Saturday, November 19, 2011

Philosophical Encounters

I normally keep to myself in my journeys but indulge in long conversations when, sometimes, there is a matching interest in a fellow traveler. While heading for the airport from Orchid Hotel there was an elderly gentleman sitting next to me in the bus. Somehow he figured that I, like him, came from Pune and asked me the standard Puneri question - where do you live in Pune? 

"Camp area. Salisbudy Park. How about you?"
"You must be with a DRDO lab then", I ventured
"No, I teach in University"
"What do you teach?"

It turned out that he is the just-retiring head of the Department of Philosophy in University of Pune - Prof Subhashchandra Bhelke. My eyes must have lit up. I have ventured to study some material in philosophy and have formally studied a couple of disciplines of logic during engineering. I have had some curiosities and questions and here was an experienced academic largely at my disposal as the queue was going to take a couple of hours to its completion.

I asked him a series of questions for nearly 2 hours and here is a gist that you may find interesting.

How is the state of education in Philosophy in India? Very bad, he said. There is a serious dearth of quality teachers and the younger lot is not devoted to the field. A lot of poor crop is thrust into the system due to reservations. The policy itself may be debated but the implementation is such that the Vice Chancellors and Heads of Departments have no choice but to recruit literally anyone applying from those categories.

There is an equal dearth of students. They do not necessarily come because of their interest but because they could not find anything else. He himself started with research in Hindi Literature but got bored after a few years. Then he moved to philosophy later and he finds the thirst for the quest for reality is still not quenched despite having spent some four decades in the field.

I told him that although I have a Masters degree in engineering the system barely exposed philosophy as a subject to me except in IIT Kanpur where there were several electives to choose from. He said IIT Kanpur actually had one of the top 5 departments in philosophy in the country and named some professors to me. I had been taught by a couple of them. One of them, Prof Rajendra Prasad, had been a mentor to him as well. When we talked in some detail he explained that there are few universities in India that could teach some of the more sophisticated fields of logic while these were offered as electives to undergraduate students in Kanpur.

I mentioned my favorite book 'The Story of Philosophy' by Will Durant. This book is meant for common folks and is very approachable. In its preface the author mentioned hearing from the librarian of New York Public Library that the circulation of their books on philosophy had increased after their readers had read this book. I told him that I had also read Bertrand Russel's 'History of Western Philosophy' but liked Duran's book better. Prof Bhelke said that Russel's standard was much higher but Durant is accurate and yet approachable. I have read some books by S Radhakrishnan but none of his books is like Will Durant's What is the equivalent for Indian philosophy? He told me to read The Essentials of Indian Philosophy by M Hiriyanna. I just started and it's nice so far.

During my professional years I have come around to the view that study of philosophy is quite essential for a matured view on anything. I have toyed with the idea of having a brief training for staff in Cygnus on philosophy. Why is our education system so stingy about teaching philosophy at junior levels? Prof Bhelke thought that although it is there in the syllabi of boards but schools do not see the demand nor do they encourage it.

The university has attempted to create some brief courses for the public and there has been some interest but the university treats all departments with the same brush. So they require that students be charged in similar ways as MBA students are charged and so on. University is quite bureaucratic and freedom of professors is restricted. They have installed a biometric system that monitors the amount of time spent in the university. Many professors feel disappointed as they pursue the profession as a matter of love for the field and deserve academic freedom. They actually spent more time in campus before the monitoring system got installed. He was also not very happy with the recent Vice Chancellors of the university as they are more interested in advancing their careers than work for the university.

I asked him of his views on Chinese and other eastern philosophies. He said that their system are primarily based on Buddhist philosophy although there are some earlier strands. He pleaded ignorance of Islamic philosophy but he said that it did not excite him for the reason that it presupposes a finality of the Quran and the Prophet. This goes against the grain of academic scrutiny. I told him that Indian system is accommodating of diverse, even conflicting, viewpoints. And that I found many similarities between Bhagwadgita and the Quran. He agreed but said that interpreting the Gita is common but not so with the Quran.

Sometime around here we were directed to different counters. I did not see him after that. He would have headed to Frankfurt and I spent another day at Doha.

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