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.