Free will and fatalism in Sai Baba's



Date: 06-02-02

By: Robert Priddy



Sai Baba is ambiguous about whether or not there is any kind of 'free will'. Now and again he says that 'there is no free will', and contradictorily also 'only God has free will'. SB has also frequently said that only God has free will. Many devotees conclude simplistically that free will can only be exercised by SB (supposedly being God), even though SB is constantly telling people, 'You are God. You ARE God!' Then he also speaks of us having free will only in our choosing either to do good or bad. (Though he also says there is no 'good' or 'bad' etc.). This cannot really have any practical meaning, it is about as unhelpful as saying such things as 'the cosmos exists', 'the cosmos does not exist', 'all is truth' or 'all is illusion'. Some devotees repeat SB's words, 'there is no free will' almost as if it were like a holy mantra, evidently without understanding what is implied. This is doubtless because it is the absence of free will that predominates in SB's 'teaching'. He speaks of there being some small degree of free will only, one supposes, because too many people would reject him if he did not confirm what most people know must be so. A follower who is kept in confusion is much more likely to cling to a master! SB even proclaims that he does everything, not even a blade of grass can move without his will etc. He proclaims that he alone is the Doer! He follows up by boasting that it is SB who builds his colleges and hospitals, and does all good works in the world (not the bad, however!). This peculiar megalomaniacal notion can be seen operating in full force on SB followers, especially in his ashrams.

The meaning of the words 'free will' arises only when some person interprets them in respect of something that affects them personally, or makes some difference to them, whether real or imagined. People can and do and interpret 'free will' in amazingly different ways, all depending on their personalities, level on understanding, needs, particular illusions and so forth. Some fall back on fatalism to explain to themselves their own failings and failures, or to avoid having to take moral standpoints that may prove uncomfortable because they are unpopular, even when right and true. Others accept there is a measure of free will and try to employ it positively. Without faith in human will power and freedom, the world would be a meaningless round, a sorry place where human automatons go through pre-determined motions and are not responsible for anything they do because they had no choice to do otherwise. Democratic freedom of choice could not exist, only the tyranny of unavoidable events. This would benefit despotisms and totalitarian states and social freedoms and human rights could become a mere legend.

The big confusion can very largely be cleared up, but only by a proper exposition of the subject, one which takes account of the entire range of human thought (and misunderstanding) on the subject. I hope my contribution will be helpful. Firstly, it is necessary to point out a conclusion independently of the grounds on which it was drawn: At bottom, Sai Baba does not want us to have any free will (even though we do have some), for he demonstrably wants everyone to do only his will... in short, he is a guru who wants a totally obedient following to see him as God Almighty.

Doctrinal teachings versus philosophy and science:

There was a longish period when I became a follower of Sai Baba, during which I plunged deeply into his teachings on karma, the will and causation, also comparing with those of other more articulate Eastern thinkers and alleged 'holy men'. I had already absorbed everything Western philosophies and theologies had to offer on all questions related to the issues of determinism and freedom, volition and causation, and was therefore unable to accept the fatalism ("there is no free will") that kept showing up in some of SB's inconsistent pronouncements, though I made huge efforts to reconcile these with the only rationality I had come to adopt as unavoidable. These efforts are reflected in two articles I wrote in SB's journal, Sanathana Sarathi, quoting SB at every turn (God’s Will and Ours - Jan. 1990, page 17ff and Freedom and Fate - June 1993, page 165ff). Since I have had to deconstruct my previous understanding of SB, and as a result many of the convictions and points I tried to suppress to fit in with his teaching have reasserted themselves, and even with added cogency.

There are two opposed poles in the sphere of discussion - one for and one against 'free will'. People tend to be drawn more or less one way or another, mainly for psychological reasons. Because 'free will' is a very vague term (i.e. can mean a number of different things) there are many variants of doctrine both for, against and in between. Only the very fewest of thinking people explore at all their levels of sophistication both of the poles (the pro and the contra), AND the figurative 'equator' or compromise positions. (See Treatise on freedom and fate, causes and choices) Only those who do so are really in a position to sort out the meanings and the validity of the many opinions and the likelihood of truth or falsity in each case. Otherwise, to have any opinion on the subject is merely to choose between two sets of dogma on subjective and inadequate grounds.

After half a lifetime's study of what most known philosophers and scientists have expressed on this issue, I am utterly convinced that we possess a genuinely free, though limited, willpower. The scope of freedom depends on circumstances and persons. No one has absolute free will... for example, no one change everything to taste or override all the laws of nature. Those who have a false and exaggerated idea of free will (as Sai Baba demonstrates he has), may take it to mean - for example - an ability to do whatever one desires without suffering any bad consequences that may follow, need to learn that there is no such free will. But a free will within limits, set fairly narrowly for most people by the mass of given conditions of life etc., is a most reasonable hypothesis. Still, no one but a very confused person would claim that any person has absolute free will, such as the ability to overrule the entire laws of nature! That is what 'omnipotence' would actually have to involve, however.

Among the misleadingly-named "laws" of nature is the famous 'indeterminacy' factor... in short, laws do not always apply equally to everything. They apply to the aggregate of atoms, but not to any given atom. They may apply to the aggregate of human behaviour, but not to the exceptional or unique ideas and actions! Further, the human mind can discover the tyranny of apparent limitations set by "natural laws" and so free us from their seeming inevitability by influencing personal, social and historical events through creative action (on the basis of the given conditions of nature and society). Human enterprise can change the conditions of life through increasing mastery of the laws and applying them in 'non-natural' ways. To this extent, therefore, one might say that we are creators, we are gods (as SB also insists when it suits him to).

Clearing up confusions in SB's pronouncements:

SB claims that: "No one has the power to protect one's own self. It is only the divine power and divine will that enables man to protect himself. Only divinity has free will, none else." (Sanathana Sarathi - Feb. 1999, page 30). Note, however, the in-built self-contradiction in that SB speaks of divine will enabling man to protect himself! Though some overall protection could come from an intelligent source beyond human ken (i.e. from divinity, which even SB insists resides within the human heart), man is enabled by his inherent powers to protect himself. Otherwise none of the advances of science, technology, medicine, social care etc. etc. would have any effect whatever. These were developed by mankind and enables us to "protect our own selves" in far more respects than in ages past. In short, our own actions are part of the operation of the laws of nature (or of karma, if you like)... we hold an executive function. This aspect is what is normally known as 'free will'... a limited freedom indeed, but nonetheless bearing the seed of divine will and hence of freedom.

Though SB trips over himself time and again on this, the most friendly interpretation of what he might be trying to say is that we should attribute to an unknown divinity what is beyond our knowing and power to change, rather than imagine egoistically that we are completely free agents. What SB so often confuses are the given laws of nature (karmic laws) and the abrogation of these laws by the 'divine miracles of grace' that he himself claims to perform! The 'laws' of nature may have been devised by a cosmic intelligence, but - once set in motion - they operate of themselves. SB has stated this, as when he corrected Hislop's view that God-qua-SB is the agency in every single event that occurs (Seeking Divinity by J. Hislop, page 36)! SB also contradicts himself on this in many utterances.

SB often speaks of free will as what he alone, as the one almighty "avatar of the age", possesses in carrying out huge projects of which no normal individual or group is capable under given circumstances - not even the Indian government. For example, in Sanathana Sarathi (2-1999, page 36) SB related how it was due to his will alone that all the huge developments have made the one-time Puttaparthi hamlet of 100 people become a township with a university, an airport, colleges, a super speciality hospital and a railway station about to come. Colleges, schools, hospitals in Puttaparthi and in various other places are claimed by him to be the result of his 'divine will'. But there is nothing that particular about them that makes their planning, construction or running different from a thousand other such projects all over the world. It is all a question of how one wishes to interpret it all - as SB himself want us to or otherwise. Further, "his will alone" means that all those who freely contributed and voluntarily gave their service did not do so of their own volition or free will!

The various devotees of SB who write or lecture about there being no free will (such as at the ashram) include Dr. Bhatia, Ratan Lal, Jack Hawley and any number of others. Confused minds passively-accept the 'great delusion of the East', that no one has a jot of 'free will'. They are evidently always at sea as to what 'free will' means and which sense they are using at any time, though they hold to it as an absolute divine truth. (Accepting the usual otherworldly, idealistic rider too, that 'there is neither any good nor evil'). Such opinions are usually derived from the arbitrary teaching of unschooled persons - not only from SB but also from Ramana Maharshi and others who may have been recognised as spiritual masters due to all kinds of good qualities apart from philosophical insight og clarity of ideas and their expression. As Paul Brunton found, Ramana Maharshi - though in many ways a pure soul - was so uneducated as not to have had the benefit of Western insights, so his advaitic ideas fell within a wholly Eastern and one-sided fatalism. His retreat into a cave existence - though not a necessary consequence of fatalism, was in keeping with the accompanying mentality in India, a retreat from what Westerners call 'life' or 'the world'. The world and life, are however, testing grounds for further development... but of what, one may ask. Development of the will - the free will to create, construct and improve through living among others and facing the challenges that are purposely kept away from caves and ashrams.

The scourge of the fatalistic Eastern mentality:

Eastern societies, used to despotic rule and powerful social restrictions - such as India with its hierarchical rule and caste system - are known for ingrained fatalism. This is strongly underpinned by the ancient 'spiritual requirement' of any guru-disciple relationship... one must surrender everything and one's whole self to the guru's will as God's. This is an favourite and overworked item in SB's constant flood of general instructions. The sweeping but highly vague idea of 'surrender' is itself a powerful means of control through systematic ambiguity of the disciple's understanding. One has to "surrender one's worldly life", or "one's bad qualities", or "oneself through selfless service", or "to transform oneself", and all this must be achieved without having any freedom or will with which to do it. In this way confusion sets in and the disciple is more easily make to conform to the guru's aims.

Westerners have difficulties accepting many arbitrary restrictions - at least without getting a reason or a civil answer - and this can be met at the SB ashrams, within which fatalism often seems to breed in several peculiar shapes. To take a wry glance at the stringency of rules - written and unspoken - at SB ashrams, and the attitudes that protect them: they can all be seen also to serve to reinforce the sense that 'there is no free will' ("It is all Swami's will"), rather than the opposite. The teaching that everything that occurs to us is necessarily just as it should be... so that there is no call to strive to change anything, is part of the deep-rooted, misunderstood fatalism of most Indian 'spirituality', and the lackadaisical consequences for material society and lacking political and social improvements are all too obvious. The naval-gazing, cave and forest dwelling doctrine is much admired by simple souls of Eastern countries, largely because the degree of physical and social self-denial they have to accept- even when not renunciates - is nearly unimaginable to people of modern, liberated societies. The classic renunciant aims to give up his will in all ways and leave 'everything in the hands of God', but it never works quite. He has continuously to concentrate his will even to control his involuntary impulses and suppressed thoughts and desires... or else he easily can become a moral degenerate.

Though it is centered on the inner life and is not directly or actively destructive, the fatalism that very often attends Indian thought is ultimately self-contradictory and ends up setting anti-constructive examples for the world. The fatalist dogma has tremendous appeal to some people in severe personal difficulties. It can also be used as a justification for adharma and deviance of all kinds. Anchorites, sadhus, swamis of all kinds who profess such fatalism but who become popular and well-to-do are nearly all prone to deviance from the straight and narrow path, as has occurred in almost all the well-known instances in recent years, especially in India. A whole series of famous gurus with international followings have been convicted of murder and/or rape, and of many other heinous worldly crimes. In view of their fatalism one must ask, do they therefore claim that their crimes are not their responsibility, but are the sole work of divinity, of which they were but as robotic instruments? Well, there are even those who do that too!

The fact that the past can't be changed leads many to project this onto the future... it seems also somehow to be unchangeable. The future is often looked on as being as far beyond our control as the past has become, especially to illiterate work slaves in societies where fundamental social change seems to most citizens impossible and futile to try. Rulers everywhere have traditionally had a vested interest in fatalism... it helps keep people down and preserve the status quo.

Well-known Tibetan 'rinpoches' (especially the celebrated Trungpa from Tibet, who died in Colorado of AIDS) used such a justification for sexual misdemeanour on a grand scale, while any number of lesser known and less psychically-accomplished gurus argue similarly for all manner of strange sexual and sensual pursuit. The deceased Rajneesh (the 'Osho' cult in Pune) was a prime example of 'counter-conformity' through extreme reaction against puritanism by basing his teaching and common popularity on unlimited sensual and sexual license (including group sex) as unavoidable initial desires etc. Such excessive denials of fatalism as Rajneesh' are in fact the ugly reverse side of excessive repressive fatalism when brought into contact with Western permissiveness.

In short, it seems wholly impossible to lead a good, responsible human life without believing that there is a voluntary part of us which enables us to turn the mind and soul towards the truth and the good (and otherwise, away from it). If we persist in turning away, falsity becomes truth and vice-versa, and we are truly getting lost. As we become good, the truth becomes the more evident to us and we can become yet better. This voluntaristic view was stated by one of the relatively little known but undeniably greatest scientist of his era - who subsequently had amazing and documented spiritual illuminations - the Swede, Immanuel Swedenborg.

'God's Will' in practice at the ashrams:

The belief in SB's repeated claims of omniscience and omnipotence, taken within the context of his ashrams, leads to some of the most pathetic, absurd and also highly ridiculous situations. SB fails to dispel this ignorance and rather encourages it, enhancing himself and his almighty power in the eyes of his followers. He has remarked that to say 'it is God's will is merely to say, I don't know'. But he has managed effectively to turn this around in most devotee's minds so that they believe that "To say I don't know, is to say it is God's will".

It is believed by a majority of visitors - brainwashed in advance by hundreds of simplistic books of followers' experiences - that everything that happens in the ashrams is by the direct will and/or intervention of God Himself (in the figure of Sai Baba, don't you know!). It is SB who places you in a room where there are filthy floors and sheets, and where you smell the nauseous stink from the open sewer pits ('the Black Hole of Prashanthi Nilayam'). It is SB who arranges for gravel to be tipped at uncertain intervals day and night from lorries onto corrugated iron shoots outside your building, or for packs of mangy dogs to conduct their running battles throughout the night. Due to his claim of omnipresence, some say SB himself IS each of the dogs ! Is it therefore God who goes and asks for a different room? Well, one can be sure it is the will of the Lord that meets you when you go to the ashram offices and are met by a petulant, scowling person exercising his Napoleonic task to the fullest stretch of his authority against you. This is surely Baba Himself and you are merely getting your well-deserved karma from some past life about which nobody knows anything! When you have accepted several years of this kind of training and self-denigration, you tend to be ready to rationalise any cover-up and any evil things you see or hear (which you should not see or hear in the first place). You can also rest assured that nothing is your responsibility really, it is all God's. But you find that, despite this cosy thought, you end up still having to answer for yours sins anyhow... that too is God's will, it is your karma!

The ashram is run on strict lines and the rules, if questioned at all, are usually explained as, 'It is Swami's will'. This helps create an atmosphere of obedient subservience. For example, restrictions on behaviour are many, and far from all need even to to stated there, as newcomers have to learn to go with the flow and do as they're told without explanation. You can't sit here or there, can't walk on this or that side of a tree, and your sex regulates much of where you can move and when. What one cannot eat or drink is regulated, when one can have a light on or not, and clothing rules are strict and conformist - (the requirements make most of the men look like walking affronts to the world of haberdashery and most foreign women into unstylish pseudo-Indians). In themselves, more or less valid reasons can be given for most of the rules, but the overall effect is to cow the visitor (before also learning to kow-tow to SB at darshan) and to turn off anyone who is not sufficiently indoctrinated or willing to become so. The VIP persons, who are totally subjugated by SB already, have some privileges. They don't have to stand and wait so long, they go in front of all queues, they have special places etc.

Sai devotees are supposed not to take part in strikes or political demonstrations, not to criticise anyone (other than oneself), not to speak unless necessary, and - ideally - not even to have any friends or cultivate new ones (God-qua-Swami should be your only friend!). If this is not the background of a cult of personal and social unfreedom, I don't know what is!