Free will in Rāmānuja

As frequently observed, free will was not a main topic in Indian philosophy, and discussions about it need rather to be looked for either at partly unexpected places (e.g., within logical discussions about agency) or in texts which are not primarily philosophical and in their commentaries, most notably the Mahābhārata and especially the Bhagavadgītā. Nonetheless, a precious exception is offered by a passage in a 11th c. theologian and philosopher, namely in Rāmānuja’s Vedārthasaṅgraha, which focuses on a constellation of topics quite similar to the one Western readers are accustomed to.

In fact, an objector staged by Rāmānuja observes that if God is omnipotent, then there can be no human being who is fully responsible of his or her action.

What is specifical for the South Asian theological discourse is the fact that this, in turn, leads to the conclusion that there can be no adhikārin. The adhikārin is the person who is eligible to perform a given ritual and that is consequently responsible for carrying it out. In order for one to be an adhikārin, one should be able to actually carry out the action (e.g., a physically disabled person cannot be an adhikārin), but this is in fact something which lies beyond each person’s possibilities, says Rāmānuja’s opponent, since one can only act if God makes him or her act.

By contrast, common to Western speculations on free will is the appeal to Sacred texts stating that there is no such thing as free will:

He alone causes the person whom He wishes to lead out of these worlds, to perform a good deed. He alone causes the person whom He wishes to fall down to perform an evil deed

(eṣa eva sādhukarma kārayati taṃ yam ebhyo lokebhya unninīṣati, eṣa eva asādhukarma kārayati tam yam adho ninīṣati, Kauśitaki Upaniṣad 3.8).

Even more striking is the conclusion driven by Rāmānuja’s opponent:

Thus, since He is the one who causes [people] to perform good or evil deeds, He is cruel.(sādhvasādhukarmakārayitṛtvāt nairghṛṇyaṃ ca.)

Rāmānuja’s answer to this (powerful) objection is worth quoting in full:

[R:] To this, we answer: The Supreme Self arranged for all conscious beings in a general way (i.e., he just gave each conscious being the presuppositions for acting, without interfering with one’s intentions) the whole multitude of undertakings and ceasings consisting of the connection with the power to think, the connection with the power to undertake and [the connection with the power to cease]. He then entered [into each conscious being] being their support in order to realise these [powers] and He rules as one who permits [that each conscious being undertakes the action s/he wants to undertake]. In this way, He remains the Entire to which all parts belong.

Therefore, [each conscious being], having received the power [to think, undertake or cease an action], undertakes, ceases to act or [thinks] from himself/herself alone. The Supreme Self observes the one who does so without interfering (\emph{udāsin}). Therefore, everything is logical.

In contrast [to what the opponent claimed], the fact of causing to do good or evil acts is the content of a specific arrangement, it is not generally directed to all.

(atrocyate —sarveṣām eva cetanānāṃ cicchaktiyogaḥ pravṛttiśaktiyogaḥ ityādisarvaṃ pravṛttinivṛttiparikaraṃ sāmānyena saṃvidhāya, tannirvahaṇāya tadādhāro bhūtvā antaḥ praviśya, anumantṛtayā ca niyamanaṃ kurvan śeṣitvena avasthitaḥ paramātmā. etad āhitaśaktis san pravṛttinivṛttyādi svayam eva kurute; evaṃ kurvāṇam īkṣamāṇaḥ paramātmā udāsīna āste ataḥ sarvam upapannam.

sādhvasādhukarmakārayitṛtvaṃ tu vyavasthitaviṣayaṃ, na sarvasādhāraṇam (Vedarthasangraha 1894, 138–141).

Rāmānuja’s solution implies a double level of interpretation, ontological and ethical. On the former, Rāmānuja is an upholder of Viśiṣṭādvaita, i.e., a form of Vedānta according to which nothing exist but God and His attributes. Included within the latter category are the world and all individuals. Thus, God is present as the substrate of each individual. Can an attribute of God develop any action independently of Him? Surely not. What, however, an individual attribute can develop independently is the thought, or the resolution to act or cease to act. In other words, the individuals constitute God’s physical body in their physicality, whereas their psychic component appears to be independently able to conceive thoughts. Accordingly, God performs what humans have only desired or thought.

On the concept of adhikārin, you might want to read this post and its comments. On free will in Indian philosophy in general, see this post. You can read more on free will in another exponent of Viśiṣṭādvaita Vedānta, namely Veṅkaṭanātha, here.

About elisa freschi

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

2 thoughts on “Free will in Rāmānuja

  1. Interesting thoughts. I have an upcoming post in a week or two on free will (or rather its absence) in Śāntideva; these make an interesting juxtaposition.

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