Ice Cream, Movies and Reality

There are broadly two ways of thinking of philosophy. On one view, it is primarily concerned with beliefs: what to believe about the world, what justifies those beliefs and so on. On another view, it also involves actions: how we should act, the means of changing our actions and building new habits.

The belief oriented philosophy can be very diverse: the beliefs can concern logic, ethics, art, mind, etc.

The action oriented philosophy can be very diverse as well. For some, like Peter Singer, the aim of their philosophy is to change social structures. In Singer’s case, how we treat animals and the planet. For others, the action at issue is more explicitly political. As famously with Marx, but also with any number of other social issues like racism and so on. For yet others, the action at issue is more personal, changing one’s personal habits and modes of life to free oneself from illusions and to achieve a more peaceful, mindful life.

Is one of these the right view of philosophy? I doubt it. There is no the conception of philosophy. These different conceptions overlap and diverge in various ways, because after all beliefs and actions are connected. It is not a matter of which is right, but which part of the vast fabric of philosophy one is drawn to.

Right now I am most drawn to the personal transformation vision of philosophy. To changing my own habits.

This can seem puzzling. I am often puzzled by it myself. There is a possible new civil war in the air in America. There are huge problems like global warming and big technology changes. We are in the middle of a pandemic. And yet I find my creative and intellectual energies focused on how I eat ice cream while watching movies. What? How could this be so important? It sounds silly almost. But it is also the best thing I can do right now for myself.

I can only help myself and the world if I am not living into a fantasy reality. That doesn’t have to take the form of addiction to drugs, alcohol or violence. Those are clear cases, but normally people live into different fantasies in many more mundane ways. For me ice cream and movies is one of those mundane but significant ways.

In high school I would come home at 2:30 when school ended. My parents would come home around 6. Often in that in between time I would watch tv and do homework or sleep or listen to sports radio. But sometimes, maybe once a week or so, I would go to the library to get a movie and then stop by McDonalds to get a Bic Mac meal and a hot fudge sundae. I would put in the movie, eat the food and vicariously immerse myself into the America symbolized by the Hollywood movie and McDonalds. The Hollywood images and the sugar rush merged into a delirium of Americana.

For my school friends life after 2:30 was a time of exploring their social life as teenagers. Playing sports or hanging out, going to the mall, spending time with their boyfriend or girlfriend and so on. All of this seemed unenterable to me. Not only were the social habits unfamiliar to them, but I couldn’t understand how to reconcile them with the habits I had as a son, grandson, nephew and so on. Family life was loving and supportive, but it didn’t offer a guide of how to grow into a world which was even more alien to my parents, grandmother and uncles and aunts than it was to me.

So with the movies and the ice cream I entered into a side reality of how I was American. In school I was still reticent and the nice, Indian kid who got good grades and was well behaved, and didn’t curse or date, and kept to himself. But in my afternoon movie and food binges, my mind found its release into an American world which it could enter without disrupting my Indian side. If I wanted to date or tell my parents I want to go to the mall on Friday nights to just hang out, that threated to undo my own self identity as a son. Not that my parents might have objected; they might have objected to the dating, probably not to the mall, though in my broader family’s consciousness, American teenage social life was all of a piece tied up with dating. But it was not my parents’ or my grandmother’s wishes which stopped me. It was as much my own sense of myself as an Indian. I didn’t want to let go of that. American movies and American food typified to me by McDonalds and ice cream offered a side entry into America. Or so I thought. What it was actually doing was offering an entry into a side America – one which existed mainly in my mind.

It was about this same time that in the evenings I started talking to my father about philosophy. It was a different kind of binge and a different attempt to balance the Indian and American sides. It only occurred to me many years later that those philosophy conversations were for my father partly his way of balancing his Indian and American selves under a universal philosophy. His philosophical expression after his marriage had been more latent in India. But it burst to the forefront of his consciousness, and thereby into our nuclear family life, in America, as he had to work out for himself which parts of his thinking were parochially Indian and which parts could be transferred into his American life, and so were more universal.

This was part of the appeal of those philosophy conversations for me. Immigration, America and India were never mentioned as such. We didn’t talk about my father’s work or about my school life. But these were very much in the air for me, and I think also for him, though perhaps more unconsciously for him. We were talking effectively about these topics because the central issue of the conversations was identity. Who am I? What is my nature? What is reality? What is illusion? What is Dharma? What is my dharma? Does it change by context or is it immutable?

The grip of these conversations on me was all the more intense because we weren’t talking about immigration directly. The conversation was so universal in its aims that it felt like we might have had the exact same conversation in the exact same way even if we had stayed in India. That was a powerful feeling, like it was a window both into the Indian life I had lost and also into a deeper reality which was the same whether we stayed in India or came to America. More than anything, the conversations to me were opening up a reality that I felt I could actually live into, one not filled with the contrasts of Indian and American habits and identities, but which could synthesize the two into a broader identity and framework.

I don’t think my parents knew much about my afternoon movie and McDonalds binges. Even if they did, they might not have thought too much of it. But in retrospect I see that the afternoon side America binges and the evening philosophy conversations morphed in my mind into a single, transcendent reality, which held for me the contours of my growth and my future.

As high school was ending, I became less interested in “normal” America and developing a normal social identity and career in that America. After all, that America was not one I was familiar with, nor saw as my own. For me America was the space of my movie and ice cream afternoons – it was not a physical space, as much as it was a digital space, in the land of the movies, grounded in the very particular physical and gastronomical reality of McDonalds.

The America I was growing into in my mind was a side America defined mainly not by the habits I was inculcated into in the prim and proper spaces of the classes in my high school, but was one defined by the magical, hyper violent and hyper sexualized reality of Hollywood movies.

American heroes strapped on big guns and killed terrorists and aliens – all the while joking and talking to each other in their American way. Romance wasn’t something to be explored by who in my school I would ask out, but whether I liked Meg Ryan or Julia Roberts more. Sexuality wasn’t something to do with having children or sharing love, but was about sex scenes to be mesmerized by in movies like Basic Instinct. None of this felt unreal to me, as if the violence and the sex were cartoon versions of what adult human life is actually like. Bollywood movies were fantasy – that seemed clear with their giant mansions and hyper melodrama. But Hollywood movies seemed to reflect not a fantasy America, but a truer America, one which lies underneath and behind the surface normalness. I didn’t realize the way Hollywood movies were a different kind of fantasy.

It was only in the last few years, with the rise of Trumpism, that I started to realize that the side America that I grew into as an immigrant is similar to the kind of America many Americans who were born here had also grown into. I thought I had to think of America in terms of movies and McDonalds and ice cream because as an immigrant I couldn’t relate to the actual physical America in which many of my white friends moved.

But recently I stared to think that actually for many Americans their sense of America was derived just as mine was in those afternoons: through TV and fast food. That amazingly this was true even for some rich Americans like Trump. His surrounding himself with McDonalds food wasn’t a ploy to get poor Americans to like him; it was how he saw America himself. For many of them, as for me, America was first and foremost a digital reality – defined by TV and movies, and the food they would eat while watching the shows. Only whereas I accepted the digital reality as a side reality to which I was confined as an immigrant, they are seeking to impose that side reality as the main reality, as something they are entitled to as Americans.

For me the philosophy conversations and the afternoon movies and food merged into a single world of America as was to me – what it meant most viscerally and personally for me. It was a synthesis of abstract ideas, visceral images and the “earth” element of food. The three in due time merged into a kind of whole such that they were inseparable for me.

Even when I was in college and grad school, philosophy, watching movies and eating American food went hand in hand. In college I would often go to the dining hall when it opened at 5 for dinner, and stay there till it closed at 9, reading and doing my homework while eating. I had friends and would often eat with them. But for the most part I felt grounded to the environment not through those interactions with friends, which often felt like a haze to me, but through the food I could now eat just like an American and which was arranged in a buffet in the dining hall: burgers, pasta, lasagna, pizza, chicken nuggets, burritos, unlimited supply of soft drinks, cakes, ice creams.

Of course, I couldn’t eat all these in any given day, but they were structuring my life in a way that felt visceral and immediate. Pizza nights on monday, burgers on tuesday, mexican food on wednesday, and so on. To most other students the food was a background to their social lives and experiences. For me the food was the main way I experienced being connected to my surroundings and to feel in fact that I was connected – that I wasn’t just a brain in a vat thinking, but was rooted to the environment. For the most part, I lacked and didn’t cultivate this connection through social relationships – the monk self identity thwarted that. Rather, I was like that familiar concept of the gluttonous monk. The food was a way to make up for the gap I felt socially.

In high school I was thin. By mid way through college I was developing the body which has continued: a little overweight, and forever trying – sort of, in my mind – to lose that weight, but without giving up the “American” food and ice cream which felt like my mode of being an American (of course, Indian food with its carbs and sugar has its own effects). It was only when I started dating my wife to be half way through grad school that the idea that not all Americans eat McDonalds really sunk in. For me McDonalds was high end food, because it was American and America is high end. For my wife, growing up in Berkeley and at the time a health food fanatic, McDonalds was barely food.

The pattern continued in grad school. I no longer had the meal plan and so no more buffets. Now reading and writing was done in pizza shops, burrito places, diners, sub shops – and also, like others, in coffee shops with coffee and a croissant or a muffin to keep the ideas flowing. The theme was the same: thinking and food were united, inseparable. Some fellow grad students would think while smoking; others while being a bar for hours, drinking. For me it was food and movies. I would often head off to a movie theater to watch a couple of movies at a time, or else back to my apartment to watch a movie on my laptop while eating. When I was a professor, the local cookie and ice cream was a regular stop, once every couple of days.

The pattern is consistent: the food was not something set apart from my intellectual life, but was an integral part of it. Not in the crazy sense that what I ate determined what I thought, as in I believed in free will when I ate pizza, but believed in determinism when I ate pasta. Rather, it was more like the food was the fuel on which the engine of my mind functioned. More than in the obvious sense in which this is true, but in that without the particular food and the sugar, my mind felt foggy and lost. What I lacked socially – and in terms of my identification with academic philosophy – I was making up even as a professors, as I did in high school, through the food and the movies.

This is one reason I don’t believe what is mainly motivating most Trump supporters is racism. Yes, racism is a part. But there is for his supporters an appeal which is independent of race. It has to do with their nexus of ideas-images-food. Trumpism, social media and fast food. And guns. This is also why some immigrants find Trumpism a natural home: they find the digital, mythologized America, and the land of barbeques and burgers and steak and Bud Light, fits more their image of the America they came to partake of than the America of vegan food and spinach shakes, independent films and museums.

Of course, there is nothing wrong as such with movies. They are great. I love them. Same with ice cream. McDonalds is perhaps less straight-forward, and for some time now I stopped eating it.

But sometimes I get into the mode of eating ice cream with watching a movie, as it were creating a little me-time away from the bustle of house work and child care, and I have noticed that inevitably these me-time moments, while in the moment giving a rush, usually end up reinforcing a pattern of feeling disengaged from the broader society.

In a way that makes sense. The ice cream-movie binge mode of being is tied up with the feeling that I can only partake of American on the side. As if my normal, daily interaction with my wife and daughter, with my family and with my work, with my neighbors and with the broader issues in America – as if all that isn’t enough to ground me, and that still, as in high school, I can still only enter America through the side gate and vicariously through movies and the sugar rush which makes me lose myself into the movie. But time has gone by and my life has changed. I have grown, and grown into being an American as I am. I don’t have to look to movies or books or social media or politics to know whether and how to be an American. I am American as I am, as is every American.

Ultimately, I want to give up the need for the ice cream-movie binges because they perpetuate the feeling I am somehow not good enough on my own, without them. That I need the soothing, mind-numbing sugar high and the movie fantasies to feel connected to the world around me. I need to free myself of this crutch because I see that it is exactly this kind of crutch which is hurtling American towards domestic terrorism and a cultural civil war, and which is also limiting my own development.

The way I have been in the grips of a fantasy America through movies and food, so too many Americans are now. It will not help to keep calling them racist, or bad or stupid. It will not help to say that they simply have to change to catch up with the times. Like I have been holding onto a fantasy, fueled by getting lost in movies and food that is bad for me, so too they are holding to a fantasy fueled in a similar way. In fact, now turbo fueled by social media. And they are fighting hard to hold on to that fantasy. They are open to conspiracy theories and make believe journalism because they don’t want to give up the fantasy. They are convinced they are the ones in touch with reality and the others are the delusional ones.

The reason they are drawn to the fantasy is because they feel bad about themselves and feel they are not good enough in the eyes of the now changing America. They prefer the fantasy just as I preferred the fantasy over cultivating relationships in high school and college – for the new relationships seemed too hard and too impossible. The productive way to respond to this isn’t to reinforce their already felt fear that they are not good enough, for that will only drive them deeper into the fantasy. The hard work is to reach out to them to say they are good as they are without the fantasy, so that they will feel less need for the fantasy. Obviously it is hard to say that to someone pointing a gun at you.

That is a challenge America faces as a country, just as other countries do in their own. In America there are tens of millions of people who prefer the fantasy world over a shared reality. We cannot just wage war on them, even if they are egging it on, or just put them all in jail. Some form of an attempt to connect with them as people is crucial, to meet them where they are emotionally and intellectual without just agreeing with them. To find ways to show them their humanity is respected without buying into the binary terms in which they are thinking.

This cannot be done merely from a stance of us telling them what is real and what is fantasy. For people don’t respond to assertions. They respond to actions. They respond when they can see others – people with whom they disagree – themselves working through and trying to give up their own fantasies. Based on their own entrenched habits of life, of how they engage with social media, or watch movies or how they deal with their own addictions to food or painkillers or pornography or violence.

We are not in a space of the usual marketplace of ideas: people calmly debating ideas in suits and across tables. Nor do the familiar modes of political change – of petitions and marches and protests – speak to how people can talk to each other across information bubbles. Both Trump supporters and their critics believe that what we are dealing with is a mass mental health crisis: each side feels the other side is not just wrong or just being blasé, but that they are being delusional.

I am not suggesting both sides are equally right; I don’t think that. But my point is that the terms of the engagement on both sides are squarely in the language of mental health crisis. Many Trump supporters thinks their opponents are pedophile, sex traffickers who have lost grip on reality. Many Trump critics think their opponents are delusional narcissists who can’t accept reality. Given that, simply yelling at the other side or trying to morally shame them is just the unhelpful way to proceed. To say someone is delusional doesn’t mean I can then feel justified to say they are dumb. If I genuinely believe they are delusional, then that has to change the way I relate to them, of how I can’t just expect them to understand me through their delusion, but of how I might have to enter their delusion and help guide them out of it – the way mental health professional do everyday.

The anger in the air of our public discourse is like the anger of someone who doesn’t want to deal with their family member’s mental health issues. One can feel, “Damn him, he has to get his act together. I am too busy to deal with this crap!” Similarly I think a lot of people feel Trump supporters don’t deserve more attention, more understanding. The thought goes: “Damn it, they are just whining. We have racial justice to deal with. Global warming. The pandemic. Economic inequality. We are busy and don’t have time to deal with your neurosis. Get yourself together and shape up – just accept that you are racist and sexist and the problem, so we can move forward!”

I can feel the grip of this thought. But the thing is, it’s totally counter productive. It is a form of venting and not a solution. It is also a way to bury one’s head in the sand and assume that the way change happened fifty years ago still works.

The mental health issues we are facing are in part a result of the new social dynamics unleashed by the changing technology and social media. That means the mental health issues are not a side issue we can ignore while we address the main problems. Given that the changing technological landscape and its effects on the human mind and our modes of interaction and forms of identity is central to our life moving forward, we have to deal constructively with the negative mental effects of this landscape even as we want to use it to deal with economic justice and climate change. To do that we have to be open to the ways in which we ourselves are pulled into fantasies and delusional ways of thinking, and how we might have to change our lives, even at the granular level of entertainment and food.

Now when I am eating ice cream in a mindless way watching an action movie, I am left to wonder: is this simply a form of relaxation for me, or is it part of a broader pattern, in my life and also in our society, which cascades down the line and contributes to our social unrest? A part of me wishes the former is true so I can just go back to my ice cream and movie. But another part of me senses the latter is true and that what feels like mere relaxation is anything but. That perhaps I need deeper ways of relaxation which don’t simply cover over hard things in a haze of entertainment, but which helps me sit with and cultivate mindful awareness of those hard things so I don’t unconsciously act out of them.

Nostalgia in Politics and Philosophy

How did the Capitol insurrectionists get into a frame of mind where they felt storming the Capitol was a natural – in fact essential – thing to do?

From the videos and pictures, it is clear they were not all poor white people. Some were black and brown and I even saw an interview from that day with a Native American woman supporting Trump. And there were rich people as well, flying in private plans to partake in the event. And some well educated too, like Senator Hawley, with his fist in the air leading the protestors, who studied at Stanford and Yale. Nor is it a matter of lifestyle. The Qanon Shaman guy apparently only eats organic food.

What unites this group which is not racially or economically monolithic? They support Trump and believe the election was stolen. Which only begs the question: why would a diverse group unify around those beliefs? So much so as to spend their own money, time and endanger their life to do this?

I have no idea of course. Not sure anyone can say for sure right now. But I have a guess that they are united by a sense of nostalgia and not having robust local ties to their communities in terms of family, friends and so on. Not saying they don’t have family and friends and jobs. They might. But that those aren’t meeting the needs of the nostalgia they are feeling.

Nostalgia isn’t the same as being alone or poor or uneducated. It’s something else. It’s it’s own thing in terms of its structure psychologically and how it’s needs are met.

For all my disagreements with extreme Trump supporters, there is this sense in which I identify with them. Nostalgia has played a big part in my life as well. And like they are running into the abstractions of Trumpism to respond to it, I ran into the abstractions of philosophy.

Imagine a child being taken out of a parent’s arms forever and the parent longing for continuing that last embrace with their child. To me that is the root of nostalgia. When something one is used to and loves is inexplicably lost and one keeps searching for it – and unable to let go and face the new reality, one keeps searching for it in new ways and new experiences. Seeking the sense of that old feeling becomes the habit, and feeling like one can experience it again becomes the new high. Like a drug and an addiction, the high of that sense of recovering what was lost becomes the center of one’s life, crowding out everything else. The mob storming the capitol was seeking that collective high. Willing to “be at war” because everything else feels hollow when the nostalgia feels unaddressable and the past feels lost.

Nostalgia is driven by fantasy. If what is lost is the kind of thing that could be gotten back, one wouldn’t be content with nostalgia. One would seek the way to get it back. But when something feels completely lost in one sense and one can’t accept it, then nostalgia supports the feeling that somehow it can be gotten back. That indeed the solution to the nostalgia starts to seem inseparable from the thing that was lost, as if the past which is wanted and the feeling of nostalgia are the same.

Some family and friends have said to me that I am giving too much credit to extreme Trump supporters. That I am “bending over backwards” to make them seem rational. When, the thought goes, they are irrational and racist. That’s all.

I can’t agree. Sure, storming the capitol, besides being illegal, is irrational. It was driven by conspiracy theories and fantasy thinking. And by a good deal of racism by some to boot.

But I don’t have to bend over backwards to identify with them. I feel it intuitively, the way an alcoholic might recognize a drug addict.

It was partly my luck that my substance of addiction to deal with nostalgia was not something that led to nationalism or fundamentalism, but to something more grand and majestic sounding: philosophy. I feel a sympathy for those Trump supporters, the way I do also with those on the left with a different emotional nostalgia, because I can see that if I didn’t have philosophy, I might have been tempted to fall into the same kind of conspiracy theory wormhole that leads to storming the Capitol. And which will lead some in the coming days, months and years to continuing the violence.

There is a simple recurring experience I have which captures how and why nostalgia entered my life.

I love Indian music: Bollywood music, Telugu film music, Carnatic music. Love is perhaps not the right word. It’s more like the music feels like home. But with the twist that it also constantly makes me feel estranged from that home because I dont fully understand the lyrics in Hindi or Telugu or Sanskrit as the case maybe. I could of course brush up on my Telugu or Hindi so I can understand better, but I never did. Never felt like doing. Because it’s not the fact that I don’t fully understand the lyrics that is the root issue. That is but a marker for the deeper, root issue. Which is the sense of having lost the community I experienced with my friends and family in my neighborhood in India when I was 11.

Our move to America was sudden and the way it happened was unexpected. My father’s health was critical and what was supposed to an immigration to America in the future became “mom and dad are leaving now for America and my brother and I will follow in a few months and that is where we will be from then on.” This happened so swiftly, and in what no doubt were extremely stressful conditions for my parents, that I doubt as a 11 year old I processed their leaving or even processed it two months later even as I was sitting in the plane with my brother on the way to New York.

We landed at JFK around the time of the presidential election in 1988. From the airport my uncle drove us to the hospital where my father was to have surgery the next day, and when my uncle took my brother and I to Pittsburgh to live with his family for a few months until my parents could get settled. I remember the drive from the airport to the hospital. It was fall. My uncle bought me an ice cream. I was eating it and looking at the skyscrapers. Feeling buoyed by my brother sitting next to me, who I realize in retrospect was my rock and sense of home through that flight and in that time.

I don’t mean to play this up as if it was somehow particularly hard. Surely in terms of trauma and hardship, this is pretty mild. I had it lucky. My parents were roughly the age I am now and I admire them all the more imaging what it must have been like for them.

But one’s experience is one’s experience. The roots of a nostalgia were set with that plane ride. All this would be news to most of my extended family since they saw only the happy, engaged, communal Bharath. The same Bharath they felt as in India.

What they didn’t see, and I didn’t either for many years, was that there was a big difference between the Bharath in India and the family Bharath in America.

I was a boisterous, happy go lucky, social kid in India. With my family and also with my friends. I left India just as that Bharath was entering adolescence, developing a more social identity outside the home. All my nascent habits for a social identity were rooted in the Indian context of my upbringing. With the sudden shift to America, I was forced to now enter adolescence in a new context where the social habits were quite different.

After a few months in Pittsburgh, and my father got better and my parents got jobs and a place, my brother and I joined my parents in New York. After a year my brother went to college.

Facing the middle school and high school social contexts that I was unfamiliar with and didn’t understand, I withdrew. After school, I came come to play video games or watch tv or listen to sports radio – the last the only link I felt to the sports comradarie I enjoyed in India with my friends and which seemed hard to cultivate in America. I had friends in high school, one I still talk to today. But it often seemed a pale image of the friendship and teenage years I might have had in India or if I grew up entirely in America – a pale image of the alternate world of nostalgia that was starting to get a grip on me. The more I withdrew from the social world of high school, sensing it to be too American and in tension with the Indian life at home, the more the alternate world of nostalgia seemed my natural home. Not so much yearning for the life in India – which as a teenager I no more had a connection to than I did to the teenage life America – but yearning for this third thing which existed nowhere but which was more real to me than either India or America. The nostalgic world of India where I was home.

In 1995, the summer before college, my family and I visited India, back to Hyderabad where we were from. My cousins and friends who I had been close to six years earlier talked eagerly with me, sharing their teenage experiences as if we lived in the same world. I felt withdrawn from them as I did from my friends in America. It felt like they were talking about a different Bharath, one whom they claimed to know so well and yet who I myself had forgotten and couldn’t remember. They, like my friends in America, saw me in only two terms: either the Bharath they knew or the other Bharath (Indian or American, as the case may be). But for me both these Bharaths were somewhat unreal. The real Bharath – the one in my inner ruminations and emotions – belonged neither to America nor to India. He belonged to the nostalgic world where he was whole, simple and pure – without the divisions and the confusions but just with a abiding sense of being home and all is well.

Incidentally, this is why Trump supporters genuinely can’t recognize themselves as the racists their critics claim they are. Even if they are waving confederate flags, the America they yearn for isn’t the actual past but rather the nostalgic America of their imagination. In nostalgic America there are no evils, no troubles, no inner conflicts – it is the land not of the past or the future exactly, but of a side reality which has a grounding in the past but isn’t defined by that past. Nostalgia expresses itself as a desire for the past, but what it mainly points to is itself – to the perpetuation of the nostalgia itself. In the nostalgic imagination the past and the feeling of the nostalgia are inseparable. The feeling of nostalgia is the home base. What one fights for in the name of the past is to preserve that feeling.

That was me as a sixteen year old. I felt no social links to either India or America. I had deep social links to my extended family in America, but it was not an indicator of who I could become as I grew older.

When I started talking philosophy with my father when I was 16, the world and emotion of philosophy merged perfectly with that of my nostalgic world. My father’s philosophy, like many Indians of his generation, was a Hindu, Indian enfused universalism. Both resolutely Indian and global at the same time, akin to how for many Christians and also many European philosophers their worldview was European and global at the same time. How can something be Indian and global at the same time? I had no idea. But emotionally I was drawn to it because it had somewhat the same structure as my nostalgic world: not quite Indian, not quite American, but still Indian and also including both.

Philosophy thus started to become my expression of my nostalgic world. When I was confused about who I was or what was happening in the world, in my mind I started to fall back onto I am a philosopher. The identification grew stronger and gained more and more resonance. If I told people I yearn for a nostalgic world, they wouldn’t understand, or worse, they might have laughed at me. But if I said “I am a philosopher”, they seemed to leave me alone and even respect me somewhat. As if it was something worthwhile to be. It was a honorific which gave me a public identity while merging my interests with my passionate sense that the only place I really belong is in my nostalgic world. Even more: philosophy seemed the way in which I could get others to join me in my nostalgic world. People who might otherwise say I am being too emotional and I just need to let go (or what I was told a lot by friends: I just need a girlfriend), would change their demeanor if I mentioned philosophy, the Bhagavad Gita and Plato. Now the tables were turned. Instead of me in my nostalgic world being the delinquent, philosophy gave me a the sense that the others were the delinquents – and so made me feel more that my nostalgic world might be the real world after all.

I am not saying this is how everyone gets in philosophy. Surely not, just as not everyone gets in politics through Trumpism or Antifa. There are simpler, less nostalgic entry points into philosophy and into politics. Those entering in the less emotionally laden way usually aren’t the ones storming the Capitol. For the extremists, the actions don’t feel extreme but entirely natural because it is their only outlet for their nostalgia – or for their futuristic utopia, as the case maybe.

For me at 18 the nostalgia inspired philosophy made me think and say that I want to be a monk. It was the social identity that felt most in line with my disenchantment with the available social identities. I argued with my father about it. I told my friends and family about it. I believed it myself, and saw it as the reason I didn’t date or go to parties or generally felt I had no meaningful friendships that spoke to me in a deep way. All without actually going even once to a monastery and doing anything remotely practical in the direction of becoming a monk. After all, the point of the monk talk ultimately wasn’t to direct actual action. It was to enable me to grown into the philosophy world which was also identical for me with my nostalgic world. The feeling of being a monk was all the reality I needed. The feeling and reality were merged in the nostalgic world I was growing into.

When I became a philosophy major and then went to grad school, more than the eurocentrism, what unnerved me was that philosophy student in a university didn’t have any relation to monk philosopher in my nostalgic world. I became a philosophy major thinking it was an extension of my monk identity. Over time the folly of this assumption became more and more clear. It’s like if an extreme Trump supporter joined the establishment Republicans thinking it will be a natural fit. Though establishment Republicans have their problems, can’t entirely blame them for wanting to keep Trumpism at bay. This was the question I pondered over constantly in academia: is academic philosophy wrong or was I wrong to think my monkish/nostalgic energy should be a guide for academia? In the end, after I left academia, I decided it was a little of both.

Even after I left academia, the fusion of the nostalgic world and philosophy for me was so intense that often I felt I needed to forget philosophy just so I can live into a new world, free of the emotional space from the teen years. Because for me philosophy and that nostalgic world were fused, often philosophy seemed not to free me into a new space of being, but actually tie me down to a past world which I no longer needed. Whereas I am a philosopher seemed to liberate me in my teens and twenties to pursue my nostalgic world, later on I am a philosopher seemed to keep me tied to that same nostalgic world even as I was outgrowing my attachment to it.

If philosophy hadn’t become an outlet for my nostalgic world and I went to college filled with my sense of nostalgia for an I don’t know what but which makes me feel at home, what would have happened? I might have gotten a good education as I did. Have a family as I now do. A home in the suburbs, as I now do. But perhaps might be filled with a sense that the social world I am in is somehow all wrong, controlled by the wrong people with the wrong interests, and that the nostalgic world I have been seeking is still out of reach. And that perhaps these other people, so different from me in race, class and education, but who are also looking for a similar nostalgic world, with a similar emotional outlook, might be on to something. That perhaps with them I could finally be open about my nostalgic emotions and the world they seem to open up, and together we might do something. Make a difference. We can share this feeling of nostalgia and also not just feel it, but bring it about and create anew that world I have been wishing for but couldn’t articulate, the world I yearn for but can’t talk openly about. Maybe left to myself I might feel overwhelmed by my own nostalgia, as if the nostalgia was a mere subjective emotion. But together with them I can feel that the nostalgic world- so full of goodness and really only goodness and oh so misunderstood – is worth holding onto and standing up for.

I don’t know how we can engage with extreme Trump supporters so there isn’t more violence. We can’t just talk to people wielding guns and nooses. Self defense and the law are essential. But perhaps one thing we could do is let go of simplistic stories, which make us feel safe and good, about their motivations or what it is like to be them. Holding them morally and legally responsible can go hand in hand with trying to understand them a little more through their eyes. Not to the extent of excusing them or even agreeing with them. But just enough to understand them better and to see some reflection of oneself in them. To be wrong they don’t have to be wholly other. They can be a different version of us had things gone differently.

Mimetic Culture, Fascism and Spirituality

The Canadian cognitive scientist Merlin Donald, in his book Origins of the Modern Mind, suggests there are three stages to human cognitive development.

The first stage is mimetic culture. This goes back hundreds of thousands of years, and is rooted in pre-linguistic cultural modes of being. Before humans could speak, they had elaborate social interactions: dancing, hunting, caring for each other, burials, cooking, etc. We see a variant of this even in individual human growth. My 18 month daughter can say a few words, but has a lively cognitive, emotional presence: hugging, laughing, pointing, playing, crying, wanting and so on. As the philosopher Wittgenstein said, cognition is rooted in forms of life, and according to Donald, at the foundation of our forms of life is mimetic interactions. We understand each other not because we first understand the words spoken and then infer the inner emotions. We grasp first the emotional presence of each other – our emotional being with each other – and the linguistic understanding builds on top of that. Therapists would say the same thing.

The second stage is mythic culture. Historically this arose after the rise of systemic language use about 50,000 years ago. Whereas in the mimetic stage culture is fundamentally behavioral – a kind of moving together – once there is language, the moving together is oriented around mythic stories about the world. This was the origin of talk of Gods and seeing the world as inhabited by spiritual forces. The ancient religions we normally think about (Hinduism, Judaism, etc) are only three to four thousand years old (or younger as with Christianity, Islam, Sikhism, etc.) and are really the latter stages of the mythic culture, which goes back at least to 45,000 years earlier.

The third stage is theoretic culture. Here language becomes externalized through writing, which leads to a self-consciousness about our representations. Whereas in the mythic stage, human consciousness is seen as coextensive with the world (the structure of society and the world map onto each other), in the theoretic stage these two start to come apart. There was an explosion of theoretic culture through out Eurasia (in China, India, the Middle East and Europe) in the Axial age about 2,500 years ago, which is the dawn of modern societies as we think of them, with science, philosophy and politics. It is also the dawn of modern spirituality, where wisdom and mindfulness get separated from mythology.

Often religious people and atheists conflate mythology and spirituality, as if spirituality is a feature of mythic culture. For the religious person this means spirituality can only be found through mythological stories. For the atheist this means theoretic consciousness requires leaving spirituality behind.

Both are wrong. Spirituality as captured in the Book of Job in the Old Testament or in the Upanishads or in the Tao Te Ching is actually a consequence of the theoretic culture. The theoretic culture draws a conceptual distinction between the world and human categories. Hunter-gatherer and even early agricultural societies already knew that the world was much bigger than human beings – that is an obvious fact of life. But for them the understanding of the world beyond humans was itself in human terms. In the Axial age, this came apart – and it culminated in the modern scientific revolution 400 years ago where in modern physics the world was understood in primarily mathematical, and not human, intentional, terms. Spirituality is the interior dimension of this theoretic mode of being. Whereas physics sees the outer world as independent of human perspective, the spiritual person like the Buddha sees the inner world of the mind with detachment and as independent of human needs.

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Like many, I was horrified to see the mob of Trump supporters storming the U.S. Capitol. In terms of law, they should be held accountable. In moral terms, they are wrong. But it is worth going beyond the legal and moral domains to understand what is happening at a psychological level. Not an individual psychological level, as in each person who stormed the Capitol should see a therapist. But at a socio-cultural-psychological level. At the level of the mimetic-mythic-theoretical forms of our society.

What is America? For white nationalists, America is a white, Christian country. For others, America is a land of liberty irrespective of race, religion, national origin, etc. Like many, I think the latter is right: that is the America I want to see, and the sense in which I am an American.

It is hard to have a debate about this disagreement because debate presupposes a shared mode of thinking of America. The people who stormed the Capitol are holding onto mimetic and mythic forms of America they grew up with, and which they see the theoretic conception of America as displacing. They don’t want to see America defined in an abstract way as something independent of its historical mimetic and mythic culture – which identified America with white people.

The trouble for the Trump supporters – whether they are white, brown or black fighting back against political correctness – is that the founding of America was itself rooted in the theoretic culture. The Founding Fathers were resolutely Enlightenment thinkers, who brought the modern, scientific, rational perspective even to politics and culture, and in the process helped create a new, theoretic concept of the nation. For Hobbes, Locke and Kant, and for Washington, Jefferson and John Adams, the nation wasn’t an extension of a people organically tied by historical, cultural bonds. That would be an entirely mimetic conception of a nation. Nor did they think of a nation as bound by a shared religion, as in a theocracy. That would be a mythic conception of a nation. The Founding Fathers were trying to get away from such mimetic and mythic conceptions, for they saw a nation as a new type of social organization: one in which people gave each other freedom to have their own mimetic and mythic cultures. This is naturally not possible if the very idea of America was rooted in a particulat mimetic or mythic culture.

The founding of America was not unique in this way. The modern concepts of nation in England, France, the Netherlands and so on were being reinterpreted in precisely this way in the 17th and 18th centuries. And it happened with Germany and Italy in the 19th centuries. And Russia in the early 20th century. And with the colonized countries with their freedom in the mid 20th century.

This is why there is such a deep link between fascism and fantasy – or between fascism and conspiracy theories. In Germany, the Third Reich was supposed to be an extension of the First Reich of The Holy Roman Empire from the 9th century and the Second Reich of the unified German Empire in the late 19th century. On Hitler’s telling the problem was the cosmopolitan, globalist Weimar Republic after WWI. But the problem is actually much deeper. It is that the concept of Germany which Bismarck unified was already deeply influenced by the modern concept of a nation-state. What Hitler was projecting was a fantasy of a Germany where the mimetic, mythic and theoretic conceptions of Germany all line up. In effect, a modern, technologically superior Reich for the next thousand years which also keeps entirely in tact the mimetic links to the past thousand years. Here both the future and the past have to be fitted into the psychological needs of the present. Like the religious fundamentalist, the fascist leader is by necessity a modern figure who has to use mythologizing and fantasy to be seen as a link to the glorious past.

The people who stormed the Capitol seemed confused – as is inevitable with a mob. Part of them wanted to destroy the place as sign of modernity, and so break the windows and doors. But part of them wanted to respect the place, and walk within the lines in the hall of statutes. They wanted to smash the globalist surface while preserving the nationalist essence. And yet the statues they have to respect – of Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln – were of people who were some of the leading modernists of their time! It’s like if a hundred years from now people stormed the Capitol to preserve the ancient legacy of Obama and Bernie Sanders.

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In mythic culture, the categories of the human society and the world are the same. The very stories that tell us how the world began and the nature of life also tell us who to marry and how to organize our societies. Theoretic culture shows this to be a fantasy: that the categories of human society and the world as such can come apart.

Fascism is a different kind of fantasy. It is the fantasy that the mimetic, mythic and theoretic cultures can all perfectly align. That the achievements of science, technology and progress can be had without losing in any way the past which one loves. That if the alignment is hard, it is not because of internal tensions between one’s mimetic, mythic and theoretic cultures, but because they – the bad people – are messing it up. Left to ourselves, we can grow into the future with our past intact. This is the reason the modernity symbolized by social media is essential to Trump. It fosters the fantasy of the natural extension of the glorious past into a glorious future.

Correlated with – and opposed to – the fascist fantasy is a leftist fantasy. On this fantasy, if we just let go of the past mythic culture, then the theoretic culture can provide the foundation for entirely new mimetic and mythic cultures of equality. The clearest version of this fantasy was with the totalitarian practices after the French Revolution, in communist USSR, and the Cultural Revolution in Mao’s China. But we can easily imagine liberal democratic versions of this fantasy. On this version, if only we changed our mimetic practices in the right way and if only we told the mythic stories with the right people as heroes, then we can create a new America where the mimetic, mythic and theoretic would be in harmony. And if we don’t achieve this harmony, it is because they – the bad people holding onto the bad past – are getting in the way.

The deep insight of Axial age spirituality is that the mimetic, mythic and theoretic modes of our consciousness never completely align. This is not because bad people are messing it up. Or because the world is tragically flawed. Rather, it’s because when one is focused not just on the world or on society, but is self-aware of the natural flux of one’s own mind, then one sees that an uncritical desire for alignment in one’s mind itself leads to disharmony.

The way that the early scientists saw that the natural world doesn’t map onto human categories, so too early spiritual thinkers saw that the human mind itself doesn’t map onto human needs. It’s not that the world outside is chaotic while the world inside is easily understood in terms of our desires and ideals. That assumption of the simplicity and natural coherence of the human mind is what drives fantasies, be they political and personal: of course I know what I am thinking! What I want! What I deserve! What is right for me! My mind is self-luminous and I see it clearly! The only way to preserve the fantasy of my self-knowledge is to project the lack of such self-awareness onto others, and to see them as the problem.

There is another way. It is to turn the theoretic gaze not just towards the world, but towards myself, and to the inner tensions between my mimetic, mythic and theoretic modes of awareness. Such self-awareness can transform not just my theoretic understanding of myself, but also my mode of being with others – and so change my mimetic and mythic modes of being.

Trying to change only the outside is like watering the garden with a hose full with holes. Becoming aware of one’s own inner tensions while interacting in the world is like watering the garden with a hose without holes.

A Living Symphony

My father’s philosophy can be divided into two broad categories: i) what he believed, and ii) what I will call his life as “a living symphony”. The latter was his core as a philosopher.

My father was a proponent of advaita – the view that all is one and that the appearances of differences we experience are an illusion. On one main reading of the Upanishads and Bhagavad Gita – a reading made famous in the 8th century by Shankara – advaita is the essence of these spiritual texts. Like Parmenides, Spinoza and Hegel, advaita philosophers like Shankara gave elaborate arguments defending their monist view that all is one, and seeking to explain why our ordinary experiences are misleading. My father found these kinds of dialectical debates fascinating, and would himself give arguments he had constructed.

While I was intrigued by my father’s arguments initially, over time as I became a philosophy major I found them less and less compelling. As I was becoming a professional philosopher, it was only too evident that my father, when it came to the arguments and the dialectical moves, was an amateur philosopher. It’s like he taught me basketball and as my first teacher he seemed to me an amazing player. Then I went to play on college and professional basketball teams, and saw my father more as a parent-coach who thought he could improve my game in ways my professional coaches couldn’t. “Oh, your coaches get paid a lot, but they don’t know anything. Let me tell you what you should be doing in the game!”

A few examples. One argument my father gave for why the mind is independent of the body is: “When you are dreaming, you don’t experience your body, but your mind is active.” Or an argument he would give for his monist idealism, that there is no world outside of consciousness: “Try to think of something you are not thinking of. You can’t!” Or an argument for the limits of reason: “Reason is intertwined with the mind, which is inseparable from the person’s perspective.” Arguments like these – and there are many more – were put forward by my father to explain the elaborate conceptual scheme he was constructing his whole life.

But as I studied philosophy, I came to see these arguments less as inventions or insights of my father which proved his point, but more like cultural fossils left in our minds by the millenia of thinkers who came before us. These very arguments were endlessly debated by Indian philosophers for thousands of years, as they were in the West. The first argument is a version of Descartes’ dream argument; the second Berkeley’s argument for idealism; the third a Kantian argument, or a Humean or a Nietzschean, depending on how one looks at it. In my classes I was learning the endless objections and counter-objections to these kinds of arguments. So when I went home, and heard my father present the arguments as if they were air tight in their conclusions, and assumed that my not agreeing with him was a sign that I wasn’t “getting it”, I would withdraw from the conversations with frustration.

I also realized something in those moments of mental withdrawal: the appeal of my father to me as a philosopher had very little to do with his views or his arguments. When I found his arguments unconvincing, instead of concluding that his views are wrong, I realized instead that the argumentation was not really the point.

A few days ago I was feeling dejected and mentally lost. As if my life – and indeed our world – was just one day after another, going nowhere particular, just a random series of events. It was not a matter of beliefs or even emotions exactly. Rather, it was the mood I was in. A mood of feeling like life was nothing great.

Wanting to get out of this mood, nonchalantly I opened the music app on my phone and played Beethoven. A few of his pieces went by, but my mood didn’t change much.

Then the second movement of Beethoven’s 7th symphony started playing. It’s slow, dark beginning seemed to match my mood, and the music felt like it was not just music, but my very mood and my very being floating in the air and captured by the sounds fluttering through the room. The mood which had been slowly percolating somewhere in the depths of my subconscious suddenly seemed to have found an external expression. The music was not something merely happening out there beyond me, but was like an acoustic magnet which pulled the mood out of me, and in that process of externalization made me feel it more vividly and more fully. The swelling of the music and its subsiding into a more quiet hush, and then swelling again and so on captured the valences of my mood.

The music and my mood merged to form an amorphous experience in which the boundaries of my self and the world seemed fluid. My mood wasn’t something inside me, set apart from the physical world of mere sounds. Nor was the physical space around me just something external to me, far outside the boundaries of the limits of my skin. In my mood of dejection that was how I experienced myself and the world – as disconnected, discombobulated, inert things, just being knocked about.

But the music changed this. By externalizing the mood, and in the process shifting the sense of the world from something inert to something vibrant with the meaning of my mood, my very mood itself started to change. The slow doldrum of feeling passive and restless, like a useless cog in a broken machine, started to dissipate. By the time the movement reached its culmination into a crescendo of passionate tragedy merged with a willful assertion of life pushing forward, ever forward, breaking through its own turmoil (6:03 mark in the video linked above), my mood had shifted from dullness to euphoria. While I was moping about in the kitchen a few minutes earlier, now I was moving with vigor, swinging my arms frantically, as if I were myself Beethoven conducting the music. Of course, I am no conductor and know little formally about music. But with the gusto of someone singing in the shower, I was waving my arms and feeling at one with the music – and with life!

Life no longer seemed boring or pointless. None of my beliefs had changed. I didn’t entertain any argument in the span of the eight minutes of the movement. What changed was my experience of myself. In the mood of dullness, I seemed to experience myself as if I were just another thing in the world – one more billiard ball getting knocked around the billiard table. In the dullness I accepted that I am just such a single thing, buffeted about by the world, a speck in a world uncaring of my needs and which had no need for me.

But through the music this experience was turned inside out. I still experienced myself as a speck in the world. But instead of seeing myself from the perspective of the speck feeling sorry for itself, I was now the speck seen from the perspective of nature and so was seeing myself as a fractal reflection of that infinite nature. I was no longer a speck kicked around by nature. I was a speck merging into the grand dance of nature – and so through that merging felt not belittled by my insignificance, but overwhelmed in awe by the majesty of the world.

After the movement ended, I was carried by the new mood of grace and awe for a little while longer. Then after fifteen minutes, the visceral effect of the music dissipated and I was back into my everyday consciousness of things to do and life to continue. But the memory of the experience and its impact on me stayed with me, and helped me feel my life not passively, but with an activeness of that sense of my pulsating, liberating, open-ended relation to nature, in which I am not just a thing, not even an ego thing with desires to be met and fears to be guided by, but am a self-conscious speck capable of grasping the vastness of life beyond my passing thoughts and feelings.

This kind of experience with music is familiar. In my life I first had this kind of experience not through music, or through seeing the vastness of nature through the Grand Canyon, or through seeing the starry heaven above.

I first had it through the philosophical presence of my father. I discovered as a teenager that my father had a capacity such that when he would talk about philosophy, it was like he was entering a trance. And the effect of that trance on me was very much like how the Beethoven movement altered my mood and sense of being.

People often fall into all sorts of confusions speaking about these kinds of experiences. Words like “mystical”, “transcendental” and “the oneness of the universe” get bandied about, often I find mudding our understanding instead of clarifying things.

The simplest way to put the point doesn’t require any talk of the super-natural or mystical realms of consciousness, and it is this: some people are like a symphony unto themselves. While I needed the music of the symphony to put me in the mood of the sublime, some people are able to cultivate their mind such that they can tap into that mood through their own consciousness.

My father was such a living symphony. Like any person, he had his flaws and limits. But through it all, I was also aware that for me he was like a Beethoven symphony. It was not about the arguments, or the beliefs about Brahman or reincarnation. That was all only the external form. The deeper heart of his philosophy was the awareness he kept alive within himself, like the Olympic torch is kept lit, into which he could dip to disengage from the everyday consciousness of me vs others and to align with the deeper awareness of we are all connected.

From my teens to my late twenties my father was my guru. In one sense a guru is a teacher. But there is another sense of the term in which a guru is much more than a teacher in an ordinary sense. In this second sense, a guru is a conduit to an alternate consciousness. In this sense, the guru doesn’t just impart information or provide teachings. Rather, the guru is an extended mind, similar to how the symphony was an extension of my mind a few days ago. The guru is someone who is able to let others into his own consciousness, so that the others can use the guru’s connection to the infinite as a way to tap into their own altered awareness.

Philosophical discussion for my father was inseparable from a kind of performance. Not performance as in posing or posturing. But performance as in creating a space – as in art or in music or ancient Greek drama – for altering one’s mood and being. In discussing philosophy, my father would chant Sanskrit slokas from the Gita, and in so doing almost become Krishna himself – drawing that Krishna consciousness down into our normal, profane physical space and so turn it into a sacred space.

I cannot think of my father’s philosophy without this spatial element. Of how the energy in the room would shift when he was able to channel that spirit in him. Of how my mood would shift through his channeling the spirit in him. The chanting, the role playing of Krishna or Arjuna or Yajnavalkya, the physical and dramatic elements of the conversation – these were not mere add ons to the core intellectual argument he was giving. The priority was actually the other way around.

The arguments, the ideas, the discursive gymnastics – these were mainly, like with Socrates, the dramatic mode through which the consciousness and perspective alternating work was done. My father’s main aim as a philosopher wasn’t to convince others of the right view – though he himself sometimes mistakenly fell into thinking like that. Rather, his main aim was for himself to go beyond argument and to externalize in the shared physical space the mode of being in which our daily, ego concerns seem like a dream. The aim was to share that consciousness by opening a door to it for the other person.

This can seem a strange conception of philosophy. After all, isn’t philosophy supposed to be about each person thinking for themselves? What then is this business of merging one’s consciousness with the guru’s? Isn’t that mere mental slavery?

This question is at the heart of my struggle between my father and my professors. The deepest tension I felt wasn’t east vs west, or religious vs atheistic, etc. It was rather a tension about what it meant to be a philosophy student, and what it meant to have a philosophy teacher.

It was all too obvious that the mode of my father’s teaching – and my seeing him as a guru in the stronger sense- was in tension with modernity. That to accept that the teacher’s mind is an extension of the student’s mind – that I was able to tap into the Divine through him – was to potentially render the student into a state of permanent subordination. I was only too well aware of this pitfall, given my battles with my father. And to that extent I cherished the alternate, more individualistic conception of philosophy of my classrooms.

But the “freedom” of academic philosophy came at a cost. Yes, I didn’t have to treat my professors as guru. Their consciousness was only theirs, and mine was only mine – and we would meet, as I experienced it, in physical spaces which were resolutely ordinary and profane. The focus in the classroom was entirely on argument, and not about mood – and so certainly not about altering my sense of self or gaining distance from my ego awareness. Feeling bored by this purely intellectual conception of philosophy, I would go home eager for the existential mode of philosophy with my father, which concerned not just my beliefs but my whole mode of being.

For a dozen years, through undergrad and grad school, I lived a double life as a philosopher. To my father I seemed too focused on the intellect and not enough on the deeper heart of the issue. To my advisors I seemed too focused on the heart and not enough on the professional norms of argumentation. I was drawn to both conceptions of philosophy, but unsure of how to hold onto both. I certainly agreed that the guru conception was fraught with landmines of power and subjugation. But in another way, the professor conception was also fraught with similar landmines of power and supremacy.

To complicate matters, the contrast between my father and the professors clouded over an interesting issue: though my professors saw Socrates as their inspiration, my father seemed to me more like Socrates than my professors did. After all, Socrates practiced philosophy as being a symphony unto himself, and saw his philosophizing not in terms of conceptual knowledge he gained, but in terms of how it elevated him beyond ordinary consciousness.

Furthermore, for all of the focus on individual self-consciousness in the classroom, the Western philosophy of that very same classroom was founded on Plato’s mythologizing vision of Socrates his teacher. Plato’s Socrates is not a mere developer of conceptual arguments. He is – and here the similarity to my father jumped out to me from the first class in which I read Plato – someone for whom philosophy is a kind of performance. For Socrates arguments aren’t merely intellectual, but are the mode of drama through which to bring the consciousness of the sun to those in the cave. Plato’s depiction of Socrates is of someone who has a different mode of being than others – someone who carries his mood within himself and whose mood isn’t determined by the passing circumstances. Socrates is a performer in that mainly his aim is to disrupt the mood of everyday consciousness, and to plant the seed for an alternate way of being.

I can still hear the symphony of my father, though not exactly as my guru. For some years I worried if my not seeing him as my guru meant I was still angry with him. As if not being angry implied I should see him as my guru. But I don’t think that now.

Inspiration can come anytime, from anywhere – through a piece of music, a book, a landscape, another person or through oneself. And it can just as easily change how it presents itself. The vehicle of one’s inspiration can be ever shifting, and holding onto only one form of inspiration is futile. The only constant is the inspiration itself.

Spiritual Abuse

Abuse involves the idea of a harm done over and over again. If a person is beat up once, that is not abuse. If that person is beaten up over and over again by the same person, that is physical abuse. So abuse also involves the person being abused staying in the position where the repeated pattern can take place. If someone hits me once and I walk away from them forever, they don’t have a chance to be a physical abuser. But if I go back to them and they hit me again, and I go back again, then they are given the chance to be a physical abuser.

Physical abuse is when a person is beaten repeatedly. Mental abuse is when a person is mentally put down over and over again. Is there such a thing as spiritual abuse? If so, how does it differ from mental abuse?

Abuse is fundamentally about power. The abuser confuses their strength with domination. When they dominate another, instead of seeing the other’s pain, they see only their own strength. The abuser falls prey to an illusion, where their act of domination looks to them merely a positive, well intentioned, constructive thing – even a sacrifice on their part for what it is costing them – and the abused person’s pain looks to them merely like weakness and ingratitude.

Abuse is often possible when the abused to some extent falls prey to the same illusion – that the abuser’s domination is a positive and that their own actions are a negative which calls for the abuser’s corrective actions. Hence the abused walks back into the same situation and the pattern is able to repeat. To walk away from an abusive situation is to walk away from this shared illusion. For the abused to stop sharing the abuser’s perspective – to flip the narrative and to see oneself as strong and the abuser as weak in a deep way, and to see it is ok to leave the abuser to their delusional perspective.

In mental abuse – like between a father and a son, or between a teacher and a student – the abuser uses the power differential to substitute for some insecurity they have. In the movie Dead Poet’s Society, the emotionally abusive father wants his son to be a doctor and can’t hear that his son desperately wants to be an actor. He bellows at his son, “I have sacrificed too much for you to throw it all away! You will go to med school, and once you become a doctor, you can do whatever you want.” The father genuinely loves his son, and assumes his sternness is an expression of his love. The son as well assumes this, and so is unable to talk back – for he fears that to talk back, and to assert his independence, would be a betrayal of his father’s love. The son senses vividly the unfairness of his father’s actions, but feels powerless to step out of the shared assumption of father and son that his father’s mental abuse is really not mental abuse at all, but just an expression of his love.

Spiritual abuse is when the abuser uses a spiritual identity – such as a priest or a guru – to domination the abused. When a priest sexually abuses a child, the spiritual abuse also takes the form of physical abuse. When a guru makes a follower succumb to the guru’s personal needs, the spiritual abuse also take the from of mental abuse.

Each person has a sense of a better self that they can be and that they are striving to be. In abuse this natural and transformative orientation towards personal change gets conflated with the ego needs of a person external to oneself – so that the abused hears the abuser’s voice not only as that of a separate other self, but as channeling one’s own better self. As if the abuser has a better grasp on the abused’s better self than the abused himself does. This is what gives the abuser power over the abused. As long as the abused doubts his own sense of his self-worth and his sense of his better self and looks to the abuser to help him grow, the pattern of abuse continues. And as the abused is stuck, so too is the abuser. The abuser’s sense of his own better self becomes merged with the power he holds over the abused, and without that power, he feels he has no way to gauge his own growth.

*****

I knew my father loved me very much. I felt it all the time – a pure, full, unconditional love. But it was the very fullness of his love which made me wonder why he couldn’t understand that at times our philosophical interactions were painful to me. That what started as simple, happy conversations about philosophy had transformed into, from my perspective, a form of spiritual abuse on his part. That the way the conversations were set up started to feel suffocating to me, and that what seemed to him my continual failure, year after year, to “catch his point” was due not to my failure, but to a blind spot in his thinking. But I didn’t think this for many years. From 16 to well into my late 20s I kept “going back” to him and to those conversations, thinking that the fault must be with me, that he is highlighting my limitations and it is my ego and my faults and my inability to be “more spiritual”, “more daring”, “to pursue the Truth more passionately” which was tripping me up. That left to myself I would be stuck, and that I needed to go back to him so that I could grow.

There was definitely spiritual abuse. I can say it now without feeling guilt. But there was also something else merged with that abuse. It was a battle of wills. I was driven by the same question over and over: How is it that my father who loves me so much can be so dense to the pain he is causing me?

It took me years, but I finally figured it out. My father did indeed love me as himself. That is the key. He was unable to hear what I was saying because, in a deep way, since when he got married, he had locked away a part of himself. There was a pain deep in his psyche, which he managed to hide from himself, and even from his mother and siblings and the broader family. To everyone else he was Satyam the strong, balanced, resolute, unshakable son, husband, father, brother, uncle, friend. Like his mother, my father did not easily “show weakness” – a sense of confusion, or self-doubt, or uncertainty. It was a personality thing: no matter what happened, he was not overwhelmed.

This was not fake. It was real. He was a mechanical engineer in India, and in his 20s, due to an accident at work, he lost an eye. When his boss came to visit him in the hospital, the boss was distraught, and asked my father if there was anything he could do. My father, with a mischievous smile, said, “How about a raise?”

There are innumerable stories like this of my father, told to me by himself, but also by my mother, my grandmother, my aunts and uncles, and some even by his colleagues. I saw it myself many times. When something painful happened – such as losing an eye, or losing his engineering job in America and having to work at a gas station, or dealing with health issues and chronic pain – my father was not one to externally process his emotions. Whatever fear, anger, frustration, anxiety he felt, it was processed by him usually deep in his psyche – or at most mainly with my mother, or perhaps with my brother and myself sometimes. But mostly it was within himself.

For he mainly saw any anxiety not as a reality to be dealt with in the social domain, but as a trick of the mind – an illusion of consciousness – which was to be battled philosophically in the depths of himself. He often didn’t share his anxieties or his fears because he didn’t want to treat them as real – as in, he didn’t want to give them reality in his own mind.

Conceptually, before his identities as a father or a son or husband or an employee or a neighbor, he was always engaged in an battle between himself as the universal self and himself as Satyam Vallabha the ego self. The loss of the eye, the heart attack, the loss of his teeth, the loss of a job, the loss of a career as an engineer, the pain of a family dispute, the process of aging and its pains – all these which he no doubt felt as keenly as any person does, were also for him ultimately not losses of who he was, but changing scenery and properties of the form Satyam Vallabha, and which didn’t and couldn’t disturb the pure consciousness which is beyond form.

So, as I said, my father’s strength was not a put-on, something done for show. It was a big part of him. But when I started talking philosophy with him, I started to see something else. That there was nonetheless some unresolved pain and tension within him – something which the form Satyam Vallabha didn’t really process and was himself only dimly aware of.

In Star Trek, Spock as a Vulcan is able to mind-meld: by placing three fingers on a person’s head, he is able to merge his consciousness with that of the other person, thereby having access to his memories, emotions and the deeper realms of his mind.

That is the closest way I can describe what philosophical engagement with my father was like for me. I could feel his love for him in his being completely unguarded with me. And by nature I am an empath – someone who easily and naturally feels another person’s emotions and moods, and can move in the space of that without losing my sense of self. When done in contexts of healing and intensity, I get charged by it and experience it as exciting in the way an archeologist might feel exploring a new dig.

To be presented with my father’s mind – conscious and unconscious – to explore was like discovering Atlantis. Not just because it was my father’s mind, but because the philosophical space he opened up for me seemed to unveil a whole level of consciousness which in ordinary society we don’t talk about – and where we act as if everything is done by clearly identifiable beliefs and desires about ordinary objects like cars, money, movies and families.

Part of the excitement for me was that, riddled as I was with tensions of India and America, teenagerhood and adulthood, social groups and my insecurities, to tap into my father’s sense of the Universal Self was like taking peyote and riding with the Shaman into the Dream World. The world of my fractured identities and adolescent pains and immigrant confusions seemed to fade into the mists of a lower level of reality, and so the pains of that world lost their bite and their urgency. The emotions didn’t affect me as directly anymore, as I was not just Bharath Vallabha the teenage immigrant. That was just a form of the broader consciousness of reality, and Bharath’s pains no more attached to me than that of a person walking on the street. Instead of feeling Bharath’s pains and confusions from within, as if I was surrounded by them and unable to step outside of them, traveling with my father’s consciousness helped me see Bharath’s pain and confusions from the outside – as if they were somebody else’s, someone to whom I could relate to empathy for his pain the way I might with a child than to identify with it as if it were mine.

The first year or so of the philosophical explorations with my father were pure bliss. It didn’t matter that my father didn’t talk to me about how I was coping with America, or with my high school friends. He was doing something better, more immediate, more visceral, more healing. He was helping transform my very consciousness and so letting me see that I was in reality neither Indian nor American, neither child nor adult, neither cool nor strange. That the categories of these social anxieties were deeply confused, and that there was a reality to myself and all people that went much beyond any of these categories.

It really felt like a miracle. My broader family and my school seemed to function in the world of the everyday anxieties and identities where Indian and American, white and black and brown were the terms of my realities – and in which there was no peace to be found. And I was feeling all this anxiety very intensely, even though I didn’t know how to talk about it – feeling it intensely in part because I didn’t know whether it could even be talked about. And suddenly, my father had opened, as it were, an inner gate in my mind, like Gandalf leading Frodo out of the Shire, opening into a way of seeing the world which altered my very sense of reality and who I was, and in which I could step back from my anxieties and breathe out in peace, instead of feeling suffocated by them.

And then the tensions began.

*****

In the initial euphoria of the mind-meld with my father’s consciousness, everything seemed open for exploration. Nothing was off limits. In that heady excitement, I most probably conflated my father’s consciousness with the universal consciousness – a conflation it would take me years to unwind.

But soon I started to sense that my father’s consciousness wasn’t just a space of universal consciousness. It wasn’t all free exploration and detached bliss. There were definite spots of pain, of identification, of grasping as Satyam Vallabha as opposed to the detachment of Brahman.

Now there started to arise a curtness in some of his responses. Answers being repeated. He started to show a creeping disappointment, as if his son who he had introduced to the higher realms of consciousness was faltering and was unable to leave the lower realms. And yet to me the strenuousness of his rebuttals of me suggested that there was actually some deeper tension within his consciousness that he had not yet resolved, and which he had only instead repressed.

To see what he repressed, we need to go back to the time he was deciding to get married.

Before marriage my father was very outspoken in his family about his philosophical interests. His parents knew he was thinking of becoming a monk, though they weren’t sure how seriously to take that. But whether he was serious or not, what jumps out to me was that prior to marriage my father’s philosophical self was his public self. By nature my father was an extrovert, and he was extroverted in expressing his philosophical ideas as well. And when my grandfather was alive, my father didn’t have to think about his family role so much, and was freer to explore his philosophical interests explicitly.

When my grandfather passed away in 1970, my father, at the age of 29, as the oldest son became responsible for the family: his mother and those of his siblings who were not yet married. Even before my grandfather passed away, my father was probably drifting away from the monk path. But after his father’s death, the monk path was entirely closed. He embraced entirely the path of marriage and family responsibility.

With his marriage his philosophical interests turned more inward and less open to his family. The crucial decision for him was how to relate to his widowed mother. In older days a widow in India would shave her head, give up wearing colorful saris or jewelry, and in general withdraw from the pleasures of life. My father and his siblings didn’t want to do this and instead wanted their mother, who had a tough life, to enjoy her remaining life – especially as she was still only in her 40s.

For my father this meant that he – in a spirit of modernity and feminism – wanted my grandmother to play the role her husband, and be the head of the family. But whereas my grandfather was more philosophical in spirit, my grandmother, though very strong willed and independent, wasn’t as much. So to abide by his dharma as a son, my father started to internalize his philosophy, as something separate from his family role. He came to see being explicitly philosophical as contrary to his duties as a son.

This is the moment in my father’s life that interests me a great deal. What must it have been like to go from thinking about being a monk – the very symbol of spirituality externalized – to not just not being a monk, but to publicly in his day to day life submerge his spiritual interests to that of, as he saw it, his duties as a son?

Most people in my family would probably think this is a funny question and that I am overanalyzing the situation. And my father’s own happy demeanor would suggest that it was not as stressful for him as I am making it out to seem. But families tend to cover over the more interesting and painful emotions with narratives of “normalcy”.

My father’s life doesn’t belong just to me, but to my mother and my brother as well, and to his siblings and others as well. Each has their own story of my father, and they are entitled to it. What follows below is my understanding of his story.

My sense is that due to his submerging his spiritual interests to his mother’s dominance in the family, my father – like many a man – escaped into his work for his independence. He threw himself into his job as a production manager in a ball bearings company – his role was a combination of engineering and sales. This led to him working 16 hour days, and as part of sales, going out with clients to entertain them and coming home late at night, and leaving early in the morning again. He smoked, he drank, he worked hard and had a tight circle of friends. It was in his friends’ circle that his philosophical identity found expression. The space in which he could step back from his family and even work identities and share with his friends his inner consciousness that he is not ultimately Satyam Vallabha, and that Satyam is only a passing form of the deeper reality.

I have fond memories of my father in India: going to the movies, riding on his motorbike, looking at stars with him late at night. He was a doting, loving father. But I also have memories of my mother waiting late at night, worried about his safety after drinking and riding his motorbike home at 1am. And of fights between my parents. It’s hard to see in any of this my father the philosopher. Would a man at peace with himself be such a workaholic, spending time away from his family? Why didn’t he get a different job, one which enabled him to be with his children in the evenings, to help us with our homework, to have peaceful, simple nights of domestic happiness? Why the incessant work, work, work? And why, when he was with my grandmother and the extended family, did he disappear into reading the newspaper, letting my grandmother and his siblings dominate the conversations? There was a cultivated detachment he had in extended family settings with his family – as if being too much himself, to let out his deepest voice, would disrupt the harmony of the family.

It was a subtle situation. To assert his identity fully would be to affirm the older, patriarchal structures in which his mother would have to submit to him. His mother had already spent her life submitting to her parents and then her husband – and naturally her children, including my father, who saw her struggles wanted her now to have an independence and freedom previously unavailable to her. But to be explicit in giving up his dominant role as the eldest son would be to make himself a martyr and so make it seem as if his mother is beholden to his kindness.

What was needed was a double play: an affirmation of his traditional eldest son role, even as he was pulling from that traditional role so that my grandmother can play that role instead. In a society in which the eldest son takes over the family when his father passes away, my father had to be the eldest son and yet also not be the eldest son. He had to do his dharma as the oldest son, even as he saw that dharma in a modern perspective.

I think the way my father, psychologically, managed this double play was to conflate it with another double play central to the Advaita tradition in Indian philosophy: between the illusory world of roles and normal identities and the true world of Brahman the Universal Consciousness. He now believed that his philosophical growth was not tied to becoming a monk – in which he would give up his normal identities explicitly – but to philosophically being in the world of everyday realities. No longer would he need to give up his normal identities, such as being a son or a husband or a father. Instead, he would affirm those identities in the midst of the world and yet stay detached from them in the inner, higher realms of his consciousness.

Later in life he came to see the monk path as a cop out. As the easy way out. Where one, as he put it, “ran away from the world” in order to not be bound to it. He contrasted this with the householder as the philosopher: someone who simultaneously both affirms the normal identities and also detaches from those identities in his deeper mind. This detachment isn’t the normal detachment of resignation or alienation – for to be resigned would mean not really affirming the normal identities. No, the true philosophical act would be to assert the radical contradiction of I am entirely of this world and I am yet entirely not of this world. It is to walk that razor’s edge of consciousness of being in the world and yet not being of the world.

Stated in the abstract, this double consciousness can seem unproblematic – in fact, I think it is deeply right. And indeed, I think after fifteen years of marriage and after moving to America, my father got better at balancing the two sides. But my sense is that while in India, he struggled with this balance, and as a result escaped into his work to let out in public with his friends the embers of his philosophical fires which he had to suppress in extended family settings at home. And it was that focus on work, and the social life of that work, which affected his health.

My father never talked about any of this tension between his son identity and his philosopher identity. Of course, he didn’t. Because central to his narrative was that there was no tension between these two identities – in his mind, they were so seamlessly integrated and also compartmentalized that there was no issue of a clash, no unresolved issue to be dealt with.

*****

But as a son I could feel the tension was unresolved for him. And it became more and more apparent as I started to feel a tension between my son identity and my philosopher identity. When I tried to talk to my father about this tension in my life, he didn’t seem to know how to respond and even to really understand what I was talking about. It took me years to realize that he couldn’t help me because he hadn’t consciously resolved the issue in his own life – he had simply repressed it and moved on.

As I discovered philosophy, I initially assumed there could be no tension between my son identity and my philosopher identity. After all, it was my very father who introduced me to philosophy. And as a senior in high school, the only public identity I knew for being a philosopher was a monk – and so I started to discuss with my father the possibility of my exploring that path.

I imagined that he would respond with pride that his son loved philosophy as much as he did, and that he wanted to make that his life’s calling. Even if he thought that is not the best path, I thought he would understand why I was drawn to the path of pursuing philosophy publicly.

I couldn’t have been more wrong. My father was incensed at any talk of the monk life. He said it was a way of running away from life; that it was archaic and old fashioned; that it misunderstood the true nature of philosophy, which was not about external identity but about inner detachment.

These were all points I could understand and even appreciate. But what I couldn’t understand was why he seemed so angry about it, and so disappointed in me for even taking it seriously. He started to suggest that my desire for being a monk was a sign of my attachment to social identities, and so was a sign of my not being really philosophical.

He was right that for me philosophy was inseparable from my social identity. After all, thinking about philosophy helped me think about how I could relate to my family and friends, to India and America, to the ancient and the modern worlds. In my external social world I saw everywhere dichotomies and tensions, confusions and seemingly irreconcilable divisions – and thinking of myself as a philosopher gave me a feeling of wholeness, unity and peace, and a sense of armor I could wear through the external world of divisions.

Did I really want to be a monk? Not really. I had no idea what a monk life involved. It was mainly a place holder for a public identity as a philosopher. One which was soon replaced as I discovered in college the public identity of a philosophy professor.

When I told my father I was going to major in philosophy, he had all the usual concerns of parents: what will I do with it, and what kind of job could I get? But beyond these practical objections, he constantly levied the philosophical objection that by seeking a public identity as a philosopher, I was turning away from the deeper philosophical truths in the name of surface recognition.

The force of his objections always seemed to me disproportionate to the situation. Why was he so adamant that seeking a philosophical identity in the broader world was a mistake? I came to see many years later it was because it is what he told himself when he gave up the monk path to be a family man. It is how he reconciled his dharma as a son with his dharma as a philosopher – by saying that the philosopher is the one, like Arjuna in the Gita, who does his family dharma without attachment. I think my father told himself that if he became a monk, he was being attached to the social identity of a philosopher, which meant he was not being detached enough.

My father would have been consistent if he didn’t take on the role of being my guru and introducing me to philosophy. If he didn’t talk philosophy even with his nuclear family, that would have shown that he had completely detached himself from every social identity, and was being true to his conception of philosophy. But by talking to me about philosophy – and indeed by wanting to pass on his philosophical worldview and insights to me – he was blurring the boundaries of everyday identities and philosophy in the very way he was warning me not to do.

But, all told, I am glad that he opened to about his philosophy to his wife and children at least. For while some people might be so quietist and Tao like that philosophically they dissolve entirely into their everyday identities, I think my father was not temperamentally such a person. In this, he and I are similar.

Over time, the tension between my father and me increased, but then later on came to our own peace. For him our philosophy conversations were part of an inner world entirely set apart from the everyday identities we had – in which roles such as parent, child, husband, philosophy major and so on were set aside. But for me our conversations were very much a part of the everyday world in which I was talking to my father, while navigating my philosophy education at the university, in a society coming to grips with its social and philosophical troubles. For many years I was convinced that my father might be right that in a deep way I was wrong. Insofar as I thought my father as my guru and so saw him as my better self, I felt I was failing him and also thereby failing myself. But ultimately I couldn’t accept his path as if it were my path as well. I had to follow my own path.

When later in his life my father started talking philosophy with the extended family, I was relieved. I saw it as him finally breaking out of the self-imposed restrictions he had placed on himself when his father passed away, and where he could express himself fully. When he worked on the talks he would give to the family and when turning those talks into a book, he threw himself into it with a passion and a zeal which to me seemed like a spring which had been kept pushed down bouncing out with pent up force.

When he imagined that his life path would work for me because he thought I was an extension of him – and when I accepted that and assumed I was an extension of him – there was pain and abuse. But over time he and I came to be at peace with each other, able to appreciate what we had in common and also appreciate our differences. By not forcing myself into his mold, I was able to step into my own life and thereby appreciate the particular contours of our lives.

For many years I was afraid that if I didn’t see my father as my perfect guru, I would lose him as a father and a guru, and would myself become lost in the process. But actually when freed of the assumption that I was supposed to be a copy of him, I was able to appreciate him as a father and a guru in a new, less stressful light, even as I continued my own, unique path.

Letting Go of Enlightenment

1. For as long as I can remember, the aim of my life was to find enlightenment. I wanted what I imagined people like Socrates, the Buddha and Aurobindo had. What my father was talking about. Starting at 16 I wanted to be enlightened the way teenagers usually want to be a doctor or an astronaut or a football player.

2. Every day since the desire was lit – or the compulsion began – was a good day or a bad day depending on whether the day brought me closer to enlightenment. Closer to what those special people – the wise people, the realized ones – had. If I felt I made progress during the day, I felt good, like my life had meaning. If I felt I didn’t make progress or was stuck, I felt like my life was meaningless and I was wasting my talent and my inner spirit. It was a constant, unrelenting pressure I put on myself. But I didn’t realize I put it on myself. I thought it was just part of the process.

3. As the years turned into decades, and the search kept going without an end in sight, without feeling really any more enlightened, I started to lean more onto blaming others. Thinking: my dad introduced me to the path too early, imprinting me with the desire for enlightenment when I could have first sought simpler and more normal aims like becoming a doctor or having a family. And: academic philosophy was too Eurocentric and didn’t help me cultivate my potential, instead forcing me to spend too much energy just staying afloat and not leaving it. Also: My family and friends don’t really understand me, and pull into mundane issues, and so draw me away from my higher goals. Alas: People don’t care about what I say, intent on more combative and less subtle ideas. Woe is me, fighting the good fight against the tides of indifference.

4. As long as I keep telling these stories about how others blocked me or hindered me, the fantasy goal of enlightenment remained. I was able to accept that my goal all along was a good one, well thought out, coherent, necessary – and so could live into that as my life’s meaning.

5. When I think about how hard and long I have been struggling to become enlightened – giving it all of my “effort” – I am reminded of a story about my father. When he was younger he attended some lectures by the well known thinker Swami Chinmayananda. In a discussion setting one person said that he was getting a lot of headaches when he meditated. To which my father replied, “Maybe you are not meditating”. With which Swami Chinmayananda agreed, implying that meditation is a space of deep relaxation and not something to be sought while forcing oneself – and so it is the forcing oneself, rather than the meditation, which led to the headaches.

6. I heard this story many times from my father. I usually heard it as another story in which my father comes out looking smart and enlightened. But perhaps I didn’t think too much about it because, deep down, I identified neither with my father nor with Swami Chinmayananda but with the earnest person giving it “his all” and yet ending up with headaches. That has been me for many years.

7. I see better now the point of the story. What if enlightenment just isn’t the kind of thing one can aim to acquire the way one acquires cars or a profession or a social identity or a family or even knowledge in the more ordinary sense? What if enlightenment isn’t something one “acquires” at all? What if it isn’t an action one performs (“I finally caught it”) or a destination one reaches (“I am almost there”)? What if the very concept of enlightenment is more a trick of the mind than a reality?

8. The second century thinker Sextus Empiricus described this way the manner in which a person reaches tranquility: it is “just like what is told of Apelles the painter. For it is said that once upon a time, when he was painting a horse and wished to depict the horse’s froth, he failed so completely that he gave up and threw his sponge at the picture – the sponge on which he used to wipe the paints from his brush – and that in striking the picture the sponge produced the desired effect.” As long as the painter sought to paint the froth, he kept failing. But when he gave up the effort and let it go, what eluded him happened in an unexpected way.

9. Sextus Empiricus identified enlightenment (or as he called it ataraxia) as suspension of judgment. A quieting of the mind from constantly labeling things as good and bad, true and false, to pursue and to avoid. This is strikingly similar to a state of awareness talked about by the Upanishadic sages, the Buddha and Lao Tzu. All these diverse thinkers speak of a mode of being where one is not defined by ones beliefs and desires, and whether they are true and good, but rather steps back from the beliefs and desires themselves.

10. If enlightenment is not identifying with one’s constant mental stream depicting things as good and bad, it is obvious why enlightenment can’t be an achievement in a normal way. This is Sextus’ point. When I hold on strongly to the belief that enlightenment is good and can’t step back from my desire to be enlightened, those very facts get in the way of enlightenment.

11. It’s a simple point. What I had difficulty with was not understanding it but rather implementing it. I couldn’t let go – and still struggle to let go – of the desire to be, and to be seen as, enlightened. When I understood something, immediately my mind would interpret it as “Now, I am closer to my goal. I am getting there.” And the main thought: “Now I will be good enough.” That last thought is the key to the feeling of running without end.

12. Why did I hold on so strongly to the aim of enlightenment at 16? Why did I latch on it?

13. Not just or even mainly because my father was talking about it with me. That makes it seem like I was an empty vessel he filled in. No, it’s because something about how I thought of enlightenment was doing psychological work for me.

14. At 16 I was looking for my public social identity. Normally we think of that as a growth from an adolescent identity into a broader adult identity – from being defined mainly in relation to family to having a broader social identity. This is a familiar and normal teenage struggle. The way people navigate this growth lays the foundation for their adult years.

15. In my case, I couldn’t imagine what kind of a public identity could balance the different sides of me. If I dated, I seemed to be going against my family background. If I thought of an arraigned marriage in the future, that pulled against my modern side. If I became a doctor, etc, it would make my family happy – and yet it would pull me into the American dream at the cost of thinking about the social conditions of those historically oppressed in America. But if I became a community organizer or an activist, that seemed disconnected from my family identity. What could I become such that my family, my American friends and myself could all recognize it as a good thing to become? A social identity which was an extension of my family side, which addressed social needs in America and the world and which gave me room to grow as an individual?

16. In the West there was already a long standing and primary image of the Eastern sage. Vivekananda dazzled Americans already in the 1890s without giving up his Indian self – in fact by proudly being a champion of Indian philosophy. So too was Paramahamsa Yogananda later on, with his book The Autobiography of a Yogi. In the 60s Maharishi Mahesh Yogi was the guru to the Beatles, a symbol of the Western society. In comparison to these kinds of thinkers, my 16 year old self thought of becoming a doctor or an engineer as reenforcing the inner Indian and outer American dichotomies which I found so constraining in high school. Even more than a profession, what I first wanted was a public identity which transcended the limited Indian and American identities I was struggling with.

17. I didn’t seek enlightenment starting at 16 just to have a public identity. No. It’s appeal was that it seemed to balance my inner growth with a public identity. I was thinking (not consciously but all too intently) that my seeking enlightenment would balance all three aspects of myself: my inner growth, my family identity and my American identity. It’s not that my father pushed me into philosophy. Rather, by providing the idea of enlightenment, he opened up a path which I rushed headlong into with aims and goals which my father might not have realized I had. And indeed as a 50 year old with an unsure physical health, with no guarantee that he would live for another 25 years as he did, he saw the force of the philosophy he was communicating as independent of issues of India and America.

18. This set the stage for the constant push and pull in my life. Far from the ideal of enlightenment just merging the different sides of me, it became a way that I was constraining myself from growth even as I was seeking growth in the social world. I wanted my public identity to be “he is seeking enlightenment” because I thought that would give me room to balance the Indian and American sides. This made me hold on strongly to the beliefs about enlightenment and to its effect on my social ego, even as a good aspirant I was trying to give up any such attachments. The more I felt this tension, the more I felt I needed to try harder to push through it. The harder I tried, the more the conceptual knots tightened.

19. This was the deeper tension I had in academia. Becoming an academic was me growing into a social identity as a philosopher. But even apart from eurocentrism and the lack of engagement with Indian philosophy, there was a more basic problem. It was not at all clear how the social identity I was gaining as an academic relates to the social identity I wanted to have as an enlightened person. The deeper problem here wasn’t that Indian philosophy wasn’t taught, but that even more basically, the concept of enlightenment was seen to have no relation to that of a professor. A philosophy professor was many things: a meta-scientist, a conceptual analyst, a creator of concepts, a political activist and so on. But an enlightened person or a wise person wasn’t one of them. Most of the day to day activities of being a professor – grading papers, getting published, departmental struggles – were no different in spirit from the activities of any other high brow profession my family liked such as being a doctor or an engineer. The deepest issue here wasn’t structural racism, though that is important. The deepest issue affected white philosophy professors as much as anyone else: that in the modern 20th and 21st century university, seeking to provide higher education to the masses, being a professor didn’t set you apart from everyday society, but rather put you right in the middle of it. Not as a monk living in the midst of the poor, but as a professional training other would be professionals.

20. This isn’t to say that philosophy professors are ok with this. Rather, it is to say that to the extent they are not ok with it, there are real limits on how much they can change it. The broader economic and cultural forces are pushing the concept of philosophy professor further away from the ideal of wisdom and enlightenment.

21. I can’t ultimately bemoan this fact because leaving academia has been helpful for me to see just how much I conflated my desire for a public identity with my desire for enlightenment. It is the very conflation built into the current concept of a philosophy professor – with the general public still equating philosophy with enlightenment while the profession of philosophy equating philosophy more with just another kind of public identity akin to other professions.

22. After so many years where the concept of enlightenment was tied in my mind with getting social affirmation, seeking enlightenment is for me a sure sign that I will never get it. The more I hold onto it, the more, like the painter in Sextus’ story, I keep trying to get the painting just right – attempt after attempt, frustration after frustration, in a cycle of pain and disappointment. The seeking gets in the way of the being.

23. But isn’t blogging still a way of seeking public affirmation? Why blog then? Not quite, since this assumes that blogging is something external to my mind. Not seeking enlightenment doesn’t mean to stop thinking. It means to not identify with the thinking in a certain way. To not worry if the thinking will get me where I wanted to go, and to the public recognition my 16 year old self was seeking. It is to think just to think in this moment without expectation for the next moment. It is to blog just to blog as a form of thinking, as it is helpful to me in the moment and as it might help another in the moment they are in. Nothing beyond that.

24. Aiming for enlightenment has been such a constant for me that setting it down feels like saying goodbye to a friend. But all along it was an imaginary friend my past self constructed.

A Modern Yajnavalkya

1) I said in my last post that my father in his 20s was thinking of becoming a modern monk like Vivekananda. He decided against this path in 1972, when at the age of 31 he and my mother got married. I think he didn’t realize what a big effect this decision would have on his spiritual and psychological life. Following my father’s nonchalant demeanor about the transition, when I was growing up my family treated it with casual humor. One of his uncles once said to me, “Your father was very set on becoming a monk. We all thought he would.” Then he added with a chuckle, “He surprised us and got married.”

2) What must it have been like for him to go from wanting to be a monk to not just getting married, but to wanting to get married? He didn’t get married against his wishes; he actively wanted it. When my father and mother’s arraigned marriage was set, he was quite romantic in wanting to take his wife to be to the park and for them to get to know each other – a rather progressive attitude in my family circles at the time.

3) I often wished my father would speak about the transition from wanting to be a monk to becoming a husband. But he never really did. In fact, he himself usually never referred to him wanting to be a monk. He would assert instead that spiritually it was important to embrace life in all its forms – including marriage and having children. I felt however that he doth protest too much. That while he genuinely and fully was happy to be married, he downplayed the psychological turmoil he went through in the transition.

4) What interests me especially is the effect marriage had on him in his expressing and sharing his spiritual life with others. When someone wants to be a monk – or a priest or even a professor – it is not just an expression of their spiritual interests. It is also an expression of how they feel moved to pursue spirituality: where they fit into the social and cultural matrix of the spiritual life of the society. The desire to be a monk is like a desire to be a teacher. One doesn’t simply want to gain knowledge, but also share that knowledge publicly. For some people, these two things – the gaining and the sharing publicly – come apart. Like someone who is content to read or think on their own, without feeling the need to write books (or blog posts) to add to that public conversation. But for others these two are deeply fused together. Monks, priests, professors, authors – these are modern day shamans, exploring the collective unconscious and contributing to the conversations of humankind.

5) I am in the latter category: thinking and expression of my thinking in a public space are deeply interconnected. If I didn’t live in a time of blogging, I would probably be working on a book which in my mind would connect me to public discourse. My father also had this side to him. I was to discover it in the way he was to share his philosophy with me when I was 16: his ideas, his questions, his place in relation to Vivekananda, Russell, Gandhi, Christ, the Buddha and in general to the history of philosophy, it all poured out of him like water bursting through a dam.

6) My extended family knew this aspect of him, but mostly it was treated as a personal idiosyncrasy. That was just “his personality”. But as his son I knew there was more to it than his personality. For it didn’t really make sense. He loved me, as he loved my older brother, unconditionally. I am lucky to have known that kind of fatherly love: I felt always that he would drop anything, at any moment, to be by my side and help me. He loved me as an extension of himself.

7) But I started to notice something a year or so into my philosophical conversations with him: he wasn’t listening to me fully. This person who loved me as much as it is possible for one person to love another, couldn’t hear me say, “Dad, please stop for a minute and listen to my perspective and my life situation from which I am talking.” I was being thrust into a role beyond that of a son, and into that of a sishya (student). Or better put, I was being thrust into the role of a son-student, akin to how it was with some Indian sages and their children from antiquity.

8) The idea that two people simply talk as two thinkers is often a fantasy. Even when the conversation is about something as abstract as philosophy, we are navigating roles we internalized of how such conversations take place. It is possible for two people to talk just as two individuals, but that takes a lot of conscious work and mutual listening and understanding.

9) When my father and I started talking philosophy when I was 16, he had been married for 21 years. So if he was a philosopher, he was hardly so as a monk who gave up the married life. Nor was he an academic. But he wanted to share with me what he discovered in the course of his philosophical inquiries. Not simply share it as “Here is simply my opinion.” Rather to share it the way a teacher passes on to a student: “Here is what you will learn if you dedicate yourself to this path you have chosen.”

10) From the time of the Upanishads, about 2,500 years ago, there was already a form of a philosopher which could apply to my father – or so he thought. That was that of the husband-sage-teacher Yajnavalkya. I don’t know if Yajnavalkya had children, but famously he was married to Maithreyi, with whom he had philosophical discussions. But once there is the image of a married sage such as Yajnavalkya, it is easy enough to image him with children. As he lived in his hermitage with his wife and children and students, Yajnavalkya would combine being a philosopher, husband, father and guru.

11) This was the context in which I discovered philosophy. I was an Indian-American going to an American high school, with the aim of going to an American college and living an American life in the most public sense. But like most immigrants, I also had a home life which was set apart from the outside American world – the Indian home life with my parents, brother, grandmother, uncles and aunts, cousins and so forth. In this Indian home life, my father as a philosopher was generally not to be found explicitly. He moved in it mainly as my grandmother’s eldest son – firm in his convictions, but usually deferential to his widowed mother lest it break the harmony of the extended family (and when he was not deferential, there were generally family tensions).

12) And for me there was yet another inner circle – set apart even from the inner Indian, extended family home life, as that was set apart from the outer American life. And this innermost circle was the space of my father’s philosophical world come to life in our dining room or living room as he gave expression to his inner philosopher-sage. In the hours he would talk about philosophy – often with the ecstasy of a Sufi mystic merged with the analytic analysis of a logical positivist, a Krishna-love intoxicated bhakti-yogin merged with an advaita defending debater – our living room would morph into a hermitage from ancient India, with my father as a modern day Yajnavalkya.

13) Talking philosophy with my father as I was discovering philosophy felt like Einstein’s son being taught physics by Einstein. Except for one thing: it was all supposed to be a secret, not for public expression! No mention of it was to be made even to my grandmother or my cousins, let alone my friends from school, to whom in any case it would all be unbelievably foreign. It seemed foreign even to most of my extended family. Like most Hindu families, most people in my extended family don’t read the Gita or the Upanishads, or think about Yajnavalkya, Badarayana, Shankara or Aurobindo. Most of my family’s spiritual thinking is more religious, tied up with pujas, prayers and the social life of Hinduism. As most Hindus do, they know Vivekananda, but more as a cultural defender of Hinduism than as a Western philosophy educated, global minded, intellectual philosopher.

14) My father, ever one to embrace contradictions, was like an esoteric Yajnavalkya. A modern day Yajnavalkya, who instead of passing on philosophical insights in his hermitage or debating in front of kings, was passing it on just to his closest family members. For him our conversations were perhaps an elaborate version of a father whispering the Gayatri Mantram to his son during the son’s upanayanam, the thread ceremony initiating the son into manhood and the search for knowledge. But with this one main difference: the whole ceremony is whispered, out of sight of others, as if the entire event itself was an esoteric act meant to be hidden from the public.

15) For me this esotericism merged the ecstasy of philosophy with my father with mental torture. It is one thing for a 52 year old man to choose to keep his philosophical visions private, after decades of publicly expressing his passion for philosophy with family and friends. It is another for a 16 year old boy, just blossoming into having a public identity, and discovering philosophy and falling in love with it, and wanting to share that love in the world, to accept that when talking with family and friends he should act as if philosophy was just for his inner soul and not for public expression.

16) Soon the pernicious side of the my-Dad-as-Yajnavalkya idea was all too evident to me – though it would be years before I let myself think clearly about it, let alone talk about it publicly. If no one saw him as Yajnavalkya, would he still be a modern Yajnavalkya? My older brother was away at college, and could come in and out of the hermitage conversations. My mother was as enmeshed in the hermitage conversations as I was, as Yajnavalkya couldn’t be Yajnavalkya without his wife. But my mother, who is very spiritual but more in a bhakti manner, was not a Maithreyi, meeting Yajnavalkya as a conceptual equal, challenging him with pointed questions, forcing him to reveal his conceptual insights. Can Yajnavalkya be Yajnavalkya without a conceptual challenger, a philosophical interlocutor who can hold his own but who can also ultimately see Yajnavalkya’s greatness?

17) There is no one answer to this question. But as a 16 year old, mesmerized by my father but also afraid for his health, to me the answer seemed obvious: my father as Yajnavalkya needed an other – a student, a rival, a challenger, a skeptic, an audience. To me the hermitage conversations in our living room were flowerings of the beauty of human potential – humans reaching for a higher consciousness. If I simply walked away from them – saying, “Sorry Dad, this isn’t working for me; I am going to pursue my own path in philosophy” – what would happen to the beautiful philosophical garden in my parent’s living room, and what would happen to my father as a modern Yajnavalkya? If he stopped being Yajnavalkya, what other mode of philosophical expression would, and could, he have? Monk and academic were already out. To see him as only his mother’s son and his siblings’ brother was too painful for me to contemplate. That family Satyam was real, but what my father showed me, as he showed also to my mother and brother, was the side of him he chose back then to not show his family. And if he was going to continue to be Yajnavalkya even after I walked away, now the burden of being Yajnavalkya’s conceptual other would fall entirely on my mother, which would put her in an impossible situation.

18) As it was, my mother was already in a difficult situation. For nowhere in the Upanishads is there a discussion of how Maithreyi managed to challenge Yajnavalkya in philosophical debate while she also was the eldest daugher-in-law in an extended family presided over by her mother-in-law as a matriarch? Nowhere does the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, which sheds light on the deepest truth of truths, also shed light on how a modern Maithreyi can be a philosopher while also making coffee for her husband and his friends, cooking for her family, cleaning the house, managing the emotional needs of her in laws, keeping up with her own family’s needs, raise two children in a new country, deal with her husband’s health concerns and her own hearing issues, and also have a full time job, while at times facing harassment at work for being an immigrant and while commuting for two hours a day – to do all that, and then, also, when her husband wanted to morph into a modern Yajnavalkya, manage to herself morph into a modern Maithreyi, setting aside everything else and engaging in pure philosophy, and catching all her husband’s references to philosophers and scientists, which she, as a woman in India back then, didn’t have a chance to explore in her youth as her husband did. The Upanishads don’t explain how anyone can do all that because no one can do all that.

19) My extended family was able to treat my father’s philosophical interests as just “how he is”, as if it were just a personality thing, because to them it was not that important. They didn’t have to, and for the most part didn’t want to, think more about it. But to me my father’s philosophy raised really big, fascinating, challenging questions. Not just about the nature of Brahman and whether reincarnation was true, but also questions about what it meant to be a philosopher in the modern world.

20) Could a modern Yajnavalkya, who could channel the cosmic consciousness and know the ultimate Truth “knowing which all else was know”, and who also loves his son more than life itself, yet not know his son’s pain? How can that be?

21) It was easy to resolve this tension by merely denying that he knows the ultimate Truth. By asserting that my father was yet just another bumbling man who knew much less than he claimed to. Fair enough. After all, we are all just bumbling people. But it doesn’t answer the deeper question: how would someone who was a better philosopher than my father have handled the situation? When I considered this question, it was hard to know who to look to as the better philosopher.

22) It was no use looking to Vivekananda or to Aurobindo, since they didn’t have sons. The question at issue was: How would someone who sought to detach themselves from their everyday ego identity relate to his children, who are very much a part of his everyday identity? This was just a particular way of raising the deep questions of how the infinite and finite, the ethereal and the material aspects of human beings can coexist? It also was no use looking to academic philosophers, since philosophy in academia – at least in departments like Cornell and Harvard – side stepped entirely the everyday human dimension of the professors. What mattered were the professors’ books, lectures, departmental duties – all squarely in the domain of the professor as a professional, as opposed to how they were with their family.

23) A couple of years ago I came across the film Decoding Deepak. It is by Gotham Chopra, Deepak Chopra’s son. The film is about what it is like to be Deepak Chopra’s son, as his father balanced his family and being a spiritual teacher to millions of people. Naturally, I resonated with a lot of the film, especially the close relationship between the father and the son. But with this obvious difference that Gotham Chopra was contending with his father’s fame indeed, with his father’s desire for fame – while I was contending with my father’s esotericism – indeed, with my father’s stated desire to not be a public philosopher, even to his own broader family.

24) In later years my father changed in this regard. After his retirement, he wrote Knowing One’s Own Self, a book based on informal lectures he gave to some extended family members. While it is an interesting book in many ways, for me it is hard to recognize in it the global-minded philosopher I know. The book is shorn of the references to Bertrand Russell or Shinto philosophy, to Darwin and to Einstein. Like with Vivekananda, who most see as mainly a Hindu philosopher in terms of continuing Hindu culture, my father’s lectures can seem more as an expression of what a certain kind of advaita-adhering Hindu thinks, rather than what a global philosophy reflected through Hinduism might look like.

25) It was interesting for me to see my father give lectures to the extended family and write a book. By that time I had for the most part limited my talking philosophy with him – refusing to play the conceptual other to his Yajnavalkya. While I played that role with fervor from high school till the end of college, by the time I was in grad school it was too hard to balance trying to become an academic with being a modern Yajnavalkya’s son.

26) This is one reason I didn’t speak up about academia’s eurocentrism while I was still an academic. For the difficulty I faced wasn’t only due to academia. I was torn on both sides. On the one hand, academic philosophy’s Eurocentric structures made it hard to speak as an Indian philosopher. On the other hand, my father’s Hindu-centric Yajnavalkya framework made it hard to speak as an American philosopher. Both the Eurocentric and the Hinducentric frameworks were outdated and ill fitted me. It was only by stepping away from both that I could think more deeply for myself.

27) Just as there is the question, “How and why did Eurocentric academic philosophy come to believe that philosophy was a special European achievement?”, so too there is the question, “How and why did my father come to embrace the esoteric Yajnavalkya framework for being a philosopher?” Surely many married Hindu men happily talk publicly about their philosophy, and not just in their home. In fact, my father was himself such a man in India, talking philosophy with his friends.

28) My father was in many ways an extrovert. So why did I experience his philosophy as a kind of esotericism, as something private, to be done away from the public gaze? And seeing it that way, why did I feel he couldn’t see my sense of feeling trapped in it? As with academia, what needs elucidation here are not intentions or personalities, not whether one is a racist or a non-racist professor, or a good or a bad father. Such judgments get in the way of deeper understanding of the structural realities in which we are all enmeshed. In the next post I will talk about the structural features of Indian life, immigration and modernity which influenced my father’s trajectory as a philosopher.

Vivekananda and My Father

In my post a few days ago, I wrote: “I experienced my father as no less spiritually realized than a Vivekananda or a Dalai Lama. Except unlike them, no one knew about my father.” What do I mean by spiritually realized? Why did I think this about my father when I was younger? Do I still think it? There is a lot here, so I am going to explore these issues in a series of posts.

1) I certainly don’t believe it the way I did when I was 16 or even in my 20s and 30s. Three events happened in my teens which created for me the feeling that my father was a larger than life figure. First, when I was eleven and we were still in India, my father had a heart attack. Second, that same year we immigrated to America, as part of a long standing plan to come here, but also with an urgency to come here so that my father could get better medical care. I think these two facts – out of fear of losing him and relying more on him in a new country – made me start to idolize him to some extent. Third, around when I was 16, I discovered philosophy through him and it made the idolization even stronger. I say all this to make clear that any statement from me about the spiritual life of my father is naturally tinged with remnants of adolescent hero worship and nostalgia. In ways that I have spent many years unpacking, at 16 he represented for me the merging together of family, India and philosophy.

2) Nonetheless, even discounting for my biases, I still believe there was something remarkable about him as a philosopher. One advantage of giving up the project as I used to have it is that I can see my father in a different light. I don’t have to see him as exemplifying Indian philosophy, or philosophy as such. I can see more as a man, with his insights and his limits.

3) My father, Satyam Vallabha, was born in pre-independence India in 1941. As with anyone, there are many ways to tell his story. One way is in terms of the possibilities of change in the 20th century. He was born in a village, moved with his family to a big city in India, and then moved to New York, with his wife and children but also with his mother and siblings’ families. His father was an English literature teacher at the high school in the village – and that combination of tradition and modernity is, like his father who he admired, central to my father.

4) From early in life he was critical of unquestioned pieties. My grandfather, though a strong-willed and reflective man, was nonetheless more accepting of the religious ways of life that were to be maintained in society. My father was less so. There are stories of him in his youth which make sound like a radical atheist. Probably in his teens, once when a Swami came to their house and his parents asked my father to take his blessings, my father refused saying, in effect, “Nowadays any crook can become a Swami.” Around that time, in an argument about God, my grandfather said to him, “If you think you know so much about God, can you kick this statute of him?” My father kicked it. The effect of this on his family was akin to trampling on a cross in a Christian home.

5) When I heard these and similar stories from my father – or from my grandmother or uncles – they were told with a sense that my father was unique in his philosophical intensity. My father, who had a flair for the melodramatic, could play this up as if he was a Luther rebelling against the Church. A singular figure in a sea of conformity. Naturally as a child I took this at face value – especially as I was hearing all this after the health concerns and the move to New York.

6) But my father’s rebelliousness wasn’t unique. I say this not to put him down, but to contextualize him. By the time of his birth in 1941, this was something many Indian youth of educated backgrounds were struggling with already for atleast 75 years. And that was: What was it to be an educated (that is, to be educated in the British way) Indian? Colonialism brought two broad traditions together in families such as mine: the Hindu way of life and its forms of education and philosophical traditions with a British and European tradition. Whereas I experienced this in one way an immigrant into the West, my father experienced it in a reverse way as someone growing up at the end of British rule in India.

7) One thinker who exemplified this confluence – of how to merge European modernity, especially in regards to science and social progress, with Indian values and philosophy – was Vivekananda. In many ways, temperamentally and in terms of philosophical worldview, my father was like many who followed Vivekananda’s way of merging the East and the West. In the 1870s Vivekananda was in India a student of Western philosophy: reading Hume, Kant, Spinoza, Hegel, and influenced by the new science of evolution. But how do you grow into this education in India?

8) To merely accept Plato and Kant would be to be cut off philosophy from one’s own cultural soil and upbringing – it would be a conformism to colonialism. But to discard Plato and Kant in favor of one’s culture would be to concede too much to the Swamis and the statues – it would be a conformism to Indian tradition. What young people like Vivekanada, and later Aurobindo, Gandhi and Nehru, faced was how to merge these traditions in a way that was meaningful. How to be a modern Indian? This was politics, family life, cultural analysis and philosophy all rolled into one. (It was also what German youth struggled with regard to British and French philosophical influences in the 18th and 19th centuries – Kant himself being a result of such a synthesis. It is also what many Jewish thinkers in Europe, as well as Russian thinkers, were balancing in the 19th and 20th centuries. As well as African-American thinkers in America. It was a global situation.)

9) There are some good books which highlight this struggle of what it is to be a modern Indian, as Indians experienced it in the 19th and 20th centuries. One is Garfield and Bhushan’s Minds Without Fear: Philosophy in the Indian Renaissance. Another, from a broader Asian perspective, is Pankaj Mishra’s From the Ruins of Empire: The Revolt Against the West and the Remaking of Asia.

10) Vivekananda’s way of merging modernity and ancient Hindu philosophy was to prove extremely influential. He set the stage for the idea of the modern monk. Vivekananda’s original name was Narendranath Datta, born into a well to do Bengali family. Dissatisfied with his education in European philosophy, he became a follower of Ramakrishna Paramahamsa. The key move Vivekananda initiated was about where the fusion of Western and Indian philosophy was to take place. In becoming Vivekananda, he suggested the fusion doesn’t have to happen in a classroom; and that in fact the classroom setting already tilts it away from the Indian tradition in some ways. Rather, he pursued the fusion as the monk Vivekananda.

11) This is a familiar type of move. Gandhi did it later with politics, by moving the arena of law from the courthouse to the streets, and back more to a village-ish feel. MLK did it, as Cornel West does now, by connecting his education of Plato and Kant to the Black church. That is what Vivekananda did in India starting in the 1880s, and in America after that. Like Kant a century earlier, he weaved the modern sciences and modern politics with the religious framework of his society – in the process changing how to think about both science and philosophy, East and West. Whereas in the process Kant created a new model of the academic philosopher (along with the modern Eurocentric history of philosophy), Vivekananda – like Schopenhauer who he had read – created a new model of the non-academic philosopher. In the Indian context, this was a new way of being a monk, one who could move easily between the worlds of the Upanishads and Descartes. (There were also many Indian philosophers at the time who were following the academic path; see Garfield and Bushan’s Indian Philosophy in English: From Renaissance to Independence.)

12) Back to my father kicking the God statue to the mortification of his parents. This was not my father being a young Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens – a brute assertion of atheism. It was him being a young Vivekananda – eschewing Hinduism’s ritualism for its deeper spiritual insights. As my father would put it often, since his youth he “felt an urgency to know The Truth” (“the Truth” is another way of saying Enlightenment). In Plato’s language, my father felt a push and urgency to leave the cave and to experience sun light directly.

13) His philosophical journey began in earnest one morning when he was about 16. He had recently woken up and was thinking about something when he suddenly felt a oneness with the world. He didn’t experience himself as Satyam Vallabha, an individual with the usual aims of life. He felt that he was something beyond his ordinary, social identity. That there was a vastness to the world and to his own self that he was getting a glimpse of – peering through the ordinary perception of the world into a deeper reality. He caught a glimpse of the world beyond the cave – that who he took to be his free self moving around was in fact possibly tied down in the cave, and that there was a whole world on the outside.

14) Afterwards he became focused on philosophy, trying to read as much on his own as he could and also attending lectures by swamis who didn’t seem to him charlatans but who he found inspiring. By his late teens and early twenties, he was seriously considering becoming a monk – not just to be a old fashioned Hindu philosopher, but like Vivekananda, to be a modern monk. One who would merge science and religion, East and West, all the various features of the life in the cave in the process of transcending them all and moving into freedom and into the light.

15) I can very well imagine my father leading such a life – one where he didn’t get married or have kids, an alternate world in which I wasn’t born. A life path in which he would have become a spiritual teacher. He would have been really good at it, as he could become charismatically incandescent when he started talking about Krishna and the Bhagavad Gita, and how that is compatible with modern science or how it relates to modern democracy. Like great teachers do, he took ancient texts and ideas and presented them in new, fresh, contemporary ways, rooted not in degrees he got or the specializations shown on his cv, but simply in a lifetime of continual thinking and attempts of transcending past thinking.

16) This is one way my essentializing my Dad as personifying Indian philosophy was a mistake. He was no more just an Indian philosopher than Vivekananda was. He was a philosopher born in India, raised in Indian culture, working mainly through the medium of Hindu texts, but aiming to be cosmopolitan, with a global, modern, scientific perspective.

17) His discussion of philosophy was filled not just with references to the Gita and Shankara, but with an encyclopedic aim on his part to incorporate every form of life and culture into his perspective that he could read and get to know. In a two hour conversation elaborating on a chapter in the Gita, he might connect it to ideas of Socrates and Bertrand Russell, Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, Shinto philosophies he picked up living in Japan for six months, Einstein and Darwin, the life patterns of Chimpanzees he saw on the nature channel, the insights and limits of Gandhian politics, the joys and absurdity of Indian cinema, the latest family melodrama and much else. He was not an expert in most of these topics, and often had mistaken ideas (like about parts of Western philosophy). But the limits were mainly due to a lack of time and a chance to learn more – not based on the idea that something was off limits philosophically.

18) This was not a personal virtue merely, though there is some of that. As a teenager this all seemed magical – how one person could try to bring together so many ideas and traditions seemlessly. But as I learnt more about the effects of colonialism, I saw my dad was like many others in formerly colonized countries.

19) Usually in discussions of colonialism, the colonized are seen in one of two ways. Critics of colonialism bemoan how the colonized countries were pillaged and local forms of knowledge were discarded in a willy nilly fashion. Others say that while this was true, colonialism also helped the colonized by giving them the joys of modernity – railroads and medicine, science and democracy. Both of these ways of thinking share a common assumption: that if colonialism helped, it was by lifting the colonized to the level of the colonizer. As if the colonizers are, and always will be, at the forefront of the ways of life they spread.

20) But this is false. The colonized countries – just in virtue of colonization – have been incubators of fusion thinking in ways which are not true in the same ways of the colonizer countries. Even people in Chinese or Indian villages might know of Christianity and Marx, or the Beatles and the New York Yankees. While even many educated Americans, let alone uneducated Americans, might not know Hinduism from Taoism, let alone the music or the sports and intellectuals of other parts of the world.

21) The one way direction of influence of colonialism was oppressive in its time. But in a post-colonial, globalizing world, the formerly colonized have a conceptual upper hand. They have many centuries experience at fusing the East and the West (or the North and the South), and they only have to now shift that from an experience of pain to one of conscious fusion. But the former colonizer cultures have to make a greater shift into the very idea of fusion of equals – having to overcome the vast historical momentum of their one sided perspective and to face up to all that they don’t know.

22) My father’s eclecticism was not something he achieved against the flow of his time and culture. It was a natural extension of them. Already in his village life in India, he grew up with his father teaching Shakespeare and Milton. Just like Vivekananda wasn’t a Hindu monk living as if he was in the 10th century, neither was my father’s village life in the 1940s some bucolic , pre-literate medieval existence. While true of many villages, it was not true of many villages also. My father was born into, one might say, a modern villagea village already affected by modernity. Where people had to figure out how to deal with modernity. My family was able to move from the village to the big city in India to America because it was already struggling for a hundred years with the meaning of a modern India. Like Vivekananda and thousands of others like him, my father’s thrust into philosophy wasn’t into pre-modern India, but into the modern, global India. This was natural for them simply by having to deal with the unmovable, twin realities of British and Indian ways of life.

23) Having been introduced to philosophy through my father’s global consciousness, philosophy classes at Cornell in the 1990s felt shockingly parochial. It was exhilarating in some ways and I learnt a lot at Cornell. But the overall ethos of Eurocentrism was hard to process and understand – how out of date it was and yet how natural and enlightened it was seen to be by the professors. By the time I was 18 I was used to the global visions of the philosophy of my father and of Vivekananda, Aurobindo, Tagore and Gandhi – Indian thinkers who, like Descartes in 17th century France, were transcending their national origins for a more global perspective.

24) In contrast, philosophy at Cornell was like scholasticism in Descartes’ time: too sure of its own universality, and not caring to look outward or at vast changes taking place in society. Most philosophers at Cornell and Harvard – some of them world famous and all of them interesting thinkers in their own way – simply assumed that all the philosophy worth knowing was what they were taught. They couldn’t tell the difference between a modern Indian thinker like Vivekananda and an ancient Indian thinker like Patanjali from two thousand years ago – if they even knew these thinkers. That’s like not knowing whether Plato and Russell are contemporaries. For philosophers at Cornell and Harvard two decades ago Indian philosophy was by definition pre-modern ancient philosophy – something from the mists of the past which Western modernity had superseded. The possibility that Indian philosophers in the last five hundred years had grappled with alternate forms of modernity (see Ganeri’s The Lost Age of Reason) or that, like Vivekananda, they internalized Western modernity and were building on it – that never seemed to occur to them. In a way just like the Hindu fundamentalists, who also can’t tell, and refuse to look at, the differences in context between Patanjali and Vivekananda.

25) In this post I have been exploring the cultural and philosophical context of my father in India as a philosopher. Now, what happens when someone who sought to modernize Hindu philosophy immigrates to America and tries to teach that to his son in the new country? It’s like asking: Suppose Vivekananda had gotten married, had children and stayed in America; how would his children have engaged with his philosophy?

26) Answering this question in the case of my father requires addressing first his decision not to become a monk and to get married – and so to not be exactly like Vivekananda. This was to have an important effect on his philosophical outlook and what it means for a modern thinker. I will pick up on this next time.

“Dream, Wake, Dream Again, Wake Better”

In response to my last post, Terence Blake had a very interesting and insightful comment. It resonated with me a lot, and I want to respond – or build off what Terence wrote – here.

1) In my doomed project, there was my father’s philosophy on one side and my academic philosophy on the other side. The project was doomed from the start because, while the project was to reconcile them, by essentializing the two sides, I froze them as basically in opposition. The way I set up the problem made the very solution I was seeking impossible.

2) It’s like the mind-body problem. Often mind and matter are defined in opposition, and then the puzzle becomes how to bring them together – and we wonder about how difficult the problem is. It is difficult, but the way the problem was set up places the difficulty in the wrong place. It is difficult not because it is impossible, but because it takes a breaking down of old concepts to face up to the problem more productively.

3) Terence in his comment captures really well the struggle and pain of this breakdown, and also the hope and joy of the prospect and pleasure of the new building up. Also the insight and joy in the breakdown and the agony and the snail’s pace of the build up. They go hand in hand. A deconstruction and a construction. Both are happening together because at root it is a metamorphosis of the person.

4) Terence’s comment brings out really well why I am ultimately skeptical of some of the current progressive discourse on race – one which keeps coming back to white supremacy in America. One way to tell the conflict I experienced is to tell it as a brown man being unable to bring his tradition into what used to be white classrooms. And I did tell the story like that for several years. It is an important way of telling the story. Eurocentrism in American academic philosophy is real. And it is awful – morally and intellectually.

5) But it is another form of essentialization to make the racial aspect of the story the story. There is really no “the story” – no one story, no the deepest story, no the story which everyone needs to agree on to capture reality.

6) Terence is a white guy (I think! – Terence correct me, if I am wrong) who, as can be seen from his website, was born in Australia, lives in France and mainly studied continental philosophy. I am a brown guy who was born in India, lives in America and mainly studied analytic philosophy. And yet when I read Terence speak of his “grand project of unifying “spirituality” (philosophy as a spiritual practice) and “conceptuality” ( philosophy as discursive practice)” and how “it filled up all my life with tension and exhaustion, lostness and frustration”, I feel a tremendous identification with him – and know, from his comment, as he does with me.

7) The brown vs white way of telling my story makes this kind of identification between a brown person and a white person seem impossible. As if at root the fact of my brownness is the deepest fact which explains my pain, for the pain is caused by my brownness running up against white supremacist structures. As if were it not for white supremacist structures, my growth would have been free and unhindered. This too is an illusion.

8) One reason I was always cautious about overemphasizing the white supremacist story – even when I was writing against eurocentrism – is because what drew me to philosophy, both with my Dad and with my professors, was the prospect of deep change within myself. Conceptual and psychic transformation, a dismantling of my assumptions and perspectives to grow into a new light, a new way of seeing the world. As Plato put it, to leave the cave. And as the Buddha put it, to awaken.

9) While white supremacy in the West and Hindu supremacy in India and so forth are real, it is a mistake I think to see one’s struggle mainly as caused by external forces. Yes, the external, social, institutional structures and historical oppressions are real. Yes, in some ways I suffered because of them, and in some ways I have benefitted from them. But there is also the struggle caused by internal forces – of one’s own conceptual, emotional, psychic and person growth.

10) The idea of Gandhi and Martin Luther King and Thomas Merton and Simone Weil, like that of the Buddha and Christ, or Socrates and Lao Tzu, is that the struggle of the internal forces is the deeper realm of social change. One reason why social structures remain often unmoved is because the people dependent on those structures are not seeking – or are unable to see how to seek – their deeper, inner change. They hold onto the external because they confuse their inner struggle with external struggle. Even more, they seek the comfort of the external struggle because the internal struggle feels so impossible that they leave it submerged, to merely act out of it unconsciously.

11) That is to act from within a dream. That is partly what I did for 25 years. Not only in terms of Eurocentrism. But more generally with seeing the conflict as that between my father and my professors – between my birth home and the outside American home. I defined myself from the outside in – as if I can find peace if only I could get the world to become peaceful.

12) Waking up from this way of structuring the issues is incredibly freeing because it is so empowering. My growth, my struggle, my transformation, my peace and my pain are more ready to hand for me, more mine to feel but also more mine to explore because I am not giving them away to others to control. Not to Donald Trump or to Joe Biden (though I support Biden). Not also to my father or to my professors. When I see the social reality around me, I don’t see now a one way direction of influence – from it to me, such that changing it is the only way I can influence anything. I see rather a two way multifacted, complex, dynamic structure, where the influences go in both directions, and where transformations within myself can be a well spring for transformation beyond myself. It opens up a kind of action at a distance.

13) There is no end to this process of change and growth – inner and outer. Waking from my dream of 25 years doesn’t take me out of the realm of concepts. It begins the growth of new conceptual structures and modes of life which frame my consciousness and day to day to living. It opens up new concepts, new habits, new perspectives, which are not free of illusion or self-deception or confusion – but are just a little more free of them. But like good medicine or compassion or love, even a little bit sometimes goes a long way. And can lift up the spirits for the next stage of the journey.

14) As Terence puts it, “Dream, wake, dream again, wake better, dream better etc.”. Amen to that.

Waking From a Conceptual Dream

I had a fruitful conversation with my brother yesterday, which crystallized for me somethings I have been thinking vaguely for sometime. I am lucky to have a sibling with whom I can talk about family, philosophy, culture, politics and ourselves as individuals, and the connections between all of these.

Here is what came together for me.

1) The project I had for last 25 years never came to fruition. I kept trying to achieve it and it kept “failing” – for lack of a better word. This dominated my life since I was 18.

2) In reality it was not a failure, but rather a process of waking from a conceptual dream. The way the project was framed was confused and so success was impossible from the start. Not seeing that, I assumed it would succeed if only I got enough others to care, or if I tried harder, etc. I was like a neuroscientist whose life project was to find where the color red that we experience is in the brain – and keeps thinking if only he had better scanning mechanisms, he would find it. Then he thinks that perhaps “redness” doesn’t literally have to be in the brain to be an experience, and sees the futility of his past project. It can feel like a conversion experience. It is reorienting one’s conceptual framework, to be free from a conceptual lock so as to see things anew and differently.

3) The feeing of failing at this project was a constant companion for me. It was like I can’t relax because I need to complete this project. My very sense of self and self-esteem was tied with it. Failing at it made me feel like I was failing. That I couldn’t be myself until the project was a success. The project was my version of making a million dollars or becoming famous – an external achievement which becomes a substitute for inner confidence.

4) The project was to combine Indian philosophy with Western philosophy. And to have a community which cares about this combination in the way I do.

5) When I was an academic, I thought the constraints of academia made it hard to do my project. When I left academia, I thought the project would be easier outside academia. I would become a writer: an essayist or a book author, get a platform and spread my message. This didn’t happen. I felt the failure continued even outside academia.

6) What I see now is that the “failure” is not because of either external indifference nor my personal inabilities. It is more basic. The failure was caused by how I framed the project.

7) The project got a grip on me because I felt I was blessed to have two special experiences.

8) The first was being the son of, as I thought of it, a philosophical genius. I experienced my father as no less spiritually realized than a Vivekananda or a Dalai Lama. Except unlike them, no one knew about my father. Yet he passed on something to me, which I assumed I need to pass on to the world.

9) The second was studying philosophy at Cornell and Harvard. Being at these departments gave me the feeling that – like with my education with, in my eyes, my world historical father – my academic education propelled me into the circles of Quine, Rawls and Nozick. Into the realm of the elite departments in which Russell and Wittgenstein had moved. I was not just somebody reading philosophy. I could be the next Wittgenstein. This was an ever present feeling for me in my studies. The sense that I was at the top circles of the subject – and so changes I can make there can have a big ripple effect. (If this sounds narcissistic, I can only say, without self judgement, it is how it felt.)

10) I assumed my father passed on to me the essence of Indian philosophy. And that at Harvard I internalized the essence of Western philosophy. I was given these two great gifts. Now I simply have to combine them. And that synthesis can help the world dealing with globalization. That was the project. It seemed so simple.

11) My brother said that as an immigrant he feels his relation to India is mediated through our extended family in America – that in his mind our family feels more like the essence of India, and that the India over there (the actual India) feels like a dim reflection of the essence reflected through our family. This is how I experience it too. My sense of India is fused not only with my first 11 years in India, but with family life in New York. So “India” for me is tracking a kind of idiosyncratic combination of India the country with the particular family life I had in America. This sense of “India” might not be shared with many other people of Indian background in America, let alone the billion people in India.

12) “Indian philosophy” came to have a similar resonance for me. People often asked me in the last decade, “If you were so unhappy with philosophy at Harvard, why didn’t you go to a different department which actually taught Indian philosophy?” Here Indian philosophy means something like the millenia long tradition of debates and inquiries – as captured here or here. It’s a very good question, which I didn’t know how to answer. But now I see.

13) For me “Indian philosophy” didn’t refer primarily to the texts one reads in an Indian philosophy class. It referred to “my dad’s philosophy”. The way “India” felt synonymous for me with “my family life”, so too “Indian philosophy” became synonymous with “the philosophy of my family”, which for me meant my father’s philosophy. As my brother – a linguist and computer scientist – put it, I had kind of an idiolect. What “Indian philosophy” meant for me was not the same as it means for actual scholars of Indian philosophy. Harvard had such a scholar: Parimal Patil, who when I was there was not part of the philosophy department, but now is. I saw Patil with a certain suspicion, as if he was doing something different from what I was interested in. I see now why. Patil is tracking the more standard usage of “Indian philosophy” in academic philosophy, whereas mine was a more idiosyncratic conception, fused with my own family life. I know very little of the actual Indian philosophy that he is an expert in. But as I saw it, that is not relevant to my project of fusing Indian and Western philosophy.

14) Part of the complexity is that “Indian philosophy” has at least two very broad meanings. One is an academic sense, of scholars like Patil and the people who write on, say, The Indian Philosophy Blog. Another is a broader cultural sense, of spiritual thinkers like Vivekananda or Deepak Chopra. In Western culture, the latter sense of “Indian philosophy” is more prevalent. More people know of Deepak Chopra than on Parimal Patil. For me, part of the appeal of my father’s philosophy was that I thought he was combining these two senses into something like the deep essence of Indian philosophy. As I saw it, my dad had internalized this essence and had passed it on to me. So why do I need to go study it in a department, when I already carried its essence within me? Here the misleading effects of essentialization can be seen – and the roots of my failure.

15) So my project is better understood as that of combining Satyam Vallabha’s philosophy with Western philosophy. This is starting to seem like a category mistake: what is it to fuse one person’s philosophy with a whole other tradition? Even more, what is it to do this when no one other than a few people in my family know Satyam Vallabha’s philosophy? It’s like making sense of an esoteric philosopher to a public who never even knew of that philosopher. While assuming that esoteric philosopher captures the essence of a different cultural tradition.

16) I essentialized from the other direction as well. For me Western philosophy meant really the departments of Cornell and Harvard in the 1990s and 2000s. This is less idiosyncratic than identifying Indian philosophy with my father’s philosophy, but it’s still idiosyncratic. And becoming increasing so as the norms, interests and assumptions of academic philosophy are changing – so much so that I feel out of touch, having left ten years ago, with many of the latest changes taking place in the discipline.

17) It turns out my “two special experiences” – my tutelage with my father and my education at Harvard at a particular time – are now receding into the mists of the past. My father passed away in 2016, and even my extended family hardly talks about him as a philosopher. His philosophy is mainly alive for my mother, brother and me – and importantly so for us as family – and even us three have our own differences from my father. So I no longer feel the identification of my father’s philosophy with Indian philosophy – and therefore no longer feel I have any special link to Indian philosophy. Without a special link, the project fades away as well.

18) Similarly, as I become more detached from my academic philosophy past, the less I feel I have any special link to Western philosophy. There is no one thing Western philosophy is, and as the tumults in academic philosophy now suggest, a tradition reinterprets itself from age to age.

19) I used to experience the failure of my project intensely because I was holding onto the fantasies of “the essence” of Indian and Western philosophies. As if it was just this one thing and that one thing, both clearly defined – and all that is to be done is bring the two together. But I think now there was never any such essences in the first places. Holding onto the essences was like trying to hold onto fog moving in a mist.

20) So much now is changing. Not just cultures – Indian and American. Not just academic philosophy. Not just my family structures. Not just our politics and societies. But underlying all these are changes at a deep, tectonic level. Changes to our Earth itself and to our climate. And in human life, changes to the very modes of our interaction, of what is public and what is private, of the very boundaries of our selves – and of where and how we meet and talk. Technology in the broad sense is changing all that. And while there are a few big names and companies – Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Google, Facebook, etc. – it is another form of essentialization to identify them with the technological changes. The changes are probably too vast and too multi-faceted to assume any one person or group is controlling it, or could control it.

21) I carried the project in me for so long, I am not sure what it is to see the world without it. But it feels better to live into an uncertain reality than to continue in a dream. I am glad to lay down the project and to leave it behind, to see the world anew, fresh, with new eyes.

22) If all is shifting, if there is no essence of Indian or Western philosophy, or no essence to technology or cultures, how can we manage our lives and deal with our problems? I don’t know. I genuinely don’t know. But somehow we will, as we have for thousands of years.