The “Disturbing” Teachers on my Path of self inquiry – Part 1 (The Rationalist, Mathematician and Reader)

Preface

In my last article, “If or When my Text Disturbs You?” I started out with the fact that a text may disturb you – as a reader – depending upon the viewpoint you have. Prior to the last article, in, “The Play of Identities between the Reader and Writer: and the Rise of Self Knowledge,” I delved into the dynamics of the interplay of identities between the reader, and the identity the reader assumes for the author; a play which is largely unconscious for most of us.

Further, in my last article, If or When my Text Disturbs You?, I said that the disturbance caused in the mind of the reader, due to interplay of identities, can be taken as an opportunity for the reader to learn about oneself, to inquire into oneself. Towards the beginning and the end of the same article, I said that the same dynamic, interplay of the identities, holds more powerfully in relationships. I do not have to labor hard to show that relationships cause us maximum disturbance. In fact, it is beyond the scope of this article to show this, but the only way disturbance can arise, is in relationships: relationship with people, things or ideas.

One can either avoid these disturbances in relationships, which most of us do most of the times in a myriad different ways. Or, if one is interested, one can use these disturbances to inquire into oneself. Since, in the last article I touched upon how one can inquire into oneself through relationships, I am writing this one to show how it worked out in my case with people I considered teachers. But before I go into it, I would just like to make clear what I mean by the word disturbance, as it is a word with very diverse connotations.

The double quotes for the word, “disturbing” in my title indicate that the word does not have to be taken in the usual, common sense way. None of the teachers mentioned here deliberately intended to disturb me or would even think that they were disturbing me. I am using the word specifically within the context of my spiritual growth and discovery. The word, “disturbing” here means people who elevated and shattered my unconscious views. Views are you: they are the skin of your psychological person. When the skin is peeled off, the least that one can say is: it is disturbing.

The image that springs up in our minds, whenever we hear the word teacher, is that of a gentle, wise , caring figure who patiently resolves our problems, with a perpetual smile on his/her face. Far from it, leaving two of them, all my teachers were men who did not give me an easy time at all. Their being had a kind of sharp edge that would work like a surgeon’s knife. Their words were salty, unadorned and penetrating. I would always have to be on my toes while conversing with them lest I get a zen slap, which I did get on many occasions. At the end, I did not get along well with a few of them because I had questions which they could not resolve. I left them and moved further. Nonetheless, through the creative disturbance they engendered in my being; and the unexpressed love they held for me, for whatever duration; they have lived on in my consciousness, to this day.

Since I am on the path of self inquiry, I took the opportunity of the disturbance created by these people to look into my worldviews. I did not run away from the disturbance. While in some cases they came uninvited, in several others, I invited these people to help me deconstruct my disturbance. I am only giving an account of those who were doing this process with varying degrees of self awareness; which means they knew what they were doing. There were myriad other relationships where I faced disturbances: I learned from them too. But, since this article is about people whom I considered teachers, I am only mentioning those who were deconstructing my views in awareness: not out of total self concern. As such, every relationship in life teaches, if one makes the whole of LIFE as one’s teacher.

The other fact the reader has to bear in mind, while reading this article, is that I am talking about people being teachers in the context of “my path”. My path is that of self inquiry, which is a deconstruction of self in order to understand, and end suffering. There are other paths in the world. For example, there are paths which are based on faith and belief. These paths do not undertake any inquiry into the self, but seek to come in communion with the creator, through the heart. Some don’t believe in any creator at all. Therefore, my teachers have to be looked only in the context of “my path.” If “my path” was that of faith and belief, I would never consider these people as “my teachers”: I would gravitate towards a totally different set of people/teachers. My path of self inquiry actually deconstructs all paths, teachers and teachings ultimately to be a light unto oneself.

I am embarking on writing these series of articles to show the creation of a philosopher-inquirer mind in me. In the article, “Donning my new identity as a Philosopher – A Discussion on Evolution of Consciousness and Personal Identities”, I gave a systemic, model kind of view. These series of articles elucidate a part of the complexity that went behind the evolution of my consciousness, which the neat model does not show. The article series shall show how I learned, and what I learned about philosophy/self-inquiry from my teachers.

My first teacher, whom I am going to present in these series of articles, is going to sound an off key note with respect to the topic, because he was not “disturbing”. He did not disturb me because he was chronologically my first teacher. As a child I had no awareness of self identity, and I had nothing to be disturbed about. The topic would however be appropriate for almost all other teachers whom I shall cover in these series of articles. And since I wanted these to be a series of articles on all my teachers, I decided to retain the topic, in favour of what my experience was with the majority of my teachers.

My Father – The Rationalist, the Mathematician and the Reader

My father created for me an environment that would lay the base for my path; a base which gave me a head start in my journey of spiritual evolution, through self inquiry. He made me into a rationalist right from my birth. I am talking about something that happened in a traditional Indian society, that too 45 years ago. Because of his rationalism, I started off with very little baggage of traditions, either social or religious.

I am not including my father in the list of teachers to give him some sentimental sop. My father never, ever exerted authority on me. I was never told that I have to do something because it was his command. Space in relationships can be a result of neglect and indifference, or, as a result of a worldview which understands the need for individual freedom. And my father respected the need for individual freedom, right from childhood; in an Indian society where obedience to elders is a norm. And for that reason, to this day, I have never ever accepted authority of any one, any idea, or any ethic, unconditionally. Because of the base of freedom my father provided me with, I could find the space to question, slowly and increasingly, all forms of psychological authority in every aspect of life. Psychological authority is one of the biggest impediments to self inquiry, as it results in imitation and fear, not in flowering of intelligence and freedom.

Not that everything was hunky dory between us all the time. As I came to my teenage years, I started developing my own views of life, which were not in sync with his own, in all manner and aspects. We had disagreements and arguments, sometimes even fights, but the final decision was always mine. Not only this, as I came to become a young man and develop my understanding of the world, he was keen to learn from me. When I got into reading books on self inquiry, he started reading along with me. In his moments of humility he even told me that I was his teacher in self inquiry. A rationalist is a person who bases their opinions and actions on reason and knowledge rather than on religious belief or emotional response. So when he saw that I knew more than him in the field of philosophy/self inquiry, he did not allow age to be a barrier for learning.

The reader should no take all this to mean that he was doing all this as a conscious act of following rationalism. He never said that he practiced rationalist philosophy, or even knew the existence of it: he was just modeling it through all his actions.

The second thing he gave me was a logical, razor sharp, precise mind, through his teaching of math to me. No, I am not saying that one can develop such a mind only through the study of math; for heaven’s sake no! I just detest the judgments people heap in India, for those who are good or bad in maths and science. The capacity of students in these subjects is taken to be a measure of intelligence. Nothing can be as foolish. This is just a fetish of an industrial society which defines intelligence as that which gives one – livelihood, money, power and status. How devastating are the consequences of judging the intelligence of a human being by his capacity in math and science? I even question whether intelligence lies in the field of measurement.

So, math was just a field where I developed the capacity to think logically, clearly, sanely: all the qualities required to undertake self inquiry. These qualities can come even in people who have no public school or university education or who pursue any other field of study with intensity. I would be dishonest if I would say that my motive to learn math were entirely free from the conditioning drummed into me through school and society. But that is also not the whole truth. When I started out in the early grades of school, I was not good in math. But in my senior grades, with the coming of geometry, something changed. I fell in love with geometry and again a big reason for this was also my father’s support and encouragement. If there are any classmates of mine reading this, they would fondly remember the way we used to challenge each other with geometry problems in the eight grade. I would sit with complex geometry problems for days on end. I would buy Russian books on geometry, they came cheap those days, and were of exceptionally high quality. I was not doing all this to get marks, impress my friends or to develop a capacity: I was doing this out of sheer passion and love. I was doing problems in geometry far above the level required in school. It was about sustaining thought for a particular problem till thought broke it’s bounds and the solution of the problem was revealed. It was a form of contemplation that happens in self inquiry/philosophy

Although usually remembered today as a philosopher, Plato was also one of ancient Greece’s most important patrons of mathematics. Inspired by Pythagoras, he founded his Academy in Athens in 387 BCE, where he stressed mathematics as a way of understanding more about reality. In particular, he was convinced that geometry was the key to unlocking the secrets of the universe. The sign above the Academy entrance read: “Let no-one ignorant of geometry enter here”.

(text excerpt from https://www.storyofmathematics.com/greek_plato.html)

In his famous philosophy book, Republic,VII,52 he writes,

“Then, my noble friend, geometry will draw the soul towards truth, and create the spirit of philosophy, and raise up that which is not unhappily allowed to fall down.”

Now, I didn’t know all this while I was pursuing my love of geometry. Nor am I quoting these things to elicit support for something like, “geometry is the way to self inquiry”, or even force such a connection. I am just stating this to show that there have been other people who have felt a connection between a clear logical mind, sharpened in geometry, having the passion to pursue truth. Which does not mean that this is the only way. Sorry, I have to repeat myself on this issue till the cows come home, because I simply do not want the reader to be left with a notion that one who is good in geometry has a philosophical mind. I am simply placing this in the context of “my journey”.

My love for geometry was to do with the way my father taught me maths; and he did it all through my school years, right from kindergarten to Std. 10. He even taught my daughter, who is in her first year in Engineering now, and remembers this most fondly about him. My father did not teach me math in order to score good marks in the examination, and that is the reason why he could instill love for this subject in me. In fact, the way he taught was actually counterproductive to the whole exam based study system. He would take up a particular problem and work it out in three different ways. To be honest, I would get irritated with all this initially. Here I have a homework to complete, not only in one subject, but many. And here is my father going on and on, sometimes late into the night with one particular sum.

Impractical and wasteful as it seemed from the point of view of homework and exams, I imbibed a very important thing from him: a philosophical disposition and a disposition of viewing something from multiple viewpoints. The philosophical view is not a utilitarian view, which grabs hold of the shortest way to finish something in the shortest time. The utilitarian mind is what we have for the daily routines of life. A philosopher, on the other hand, is the one who has to grapple with the most perplexing questions of life and reality; and reality is not only that which meets the eye. A utilitarian view is wedded to the sense organs. The higher realities are super-sensible. They cannot be grasped with senses but with the higher mind called the intellect. The practice of philosophy requires a certain sense of withdrawing of mind from the insistent clamor of the senses in the world of phenomena to the inner mind, which thinks at the level of pure thought, pure abstractions. This withdrawal is not something particular to philosophy, it is done even in the case of a pure scientist. In fact these branches have split only in modern times. For quite some time, science and maths were branches of philosophy. It is interesting to note that Einstein, one of the greatest scientists of our time has to say this about philosophy

“A knowledge of the historic and philosophical background gives that kind of independence from prejudices of his generation from which most scientists are suffering. This independence created by philosophical insight is—in my opinion—the mark of distinction between a mere artisan or specialist and a real seeker after truth.”

– A. Einstein to R. A. Thornton, unpublished letter dated 7 December 1944 (EA 6-574), Einstein Archive, Hebrew University, Jerusalem,

Not only Einstein, but a whole range of scientists were deeply interested in philosophy. I did not know all this in my school days, because everything is taught in schools as a business to get marks, get a certificate and get a job. When anything is done as a means to an end, the end is in the means. The end cannot be separated from the means. Which implies, if I am studying something to get a job then the job is in the study. I am not studying something without a prejudice, and this is what Einstein is trying to convey in the quote above. When we are studying for a job, it is our practical utility mind that is doing the work. My father somehow communicated to me the love of math, to do math not for exams and marks but for the love of it. When we do something out of love, something for it’s own sake – not as a means to an end, then a higher faculty of mind is activated, which in Advaita Vedanta is called Vijnanamaya Kosha (Intellect Sheath). Co-incidentally, in modern times, the word vijnana is translated as science. This is a kind of reduction – for it’s exact translation would mean – “special knowledge” – a knowledge which is not apprehended through the senses. In the above quote, Einstein is making a difference between “a mere artisan or specialist” scientist and a “real seeker after truth” scientist. This is the difference between scientists who pursue knowledge and those who pursue “special knowledge”. The utilitarian mind makes a mere artisan or specialist kind of scientist pursuing knowledge merely, whereas, a philosophical mind creates a scientist who is a “real seeker after truth”, or special knowledge.

My love for math was not restricted only to math, it spread to other subjects as well – history, science, geography and english. I used to read and study for the exams, but it was difficult, as I always found myself studying for the love of knowledge, rather than seeing the format of questions coming in exam papers. Eventually the pressures of boards and entrance exams crushed this manner of studying, but not permanently. Soon as I reached Engineering college, the love sprung again with a raging intensity. Having attained the security of getting into a good engineering college and having got an atmosphere of freedom, I completely gave up studying, except a day or two before the exams. Rest all the while I was devouring books that quenched my love for philosophy.

My father had laid the foundations of a philosophical mind. Well, he was teaching math, he was not intending me to become a philosopher; but his love for math, the rigour of abstract thinking that goes in math and my father’s approach to viewing a single problem from multiple angles; all this proved to be gunpowder to ignite the philosopher in me. I was already quite a philosopher in my second year in college. I figured out that I do not have to study different subjects. My philosopher mind asked, “what is common in all the subjects?” Nothing but Symbols, language, logic and memory – the province of a philosopher. One who develops these faculties will not find difficulty with any subject. After that, the whole of my college life, I would read books on philosophy and had no problems lapping up all the content of the exams, a few days before. And despite this, and many other “despites”, I managed to pass engineering college with a distinction, and get the best campus job in my branch of engineering. I added the last point not to gather any praise, as I soon left all this. I added it to show that a philosophical mind is not bereft of pragmatism, which people associate only with a utilitarian mindset.

In my next article I will talk about how my father’s love for books became the single largest contribution to my journey as a philosopher-inquirer.

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