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.

5 thoughts on “A Modern Yajnavalkya”

  1. Fascinating! Do you have no other info about your father’s decision to marry? What was your father’s profession? Your description of your mother’s accomplishments is striking in its own right. I almost always have female figures in my dreams today, and I take them (following Jung’s teaching) as representing aspects of myself. Certainly my mother taught me at least as much as my father did. And my wife is for me an indispensable teacher/interlocutor, as well. But of course a father plays a key role for a son. Now that my own son is in his 40s, I can see that process from both sides. All of this of course demands the question, what difference do “thought” and “philosophy” make in life?


    1. I may have another post about my father’s decision to marry and his career. And the ways in which I think my father’s philosophical life is inseparable from my mother and his marriage. It raises interesting questions about the relation of philosophy to life, including to our most concrete relationships with the people in our lives.


  2. This excerpt (from the Introduction to Knowing One’s Own Self – https://www.amazon.com/Knowing-Ones-Self-Satyam-Vallabha-ebook/dp/B00DF3T2IK/) probably captures of his animating spirit, at least for the latter half of his life:

    “One thing I can assure confidently to everybody. This knowledge is attainable by ordinary people like you and me. This knowledge is meant for the people who are experiencing pain and suffering and want to know why they suffer, why they have pain, and how they can find true happiness. If you are under the impression, this knowledge is exclusively the property of a section of people, you are absolutely wrong. On the other hand, I would like to tell you that this knowledge is meant for common people like us with genuine aspiration and it is easily attainable. You have to put forth the efforts yourself. There are no short cuts. Lastly, no one give the knowledge to us. We have to earn it for ourselves”.

    The reference to “section of people” is, I think, directed at those who think that monastic life, or a life dedicated to scholarly study (or worse, some special privilege of birth, caste, or religion) is a necessary prerequisite.

    Though Dad himself would not have put it this way, we can see embedded within the above excerpt a range of philosophical and religious debates. E.g.
    * “suffering” -> cf. Buddhism
    * “knowledge” -> as distinct from ritualism or specific religious practices
    * “put forth efforts yourself” -> as distinct from Calvinist-like views of grace
    * “ordinary people” -> cf. Martin Luther & anti-elitism
    * “exclusive property” -> cf. anti-clericalism, also Theravada vs Mahayana Buddhism.

    Liked by 1 person

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