Doing research on free will in Indian Philosophy

As a scholar trained in Western Academia, one has at least three choices while dealing with Sanskrit Philosophy:

  1. One can treat it as if it were Western philosophy and discuss, e.g., of monotonic or non-monotonic logic in Nyāya,
  2. One can deal with it in its own terms, e.g., by describing the inner-Mīmāṃsā controversy about whether one has to study the Veda because of the prescription to study it or because of the prescription to teach it (since, in order for someone to teach, someone else must be learning from him),
  3. One can attempt a compromise, looking for how a certain topic is configured in Sanskrit philosophy.

In the case of the topic of free will, it is hard to avoid the third approach. In fact, whereas the topic of free will is one of the major Leitmotivs running throughout the whole history of Western Philosophy, on a pair with ontological issues, it is not formulated as such in Sanskrit philosophy (see Freschi in the volume edited by Dasti and Bryant). Nonetheless, one can look for implicit treatments of it in theological contexts and in in philosophy of action ones.

Veṅkaṭanātha (also known with the honorific title Vedānta Deśika, traditional dates 1269–1370) is one of the most prolific and multi-faceted personalities of Indian philosophy. He attempted to create a philosophic system which should have broadened Rāmānuja’s Viśiṣṭādvaita Vedānta and make it into a more comprehensive philosophical system. Due to its ambition of comprehensiveness, it is legitimate to expect from Veṅkaṭanātha’s system that it deals also with questions relating to the nature of action and of our contribution to it, and, thus, ultimately with the issue of free will.

What do we have at Veṅkaṭanātha’s background?

On the one hand, Veṅkaṭanātha’s relation towards (Pūrva) Mīmāṃsā and Vedānta (and other Indian philosophical systems), on the other his relation with the Vaiṣṇava religious literature he considers authoritative (Pāñcarātra, hymns of the Āḻvārs). Given the fact that most researches on Indian philosophy focus on Sanskrit texts, one runs the risk to neglect the latter component, which is predominant in Veṅkaṭanātha’s non-Sanskrit production.

The Mīmāṃsā background
The Mīmāṃsā school did not explicitly deal with the topic of free will. Nonetheless, its theory of action presupposes that there are real agents and that these can be held responsible for their actions. In this sense, its concept of duty and of responsibility takes free will as self-assumed.

The Vaiṣṇava background
The Vaiṣṇava texts follow a different path, since many of them emphasise the worthlessness of the poet (the Āḻvār) or of his poetical figura (often a woman) and his/her desperate need of God’s mercy, which is the only thing which could save him/her. Interestingly enough, even in these texts, free will is not denied, but rather superseded by God’s intervention. The protagonist is desperate because of her/his sins and states that s/he cannot achieve anything on his/her own. The possibility to achieve salvation through other ways (most notably, through the bhaktimārga, which is based on one’s love for God) is not ruled out. One could theoretically be able to love God and to be saved through that. De facto, however, the protagonists of the Āḻvārs’ hymns feel unable even to do that. Even their love is not perfect, only their surrender is.

Thus, free will seems to remain a pre-condition. But God’s grace can supersede it and save even unworthy ones. Or do Tamil-conversant readers have a better appreciation of what is at stake?

(cross-posted also on my personal blog)

About elisa freschi

My long-term program is to make "Indian Philosophy" part of "Philosophy". You can follow me also on my personal blog:, on Academia, on Amazon, etc.

30 Replies to “Doing research on free will in Indian Philosophy”

  1. Couple questions:
    1. What is “this volume”?
    2. Have you read chapter 6 of Śāntideva’s Bodhicaryāvatāra? It advocates what I think is a pretty explicit determinist perspective as part of its critique of anger and advocacy of kṣānti.

    • Amod, I had a look at BCĀ 6. Could not it be interpreted as aiming at *my* anger (I should think that the other people are not free, in order to avoid being resentful)? In other words, could not its emphasis on determinism be instrumental? Do you have specific verses in mind?

  2. Hi, Elisa!
    I think, that from the three methodological strategies, mentioned in the beginning of your post, the fourth is more preferable) I mean it is better not to look for how certain topic of Western philosophy is dealt with in India, but to look for some Western analogies to the topics of Sanskrit philosophy. Because if we try to describe some Sanskrit system with its own terms only, we (as we still are the people of Western culture) may mix up two different ‘states of consciousness’, i.e. of whether we really understand this system or we have just got accustomed to it.

    • Thanks Evgenija, you are very right. One can start with 2 and only thereafter look for similarities in Western thought. I am not sure I understood your last point, though. Given that the risk of superimposing a familiar theory on an unfamiliar one is very much there, what would you do in order to avoid it?

      • We must simply be sensitive to this danger, without giving up the valuable analogical sort of thinking. You yourself know as well as anyone that someone trained philosophically will often notice things–that are in fact there–in the Indian texts that someone with purely linguistic training will often not. This is not to disparage the latter. Without solid philological grounding, mere philosophical engagement can be too fanciful and conjectural. And it’s easy to simply project, it is true.

        But I think one of the great legacies of Matilal, Mohanty, etc. is to illustrate the value of actual philosophical training (including Western) for modern scholars to delve deep into the philosophical content of Indian thought. IIRC, John Taber once wrote a paper or review on this very subject, advocating this point. The title doesn’t come to mind right now (still convalescing and a bit spacey. . . )

      • Probably, one should be very careful, while making analogies, remembering that a similarity between two concepts in one aspect doesn’t mean they are identical in other aspects. It can be very fruitful not to stop at the point, when we find out what exactly did philosopher X think on problem Z, but to analyze the reasons, why did he arrive at this conclusion. And this may bring us to the reconstruction of some hidden presuppositions of the philosophical system under consideration. E.g. why Patanjali and Bhartrihari denied the possibility of a self-reflective act of awareness, whereas Dharmakirti defended it?

        • This is another salutary reminder, Evgeniya. I would just gently also add that often philosophical views have very interesting internal cohesion, even in different contexts, such that sensitivity to such cohesion helps us see things we may have missed. This is not to dismiss your point at all.

          • Thanks, Matthew, of course you are right. One can hardly invent a universal methodological algorithm for every occasion in the study of philosophy))
            There is another point that seems interesting to me. Different schools of Indian philosophy, while arguing on some problem, usually try to dismiss the rival opinion by demonstrating its logical inconsistency (anavasthA etc.). But I do not know examples (probably except Bhartrihari), when they tried to understand the reasons of their opponent to hold this opinion. Though very often the difference in the opinions derive from the initial difference in the worldviews of different schools.

  3. I like your last point re. the different ideas being caused by different backgrounds and Bhartrhari’s sensitivity for that. Would not you be willing to explain it further in a post?

  4. I would agree that this is a great idea for a post. I wonder if we can say that Jayanta Bhatta is also pretty good like this. At least, he seems to be a bit better than many thinkers at presenting the other side. Not sure if that’s the same thing Evgeniya is talking about, though.

  5. It seems to me that freedom vs. determinism wasn’t a major issue in the Indian tradition because almost everyone was a compatibilist (or soft determinist). Karma and rebirth simply wouldn’t work without determinism: the whole idea that certain actions inevitably lead to certain consequences seems like some kind of determinism. But it need not be hard determinism, the theory that determinism rules out freedom. A decision to follow the path of a specific school can be free in the sense of being caused by the right sort of desire or mental state, but one need not claim that such a choice must itself be solely caused by an agent (as in libertarian agent causation theories). Compare this with the sort of compatibilism advocated by Hume and Mill.

    Now, I’m not saying that any classical Indian philosophers explicitly advocated compatibilism. They didn’t have to. In a tradition driven so heavily by disagreement, there was simply no reason to argue about an issue that almost everyone agreed about. I suspect this has been such a big issue in Western thought because of the religious background: if you can be damned for all eternity for your choices, they damn well better be fully yours. But with karma and rebirth, you simply need to be in a position where you can follow a path to liberation at some point. If it doesn’t happen now, you’ll have plenty more chances in future lifetimes.

    • Hi Ethan,

      Jay Garfield has a chapter on Madhyamaka Buddhism and Agency in Edwin Bryant and my recent volume, where he tries to do a genealogy of the free will issue in the West. While he does not exactly put it a you do, he does make the point that the problem arose out of a culturally-embedded, contingent set of concerns, some of which are definitely rooted in Christian doctrine.

      • Thanks, Matthew. I’ll have to check that out. Mark Siderits has also written a few things on what he calls “paleo-compatibilism” in Buddhist philosophy. Everything I said before was more of a general impression than the result of a specific research agenda, although I hope to look into it more in the future.

  6. Ethan, this (compatibilism) is also my position regarding free will in India. Determinism (as maintained by Amod) does not seem to work to me, since it clashes with the emphasis on, say, the Buddhist path (why would one try to convince people, if they had no influence on their choices?), complete free will, by contrast, would not work within the karman-theory.

    As for your latter point, it is very interesting (would not you like to initiate a new thread on the historical reasons leading people to reflect on the topic of free will?). However, the topic of free will seems to be dealt with also before Christianity, e.g., in Stoicism. What would you say to that?

    • Elisa, thanks for the response. I will think about it more and maybe I’ll make a post here on the blog in the future.

      My point wasn’t that Christianity is a necessary condition for the issue to arise at all, but that Christianity made it more of an exigent issue in the West than it otherwise would have been (and a similar point could probably be made about Islamic philosophy).

      The freedom/determinism issue can and does come up elsewhere, but perhaps as a less central issue. When the Stoics consider the issue, for example, they are entering a debate that goes back at least to Aristotle and maybe even to Heraclitean notions of the Logos. The debate between Stoic determinism and Epicurean indeterminism is one of the ingredients needed for the course of the issue in the West, but I still think the issue would never have been the central, defining issue it was without Christianity in general and without figures like Augustine and Boethius in particular.

  7. Approaching it from a western perspective is the issue here.

    Indian philosophies do assume free will. They do not have the problems of Christian and Greek philosophies of trying to understand what the self is. The soul is explicitly described as separate from the body. That is the beginning of knowledge, understanding the difference between the eternal and the temporary.

    Most of western philosophy’s confusion lies in not having the basics. Is the self the body or not? Please first decide that before you get into free will. In other words, what has free will?

    In addition God is not the enforcer of punishment in Indian philosophy. There is an entire system (machine) in place for that. Everything is fair and just, one can choose to love God and come out of it. To come out of it one does ask for God’s grace at a personal level.

    So a better question is “what is liberation” and “what is the process of liberation” and how does the devotional path differ from others. Christianity does have traditions around the devotional path to God.

    • Ankur, could you provide some references for your earlier claims? While they are plausible, such generalities are prone to easy refutation.

      For example, Samkhya tradition, which, as you claim, says that the soul is different from the body, on this very ground, explicitly and emphatically denies that the soul has any agency of personal freedom. See Samkhyakarika 19.

      Also, speaking of “Western philosophy” as a whole to claim it is “confused” is quite unchariable. And without engagement without any particular thinker or text, it is impossible to substantiate.

      • Even the Bhagavad Gita says the soul does not act:

        >The embodied spirit, master of the city of his body, does not create activities, nor does he induce people to act, nor does he create the fruits of action. All this is enacted by the modes of material nature.

        So one has to understand it in context. Since I am not engaging academically I am taking a lot of liberties. Indian philosophy has many different branches and they do not agree. But you will find some branches with very clear understandings of the soul and its relation to the supreme. Atheistic traditions east/west are probably similar, but a good comparison between the two is the comparison of the self, because again, “what has free will.”

  8. I’m not trying to pile on, Ankur, but see the rules page here:

    Note the heading “be scholarly”. On this site, you don’t have to be an academic to participate, but if you make claims, they need to be verifiable, with some kind of citations. Or else, we can just speak of “Indian philosophy” to be whatever we want, or whatever some guru happens to say, or our grandparents, etc.

    • I see your point that “Indian philosophies do assume free will.” is not correct. A correct statement would be “Theistic Indian philosophies do assume free will.”

  9. I won’t respond any more, but, again, reference to actual scholarship helps. Consider David Buchta’s recent article “Dependent Agency and Hierarchial Determinism” for the problems with Madhva and free will.

    • Madhvacharya explained the difference between choice and independence. You pointed to an interesting article but the author makes some odd statements and does not seem to understand that choice is not something extra to the soul but rather free-will is an intrinsic aspect to the soul, so when that author talks about “who the soul is” and compares it to “what the soul does” he is making a false distinction.

      Good luck in your endeavors.

        • The question of free will in reference to eternal damnation is not new and is asked outside Madhva’s line as well, because as you mentioned it, it is in the Bhagavad Gita as well. That is one reason the Bhagavad Gita is so popular, it has references to almost all philosophies. I quoted a verse above which also echoed the sentiment that the soul does nothing.

          The answer as I understand is that eternal damnation does not obviate free will. It is always a souls choice. Their consciousness is so tuned as to go to hell, which for them is a type of pleasure. They are the experiencer and their consciousness is in a particular way. We cannot falsely equate all souls and then ask why they are not equally in “heaven”.

          I think this is the western taint in studying. Souls are not created, they have some aspect of being equal to the supreme. Even though academically the people may acknowledge it, they keep asking questions and making answers as though God created a soul. Respect for free will means souls prefer what we consider hell to serving Him. Hinduism doesn’t have some elaborate angel mythology to explain this, it is simply the nature of the soul. Much of this discussion in simply laying preconceived notions on top of the teachings instead of understanding it properly.

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