How do we exercise our free will here? I start with the understanding that as material bodies we don’t have any, whatever flashes in our minds and commanded by our intelligence is a result of interactions of material elements moved by the modes of nature and time. We have free only as spirit souls but since we don’t see ourselves as jīvas then how can we exercise it?
We’ve all heard that human form of life is special and as humans we have an enormous responsibility to inquire about the Absolute, athāto brahma jijñāsā and all that. What’s so special about us, though, and how do we take advantage of this uniqueness?
We can compare ourselves with animals and notice that their consciousness is very undeveloped comparing to ours. Christians are not even sure if animals have souls, for examples. Those who follow science, broadly speaking, aren’t even sure if plants and trees have consciousness or minds. I said broadly speaking because there’s no scientific consensus on this but no one would claim that trees have mind and intelligence in the sense these words are used outside of Vedic framework.
Consciousness and mind are as much philosophical terms as they are scientific ones, no one can say with any certainty where mind starts, for example, there aren’t any solid definitions there at all. Some say that having mind and consciousness means being self-aware, whatever THAT means. Human babies aren’t self-aware at birth, in their estimates, and they develop self-awareness at the age of five or six months, according to some studies.
According to other studies chimpanzees’ intelligence is as developed as that of five year old human babies. Does it mean chimps are conscious beings in the modern sense? Some would argue so, others would scoff at the proposal to grant them personhood. Legally this has already been tried, in some places with success, in others it’s still under consideration, and it’s not only about monkeys but also dolphins and whales.
The point is that usual definition of intelligence is very fuzzy one and so there’s no as much difference between humans and at least higher animals as we think, we aren’t that special. And we know from Rāmāyaṇa that monkeys can be as devoted to the Lord as any humans.
On the other side of the spectrum we have various kinds of demigods who possess far higher intelligence than we can even imagine, and yet it doesn’t work for them and human birth on Earth is still preferable for Kṛṣṇa consciousness. Why? Clearly intelligence and ability to acquire knowledge about the Lord is not enough. Their Bhāgavatam is many times longer than ours, meaning they have far more Lord’s pastimes to discuss, and still being born on Earth is preferable, meaning even the ability to know more not just about the world but about the Lord Himself is still not enough. What’s our specialty then?
We don’t have any sixth sense for religion, we can’t see auras, can’t see demigods, can’t see Viṣṇu like they do on regular basis, can’t see ghosts, can’t see yamadūtas, can’t see the universe as it is, can’t see anything. In what sense can we possibly be special? Personally, I think none whatsoever, we are just happen to be in the sweet, Goldilocks spot of having everything just right.
That’s the typical explanation, isn’t it? Not too much suffering like in hell where people can’t concentrate on praying. Not too much sense enjoyment like in heaven where they can’t concentrate on praying with all the partying that is going on. I don’t know why we are in any better position than sages on Tapoloka or Maharloka, though. They must have some obstacles there, too, that we don’t have down here. Or maybe it’s because Lord Caitanya doesn’t appear there but here, so they don’t get His mercy but we do. If that is true then prior to Mahāprabhu’s appearance they didn’t think much of the Earth and its “opportunities”.
The question then becomes of what exactly this “just right” is. Are we all in equal “just right” position or there’s variation here, too? Obviously, yes. It’s a big question for Christians with their belief that everyone in the entire human history who didn’t get JC’s mercy had gone to hell, including newborn babies somewhere in Asia where they worship Buddha. They might be human babies but they are not equal to Christian babies, they don’t get the Christian “just right”.
We are not Christians but we shouldn’t go down that way, too. Meaning we need to be aware of our material constraints, our DNA, our background, the culture we grew up in, the culture we live in now etc etc. All these things affect our ability to exercise that elusive free will as spirit souls.
The “just right” position means that we have a relatively better opportunity than animals and demigods but it’s still not perfect, we have to admit that, too. We’ve got the brains and training to know that we must surrender to the Lord. Animals haven’t got that, plenty of humans, a vast majority of seven billion on the planet also haven’t a slightest idea. Demigods might know that theoretically but can’t actually do that.
If we analyze our situation very carefully we’ll notice that we experience waves of such conditioning, too. Sometimes we just forget about our duty, sometimes we don’t have enough willpower to perform it. Lack of willpower means commitment to something else, btw. We want that other thing instead, not that we don’t have any desires at all and this desire to surrender is just like a lone candle in the darkness. Nope, we have a blazing fire of material existence around us and we are too busy enjoying it so we don’t have enough SPARE willpower for Kṛṣṇa.
Once we have these other desires overtaking our heart there’s nothing Kṛṣṇa can do for us. Have you ever heard of a demigod being taken back to Godhead? Even when they get born on Earth and then get liberated by Kṛṣṇa Himself they don’t go to Goloka but back to whatever planet they came from. Isn’t it the greatest misfortune in the entire universe? Being so close to Kṛṣṇa, being personally favored by Him, and still being unable to engage in His service. This is what happened to Dhruva Mahārāja, too. He was forced to live out thousands and thousands of years despite explicitly rejecting his previous desires. Once we get our willpower directed elsewhere it can be guaranteed that we won’t get Kṛṣṇa’s service even if He shows up personally. We should be very careful about that, devotion mixed with karma can separate us from the Lord for a long long time.
Unfortunately, the way we were brought up makes it impossible not to worry about money, sex, health and lots of other things we consider our birthright. If we want them and we want Kṛṣṇa we’d better hope that the Lord is much more merciful to us then we deserve and He strips us of these selfish motives. The bliss of selfless service beats those material comforts by an incomparable margin, we should always remember that no matter what our minds tell us. Of course sometimes we have to admit that we aren’t in the “just right” position yet and living out those silly dreams is what we have to do in order to approach Kṛṣṇa truly selflessly.
What can be done then? Our only hope is the mercy of Lord Caitanya, who doesn’t have any limits and never sends anyone to soulless places like heaven or even Vaikuṇṭha. Dealing with Kṛṣṇa is far more dangerous in this sense – He can easily dispatch us to the planet of iPhones and keep us there until they run out of numbers for upgrades or can’t increase their size any further. Lord Caitanya would never do that, and that’s the only thing we can count on.