Freedom of Choice
by M Pramod Kumar on 12 Jan 2014 11 Comments

Youngsters in India often rebel against rules and regulations in the name of ‘freedom of choice’ or ‘freedom of expression’. “Colleges should not impose a dress code on students,” some say, claiming that they are now grownup and capable of making their own choices. “Cell phones should be allowed in the campus,” others say citing the need for latest technology. “Friendly ragging is not a crime,” a few others argue, claiming that ragging is only a means to befriend and acquaint themselves with juniors. “Parents should not impose career choices on us,” is yet another oft heard complaint. “Marriages need not be arranged in today’s world and we should have a right to choose our life partner” etc. The list of their complaints is long and they all have one bottom line” “It’s my life and I will do as I wish.”


It will be interesting to study this conflict of generations and culture from a Vedantic perspective. What do our shastras say on this issue? Do they recommend freedom of choice for individuals or are the shastras morally rigid?


The Principle of Interconnectedness


“The entire universe is indwelt, enveloped, covered by the Supreme Being, whatever this world be - moving or non-moving, living or otherwise” - - Isha Upanishad


The principle of interconnectedness is the key to understanding the nature of freedom granted to every individual. This concept must be taught to our children from a young age so that they perceive the interconnectedness of all beings and grow up into mature human beings who understand that freedom comes with great responsibility. What we think and what we do necessarily impacts everyone around us. To declare that “this is my life and I have the freedom to do what I wish,” is a cantankerous attitude not conducive to our collective well-being; it is not a free for all as has been made out to be in the public discourse and media frenzy for liberty.


A cursory glance at the crises humanity is witnessing today like global warming, terrorism, harsh economic disparities etc. are all a result of this fundamental error born of ignorance. Individuals and nations want to survive and grow at the expense of others, with gross disregard to this principle, not realizing that the world is round and what we do to others is eventually going to come back to us. Every choice we make should therefore be evaluated with the principle of interconnectedness and only that freedom of choice which does not violate this principle can be considered to be beneficial. Any choice which violates others’ freedom is to be considered harmful to oneself.


Freedom comes with Responsibility


The freedom we enjoy today as individuals, societies and nations is a fruit of the hard labour and sacrifice of our ancestors. Freedom must be earned by performing one’s duty, through seva and tyaga as Swami Vivekananda would have put it. Even the international human rights discourse has begun to veer around to India’s time tested emphasis on duties rather than rights.


Do we have the freedom to choose our duties? Duties are assigned to individuals according to their role and station in life. A duty well performed gives us the privilege to enjoy a right which can then be considered well-earned. A soldier who leads his nation to victory in battle earns the honour and privileges which his countrymen proudly bestow on him. Will a killer who snatches away the inherent right to life of another human being deserve such honour even though both the soldier and the killer have committed the same act of killing, so to say?


Dharma is the foundation of Freedom


The above illustration shows that the multi-dimensional concept of Dharma is the foundation of the other three purusharthas: Artha, Kama and Moksha. Unless a man’s pursuit of wealth and pleasure are rooted in dharma, he cannot attain freedom or moksha from the transmigration of birth and death. Prof. Kapil Kapoor says, “Dharma is the one-word unwritten constitution of India.” Even an illiterate person in India has an ingrained understanding of dharma whereas even the most educated elite in this country may not have ever read the Constitution of India. We must equip our youth to understand the inherent dharma of every situation so that they can make the right choices in life with clarity and conviction.


The Ramayana and Mahabharata are considered as the two pillars of Indian Culture since they expound and elaborate on the intricacies of Dharma. The Mahabharata narrates the beautiful story of Dharma Vyadha and the housewife from the Mahabharata who attain moksha by diligent performance of their everyday duties. What an irony that a section of our youth considers it unfashionable to study the Ramayana and the Mahabharata today and there are politicians who question the very existence of Lord Rama and Krishna! No wonder our country is a crossroads today and plagued by a multitude of cancers like corruption, naxalism and terrorism.


Shreyas and Preyas


The Kathopanishad is another rich source of inspiration and guidance for the youth on the tricky question of making a right choice. Swami Vivekananda advocated that all Indians should memorize the Kathopanishad and the story of Nachiketas, the young boy who faced even the God of Death with courage and shraddha. The Kathopanishad elucidates beautifully the principle of Shreyas vs Preyas.


Shreyas stands for what is right and beneficial for our own good and for others whereas Preyas stands for what is pleasurable. It is a well-known paradox of life that what is beneficial (shreyas) is often not pleasurable to the body and the mind and vice versa. For example, in the case of students, we can say that a disciplined lifestyle, good eating habits, physical exercise, diligent study, good company and respect for elders is what is right and beneficial for them (Shreyas). All distractions and cravings for entertainment, addictions, indulgence, and infatuation can be considered Preyas.


Students often fall for what is pleasurable at the cost of what is beneficial because preyas gives short term happiness but takes on a path of degeneration and weakens us in the long run, leading to misery. Shreyas may look boring and uninteresting to young minds in the beginning but ultimately contribute to our success in materialistic pursuits and progress in spiritual pursuits. Sri Krishna says in the Bhagavad Gita that ‘Sattva guna’ is often characterized by a bitter beginning and a sweet end whereas ‘Tamo guna’ is all that appears to be sweet but leads to sorrow. Drug addiction would be the best example to illustrate this. Drug abuse which sounds so tempting and pleasurable to some youth ultimately leads to complete physical and nervous collapse. This is perhaps the most critical value conflict that our youth experience today in every walk of life. Our youth must learn to imbibe this wisdom of choosing Preyas over Shreyas every time. This requires mental discipline and training which must begin at an early age before the mind gets addicted to pleasure seeking.  


Scriptures are the Manuals of Life


In order to have the clarity and confidence to make the right choices in all situations, an individual must have knowledge of the scriptures like the Bhagavad Gita, Upanishads, Yoga Sutras and the Dharma Shastras. Our seers have condensed the wisdom of Vedanta and their life experiences in these scriptures and hence they can guide us through many a crises which we are bound to encounter in life.


While the Shrutis like the Upanishads deal with the eternal higher truths of life and endow us with wisdom to understand the mystery of life, the dharma shastras give us clarity in conducting day to day affairs. There is a deplorable trend today to give less importance to the dharma shastras by calling them outdated. This would be a serious error. A sincere study of dharma shastras like the much maligned Manu Smriti would reveal that while a minute portion may not be applicable to today’s lifestyle, a majority of the rules & regulations suggested by them are still valid and applicable to us.


Life Counselling for the Youth


Our youth have great potential and a promising future. But they need a friendly guide who can give them the right guidance at the right time. Unfortunately, most of the counsellors are trained and rooted only in western psychology and have a poor understanding of the Indian milieu. This becomes glaring when one reads the sexual counselling columns in newspapers and magazines. The advice given by these counsellors is short sighted and at complete variance with the rules and regulations laid down by our scriptures. Such counsellors often encourage students on to the degenerating path of Preyas with least regard for consequences. Nor do they take responsibility for what happens to the youth who follow their blinkered advice. We need a new breed of counsellors who are also trained in yoga, meditation and Vedanta who can give holistic ideas to the youth instead of misguiding them. Educational institutions in particular should exercise caution while employing counsellors and ensure that they are given a suitable orientation to understand the value systems of their schools or colleges.


Swami Vivekananda’s Dream of a Young India


Swami Vivekananda had great faith in our youth and often dreamt of a glorious Mother India reinstated in her pristine glory by her patriotic children. Swami Ranganathananda advocated the concept of enlightened citizenship, of citizens who would live not just for themselves but for the larger good of society. Let us lead our youth from attachment to Preyas to faith in Shreyas by practice and precept.


Excerpted from:

Model for Modern Youth, M. Pramod Kumar,: January 2014, published by Yuva Shakthi, New No. 3, Parthasarathy Street, Vellala Teynampet, Chennai - 600 086;; website:

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