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 the Indian Philosophy blog)

A theist caught in the paradoxes of free will

Can a theist believe in God’s omniscience&omnipotence and in free will? I have argued in other posts that one can think in a compatibilist way (because God wants to be freely loved) and that this entails that no punishment/ban from God’s presence can be eternal. Here I would like to test it in the case of Vedānta Deśika/Veṅkaṭanātha, a Viśiṣṭādvaita Vedāntin who also wrote Mīmāṃsā works.

From a Mīmāṃsā standpoint, free will is a fundamental presupposal, since Vedic prescriptions are in a dialectical relation with one’s desire (rāga): one always decides on the basis of the one or the other. That rāga itself might lie beyond one’s free will is an idea never discussed by Mīmāṃsā authors, possibly because they are interested in the phenomenology of free will and not in its ontology.

Can the Viśiṣṭādvaita Vedānta point of view agree with this perspective? On the one hand, one might think that the omnipotency of God as conceived by Viśiṣṭādvaita Vedānta authors leads back to the initial problem. On the other, according to Viśiṣṭādvaita Vedānta human beings are nothing but specifications (viśeṣas) of the only existing reality, God Himself. In some forms of Vaiṣṇavism (e.g., in Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇavism), God can freely choose to self-delude Himself as part of His play (līlā). Thus, the child-Kṛṣṇa can willfully forget His omnipotence in order to enjoy His mother’s protection.

Can one conceive the freedom enjoyed by human beings also as a case of self-delimitation?

Further thoughts on free will in Indian Philosophy can be read here.