One question that people always want answered is where the notion of choice fits into the scheme of Karma yoga. Probably the best way to examine the notion of choice is to ask ourselves where it exists in our own lives. This is more difficult to do than one might think. I don’t wish to sound fatalistic, but if by “fatal” we mean “a condition which ultimately must lead to death”, then life itself is fatal! Where is there choice in that?

People often ask me:

Did you choose to become a swami?

meaning, “Did you choose to do what you are doing, or do you think you are doing it because it is your destined path?”. In order to answer this question in the context of Karma yoga, one would have to put this question differently:

Does the effect of past action, which comes back as either the consequence (the retribution) or the reward (the so called "fruits of past actions")?

or, the same thing:

Does it come back in the form of an experience, or
does it come back in the form of an expression?

In this context, the answer must be that whatever “comes back,” can only come back as experience, not as act. And since it does come back to one as an experience, it has finality, an end, and therefore, is finished. It doesn’t compel one to act in a certain manner now.

Look at the simple case of one person insulting another person. When action of an insult is made, the reaction usually comes back immediately in some form or other. Let’s say that reaction takes the form of a smashing blow. The action (the insult) has met its reaction (the blow); it’s finished. Of course, there is something else called habit, the samskara, which is deep within, and which will no doubt continue the battle. The compulsion to act violently is that samskara deep within you. If that is there, then that is where the responsibility for violent action arises. The responsibility for the action is in you; it’s not outside.

What does this imply about free will? If there is a free will, where does it come from? If your response is that free will comes from the individuality, then what you are in effect saying is that free will comes from the ‘me.’ If free will comes from the ‘me’, the personality, with all its samskaras, then it’s not really a "free" will but is conditioned will. Only at the point where the individual touches the cosmic consciousness, and therefore, where there is cosmic consciousness, is there freedom. However, at that point, there is no individual, only the soul or cell, the cell of cosmic being. The freedom is there, because at that point it doesn’t need any expression. Why should it need expression? It is!

Is there a free will? Man certainly assumes that he is endowed with a will. And perhaps, there is something which could be construed as a free will, something within this ‘me’ principle that is able to either fix the attention on the ‘me’, or on questioning it constantly. That something, which one could construe as "free will," is possible. Put differently, it’s possible for one to reach a point where he or she no longer wishes to remain foolish, no longer wishes to remain ignorant, and at that point the "will" appears to turn towards “the light.” But is any other aspect of this “will” free? We aren’t free to choose what we’ll receive, because that’s all a part of the reaction that is coming from all the accumulated actions of the past. Thus, as far as experience is concerned, one is not free to choose. However, in regard to action, or further reaction, one does seem to have one fundamental choice: to face darkness or to turn towards light. When the sun goes down, it is going to get dark. That is determined. Are you going to meditate, or are you going to play poker? That is up to you. When it comes to free will, that’s about it.

If you’re inclined to argue that even that is predetermined, you’ll find that’s not exactly correct either. The samskaras, the habits, the patterns, the predispositions are all piled up from the past. But, don’t forget the intelligence! The intelligence in you (not the ‘me’ but the thing that is before the buddhi), which way is it facing? Okay, granted that it’s become habitual for the intelligence to reflect only the samskaras. Yet, there is also something else always there, that being the consciousness, or cosmic being. The attention, or intelligence, can choose to turn from the one to the other. How can it do so? It can do so, because it is, by definition, a discriminating intelligence. If the intelligence appears to suffer from some kind of limitation, it is only because one doesn’t see that the real limitation is caused by the strong influence of the samskaras, the constant pull of the habits. But the fact that there is a strong pull of habits doesn’t mean that there is no intelligence, and it doesn’t mean that you are helpless.

Even the expression often touted by the yogis:

as you sow, so you shall reap

need not be true. For example, I have a garden in Mauritius at a place where I spend some time. I go into that garden, and I sow it. But I never reap anything from it, because I travel all the time, and I’m never there at those times when it yields up its "fruits." I work there. That’s nice. I can see what is planted, and so on. But I may not even care to reap it. Why? What for?

Perhaps if you say

as you sow, so shall it grow

that might be more accurate. Of course, if, on the other hand, you had a motivation in sowing, that motivation will itself compel, and drive you to reap. Since we are so "motive oriented" in every thing we do, it requires a very distinct and definite effort, if one may call it so, to turn away from that, and to turn towards the light. It’s not child’s play.

If one is able to turn towards the light, then the light itself will be reflected in the buddhi. However, one shouldn’t get the idea that it’s all easy from there onwards, because it’s always possible to slip up; a reason that yogis suggested yoga practices which cultivate meditative tendencies. After all, how does one become a chain smoker? People aren’t born chain smokers. The smoking habit is cultivated. Even so, the satsang habit, the habit of being in the company of the wise, can be cultivated. So that, in the right company, in the right environment, one cultivates meditation, which itself is a turning towards the light.

Since we are now dealing with Karma yoga, another question comes up: “In terms of the law of karma, where is choice?” In terms of prarabha, it’s clear that one has no choice about whether to allow prarabha or not, because the reaction has started, and it is going to have to work itself out. However, if one has turned towards the light, and if, in between all this sowing and growing of the seeds of karma, there has been a revolutionary transmutation within, then it’s possible to look at whatever comes, without getting tangled up in it. Then, no matter what experience comes your way, it’s possible for it to pass right through without any bother to you. Misfortune only comes along because one is running after good fortune, struggling to make good fortune happen, and in that struggle, unavoidably exploiting others. That karma of exploitation must inevitably have its reaction, which comes back with equal force upon that exploiting factor we call the "me." Yet, if, in the meantime, the me, the motivating factor, has been seen for what it is, then the prarabha has nothing upon which to act, and therefore, cannot cause any further suffering.

Is that all? Not quite. Although suffering may cease, the balancing does not. It continues, having a definite effect on the external world. Where is choice in all this? There is none! It’s like the weather. Weather patterns may not be predictable, but when a hot air mass hits a cold air mass, one gets some very definite weather. Choice is not a factor. The weather happens. If it rains, and you are outside, you get wet. If you are inside, you stay dry.

This may sound terribly unorthodox to many practitioners of yoga. However, if you read the discourses of Ramana Maharshi, you find similar statements that sound completely radical: “You have no free will” he said, and when he said that, he meant more than just having no choice about having to undergo what was coming in the form of the reaction! Most oriental metaphysicians feel that one has a choice over present action. Ramana Maharshi went one step further by saying that one doesn’t even have a choice over that. He said that one is so heavily conditioned by samskaras and vasanas that even what you call "present action" is predetermined. Did he feel that there was any arena in which there was freedom? Yes, he did. However, that topic falls into a different arena, and we must leave it for latter on.

Most people are terribly frightened by the idea that we have no freedom of choice. The orthodox metaphysicians, for example, felt that free will could remedy conflict, and that without free will, conflict would be unending, locking human kind in an utterly helpless eternal battle between immortal foes. To this, Ramana Maharshi boldly replied:

So what? Rice boils on the stove.
But you don’t have to boil,
unless you foolishly identify
yourself with the rice!

In other words, with what do you identify yourself? The body? What is it that thinks the body is mine? The me? The me assumes that what happens to the body is happening to "me."

That me doesn’t even exist! That, more or less, was the crux of Ramana Maharshi’s response. Put more simply, "Don’t worry about all that goes on. Don’t worry about earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, pestilence, etc., etc., etc., because you are infinite consciousness, which is unaffected by all of that. Ramana Maharshi saw that only the me is effected by such things. Since he didn’t accept the me as real, he didn’t accept all those things as problems.

There is freedom of choice. To whom? To that consciousness, that being the sole consciousness, the sole reality. It is only that which throws up a thing which is called "Richard" or a thing called "Joan." It doesn’t call it “Richard” or “Joan”. The mother or the father calls it so. The infinite intelligence throws up a thing that you call “earth”, or a thing which you call “water”. That infinite intelligence, being the desirer of everything, being the doer of everything, being the experiencer of everything, that has freedom of choice, and total freedom of action. It’s not bound by anything! That is what has free will.

That is what is known as “creative”, as “creative wil”, as “creative action”. That infinite intelligence, to use a very common word, has “power”; power to do. That’s the only thing that does have power to do! Its power can do:


can undo


or it cannot do,


The intelligence does not regard all this as power, because at the stage where such power exists, there is no experiencer to call it so. We think we have power, and imagine that we can do this or that:

I entered into deep meditation,
and I willed it to happen!

Some times something does happen. When it does, we don’t even stop to wonder if there was another element involved besides our will.

As, for instance, kakataliya, the Sanskrit expression which appears in the Yoga Vasistha, which roughly translates as "accidental coincidence." A person tries to will something, or another person prays for something to happen. Should the action happen to coincide with the prayer, that person automatically assumes that he had something to do it, and feeds the belief that a person can somehow force cosmic consciousness do something. What a devilish notion!

Interestingly enough, the word “demon” means precisely this! A demon is not someone some physical monster with huge teeth, four noses, etc. A demon is merely one who tries to directly meddle with the cosmic forces. Since the power to act comes from intelligence, all demons eventually wind up in the soup sooner or later.

We like to claim some credit for all the various “good things” we are engaging in, to claim some credit, for example, for all our karma yoga. But, karma yoga is only there when the ‘non-existent me’ is realized to be non-existent, which is self-surrender, or self-sacrifice, or whatever you want to call it. So if you walk around considering yourself a saint who "does marvelous things," there has been no karma yoga for you.

Swami Sivananda never so much as suggested that he did anything, not even to say, “God has made me his instrument to do this”. Why? Because for Swami Sivananda, the me did not exist, not even as “instrument”. In his presence, one might see someone transformed, and as a spectator, attribute this power to Swami Sivananda. I might rationalize the whole thing, especially if I am his disciple, and say “Swami Sivananda is such a pure person that God works through him”. But that is not right either. As with any real saint, he is not there at all! He has already dissolved in that intelligence, in that divinity. The truth is that God, or the intelligence we call “God”, does it; does everything!

This truth can be received intellectually, and if that is the only way it is received, it is useless. Realization, true realization is not had, ironically, by an act of will. Like food, which when assimilated, becomes you, the truth, when assimilated becomes you, and you become the truth. Questions like “Must I pray?” or “Should prayer be dropped?” vanish only when the idea of ‘I’ is dropped. What replaces it is spontaneous, appropriate activity. So that, you pick up the phone, hear someone saying that So-and-So is dreadfully ill. Immediately, at that moment, some mantra, some prayer may fall out on the lips,

Om tryamnbakam Yajamahe Sugandhim pushtivardhanam
Urvaarukamiva bandhanaan-Mrityormuksheeya maamritaat.

but there is no thought or question about whether it should be done, and, of course, most important of all, you are completly aware that it’s not a question of:Your will be done.”

It’s like vigilance. Vigilance is not an act of mind. Vigilance is itself the nature of cosmic intelligence! It is not there in order to keep from allowing a habit to exist. To understand that habit is bad, the intellect will suffice. For even the intellect can recognize that habits compel one to do the same actions over and over again, and as such, to be bound up in the both the mechanical and the meaningless. Though most people do not see it, what is regarded as mind is really no more than the habitual. If you were to pull all the habits down, and do away with them, you wouldn't find mind there at all, at least not as you now know it. When the habits are all gone, what remains? Intelligence! The intelligence is totally free of habit, completely non-mechanical, and totally unpredictable, and, vigilance is part of its nature.

Vigilance sees something that the intellect cannot, that ‘I’ has no free will. It is not possible, because much like the forming of a tornado, when the personality condenses, it is dense, and, as it grows stronger, the density of its field increases, reducing the transparency of the cell, and therefore, reducing the field of perception also. Since personality is unable to perceive anything beyond, the ‘me’ is assumed to be all. It is itself the cause of its own conditioned, or limited vision. The condensed personality is so very dense that, like the tornado, it blocks the light, giving it shape, but also keeping the light from shining through to reveal its essential nature.

Another little example might help you catch a limited vision of this dilemma. If we sit in an unlit room with large glass window at twilight time, there is some light inside, and some outside. If someone were to install very bright flood lamps in that room, and flood that room with light, you would no longer be able to see outside that room, and even though it was not totally dark outside, it would appear that way to anyone inside the room who tried to look out the window. In a vaguely similar way, the condensation of the cosmic material that forms this personality is dense, and so, vision through it of some light beyond it is not had. All that appears visible is ‘me.’

Vigilance sees the ‘I’ is not doing, is not capable of doing. When such vigilance manifests, whatever action happens, is perfect action, absolutely perfect. Then, there is no need to practice Karma Yoga. That is Karma Yoga already.




Copyright 1997