Imagine you’re on an interstate drive to visit your family. It’s the last hour-long stretch of the journey, and you’re feeling a bit drowsy. So you decide to pump yourself full of sugar and caffeine. Anything to get you through the last sixty minutes of the drive. You’re craving some Dunkin’ Donuts—donuts, drinks, and maybe even those perfectly seasoned hash browns that always seem to hit the spot as long as they’re not burnt. You search for Dunkin’ Donuts in Google Maps (or Apple if that’s you’re jam) and find the most convenient one on route. O, the sweet and savory anticipation!
But then it hits you: “Shit, hopefully Google isn’t taking me to one of those self-service kiosks in a gas station convenience store.” That’s it. That state you’re in, that’s doubt. It’s the state of uncertainty you find yourself in now that your belief that the Dunkin’ Donuts you entered into your GPS is a brick and mortar store is unsettled. It’s the result of really infuriating prior experiences—of repeatedly rolling up on gas station convenience stores and realizing you’ve been duped by your GPS—rising up to the conscious surface of your mind in the present situation.
As I mentioned in the last post, this doubt isn’t the same thing as denial or skepticism. You’re not denying that the Dunkin’ Donuts is a brick and mortar store. You’re not skeptical, in the philosophical sense, of whether it is a brick and mortar store; you’re not declaring that, “We can never truly know whether the Dunkin’ Donuts is a brick and mortar store or a self-service kiosk!” The latter are kinds of beliefs we can comfortably lie back upon as we live our lives—though I admit I do find it difficult to imagine what a life steeped in philosophical skepticism looks like. On the other hand, doubt, by its very nature, isn’t something we can lie back upon. It is a state of unsettled belief. How are you supposed to lie back upon that?
Doubt, as unsettled belief, is uncomfortable. But depending on the scale of the doubts, ranging from the trivial to the existential, they may be managed. If you have doubts about whether the object your friend placed in front of you is a large ceramic turtle or a cake made to look like a large ceramic turtle, those doubts are not going to throw your life into disarray. You have remaining intact a whole network of beliefs you can lie back upon as you inquire into and settle the matter. You don’t doubt that the cake knife in your kitchen drawer is made of wobbly, unreinforced silicone or hardened steel. You don’t doubt whether you have the strength to pick it up. You don’t doubt whether you have the skill to use it effectively. You don’t doubt whether your table is stable enough to resist the gentle downward motion of the knife. Lying back upon all of these stable beliefs, among others, you’re able to conduct a directed inquiry into the matter by attempting to slice into the object to determine whether it’s a cake or a large ceramic turtle.
Likewise, your doubt about whether the Dunkin’ Donuts entered into your GPS is a store or kiosk isn’t going to derail your entire trip. You can call and find out. Their number is listed in Google Maps. Or, considering the stakes aren’t all that high, you can just drive up and see what you stumble upon. It may be hella frustrating when you pull up to a convenience store, but such are the trials of life.
We face these kinds of doubts all. the. time. They’re everyday occurrences. Did I add enough salt to the refried beans? Did I turn off the stove? Did I close the trunk of the car? Is the front door locked? Will my students understand lecture today? Are my bills and loans still being paid through autopay? Did I feed Baloo? Are the plants getting enough water? Did I pack utensils in Punam’s lunch box?
And this is not to say that all our doubts are articulable as questions. Oftentimes, a doubt arises as that nagging feeling that is just so irritatingly ambiguous—”Something just doesn’t feel right”—kinda like the feeling Kevin’s mom has in the airplane before she eventually realizes that she left Kevin home alone. Or that feeling you get when someone from your past who you don’t talk to that often texts you saying they want to talk to you on the phone about something. You’re not sure what it’s about, but something seems up…
So where am I going with this musing about #Dunkin’_Donuts_Doubts? The point is one of contrast: the doubt I found myself in towards the end of undergrad after devastating heartbreak and a quick two-year romp through undergraduate philosophy was NOT of this trivial sort. For me, it was borderline existential. Dunkin’ Donut doubts are like walking home through a neighborhood forest on a new-moon evening with a fairly powerful flashlight to help illuminate the trail before you. You’re uncomfortable, but you know what direction you’re headed in, and you have a flashlight—a web of stable beliefs—you can rely on to get you there.
Existential doubts are like waking from an unconscious daze to find yourself hanging on for dear life to an unidentifiable piece of floating debris in what seems like a never-ending expanse of water in the middle of nowhere on a new-moon evening, bobbing about trying to identify some land. You have no idea how long it’s going to be; you have no idea how you got there; you have no idea where you’re going. There seems to be nothing you can rely on to find your way. So you latch onto whatever it is you can find—the unidentifiable piece of floating debris—that makes you feel safe.
And you hold on for dear life.
That was me. I was lost at sea—or whatever unknown body of water I happened to find myself in—with zero experience in navigation.
But I did have one piece of unidentifiable floating debris to hold fast upon: Tattvagnana Vidyapeeth (TVP or Pitt as we called it for short). Roughly translated as Philosophical University, TVP is a residential educational institution started by the founder of Swadhyaya in a city immediately neighboring Mumbai called Thane, before it became a bustling metropolis. It was modeled after the founder’s idealized conception of what a tapovan or ancient brahmanical school must have been like, “situated in inspiring, sylvan surroundings away from the impact of city and town life.”1 Of course, it now finds itself engulfed by a metropolitan city, but its still exists as a verdant spiritual oasis in its midst.
At the time, there was a two-year post-(under)graduate non-degree course that a just a handful of fortunate Swadhyaya youth (all male of course) from the US got the opportunity to go to every year. Because my parents were really active krutisheels in Swadhyaya, my older brother was the first in the family to get an opportunity to go after he graduated from undergrad—after taking an entrance exam and interview of course. When I was deciding whether or not to apply, my brother had just come back from TVP. It was difficult at first to get adjusted to the way of life there, but once he did he had nothing but good things to say about it. I found myself enamored by the idea of the place. It sounded like a philosophical paradise; a place to openly inquire into my burgeoning doubts about Hinduism and Swadhyaya.
The truth is I had no idea what to expect. I had no idea what I was getting myself into. No one really does until you’re there. It was my unidentifiable piece of floating debris. In my mind, if there was ever a place capable of transforming my burgeoning existential doubts into stable belief, TVP was it.
I can write your eyes off in reminiscence of how things were for me at the time, but I think the best way to probe my mental state is to have you read my application letter to TVP. The letter was written in response to a question on the application: “Why do you want to come to Tattvagnana Vidyapeeth for the post-graduate curriculum (Aap Tattvagnana Vidyapeeth mein anusnaatak abhyaaskram mein kyun aanaa chaahte hein)?” I was going to annotate the letter, but I think I’m just going to let it speak for itself:
Why I Want To Go To Vidyapeeth When it comes times to answer the question of why I want to go to Vidyapeeth, it's often very difficult for me to do so. It's not because I don't have any reasons, but rather because my emotions about it often outshine every other practical or rational consideration. And when you're so emotionally overwhelmed by something, it's often very difficult to extract any intellectual rational behind it, let alone speak about it coherently. It is just something that converses with your soul, your very being, in a language you don't really understand. It awakens a sense of awe, wonder, and zeal inside you that you can't really explain. The feeling just exists, it is already there with so much force, and all you can really say is, "I just do..." It's like when Dadaji explains why some people stay in Swadhyaya karya while others end up coming and going. Why do people stay? It's because God sends the people who stay. God, in one way or another inspires them from within to stay. Of course I'm not that arrogant to say that God has sent me here so that I could go to Vidyapeeth. What I mean is not that at all. What I mean to say is that it's often very difficult to answer the question of why people want certain things. It's just something unknown, unseen, unintelligible that drives them from within to pursue what they label as their own personal dreams. They may come up with reasons after the fact, but to figure out why that idea or emotion came into their soul in the first place is often so difficult, if not impossible to do and understand. Despite that, I will try my best to share why I want to go, especially since Dadaji always wanted us to act in a way that demonstrated rational conviction. And being that Pujya Dadaji is the one that has given my life the direction and attitude that it has right now, it is only fitting that I try my very best to follow his vision. Though I will undoubtedly make mistakes, and may write some things in this letter that make no sense to whoever may be reading this, I know that whatever will come out of me is coming from my heart, and since whatever comes out of my heart was put there in the first place by Dadaji's love for me, the rest of my letter is to my Pujya Dadaji, the one who came into my life as everything. Dadaji, for almost my entire life, I've felt like a disappointment to everyone around me. I've always felt different, like an outsider trying to fit in. I always try to fit in, but it's just really hard for me. From the day I was born till today, it just feels like the people that I love are slowly getting more and more distant from me. I just don't understand how to talk to them; I don't understand what it is to love them. I don't know what it feels like to be loved back, and if I am loved back, it's hard for me to recognize it. I feel isolated from the rest of the world. It's hard for me to feel like I belong. I don't remember having any best friends when I was little. I don't really know if I have a best friend even today. All I know is that you're the only one that inspires me to live another day and face new challenges and adventures. You're the only one that I know and feel truly loves me for who I am and pushes me to unlock my potential. Ever since the end of high school, I was miserable, Dadaji. I was going to college as an aerospace engineering major, but my heart wasn't in it. I did it because I wanted to make everyone proud of me, because I thought that's what I was supposed to to. But year after year went by and I just got more and more frustrated and fed up. People I would talk to would tell me, "Sometimes we have to do things we don't enjoy in order to have a chance at a good future." What they said made perfect sense, but it just didn't inspire me to want to tackle another day. It didn't stick to my heart. I just felt like they didn't understand what I was feeling inside. But you did, and you told me in my junior year, "We must take inspiration from our ancient sages and take bold steps to rebuild the society. Of course, we might commit mistakes; but not to make any efforts is morally wrong and intellectually suicidal. Man must learn to take delight in adventures of thought and spirit. Even the bitter tears of one's own failures are preferable to the joys of slavery. One must accept one's defeat with grace but always remain firm in the resolve of independent effort and rational conviction." And when I read your words in The Systems, it inspired me to change. You gave me a new direction and a new attitude to live with for the rest of my life. Now, for the first time in my life, I feel like I have a direction. I have something to live for. I can do something constructive with my life. I'm a philosophy major now, Dadaji, and I'm so happy, because now I have the opportunity to live out an adventure. I have an opportunity to exert myself towards something beautiful. That happiness is only because of you and the faith you put in my ability to take a bold new step in my life. now, I'm learning to find joy in life by learning to understand it, and I dream of being able to inspire others, like you have inspired me, to take a bold step towards their happiness. I want to learn to be like you, Dadaji, My sage is you. It's because of you that my life has meaning. You've inspired me to be the best that I can be, Dadaji. But the truth is, I don't yet know how to be the best I can be. I have so much to learn it's overwhelming. I may be able to learn and become a graduate at any other university in the world, but there is simply no place in all of the universities that I know of, besides your Vidyapeeth, where I can learn what I need in order to become a better person, a person you can be proud of. I know that Vidyapeeth is the only place where I will get the proper guidance to help me figure out my true jeevan dhyey [goal in life]. I know what direction I want to go in Dadaji, but I don't have a proper dhyey [goal] yet. I don't have a goal that I know I'm working towards. I've spent two years learning philosophy and training my mind to think like a western philosopher, and it has driven me to expand my horizons and think about life and the problems it presents in novel ways. But as my thoughts expand, my focus wanes and I'm being driven in all different directions, some which I know you wouldn't be proud of: nihilism, materialism, physicalism, etc. I'm confused. My western intellect tells me one thing, and my eastern heart tells me another. The pursuit of truth and wisdom is a fruitful endeavor, but not all the fruit is sweet. It also comes with a steep price—the price of a million questions. The price is skepticism, and I feel myself losing faith, Dadaji. I feel myself being drawn away from the thoughts that I've grown up with, and it's disconcerting. My faiths are being questioned, not by others but by my own self. Being questioned so much by my intellect and myself, it has now become difficult for me to say that I know what's right. I don't know many things, Dadaji, but one thing that I know for a fact is this: I don't want any other dhyey besides the one you give me. I don't want any other dhyey besides the one that grows under your guidance and love. I've begun my adventure, Dadaji. I've taken a bold step in a new direction. But in taking that one step, I've met with an onslaught of difficulties. My thoughts and faiths are wavering, and my character isn't strong enough as of yet to complete my adventure. In spite of all that, Dadaji, I'm nowhere near ready to accepting the bitter tears of a defeat. I know for sure, that with your guidance in your presence at Vidyapeeth, I can develop the character I need to face any difficulty I will come across in my life's adventure. Under your guidance, I know I can give my mind a powerful form of rational conviction. With your guidance, I know I'll be able to take a new, second step towards a dhyey, without make a mistake, one that I know I will make without your help. Why do I want to go to Vidyapeeth, Dadaji? It's because I have faith in you and no one else. I don't have faith in many things, Dadaji, but I do have so much faith in you and your love, a faith stronger than any challenge I can face. I know you'll accept me for whomever I become, and for that reason I don't just want to leave it at that, I want to make you proud. I want to become yours Dadaji. That's why I want to go to Vidyapeeth. I want to be close to you. I want to become a part of you, and learn to be a part of you wherever I go. I want to go to Vidyapeeth, because I love you. If I could summarize this letter, I'd take out everything but that last sentence. I don't know what I'll get from Vidyapeeth. I don't know what's there for me, but that doesn't really matter to me. It doesn't even matter to me what everyone else has gotten from Vidyapeeth. All I know is that I want to be close to you. Something inside tells me, that you'll be the one who accepts me for who I am in your home. I want to feel that love, Dadaji. I want to make you proud of me when I grow to be someone you can love, and I want you to be with me every step of the way while I do it. I know that to anyone who is reading this letter, everything I said might sound unorganized and confused. But as I said before in the beginning, it's very hard for me to put into words what I feel. All I know is that something inside me is pulling me towards Dadaji and Vidyapeeth. I don't know if I'm worthy enough to be given a chance to go. In fact I don't think I am, but if I do get a chance to go, it will truly be a blessing and a gift from Dadaji and Bhagavan. More than anything, if none of this letter makes any sense, one of the most important reasons why I want to go to Vidyapeeth is this, and I hope at least this makes sense: I just want to feel like I belong somewhere, and I believe and have faith that Vidyapeeth will be that one place where I truly feel like a belong.
The essence of the letter is really expressed those final lines: I just want to feel like I belong somewhere. At the time, I didn’t know where I belonged, neither in the world I grew up in, nor in the world in which I then found myself. The only think left to fall back upon was my inchoate idea of TVP.
So I sent in my application.
Fortunately, I got selected for an interview and exam.
I don’t think it went very well—at least the interview didn’t. I remember doing pretty well on the written exam since I had read a lot of Swadhyaya books, but I also remember walking out of the interview convinced that I had completely tanked it. After all, I was really honest and vulnerable during the interview, even more so than in the letter. I told them about the girlfriends I had growing up. I told them about my recent heartbreak. I told them about a lot of things that probably gave them a whole lot of pause.
So at first I wasn’t accepted.
Instead, I was called for what I believe was an unprecedented (true to my name, apūrva, which I often translate as unprecedented) second interview at the home of one of the uncles2 on the selection committee. I’m pretty sure the second interview was meant to be a kind of psychiatric evaluation for depression. At least it felt like it based on the kinds of questions I was asked on the day. I remember feeling really awkward at the time. Despite the awkwardness, I think it was a really responsible decision on their part to conduct that second interview, especially given my unstable mental state at the time. So I do sincerely commend them for doing their due diligence.
I think after the uncle was finally convinced I would be okay (and I will admit that I might have given him the false impression that I was more stable than I actually was), he called Didiji—Dadaji’s daughter and the current head of the entire Swadhyaya movement—to update her on the situation. He gave me the phone to talk to her and she asked me if I wanted to go. She said something along the lines of, “Think of Tattvagnan Vidyapeeth as your own home. You’re always welcome to come. If you want to come, tell me you want to come. If you don’t, then tell me you don’t. Ultimately it’s your decision.”
So I said yes. What else would I have said. I didn’t really have anything else. And that was it. I was in.
What I can say with some certainty is that the two years that followed changed the entire trajectory of my life. It was in response to my experiences at TVP and immediately after that I finally transitioned from unquestioning belief in my Hindu and Swadhyayee identity, to flat out denial. No longer doubt, but stable belief in not being a Hindu or a Swadhyayee. I became an atheist.
Despite my hope that TVP would be the one place in the world where I would finally feel a sense of belonging, the reality was that I didn’t. And when I got back from TVP, I no longer belonged in Swadhyaya either. When it come to TVP, I felt like I didn’t belong. When it came to Swadhyaya upon my early return from TVP, I was told that I didn’t belong.
And the years that followed were truly the ones in which I felt most alone.
1 Athavale, Pandurang V. (1997). Glimpses of the Life of Lord Krishna. Mumbai, Maharashtra: Sat Vichar Darshan.
2 This is what South Asian Americans typically to call elder male figures in the community.