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.

Politics and Marriage

Our political situation reminds me of my marriage. I am an Indian-American married to a Brazilian-German-Mexican-Norwegian-American. Our daughter is a mix of all of that.

When I got married 12 years ago, some in my broader extended family thought a marriage like this (“a love marriage” as opposed to an arranged marriage, but also a “mixed” marriage) was a bad idea. That Indians like me should marry other Indians, for otherwise our culture would disintegrate. What would happen to the values of my parents and grandparents’ generations if I thought just of myself and chose a mixed marriage? Wasn’t this a kind of selfishness? Don’t I owe my family, my culture, my parents the gratitude of continuing their way of life – and how can I do that if I married a non-Indian? Our family was under threat from the modern way of life and I owed it to them and to myself to resist it. This was the “Make the family great again” or the “Keep the family great” view.

I felt the force of this view. I had a nostalgic sense for the india I left behind at age 11, of the neighborhood park in which I played cricket with friends, and a life in which my friends’ parents knew my parents and we all had the same way of life and the whole street seemed like one community. For a long time in America, well into my twenties, I couldn’t imagine dating because it seemed to shatter this nostalgic vision I was holding onto. I didn’t want to date not because of my parents but really because of myself – because of my own need to hold onto that nostalgic sense of a world which seemed to be slipping away, and which felt like if I asked a girl out would disappear in a flash. I would have crossed the line and the park with the cricket playing and the Indian family life I knew and loved would all evaporate in an instant – I would have become one of “them”, the moderners who valued their personal growth over their community’s survival.

When I finally started dating the woman who would become my wife, I had huge bouts of guilt. Anxiety. The first time I went home to New York with her so she and my parents could meet, on the drive back to school I pulled over the car so I could cry. I had crossed the line into being a moderner, and I thought I lost the Bharath I used to be and that I was contributing to the dissolution of my family’s way of life.

But I was also relieved after the crying. For having the crossed the line, something unexpected had happened: I didn’t lose my Indian identity. Indian culture hadn’t disappeared in a puff of smoke the moment my girlfriend and I entered my parents’ apartment. The Indian culture that I was carrying within me was carried along with me across the line, into the new terrain. Indianness wasn’t a sealed, airtight ballon which would lose all its air if a single hole of a love marriage was made in it. Indian culture could move through the air, take in different shapes and adapt as the circumstances needed. Indeed the Indianness I saw through the prism of nostalgia had itself for hundreds of years been moving, evolving and transforming. It was not one static thing, but many fluid things which can absorb change into itself.

Thinking today that 60 million people voted for Trump, even after all that has happened in the last four years, fills me with a kind of dread. “Oh my God, how will we ever reach out to them and make common cause?” They feel way over there, away from where I am over here.

But when I remember the anxiety I felt before accepting my mixed relationship, I instantly feel a connection to them. They are no longer an incomprehensible other. They are like my old self, wary and anxious and paranoid of what lies on the other side of the line, and who feel the need to resist crossing it. Who feel that if they cross it, life as they knew it will be over – their own identity will disappear in a cloud of smoke. And so with existential anxiety, anger and passion they don’t want the mixing and the change and the perceived lose of control. Yes, racism is rooted there. But not just racism, which can be a dehumanizing way of looking at it. What is moving them to ignore their own complicity with racism is their all too human and understandable feeling of guilt and fear – of not knowing how they can relate to their parents and grandparents and where they “came from” if they cross that line. They are me when I refused in college to date or go to parties or to let down my guard at departmental events – things which I felt would pull me down into the rabbit’s hole of a mixed America which was shapeless and confused.

This is one reason I am not surprised some Indian-Americans and other non-whites are Trump supporters. The fear of the rabbit hole of modernity – that one would lose one’s identity and all that matters if one crossed the line into the murky terrain of mixedness – is an anxiety anyone, irrespective of color, can feel. It need not be, “white vs non-white”. It can be “all of us who value our distinctive and separate cultures vs those who want mixedness.” I imagine there are many who are moved by this opposition. Many immigrants even who support Trumpism because they fear mixed relationships more than a revival of the KKK. Who see themselves not so much supporting white supremacy as resisting the possibility that all their children will enter into mixed relationships. As if the moment they vote Democrat, they are accepting that their white son might bring home a brown girlfriend, or their daughter might bring home her girlfriend, or that their Hindu daughter might bring home a Muslim boyfriend.

Of course, I crossed the line. I got married. And I entered married life with a kind of liberal fantasy. I thought “I am Indian, she is white” and we will make our marriage work by bringing the “two” cultures together. When I got married in August of 2008, Obama’s Hope and Change message was in the air. I felt that as with a new America which was embracing the future of a mixed country with a half black and half white president, so too my marriage would be one of bridging my culture with her culture.

For several years I doggedly kept to this mixing approach. I would think, “I will give up this part of my Indian background if she gives up that part of her American background.” I will recognize her difficulties as a white woman if she recognizes my difficulties as a brown man. Simple, straightforward. If we just recognized our identities and their historical trappings (she was woman, but white, and I was a man but brown), then we can do the calculations of who had what advantage in which situation, talk honestly about it and resolve any argument we were having.

It took about eight years and too many fights to count before I realized this way of thinking of the marriage wasn’t working. The bottom fell out of this framework one day, in the middle of a heated argument, when in response to some point I was making about how she was taking her white privilege for granted, she suddenly said, “I am not white!” It was something she had felt for a long time, but couldn’t get herself to say, as we both had embraced the “He is brown and she is white” narrative of our marriage. The statement unnerved me. My first thought was, “If she isn’t white, then what is she? And what is this marriage?”

My wife looks “white”. Her mother is Brazilian-German (her German ancestors moved to Brazil) and her father is Mexican-Norwegian (his Mexican-American father married to his Norwegian-American mother in the 1940s). My wife in America is thought white. In Brazil she would be seen as just a whiter-skinned Brazilian. But also her Norwegian side is dominant in her looks. As important as all these are to her, so too is her Mexican background, and also the African roots she has from Brazil.

When she said she wasn’t white, she didn’t mean that she was actually black or brown. I don’t know exactly what she meant. But what I have come to think is that she was correct. For at the very least what she was resisting was my forcing her into a identity category as a way of mapping out the matrix of her possible actions, privilages and possibilities.

Over time I realized I was thinking about the marriage all wrong. I was thinking that I had a certain identity (brown) and so had she (white), and that it was the marriage that was mixed. It’s like there is water and there is oil, and the marriage is the mixture of the two. That’s how I was thinking of it. An obviously bad analogy given that oil and water don’t mix!

But in that one comment my wife disrupted this whole picture. For what “I am not white!” brought home to me was that in a deep way she is mixed. When I thought of her as white, I imagined she was more like Barbara Bush than like Michelle Obama. But she was like neither. She was a third-generation atleast mixed person. Her father’s parents went against their societal norms in getting married in mid century America: a brown man marrying a white woman. Then her father and mother were also a mixed marriage: a Mexican-Norwegian-American man with a Brazilian-German-American woman.

When I thought of my wife as white, I was treating “her culture” as analogous to “my Indian culture”. If I was going to compromise on my Indian cultural habits, I felt she had to compromise on her cultural habits – which I named “white” mainly to have something to point to. But what is “the” culture of someone whose family background isn’t one of just continuing the nostalgia of a homogeneous cultural bloc, but consists of continual crossing of the lines and blurring of the boundaries? The line I was afraid to cross, her grandparents already crossed it sixty years before we met. Then her parents went further down that line, and that was her background.

When it sunk in that she was mixed and not just white, I didn’t know how to argue with her anymore in the way I used to. She suddenly seemed amorphous, un-pin-downable. If I wanted to say, “ok, we will have Indian food on Monday, and your family food on Tuesday,” what does that mean? Which part of her family? Are we having Mexican or Brazilian or German or Norwegian food? Or just burgers and pizza since she is American? Or was it kale salad and tofu since she grew up in Berkeley? And what happens to my calculation if she likes Indian food more than I do? How do we find a “balanced” approach to meal making? To finances? To keeping the house? To raising a child?

Initially it felt like my worst fears of crossing the line were realized. Gone was the nostalgic sense of holding onto my Indianness. I was plunged into a relationship which was not just white and brown, but which spanned cultures from many parts of the world, mixed together in ways too subtle and complicated for them to be neatly delineated. I yelled back at her “I can’t argue with you!” and slunk away to gather my bearings.

Only slowly did the liberating realization dawn on me. Could it be that she isn’t the only mixed one in the marriage, but that I am also mixed? That I am not a clunky conjunction of Indian and American, but that I am my own particular form of mixedness of the two and so much more?

The model I had imposed on my marriage was actually the model I had imposed on my own self since I immigrated to America. I assumed that there was on the one hand my Indian self and then on the other hand my American self, and being at peace with myself meant constantly weighing my commitment to one side with my commitment to the other side. As if the two sides were fighting countries and I, the unifying self, is like the United Nations. It is a completely exhausting conception of the self. And it led to a completely exhausting conception of marriage.

Once I saw myself as mixed, as through and through mixed, I felt I didn’t have to constantly do the internal balance sheet of the Indian and the American sides of me; of when I could feel Western without feeling like colonizers and when I could feel Indian without worrying about my Brahmin privilages or my minority status in America. I was suddenly free to just be myself, without calculation, without anxiety and without guilt.

And from that space of accepting all of myself, including the myriad complexities and unresolved tensions within myself, I could see my wife not as white or non-white but mainly as a person I am with. Now the categories were secondary to the primacy of our interaction as two individuals, both complex, both mixed, both evolving, both unfinished and unfinishable. This approach doesn’t solve all the questions and differences about habits and home decor and finances. But it made them less central to our interaction as people. Those issues, though of continual importance and necessity, didn’t have to be resolved for us to live our lives. They might remain unresolved, as they are the background of our lives. But they are not what give meaning to our interactions, which is more about how we give each other space to be ourselves in our individual complexity and to grow and evolve as each of us is moved to.

There is a peace to be found in accepting the intrinsic mixedness of each person. A peace on the other side of crossing the line but which doesn’t seek to navigate diversity through essentializing ourselves as white, black and brown, or man and woman, or the oppressed and the oppressor.

If Trump Republicans are like myself when I refused to cross the line into a mixed relationship, some Democrats are like me in the early years of my marriage when I thought of a mixed relationship too much through the filter of identity categories. Both involve a kind of reifying of identities – one for the sake of keeping the identities pure and distinct, and the other in the name of mixing the identities in “the right way”. But as with human relationships, so too with national bonds: they cannot be forged through isolating ourselves nor through applying metrics for integration, no matter how enlightened.

Four Meanings of “Global Philosophy”

In philosophy the 21st century will be a century of global philosophy. This is a change in consciousness of how to think of philosophy, and we are seeing in academic philosophy the birth pangs of this transformation. But we are also seeing the birth pangs in our broader cultural transformations.

What does “global philosophy” mean? It’s worth distinguishing four different meanings of the term.

1) Decolonizing philosophy. Here global philosophy is contrasted with Modern-European philosophy. In the last 400 years, and especially since Kant and Hegel 200 years ago, philosophy was identified in Europe with European philosophy – with the explicit implication that no other civilization was capable of philosophy. This colonial idea permeated through the academic institution and society more broadly. One sense of global philosophy is negating the effects of this colonial vision of philosophy.

2) Comparative philosophy. Here the focus isn’t necessarily on decolonization, but on simply getting different traditions into dialogue with each other. Connecting European philosophy with Chinese philosophy, or Latin American philosophy with African or American philosophy, and so on.

3) Philosophical anthropology. This is the project of explaining the origins of philosophy in human culture. In individual traditions, such as those starting with the Greeks or the Indians or the Chinese, the origin of that tradition is seen as a magical beginning – of a first great thinker or groups of thinkers emerging from the haze of superstition. From a global perspective, this is extremely simplistic. 200,000 years separate the beginning of homo sapiens from the sages of the axial age 2,500 years ago such as Socrates, the Buddha and Confucius. And prior to that 200,000 years, there is several million years of homonid life with the advent of tools, fire, burials and so on. So there is a global explanation waiting to be discovered for how transformations of human life from hunter gatherers (100,000 years ago) to the agricultural revolution (10,000 years ago) to the dawn of mass civilizations (5,000 years ago) led to the forms of life of Socrates, the Buddha and others around the world.

4) Existential globalism. While philosophical anthropology tells us how we got to the present, we are still left with the existential questions of: What now? What do we want to do? What should we do? How should an understanding of (1)-(3) guide our decisions and practices of what we want philosophy to become?

In academic philosophy right now there is a lot of focus on decolonizing philosophy because for those who are attuned to it, they can see the effects of the colonizing framework everywhere around them. This naturally makes this sense of global philosophy highly contentious and emotionally laden.

It is worth remembering that decolonizing philosophy is not an end in itself. Some of its proponents sometimes talk as if decolonizing philosophy will create or unveil a beautiful global framework of how all traditions can intersect. This is pure fantasy, akin to that of the noble savage. Counteracting white supremacy in philosophy is a step in the direction of respecting and seeing the importance of all the world’s philosophical traditions. We are then still left with the task of making sense of whether, how and how best those traditions can intersect. Decolonizing philosophy is a step, at first, towards comparative philosophy.

But comparative philosophy itself is not the end of global philosophy. The more we know about different traditions, the more the question becomes pressing: what connects these traditions? Philosophical traditions are not unitary blocs moving along separately from each other (the Greeks here, the Indians there, etc.). In Eurasia, the axial age philosophical traditions are an outgrowth of already by then thousands of years of cultural, economic and intellectual cross currents.

We don’t recognize this for a simple reason: we think of the dawn of philosophy in terms of how the axial thinkers themselves thought of what they were doing, and they didn’t consciously realize the global, cultural underpinnings of their thought. That is, we think the philosophical originators must be taken as guides to what philosophy is since, after all, they created it! But this is as strange an assumption with Socrates as it is with Christ, as simplistic to grant such self-knowledge to the Buddha as it is to grant it to Ashoka.

The power of philosophical anthropology is that it separates the origins of philosophy from the stories the axial thinkers told about themselves. Philosophical anthropology situates the origin stories themselves in a broader context – one which none of the great philosophers of the last 2,500 years themselves knew or could have known. That has the potential to radically reorient our understanding of those philosophers – and of ourselves.

But again, philosophical anthropology is not the end of global philosophy. For we are left with the existential question of what (1)-(3) mean for us now. To address the future without taking into account (1)-(3) is like walking into a hurricane without any protection. (1)-(3) are our gear for how to confront the changing times we face. But as with any gear, (1)-(3) are only the tools, the knowledge we carry. What we do with it is up to us and how we can forge a global consciousness.

Decolonizing philosophy is one point of entry into global philosophy. But I predict that in a couple of decades, after its insights are absorbed, it will run its course, and give way to the broader projects of global philosophy. Comparative philosophy will become more prevalent, and it will be partly soothing because it can be interpreted as “we each just need to appreciate the other, while retaining our own tradition.”

But the great challenge will come as philosophical anthropology gains steam. It will be to the 21st century what the new physics was to the 17th century. The new physics challenged our sense of the world around us – that the physical world was vaster than how we move in it and how we experience it. Philosophical anthropology will do the same for our sense of our narratives about ourselves – that our cultural practices are themselves vaster and more subtle and more integrated than how we experience them. People will resist this with fury, as if the new global philosophical frameworks were trying to rob them of their very identifies and histories – their own agency to tell the stories they like best about themselves. This will be a great part of the cultural fights of the 21st century, and it has already begun.

I have hope we will come through it better and more self-aware as we did in previous ages of tumult, as in the axial age and the enlightenment.

Wisdom and Knowledge

Often in daily life the hard thing isn’t to discover new truths, but to let go of old illusions.

We already know dimly what is true. It is obvious in a sense. But we don’t want to accept it. We resist it. We deny it. We ignore it. We set it out of our mind. Push it away.

Having denied the reality we know so well, we continue: “Why is this problem so hard? So insolvable? Is it too hard for us to solve?”

What is required is wisdom – the practice of not pushing away uncomfortable truths, of facing up to the facts we already know so well.

But spurring wisdom, we turn the issue into one of knowledge – of us not having yet the right kind of knowledge, and of how hard we are trying to get that knowledge.

Here are facts I already know and which are obvious: I am extremely lucky to be alive and to have the generally middle class life I have. I have it better than millions of people. Better in a material sense than people who are being abused right now, better than refugees, better than those who are homeless. Even more obviously, I am lucky to have lived 43 years and lucky to have the prospect of living many years still. Many people have died well before 43. Many died as children, many in war as teenagers, many in holocausts and slaughters which boggle the mind and next to which, my life – with its general comfort and good fortune and no matter what happens next for me – stands as one of enormous good fortune.

I know all this. They are as obvious as that the world existed before I was born and will continue after I die.

And yet everyday, almost 95% of my waking consciousness, I live as if none of this was true. I almost willfully forget them, push them to the edges of my awareness. Most of my consciousness revolves around my anxieties, my fears, the obstacles to my goals, how unfair it all is to me, how I have to put up with callous people in society and how my life could be rendered “meaningless” or lacking in prestige or purpose or achievement by the blind stupidity or carelessness of my neighbors and fellow citizens.

Though it feels real, it is all premised on a giant illusion: that if I am not vigilant and stand up for myself and protect what is mine, then my life could become “wasted”. That I could lose what I am entitled to gain. It is an illusion fostered by my willful ignoring of the fact that no matter what, my life already is luckier than that of billions of people in human history.

“How can I be happy? How can I live a meaningful life? How can I be productive?” These questions I normally ask myself in the form of seeking knowledge I currently don’t have. As if if only I had that knowledge, I can get to doing it and living more happily and more meaningfully. But alas, that knowledge is beyond me, it is hidden, it is hard to find and we have to keep seeking it – and until then I can be as I am, without too much change.

An interesting thing happens when I give up the knowledge model. Then happiness and meaningfulness are not mysterious features of a future end state I may or may not get to. They are features of my not pushing away the obvious truths of my own good fortune compared to so many others. Holding on to the obvious truths which I already know opens up realms of experience and awareness which in fact surpasses what I assume even on the knowledge model.

It requires but a pivot. A focus to stay conscious of the obvious truths which no one can deny, but which we nonetheless pretend are not true.

Letting Go

I have been thinking about my last post in which I say that I feel alienated when reading great Western philosophers such as Kant and Nietzsche.

This isn’t quite right. It’s better to say: the reasons I gave in that post are why I used to feel alienated when reading those philosophers.

Now I don’t feel alienated. It was helpful to write why I felt that for a long time. But it’s not my situation now.

I no longer read Kant or Nietzsche, Hume or Heidegger, Russell or Wittgenstein. I still from time to time think about these philosophers because I spent years pouring over their books. But they are not live authors for my thinking. Not thinkers who I engage with now in thinking about life.

This captures better why I left academia.

I didn’t leave academia because I was alienated from the great Modern Western philosophers. Rather, I left because I got what I could out of those texts and didn’t see much value for me in making them the center of my life.

If I am honest with myself, I see why I have been holding onto them for the past nine years.

When I left academia I wanted to be a writer. But a part of me was insecure. It was a big part really. That part wondered why anyone would listen to me as a writer. And so I held on mentally to the thing which I felt gave me standing as a writer: that I was an Ivy League educated philosopher who left a tenure track position at Bryn Mawr.

But this holding on perpetuated the same conflict I felt in academia. Yes I was alienated by large parts of academia. But could I have been more alienated than the many non-white male philosophers who stayed in academia? I don’t think so.

It’s important to distinguish not identifying with academic philosophy from feeling alienated from academic philosophy.

If you are feeling alienated, that makes it hard to identify. But not impossible. In fact, for many, their identification can be so strong that they choose to stay in academia to change what they feel alienated from.

For me the alienation certainly didn’t help. But I had other reasons for not identifying with academic philosophy.

This is because my earliest and strongest influence philosophically was by non academics. Personally my dad. But more generally Indian non academic philosophers such as Vivekananda and Aurobindo. And Western non academics such as Thomas Merton and Eckhart Tolle.

For many academic philosophers none of these thinkers would count as philosophers. But in a more colloquial sense they are usually sense as wise thinkers and philosophers – which is the sense of “philosopher” which has had the most impact on me. And which continues to.

But my insecurity kept me holding onto academic philosophy as what can give me a voice. And yet – I resented academic philosophy for that too since my holding onto it was actually keeping me from simply speaking as myself, without worrying about whether people will find what I say interesting.

Over time I came to see that my resentment of academia had less to do with academia and more to do with my holding onto it mentally. That the resentment and anger was just the flip side of my insecurity. No amount of analysis of Kant or Russell or academia philosophy would soothe the anger as long as at root I didn’t let go of my insecurity.

When I step out of the insecurity, something wonderful happens: the old alienation disappears. Freed from my own compulsion to define myself in relation to Kant, Russell and others of my education, I can see them again from a distance. And remember the good times I had with their texts. And can wish that goodness and more for others. Even as I can move on to the next phase of my life – intellectually and otherwise.