Freedom and desire in the Bhagavad Gītā
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The Bhagavad Gītā, a classical Sanskrit text, describes a spiritual practice called karma yoga. Central to this practice is niṣkāma karman or action without desire. A number of philosophical issues present themselves in connection with this teaching. First, while the Gītā enjoins action, action seems prima facie problematic in the Gītā in light of metaphysical claims that seem to deny human freedom. Second, Western scholars who hold that desire is necessary for action find the Gītā's desirelessness requirement problematic. Finally, while the sense of karma yoga seems clear enough, the teaching is connected with two notions that are obscure: transcendence of the guṇa-s and surrender of action to Krishna. This dissertation explores and seeks solutions to these problems. Chapter 1 provides an introduction to the Gītā's philosophy and selected classical Indian commentaries. Chapter 2 tackles the assumption by some scholars that the Gītā shares tenets of the determinist metaphysics of classical Sāṃkhya. This assumption is shown false and the argument made that the Gītā, as a yogic text, implies voluntarism. Chapter 2 offers an analysis of the Gītā's concept of guṇa (literally 'strand'), and argues that the puruṣa, or self, which is called a 'consenter' exercises agency in consenting. Chapter 3 addresses the worry that niṣkāma karman, or desireless action, is a contradictory notion because desire is necessary for action. Based on examination of the Gītā's theory of action, it is shown that the Gītā does not hold desire necessary for action and that in fact the text articulates four distinct types of niṣkaāma karman. Chapter 4 explores the concepts of transcendence of the guṇa-s and surrender of action to Krishna and develops a definition of karma yoga involving these concepts. The chapter concludes with an argument that karma yoga requires creativity. The dissertation closes with the suggestion that through karma yoga a practitioner might come to enjoy an extraordinary sort of freedom that surpasses the ability to exercise will.