It’s tempting when reflecting on our pasts to think that every event, from the trivial to the existential, was a result of careful thought and reasoning. After all, while recounting past events, our go-to question is often, “What was I thinking at the time?” We try to put ourselves into the conscious mindsets of our past selves. We intellectualize things. We try to make sense of it. But in doing so, we sometimes inadvertently read future events back into the past—”That’s why I did it!”
For example, it’s true that I now have what I think are eminently reasonable arguments for why I don’t believe in the things I held onto for dear life when I was younger. But it’s not as if the present arguments were there, even in inchoate form, when I was younger and had just begun to have my doubts. These present arguments are the products of years of on-and-off, sometimes loose, sometimes tight inquiry. At the time, my doubts were just that…doubts.
In intellectualizing our past, we often artificially dissociate ourselves from our bodies and environments. We forget that we’re humans-in-societies, not rational minds engaged in “disembodied cerebration.”1 Sometimes our budding doubts are human—all too human—full of emotional depth that we skate over, thinking the ice is all there is. We ignore the rich body of water and sediment teeming with life beneath the icy surface, because it makes us feel safe and secure. It lets us put aside the dreadful thought of drowning underneath the impenetrable, icy surface. It keeps us from recognizing our own human fragility and dependency. But in the process, we forget that much of life’s beauty comes from the embrace of these elements of human life and all the uniquely human risk and reward they make possible.
From my last post, you might have got the impression that my decision to switch majors from aerospace engineering to philosophy was a carefully thought out one; that my budding doubts about God, reincarnation, karma, etc., were ultimately the fruits of that decision and the philosophical arguments I was thereby exposed to; or that my budding doubts about certain practices in Swadhyaya were the fruits of my supposedly enlightened feminist conscience. I kinda want to believe that myself. Part of me also wants you to think that. After all, my public persona and reputation often depends upon me being considered a thoughtful and conscientious person. But, of course, that’s not the whole of it. Is it ever?
That’s not to say that my decisions and doubts were irrational. It’s simply to admit that they weren’t the products of disembodied cerebration. Though thought is part of this story, it’s not the whole of it. It never is. After all, I’m much more than that—I’m human. And, at the time, I was a teenage human. As an adolescent boy, my decisions and doubts were the fruits of a whole host of forces within and without the confines of my internal monologue. And foremost among these forces was devastating and soul-crushing heartbreak. It was the kind of heartbreak that turns your entire world upside down. It surely did mine.
At the beginning of my third year in undergrad, I had moved out of the dorms and into a campus apartment with one of my friends from Swadhyaya and his two roommates. By that time, I was certain. To my core, I knew exactly who I was going to marry. I’m not going to tell you who she was, though, of course, if you were close to me at the time, you already know. And if you weren’t, it doesn’t really matter, does it? The point is, I was sure she was the one. I wasn’t just ready for commitment, I was committed. It would obviously be a few years before I could realistically propose and eventually tie the knot. But that didn’t matter. My mind was made up, along with my heart and every tissue in my body.
It wasn’t a moonshot dream either. It wasn’t as if I had to woo her like the boys in all those young adult books and movies dripping with teenage angst. It wasn’t a tale of unrequited love. We had already been in a steady relationship for years at the time.
I can still remember how it felt. I wanted to spend every possible waking moment I could with her. When I wasn’t in class, begrudgingly doing homework, in practice for a cappella, or preparing for Yuva Kendra, I was spending time with her. And even when I was doing these things, my mind was saturated with thoughts of her. In addition to my being a self-righteous recluse, being in love also had a lot to do with my unwillingness to connect with anyone on campus. I felt as though I already had all that I ever wanted or needed: I had my Swadhyaya friends, and I had the girl I was going to marry. Of course, since we had a long-distance relationship, what “spending time with her” actually meant was always being near my computer ready to chat.
We never lived in the same state, so our relationship was always a long-distance one. Fortunately, like me, she also went to Swadhyaya. That made it possible for us to meet in person at regional or national Swadhyaya events. In fact, it’s at such an event that we met for the first time. These events didn’t happen all too often, so we’d end up meeting maybe once or twice a year. We’d meet once at Swadhyaya Youth Camp and again if there happened to be another national or regional event that year. It was rare, so we’d always be counting down the days, pining—or at least I would be. I’ll admit, part of the excitement of being involved in Swadhyaya at the time was born of this young love. If you’ve ever experienced it, you know how it feels. It was intoxicating.
And that’s probably why I didn’t take notice. By the end of the Fall semester, things had begun to change. Unbeknownst to me, the relationship was strained. The truth was, she was a lot more dedicated, in principle, to Swadhyaya and its ideals than I ever was. As just admitted, my interest in Swadhyaya at the time was intimately related to our relationship. I’m not sure I would have been as involved as I was if I wasn’t in a relationship with her. Given her level of dedication, however, she wanted more from me. She needed me to prove that I was just as dedicated to Swadhyaya as she was. Unfortunately, I was never able to convince her of that. I just wasn’t, or at least I wasn’t in the same way that she was.
Every year, Swadhyaya held these global exams called Vidya Prem Vardhan Parikshas. There were a total of six of them and she was pretty far along in the series. I, on the other hand, hadn’t taken a single one. Though I read a ton of Swadhyaya books, my reading was always based on my interests and not on any exam curricula. I never really took the exams seriously. This was always a point of contention between us. She wanted me to take the exams; I was never motivated to do so. I didn’t think it was a big deal at the time, but it definitely was in retrospect. Because I didn’t take these exams, and wasn’t all that interested in doing so, I think to her, I wasn’t really committed to her and her vision for what she wanted in a husband. I’m sure there was more, but that’s what sticks out in my memories.
And that’s totally fair. We had different expectations. Mine were satisfied; hers were not. That didn’t make her expectations excessive and mine reasonable. Just different.
I’m pretty sure she made it known that she wasn’t happy with where our relationship was headed, but I never took it seriously. I vaguely remember that there were times she hinted she wanted to end things. I didn’t listen. I thought everything would be okay, so when she asked me to tell me parents about our relationship as a test of my commitment, I did. Turns out my parents already knew. Parents somehow always seem to know a lot more about our personal lives than they ever let on. In retrospect, when she didn’t tell her own parents about us, it should have been clear to me that things wouldn’t end well. But again, I didn’t take notice and was convinced that everything would be okay. I was convinced that everything was okay.
But it wasn’t. She wasn’t happy. I’m sure the people close to her noticed, probably in ways that were invisible to or more likely ignored by me at the time. A Swadhyaya boy who went to the same school as her certainly did. They used to meet every week for local and campus Swadhyaya events. She never hid that from me. She told me about him; though, whenever she talked about him, she would always tell me that he was bothering her. She would tell me how much he would annoy and irritate her.
It turns out that he really liked her. He knew we were together, but at the time he clearly thought he could make her happier than I ever could. And maybe he could. Maybe he saw in ways that I never understood that she wasn’t happy, and he made it known to her.
I don’t really know how it all happened. As she started falling out of love with me, she started falling for him. All I know is that one afternoon, I got a chat message from the boy.
He said that they had kissed.
I didn’t believe it at first. I couldn’t believe it. So I messaged her.
“Did you kiss him?”
I still remember the feeling of my heart being torn to shreds the moment she replied. I was sitting at my desk in my college apartment. My heart sank so far deep into my chest I didn’t know if it was even there anymore. I was numb. And then I wasn’t. I was devastated. I went a bit mad, at least that’s how it would have appeared to an observer. In this case, the appearance was the reality. I felt like pulling my hair out. I didn’t succeed, but I tried nonetheless. And as I tried, I shook my head violently in disbelief. My body tensed up and my mind was reeling. Eventually, I buried my face repeatedly into my bed behind me.
At one point, I eerily observed myself walk out onto the balcony of the apartment. I stepped up onto the bottom edge of the guard railing and just stood there for a moment. I thought about it. I wanted to jump. I wanted so badly to jump. Anything to stop feeling what I was feeling in that moment. I just couldn’t handle all the complicated emotions running through me. They were feelings I had never felt before.
She was my world. Now there was no world.
But I didn’t end up doing it. I still held onto a little bit of hope. I could salvage things. I could forgive her. I forgave her. After all, it was just a kiss, right? At the time, I had no idea far it had gone. I had no idea how close their relationship had gotten. I was in the dark.
So I decided to drive up to her school. She wasn’t too keen about the idea. I’m pretty sure she didn’t want me to come. I don’t think I really read, listened, or absorbed anything she was saying that day after the incident. I just kept thinking that if we could meet in person, we could sort things out and move past it.
When I got there, we ended up spending most of the day together, and it was really comforting to be close to her again.
She was a philosophy major. I even ended up going to one of her classes with her. I usually don’t speak up in any of my own classes, but for some reason, on that day, a stranger in her class, I asked her professor a question about the lecture. I even remember keeping the conversation going for a bit asking follow-up questions. I loved it. I’m pretty sure he was thinking, “Who the fuck is this kid interrupting my class?” I’m sure he had no idea that this one exposure to a philosophy class would change my life forever. I have no idea who the professor was. All I know is that I owe him.
Eventually, it was time for me to leave and head back home.
I remember that moment vividly. It’s etched into my memory. Her campus was beautiful, and we were in this really old building with a ton of historic character and high vaulted ceilings. It was a perfect place to part ways. She was getting ready to go on to her next class. We said our goodbyes. And as she was about to leave, she kissed my cheek. My heart melted. And I watched her walk away.
We never really talked about anything that day, but for some reason I left with the feeling that everything would be alright.
I never heard from her again.
I was ghosted before ghosting was a thing. I was obviously devastated once again. I couldn’t make sense of what had happened. Everything was okay, and then it wasn’t. I didn’t know what to think and much of that period in my life is a bit of a blur.
As the days went by, all I remember is that I had to give it one more shot. I told my parents what was happening, and with their permission I drove one last time to her school. I had no idea if she would see me. I had no idea where I would sleep. I had no idea what would happen. I took my parents’ car, I put a little box together with some trinkets to give to her. I put one of my favorite white button-down t-shirts into the box with my cologne sprayed on it. I drove to the nearest mall that had a Build-a-Bear Workshop and built her a teddy bear before I left. And then I drove to her school through the night under some rough snowfall.
By the time I reached, it was pretty late. She obviously didn’t want me upstairs in her apartment. I respected that. So I slept outside, or tried, in my parents car with the heater on and the stereo playing Bollywood songs oozing with lyrics of love and heartbreak. When I woke up the next morning, she still didn’t want to see me, and we didn’t end up meeting that day. So I took the box I brought with me and left it somewhere under a bench outside the building where we last parted ways, hoping she would find it in herself to pick it up and remember how much she meant to me. And then I left. It was over.
It wasn’t until a few years later that I found out what happened to the box. After undergrad, I ended up going to India to study comparative philosophy and religion at a Swadhyaya university called Tattvajnana Vidyapeeth (TVP). As the Fates would have it, the boy she fell for applied to go to TVP the same year I did. We applied and were accepted together in the same batch. We eventually had a chat about it, laughed about it, and came to terms with all that had happened.
I wish things had ended differently. Maybe if I had let her go sooner, things would have been easier on both of us in the aftermath of our relationship. Especially her. There is a lot of crap women have to go through after breakups like this that men never even have to think about. There are a number of toxic normative expectations about maintaining a woman’s purity for her one true husband under the banner of pativratā in the Hindu and Hindu-American community. Predictably, there’s no analogous collection of normative expectations for men. Men can get away with a lot in our cultural world that women simply cannot. Even if the community happens to embrace a woman after she’s had a relationship with a man other than her expected future husband, because the ideals of pativratā are so deeply pushed and embedded, the psychological burdens remain heavy.
I know that she had hoped to live up to those ideals. It’s part of Swadhyaya culture to push them. Because of that, for her, the whole ordeal was one of betrayal. Because I was unwilling to demonstrate more commitment, I betrayed the trust she had put in me to be that one true husband. I let her down. And because I didn’t let her go, her next relationship began in a way that had no chance of growing into her ideals. It started off with a betrayal of her own.
The ordeals we go through in life aren’t just the result of our individual decisions. They’re also the products of the cultures and societies we’re born into. Much of the hardship she went through after our breakup was a result of that embeddedness and the conflicts that resulted from it. This is especially true of immigrants who live in the midst of two often very different cultures—one that thinks of adolescent relationships as a rite of passage and another that views them as a descent into defilement.
Of course none of this occurred to me at the time. I loved her and hated her at the same time. And eventually I came to just hate her for what she did to me. I don’t know if she’ll ever forgive me, but I think I’ve now come to terms with it all. For some reason it doesn’t seem appropriate to say I’ve forgiven her. All I can say is that I understand now. Or at least I’m trying to.
As for the box, it turns out she told him to pick it up from wherever I left it and dispose of it. I think he ended up giving the shirt and the box to a homeless person. I never had a chance. But I had to try. I know it’s the wrong thing to fixate upon, but man was it a really nice shirt…
Unless you’re already of a philosophical temperament and put great stock in philosophical argumentation, I’ll venture to guess that many of your most cherished beliefs and practices or rejections thereof are rooted not just in philosophical arguments, if at all, but in events and experiences you’ve had in your life. And that’s how it was for me.
If you’ve ever taken a philosophy of religion class in undergrad, you might understand what I’m getting at. There are a ton of really intricate philosophical arguments for the existence of God—moral, ontological, teleological, cosmological, etc.—as well as against—some of which delightfully involve flying spaghetti monsters or orbiting teapots. Students who already have fairly stable beliefs about the existence or nonexistence of God often find these arguments superfluous and sometimes even deeply irritating. When presented with arguments for the existence of God, the response from those who are already convinced of God’s existence is often, “No shit, Sherlock!” On the contrary, when presented with quite convincing objections to those very arguments, the response is often, “You’re missing the point!” On the other hand, those who are already convinced of God’s nonexistence tend to have the exact opposite responses: Arguments against the existence of God → “No shit, Sherlock” ; objections to those very arguments → “You’re missing the point!”
As a fellow philosopher at a recent conference I attended said, “Logic, as we are often taught it and encouraged to teach it in philosophy classes, is not about discovery, but about justification.” Whether your stable belief is in the existence of God or against, what you as an affirmer or denier are looking for out of philosophical argumentation is justification, not discovery. You can certainly feign doubt about everything you genuinely believe and then claim the conclusions of your logical arguments are genuine discoveries, but as the history of philosophy has often shown, usually the “discoveries” made are anything but. The arguments, more often than not, function as justifications for the very same beliefs and practices that were never actually doubted in the first place.
The point is, unless you have genuine doubt, there’s very little scope for philosophical argumentation to foster sincere inquiry. In the case of the existence of God, that doubt can be about either one’s prior belief in God’s existence or nonexistence. Either way, the doubt has to be real. Otherwise, the use of philosophical logic serves as nothing more than a façade of open-mindedness plastered upon stable belief—”I’m just going where the logic takes me!” The debates that follow are often interminable because of the phenomenon described two paragraphs ago.
This reminds me of Bhīṣma, Rāma, and Manu’s views about reason in the Mahābhārata, Rāmāyana, and Manusmṛti, respectively.2 They all assessed the value of reason in terms of its consequences for scripture and tradition. If it undermined belief in the Vedas (scripture) and Dharmaśāstras (tradition or treatises on proper conduct), then it is to be rejected by all twice-born as the hostile instrument of infidels and denigrators of the Veda. On the other hand, insofar as it was utilized in service of and in support of scripture and tradition, it was to be embraced. Logic, for them, was not the logic of discovery, growth, and progress. It was a logic of justification, an instrument of authority. Notice, however, that reason functions in the same way for skeptics and deniers. Despite the differences in the content of the beliefs being justified, the affirmers, the deniers, and the skeptics all share a common view of reason: reason as offering justification for pre-existing beliefs. They’re not all that different in temperament even though they’re fundamentally opposed in terms of their beliefs.
Doubt is not denial. Denial is belief, the affirmation of the negation of your opponent’s view. Doubt involves the absence of belief. But doubt also isn’t the coldly intellectual skepticism that often passes for it—”Well, there’s just no way for us to know! Let me prove it to you!”—which is more skeptical belief than doubt. Doubt is the unsettling of belief. Doubt is confusion. It’s perplexity. It’s uncertainty. It’s richly emotional and compelling, and often deeply uncomfortable. Despite the persistent equivocation, the deniers and skeptics, comfortable in their denial and skepticism, do not share any of the traits of those faced with genuine doubt. Maybe ‘doubt’ is to closely associated with denial and skepticism in our language for it to be a helpful term and we should replace it with ‘perplexity’ or some other term?
Whatever word you ultimately use for it, what I have in mind is that state when prior belief is unsettled and there is a felt urgency to regain some sense of stability in its wake. If you’ve experienced it yourself, you know exactly what I mean. Though intellectual argument can serve to unsettle our beliefs and practices, it’s just one of the many possible factors capable of doing so. Counterintuitively, a little taste of undergraduate philosophical logic when we’re not already in a state of doubt can actually serve to make us more rigid in our beliefs rather than less. In my experience, storytelling often does a better job of unsettling belief than intricate philosophical argumentation—hence the storytelling in this series of blog posts (*wink wink*). It is important to note, however, that genuine doubt is never the end. That is why skepticism isn’t doubt. Doubt is always a beginning. Skepticism is an end. If your doubt is an end, it’s safe to say that your doubt isn’t what I’m referring to as doubt, but rather belief. Genuine doubt, if embraced, is an invitation to embark on an adventure into uncharted territory.
So what was it that nudged me down the road towards become a philosophy major? What unsettled by my belief in God, reincarnation, karma, etc., and my faith in certain practices in Swadhyaya? I could give you highly intellectualized answers based on my current views about these things (and I have a lot of views), but that would of course be dishonest of me.
The honest answer is that my entire universe was turned upside down by heartbreak. Everything in my life was unsettled, because everything was touched by the relationship I had just lost.
Prior to that moment, because aerospace engineering was part of a broader vision of my future that I fell in love with, it never dawned upon me that I never actually enjoy it. It was only afterwards that I began to finally notice. When that broader vision fell apart and I came face to face with the details of it, it became clear to me that I did not want to become an aerospace engineer.
I had to replace my lost vision with another that helped me regain some composure in life. That’s when I started believing deeply and sincerely that Dadaji had great plans for me, plans that would be furthered if I transitioned to become a philosophy major. So I did. In the final weeks of the Spring semester, to may parents’ dismay, I took a leave of absence and withdrew from all of my classes. To be honest, I was doing a pretty crap job in those classes anyways. I remember the first Yuva Kendra after I did that. It felt like a tremendous weight had been lifted. Everyone told me how happy I looked. I was different. I had hope. I was excited about something again.
Because everything was unsettled for me, philosophy didn’t end up just being about justification for me. It was an adventure into uncharted territory. I followed the arguments. I became aware of new possibilities. It wasn’t about proving that I had all the right answers. It was about finding new ones. I was more open to take the arguments where they took me. It wasn’t just a show of open-mindedness. My unsettled beliefs opened up new worlds before me.
It’s then that the doubts about God, reincarnation, karma, etc., began to take hold. Because I had also lost some of my connection to Swadhyaya, things that I otherwise would have let go, like the sexism that seemed to be floating up to the surface in those years, started to become more apparent to me.
It all sounds wondrous, but it didn’t last all that long. New possibilities opened up before me, but I didn’t really have any stable ground to tred upon. Though I eventually pulled through, I found myself in a pretty dark place for quite some time in the years that followed. After the initial excitement had faded by the end of the year, I remember failing two classes the following Spring semester—world philosophy and metaphysics—because I just couldn’t get myself to concentrate. I eventually ended my last semester in undergrad with a bang. I got straight As at the end of my fifth year. It was an incredible feeling, but it was no doubt a struggle getting there.
I don’t think I would have made it had I not met Punam in those intervening years. She held me up emotionally and helped me put the pieces of my life back together. She wanted to be my friend, a broken shell of a man, and she accepted me how I was in those years. She let me explore my doubts without placing any expectations upon me. She was a true friend in every sense.
We talked every night online. We’d stay up doing homework together, talking through the night, getting to know one another. I supported her while she was grinding (like a boss, as she says) through nursing school and other aspects of her life and she supported me. And it was through her that I regained some sense of normalcy in my life.
I was still depressed and I still had a lot of darkness ahead of me to face over the next decade. You’ll come face to face with that in my next post. But she guided me through it all. And that’s why I fell in love with her and everything about her, especially all of her quirky facial expressions. She used to send me pictures of herself and I made a collection of them. In one of the collections, she had all these adorable expressions on her face. She hates the pictures, but I love them so much. I made two frame with all of these pictures. One hangs in her room at her house in NJ till this day, while another hangs in my room at my house in MD. They make my heart skip a beat every time I see them or even think about them.
I still remember the moment I realized I loved her. I was at my cousin Payal’s wedding garba. We had been talking for a while and had become the best of friends at the time. We talked every night. At the wedding, however, I didn’t have reliable internet, and for some reason, I hadn’t told her that I was going to the wedding. She was really upset with me about that. As she now says, “Who talks to you everyday and then just suddenly disappears like that!? Basically, I thought you were an idiot.” On the night of the garba, we finally talked on the phone outside of the garba hall. Though she was pissed at me, it’s at that moment that we realized how much we missed each other, even though we’d only been apart for a really short time. We had slowly fallen in love, and in that moment of vulnerability, away from one another, it became clear. Though she still wasn’t sure if she loved me at the time, she was pissed, I knew in that moment that I loved her. It’s a lot more romantic of a memory in my head than it is in hers.
Doubts are only the start of an adventure, and adventures are seldom pleasant. With my belief in Swadhyaya and the rest unsettled, it was just a matter of time before my Hindu identity was called into question. And when that finally happened, my world was turned upside down once again. Though the incidents I described in this post were certainly painful, they were nothing compared to what I was about to go through.
Since this detour has gone on for quite bit, however, I think I’m gonna hit pause on the story. We’ll continue next time. Thanks for bearing with me!
1 Fesmire, Steven (2003). John Dewey & Moral Imagination: Pragmatism in Ethics.
2 Ganeri, Jonardon (2001). Philosophy in Classical India.