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.

2 thoughts on “Vivekananda and My Father”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.