The concept of prakRti is most fundamental to the understanding of Indian metaphysics. The nearest English translation of the word prakRti is Cosmic Energy, though the innocuous word 'Nature' is very often used by scholars and laymen alike. The difference between the connotation of prakRti as used in Vedanta and the meaning of the word Energy as used in Science is actually at the root of the matter. In Science, Matter is fundamental and self-existent; its motive-power is Energy. In Vedanta, Energy is self-existent, and Matter is the product of this ever-present Energy.         It is the qualities (= guNas) inherent in Cosmic Energy, not as something separate but as the constituents which make up the Cosmic Energy, that gives matter its substance. The qualities are something like strands of the twisted rope of prakRti.

There are, as it were, two prakRtis, both emanating as the power of Brahman, the Absolute Reality.. The inferior prakRti (aparA-prakRti)is the Energy that gives rise to Matter. This is also called in the literature by its various names: mAyA, because it deceptively hides the spirit behind matter and projects falsity; pradhAna, the most fundamental, because under the will of ISvara, God, it produces the five elements and then the universe; avyakta, the unmanifest, because it is not perceptible to the senses; jaDa, the insentient; avidyA, cosmic ignorance; kshara, the perishable, because it alternates between manifestation and non-manifestation; and kshetra, the field, because it is the base of all action.

The Superior prakRti contributes to the spark of the spiritual undercurrent vibrating in each living being. It is known as  parA-prakRti, also parA-Sakti, the supreme power of brahman, also cit-Sakti, the power of cognition, or pure consciousness or pure spirit. It  is the source of all energy. It is the abstract form of Brahman to be known and realised by intuition. A tiny fragment of it appears as jIva, the individual soul, on the one side and ISvara, God, on the other side. The contrast between jIva and ISvara is as follows:

Jiva is matter in association with Spirit under a material envelope and is also under the constant spell of mAyA. Isvara is Spirit viewed in relation to matter.  It is Brahman conditioned by our intellect  and is in complete control of mAyA or avidyA.

Free will is the sheet anchor on which we base all our actions. But that is only the starting point. As we  move up the spectrum of spiritual evolution slowly but steadily we reach the stage where we look upward for the hand of God to help us out of our problems, and we believe that God can change things for us. But shall we trust Him totally? Or shall we take it that He gives us just a hand? Many of us go through this dilemma most of our lives vacillating between extremes. The intensity of this vacillation depends on our mood, our environment, the company we keep, the amount of pressure from our peers, kith and kin, the attachment we have to what we think is our objective and what we think is our prerogative, and, finally, the habits we have cultivated for ourselves in terms of our attitude to crises. A trust in God and His omnipotence does not mean that we are demeaning ourselves. Belief in the concept that it is some other Power within us, other than our egoism, that is the doer and the experiencer, should not be equated with Fatalism. It is in fact the first step to the import of Spirituality in our lives. This other Power within us is usually ascribed to be the Lord but it is actually our own prakRti. This latter is usually translated as Cosmic nature but in this context it is nothing but the accumulated vAsanAs due to the actions of our past lives individualized and earmarked for this life of ours. (The accumulated actions themselves so individualized and earmarked for this life of ours is prArabdha-karma which may be roughly translated as Fate).  So each person brings a chip of imprints from his previous lives; this is his prakRti. Each action of ours is not merely a product of the action or thought that precedes it but it is also the product of a state of moral character which is our own prakRti. It is not God's action, except that it is He that is the distributor of results of past deeds. This is the answer to the standard question of the atheist: If you believe in a supernatural interventionist God, how do you explain the non-interventions?

There is another way in which Fate and Free will are mixed up. In one of the smRtis (the secondary scriptures) it says that among the four objectives of man,  artha (material prosperity) and kAma (sensual desires) are obtained as per one's prArabdha karma while the other two, namely, dharma (righteousness) and moksha (ultimate release from bondage) are obtained by self-effort. This would imply that as far as these two goals -- dharma and moksha -- are concerned,  a total freedom is given to us, as is confirmed by the religious injunctions like ‘speak the truth’ and ‘do the right thing’.  Self-effort is the most essential ingredient, therefore, for lifting ourselves spiritually.

The concept of Free Will changes as one evolves philosophically. Fate and Free will are interwoven just as the threads of a fabric are crossed and interlaced. We cannot rewrite our past. Our past is our fate for the future. We may not be able to repair our wrong actions, but we can certainly learn lessons from them and act accordingly, by a determined free will, in the future. We may not be able to alleviate the miseries that we have caused others but we may avoid repeating them. It is our tendencies that are determined by the so-called Fate and not our actions. Actions are ours. This is the hypothesis from which we all start our lives. But as we go through life  we learn some lessons from the world. We become wiser to the ways of the world and also to the ways of the Lord. Slowly it appears that, try as we may, certain happenings which seemed to be totally in our control have slipped away from us and we see an invisible force pulling us. We move from the childhood beliefs of naivete, myth and superstition to the adult days of self-effort and freedom of free will. From this position we have to learn the lessons of philosophy. Gradually and wisely the movement is towards accepting the Supreme as the really supreme Mover of things. Real Free will  is that of the Self within

The common man's understanding that the Almighty intervenes either by way of Grace or otherwise is rather elementary. The real work of the Almighty is deeper. Not a leaf moves without His knowledge or sanction, not a drop flows down by itself. Gravity is His Will. Action and Reaction are His Will. This is not poetic fancy or philosophical speculation. This is the basis on which God's omnipotence and omniscience are asserted by the scriptures of  Vedanta at the highest levels of understanding. The free will that we usually talk about is not any more free. Mortals as we are, we however think that we are the most significant creatures on this earth. But perhaps a bevy of ants occupying a log of wood floating in the ocean has also a  significance. Our entire humanity occupying this planet is itself floating in a limitless universe and will be inevitably swallowed up in empty space and oblivion leaving no trace behind. Man's will, though powerful as we thought, has only a limited power. Will is concerned with ends. Power is concerned with the means for attaining the end. Will without power is helpless to provide the means to attain the end. Power without will is purposeless because it has no end in view. There cannot be any power without consciousness. There cannot be consciousness without power. The will-power we thought was ours comes really from the consciousness within. The free will and the will power are both egoistic, being individual-centered. The true center of all action is not the ego, though it appears to be so, and rightly so, in the beginning. The true center is the free Self within us. The will in us as well as the will in Nature are only a modified and partial reflection of this Will of the Self within us.

QUESTIONS galore: What does it mean to say that the Self or God is free? Does He have free will? Free will implies multiple options and a freedom to exercise choice. Does He have several options? Why does He choose one of them? In that case is He so ignorant of the future to have to choose from his options? What governs His choice? Nature or prakRti? Is He a slave to His Nature? What desire makes Him choose? If He is omniscient, omnipotent and omnipresent, why does He have to have options, choices, freedom to choose or not to choose? Why? why? why? Does it not all add up to saying that such a God is a bundle of contradictions?

To answer all these questions one has to dole out a vast material about the concept of Godhead in Hinduism. We shall just briefly give the punch line. Whatever you take the Ultimate Godhead to be, either Impersonal or Personal, what is important is that the Hindu description of Godhead is rather tricky  because it simultaneously possesses "contradictory' qualities. So it is difficult to think of a parallel in the finite world of ours. He has no desire, yet He has Will! He chooses and chooses not! He intervenes and He also never intervenes, only watches! He has options but each option is His own Will! He knows the future, yet He chooses to act! The future is what He makes of the present.  Nature (= prakRti) is His slave, but He allows Nature to take its course. He is Personal, but not 'personal' in the worldly sense, because He is all-knowing. He is perfect, not in the sense of free from limitations, because limitations don't exist outside of His will! Yes, He is a bundle of contradictions, if you yourself don't have faith in  your Self! prakRti, the Nature of each being, is only the force of the Self within. It is this Self within, called the  purusha that makes the prakRti work through the lower self. The Bhagavad-Gita makes an impassioned appeal for us to make this surrender to the Self  within. After showing His cosmic form to Arjuna, Krishna declares: I have already conquered and vanquished all your enemies; be only an instrument of my action; go and fight. So the plea is for us to be the instrument of God's Will. We are supposed to be like the needle in a gramophone which only traces the channels already chalked out for it by the designer of the record.

The ascent to this height in Spirituality is not easy. To sacrifice the will itself to the divine is a major requirement of deep Spirituality. This has to be  an effort over a long period of years in one life. Hindu scriptures say that one life may not be sufficient for this. That it takes quite several lives before one reaches this stage is a standard refrain of scriptural advice. The Bhagavad-Gita also says this. And in saying this, the Gita dwells upon why it is so difficult. The mind is made up of soft matter. As each thought or memory of an action passes through it, an impression (like perhaps a scratch) is left on the mind. When similar thoughts are repeated this ‘scratch’ deepens into a canal. Every subsequent thought wave has a tendency to flow through that ready-made thought canal. Each individual brings with him at birth this particular shade (VAsanA) of imprint, in his mind from his previous lives. The shade-mix of the aggregate of vAsanAs must be congenial and conducive to the growth of Spirituality. . Human behavior is generally attributed to what is usually called one’s nature (sva-bhAva) and to the training that one  gets due to the environment and upbringing. This is not denied by Hindu metaphysics. But the tendencies that one  brings along from one’s  own past, including all previous lives, also contribute to the  sva-bhAva or own-nature. The aggregate of behavior that results thus is broadly categorized into three major categories by Indian metaphysics. These are three categories of behavior, called guNas .

These are: satva, rajas and tamas, meaning roughly, divine, dynamic and dark (or dull). In reality no man or woman has any one of these in an exclusive manner. It is always a mixture of the three. These are the three strands which constitute the prakRti. prakRti of course means Nature, in general, but actually stands for it in its broadest sense encompassing the entire universe of matter and material, in fact anything which is inert. They are actually Nature's concomitant and indispensable strands


satva is that of equilibrium and serenity.

rajas is that of dynamism and kinesis. 

tamas is that of ignorance and inertia.


They  are inextricably interwoven in all forms of cosmic existence and phenomenon The imperishable resident of the body, namely the jIva or the individual soul, is by itself free but what binds it to the transmigratory cycle of births and deaths is the prakRti through the three guNas. Of these, the rajo-guNa is made up of desire, attraction, repulsion, likes and dislikes, and attachment to objects of desire. It binds man by repeatedly involving him in the dynamics of work. Dynamism broadly includes excitement, reaction to action, a constant distraction and so an antithesis to peace and calm. It attaches one to action. the tamo-guNa is born out of ignorance and deludes man from his real nature. It binds man by the dark qualities of indolence, sleep and negligence. It attaches him  to error and inaction. The satva-guNa because of its purity of quality is the cause of light and illumination. It binds man, however, by creating an attachment to knowledge, happiness and bliss.


As we observed earlier,  it is the qualities inherent in the Cosmic Energy that gives matter its substance. Mind itself is matter. It is the effect of the play of Prakriti. The latter, invidvidualised to each soul is the unmanifested factor, which, in consequence of the good and bad performancs in the previous lives, has begiun to give fruition in this life. This unmanifested factor iswhat is called vAsanA, but the Gita never uses the word vAsanA. It uses the word avyakta, which means, the unmanifested factor. This avyakta can be individual or collective. This totality of the unmanifested factor, in its macrocosmic aspect is the source of the whole universe at the beginning of creation.It is because of that the Jiva is under the spell of mAyA or Prakriti – through which Brahman functions to bring about the universe of men and things. The play of matter and Spirit in this manner is samsAra. The Purusha by himself has no samsAra. But when he identifies himself with the body , mind and senses which are the effects of Prakriti, he becomes the experiencer. Every ation of the world as well as of the BmI is dominated by Prakriti. By coercing it and suppressing it violently you cannot win over it.  This is the meaning of the famous verse III-33 of the Gita:


sadRRishaM ceshhTate svasyAH  prakRRiter-jnAnavAnapi /

prakRRitiM yAnti bhUtAni nigrahaH kiM karishhyati //


Ysually the common man and the unwise interpret this verse to mean that whatever we do is according to Prakriti and so there is nothing under our control. And one stretches the meaning to conclude that we are total slaves of our Fate – and this verse is very often cited  to condemn Hinduism as a fatalist religion. The verse simply means: All beings, even the wise men, follow their own nature; what can coercion or restraint do? This means that coercion, or a suppression of, and violent resistance to,  one’s svabhava (= own nature and becoming) will be of no avail.  But this is not a cry of despair. We do not have to resign ourselves to the wayward tendencies of our mind, inherited by its vAsanAs. The use of the word ‘nigraha’ is significant. What is decried is ‘nigrah’, coercion, violent resistance and suppression. In the very nexxt verse and in scores of other placesKrishna extols ‘samyama’self-control, disciplined restraint,and practice in controlling the senses. We have to give due respect to the devil of our own svabhava, which is our own specialityof a Prakriti, go along with itand in due time control it, as much as posible.  This shloka is an excellent example of how Hinduism, instead of being a fatalistic and pessimistic religion, is actually very realistic and constructive.



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© 2017 by V. Krishnamurthy