’s Choice Essay, Research Paper Does Arjuna Have A Free Choice?” Arjuna is one of the two main characters in the classic Hindu religious text, the Bhagavadgita, (or just Gita). The text takes the form of a dialogue between Arjuna, a warrior prince and Krishna, an incarnation of Vishnu who is an aspect of the Supreme Being or God.

’s Choice Essay, Research Paper

Does Arjuna Have A Free Choice?”

Arjuna is one of the two main characters in the classic Hindu religious text, the Bhagavadgita, (or just Gita). The text takes the form of a dialogue between Arjuna, a warrior prince and Krishna, an incarnation of Vishnu who is an aspect of the Supreme Being or God. Throughout it, Krishna tries to persuade Arjuna into fighting a battle against his cousins, who overthrew the rightful rulers. Arjuna does not know whether to fight or not, as he sees a duty-duty conflict between honouring his family, and obeying his social role as a warrior.

However, when reading the Gita it becomes unclear as to whether Arjuna DOES actually have a choice when it comes to fighting or not. If all our actions are caused, then how can Arjuna have any free will? If God knows the future, and if God is omniscient, then how can Arjuna have any choice as whether to fight? If this is true then why does Krishna have to bother trying to persuade Arjuna at all? This would imply that he DOES have some free will.

However the text, along with some other Hindu texts provides us with some answers to this. If we follow this system of belief, then I believe that Arjuna has no free will as regards his physical actions, but as to HOW he does something, his motivation behind his actions, he has a choice; and this is what Krishna is trying to influence.

The Gita appears to be advocating the theory of free will that is now called determinism. Determinism is the theory that all events are caused, and therefore all future events are fixed. There is no free will, and therefore no choice. The Gita seems to put forward at least 5 different arguments for this case.

Firstly there is the natural causal determinism as implied by the Hindu belief in the three gunas. The three gunas are goodness or thought (sattva), action (rajas) and inertia or darkness (tamas). These are the three constituents of all things in the world, they are nature, and they determine everybody s attributes. So it seems that our characters are already decided, and it says about this in the Gita, Everyone is made to act helplessly by the impulses born of nature i. The gunas would have made Arjuna into the warrior (ksatriya) caste, and therefore he can do nothing but fight, because you cannot change your caste.

Another natural cause of determinism is that according to the Gita (18.13), there are five factors that are present in every action. The factors are the material basis; the doer; the instruments of the action; effort or motion; and daivam or fate. The important member of this list is fate, the fact that all actions are predestined anyway. This however is not conclusive evidence as fate is only ONE of five factors. Sharma puts it that fate is acting in a given environment and free will is represented by the doer and efforts ii. This may be why Krishna has to try and persuade Arjuna, even though it is fated, effort on the part of Arjuna is missing and so the action cannot take place. But an action cannot take place unless it is fated, and surely Arjuna s effort is an action and so surely is fated as to whether he acts or not. This argument is not clear.

The other evidence stems from the role and powers of God in the Bhagavadgita. One is divine foreknowledge, since Krishna knows that Arjuna will fight, it must be true, and there is no changing it. God cannot be wrong! The second is divine decree. If God has told you to do something, then you cannot disobey. The third is the fact that time is said to be created by God (11.32) and so the past, present AND the future are all his to control and create at his will. All of these aspects of divine determinism are brought about by the powers that are attributed to the Supreme Being in the Gita. These powers were first described in the Gita, before God did not govern the whole of cosmic action iii. According to the Gita, The Lord abides in the heart of all beings causing them to turn around by his power as if they were mounted on a machine iv, and so it appears that Arjuna has no free will.

However the Gita also reads as if Arjuna does have a choice. Krishna says, After pondering on it fully, act as thou thinkest best v. And why would Krishna try so hard to convince Arjuna if choice was not possible? I think that the answer to this lies in the teachings of yoga within the Gita.

Yoga is making the distinction between the self (perusa) and the body (or nature – prakrti). When the self is separated, then we have achieved perfection, the cycle of birth and re-birth will be ended and we shall achieve moksa; we shall be one with brahman (reality?). There are three main way in which to practise yoga, as taught in the Gita. They are karma-yoga (duty/work): jnana-yoga (knowledge); and bhakti-yoga (devotion). The main point of the Gita is an amalgamation of karma-yoga and bhakti-yoga, regarding HOW Arjuna should act (not what he should do).

The philosophy says that action should be taken with not a view to the consequences, but for the sake of duty, or for the glory of God. The results of the action are irrelevant, the only motivation should be surrendering in thought all actions to Me (God) vi. In this way, the theory is not entirely non-consequentialist, it simply moves the moral worth of an action from the results to some other motivation. At first in the Gita, Krishna stresses the importance of doing your duty, but the vast majority of the rest is concerned with pleasing God, or trying to achieve union with God though bhakti-yoga. So this is the choice that Arjuna has, HOW to perform the action – whether in respect to the consequences, for the sake of duty, or for the attainment of God.

There is an objection to this theory that says that the denial of a connection between self and body is implausible. However implausible it may seem to us, that is the whole POINT of yoga, to separate the self from the body. When cease the 5 (sense) knowledges, together with the mind, And the intellect stirs not – That they say is the highest course. This they consider as yoga – The firm holding back of the senses. vii

Another objection concerns the empirical ego, or the mind (as opposed to the self). The Upanisads use an analogy of a chariot rider to help explain. The chariot is the body, the driver is the ego or mind, and the person in the chariot is the self or the atman. The atman has no beginning, no end and is unchangeable. The ego is capable of action, whereas the self is not; the ego is dependent upon its experience in the world, the self is not; and the ego is created from the three gunas, the self is not. Therefore what the ego does MUST be preordained as it is subject to natural laws, which as we have said, are deterministic. This would mean that yet again Arjuna has no choice, even about in what frame of mind he acts, because his mind, the only part capable of action is subject to deterministic laws.

However if we go further back into the causes of nature, we find that this is not entirely true. There are two fundamental things in the world – purusa and prakrti, which are the subject and the object respectively; the knowing object and the known. In the beginning, the three gunas were in perfect balance (three gunas make up prakrti or nature, the physical part of the world), and there was no action. However the presence of conscious persua brings about activity in prakrti and starts evolution. The one of the products of this is buddhi or the intellect, which is followed by manas, the mind and then senses and so on But buddhi (intellect) and manas (the mind) are the instruments of consciousness and are not themselves conscious viii . Gunas are subject to change in the presence of perusa, of which the self (atman) is also a part. From this it does not seem illogical that if you are conscious of the difference between purusa and praktri then you may have some control over the buddhi and the manas, in other words the empirical ego. This would not be acting in the phyical sense, more influencing.

This is what yoga is, because the perusa forgets its true nature and is deluded into the belief that it thinks feels and acts ix therefore by practising yoga, we learn to discriminate and remove the obstacle of prakti.

Ramanuja, a medieval Indian writer proposes the theory of permissive occasionalism to give Arjuna some free will in the Gita. The theory states that God (or more specifically God in us, i.e. the atman), either allows or refuses an action depending whether your motivation is good or bad. Ramanuja says that this leaves the action still in the hands of the actor and so is still in sense free. He says that God gives virtuous people a tendency to do virtuous things too. I disagree strongly with this. There is no evidence in the Gita for this view. Not only does it contradict what it says in the Gita about action being irrelevant, and undesirable even, it also assumes that God differentiates between good and bad. In the Gita it is plainly stated that God is both good and bad and everything in-between, and also that only our passion and physical being discriminate between them, he does not. The Gita says Even if a man of most vile conduct worships me with undistracted devotion, he must be reckoned as righteous x . There is no good or evil and also God does not favour ANYONE according to the Gita, None is hateful or dear to me xi .

Thirdly, there is the most basic argument against free will, the fact that God knows everything and so he knows your motives for acting and so these are pre-ordained too. The Gita disagrees with this, although it does give the deity the power of omniscience. How is this resolved? Perhaps the non-dualism of the school of Samkara can offer an explanation. This states that our atmans are modes of brahman (In some Upanishads, brahman is sometimes identified with the universe; in others brahman is regarded as a personal God. In the Gita, these appear to be one and the same). We are it, but it is not us. It is more than us, like the relationship between an arm and a body. Surely the Supreme Being has some influence over himself? And our selves are him. So in the connection between perusa and prakrti within us maybe some sort of free will is achieved by merging the consciousness with the natural world. Not free with the cosmic influence of Krishna, but free will over yourself, to make conscious change within yourself, and this MUST be as only the atman is conscious. Krishna says that praktri is his lower nature and that he creates and controls it. We are modes of the Supreme Being and therefore must share some characteristics. Our minds and bodies are our lower nature (within the power of brahman) and we can create new life and control it too, so maybe we can subdue our lower natures, and achieve moska.

The Gita is not clear about whether Arjuna has a choice or not in my opinion. This may be because the Gita is not a philosophical text, but a religious one and so is not based on defensible metaphysical propositions. But since the whole concept of the text is Arjuna being persuaded to fight, we must assume free will of some sort on his part. Since the wealth of powers that are bestowed on the deity in the Gita is so large, it leaves little room for any sort of free will. In fact there seems no way of denying that the physical world is completely deterministic. However, the presence of atman, perusa, God himself within us, as our self , confuses the issue and makes us not wholly physical and perhaps allows for while not the cosmic free will to do what we please, enough leeway to have influence over our own motives and our own minds. Arjuna has no free choice in what is going to happen, but he has a choice in how he reacts to it, how he sets his mind whether as a practitioner of yoga or not.


1) An Indian Sourcebook in Philosophy ed. Radhakrishnan and Moore 1989 – i – 3.5 Gita , iii – P101, iv – 18.61 Gita, v – 18.63 Gita, vi – 18.57, vii – P49 Upanisads, xiii and ix – P425, x – 9.30 Gita, xi – 9.29 Gita.

2) Fate and Freewill in the Bhagavadgita Arvind Sharma, Religious Studies 1979 – ii.

3) Indian Philosophy – Richard King 1999

4) Free Will – Ilham Dilman 1999

5) The Oxford Companion to Philosophy ed. Ted Honderich 1995