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University of Cambridge Centre for Gender Studies


Namrata NarulaFrom Action to Freedom: Exploring the dialectics of feminist agency through classical Indian thought

Supervisor: Professor Ankur Barua (Faculty of Divinity, University of Cambridge)


The central aim of my dissertation is to advance ethical criteria for generating and structuring feminist action based on a compatibilist metaphysics of agency, namely, a conception that views the subject as dynamically constructed through relations of power, but nevertheless preserves the achievability of free actions within this relational framework. While there is copious discussion on the metaphysics of agency in contemporary philosophy, there remains a paucity of Euro-American philosophical approaches that actively combine these metaphysical perspectives with individual and collective ethical considerations. In other words, discussions on the possibility of free action rarely suggest to individuals how they may exercise their agential capacities and aspire towards freedom through the quotidian densities of their daily life. Classical Indian philosophical approaches, on the other hand, routinely frame individual ethics in light of metaphysical considerations – the question of who the self is and the question of how the self should act in the world are densely interrelated. The philosophical school of Advaita Vedānta, for example, argues that though the eternal Self seemingly becomes constrained by relations in samsāra (the worldly realm), it can nevertheless gain soteriological freedom through renunciation, and by meditating on key scriptural texts that reveal the non-dual nature of deep reality. Though such traditions provide a transcendental blueprint for individual action based on metaphysical theory, I will argue that they fall short in providing concrete forms of reasoning for how the relational subject can apprehend which of its actions ultimately lead to freedom, and which of its actions will only enhance its bondage. Feminist subjects are constrained and conditioned by relations of power that structure their desires, dislikes, identities, and politics. How then can feminists understand which of their individual and collective actions spring from an authentic exercise of agency, and which of these actions are enmeshed in the patriarchal frameworks within which they operate? Is this quest for 'authenticity' and a primordial self of undiluted freedom a doomed enterprise from the start? My dissertation will seek to answer some of these vexed questions through a decolonial philosophical approach that puts classical Indian metaphysics in active dialogue with some contemporary voices in Western philosophy, with the ultimate view of strengthening feminist politics, idioms, and action. This work also hopes to fill a lacuna in the study of Indian thought, as the question of how one can exercise agency within samsāra, in the contexts of non-dualism, is yet to receive sustained scholarly attention.

Research Interests:  

My research interests include postcoloniality, decoloniality, Vedāntic Philosophy, Mādhyamika Buddhism, South-Asian Sufism, Phenomenology, Ethics, Metaphysics, and Marxist thought.

Academic Background:  

MPhil in Multidisciplinary Gender Studies, University of Cambridge Centre for Gender Studies; Darwin College

B.A. (Honors) in Philosophy at St. Stephens College, University of Delhi