Sheldon Pollock, Free Will and Agency

by Divya Jhingran

Sheldon Pollock proclaims that “the characters of the ‘Ramayana’ believe themselves to be denied all freedom of choice; … and consequently can exercise no control.” He laments the dire consequences our epics have had on our civilization and wants to set things right by liberating us Hindus from our fatalistic beliefs. If only we could see things through his lens we too would understand that we have free will and can exercise our agency. This attitude betrays a dismal lack of understanding about the very essence of our culture and traditions. As we would say back home, “after listening to the entire Ramayana, he doesn’t even know who Rama is!”

Sheldon Pollock

Before we get into how badly wrong Pollock is, it would be helpful to know a brief history of the idea of “free will”. Free will as a concept did not feature in the rich intellectual traditions of the pagan philosophers of Greece and Rome. Similarly, the idea of “free will” is completely alien to the Indian traditions which have always held a decidedly deterministic stance. Of course the western world uses the derogatory term “fatalistic” instead of “deterministic” when speaking of the Indians, but let’s overlook that for now. One thing we do know is that the Indian philosophers excelled in their understanding of human psychology and spoke at length about a variety of mental states. They broadly categorized manas, buddhi, and chitta along with other more nuanced mental states and mental processes. Nowhere did they identify anything such as “free will”. Instead they came to the conclusion that we are not the agents of our actions and that the idea of agency is an illusion.

So why is Pollock so confident that free will exists? Whatever his secular pretensions may be, “free will” is actually a very Christian idea. It turned up in the literature around the 4th century after the birth of Christianity. Christian doctrine tells us that God created the world and that everything that happens in this world happens in accordance with His will. This claim, and every other claim made by Christianity, is presented as a truth claim. In other words, just as it is true that water is composed of hydrogen and oxygen, it is true that the Christian God created the world and governs it. Naturally this “truth” had its consequences and soon enough gave rise to what is commonly referred to as the “problem of evil”. If God is perfect and good and if everything happens according to his will, then how can we explain the fact that there is so much evil in this world? Enter, free will. The problem of evil was conveniently explained by the fact that God gave human beings the freedom to choose between good and evil. Because human beings are sinners they often choose to do evil. Therefore, even though God is perfect, there is evil in the world because of our God-given free choice. This explanation about the world is absolutely crucial to Christianity otherwise their doctrine of a perfect God falls apart. This Christian idea of free will has now become so deeply entrenched in the western psyche that it is taken for granted. “Freedom” and “choice” are words frequently used in the West as if it is the most natural thing in the world to be free and to be able to choose.

However, with developments in science, with the understanding that matter and energy are interchangeable, as a challenge to the notion of mind-body duality, and with developments in cognitive science and neuro-science, some western scientists and philosophers began to question the existence of free will. The debate has been raging ever since. In the overarching folk psychology of the West and among the religious believers, the concept of free will is very much alive. However, among the scientific community it is strongly disputed, if not outright rejected.

The question to consider is this: what exactly are we free from? We are subject to the laws of physics in the same way that rocks and water and mice and dolphins are. Yes we have a subjective experience of ourselves but this “self” of ours exists only because life exists. Otherwise, we are just what the universe happens to be doing in a place called the here and now that we localize for ourselves with the pronoun “I”. We split up the world into different parts and give different names to different things. We consider our “self” as being separate from the world and believe we go around doing things independently of the “world”. But as our sages have pointed out, this split of “doer-action-deed” is just our human perspective and is our way of making sense of the world. They try and show us that this is only a superficial understanding and that the separate feeling of “I” is only an appearance but is not actually real.

The same laws that govern the world govern our bodies as well as the thoughts and feelings that we believe to be inside of us. But there is no “inside”; there is no dividing line between us and the world. So in a way we are just like puppets, without any agency, but from another perspective, these laws of the universe constitute our very selves and determine how we act and react. We have the illusion of making choices and of being agents, but our wants, preferences, and needs are determined by the way the universe is. In reality there is no individual agency that is separate from the flow of the entire universe.

This idea that “I” am not the thinker of my thoughts and that “I” am not the doer of my deeds lies at the heart and soul of Indian civilization and forms its very foundation. It permeates our folk traditions as well as our intellectual traditions and our artistic traditions, and is woven into the fabric of all the metaphors all over the place. Our sages repeatedly tell us that the idea of subject-object-verb is an illusion and that the only way to lasting happiness is to understand this fact. Our traditions provide us with many ways and means to help us come to this realization. One of these ways is through the stories told in our itihasa and puranas.  Our stories of Arjun and Rama, of monkeys and jackals, of sages and fools, convey these same ideas and have the same power to lead to enlightenment as does the chanting of Vedic mantras or the pursuit of logic.

However, this does not mean that once the sages had this realization they expected everyone in the world to stop in their tracks and give up on the world because we had no agency anyway, so why bother. They understood that such knowledge dawns at its own pace and that it is the human condition to live with some illusions about the nature of the self. So our traditions also teach us how to live in the world, in society and in communities and within families. The very same stories and rituals that help us in overcoming worldly illusions also teach us about living in the world since we are an integral part of the leela. What Sheldon Pollock fails to notice is that Rama was educated to live in the world, he was educated to govern, and he was trained for battle. He was taught the right manners and nurtured with the right attitudes towards the world and towards his family. And when the time came to go to war he did not just sit back and let the universe take its course. He consulted with his ministers, he strategized and planned, coaxed and pleaded, connived and cajoled and did everything it took, and in the end, after all this effort, he won the war.

Not only does Pollock suffer from a severe disconnect with the Indian traditions that he has been superficially immersed in for decades, he also betrays a lack of understanding of modern science. He seems not to have the capacity to distinguish a Christian idea from a scientific one. His beliefs about agency and free will belong somewhere in seventeenth century Europe. Oblivious of this, and armed with his “theories” he is trying to force-fit the presuppositions and prejudices of his own religion and culture on to our traditions, while claiming all the while how secular he is. There would be no problem if Pollock named his project “The Biblical Interpretation of the Ramayana”. But that is not what he is doing. The Indian intellectual traditions have a lot to offer to the world. If all Pollock can do is reproduce Biblical themes or Marxian theories it simply defeats the purpose

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