Note: This thought piece is a three-part personal tribute to an unassuming master in our midst, yet it is universal in significance given the sheer perspicacity and pertinence of his wit and wisdom. The locomotive of his conviction steers several intellectual carriages ripe with invigorating insights and infinite possibilities across different disciplines and domains. A dialogue with him is never overbearing, given his trademark lyrical elaboration on even the most clinical phenomena. It's the dignified poise of his freewheeling narration that makes even an intricate subject like spirituality so very delightfully inclusive. If my tribute inspires some of the readers to develop the keenness to probe deeper even into the seemingly obvious, I would consider the effort sanctified, way more than fulfilling.
Part 1 can be accessed at https://coastaldelights.blogspot.com/2019/08/chittaranjan-locomotive-works-of.html
How did IIT happen? Who/what was instrumental in the choice of stream? How would you sum up the IIT experience?
I hadn’t heard of IIT until I came across some of my classmates filling in the application forms for the Joint Entrance Exam (JEE). I was handed a form to fill if I wished. I did so and wrote the JEE about six months later. Then one day my father woke me up in the morning and informed me that my roll number had appeared in the paper, in the list of those who had secured admission to IIT. That was how IIT happened. As regards the choice of stream, it followed naturally from the interest in aeronautics and astronautics that I had developed while at school.
The IIT experience had different aspects. In the first few years, I was caught up in the new wave that was sweeping in from the West, a wave built on the angst of a yearning to return ‘back to the Garden’, as famously sung by Janis Joplin in the song ‘Woodstock’, and fuelled by an aversion to the greed-driven rule-based order of the establishment. During this phase of my life, I did many things that would have shocked my old acquaintances and family: I experimented with ‘grass’ or marijuana, I hit the road on hitch-hiking trails, and I was carried away on the wings of Western folk-rock music – of the genre produced by Crossby, Stills Nash & Young and others. I must say that the sixties and seventies produced some exceptional music artists with a kind of creative genius that you don’t see in present-day artists; they produced music for the soul that captured the angst of the age and sent a whole generation of ‘children of the flower’ into raptures. But it didn’t last - it couldn’t last - because it lacked both the epistemic foundations as well as the disciplining force that are required to make a movement sustain itself. But it produced many creative people that went on to do fundamental work in frontier areas of human knowledge.
B-Tech was then a 5-year course, and the subjects of my chosen discipline, aeronautics, were introduced in the third year. But a strange thing happened when I began to attend classes on these subjects, some of which I had studied even when I was in school: those same subjects that had produced such ardor in me when I was in school failed to hold much interest for me now. Something seemed to be lacking in the classes. For one, the classes were drab and the lectures sent me to sleep. But more importantly, it was the romance that was missing – the romance of building flying machines that had captured my mind when I was in school. It came home to me then that the exploratory pioneering age of flying was over and that aeronautical engineering had now become a discipline catering to building artifacts of public utility. Looking back on it with the perspective I now have, I realize that it was not really flying and building physical flying machines that had inspired me but that it was what flying symbolized – the azure sky of freedom – that had lured me into the field. I suppose, somewhere deep within my being, there was an inspiration to become, to use the words of Nietzsche, an aeronaut of the spirit. For the rest of my B-Tech days, I drifted not knowing what I really wanted in life. When I passed out of engineering, I had a bachelor’s degree in hand and no motivation to work. I was selected for a job by DRDO in the first campus interview I attended but I wasn’t sure if this is what I wanted to pursue in my life. I wrote the entrance exams for admission to the Masters programs of IIT and IISc and was selected for Masters in Aeronautical and Management in both the institutes. I had also been selected for MS in physics at IISc but didn’t take it up because I couldn’t find a guide for the specific area of theoretical physics that I wished to pursue. Eventually, I enrolled for Management studies (micro-management aka Industrial Engineering) at IIT Madras, only to secure more time to decide what I wanted to do with my life, and not following any real interest in Management.
The drifting and the soul-searching continued during my first year in M-Tech. As far as studies were concerned, I did the minimum that was required to ‘go through the motions’. I had begun to read books on Relativity and Quantum theories as also on Cybernetics. It was the exploration into Cybernetics that took me down an unexpected path and culminated, in the year 1977, in a spiritual experience of such force and magnitude that its effect has stayed with me until now, nay it has defined the very raison d’être of my existence; for that experience was for me a momentous eruption of epiphany, a glimpse into a realm of the perennial, and a plunge into the wondrous land of philosophy.
CN at Gokarn after father's samskara
It would surely be difficult to summarize your spiritual voyage at one go but can you jot down the key milestones of your offbeat strides – especially your thoughts and experiments concerning Advaita and Shaivism.
The voyage began as an inquiry into the question: would it be possible to make a cybernetic machine that replicates the intelligence of a human being? After pondering over the question for some days, it struck me that the direction Cybernetics was taking, which was based on the Turing Principle, was not the right direction as it ignored the essential aspect of intelligence: the presence of consciousness as the first prerequisite for intelligence to arise. And then it struck me that consciousness cannot emerge from material processes at all; for if consciousness were to be produced from those very material processes which constitute the field of consciousness that the cognizer is conscious of, it would lead to mutual inter-dependence. These were not idle thoughts, the arguments for and against the proposition raced through my mind and left me with apodictic certainty that consciousness was an entity distinct from matter and that it could not be produced by material processes, that is, the material processes could not be the source from which consciousness arose, a consciousness which then went on to become conscious of its own material origins. One after another, ideas unfolded in my mind with such rapidity that I was wholly absorbed in the exhilarating exploration, to the point that I was practically lost to the world. Everything else had become insipid and uninteresting. It dawned on me then that I could not cognize a thing if the prescient notion of the thing was not already present within me, that is, I would not be capable of recognizing the color red unless a fundamental notion of red, or a value of what the color red is, was not already known to me a priori. And if this were so, it meant that the objects I saw in this world were in some way a crystallization of this notion into concrete form. In other words, matter could not exist without consciousness because they were the inherent notions present in consciousness brought forth into concrete forms. I had begun with the question whether consciousness could be produced from matter and had ended with an answer that matter itself could not exist without consciousness! A sort of a magnificent obsession took hold of me then. I decided to test out my ideas in 'practice'.
I sat in the padmasana posture and focused on the idea that the world which presented itself to me was a kind of valuation, a crystallized form of notions that were already present within me. I don't know how long I sat in that posture. Every thought that arose in my mind was subjected to a rational reduction: to an inherent value that existed within me including the thoughts of the objects of this world. After a while, the initial distractions began to subside, and a deep quietude began to pervade my being. The focus on inherent values as the heart of objects and ideas became natural. Then it happened, all of a sudden, without warning. A blaze of light shot through me and everything began to dissolve, the walls, the room, the world around me and along with it my own body. That split-second, that moment, was more intense, more living, more awesome than anything I had known in my life. It was like a blaze of a thousand suns exploding. The foundation of the world was knocked off, as it were, and there was no foothold anywhere. An intense terror took hold of me at the thought that my very individuality was dissolving, I woke out of the experience in a wild convulsion. But there was also a great elation in my heart. A great Living Presence seemed to be near as well, as all around me. I don't know how I passed the night, but the next morning I felt transformed. There was a deep feeling of humility in my heart, and an aversion to meeting people. I longed for simplicity, to go away from the great façade of deception that the world was perpetrating on itself. I went to the library and looked up books on religion. I got hold of the Upanishads. A thrill passed through me as I read its pages. Many of the passages seemed as clear and obvious to me as if they were my native thoughts. Soon I began reading whatever literature I could get hold of on philosophy and religion.
Well, this is how it began. Over the years, there have been many discoveries, sometimes gradual, sometimes a sudden uncovering of a symbolism or concept of the ancients, but they all have their roots in the experience of that day. There were also other spiritual experiences in the next three months but none as powerful as the first one; but there is one particular experience that that stands out from the rest. It was about a month or so after I had had the first spiritual experience when one day I was sitting on the bed when all of a sudden I became detached from the body and experienced myself as a distinct flame of unwavering consciousness, of the size of ‘a thumb’ within the body. And though I knew that consciousness had no spatial relationship with anything in the world, there was a definite sense of that which I now experienced as my self being located in the heart, slightly on the right side in the chest. Yet, the word ‘heart’ as I experienced it then had a sense of meaning as evocated through the expression ‘the heart of all things’ rather than of being the physical heart. This experience had a powerful effect on me because it coincided with what I had read in the Upanishads as also in a book describing the experiences of Ramana Maharshi just a few days earlier – that the self, of the size of thumb, resides in the heart, the cave of the intellect, and that it is experienced as being slightly on the right side of the chest. If there was any doubt left in me still that the Upanishads revealed knowledge that cannot be obtained from anything else, all these doubts were now dissolved.
The next phase of my spiritual pursuit consisted of extensive reading of philosophical works – both Indian and Western – as also of the world’s major religions. The readings of Indian philosophical texts were sometimes accompanied by sudden insights into some aspect or the other of the tenets and principles of the Vedic tradition. Sometimes, I would sit and stare at a word or sentence in the text because it would pierce my consciousness and reveal some deep hidden meaning. This has happened to me not only with Vedanta texts but also with those of Yoga and Nyaya. It was during this period that the various traditional schools of Indian philosophy seemed to me to be not six disparate philosophies but borne on the body of a single overarching philosophy in which each one of them appeared as an auxiliary discipline of knowledge. This integral view of Indian darshanas has not only stayed with me in all my subsequent years but has been substantiated by a careful reading of the texts. I spent more than a year in this phase before I joined up for my first job, primarily because I couldn’t continue to live off my father.
Once I joined up for a job, I got immersed in the activities of the corporate world. Even though the spiritual undercurrent was always present, for the next eighteen years there was no conscious spiritual effort on my part. I suppose it was the strength of my vasanas that made me get pulled so pervasively into the material world again. It took eighteen long years later for the next phase of my spiritual journey to begin. It was a phase marked by engagement and debate. From the year 1998 to the year 2000, I actively participated in the discussion forum of the Philosophers Magazine, UK, (TPM On-line). There were many academic professors and scholars on that forum – some of them incognito – and it gave me an opportunity to see whether my philosophical views would hold against the arguments of the academicians. Soon after, from the year 2004, I participated in two Vedanta forums – the Advaitin and Vadavali – and held extensive discussions with scholars of the Indian tradition. These debates and discussions helped me formulate ways in which I could put my philosophical thoughts into formal presentations.
This period also marked my explorations into the esoteric world of Tantra. It began with my contemplations on the nature of the masculine and feminine principles in nature, into what may be called the philosophy of gender. Coincidentally, at this time, I came across a group of maverick people and became an active member of a forum dedicated to Tantra Mysticism. It was here that I was introduced to Kashmir Shaivism. I had always been drawn to Shaktism and the doctrines of Kashmir Shaivism complimented this aspect of my spiritual make-up very well. If my explorations into Advaita Vedanta had moved along an intellectual thread, my foray into the world of Kashmir Shaivism was marked by experiential flights into the land of the poetical and mystical. Advaita Vedanta sought to reject the perceived world; Kashmir Shaivism sought to embrace both the perceived world and the Spirit on the crest of the motionless wave of Spanda. It was here that I learnt that there were many men and women in this world who live, unbeknownst to a large segment of humanity, at another layer of Reality.
En route an Himalayan trek
Your brush with spirituality was presumably accidental. Having said that, do you recall or recollect something from the past that may have engineered the inclination - say the meeting with your grandfather's brother.
The inclination to spirituality that manifested at a certain stage in my life may superficially appear to be an accident but I would say that such manifestations are almost always the result of subterranean currents flowing from a past that lie hidden to our present consciousness. The meetings with my great grandfather’s brother have certainly had their influence on me but I don’t believe the influence would have been possible if it were not for a veneer of consciousness that was already running through my life. I mentioned how the suggestion of Plato’s name had affected me. I have had other experiences too of a similar kind. When I was in school, there were times when I would mentally recede from the world and stand aloof from it; it was as if I had become a detached witness to not only the world’s events but even to my own thoughts. These experiences would last for a few minutes and then they would go away. I never spoke about them to anyone at that time. It was only much later when I had come into the path of spirituality proper that I realized their significance.
The most powerful intimations of my past came to me in the immediate wake of the eruption of my first epiphany. The next morning I didn’t have breakfast in the hostel mess as I normally did. I felt averse to meeting anyone, so I walked to a small village adjoining the campus to have some snacks and tea. After the previous night’s experience, I was feeling sanctified – as if I was awash with the divine waters of the Ganga – and as I walked along the path to the village, I had sudden flashes of memory: I saw myself as a wandering sannyasi walking along the banks of a river in Saurashtra. The scene was very vivid in my mind’s eye just as if it were a scene from a fairly recent past. This was not a solitary instance. Over the next few days I had flashes of memory wherein I saw myself as a yogi sitting under a tree in South India, as a Tibetan lama in the Himalayas and as a Christian monk in a desert with a gaunt dune-mountain in the background. There were also frequent flashes in which I saw myself in the radiance of Brindavan. All these flashes were not mere visions; they had the quality of being remembrances. I am sure many people would pass this off as auto-suggestions on my part arising out of my spiritual inclination but I remain convinced that they were intimations of my distant past. This conviction is corroborated by Indian philosophy which states that one carries over the knowledge that one has learnt as well as knowledge of the skills from one birth to another. I see myself as a wayfarer and the eruption of the fount of spirituality in my life as a continuation of a spiritual sadhana undertaken in my past lives. I do not know how many more lifetimes I have to traverse in this path, but I am happy to be on the path for without it life would not be worth living.
Did you have any favorites among philosophers during your reading phase? How many of them still make sense to you?
Those that have inspired me the most are the Vedic sages. However, Vedic sages are not philosophers in the ordinary sense of the world: they are structures of Reality rather than men and women. It may seem strange to most of us that names such as Yajnavalkya, Maitreyi, Nachiketa, etc, denote structures of Reality and not people but this is due to us treating Vedic language as equivalent to ordinary language. Unlike the words of ordinary language that point to objects in the world, the words of Vedic language point to universals – archetypes – out of which spring the world of concrete objects. So, the names of Vedic sages do not point to people but to archetypes out of which people bearing those names manifest in different cycles of creation. They are the archetypal teachers contained in the structure of Reality itself. It is for this reason that the words they utter are held to be pramana – the infallible source of knowledge about Reality. It doesn’t make sense therefore to speak of favorites among Vedic sages because they are outfitments of Reality that define the very contours of philosophy, both in terms of the supreme goal of the human quest for knowledge as well as the means by which it is obtained. It would make more sense to speak about favorites with respect to those philosophers – called bhashyakaras, vaartikakaras, etc. – that uncover the hidden meanings of the utterances of the Vedic sages for the benefit of humankind. Yes, I have my favorites among them.
Among the Vedanta philosophers, it is the three great bhashyakaras – Shankaracharya, Ramanujacharya and Madhvacharya – for I do not look at their interpretations as resulting in three competing philosophies but as three philosophies for people of different dispositions to walk the path. And among the philosophies that constitute disciplines of knowledge that are auxiliaries to Vedanta, my favorites are Kaumarila Bhatta among the Mimamsa philosophers, Ishvara Krishna among the Samkhya philosophers, Jayanta Bhatta, Udayana and Gangesa among the Nyaya-Vaisesika philosophers and Bhartrahari among the Grammarians. I haven’t mentioned any philosopher of the Yoga school because I find no better explanation of the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali than the exposition of Shankaracharya as given in his Vivarana.
Among Western philosophers, I would mention the names of Socrates (Plato), Parmenides and Spinoza, in that order. To a lesser extent, I would mention Kant, Husserl and Nietzsche. Nietzsche may appear like a surprise addition to this list considering that he is a nihilist but I find his deep luminous writings and power of metaphor most appealing, especially as they seem to spring out of powerful inspiration, which I recognize, and which is described by Nietzsche in these words:
"Has anyone at the end of the nineteenth century a distinct conception of what poets of strong ages called inspiration? If not I will describe it, - If one has the slightest residue of superstition left in one, one would hardly be able to set aside the idea that one is merely incarnation, merely mouthpiece, merely medium of overwhelming forces. The concept of revelation, in the sense that something suddenly, with unspeakable certainty and subtlety, becomes visible, audible, something that shakes and overturns one to the depths, simply describes the fact. One hears, one does not seek; one takes, one does not ask who gives; a thought flashes up like lightning, with necessity, unalteringly formed - I have never had any choice. An ecstasy whose tremendous tension sometimes discharges itself in a flood of tears, while one's steps now involuntarily rush along, now involuntarily lag; ... a depth of happiness in which the most painful and gloomy things appear, not as an antithesis, but as conditioned, demanded, as a necessary color within such a superfluity of light;.... Everything is in the highest degree involuntary but takes place as in a tempest of a feeling of freedom, of absoluteness, of power, of divinity."
With regard to the question ‘How many of them still make sense to me?’, I would say that all the pre-twentieth century philosophers that I have read still make sense to me; for even when I don’t agree with them, or with their philosophies, their writings reveal to me how they thought and how they grappled intellectually with the profound questions of human knowledge and human existence. But I can’t say the same with respect to twentieth and twenty-first century philosophers.
CN with his wife
Did you, at any point, feel the need for a Guru to guide you on the path of spirituality?
I have had a Guru in my journey. I don’t speak about it much because my Guru is not from the Vedanta tradition and this fact may not go down well with many members and scholars of the tradition that I engage in debate with. I have been told by my Guru that I will follow a subtle path. I take it to be the path of Pratyabhijna as described in Kashmir Shaivism; it is very close to that of Advaita Vedanta.
A Guru is a must on this path. In rare cases, when the seeker has stainless mental purity, the Guru may not be external and may be the seeker’s own Self. But such cases are so rare that we may ignore them as constituting the general rule. In normal cases, one cannot reach the goal without a human Guru. This is because the persona that we have come to acquire due to primordial ignorance must learn to bow down – and ultimately bow out – to the all-pervading Self, the Inner Controller. This persona revolves around the ego and it is enmeshed in a web of beliefs, dispositions and desires (vasanas) that it clings to and is averse to declaw itself from. When the question of letting-go of the vasanas faces us, we tend to cling to them even more and rationalize them and, more often than not, all this happens at a sub-conscious level. The Guru, however, is able to see them and he works through the shishya’s knots of ignorance – also called the ajna-chakra – which the shishya may not be conscious of. But this entire process works only when there is a spark of the divine, in terms of a higher power of discrimination (viveka), that has been kindled within the disciple; for without it the disciple is liable to abstain from exerting himself intellectually and may end up becoming a mere follower, like sheep in a herd. It is the spark of divinity that enables the seeker to walk the razor’s edge of the path, simultaneously forging ahead with his own self-effort while at the same time allowing the Guru to perform surgery on his knotted mind.
to be continued...