My father’s favorite philosopher was the 8th century Hindu thinker Adi Shankaracharya. Like many Hindus, Dad was convinced that Shankara’s Advaita Vedanta captured the essence of the Upanishads and the Bhagavad-Gita – that in reality there is only an all pervasive Self-Consciousness, and that any appearance of a duality (of different selves, or even the separation between me and the objects around me) is an illusion.
Given Dad’s influence on me as I discovered philosophy, Shankara was also one of my favorite philosophers. I was particularly enthralled as a sixteen year old by the depiction of Shankara in G.V. Iyer’s 1983 film Adi Shankaracharya. We had the movie on video, and while in high school I must have watched it at least a half dozen times. I probably never watched it all in one sitting. It is an intense, thoughtful movie in Sanskrit with English subtitles and almost three hours long. I would watch it in half hour snippets, letting it sink in slowly.
Neither Dad nor I were experts in Shankara’s philosophy. I doubt Dad ever read in detail Shankara’s works, and as a teenager I certainly hadn’t. But in both our minds Shankara loomed as an archetype of the philosopher. In time though it started to become evident that Dad and I liked Shankara for different reasons.
Dad liked Shankara mainly for the content of his views. Advaita (non-duality) was for Dad the essence of Shankara, and of philosophy. Dad would wax poetic sometimes about how Shankara had pierced to the root of the Gita, intellectually defeating Buddhist and dvaita (dualistic) Hindu philosophers along the way.
I found Advaita interesting enough, but what I was most drawn to in Shankara was his life – in particular, the fact that he was a monk. I admired the simplicity of the monk ideal: philosophy is supposed to expand our mental horizons and help us move beyond our more immediate circles, and Shankara became a monk in order to not be limited by the concerns of his family or his particular community, but to embrace a more universal perspective.
As an eighteen year old finishing high school, thinking about how I can implement philosophy in my life, this image of forgoing my local, family bonds to live with all humanity as my family was intensely appealing.
On this point, Dad and I started to disagree.
As much as Dad held Shankara in high esteem intellectually, he was utterly unmoved by Shankara’s way of life. He claimed the monk life model was anachronistic, sexist and undemocratic. He found the idea of a man leaving family behind to pursue his spiritual life selfish. Dad would ask pointedly, “And what about the woman’s enlightenment?”
In this Dad was undeniably a modern Hindu, one who sought to update Hinduism for the 21st century. The main change he wanted to defend was giving up the traditional distinction between samsara (family life, cycle of birth and death) and moksha (enlightenment, liberation). He claimed one doesn’t have to give up samsara to have moksha. To the contrary, having moksha is a matter of affirming samara. Enlightenment doesn’t mean not being a husband, father, son, cousin, employee, neighbor and so on, but means having those roles without getting caught in them.
I liked Dad’s anti-traditional Hinduism, and the vast social changes it implied. He wanted to get beyond the idea of the swami, the guru, someone who is seen to be an incarnation of the Truth and Divinity in front of whom the vast majority of people prostrate themselves. For Dad finding the Truth outside of oneself was the most basic form of illusion.
So far, so good. But what does it mean to affirm samsara? How does an enlightened person balance a universal awareness of humanity with the local concerns of family?
I would pose this question to Dad by asking, “What about all the homeless people? What is our dharma with regard to them?” Dad’s response generally was: “That is not our concern. They are in God’s hands.”
Needless to say, I found this response unsatisfying. In effect, Dad’s point was that our dharma as defined by our samara was to not worry about such things. Samara for Dad meant something very specific, and middle class: get a good career, have kids, take care of family, parents, buy a home, invest in the stock market, go on vacations and so on. Not surprisingly for someone who was happy to be an American, for Dad samsara became identified with the American Dream.
But, as I saw it, there was a deep problem with Dad’s view. If everyone accepts the middle class life as our dharma, who in our society will think about the broader concerns of the community, and put those ahead of local concerns of family?
No doubt the monk life is outdated. But this much about it was still inspiring to me: a monk is someone who chooses to move beyond their birth family obligations and relate to humanity as a whole as one’s family. In fact, this is the main social service of monks, gurus, swamijis: when done well, they remind people that there is much more to the world than the family melodramas and local financial concerns which are the day to day life of most people. Some people in society standing up and saying there is more to the world than making one’s parents happy or being in good financial standing is how we as a society for thousands of years have managed to hold on the broader concerns of humanity. It is how we have been able to see ourselves as bonded in our humanity, beyond our local concerns.
What happens to this broader perspective if everyone followed the American Dream as their dharma?
This issue came to a head between Dad and I in my senior year in high school. I got into Cornell, and Dad wanted me to study computer science, get a good job and be on the path of the American dream. And yet, for me, the monk ideal of Shankara loomed large, and I was unsure. What I wanted most was to do philosophy publically, not just at 10 at night around the dining room table. I wanted to to take the ideas and insights Dad was speaking of, and take them out of Mom and Dad’s apartment and into the broader world. And in a youthful move, I identified such public philosophy with the only model I had for it at the time – a Shankara style monk life.
But in order for the monk life to be relevant to contemporary society, it had to connect to current issues and injustices. So my 18 year old mind merged Shankara’s monk model with the model of social justice and standing with the disenfranchised in our society. The effect: the idea that I would skip college and work in McDonalds.
I don’t know how serious I was about this idea. And it had that tinge of privilege which only a well off person could have: I wanted to give up a comfortable life to go live with poor people, who would love to switch places with me and take advantage of the opportunities I wanted to forgo.
But I realize now the issue was more conceptual, and an intellectual battle with Dad. I wasn’t really going to skip college. But I didn’t understand why it was better, more fair, more philosophical to go to college instead of working in McDonalds.
I thought of Dad as my guru, and I was posing this question of how to live my life to my guru. And yet, in an important sense, the person I heard respond to my question was not my guru – someone who had transcended family bonds and lived in blissful detachment – but my father, defined by local bonds of birth. As is to be expected, Dad was furious at the question of whether to go to college or work in McDonalds. He couldn’t fathom why it even seemed like a relevant question to me. Far from the mellow, detached response of a guru, the response he gave was that of a concerned parent who had to steer his son from, as he saw it, the dangers of mindless idealism. He responded, “You are going to college and that’s that! Clearly you don’t know how to think for yourself yet, and you will do what I say, what people normally do!”
I feel a little bad now for putting Dad in that position. It must have been hard for him as a father to deal with his son even contemplating such a choice.
And yet, it was also somehow inevitable given the philosophical debate Dad and I were having. The question was: Can moksha be combined with samsara? That is, can someone live a purely blissful life in the midst of the normal, family bonds?
Dad vehemently answered “yes”, and he often implied, with a mischievous Krishna smile, that he had managed to square the circle, and could balance the infinite perspective of transcendence with the local perspective of family life. Almost unconsciously, I was putting pressure on his view by challenging the extent to which he could hold on to the perspective of transcendence even as he was a father. The more Dad responded to my genuine question of whether to go to college with attempts to overpower me with fatherly concern and of how “we” don’t have to worry about “those” people but must live “our” life, the more unsure I became of Dad’s view that moksha and samsara can be combined.
Actually, deep down I was inclined to believe Dad was right about the view that moksha and samsara are compatible, but I didn’t believe that he was giving the right argument for it. I didn’t think he had yet fully earned that conclusion through his reasoning and actions. I longed for Dad to understand the motivation of my question and to take it seriously – doing that would have shown enough detachment from his role as a father for me to believe that he was in fact in touch with a more universal perspective. That would have made it easier for me go to college with the feeling that pursuing the American dream can in fact be compatible with spiritual enlightenment.
It would be nice to continue the debate with Dad. But I have a feeling he is hearing me now and knows how I feel.