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The Self and Free Will in the Caitanya Sampradāya – Part 6
Articles by Satyanarayana Dasa Gaudiya Vaishnavas Philosophy

The Self and Free Will in the Caitanya Sampradāya – Part 6

Different Types of Vṛttis

All acquired knowledge, valid and invalid, is a product of the mind (mano-vṛtti). Śrī Kapila says that there are five types of vṛttis (SB 3.26.30):

saṁśayo ‘tha viparyāso
niścayaḥ smṛtir eva ca
svāpa ity ucyate buddher
lakṣaṇaṁ vṛttitaḥ pṛthak

“The characteristics of buddhi by its various functions, vṛttis, are said to be doubt, illusion, valid knowledge, remembrance and sleep.”

All experience (external or internal), in all different states of mind (wakeful, dreaming or deeply sleeping) are within these five, there is no experience outside them. [It may be noted here that even deep sleep is a type of experience. This proves that ahamartha and jñātṛtva are inherent in ātmā, existing even during deep sleep state. They are not adventitious qualities acquired only when in contact with antaḥkaraṇa, i.e. in dream and wakeful states.]

Although all our experiences are within the mind, which is external to ātmā, it is ātmā which is considered the true experiencer (jñānīn or jñātā) because it is the source of sentience (jñātṛtva).

Although vṛtti-jñāna has been translated as acquired knowledge, and attributed to the ātmā, it is not exactly an attribute of ātmā in the normal sense of the term. Normally, an attribute is inherent within the substance that is its substratum. However, vṛtti-jñāna is itself a substance (a mental substance, a condition of the mind), and it is not inherent within its substratum, ātmā. The relation between ātmā and jñāna cannot be explained by any accepted philosophical concept. As will be explained below, it is an effect of māyā which is “trans-logical” — it can act contrary to logic. The reason it is useful to describe vṛtti-jñāna as attribute rooted in ātmā is that ātmā is the substratum of consciousness, which is the enabler of all experience.

Ātmā Is Karta and Bhokta

There is an interrelation between knowership (jñātṛtva), will (icchatva) and doership (kartṛtva) and all inherently exist ātmā. We accept ātmā as the doer of deeds (kartā) because it is the substratum of effort (kṛti). Effort is caused by the will (icchā) to act, and is a state of consciousness (mano-vṛtti jñāna). Will and effort create endeavor (ceṣṭā), which results in action (kriyā).

Though ātmā is the primary agent for action, it can act only when associated with a body, mind and sense organs. It is like a person traveling in a car: The car travels, yet it is the person who is called the traveler — because he is the cause of the traveling. The car will not travel without him, and it travels not for its own sake. Similarly, the ātmā is the root cause of actions, therefore it is called the doer of the action. Even though it is actually material energy (prakṛti) which acts, that energy would not act without the will of the ātmā, and its actions are for the ātmā’s sake. Therefore ātmā is also known as the “enjoyer” of actions (bhoktā).

Agency (kartṛtva) and enjoyership (bhoktṛtva) must coexist in the same substratum (subject), otherwise there would be two defects: The first would be that one does not get the result of the action done by oneself. The second would be that one gets results executed by another agent.

Objection from Saṅkhyā

Members of the Saṅkhyā school object: “Ātmā is not really the doer. The true action is the physical body made of prakṛti’s three guṇas. Ātmā is only the enjoyer, bhoktā.”

They quote Bhagavad Gītā:

“Prakṛti is said to be the cause of body and sense organs which are the basis of all actions. Puruṣa is said to be the source of experience of happiness and suffering” (13.20) .

“In all circumstances actions are performed by the guṇas of prakṛti but the ātmā deluded by the ahaṅkāra thinks, ‘I am the doer’” (3.27).

Bhagavad Gītā itself (18.13-15) reconciles the issue raised by these references by explicitly stating that ātmā is counted among the doers. Prakṛti is called the doer because in the conditioned state ātmā functions under the influence of the guṇas of prakṛti and cannot act independently. The Gītā verses quoted in the Saṅkhyā objection highlight the predominant role played by prakṛti in the execution of an action. They make the point that ātmā is not the only doer. But the body also cannot act without the presence of the ātmā. The body is inert and does not have independent agency of its own. The real agent is ahaṅkāra. Ātmā identifies with the ahaṅkāra and thus considers itself as the doer. Because of this self-concept, “I am the doer”, the jīva also becomes the bhoktā or enjoyer although the act of enjoyment happens in the body only. The body is also stated as the doer to create a sense of detachment which is needed for self-realization.

Therefore Śrī Kṛṣṇa says, “A person who does not have the notion of being the doer, and whose intellect is therefore not tainted, does not really kill nor is bound even after slaughtering all these people” (Gītā 18.17). The intention of this statement is that bondage is caused by attachment to the guṇas of prakṛti. One should consider oneself aloof from the guṇas and their action. Then one will not be bound by them (Gītā 3.28). The intention is not to deny that ātmā is a doer. This is clear from the previous verse (Gītā 18.16), “Such being the case [that there are five causes behind every action, listed in verse 18.14] one who regards himself as the only doer is foolish. His clouded intelligence does not see things properly.” By saying, ‘the only doer’ Kṛṣṇa accepts that ātmā is one among five doers.

In verse 3.27, cited above, the activity of thinking, “I am the doer” is relegated to the deluded ātmā and not to the guṇas. That means that ātmā is not devoid of kartṛtva. In other words, the verse shows ātmā performing the mental activity of thinking “I am the doer”, and therefore demonstrates that doership, the ability to act, is part of the ātmā’s nature.