbs to digesting our food, from thinking to dreaming, is done without the motive power of some mysterious energy that is created somehow beyond our ken.

Does our having a measure of freedom conflict with the omnipotence of God? Can these apparently opposed views really be reconciled? If we see the connection between two viewpoints between which we are necessarily always moving, either that of the mundane ego or that of the sublime 'I', the questions of freedom and destiny become easier to understand.


Though we appear to have the free will to do anything we like this is the illusion of the individual ego viewpoint, Baba says. The freedom to pursue one's 'individual' instincts and inclinations, whatever they happen to be, is a miasma for no good purpose and is therefore really not freedom at all. It may seem to be freedom but it is really only bondage to one's karmically-obtained inclinations (vasanas) and one's acquired desires. What one thought were 'free choices' are sooner or later seen to have consequences that work back upon the doer (both of the good or pleasurable and bad or painful sort). One's free will was thus 'used' only so as to create future limiting conditions for oneself.

From the mundane viewpoint, the conditioning of our minds by our wants and desires is itself obscured... and the more so the stronger the ego. The sense of 'me' and 'mine' hides from us the operations of the law of karma. Even the 'me' (i.e. the passive aspect of the ego) is itself formed as the (karmic) end result of many previous acts (whether before or since birth).


In contrast to the mundane self, there is 'The I'. 'I' am not my ego, but a spark of Divine Consciousness. Is not this witnessing awareness an expression of Divine energy working in and through us? Scriptures tell us that human beings are created in his own image by God, who is All-knowing and has Almighty will. Firstly, an omnipotent being is free to will that human beings have some share of this potency and to apportion some responsibility to us, whether we like it or not. Secondly, God does not have to exercise omnipotence in all things to remain omnipotent. Christian divines, such as St. Thomas , held that he has endowed us with a small measure of knowledge and freedom of will in some matters, all subject to the general laws and limits within which the cosmos is regulated.

As the divine qualities latent in us are realised and become actual, the reflection of God's will within us as moral intelligence (or conscience) enables us to do what is right. Selfless and dedicated action is the cessation of egoistic 'doership'. We progress very gradually from the mundane to expand towards the divine viewpoint.

We regard the omnipotent Divine Will as that which encompasses sustains and orders the entire cosmos. Yet latitude is somehow allowed in the plan of creation, some divergence from the general rule, some chance in the play of events (what physicists have proved to be 'indeterminacy' in microphysical events). Otherwise it would be as if the rules for the 'game of life' that we are to play determined every tiniest movement in advance and left nothing to the players' initiative or efforts. However, if we could but know directly the inconceivable intricacy and vastness of Creation from God's eternal viewpoint and the plan that lies beyond our ken, would not even real individual freedom and chance be seen to be so minimal in effect as never to be able to upset universal order? Well, certainly not when God himself comes as the avatar to re-establish right and save the world.


How can we in practice meet the challenge of surrendering our will to God without thereby giving up positive action based on self-confident willpower? To counteract the passivity of fatalism, we can quote the Jewish sage Maimonides: "We ought to exert our efforts in everything as though they were absolutely free, and God will do as he sees fit". On the other hand, against an excess of active (self-willed) voluntarism, we must learn from experience how identifying with our own acts and their fruits is but ego-attachment that further binds us up in accumulating karma. Then we realise more how destiny and fate (karma) do set bounds to our ambitions.

So as to reconcile our worldly perspectives with the eternal viewpoint that we cannot yet experience as such, God may be thought to be 'behind' any action in a similar way that a President is behind the actions of the many executives of a government. He leaves some judgement, the details of the doing and some responsibility to them, yet he never loses control of the overall plan nor fails to know what his delegates are up to. Similarly, when in doubt we would refer to the highest authority of which we are but instruments. He then guides and corrects us.

A president who establishes a law doesn't himself physically do all the things the law is intended to regulate. Nor does the author-director of a drama himself script all the parts in every detail. God's (latent) knowledge of every single thought and act, therefore, need not itself mean that each of these is directly pre-ordained by God's will. If they were, then God would directly responsible for every error, unrighteous and evil act too, which seems totally absurd. That would also have absolved us from all moral responsibility.


When I choose an end and a means to reach it, some of my freedom is then expended to that end and I am bound to all the consequences. However, Baba assures us that there is one great exception to the entangling web of karmic action and reaction. It is being able fully to surrender the act and its fruits to God (nishkama karma). To the extent that my aim is to become a mere instrument of God's will, I sacrifice my selfish choices (desires) and do whatever duty that arises for me.

We might say that a great devotee 'invests' her or his freedom by doing nothing from selfish interest and thus becomes 'duty bound'. Is not the same also seen in Swami sacrificing Himself by always using His freedom for the good of all of us, for dharma. Scriptures assert that God uses his Omnipotence for ensuring the good of all mankind, just as Baba has said that the devotion of exceptionally great devotees binds Him (for example to ensure their liberation).

The most ultimate freedom we can think of is for liberation (Mukthi or Nirvana) from the karmic cycle of birth-death , yet no mortal soul can presume to know its full meaning. Those who surrender totally to Divine will presumably have no desire to exercise individual freedom or act separately from the Universal Will. It is self-evident that Liberation cannot be an absence of freedom! Do not the Liberated use their will freely in unity with God and as God? Full equanimity and thus detachment from all sense of good and bad, pleasure or pain is what Baba tells us is freedom. The best we can do is quote what the illumined tell us, such as:-

"...Swechcha means the free will of the Atma. Swechcha in ordinary usage means freedom or liberty. We should not take it in the ordinary sense. Swechcha means the will of the Atma. If we take it in the true sense and follow it up, we will be much benefitted by our action." (Summer Showers in Brindavan. 1972. p. 141)

(Robert Priddy. June 1993)

The above material is the copyright of Robert Priddy, Oslo 1999