Gita Chapter 18, Verse 60-61: The illusion of free-will

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.

Image by Jester21. Click for source

English transliteration:

svabhava-jena kaunteya
nibaddhah svena karmana
kartum necchasi yan mohat
karisyasy avaso ‘pi tat (18:60)

isvarah sarva-bhutanam
hrd-dese ‘rjuna tisthati
bhramayan sarva-bhutani
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.

The Mother, Questions and Answers (1957 – 1958): 28 August 1957

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, The Synthesis of Yoga – I: Self-Surrender in Works – The Way of the Gita


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.

25 thoughts on “Gita Chapter 18, Verse 60-61: The illusion of free-will

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  5. Chetan

    The emerging evidence in Neuroscience confirms the fact mentioned by Sri Aurobindo “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. The Synthesis of Yoga – I: Self-Surrender in Works – The Way of the Gita

    See the Neuroscience of free will at:
    and the role of dorsolateral prefrontal cortex in decision making at:

    1. Sandeep Post author

      Some scientists seem to be confirming Sri Aurobindo’s insights, although consensus is elusive Here is another report on the neuroscience of free will

      Neuroscience, free will and determinism: ‘I’m just a machine’: Our bodies can be controlled by outside forces in the universe discovers Tom Chivers. ,

      For a man who thinks he’s a robot, Professor Patrick Haggard is remarkably cheerful about it. “We certainly don’t have free will,” says the leading British neuroscientist. “Not in the sense we think.” It’s quite a way to start an interview.

      We’re in the Institute for Cognitive Neuroscience, in Queen Square in London, the nerve centre – if you will – of British brain research. Prof Haggard is demonstrating “transcranial magnetic stimulation”, a technique that uses magnetic coils to affect one’s brain, and then to control the body. One of his research assistants, Christina Fuentes,…presses a switch, and the coil activates with a click. Prof Haggard’s hand twitches. “It’s not me doing that,” he assures me, “it’s her.”

      I watch as Christina controls Prof Haggard’s fingers like a marionette.

      The idea that our bodies can be controlled by an outside force is a pretty astonishing one. “This is absolutely out of my control,” insists Prof Haggard, as his muscles continue to move. “I’m not doing it, Christina is. I’m just a machine, and she is operating me.”

      What does this mean in terms of free will? “We don’t have free will, in the spiritual sense. What you’re seeing is the last output stage of a machine. There are lots of things that happen before this stage – plans, goals, learning – and those are the reasons we do more interesting things than just waggle fingers. But there’s no ghost in the machine.”

      The conclusions are shocking: if we are part of the universe, and obey its laws, it’s hard to see where free will comes into it. What we think of as freedom, he says, is a product of complexity. “An amoeba has one input, one output. If you touch it with one chemical, it engulfs it; with another, it recoils

      1. SUJATA

        Getting confused. If there is no frewill and Vivek, how do gether our Karma ? As our moind is governed by higher power , why are we here ? What is our purpose?

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  7. jabu

    I am addicted to alcohol and started drinking about 20 years ago. I tried many ways to quit but failed. Now I just want to know my purpose on earth and do it according to god’s will. Information like this give me a bit of hope for attaining the supreme being. Thank you

    1. Sandeep


      Sorry, but it is quite impossible to offer any suggestion over the Internet without complete information.

      1. Find a de-addiction clinic.
      2. Take up the practice of basic Hatha Yoga (including pranayama, etc) which will help you regain willpower.
      3. Read good inspirational books which encourage you to achieve something and live.
      4. Stay away from people who force you into bad habits
      5. Ask yourself – what is my special talent? Nurture and develop that.

  8. Ramesh

    If you believe in ‘predetermination of everything’ Jabulani was fated to be an alcoholic by his nature (which he supposedly inherited or is arising from his past karma etc.). However there is higher consciousness in him that makes him aware that this is undesirable and he needs to do something about it. Prodded by this mechanism he tries hard to kick the habit. The consciousness tries again and again despite its failure. He feels (experiences) unhappy that he is unable to overcome the addiction or habit because deep down he feels intuitively that what he is stuck in is wrong.
    The repeated attempts can be traced back to the consciousness trying. The habit forming nature of addictive substances produces such a strong craving that its force is stronger than what is trying to bring balance back into his life. The nature of addictive substances ( for humans) is predetermined. This we can all agree on.

    So inside us there must be an embedded mechanism of right and wrong. There is a mechanism (like guilt) that is built into us to bring us back to the center, when we drift far out. Who is this mechanism and what are its moral values?? It has to be the values of “That”….. the one without a second. Something is making a choice to intervene is it not? So the higher consciousness must possess free will, as well as know the right from wrong.

    Let us assume that his conscious intention succeeds, the pre-determinists are going to say that too was predetermined!!No credit is given to that built in mechanism. If it fails it is the same deal for those who believe in the idea that everything is predetermined. This is like have the cake and eat it too.

    So Jabu decides to give up or step back and see what happens without taking sides in this fight. He experiences no emotions ( unlike before when he felt agitated because he was a part of the fight). Now he is just a spectator who has realized that everything is predetermined let us see who prevails in the end. He does not care one way or the other.

    Since this choice (to be hands off) was also predetermined and not a choice he is in the same situation as before except that he has no emotional turmoil, which is what he wants to avoid (not the habit….it is not doing anything to his real self).

    The suggestions made by Sandeep are all choices. I thought we did not have free will. So you can see somehow you believe there is a choice to do something. If Sandeep really believed in free will he would have not taken the trouble to reply. It is like in chapter 5 verse 7,8,9 where K say to A that even if you think you can give up, your nature will rise and make you fight. If K knew this would happen why did K not just keep quite and let the so called forces of nature propel A into action. K instead continued into a few more hundred versus of the teaching. Therefore are we not interpreting this incorrectly as A has no free will?

    In my opinion Science has not discovered in what we have no choice and in what we have free will. Both are at play here. This must be so because “that” in whose image we are made has choice, So do we.

    Science gave the Nobel price to the scientist who discovered a particle called electron. Later they gave the same price to the scientist who said it was a wave not a particle. Then they gave it the third time to a scientist who said it is neither, it is just a wave of possibilities.

    My response to Jabu would be to support the fight by conscious intention through stubborn determination and use every prop you can find to gather strength. What you are up against is an illusion or a feeling, not the the alcohol per se. Once you lay bare the falsehood of that feeling and its illusion to you consciousness, victory will be yours.

    The jury is not yet out.

  9. mike

    We could say that all these life experiences are pre-determined by the Psychic Being in us. That we are given these experiences directly by the Psychic Being in order to grow Spiritually [all life is Yoga]. So, any choice we make is probaly pre-determined as well [especially if we decided all this before birth….
    But, the Mother also says:
    “How does one change an old habit or create a new habit?
    “To change one’s body one must be ready to do millions of times the same thing, because the body is a creature of habits and functions by routine, and because to destroy a routine one must persevere for years.”

    lt’s also said that if we turn to the Divine and ask for the Grace it can remove the problem, but only if we are sincere and keep trying to defeat the habit ourselves.. We have to WANT it gone, otherwise the Grace won’t intervene, l think.. of course, the Psychic lnfluence will be at work in those on the Path, l think.
    So, i would seem, our choice and willpower are also essential.

    l have a friend who’s in the same boat as Jabulani, except that he doesn’t want to get rid of the alcohol problem [and has no Spiritual aspiration] and it’s actually destroying his health and aggravating his diabetes as well [already blind in one eye]. He did want to stop drinking at one point, but never could..
    l was talking with him once and l saw a Descent of some kind of Force – like a ray of light coming down from above and entering him [now l think it was the Grace, which l’ve seen on a few occasions with different people]. The following week he suddenly told me he had no desire for a drink and he could pass a pub without feeling a strong desire to go in [the week before he couldn’t pass a pub without being dragged inside by his need]. lt didn’t last however, because he wasn’t really sincere IMO..

  10. mwb6119

    From Above: “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.”

    The Mother goes into this in some detail in “On Thoughts and Aphorisms”–“The Mother comments of 541 aphorisms of Sri Aurobindo. [I don’t know which Volume this falls in line with her Collected Works]

    For the longest time (years and years) I had fits of clarity where I could “see” but then I would return to my limited vision. This past year (starting this time one year ago) I began to have a different impression, and as well a series of eruptions of clarity, but always returning with only the memory of the event/s. At times I feared that they were gone for good and I would only hold the memory of the event/s. Finally there came stability. And whenever I would think “this is it, this has to be it!”, then there would be more shifts, more movement/s. The most recent movement, and I hope I am not premature in voicing this is, at least feels like, the descriptions I am reading by The Mother in “On Thoughts and Aphorisms.” In hid-sight, it appears that I had to undergo a very long process of dissolution, the dissolution of habits on many levels, before this other insight became stable. What I am experiencing now is still a very new state of consciousness but at the same time, it feels perfectly normal, comfortable, natural. What used to cause feelings of unsettledness were the times of which that clarity would come and go. But now, it is almost like sitting in the ocean–there is only ocean now, a vast expanse, calm, peaceful. …My apologies for not being able to spout sophisticated philosophies on topic… 😉

    In Aphorisms, The Mother says: “It’s a another way of seeing.” p150

    But, still, I am still working on dissolving habits. For instance, I am presently working on the body using a program that is reinstating a large variety of physical movements that the body was familiar with as a toddler. Since then the body has developed into a contracted state. Through this exercise program (which will take at least one year to have their said effect) the body is being “re-set”, yes, like hitting the ‘reset’ button on your DVD player. This exercise works the physical and brain (or neurophysical).

    This quote is from Mike (above):

    But, the Mother also says:
    “How does one change an old habit or create a new habit?
    “To change one’s body one must be ready to do millions of times the same thing, because the body is a creature of habits and functions by routine, and because to destroy a routine one must persevere for years. Questions and Answers (1955): 30 March 1955

  11. mike

    Yes, long established habits, like the sex-habit, which is the result of ‘eons of activity’, are an ongoing battle, but thank God they ease off eventually. The thought-forms that these habits ave created over many lifetimes are not easily dissolved or replaced.
    Those habits which have intense emotional support are probably the most stubborn, l think – that’s why calm and peace can disable them so easily.
    l haven’t achieved a permanent Stillness ôr Silençe yet, but it’s getting better.’

    ” What used to cause feelings of unsettledness were the times of which that clarity would come and go. But now, it is almost like sitting in the ocean–there is only ocean now, a vast expanse, calm, peaceful”

    Mark, l assume that’s yourself and not M.
    Sounds like the Psychic contact.

    1. mwb6119

      [Yes, the bit about the ocean was mine.] I’m afraid anymore to make any such conclusions of my own, although I do hope it is the psychic. All I can say is things are very different now. 🙂

  12. Nikhil Raina

    If we don’t have free will, then the decisions we are taking in day today life is taken by the the God which exists within us, so plz explain me when a man rapes 2 years girl, at that particular time who is actually taking the decision. It’s logical there is no God who is taking a decision it’s us. There are lots of examples think about it. So what we gonna do in present we will see the results in future, it’s only about the choice.

    1. Sandeep Post author

      Do not be sidetracked by the title “free will” and read the text.

      We are not free because we are encumbered by our fixed personality (bad moods, habits, etc) which is shaped by our Karma. To have real “free will”, we must be released from this personality first. Thats what this post means.

      As I explained in another comment to Sujata above “Free-will increases as we become more conscious of our true Self (Atman). The Enlightened are not tied by the bonds of Karma”

  13. arya

    The way I see it – correct me if I am wrong – we may act but it doesn’t mean our actions are born of free will. Therefore, while we’re held responsible for our actions, it is equally true that we don’t have free will (because those actions are born of the modes of nature, karma, environment rather than free will).

    So detaching oneself from the modes is the beginning of free will. Is this right?

  14. S

    From what I know, in Kaliyuga, ordinary humans, on an average, have only about 30% free will and the remaining approx 70% is controlled by their past actions / karma and sanskaras / impressions from previous / current birth(s). These figures may vary a bit according to the spiritual level of an individual.
    The way it was explained to me …. if its raining and you don’t want to get wet, you have the choice of preventing urself from getting wet by using an umbrella or raincoat, but you cannot prevent the rain.
    Also, only humans have some free will, all other creatures on earth only act as per their instincts and are in survival mode.

    1. Sandeep Post author

      Yes something like that. The rain and umbrella analogy comes from Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, right ?


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