Sathya Sai Baba is both vague and self-contradictory as to whether there is any kind of 'free will'. He never explains the meaning he puts in this Protean and highly ambiguous term. Now and again he says bluntly that 'there is no free will', yet he has also pronounced that 'only God has free will'! Despite this, he contradicts himself elsewhere by saying that humans have only the free will to choose either to do good or bad! Then again he also repeatedly says elsewhere there is no 'good' or 'bad' etc., that good vs.bad is an illusion (i.e. maya). If this were not enough he also says that everything is good since everything comes from God! What a confusion he creates, both in his own mind and that of his followers! Characteristically seeing things in black and white, he as usual omits any third option, such as the possibility of acting in an ethically neutral way, neither good nor bad. All this is quite typical of his 'catch-all' and highly over-generalised 'teaching', for he often stands for two or three conflicting viewpoints on an issue. In this way, those of different and set opinions can eventually find something of his to agree with and quote. However, it is the absence of free will that Sathya Sai Baba mostly asserts. He has sometimes admitted that there is some small degree of free will, very insignificant (he gives examples like being able to swing a stick around freely and waste one's time). One must suppose he realises that too many people would reject his teaching (and him with it) if he did not make some allowance for what most people experience to be the case.
Only God has free will? Many devotees conclude simplistically that free will can only be exercised by him (claiming to be the Godhead), even though he is constantly telling people, 'You are God. You ARE God!' (I heard him say just this to a devotee at one of my interviews with him). This cannot can have any real practical meaning, it is about as unhelpful as saying such things as 'the cosmos exists', 'the cosmos does not exist', 'all is truth' or 'all is illusion'. 'all is energy', 'everything is everything' etc. Then again he also repeatedly says elsewhere there is no 'good' or 'bad' etc., that good vs.bad is an illusion (i.e. maya). If this were not enough he also says that everything is good since everything comes from God! What a confusion he creates, both in his own mind and that of his followers! Followers often repeat Sai Baba's words, 'there is no free will' almost as if it were like a holy mantra, evidently without understanding how much this vast generalization implies for human life. For one thing, it would make everyone into automatons without any responsibility whatever for anything.
Ironically, a follower who is kept in confusion is much more likely to cling to a master! To assert that humans are mere puppets, "sugar dolls", as Sai Baba had frequently done, is blatantly absurd. But it is his way of convincing people to submit and surrender themselves to him as the only Doer. The effect on believers in this is to become less motivated, less constructive or vital, it amounts to loss of self-respect and sense of self worth and amounts to inauthenticity and existential alienation from ones living reality.
The meaning of the words 'free will' vary enormously. Some people fall back on fatalism to explain to themselves their own failings and failures, or to avoid responsibility for themselves or for having to take moral standpoints that may prove uncomfortable because they are unpopular, even when right and true. Others accept there is a measure of free will and try to employ it positively. Without faith in human will power and freedom, the world would be a meaningless round, a sorry place where people go through 'predetermined motions', believing wrongly that they have no choice to do otherwise. Democratic freedom of choice could not exist, only the tyranny of unavoidable events. This benefits despotic, totalitarian and authoritarian systems. It engenders fatalism where all social freedoms and human rights become like a mere legend, as among most of India's religious and crushingly poor villagers and town slum dwellers. This applies very much in India, where the oppressive caste system is hardly changed since Independence, still making most of the 160 million 'untouchable' Dalits (95% still only in low-caste trades) no better than serfs to the other castes.
Many conclude simplistically that free will can only be exercised by Sathya Sai Baba, since he claims to be the omniscient God of Gods, while [typically] he also often tells people, 'You are God. You ARE God!' Further, he also teaches that there is no 'good' or 'bad', that everything is neutral ('from the divine viewpoint'). None of this can have any clear or practical meaning. It is equivalent to his pronouncement such as 'the cosmos exists' and 'the cosmos does not exist', 'all is truth' and 'all is illusion' or 'everything is nothing' and 'nothing is everything. Because these kinds of self-defining statement ('known as 'tautologies') do not refer to anything except themselves, they easily confuse those without philosophical training into thinking they have 'deep meaning', when they actually have no real meaning at all... they are but words about words. A follower who is kept in confusion is much more likely to cling to a master! This complicated confusing confusion is an aspect of what I have explained as 'the labyrinth fallacy'.
At bottom, Sathya Sai Baba does not want anyone to (believe that they) have any free will, for he demonstrably wants everyone to do only his will... in short, he is a guru who wants a totally obedient following to see him as God Almighty. However, humans most evidentlydo have some 'free will', in the sense of often being able to select among many alternative courses of action.
The dangers to ones personal autonomy, destiny and freedoms from not understanding the nature of human free will and willpower but believing in Sai Baba's main world view are detailed at length in a series of articles here.
How on earth could Sai Baba be the Only 'Doer'? Sathya Sai Baba even proclaims that he does everything, not even a blade of grass can move without his will etc. He proclaims that he alone is the Doer! He follows up by boasting that it is Sathya Sai Baba who builds his colleges and hospitals, and does all good works in the world (not the bad, however!). This peculiar megalomaniacal notion can be seen operating in full force on Sathya Sai Baba followers, especially in his ashrams.Sathya Sai Baba claims:
"No one has the power to protect one's own self. It is only the divine power and divine will that enables man to protect himself. Only divinity has free will, none else." (Sanathana Sarathi - Feb.1999, p. 30).
However, the in-built self-contradiction in that Sathya Sai Baba speaks of divine will enabling man to protect himself! Though some overall protection could come from an intelligent source beyond human ken (i.e. from divinity, which even Sathya Sai Baba insists resides within the human heart), man is enabled by his inherent powers to protect himself. Otherwise none of the advances of science, technology, medicine, social care etc. etc. would have any effect whatever. These were developed by mankind and enables us to "protect our own selves" in far more respects than in ages past. In short, our own actions are part of the operation of the laws of nature (or of karma, if you like)... we hold an executive function. This aspect is what is normally known as 'free will'... a limited freedom indeed, but nonetheless bearing the seed of divine will and hence of freedom.
Falling back on the Inscrutable Ways of God "It is all part of Swami's plan" is the ingrained explanation of anything found incomprehensible by most Sathya Sai devotees, a panacea argument used to help avoid thinking, observing sensibly about what he says - let alone adopting any kind of critical preception. In this way one cannot find out when one has been deceived. The pat answer to all absurdities, untruths, conflicting words and false promises constantly spouting forth from Sai Baba - "how can we understand God's ways?" - also means not listening to one's own conscience as regards the injured parties he has let down, abused or otherwise deceived, of which there are many.
There was a long period after I became a follower of Sai Baba during which I plunged deeply into his so-called "teachings", not least on philosophical issues with which I had been professionally involved for decades. On the will and causation, fate and his ideas of karma I compared his versions with those of other more articulate Eastern thinkers and supposed 'masters' and not least with the wealth of investigation into these issues in Western thought i.e. causation, determinism, freedom, volition etc. These subjects are among the most intricate, deep and many-sided that the mind can encounter, so a very long period of depth study in relations to practical and other life issues is required before one may get an overview of the huge labyrinth of viewpoints, with all its subtle pitfalls and blind alleys.
I was always unable to accept fatalism ( i.e. that there is no free will at all) which keeps rearing its head in Sathya Sai Baba's inconsistent pronouncements, though I made considerable efforts to reconcile his statements to one another and to intelligible philosophical, ethical and scientific thought (reflected in my two articles in Sathya Sai Baba's journal, Sanathana Sarathi, quoting Sathya Sai Baba at every turn (God’s Will and Ours - Jan. 1990, p.17ff and Freedom and Fate - June 1993, p.165ff).
Despite this, or rather because of it, I later had to reconstruct my previous overview on these issues because many of the interpretations I made to fit in with his statements I now see to have been biased out of wishing to rationalise what turned out to be a mix of sophisticated Indian theology and Sai Baba's own shallow ideas, also by putting aside or unwittingly ignoring other conflicting perspectives at the time. Looked at from the viewpoint of a self-deprogrammed Sai Baba believer, the fallibility of his entire world-view has become clearer and clearer, and the issues of free will and fatalism required a major renovation.
Though Sathya Sai Baba supports and repeats the
ancient teaching about the divinity of everyone, this teaching is not as it
seems. He preaches tirelessly - and behaves generally - so as to make devotees dependent on him for everything, even discovering
their own supposed divinity. According to him, realisation of oneself is achieved primarily by constant prayer to him, repetition of his name,
worship of him [which he very willingly accepted for many decades]. Surely anyone not already blinded by faith can already see that this can only lead
to one becoming less self-dependent, less able to see one's own nature, whether divine or not? Sai Baba's fatalistic denial of all free will (except for himself), is the explanation for his strong dislike and ridicule of all self-reliant thinkers, independent scholars, and genuine
intellectuals. Autonomy or independence in relation to him is not acceptable, as anyone who has been close to him for some years knows very well. (One plausible explanation of this is that, him being
virtually uneducated and so ignorant of the sciences, other cultures, religions
etc., he is defensive and envious of those more fortunate).
Philosophical analysis of the issues surrounding 'freedom', 'determinism' 'destiny' and 'fate' There are two major opposed 'poles' in the sphere of discussion - one for and one against 'free will'. People tend to be drawn more or less one way or another, mainly for psychological reasons. Because 'free will' is a very vague term (i.e. can mean a number of different things) there are many variants of doctrine both for, against and in between. Only the very fewest of thinking people explore at all their levels of sophistication both of the poles (the pro and the contra), AND the figurative 'equator' or compromise positions. Only those who do so are really in a position to sort out the meanings and the validity of the many opinions and the likelihood of truth or falsity in each case. Otherwise, to have any opinion on the subject is merely to choose between two sets of dogma on subjective and inadequate grounds... a mere 'believe what you want' policy.
After half a lifetime's study of what most known philosophers and scientists have expressed on this issue, I am utterly convinced that we possess a genuinely free, though limited, willpower. The scope of freedom depends on circumstances and persons. No one has absolute free will... for example, no one change everything to taste or override all the laws of nature. Those who have a false and exaggerated idea of free will (as Sai Baba demonstrates he has), may take it to mean - for example - an ability to do whatever one desires without suffering any bad consequences that may follow, need to learn that there is no such free will. But a free will within limits, set fairly narrowly for most people by the mass of given conditions of life etc., is a most reasonable hypothesis. Still, no one but a very confused person would claim that any person has absolute free will, such as the ability to overrule the entire laws of nature! That is what 'omnipotence' would actually have to involve, however.
Among the misleadingly-named "laws" of
nature is the famous 'indeterminacy' factor...in short, laws do not always
apply equally to everything. They apply to the aggregate of atoms, but
not to any given atom. They may apply to the aggregate of human behaviour,
but not to the exceptional or unique ideas and actions! Further, the human
mind can discover the tyranny of apparent limitations set by "natural
laws" and so free us from their seeming inevitability by influencing
personal, social and historical events through creative action (on the
basis of the given conditions of nature and society). Human enterprise
can change the conditions of life through increasing mastery of the laws
and applying them in 'non-natural' ways. To this extent, therefore, one
might say that we are creators, we are gods (as Sathya Sai Baba also insists when
it suits him to. Thus he has said that free will is a property of the Atma (spirit), which each of us essentialy also is: Eg..
"...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)
Clearing up confusions in Sathya Sai Baba's pronouncements: Sathya Sai Baba claims that: "No one has the power to protect one's own self. It is only the divine power and divine will that enables man to protect himself. Only divinity has free will, none else." (Sanathana Sarathi - Feb.1999, p. 30). Note, however, the in-built self-contradiction in that Sathya Sai Baba speaks of divine will enabling man to protect himself! Though some overall protection could come from an intelligent source beyond human ken (i.e. from divinity, which even Sathya Sai Baba insists resides within the human heart), man is enabled by his inherent powers to protect himself. Otherwise none of the advances of science, technology, medicine, social care etc. etc. would have any effect whatever. These were developed by mankind and enables us to "protect our own selves" in far more respects than in ages past. In short, our own actions are part of the operation of the laws of nature (or of karma, if you like)... we hold an executive function. This aspect is what is normally known as 'free will'... a limited freedom indeed, but nonetheless bearing the seed of divine will and hence of freedom.
Though Sathya Sai Baba trips over himself time and again on this, the most friendly interpretation of what he might be trying to say is that we should attribute to an unknown divinity what is beyond our knowing and power to change, rather than imagine egoistically that we are completely free agents. What Sathya Sai Baba so often confuses are the given laws of nature (karmic laws) and the abrogation of these laws by the 'divine miracles of grace' that he himself claims to perform! The 'laws' of nature may have been devised by a cosmic intelligence, but - once set in motion - they operate of themselves. Sathya Sai Baba has stated this, as when he corrected Hislop's view that God-qua-Sathya Sai Baba is the agency in every single event that occurs (Seeking Divinity by J. Hislop, p. 36)! Sathya Sai Baba also contradicts himself on this in many utterances.
Sathya Sai Baba often speaks of free will as what he alone, as the one almighty "avatar of the age", possesses in carrying out huge projects of which no normal individual or group is capable under given circumstances - not even the Indian government. For example, in Sanathana Sarathi (2-1999, p.36) Sathya Sai Baba related how it was due to his will alone that all the huge developments have made the one-time Puttaparthi hamlet of 100 people become a township with a university, an airport, colleges, a super speciality hospital and a railway station about to come. Colleges, schools, hospitals in Puttaparthi and in various other places are claimed by him to be the result of his 'divine will'. But there is nothing that particular about them that makes their planning, construction or running different from a thousand other such projects all over the world. It is all a question of how one wishes to interpret it all - as Sathya Sai Baba himself want us to or otherwise. Further, "his will alone" means that all those who freely contributed and voluntarily gave their service did not do so of their own volition or free will!
The various devotees of Sathya Sai Baba who write or lecture about there being no free will (such as at the ashram) include Dr. Bhatia, Ratan Lal, Jack Hawley and any number of others. Confused minds passively-accept the 'great delusion of the East', that no one has a jot of 'free will'. They are evidently always at sea as to what 'free will' means and which sense they are using at any time, though they hold to it as an absolute divine truth. (Accepting the usual otherworldly, idealistic rider too, that 'there is neither any good nor evil'). Such opinions are usually derived from the arbitrary teaching of unschooled persons - not only from Sathya Sai Baba but also from Ramana Maharshi and others who may have been recognised as spiritual masters due to all kinds of good qualities apart from philosophical insight og clarity of ideas and their expression. As Paul Brunton found, Ramana Maharshi - though in many ways a pure soul - was so uneducated as not to have had the benefit of Western insights, so his advaitic ideas fell within a wholly Eastern and one-sided fatalism. His retreat into a cave existence - though not a necessary consequence of fatalism, was in keeping with the accompanying mentality in India, a retreat from what Westerners call 'life' or 'the world'. The world and life, are however, testing grounds for further development... but of what, one may ask. Development of the will - the free will to create, construct and improve through living among others and facing the challenges that are purposely kept away from caves and ashrams.
The scourge of the fatalistic Eastern mentality: Eastern societies, used to despotic rule and powerful social restrictions - such as India with its hierarchical rule and caste system - are known for ingrained fatalism. This is strongly underpinned by the ancient 'spiritual requirement' of any guru-disciple relationship... one must surrender everything and one's whole self to the guru's will as God's. This is an favourite and overworked item in Sathya Sai Baba's constant flood of general instructions. The sweeping but highly vague idea of 'surrender' is itself a powerful means of control through systematic ambiguity of the disciple's understanding. One has to "surrender one's worldly life", or "one's bad qualities", or "oneself through selfless service", or "to transform oneself", and all this must be achieved without having any freedom or will with which to do it. In this way confusion sets in and the disciple is more easily make to conform to the guru's aims.
Westerners have difficulties accepting many arbitrary restrictions - at least without getting a reason or a civil answer - and this can be met at the Sathya Sai Baba ashrams, within which fatalism often seems to breed in several peculiar shapes. To take a wry glance at the stringency of rules - written and unspoken - at Sathya Sai Baba ashrams, and the attitudes that protect them: they can all be seen also to serve to reinforce the sense that 'there is no free will' ("It is all Swami's will"), rather than the opposite. The teaching that everything that occurs to us is necessarily just as it should be... so that there is no call to strive to change anything, is part of the deep-rooted, misunderstood fatalism of most Indian 'spirituality', and the lackadaisical consequences for material society and lacking political and social improvements are all too obvious. The naval-gazing, cave and forest dwelling doctrine is much admired by simple souls of Eastern countries, largely because the degree of physical and social self-denial they have to accept- even when not renunciates - is nearly unimaginable to people of modern, liberated societies. The classic renunciant aims to give up his will in all ways and leave 'everything in the hands of God', but it never works quite. He has continuously to concentrate his will even to control his involuntary impulses and suppressed thoughts and desires... or else he easily can become a moral degenerate.
Though it is centered on the inner life and is not directly or actively destructive, the fatalism that very often attends Indian thought is ultimately self-contradictory and ends up setting anti-constructive examples for the world. The fatalist dogma has tremendous appeal to some people in severe personal difficulties. It can also be used as a justification for adharma and deviance of all kinds. Anchorites, sadhus, swamis of all kinds who profess such fatalism but who become popular and well-to-do are nearly all prone to deviance from the straight and narrow path, as has occurred in almost all the well-known instances in recent years, especially in India. A whole series of famous gurus with international followings have been convicted of murder and/or rape, and of many other heinous worldly crimes. In view of their fatalism one must ask, do they therefore claim that their crimes are not their responsibility, but are the sole work of divinity, of which they were but as robotic instruments? Well, there are even those who do that too!
The fact that the past can't be changed leads many to project this onto the future... it seems also somehow to be unchangeable. The future is often looked on as being as far beyond our control as the past has become, especially to illiterate work slaves in societies where fundamental social change seems to most citizens impossible and futile to try. Rulers everywhere have traditionally had a vested interest in fatalism... it helps keep people down and preserve the status quo.
Well-known Tibetan 'rinpoches' (especially the celebrated Trungpa from Tibet, who died in Colorado of AIDS) used such a justification for sexual misdemeanour on a grand scale, while any number of lesser known and less psychically-accomplished gurus argue similarly for all manner of strange sexual and sensual pursuit. The deceased Rajneesh (the 'Osho' cult in Pune) was a prime example of 'counter-conformity' through extreme reaction against puritanism by basing his teaching and common popularity on unlimited sensual and sexual license (including group sex) as unavoidable initial desires etc. Such excessive denials of fatalism as Rajneesh' are in fact the ugly reverse side of excessive repressive fatalism when brought into contact with Western permissiveness.
In short, it seems wholly impossible to lead a good, responsible human life without believing that there is a voluntary part of us which enables us to turn the mind and soul towards the truth and the good (and otherwise, away from it). If we persist in turning away, falsity becomes truth and vice-versa, and we are truly getting lost. As we become good, the truth becomes the more evident to us and we can become yet better. This voluntaristic view was stated by one of the relatively little known but undeniably greatest scientist of his era - who subsequently had amazing and documented spiritual illuminations - the Swede, Immanuel Swedenborg.
'God's Will' in practice at the ashrams: The belief in Sathya Sai Baba's repeated claims of omniscience and omnipotence, taken within the context of his ashrams, leads to some of the most pathetic, absurd and also highly ridiculous situations. Sathya Sai Baba fails to dispel this ignorance and rather encourages it, enhancing himself and his almighty power in the eyes of his followers. He has remarked that to say 'it is God's will is merely to say, I don't know'. But he has managed effectively to turn this around in most devotee's minds so that they believe that "To say I don't know, is to say it is God's will".
It is believed by a majority of visitors - brainwashed in advance by hundreds of simplistic books of followers' experiences - that everything that happens in the ashrams is by the direct will and/or intervention of God Himself (in the figure of Sai Baba, don't you know!). It is Sathya Sai Baba who places you in a room where there are filthy floors and sheets, and where you smell the nauseous stink from the open sewer pits ('the Black Hole of Prashanthi Nilayam'). It is Sathya Sai Baba who arranges for gravel to be tipped at uncertain intervals day and night from lorries onto corrugated iron shoots outside your building, or for packs of mangy dogs to conduct their running battles throughout the night. Due to his claim of omnipresence, some say Sathya Sai Baba himself IS each of the dogs ! Is it therefore God who goes and asks for a different room? Well, one can be sure it is the will of the Lord that meets you when you go to the ashram offices and are met by a petulant, scowling person exercising his Napoleonic task to the fullest stretch of his authority against you. This is surely Baba Himself and you are merely getting your well-deserved karma from some past life about which nobody knows anything! When you have accepted several years of this kind of training and self-denigration, you tend to be ready to rationalise any cover-up and any evil things you see or hear (which you should not see or hear in the first place). You can also rest assured that nothing is your responsibility really, it is all God's. But you find that, despite this cosy thought, you end up still having to answer for yours sins anyhow... that too is God's will, it is your karma!
The ashram is run on strict lines and the rules, if questioned at all, are usually explained as, 'It is Swami's will'. This helps create an atmosphere of obedient subservience. For example, restrictions on behaviour are many, and far from all need even to to stated there, as newcomers have to learn to go with the flow and do as they're told without explanation. You can't sit here or there, can't walk on this or that side of a tree, and your sex regulates much of where you can move and when. What one cannot eat or drink is regulated, when one can have a light on or not, and clothing rules are strict and conformist - (the requirements make most of the men look like walking affronts to the world of haberdashery and most foreign women into unstylish pseudo-Indians). In themselves, more or less valid reasons can be given for most of the rules, but the overall effect is to cow the visitor (before also learning to kow-tow to Sathya Sai Baba at darshan) and to turn off anyone who is not sufficiently indoctrinated or willing to become so. The VIP persons, who are totally subjugated by Sathya Sai Baba already, have some privileges. They don't have to stand and wait so long, they go in front of all queues, they have special places etc.
Sai devotees are supposed not to take part in strikes or political demonstrations, not to criticise anyone (other than oneself), not to speak unless necessary, and - ideally - not even to have any friends or cultivate new ones (God-qua-Swami should be your only friend!). If this is not the background of a cult of personal and social unfreedom, I don't know what is!
To understand the freedom/fate issue better, see Treatise on Freedom and Fate
or go to this page on Sai Baba's indoctrination on fate and reasons for it