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.

4 thoughts on “A Living Symphony”

  1. The question that I would ask is this.

    Most everyone would have a certain reaction to a Beethoven symphony, similar to what you describe above. Obviously, there are people who don’t like Beethoven or don’t like classic music at all, but just about everyone who listens to classical music, as I do,
    likes Beethoven and is moved by his music.

    Now, would most people who listened to your father have a similar reaction to yours or was a result of your being his son?

    I just told my partner that she’s the most beautiful woman in the world and I genuinely believe that in some sense, but I have no doubt that many people would find not find her to be the most beautiful woman in the world, while, as I try to explain above, most listeners of classical music find Beethoven to be among the greatest composers, if not the greatest.

    So shouldn’t we distinguish between reactions that most people have to a certain phenomenon and reactions that are the result of having a special bond with that person?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. @s.wallerstein:
      > “would most people who listened to your father have a similar reaction to yours or was a result of your being his son?”

      Luckily we can start to disentangle these here (speaking as Bharath’s brother). A couple of thoughts.
      * My father was generally a charismatic \person, and many people were charmed & drawn in by his personality (usually not on the topic of philosophy as such, but just by the liveliness of his personality … in some ways, he was like Tevye from Fiddler on the Roof).
      * While I too found my father to be inspiring and often spiritually profound, I did *not* have the same reaction to him has Bharath did. Bharath’s reaction, I think, were due to a unique combination of situation and of the two personalities (my father & Bharath’s). I see a lot of Bharath’s blogging as trying to delve into this unique combination, somewhat like Proust delving into his magical response to the madeline.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. s. wallerstein – That is a very natural question. Thanks for raising it so clearly. I had it myself since my late teens as I tried to disentangle which aspects were rooted in “just” being his son (“just” is my word here) and which in something broader which could be shared/can have a claim on/are relevant to others.

    My father never said I should see him as a guru. For him it seemed simple: he had some experiences and some ideas, and he was sharing them. He even thought he was sharing them in a modern sense of debate, so that anything he was saying was up for disagreement. But he also unconsciously channeled the guru model which is deeply integrated into parts of Indian culture, and he didn’t think about – and in my opinion, he should have thought more about – how that guru model and the “we are just talking as two people” model can coexist.

    It was not pure fantasy on my part to see him as a guru. As Gautam said, it had to do with our personalities. My father had many sides to him, which weren’t necessarily consistent – there was a creative tension between the different sides, which lent him a certain dramatic flair and was part of his charisma. A part of him saw himself as just a modern thinker. Another part saw himself as a continuation of ancient sages. When my father was opening up with us about his philosophy in the early 90s, my brother was in college and I was in high school. In his relation to one son the modern thinker side came out more, consonant with Gautam’s personality and situation. In his relation to me the ancient sage side came out more, as I was drawn more to that, given my personality and my need as a teenager in America to find a link to India.

    Re whether my father was like a Beethoven symphony to many people, or if only I saw him that way, there is a third option of what potential he had. I think my father had great potential to be a moving spiritual teacher for many people. That was the choice he was facing in his 20s regarding becoming a monk – whether to cultivate that potential in order to be a spiritual conduit for a broader public. I believe he saw his getting married as letting go of that potential of spiritual teaching, and so making his philosophical path mainly personal while being no less rigorous. Twenty years into his marriage, in a new country, after a health issue and not sure of how long he might live, and with a chance to spend more time with the family, that potential for sharing his spirituality was reawakened with my mother, my brother and me. Given our personalities, situations and different relations to him, this affected the three of us in different ways.

    I suspect I caught the part of him which thought he could be a wonderful teacher and contribute to the world. And in me he had a staunch defender of that side of him, which I felt had gotten repressed and which I liked so much. Sometimes when my father would talk philosophy with people in the broader family, or with a philosophy friend from college, or members of my wife’s family who liked Indian philosophy – on those occasions I would get a glimpse of what my father as a spiritual teacher in the broader world might have been like. The look of rapt attention from the others suggested to me there was indeed something there. But potential is not the same as actualization. If my father was put on stage in a lecture hall, or on a panel with Eckhart Tolle, no idea how that would have gone. Given that public speaking and teaching, even for gurus, is a cultivated skill, it would take trial and error and practice to hone that potential. Overall, I think it wasn’t such a priority for him, and perhaps at times it meant more to me than to him what his public potential might be. He was happy with his life and for philosophy to be mainly a personal thing for him and I can appreciate that more now.

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