January 25, 2007
In this letter Swami Kriyananda responds to the question: What exactly do we mean by saying we have been given free will? If all actions are done by God, how are we free?
I’ll be glad to try to answer your questions.
First, soul freedom is a reality, but it must be understood on a deeper level than that of the ego.
Freedom, to begin with, is true only of the soul. Limitation of all kinds is the meaning of bondage, and ego-consciousness is the greatest limitation of all, from which all others proceed. Ego makes us think we have a separate, individual reality.
As waves on the sea appear individual, yet have no lasting reality except as manifestations of that one great body of water, so we ourselves, in ego-consciousness, rise and fall, wavelike, on the ocean of God’s consciousness, success followed by failure, happiness followed by sorrow, fulfillment followed by frustration, ever subject to the contrasting states of duality. Our separateness from the ocean, however, and even from one another is a mere appearance. Man may be described as simply a bundle of self-definitions.
Paramhansa Yogananda described divine consciousness as “center everywhere, circumference nowhere.” Man’s limited existence is the “circumference” formed by his egoic self-definitions. When those limiting self-definitions are removed or dissolved, nothing remains to prevent his consciousness from merging into and becoming one with God. In that stage it is not that we lose all identity; rather, we expand our identity to infinity.
Being omniscient, it must be added that we retain the memory of having been, each one of us, a separate ego. In this way, Yogananda explained, nothing is lost in the Infinite—not even the ego. We can revive that memory of individual existence again, if ever the Divine wills that we return to earth to uplift and save other wandering souls.
Man cannot be free in ego-consciousness, except in the sense that his soul-consciousness within him can impel him to direct his energies and aspirations toward God, or toward maya. Everything man does in his egoic state is conditioned by his own past actions, and by the countless outside influences to which he is subject. For man is integrally a part of the great Web of Existence. Egoic individuality is an illusion.
Man has only this much freedom: his soul, being a part of God, is not separate from Infinity. Thus, all of us in our souls have the power either to turn toward God or to reject Him; to love Him, or to spurn Him. This, in essence, is our only true freedom. Since karma and worldly influences prevent him from expressing that freedom, it must be added that man is free also to the extent that he can free his mind from all habits and separative samskars.
In other words, if he is self-controlled he has greater freedom than someone who is completely bound by habits. Good qualities, which are the attributes of Sattwa guna, cannot in themselves bring release from ego. All qualities, however noble, being born of ego-consciousness, conceal the inner soul. The Gita tells us they hide it as smoke hides a fire: A little puff of wind, and the fire becomes fully visible.
Sattwa guna is like a thin veil covering soul-consciousness and concealing it. A little meditative effort is all that is needed in order to blow away the last delusions of egoic separateness.
The darkening qualities of Tamo guna, on the other hand, form a thick covering which conceals the soul within them as if in deep darkness. The Gita compares Tamo guna to an embryo in the womb: Time alone will enable the embryo to emerge into the clear light of day.
God does indeed do everything, but He also created delusion, and operates through the three gunas to bring about His cosmic magic show. We cannot operate through the ego without becoming intrinsic parts of the cosmic illusion. Hence, in our egos we are free only to the extent that we turn back, even with great effort, toward God. Only as we shed ego-consciousness can we reclaim our divine freedom, which means becoming one with God again.
I hope this answer proves helpful.
In divine friendship,