On the Nature of Free-Choice: An Exegesis of Bhagavad Gita

“The body is called a field, Arjuna; the one who knows the field is called its Knower. This is the knowledge of those who know.”- Bhagavan Krishna, Bhagavad Gita 13:1

Throughout man’s brief, academic, and intellectual history, there have arisen many philosophies regarding the nature of Mind. Conjecture has doubtless been tributary to the formation of such ideas, and (in our better moments of hypothesizing) scrupulous observation; though it remains impossible for conjecture to be absent from this branch of inquiry, regardless of the observer’s rigor. In the present discourse, we will be evaluating a particularly ancient philosophy of Mind and Self that has come to be included in a system of thought known as “Vedanta.” Our instructor is a yogi known as Bhagavan (“Lord”) Krishna, the voice of the Holy Gita. For those who are unfamiliar with the designation of “yogi,” suffice it to say that a classical yogi is one who mobilizes the vital power of each human faculty to the end of interior investigation and discovery. At the outset of his contemplative journey, he asks himself “What can be constituted as my ‘Self’?”; that is, “What (if anything) about human-identity is invariable and absolute?” He thus endeavors to lay his consciousness bare, as a sculptor carving stone works to reveal a “hidden form.” In short, the yogi is his own test-subject, though he is not without Method, Instruction, Collaboration, and Faith.

Before we truly begin our examination, it will be necessary to mention that the text here evaluated (Bhagavad Gita) propounds essentially, a metaphysical philosophy of monism: that is, the author(s) considered all division and variety to be merely a thing of appearance; and that the Truth, transcendent to sense-experience, is a truth of absolute, indivisible unity. Reality is thought to be a seamless, eternal whole known as “Brahman.” Our instructor, Sri Krishna, is thought to be an avatar (“descent”) of this Brahman. Hence his honorific: Bhagavan. Our examination, however, will concern itself with little more than the Holy Gita’s 13th chapter, a chapter that (for practical purposes) deviates somewhat from the overall, monistic exposition. In this chapter, that the human experience may be reconciled with the truth of Brahman, Krishna espouses a philosophy of dualism. He divides the whole; and the categories are these: the “field” and the “Knower.”

In the opening verse of chapter 13, the “field” is made equivalent to “the body;” yet the verse implies more than the translation lets on, for in the broader context of the chapter the “field” encompasses the entirety of physical nature: that is, all the elements and forces contained therein, even the subtle element of space: “akasha” (though the word may be more rightly translated as “ether”). In the Sanskrit language, the essence of the field (physical nature) is indicated by a single word: Prakriti. The scope of this primal energy is described succinctly by Sri Krishna:

“Prakriti is the agent, cause, and effect of every action…” (Bhagavad Gita, 13:20).

All the different forces of physical nature are derived from Prakriti, just as any body-cell with a specialized function can be derived from the neutral, pluripotent cell (stem cell). Prakriti, though fundamentally homogeneous and neutral, can “differentiate” into specialized elements, forces, and energies (though unlike cellular differentiation, the specialized forces of Prakriti can meld back into the primal state). Though it may come as a surprise to classical, western philosophy, the components of mind are counted by Sri Krishna among the forces of the field. Essentially, they are made equivalent to any other naturally occurring, observable phenomenon. They are effects caused by Prakriti, within Prakriti.

Though we have now waded into deep metaphysical waters, I think it wise (for our purposes) to wade a little deeper yet.
Think of the “field” like a phylogenetic tree-of-life representation: all lifeforms represented on the tree share a common origin, yet each divergent species is an emergent “property” of its direct predecessor(s). The same principle applies to the field. As Prakriti continues to differentiate successively, new properties emerge with every branch; yet it is all derivative of the primal substance. In this way, Prakriti dances with itself, acting and reacting within a self-made, entropic cauldron. As previously mentioned, Vedantic thought has placed the components of Mind among the emergent properties of the field, just as modern neuroscience would maintain. However, the emergence of Mind carries with it a profound philosophical implication that any materialist would blanch at: It’s existence depends upon a delicate balance of component forces and incomprehensibly sophisticated structural organization among the elements of matter, namely, biological molecules. Thus, as is observably evident to any investigator, physical nature is not governed merely by a clash of chaotic forces; there exists an input of organization and intelligibility. The conclusion of Vedanta? Prakriti is not the subtlest tier of reality, nor does it cultivate itself. The “field” has a master, a Self, a Knower.

Though indeed simplistic, I think it quite logical to make our present cosmos reducible to an existential chain of cause-and-effect. Prakriti, however, cannot be the First Cause. It cannot be self-existent. Why? Because knowledge itself is the cause of Being, Vedanta proclaims to us.; and, of itself, Prakriti cannot know anything. It’s just a substance. Rather, consciousness, undifferentiated, is revealed to be the highest, most fundamental reality: the cause of all Being, the “Knower” of the field. I pray, do not misunderstand the philosophy here expounded. It is no post-modernistic farce. The consciousness Vedanta speaks of is the cause of specialized, human consciousness; and it is undifferentiated, whereas human consciousness functions with an array of component parts. This consciousness is not equivalent to the ordinary human experience. Remember that the components of Mind  (such as the “ahamkara” [ego] or the “buddhi” [intellect]), so indispensable to human psyche at large, are merely emergent properties of the field, and therefore contingent on the elusive “Knower” for their existence. The Knower is not something we invent according to fallacious whim; rather, it’s something we must discover. In the Gita, this “Knower” appears as a proper noun: Brahman.

Let’s return to the words of our instructor, Sri Krishna, that we may better understand the nature of Brahman. As a Self-realized yogi, Krishna speaks with the authority of one who perceives the highest nature within himself, and within all things:

“I will tell you of the wisdom that leads to immortality, the beginningless Brahman, which can be called neither being nor non-being…Completely independent it supports all things…In its subtlety it is beyond comprehension. It is indivisible, yet appears divided…Know it to be the creator, the preserver, and the destroyer…” (Bhagavad Gita, 13:12-16).

It is this Brahman, this consciousness, that appears as manifest in the staggering multiplicity of life; though it is revealed in a more full stature by those creatures that have come to develop certain faculties of profound insight, namely, human beings. The faculties of which I speak are utilized (predominantly) in human activity of the most sentient caliber: meditation, prayer, scientific investigation, dialectic, selfless service, etc. Regrettably, the interior potential for such activity is largely squandered in the pursuit of baser attractions. The yogi, however, takes full advantage of the human potential with which he has been endowed. By the constant use of his subtlest and most profound human qualities, the yogi makes very gradual acquaintance with his highest nature: the same nature as the First Cause, Brahman. As this tentative acquaintance begins to take on the character of intimate knowledge, the “Knower” begins to bathe the whimsy of the mind (within the larger flux of Prakriti) in the light of objectivity and Truth.
Think of an old-world philosopher living under the assumption that the Earth is apparently flat. How if he were to make a journey into the vacuum of space? His ignorance would be abolished by the truth of gaining Right-Perspective. And so it is with the yogi who gains a stellar perspective regarding the nature of his own Being. His Self-realization is made profound by distinguishing the “field” from its “Knower.” Sri Krishna gives explanation:

“They alone see truly who see that all actions take place within Prakriti, while the Self remains unmoved. When they see the variety of creation rooted in that unity and growing out of it, they attain fulfillment in Brahman…” (Bhagavad Gita, 13:29-30).

“All actions take place within Prakriti.” Admittedly, this statement of Sri Krishna requires additional context. As we have understood, Prakriti is helplessly subject to its own blind forces of cause and effect. That is, it operates passively, as a string of predictable quotients would behave.
Consider the many avian species that migrate annually: Collectively, they act in precise accordance with their given nature. Their inherited chemistry is the cause, and their ubiquitous behavior, the effect (or the “quotient”). Even though the migration is enacted by a conscious life-form, we would still consider such behavior to be a passive “compliance” or “cooperation” with the mechanical dictates of Prakriti. In short, the forces of the “field” hold mastery over mind and body. For any bird, the “Knower” is not yet known; the creature cannot distinguish itself from the field and is therefore subject to every cause-effect relationship that operates therein. In the human being, this passive conditioning can be surmounted, but not without active participation in the highest nature, the First Cause, Brahman. Sri Krishna says:

“This supreme Self is without beginning, undifferentiated, deathless. Though it dwells in the field it cannot be touched by action (cause-effect). As akasha pervades the cosmos yet remains pure, the Self can never be made impure though it dwells in the field…” (Bhagavad Gita, 13:31-32).

In the light of Krishna’s ideals, a man who seeks to participate in Brahman ought to hold in mind certain conceptual truths about that highest nature. As we see in Sri Krishna, Brahman is not an impersonal “collective consciousness” harboring an infinite number of contradictory perspectives. Brahman “himself” harbors one-pointed intention, intention that molds the blind forces of Prakriti into distinct, intelligible order. I quote the Gita’s third chapter, in which Sri Krishna speaks as an avatar of Brahman:
“If I ever refrained from continuous work I would be the cause of cosmic chaos, and finally of the destruction of this world and its people…” (Bhagavad Gita, 3:24).

If all else be disregarded, let he who seeks the “Knower” retain one fact: The Knower does not integrate into the microcosm of the individual; rather, the individual integrates into His cosmos, into reality.

Having necessarily summarized the Gita’s theology, let’s press on. Krishna has revealed that Brahman cannot be affected by the dynamism of cause-and-effect. As the First Cause, this means not that he is “detached,” as a deist would maintain; but rather, that he is completely sovereign. No determinism of Prakriti can supersede the free-will of God (Having come thus far, let us understand “God” and “Brahman” to be interchangeable terms). We have shown what it means for Prakriti to operate under Brahman in a passive manner. The time has now come to describe the practical significance of Self-realization philosophy: what it means for a life-form to arrive at the realization of his/her essence as “the Knower of the field.” That essence is God, and God is sovereign. The Self-realized being, therefore, is an unequivocal participant in the active freedom of God.

Forthwith, we shall discuss the functions of Prakriti exclusively in the context of the mental-field, for this is the only branch of Prakriti that human beings may ordinarily subjugate with the “Knower’s” sovereignty.
Picture this: A human marionette suspended in various places by a web of tiny strings. At the other end, the strings are fastened to various nodes on a Rube-Goldberg machine. The marionette represents the human mind, the Rube-Golberg machine represents the rest of Prakriti, and the strings represent the cause-effect relationships that exists between the two. Let us say that each node on the Goldberg machine is an “object” or “event” within Prakriti that the human can encounter or experience with his/her sensory perception. Each produces an effect in the mind. As the nodes become active, in turn they trip the strings, eliciting movements from the marionette: some subtle, some overt. The marionette is goaded to action (passively) by its myriad attachments: Altercation invokes anger, immanent threat invokes fear, the enemy invokes hatred, the mother and child invoke love (each in the other). Here the reader may suppose that I endeavor to name all attachments as an evil unfit for an illumined human being; but I propose no such thing. What I do propose is this: that each human being participate actively in his/her own free will potential. By choice, the sovereign human being severs or preserves the attachments that he/she will, and this in accordance with the Truth of Right-Perspective; that is, God’s Truth.

No human being lives without individualistic attachment that comes inherently of an existence within Prakriti. For example: Even from infancy, the human being develops (perhaps necessarily) a sense of self-importance, and subsequently, becomes attached to this sense; a child may snatch an excessive amount of treats from a community platter thinking he/she must receive his/her “fair share”. Or an adult amidst a gathering of peers may elevate his/her voice over the input of those gathered, so as to draw (forcibly, not persuasively) a majority of attention to his/her own, truncated perspective.
These, both, are cause-effect relationships derivative of an attachment to self-importance; and we might give numerous other examples to demonstrate the point.

The vital thing is that we begin to “see” or apprehend knowledge about such attachments through self-observation (that is, the metacognitive ability to observe one’s own behaviors, internal and external), a sapient practice that naturally moves us into alignment with our highest nature, Brahman. This is part of Right-Perspective, but it is not the consummation. Once an attachment is “seen,” how can we determine whether it ought to be preserved or severed? Allow me to make a self-evident proclamation: Free-Choice is not the ability to choose out of pure spontaneity (spontaneity doesn’t actually lack motivation, as some would suppose); rather, Free Choice is the ability to choose rightly, in accordance with objective, moral and self-knowledge (i.e. God’s Truth). In Bhagavad Gita, the moral law of the cosmos is known as “Dharma.” This cosmic Dharma functions on the basis of a simple truth: That all Life is One. Any violation of the Dharma, perpetrated by a being of free-will potential, returns naturally to the perpetrator as a lawful consequence (and from God’s perspective, this is actually a matter of grace for the perpetrator); indeed, the truth of Dharma as taught by Sri Krishna was later consolidated by St. Paul the Apostle when he admonished: “Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the indignation of God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay,’ says the Lord.” Now, my proclamation begs the question, “If Dharma be not intuitively known (though oftentimes it is), how can we choose in accordance with it?” There are two fundamental means by which all can arrive at a knowledge of the Dharma: Faith and  Collaboration (the functions of which will be described shortly).

The Self-realized man cannot be goaded into action. Technically speaking, the forces of Prakriti are still at work within his mind; but neither his actions nor his thoughts will follow on the heels of any “cause” (unless he so chooses), for there is no subtle force within the mental-field that can escape his objectivity, his Right-Perspective. He “knows” the field, and only takes part in it at the Knower’s moral discretion. Now this is, admittedly, a lofty attainment; and I did promise to make matters practical for we who do not dwell on Mt. Olympus (though some do). However, the ideal, perfected yogi does serve a purpose within this philosophy: he demonstrates that which we strive for, as a matter of course. But most of us are merely human, seeking and striving (hopefully) as best we can. The sovereign power of free choice does not come like magic; it must be cultivated in the mental-field with much labor. When a man gains enough Right-Perspective to comprehend the nature of cause-and-effect within his mental-field, the need for “interior pruning” becomes apparent to him. It begins with self-observation. Remember, the yogi is his own test-subject. He lays his consciousness bare; but not without Method, Instruction, Collaboration, and Faith. Mind, Collaboration is the sire of Method and of Instruction, serving as a furnace in which assumptions may be tested by didactic reason. Faith too is essential to the cultivation process, for no man could persevere on the yogi’s path without a stalwart conviction in that which is not readily perceived (Brahman/Dharma).

The intent of the yogi is to nurture within himself the potential for dominant free-choice, and therefore, to slough from his being all deterministic patterns of thought and behavior. He is not alone; many have gone before him. Let’s have a closer look at the precept of Collaboration, inclusive of both Method and Instruction. What do these principles have in common? Simple. They can only function under the power of Reason. Now Reason is not (like the intellect) subject or inherent to each individual; rather, it’s a substance that may be shared commonly, much like clean water or breathable air.
Let’s suppose we were to pour two glasses of distilled water and give them to separate patrons. Neither patron would say to the other (without knowing the absurdity of his proposition) “my water is different from your water.” Nonsense. Now heed the “foundational assumption” (yes, taken on faith) of science and philosophy: That multiple human beings may arrive at a consonant understanding of any phenomenon through shared Reason. That is, “My water is not different from your water. We use the same substance in the same way.” And just as water does not exist because of human beings, neither does Reason hold such a subjective status. It exists in its own right, antecedent to the human mind.

When a group of human beings come together in a common realization of “philosophy’s foundational assumption,” we behold the emergence of rational Collaboration. Out of Collaboration, Method is developed; and with the development of Method, there arises a need for Instruction: the amateur investigator must necessarily learn from he who has become proficient. Conversely, a “spiritualist” who relies on phantasms to guide him towards Truth may never find anything but personalized illusion; but a man who collaborates will find consonant realization among his fellow investigators. At this point, it ought to be said that no group of philosophers should allow themselves to become a cult (the resulting fallacies might exceed in absurdity those of the “spiritualist”). In fact, all schools of thought ought to realize the need for Collaboration, a practice by which Dharma itself has been broadly understood (the formal branch of western philosophy concerned with Dharma is known as “Ethics”). It’s a remarkable fact that most philosophers have considered morality (like science) to be a realm in which objective discoveries can be had (hence the existence of Ethics).

You may be wondering why I’ve gone to all this trouble about “Reason” and “Collaboration.” To begin with, I wanted to demonstrate that the yogic philosophy here espoused is not a cultist fancy; more importantly, however, we affirmed that Free-Choice potential cannot simply be willed upon oneself in a discrete moment of time. Practically speaking, it must be cultivated; and this requires true Method, tested by the didactic Reason that comes of Collaboration.
For example: No aspiring software engineer could ever hope to successfully alter a line of code without first acquiring the requisite knowledge. If he were to make the attempt in an absence of knowledge, his program would surely acquire a defect. And how much more complex is the human mind than any software program we might create? The implications are obvious. If we hope to make fundamental alterations within ourselves, acquiring the requisite knowledge and abiding by the proper guidelines will be indispensable. Otherwise, something may go seriously wrong. Interior-pruning is no game.

The remainder of the exposition will be devoted to a bit of the method I have utilized in my own life, and its results. Now we become entirely practical. Here summarized is the purpose of sapient Method as we have described it: to slough from one’s being all deterministic patterns of thought and behavior, that one may always choose rightly and rationally in accordance with the Dharma. Repeated now several times, the process requires self-observation; and to begin with, the discipline ought to be employed actively, just as an athlete must repetitiously practice a form in the hopes that it will become second-nature. By this, we seek to arrive at a knowledge of our own passive, deterministic behaviors: those modes of consciousness that all partake of impulsively.

Think of each deterministic behavior as a deep “groove” in one’s consciousness. Even once we “see” such a groove through self-observation, we will certainly continue to fall victim, just as an automobile must naturally fall victim to a deep groove in the road if the driver lacks awareness. The more an impulse is gratified, the deeper becomes the interior-groove, and the easier it will become to gratify the impulse consecutively. For example: On a regular basis, I speak (in person) to a great many individuals; and if I find myself discussing anything of substance, there exists within me the impulse to disregard the sentiments of my counterpart while I silently take time to prepare my coming statement. In itself, compliance with this impulse is unconscious and deterministic. Were I to continually gratify the impulse, the deeper would become the “groove,” the more dominant would become the behavior, and I would therefore behave in hopeless passivity. That is, I would never truly listen to the words of any given counterpart. Now as a result of sapient self-observation, I (thankfully) came to “see” this deterministic tendency and (in a knowledge of rationality and Dharma) resolved that the tendency ought to be unmade through methodical effort; and the effort itself has been nothing less than an expression of my Free-Choice potential.

What then did the process entail? It became clear to me that I needed practice in listening rather than practice in thinking (though I am wanting in the latter respect as well), so I began taking time out of each day to sit amidst the activity of nature for the express purpose of listening intently. By allowing my thoughts to pass me by, I attempted to mark every delicate sound, identify every visual detail; and (more importantly) I endeavored to appreciate the details. Within my mind, this practice began to emphasize the faculty of attention, and its great importance. The lasting impression naturally applied itself to the interpersonal environment, and my desire (in accordance with the Dharma) was realized. True, I approached this process of interior-pruning through the use of sound doctrine and Method, tested in the fires of collaborative Reason. However, the ongoing process has required a far more essential component than any didactic method in existence: that is Faith.

The entire philosophical system contained (partially) herein, operates on the deductive assumption that the universe is possessed of God’s intrinsic purpose, and that the existence of mankind (indeed, the existence of all life) is directly related to that universal purpose. Even in possession of Method, Reason, Collaboration, and all the rest of it, it may be that we never attain to the Self-realization proclaimed by Vedanta. We can only believe it to be possible, or (more specifically) believe that God (in his compassion) will guide us lovingly to the destination. No genuine yogi, as Sri Krishna would say, lives without a conviction in God’s grace, his/her expertise withstanding. The yogi may eventually become sovereign over himself, but he never becomes sovereign over the universe. That is the Lord’s domain.

In summary, to learn about and partake of Brahman (God’s essential nature) is to gain the Right-Perspective that enlivens Free-Choice potential. By this participation in the Godhead, Dharma becomes tangible to the intellect, and the waking mind becomes dominated by the discretion and self-awareness needed to utilize a comprehension of the Dharma. Participation in God’s nature and exploitation of Free-Choice potential isn’t a matter of mystical chants in the dark or “mastery of the chakras;” rather, it’s really a matter of everyday integrity, compassion, humility, and perseverance. Yet as we have seen, to express such virtue sincerely is a tall order in itself. How necessary an ally is God’s grace! By knowledge and grace, it is possible for all deficiency and wrongdoing to be threshed from man’s being. Consider the doxology of St. Jude:

Now to Him who is able to keep you from stumbling and to stand you flawless in the sight of His glory with great joy, to the only God, our Savior…be glory, majesty, dominion, and authority, before all time, now and forever. Amen…” (The Letter of Jude, verses 24-25).

How shall I describe succinctly the essence of Free-Choice? It is no more (and no less) than the ability to choose the Right and the Good, objectively. When the process has finally been consummated, when the yogi (by grace and effort) has finally unearthed his full potential in Brahman, there exists no more even a shred of ignorance that wrongdoing may exploit. Therefore I reiterate, in Him who is able to keep us from stumbling and to stand us flawless in the sight of His glory with great joy, in the only God, be our tireless and radical Hope.
OM

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