phl 101: The Bhagavad Gita, philosophy homework help

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These are the five questions over which we will ponder for the rest of our term. They are 

(i) What's Arjuna ( one of the two main characters of the Bhagavad Gita) duty?

(ii) Should he go to war?

(iii) Is Arjuna free to choose what he would like to do (given the above religious text)?

(iv) What's the role of Shri Krishna, the Hindu God, in that religious book? and

finally, (v) Is Shri Krishna's role praiseworthy?


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Reason & Reality Phil: 101 Summer 2012 Class Notes on the Bhagavad Gita 1. The Gita and Indian Culture: The Gita is one of the most important and widely read texts on the Hindu view of life. It shares the most features of Indian culture1. Features of Indian culture: (I) One feature in general is its concentration upon the spiritual. Both in life and in philosophy, the spiritual motive is predominant in India. Philosophy and religion are intimately related because philosophy itself is regarded as a spiritual adventure, and also because the motivation both in philosophy and in religion concerns the spiritual way of life in the here-and-now and the eventual spiritual salvation of man in relation to the universe. (II) Another characteristic view of Indian culture is the belief in the intimate relationship of philosophy to life. The close relationship between theory and practice, doctrine and life, has always been outstanding in Indian thought. Every Indian system seeks the truth, not as academic “knowledge for its own sake,” but to learn the truth which will make men free. (III) Indian culture is characterized by the introspective attitude and the introspective approach to reality. Philosophy is thought of knowledge of self. In its pursuit of the truth, Indian culture has always been strongly dominated by concern with the inner life and self of man rather than the external world of physical nature. (IV) Another feature of Hinduism is the acceptance of authority. While the specific doctrines of the past may be changed by interpretation, the general spirit and frequently the basic concepts are retained from age to age. Reverence for authority does not militate against progress, but it does lend a unity of spirit by providing a continuity of thought which has rendered culture especially in Indian life and solidly unified against any philosophical attitude contradicting its basic characteristics of spirituality, inwardness, intuition, and the strong belief that the truth is to be lived, not merely known. 2. Key notions of the Gita: In addition to sharing these features of Indian culture, the Gita also uses some concepts. (I) The caste system (Varnashram): In Indian culture, society is divided into four groups (varna, frequently translated as castes) determined generally according to occupational ability, namely the priest-teacher (Brahmin), the king-or political and military leader (kastriya), the merchant (vaishya), the laborer (shudra). The first three of these are called the twice-born, that is, they are religiously initiated Hindus, whereas the Shudra are not accepted. (II) Four Stages of the Twice-born people: The lives of the twice-born are to consist of the four stages of the student (brahmacarin), the householder (grhastha), the forest-dweller (vanaprastha), and the wandering monk ( sannyashin). (III) Four goals of life: The goals which are accepted by all Indians (i.e., all Hindus) are righteousness or obedience to the moral law (dharma), wealth or material welfare (artha), pleasure (kama), and emancipation (moksa). Dharma prevails throughout life, that is, neither pleasure nor wealth is to be obtained through violation of the rules of morality. Moksa is the ultimate goal to which all men should aspire. This social philosophy is accepted without question by all Hindus. 1 I am using the expressions“Indian culture”and “Hinduism” interchangeably. 3. The Gita and the theory of Karma (action): The notion of karma plays a pivotal role in the Gita. It seems that the notion of selfless action (nishkama karma) is its predominant theme. By “selfless action,” we mean that the agent should perform her duty without thinking of the consequence of that action. If this is the basic notion of karma, then perhaps it is not a mistake to identify a Kantian theme in the Gita. According to Kantians, moral laws are categorical/unconditional. One can’t disobey these laws at any cost even though disobeying them may lead to some bad consequences. For example, we may lose money or it may result in a death of a person. Undoubtedly, many passages in the Gita are ready for nice Kantian interpretations. The interesting aspect of the Gita, however, is that some passages also point out the need for a different interpretation. Shri Krishna sometimes talks about “maintaining the world.” Here, we take “maintaining the world,” to mean improving the quality of social life. The kind of karma Shri Krishna has in mind when he introduces the idea that the “wise man is intent on maintaining the world” (Chapter III, verse 25) seems to be teleological in nature. An ethical theory which assesses the worth of an action in terms of how well it serves its intended purpose is not clearly Kantian in spirit. Kant’s theory is regarded by experts as deontological in spirit. A deontological theory is committed to the view that an agent should perform her duty independent of any purpose, good or bad attached to her action. Utilitarianism which is a version of consequential theory, by contrast, is teleological in nature. An action, according to utilitarianism, is morally right if and only if it maximizes pleasure and minimizes pain. Utilitarianism is a teleological theory because it aims at maximizing pleasure and minimizing pain. If we consider a teleological theory like utilitarianism to explain the above passage in the Gita, then we find that the utilitarian construal of actions goes well with that passage. The pertinent question is: How to interpret the Gita? One answer is that some actions Shri Krishna asks Arjuna to perform here sometimes are liable to straightforward Kantian interpretations, whereas some other actions are liable to utilitarian interpretations. In short, Shri Krishna does not have in mind only Kantian notion of duty when he discusses actions. This interpretation of the Gita is also compatible with historical records of human thought and culture. Remember that the Gita was written long before the Western ethical theories (i.e., the kinds of theories we discuss in the class) came into being. 4. War, morality and death: (I) Why should Arjuna go to war? The first argument: Arjuna should go to war because being a warrior his dharma is to defend his kingdom. A counter-argument: He should not go to war because he neither likes to kill his relatives nor likes to be killed. The second argument: When an agent dies, her spiritual existence (soul) continues to exist, although her material existence ceases to be. Therefore, she should not regret that she will die because her spiritual existence continues to flourish even after her death. The third argument: (This argument addresses the issue related to the nature of death. It is a better argument than the second argument because unlike the second argument it does not depend on the dubious assumption that soul is indestructible.): One should not regret that one would die one-day because there is symmetry between birth and death. According to this argument which is known as the symmetry argument if we should regret for we will die one-day, we should also regret for not being born earlier. Suppose the agent regrets that she will die someday. She thinks that if she could survive few additional years, she could enjoy the sights and sounds of the world for few more years. Her regret is justified because her death will take away future possibilities of her life. [Here we assume that something good waits for her in the future] Taking away future possibilities of one’s life is morally bad. Hence death seems to be an evil. The symmetry argument wants to show why this argument is fallacious. If regretting death is morally justified, then regretting for not being born, for example, ten more years ago is equally morally justified. If you were born ten years earlier than the actual time of your birth, then you would have enjoyed life for a longer period. Since, we don’t regret for not being born ten years earlier, according to the symmetry argument, we should not regret for not surviving ten more years. So one should not regret that one will die one-day. Is there any objection? 5. Does the Gita contain any contradiction? It seems that there are at least two. The first seeming contradiction is this: Shri Krishna persuades Arjuna to go to war because he should not worry about killing his relatives. In fact, according to Shri Krishna, what Arjuna will do in this situation, will just kill their material beings. He will do no harm to their spiritual beings (souls) by killing them. Shri Krishna argues that a soul remains unaffected by mundane qualities. At the same time, he advises Arjuna to go to war, otherwise, he will be despised by his own folks. The contradiction seems to be this: If soul is the most important thing that one should care about and soul is something which remains unaffected by worldly qualities, then why should Arjuna be bothered by the fact that if he does not go to war he will be forsaken by his fellow humans? According to Hindu philosophy, his soul won’t be affected by his bravery or cowardice. One answer is that although it is evident that Hindu philosophy rests on the idea of an indestructible soul and Shri Krishna is, in fact, right about that, it is also evident that Arjuna is a person who does not reflect much on his own life. Shri Krishna’s purpose is to persuade him to go to war. If the purpose is better served by kindling Arjuna’s sentiments, then why not does that. This seems to be what goes on in Sri Krishna’s mind. He has ultimately succeeded in achieving his purpose by kindling Arjuna’s sentiments about folk heroes. Is there anymore contradiction in the Gita? An answer to this question will take us to the last section of our discussion. 6. Fatalism, determinism and free-choices: Shri Krishna says to Arjuna that he should go to war because he does not need to be concerned with killing his cousins and relatives anymore. For, Shri Krishna has told him that they will be killed (Chapter 11, verses 32-34) at the end of the war. The natural question is: If Shri Krishna has decided to kill most of the warriors of the Kaurava, then why he is so much keen on persuading Arjuna to go to war? It seems that another seeming contradiction lurks behind these verses. One response to the question is related to our interpreting the Gita in a particular way. Let’s spell out the seeming contradiction. If everything is fated (here we assume that whatever Shri Krishna says is true), then there is no free-will. If everything is fated, then why does Shri Krishna try to convince Arjuna about his going to war? If every thing is fated, then what Arjuna wants to do is also fated. Philosophers who don’t distinguish between fatalism and determinism may argue that the above verse shows that there is a manifest contradiction in the Gita. Is there a way-out for Shri Krishna? The way-out is to take a compatibilist’s route. A compatibilist argues that even though things and events are determined, an agent still has freedom. In a deterministic world things and events are determined. Being the Lord of that world, Shri Krishna has already decided the fate of the Kauravas. They will be killed at the end of this war. The fact is that they will be killed, if not by Arjuna, then by somebody else. So Arjuna has the choice to kill or not to kill them. Since Arjuna has the choice, Shri Krishna wants to persuade Arjuna to do the job. Although things are determined, Arjuna has that choice to decide what to do with respect to the Kauravas. This compatibilist’s reading shows that there is a way-out for Shri Krishna without committing a contradiction.
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