The Best Philosopher I Knew

dad

Three months ago my father, Satyam Vallabha, passed away. He was 74. My mother, brother and myself were with him in his last moments. He was on his bed, in my parent’s apartment. It was 11:30 at night. I remember his breathing becoming labored, drawn out, just for a few minutes. But it was still him. He was there, with us. And then, in the blink of an eye, there was no more breathing. He was gone.

When I think of him now, I think of him the same way I thought of him since my late teens – as the best philosopher I know. As the most inspirational philosopher I was ever around.

Until I was about sixteen I knew him just as a loving and doting father. Didn’t really think much beyond that. But then I started getting interested in philosophy. There were the stirrings of the sense that there is more to life than being a good son, or becoming an engineer or whatever it is I would do as a job when I grew up. Even more than being a good person, helping others. That there was a deeper reality to grow into, to become aware of. There was the meaning of life, the purpose of existence – waiting to be discovered, uncovered within my own inner being.

Big, heady thoughts. They were like sparks of my imagination, starting to flicker and glow. Looking for oxygen to feed on and grow bigger. At the time my father became my oxygen.

No doubt I was happy that my father was proud of my nascent philosophical stirrings. When he was talking with me about the Bhagavad Gita and the nature of the Universal Self, he seemed happy that he could share this with his son. But it was more than a parent-son relation.

It was also a guru-shishya (teacher-student) relation. My father was my guru and in that dual identity of father and guru seemed to lie the whole mystery of existence. In an everyday sense, this person, Satyam Vallabha, was my father. Pretty straight-forward. But when we would start to talk about philosophy, he seemed like so much more than a biological father. He was a personal guide to an alternate world hidden from the normal senses and roles and identities. He was a person who had come back from over the mountains, speaking of things I had not seen but wanted to see, and was helping me with the journey. This was not just my father talking to me this way. It was my own deepest Self speaking to me from another body, helping me to come to awareness of our cosmic unity.

I was so enthralled by my father as my guru that, when I went to college and first came across Socrates and his mesmerizing effect on his followers, my response was, “Ah, Socrates is just my father.” Unlike many of my classmates, who seemed to not have had a philosophical role model until they took a philosophy class, I hadn’t needed college classrooms to introduce me to my philosophical journey. My journey had already started, and with a great guide.

I loved learning philosophy in college. Reading Plato, Descartes, Kant. Things which my father could not teach me. Satyam Vallabha was not expert on Western philosophy; he had read some introductory Bertrand Russell, but not Descartes’ Meditations or Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason. The philosophy classrooms were a whole new realm of oxygen for my philosophical imagination.

My professors were teaching me things my father couldn’t. And yet I couldn’t shake a basic feeling – my father is a better philosopher than anyone teaching these classes. Was this the simple pride of a son? To some extent. But it was more than that.

putnamEven as I went on to Harvard and studied with some of the most famous philosophers in recent times – Hilary Putnam, Stanley Cavell and many others – this feeling never left me. My father is a better philosopher. Outwardly, for the world, there was no comparison between Hilary Putnam and Satyam Vallabha. Putnam was a world class philosopher who will be written about in future histories of philosophy. Satyam Vallabha will not be remembered in history books. And yet…

Of course, there is no comparing personal philosophical journeys. I don’t believe my father, in some objective measure, was a better philosopher than Putnam. But, and here is the thing, nor do I believe that Putnam is a better philosopher than my father. That is what my feeling was really resisting – the idea, taken for granted all around me in my education, that Putnam was somehow objectively a better philosopher than anyone I could have known outside of academia; better than someone like my father. I don’t deny Putnam’s greatness. Nor, I imagine, the depth of his personal philosophical and spiritual journey – even though, ironicaly, that was something hidden from my view as a student. But I deny the implication that my father was somehow, overall, a lesser philosopher than Putnam.

As my academic philosophy education progressed, it was only all too evident when I would come home and talk to my father what all he didn’t know about philosophy. It was simple: he didn’t know what I was learning. He didn’t know Putnam or Cavell, or read Wittgenstein or Kierkegaard.

And yet, my sense that my father is a great philosopher – someone who crossed over the mountains into a realm of deeper reality and was coming back to tell me about it – that sense I never lost. Why did I continue to have this sense of him as a great philosopher, the best I know? It made sense when I was sixteen and I didn’t know other philosophers and perhaps idolized my father. But why did I continue to have that sense even when I was thirty and getting my PhD from the hallowed halls of Harvard? Was I delusional? Why did I continue to admire my father, and see him as my guru, even as I was in the circles of Putnam, Parfit and Korsgaard?

Because – this is the thought that stays with me now as I think of him – he never thought he was second to anyone philosophically. There was a certain moxie which he had, an unwavering confidence in himself, an almost unbelievable, but inspiring, arrogance that he could think for himself and stand toe to toe with anyone philosophically. That the foundation of his philosophical voice was not in which books he read, or wrote, but in the unwavering infinitude he was in touch with within himself. And in the confidence that each human being, irrespective of their education and even irrespective of whether they outwardly knew any philosophy, has their own personal connection to that universal infinity which they can uncover for themselves.

There was a gleam in his eye, the result of a lifetime of reflection, which suggested to anyone he was talking to, family member or otherwise: “Yes, there is a deeper reality, a bigger you, a greater purpose to life and your own existence. Follow that inner voice and consciousness within yourself, and let us meet and talk not just through our ordinary identities, but let us meet there in that realm of universal consciousness. Let us live and breathe and constantly be in touch with that deeper reality.”

As with any father and son, there were strains in our relationship. Times I was angry at him, and he with me. Issues which I wish we could have talked about more, which I wish we could have resolved more. Much of it revolved around first my deciding to study academic philosophy, and then my decision to leave it. Initially he didn’t understand why I wanted to study philosophy in college and wanted to make it my profession. And then when he had reconciled himself to that fact, and even taken fatherly pride in my going to Harvard and becoming a professor, why then I decided to leave the profession. As a father he was concerned for me, and I understood. And upset as I was with him at times, I loved him for that concern, and for him being supportive of me completely.

Beyond my memories of him as father, I remember him sitting at the dining table as a philosophical topic would come up for discussion. He would close his eyes for a second, to get in touch with his inner infinity, and as he opened his eyes, the infinite felt like it became manifest in that room in his form. It was palpable, immediate, visceral. He was no longer just my father. No longer just Satyam Vallabha. That was but the most outward layer of the consciousness. Now, as he opened his eyes, and spoke of the Krishna he loved, he was himself Krishna, a manifestation of the infinite divinity. And the divinity spoke seeking and awakening the divinity within me.

table

A divine play then unfolded at that dining table, as it unfolds at every moment. The cosmic consciousness, manifesting itself as multiple beings speaking to each other, discovering together that here there was actually not two or three, but only one. Satyam Vallabha and Bharath Vallabha (and in the picture my older brother Gautam) are but different names of the same universal consciousness. It was not separate entities talking together but the same consciousness speaking to itself now in this voice and now in that voice, now in this body and now in that body. A oneness which had taken on the form of a multiplicity, and now that multiplicity was merging back into the oneness. All part of the cosmic dance and play of the universe.

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