- The Bhagavadgītā:Philosophy versus Historicism
Christopher Framarin has spent many years analyzing the problem of niṣkama karma or desireless action in Indian philosophy as evidenced by his many papers on the topic. The results of these papers are gathered into his book, Desire and Motivation in Indian Philosophy, which presents a sustained defense of the doctrine from multiple perspectives. Its philosophical depth and sophisticated argument notwithstanding, Framarin's work is lucid, persuasive, and well-executed. Framarin sets up the basic problem in the introduction and then proceeds to test various interpretive responses. As he develops the book, he shows why each of these responses fails before presenting his own solution. The inquiry into non-viable responses is an integral part of the argumentation (both in Western philosophy and traditional Indian commentaries), and the reader is therefore well advised not to view it as unnecessary "lucubration." Each chapter marks a new ingress into the problem. This only becomes clear when one looks at the way Framarin develops the individual approaches in his papers, because he unfortunately does not always spell out the consequences of his moves in the book. In order to clarify the book's complex logical structure, I will situate it both in relation to these early papers and to other Gītā scholarship.
The second is especially necessary, because while Framarin appears merely to be raising abstract logical points—in the words of one reviewer, he "experiments with many lines of possible explanation, presents them in formal terms with numbered premises and conclusions, and picks holes in them; and at the end he remarks upon what remains"—he is, in fact, dismantling pervasive misreadings of the text. I will refer to some recent and older Gītā scholarship to illustrate just how problematic these views are and to bring out Framarin's incredible achievement in showing why these approaches misunderstand the Gītā through presenting a logical rather than a rhetorical argument.
In the introduction, Framarin sets up the basic argument as follows: in the Bhagavadgītā, Kṛṣṇa asks Arjuna to act without desire (the specific action he should here perform is his svadharma or the duty proper to him as a soldier). However, some scholars argue that Kṛṣṇa's advice cannot be taken literally, as desire is a necessary condition of action. Hence, one must either reject it as absurd or revert to a non-literal interpretation. I adopt the shorthand "belief-desire theorist" in this review, although one could also describe their positions as "common sense philosophies" since [End Page 707] the belief-desire theorist sets out from the common experience that one usually performs actions out of desire, that is, when one desires a particular end.1 The problem with the belief-desire interpretation is twofold.
1. As Framarin argues in chapter 1, the claim that action entails desire is not "analytically" true and hence cannot justify reverting to a non-literal interpretation. In fact, the claim is only true if "desire" is taken to refer to the agent's purpose or reason for performing the action. It does not entail that the agent had a desire in the narrower, more substantive sense. Hence, the argument that the relation between desire and action is so obvious as to justify a non-literal interpretation of the Gītā does not work. The relation between desire and action is more complex than the belief-desire theorist acknowledges. Critically, he does not adequately distinguish between desires for means versus desires for ends, or desire in the narrower sense from desire in the sense of ends or purposes. For example, I might do something because it is my aim or because I believe it is the right thing to do, without necessarily having a desire either for or against the action.
2. By not allowing for these more complex situations, the belief-desire theorist assumes that desire is the only motivating cause. For example, in the latter case, he would argue that I do not do the right thing out...