The pursuit of a passion

J.N. MOHANTY'S research into various branches of metaphysics, which include his much admired interpretation of Husserl's investigations in phenomenology, has won him well-deserved acclaim in philosophy circles East and West. His autobiography is likely to be of interest to both professional and laymen keen on philosophy and social history.

Born in Orissa, where he first studied in a village school, he moved at the age of 17 to Bengal. He had a passion for mathematics and also Sanskrit, both tools of modern philosophy. Even while doing his B.A. First Year in Calcutta Presidency College, he showed great promise as when he wrote an article titled "The Finite and the Infinite" in the college magazine. In his piece he argued against Sankara's mayavada in favour of Sri Aurobindo's conception of the "integral Brahman".

He cannot recollect any particular experience that drove him to philosophy though he remembers being interested in the popular "Gandhi vs. Marx" debate. He became familiar with the works of Sri Aurobindo while he was young. Later, it was while he was in the Presidency College doing his graduate studies that he came into contact with the national movement. He recollects attending meetings and rallies addressed by the likes of Jinnah and Nehru but what upset him most was the communal carnage he witnessed during the period. "How could religion be the reason why innocent men, women and children get killed", he asked. It was when he was doing post-graduate studies that he met some remarkable teachers who he admits changed his way of thinking.

Later we find Mohanty in Gottingen in Germany in pursuit of higher philosophical studies. Interestingly, he spent more time at the Mathematical Institute and the Max Planck Institute than at the philosophy seminar. Now follows a part of the story that should interest history buffs besides philosophers. It has to do with anecdotes about some of the scholars with a Nazi past and also some others who belonged to families who in earlier times were loyal to the Third Reich. Mohanty had enrolled in the seminar on the philosophy of mathematical sciences conducted by none other than Carl Weizacker, who was the son of Hitler's State Secretary.

Carl Weizacker himself was already famous as an astro-physicist. At the end of the war, he, along with Heisenberg and a few others, all from Gottingen, were British prisoners of war. Upon release, Weizacker turned his attentions to the philosophy of Plato and Heidegger. It was as a member of the Weizacker seminar that Mohanty met Heisenberg.

Mohanty recalls: "How exciting it was for me to be in the presence of the discoverer of the Principle of Uncertainty." Then there was the distinguished historian Schramm whose studies on the symbolism of royal crowns ironically enough earned him a role as the historical advisor at Queen Elizabeth's coronation.

Mohanty researched and taught in places widely separated by distance and culture as Gottinberg, Oklahoma, New York and Oxford, feeling as much at home in these places as in dear old Calcutta. He along with his family consisting of his wife and two children acclimatised to the West but remained rooted in their heritage. He was attracted to Vinoba Bhave who stood as an example of a person who could put philosophy into practice. He joined him on a long bhoodan march during the course of which he was privileged to hear him explain the Upanishads. According to Mohanty, while Gandhiji was in a sense anti-science, Vinoba sought to bring the Mahatma's "basic thought into harmony with science and history."

Writing with sadness about philosophers shying away from their professed beliefs in practice, he cites the case of Heidegger who was a good philosopher, but failed his ideals when he shamelessly defended Nazism. Husserl, on the other hand, always stood up for what he thought right.

Refreshing are Mohanty's observations about the Indian diaspora. He analyses the reasons for his leaving for the United States while he was doing so well in the University of Calcutta with his research in phenomenology and in navya-nyaya. It seemed to him immigrants tend to become far too culture-conscious abroad largely because of homesickness and boredom and not as a result of any special love or understanding of their heritage. It was while writing his book on Husserl in Gottingen later that he developed further insights on multiculturalism. He holds a radical view when he says that unlike the U.S., Germany has an old culture and history of its own and that in view of this he would not like to see this culture "disrupted by immigrants who come mostly with economic gain in mind."

Mohanty feels there is no point in creating a fusion of Western and Eastern philosophies. On the other hand, Indian and Western philosophical studies should be pursued independently using idioms, language, and metaphors appropriate to the investigations.

It is a highly readable account of a philosophical journey by an Indian we should all be proud of. However what is sadly lacking in the edition is the absence of an index. Also the glossary could have been expanded to cover more terms.

Between Two Worlds, East and West: An Autobiography,

J.N. Mohanty, OUP, Rs. 345.

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