We believe we have free will. We are confronted with choices and make a decision and carry it out and believe that this decision was made freely by the individual we identify as ourself. At the same time, we can recognise the step-wise development which is called ’cause and effect’, or the law of Karma. If we pursue the retrogression from the current decision to each antecedent act or event, however, we can see that there is clearly a line of causality that stretches back, step by step, to a past we cannot even see, and that we could conclude, if we chose to do so, that indeed there is no such thing as free will in our actions.

We can see that each successive level of the manifestation of consciousness appears to provide more flexibility, more freedom of choice, such that on the material plane, we can speak of fixed laws of material nature. We identify the laws of thermodynamics, the laws of motion, the law of conservation of energy, the relation between matter and energy, etc. As life emerges we find that the determinations appear to be much less rigid, yet there are clearly certainly principles or laws that govern the development of life and life-forms. The mental nature appears even more fluid and as we exercise self-reflection, we seem to have a strong measure of free will. Yet, a careful analysis will show that even the decisions we make that appear to be free and ‘random’, not bound by a fixed law, are indeed conditioned by circumstances, education, environment, relationships, etc. Can we really say that any decision we make is actually ‘free will’ in operation, or is it purely the illusion of free will?

We are a nexus or point of awareness of universal nature. Does the drop of water in the ocean have free will, or is it the ocean itself that may have free will, of which the ‘drop’ partakes without exercising its own independent freedom? If we shift our awareness to further levels of conscious awareness, beyond the mind, into the realms where the pure manifesting consciousness of the universal creation resides, we can identify the true ‘mover’ of all things, the place where free will actually resides. It is through identification with that larger and higher consciousness that we can begin to identify the true nature of free will.
In the meantime, it is clear that even our exercise of ‘free will’ at the human level of existence is part of a larger pattern that plays out inexorably and consistently. Variations that occur through any flexibility we have are actually part of that larger pattern.

Sri Aurobindo notes: “… at least nine-tenths of our freedom of will is a palpable fiction; that will is created and determined not by its own self-existent action at a given moment, but by our past, our heredity, our training, our environment, the whole tremendous complex thing we call Karma, which is, behind us, the whole past action of Nature on us and the world converging in the individual, determining what he is, determining what his will shall be at a given moment and determining, as far as analysis can see, even its action at that moment. The ego associates itself always with its Karma and it says ‘I did’ and ‘I will’ and ‘I suffer’, but if it looks at itself and sees how it was made, it is obliged to say of man as of the animal, ‘Nature did this in me, Nature wills in me’, and if it qualifies by saying ‘my Nature’, that only means ‘Nature as self-determined in this individual creature’. It was the strong perception of this aspect of existence which compelled the Buddhists to declare that all is Karma and that there is no self in existence, that the idea of self is only a delusion of the ego-mind.”

Sri Aurobindo and the Mother, The Hidden Forces of Life, Ch. 1 Life Through the Eyes of the Yogin, pg. 20

Author's Bio: 

Santosh has been studying Sri Aurobindo's writings since 1971 and has a daily blog at http://sriaurobindostudies.wordpress.com and podcast at https://anchor.fm/santosh-krinsky He is author of 20 books and is editor-in-chief at Lotus Press. He is president of Institute for Wholistic Education, a non-profit focused on integrating spirituality into daily life.
YouTube Channel www.youtube.com/@santoshkrinsky871
More information about Sri Aurobindo can be found at http://www.aurobindo.net
The US editions and links to e-book editions of Sri Aurobindo’s writings can be found at http://www.lotuspress.com