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January 31, 2014

As we live our daily lives, most of us believe we have a sense of who were are. For the most part, we believe, with the exception of our age, we are largely the same person now as when we were young. We also have the ability and freedom to make choices about our lives and affect change on those around us.

Some of the leading voices within classical Indian philosophy, however, challenge this notion, says Dr. Matthew R. Dasti, the co-editor of a new book: Free Will, Agency, and Selfhood in Indian Philosophy (2014, Oxford University Press). People like the Buddha say we are not the same, but actually part of a stream of being that changes every second from when we are young until the present, Dr. Dasti explains.

“The historical Buddha, the founder of Buddhism, was one of the leading voices in this, where they said if we really take a look at what we are as people … then we would discover that a lot of the things that we think about ourselves are wrong,” says Dr. Dasti, assistant professor of philosophy.

This creates a dilemma: If we are changing every second, then how do we make sense of our moral responsibilities? Dr. Dasti gives an example. If someone stole from you 10 years ago and you run into them now and demand your money back, one wonders, could a good Buddhist argue “Hey, I’m a different guy”?

The concepts may seem abstract, but they cut to the heart of what it means to be human and how Indian philosophy grapples with the ideas of “self” and “agency,” or how we act. “This is a book which considers what it means to be a person and what human action is like in the views of a number of influential schools of classical Indian thought,” Dr. Dasti said.

Through essays by specialists in the various schools of Indian thought, the book, co-edited by Edwin F. Bryant, explores how Indian thinkers make sense of the notions of personal agency and human freedom and challenges our notions of what we think we are. (By Steve Ide, University News)