The Bhagavad Gita in Chapter 18, verses 60-61 states that all creatures are mounted on the machine of Nature and act accordingly. This post explicates the meaning of these two verses.
nibaddhah svena karmana
kartum necchasi yan mohat
karisyasy avaso ‘pi tat (18:60)
hrd-dese ‘rjuna tisthati
yantrarudhani mayaya (18:61)
Translation: Krishna informs Arjuna that if you refuse to act, then modes of Nature within you will act because it is the Lord who sits within the heart of all creatures and turns them as if mounted on a machine by the illusion of Nature.
Meaning: We assume that we are independent human beings and acting based on our own free-will. This notion of free-will is an illusion for, in reality, the will that drives our action is itself a product of our past, our heredity and our environment. The choices we make at any given moment are not really random since they are being made by our fixed personality which is itself the product of Karma. That which drives our personality are the three modes of Nature (sattwa or illumination, rajas or kinetism, tamas or inertia). As Sri Aurobindo points out, behind the visible events of the world, there is always a mass of invisible cosmic forces at work that are unknown to the outward minds of men. We are blind to their action because our ego-sense creates in us the illusion of a coherent personality.
We see that in us it consists of a succession of waves of being and force, pressing from outside and rising from within, which become stuff of consciousness and formulate in a mental cognition and mentalised sensation of self and things in Time and Space. Time presents itself to us as a flow of dynamic movement, Space as an objective field of contents for the experience of this imperfect and developing awareness. By immediate awareness the mental being mobile in Time lives perpetually in the present; by memory he saves a certain part of his experience of self and things from streaming away from him entirely into the past; by thought and will and action, by mind energy, life energy, body energy he utilises it for what he becomes in the present and is yet to become hereafter; the force of being in him that has made him what he is works to prolong, develop and amplify his becoming in the future. All this insecurely held material of self-expression and experience of things, this partial knowledge accumulated in the succession of Time, is co-ordinated for him by perception, memory, intelligence and will to be utilised for an ever-new or ever-repeated becoming and for the mental, vital, physical action which helps him to grow into what he is to be and to express what he already is. The present totality of all this experience of consciousness and output of energy is co-ordinated for relation to his being, gathered into consistency around an ego-sense which formulates the habit of response of self-experience to the contacts of Nature in a persistent limited field of conscious being. It is this ego-sense that gives a first basis of coherence to what otherwise might be a string or mass of floating impressions: all that is so sensed is referred to a corresponding artificial centre of mental consciousness in the understanding, the ego-idea. This ego-sense in the life stuff and this ego-idea in the mind maintain a constructed symbol of self, the separative ego, which does duty for the hidden real self, the spirit or true being.
Sri Aurobindo, The Life Divine – I: The Boundaries of the Ignorance
Therefore, our degrees of freedom, so to speak, are limited and we are merely acting or responding according to the Modes of Nature(Gunas). This is what the Gita means when it says “it is the modes of Nature that are acting on the modes” (gunah gunesu vartante) (Gita 3:28). Behind the modes of Nature, there exists a secret Divine Will, eternal and infinite, that guides the evolving Universe and expresses itself in the universal and the particular.
As long as we are bound to this wheel of Nature, our freedom is relative and our free-will is limited. The only free will in the world is the one Divine Will of which Nature is the executrix. It is only when we transcend the modes of Nature (become trigunatita as the Gita 14:21 calls it) that we become truly free. When we go inward by the practice of Yoga, we become conscious of these Forces of Nature and then we are able to intervene consciously in their play and change the existing determinisms of Nature. As the Mother states:
If you remain in a consciousness which functions mentally, even if it is the highest mind, you have the notion of an absolute determinism of cause and effect and feel that things are what they are because they are what they are and cannot be otherwise. It is only when you come out of the mental consciousness completely and enter a higher perception of things – which you may call spiritual or divine – that you suddenly find yourself in a state of perfect freedom where everything is possible.
Sri Aurobindo remarks on the distinction between relative freedom and absolute freedom:
The only free will in the world is the one divine Will of which Nature is the executrix; for she is the master and creator of all other wills. Human free will can be real in a sense, but, like all things that belong to the modes of Nature, it is only relatively real. The mind rides on a swirl of natural forces, balances on a poise between several possibilities, inclines to one side or another, settles and has the sense of choosing: but it does not see, it is not even dimly aware of the Force behind that has determined its choice. It cannot see it, because that Force is something total and to our eyes indeterminate. At most mind can only distinguish with an approach to clarity and precision some out of the complex variety of particular determinations by which this Force works out her incalculable purposes. Partial itself, the mind rides on a part of the machine, unaware of nine-tenths of its motor agencies in Time and environment, unaware of its past preparation and future drift; but because it rides, it thinks that it is directing the machine. In a sense it counts: for that clear inclination of the mind which we call our will, that firm settling of the inclination which presents itself to us as a deliberate choice, is one of Nature’s most powerful determinants; but it is never independent and sole. Behind this petty instrumental action of the human will there is something vast and powerful and eternal that oversees the trend of the inclination and presses on the turn of the will. There is a total Truth in Nature greater than our individual choice. And in this total Truth, or even beyond and behind it, there is something that determines all results; its presence and secret knowledge keep up steadily in the process of Nature, a dynamic, almost automatic perception of the right relations, the varying Or persistent necessities, the inevitable steps of the movement. There is a secret divine Will, eternal and infinite, omniscient and omnipotent, that expresses itself in the universality and in each particular of all these apparently temporal and finite, inconscient or half-conscient things. This is the Power or Presence meant by the Gita when it speaks of the Lord within the heart of all existences who turns all creatures as if mounted on a machine by the illusion of Nature.
Sri Aurobindo points out that it must have been a strong perception of this illusion that led the Buddhists to declare that everything is Karma and that the idea of a soul is also part of the illusion” Essays on the Gita: The Determinism of Nature In reality (…atleast the occult reality that some other sages experienced…), individual souls do exist.
Why did the Divine through Nature create this illusion in the first place? This illusion of free-will is a necessary mechanism of Creation. It is because of this illusion of freedom that we make choices, that we strive to do better and are ultimately led to the spiritual path where we begin to transcend the modes of Nature. As the Mother points out, free-will is also part of Nature’s determinism; we are fated to choose!Mother’s Agenda: April 18, 1961
Such is the giant wheel of Nature on which all creatures are turned round and round.