What do you think of when you hear the word “freedom?”
Many people think of it as being free to act as you please, no inhibitions, nothing holding you up or getting in your way.
The dictionary generally gives two main definitions of freedom. One is the state of not being imprisoned or enslaved. The second is the power or the right to act, speak or think as one wants without hindrance or restraint. The state of not being imprisoned or enslaved can be a form of freedom. But the idea that the power and the right to be able to speak or act as you want without any hindrance, is a very limited understanding of freedom. It ignores the law of karma, where for everything you do, every act you make, there will be an equal and opposite reaction. While you may be free to choose to speak and to act, you cannot escape the result of these acts. So, are you therefore truly free?
From the Vedic perspective, freedom is not defined by what you can do but whether you are going to be free from any reaction to your actions.
Another significant point is that I should recognize that it is possible for me, the spiritual being within this body, to become enslaved by my own mind and my own desires. Someone suffering from a mental illness can be an example. Such a person may be walking around shouting out and talking to themselves and throwing punches in the air, and then running up to people in a threatening way. We would look at this person with some feeling of pity. Their mind is broken, in a sense, and they are so controlled and trapped by their mind, that they have been reduced to this unfortunate state.
This is a graphic example which we can easily appreciate. But from a spiritual perspective an average person can be similarly victimized, but in a different way. When a person is unable to control their mind and desires, they are forced (sometimes against their will or better judgement) to act, and then must accept the consequences of their choices and actions in the form of karmic reaction.
People are bound to this world by the laws of karma. Some people are receiving good results and others are receiving unfortunate results. In both cases, they are in the same situation and they are both bound, just bound in different ways. Being bound to this world means repeatedly suffering the natural processes of disease, old age and then death, then birth again.
By falling victim to the desires of the mind, always feeling that we must follow its demands, we become perpetually bound to this world.
In this verse from a famous Vedic text known as the Srimad Bhagavatam, it clearly lays out a spiritual perspective on freedom:
One who is enriched with good qualities is actually said to be rich, and one who is unsatisfied in life is actually poor. A wretched person is one who cannot control his senses, whereas one who is not attached to sensual gratification is a real controller [or someone that is in control]. One who attaches himself to sense gratification is just the opposite. Such a person is a slave. Srimad Bhagavatam 11.19.44
Our desire for happiness and love comes from our innate spiritual nature, which is at the core of our being. We are not the bodies or mind which we are temporarily residing within and using, but the spiritual being within. If we allow our self to become simply controlled and directed by our mind and by our senses, in the hope that we’re going to get some actual lasting happiness, then we remain unfulfilled and empty.
By chasing the desires of the mind, we might get a rush, we may get some stimulation, but it’s not actually fulfilling. When we take that course of action, directed by our mind, what we don’t see is that at every step we are engaging in activity that will produce consequences which we cannot escape.
This condition of being completely overwhelmed and being so strongly directed by the mind and the senses and losing our sense of actual spiritual identity and pure state of our consciousness is spelled out very clearly in the Bhagavad-Gita. It says:
Thus, the wise living entity’s pure consciousness becomes covered by his eternal enemy in the form of lust (or intense desire) which is never satisfied and which burns like fire. Bhagavad-Gita 3:39
The very nature of material desire (kama) is described here. This is known as lust, or a very intense and burning desire. This might be manifest in a little kid in a supermarket who has seen something that he wants and starts losing the plot and screaming, “I want it! I want it,” as the parent tries to control him. Or it may appear in so many different ways, manifesting itself in different ways as we age. Sometimes people also relate to lust in relation to sexual activity, where somebody has a very strong, intense desire and they seek to fulfill that desire in a sexual orgasm, thinking it will bring fulfillment.
But this intense desire (kama) is never satisfied and it burns like fire. There’s a constant agitation that’s never satisfied.
The reality is that through material experience you are not fulfilled. You are never fulfilled. And your attempt to fulfill this desire is like putting gasoline on a fire, making it burn hotter and brighter and stronger. This kama or lust and intense desire, manifests in so many different ways, and is categorized as ‘the eternal enemy’ of the real spiritual person within the body.
The science of yoga teaches that you are not the body, nor are you the mind. The material world is not actually your home. You are a transient here in this particular lifetime. Our life in this body will come to an end and we will move on. Every time we act on material desire we get a whole load of karmic reaction which then binds us to this world and makes it so that we will be endlessly experiencing birth and then death.
The only way that you can come to a position of real freedom is by altering the direction of your life. You have the freedom to choose how you are going to live. It is within your own power to determine the outcome of your life and whether you actually achieve your rightful state of complete freedom or not.
But a person free from all attachment and aversion and able to control his senses through regulative principles of freedom can obtain the complete mercy of the Lord. Bhagavad-Gita 2.64
Most people think freedom means no regulation. No control. But that is a very elementary and even childish understanding of freedom, because there are always consequences. If a person uses their intelligence and their freedom of choice to live a regulated and purposeful life, they can become free of all material suffering and all material conditions.
If you want to be free from all material inebriety and to experience true happiness, then it’s necessary to be disciplined and not just be controlled and dragged around by your mind and senses.
One who neither hates nor desires the fruits of his activities is known to be always renounced. Such a person, free from all dualities, easily overcomes material bondage. And is completely liberated, O mighty-armed Arjuna. Bhagavad-Gita 5.3
So, what does this mean from a practical perspective?
You can either get totally lost in this world and chase your dreams and be forced to accept the consequences – which leads to another set of actions, with another series of results, and results in continued birth and death. Or you can live in this world finding a way by which you can actually become ‘liberated’. This is the true meaning of freedom – to become free from the controls of the material world and material nature. It entails rising above what is described as dualities. If there’s heat, you’re going to get cold. If you experience happiness you’re going to experience distress. If you have youth you are going to become old. Every coin has two sides to it. You cannot have half a coin, where you’ve just got one side, the good stuff. The bad stuff comes with it. It is the nature of this world.
The laws of karma are inescapable. How should we live our life? How do we come to the position of being liberated and experience the reality of true freedom? The guidance is given in Bhagavad-Gita:
One who is beyond the dualities that arise from doubt, whose minds are engaged within, who are always busy working for the welfare of all living beings and who are free from all sins achieve liberation in the Supreme. Bhagavad-Gita 5.25
What is described here is what it means to be a spiritual person. If I have an attraction for the “spiritual” but do not embrace such a lifestyle change then I am not truly living a spiritual life.
In conclusion, I would just like to quote three or four verses from the Bhagavad-Gita.
In the stage of perfection known as trance, or samadhi, one’s mind is completely restrained from mental activities by the practice of yoga. Bhagavad-Gita 6.20
The practice of yoga here is not referring simply to some external activity, some physical undertaking. We are talking about the full immersion in the state of complete union with the Supreme Soul.
This perfection is characterized by one’s ability to see the self by the pure mind and to relish and enjoy in the self. In that joyous state, one is situated in boundless transcendental happiness realized through transcendental senses. Bhagavad-Gita 6.21
This is very advanced spiritual subject matter and it gives us a look at why the spiritual undertaking is so compelling and is so incredibly attractive, that if one experiences even the smallest drop of this realization or experience, their life is utterly transformed and the world loses its attraction.
Established thus, one never departs from the truth, and upon gaining this he thinks that there is no greater gain. Bhagavad-Gita 6.22
Being situated in such a position one is never shaken even in the midst of the greatest difficulty. This indeed is actual freedom from all miseries arising from material contact. Bhagavad-Gita 6.23
I find these teachings overwhelmingly inspiring, and very attractive. The spiritual process is not meant to be a painful, overly difficult, or a frustrating thing. When I was a kid I would attend church, and was told that sin is evil and bad, and we shouldn’t do that, we should live a holy life. In my kid mind, I was looking at my life going, “What’s with this? Sin is where all the fun is.” This of course is a very childish idea, since I was only concerned with a temporary rush and didn’t think about consequences.
The temporary flashes of very limited happiness that one can experience from material pursuit cannot compare with the unlimited ocean of happiness, state of actual freedom, and the awakening of spiritual love that arises from mature spiritual realization, which is far beyond anything of this world.
Acharya Das has taught yoga wisdom to appreciative audiences all around the world for over 40 years. He has an uncommonly deep understanding of yoga philosophy and practice and conveys that message in a clear and simple way. Acharya Das is a student of Jagad Guru Siddhaswarupananda and Srila Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupad in the Brahma Gaudiya yogic lineage.