Saturday, September 15, 2007

Philosophy, as a search for the transcendental ground of mundaneity, began to make sense

J.N. Mohanty From Between Two Worlds, East and West: An Autobiography,
Oxford, 2002, 224pp, $19.95 (pbk), ISBN 0195648358.
Earlier in my youth, I spun on a spinning wheel—following the Mahatma’s example—and used only hand-spun and hand-woven clothes, practiced vegetarianism, walked, if not on bare feet, with a locally made pair of sandals, said, when possible, the evening prayers for all major religions, read and memorized large parts of the Bhagavadgita, washed my own dishes after meals (this was not usually done in middle-class families in India), and tried to cultivate a spirit of empathy with nature and my fellow villagers. It was a way of life—where religion, social activism, and ethical spirit merged together. After finishing high school, I was spending the summer in the village, translating Tagore’s poems (originally in Bengali) into Oriya, when I decided to learn tilling the land with a bullock-drawn plough, as was the practice then (and also now). It was hard work, but I wanted to experience what work in the field meant. (17)...
Our task was to translate [a hymn] into German, point out and resolve problems in translations, identify grammatical problems, and solve them with the help of Panini as well as other Vedic grammars. “Never use,” he warned us, “any existing translations, never use Sayana’s commentary (for, he said, Sayana is closer to us in time than to the Vedic period); use dictionaries, especially nirukta and grammar books, and prepare your own translations and report.” And when you presented yours in the class, Waldschmidt would critique you, question you at every step, and tear your arduous work to pieces. He once said to the class, “My goal is to train you in such a way that given a fragment of a manuscript, you can make something of it, date, build a reasonable hypothesis about its style, internal and external cross-references, produce a translation, and raise a host of questions.” And in all this, he remained a philologist—an excellent one at that—with no interest in the value and validity of the ideas, concepts, or philosophies in the texts. That was German Indology at its best. (44)...
This was more due to “homesickness” and boredom than due to the love for and understanding of that culture. If I look at it with the eyes of young children who were growing up, in high schools or in colleges, “Indian culture,” for their parents, meant a certain taste in food, music (mostly film songs), Bhajan (religious songs), and certain religious rituals. A young person is said to be “Americanized” if he prefers to eat hamburgers, prefers Western music, and does not understand the Bahjan or puja [religious rituals]. For many parents, cultivating Indian culture, including religious ceremonies, was meant for en-culturing the children, and the latter need this so that they, when they grew up, do not marry American girls (or boys). “Understanding” the culture was of no concern to anyone, for no one understood all that, in any case. This perhaps explains why the children in the beginning accompanied their parents to feasts and festivals, but eventually gave up. (81, but cf. 101)...
Once I clearly and unambiguously rejected belief in God, the idea of spirituality, despite its equivocations and ambiguities, became more interesting. Philosophy, as a search for the transcendental ground of mundaneity, began to make sense. I also attempted to recover the sense of religiosity that was important for me. Religiosity now meant to me a sensitivity to the irreducible sacredness of things; the sacredness of life; sacredness of humanity; and the sacredness of nature; the moral responsibility to preserve life, nature and humankind, to let humans flourish and develop to their best ability—in brief, using Whitehead’s expression, “world-loyalty.” (120)

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