Ramana Maharishi and Free Will

Ramana and Free Will

Finally, Ramaṇa’s views on free will vis-à-vis predetermination are so astounding that it behooves us to explore the issue. According to Ramaṇa, at the level of an ordinary person (ajñāni), individuals, from birth to death, will experience a series of preordained activities and experiences, all of which are the consequences of previous acts and thoughts. The only freedom which exists, if one does, is to realize that, in actuality, no one is acting and no one is experiencing. If, the Self is realized, then the words “freedom” and “predestination” lose all value, for, the Self neither acts nor experiences, is neither free nor bound. For the Self, “nothing has ever happened”, and thus all words and concepts lose their meaning.

Are human beings victims of an inescapable fate, or do we really have the power to create our own destiny? That is the age-old question that has plagued philosophers, theologians, and even the common person on the street. According to Ramaṇa, the question of free will or predetermination does not at all arise from the point of view of non-duality. Individuality itself is illusory.

However, so long as one imagines that one has a separate individuality, so long does one imagine that one has or does not have free will.

To set the stage, look at two quotes from Arthur Osborne:

Sri Bhagavān was uncompromising in his teaching that whatever is to happen will happen, while at the same time he taught that whatever happens is due to prārabdha, a man’s balance-sheet of destiny acting according to so rigorous a law of cause and effect that even the word “justice” seems too sentimental to express it. He refused ever to be entangled in a discussion on free-will and predestination, for such theories, although contradictory on the mental plane, may both reflect aspects of truth. He would say, “Find out who it is who is predestined or has free will.” [97]

Actually, however, the question of free will or predestination does not arise at all from the point of view of non-duality. It is as though a group of people who had never heard of a radio were to stand around a wireless set arguing whether the man in the box has to sing what the transmitting station tells him to or whether he can change parts of the songs. The answer is that there is no man in the box and therefore the question does not arise. Similarly, the answer to the question whether the ego has free will or not is that there is no ego and therefore the question does not arise. Therefore Bhagavān’s usual response to the question would be to bid the questioner to find out who it is that has free will or predestination. [98]

Ok. But what about at the level of individuality—what happens there, where ordinary individuals live and experience? What are we to make of Ramaṇa’s own words in the light of a person’s everyday experience of cause and effect in the world?

Osborne himself asked Ramaṇa:
“Are only important events in a man’s life, such as his main occupation or profession, predetermined, or are trifling acts also, such as taking a cup of water or moving from one part of the room to another?”

Ramaṇa replied: “Everything is predetermined.”

Osborne said, “Then what responsibility, what free will has man?”

Ramaṇa replied, “Why does the body come into existence? It is designed for various things that are marked out for it in this life . . . As for freedom, a man is always free not to identify himself with the body and not to be affected by the pleasures and pains consequent on its activities.” [99]

On another occasion, in a remarkably similar manner, Ramaṇa was asked:

I can understand that the outstanding events in a man’s life such as his country, nationality, family, career or profession, marriage, death, etc. are all predestined by his karma, but can it be that all the details of his life, down to the minutest, have already been predetermined? Now, for instance, I put this fan that is in my hand down on the floor here. Can it be that it was already decided that on such and such a day, at such and such an hour, I should move the fan like this and put it down here?

Ramaṇa replied, “Certainly. Whatever this body is to do and whatever experiences it is to pass through was already decided when it came into existence.” [100]

Finally, there is Ramaṇa’s reply to his mother when she came to visit him in Tiruvannamalai for the first time. She had come in the hope of taking him back to Madurai. Ramaṇa remarked:

The Creator, remaining everywhere makes each one play his role in life according to their past deeds (prārabdha karma). Whatever is not destined to happen will not happen, try how hard you may. Whatever is destined to happen will happen, do what you may to stop it. This is certain. Therefore, the best course is for one to remain silent. [101]

So what is one to make of this?

Ramaṇa, in his own words, from the empirical perspective, seems to uphold a doctrine of predetermination that, on the face of it, seems almost shocking, so counter-intuitive, rather disconcerting and astounding in its total thoroughness.

“All the activities that the body is to go through are determined when it first comes into existence. It does not rest with you to accept or reject them. The only freedom you have is to turn your mind inward and renounce activities there.” [102]

The consequences of this are not lost on any intelligent person. One’s next question becomes, if this is the case, then what responsibility does a person have? Where is the scope for bettering oneself, let alone for liberation?

To this Ramaṇa replied: “Why does the body come into existence? It is designed for the various things that are marked out for it in this life.” [103]

Then again, on a different occasion, to a questioner with perhaps different needs, Ramaṇa replied: “Free will exists together with the individuality. As long as the individuality last, so long is there free will. All the scriptures are based on this fact and advise directing the free will in the right channel. Find out who it is who has free will or predestination and abide in that state. Then both are transcended. That is the only purpose in discussing these questions. To whom do such questions present themselves? Discover that and be at peace.” [104]

There appears to be no contradiction here. According to Ramaṇa, individuality has only an illusory existence. However, as long as a person imagines that they have a separate individuality, so long do they also imagine they have free will. These two, individuality and free will, exist together inexorably and inevitably.

Stated differently, the problem of free will, according to theologians, places God, the Creator, between the horns of a dilemma. If God gave human beings free will, then God is neither omnipotent nor omniscient. If humans have free will, then God does not know what will happen because what happens will depend on the free will of what people decide. God will not have control of everything, because humans will have the power to change things. On the other hand, if God is omniscient and omnipotent and does control everything, while humans have no free will or possibility to do things other than as they happen, then such a God is unbelievably cruel and capricious. People are advised by Sages and scriptures to be good; yet, if they have no ability to change their fate, then that is just cruel.

For example, in a movie that has been filmed, each actor plays his or her part and that part is written out beforehand and cannot be changed after the film is made. Each actor plays a role and yet remains unaffected by their actions, because they know it is a role that they play. When an actor is born or dies on the screen, the person playing the role is neither born nor dies. When fire burns or water wets, the screen remains unaffected.

Or again for example: If one acts a part in a play, the whole part is written out beforehand, and one acts faithfully, whether one is Caesar who is stabbed or Brutus who stabs. The actor is unaffected by events on the stage because they are playing a role and not “real”. In the same way, that person who realizes his identity with the deathless Self acts his part on the human stage without fear or anxiety, hope or regret, not being touched by the part played. If one were to ask what reality one has when all one’s actions are determined, it would lead only to the question: Who, then, am I? If the ego that thinks it and makes decisions is not real, and yet I know that I exist, what is the reality of me? This is but a preparatory, mental version of the quest that Ramaṇa prescribed, but it is an excellent preparation for the real quest. “Others are not responsible for what happens to us. They are only instruments of what would happen to us some way or other.”

JOHN ALLEN GRIMES in RAMANA MAHARISHI – The Crown Jewel of Vedanta

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