Dipankar Sinha The Statesman Mar 25, 2003
From a secure life in the sleepy village Nilakantapur and in Cuttack to hectic professional life in Kolkata, Bardhaman, Göttingen, Oklahoma, New York and Philadelphia. This is how JN Mohanty, a leading scholar of philosophy, found his physical trajectory and more important, intellectual mobility in life. This autobiography, which took 15 years to complete, bears testimony to this remarkable journey. The volume for obvious reasons is not about his philosophical investigations and discourses. It does not throw new light on Husserl or phenomenology or modalities of the self, all of which happen to be favourite themes in Mohanty’s intellectual quest. The volume is based on reminiscences of an extremely talented and hardworking individual — a “West-trained analytic thinker” conscious of his Oriya Indian upbringing and identity.
The very first impression that one gets about the author is that of his quiet scholarship. He is not a cult figure, nor someone who invites intense public attention and media hype associated with quite a few scholars (including Indian academics) nowadays. While his discipline, philosophy, might have something to do with such quiet intellectual pursuit, it might also be attributed to the fact that his academic height and career, so to say, were built up slowly but steadily — block by block. True, it gave rise to a wonderful combination of diversity of interests and intense rigour to his scholarship, but it was not exactly a smooth journey. East and West, which occupy the centrestage of his autobiography, enter Mohanty’s life not only materially but also metaphorically, to lead to a creative tension. In the beginning it was of course ‘the East’ that prevailed. It came in the form of the instruction of the Sanskrit pundit in school, who had initiated him to Tarkasamgraha and Raghuvamsham, to walk barefoot and make contact with the earth to energize the brain. It was also in the form of Pundit Yogendranatha Tarka Vedantatirtha, with whom Mohanty studied Samkara’s Bhasya on Brahmasutra, who in order to “discharge obligations to his students” would dictate from his death-bed Vidya Vamsa, the Pundit’s memory-based narrative of his students.
It was also evident in an insatiable urge to understand the philosophical underpinnings of Gandhi and Sri Aurobindo. In institutional terms, Mohanty’s academic encounter with the East would be within the walls of Presidency College and Calcutta University, the institutions that form a substantial part of his recollections. When it comes to encountering the West Mohanty as a doctoral student would meet and closely observe some of the best known names in German philosophy and pure mathematics. It seems that Mohanty’s intellectual interactions with his research supervisor, Hermann Wein, whom he at best describes as a “highly intelligent man,” would be limited, and he would be influenced more by other professors like Joseph Konig and Helmut Plessner. He also admits being overwhelmed by the majestic elegance of formal mathematical structures, which might have helped him immensely in later years. Mohanty also sensitively recounts the darker side of some of the finest German intellectuals of the fifties, a number of whom collaborated with the Nazis more out of craving for material benefits than ideological affinity. Then again, East and West would ‘meet’ in unforeseen and somewhat unthinkable ways.
Thus the logician Pandit Ananta Kumar Tarkatirtha, to whom Mohanty expresses his greatest intellectual debt, would ask his ‘Göttingen-educated’ student to introduce him to Aristotle’s Metaphysics and Kant’s first Critique. What’s more, the Pundit would raise “new questions” about them. The East-West interaction would be personified in “mahaguru” Ernst Waldschmidt who by his phenomenal scholarship of Vedic Sanskrit would demolish Mohanty’s stereotypical image of a pundit. Mohanty writes: “He would give me a final test in the traditional manner of Salakanyaya. He would put a needle through a palm-leaf manuscript, open the manuscript where the needle stopped, and ask me to explain just that page – first translate it, then point out grammatical problems, and then raise questions…”. What could be a better symbolic confluence of the intellectual East and its Western counterpart? When the East and the West engrave themselves in the cognitive map of such a thinker the manifestations at times become apparently paradoxical. Thus a self-proclaimed atheist like Mohanty would repeatedly repose faith in Hindu tradition and rituals.
The author who treats life as an “aesthetic project” has a philosophical explanation to offer. To him, performing rituals is “obligatory” because participation in common social practices facilitate the bond among the members of community. Thus, he seems to have a ‘secular’ logic to his enthusiastic participation in pujas. Mohanty’s elegant style and absorbing writing steer clear of unpleasant encounters, frictions and regrets which one finds in the autobiography of Western scholars, including philosophers. Thus it is not an autobiography which uncovers a life in full. However, this is not to be taken as a criticism. Because an individual has the ultimate prerogative in deciding the content an autobiography is meant to be read, not necessarily to be critiqued. Reading such a book is always a great experience not only because it depicts an important segment of life of an eminent scholar but also because it captures so well the past and present ambience in the East and in the West, in which scholars of such proportions are made.