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The Vaishnodevi Experience 2023

My first trip to Vaishnodevi was unimpressive. Climbing was hard, and it only served to highlight how badly out of shape I was, while my in-laws managed to cope so much better. Further, I hadn’t quite realized that the cave experience wouldn’t be the same as I had imagined, since the original cave was only opened at certain times a year, and that we only entered a newly created tunnel, one far easier to access, and hence more manageable with the crowds that thronged the mountain shrine. The resulting experience at the shrine, for barely a fraction of a second, hardly compared to what I had expected / imagined / heard about. So, for me, Vaishnodevi was like any other temple, nothing to write home about, something that was reflected (though not explicitly mentioned) in the blog post I wrote then.

Book Review: On Philosophising, Philosophers, Philosophy and New Vistas in Applied Philosophy, by Dr. Sharmila Jayant Virkar

A little bit of context before you begin reading this book review. I have recently enrolled for an MA in Philosophy at the University of Mumbai. Philosophy is something I have been getting interested in, over the past few years, as those of you who have been reading my blogs and Instagram posts would know. During the pandemic, I thought long and hard about what I wanted to do next, and this is what I eventually came up with. It has been a challenge, getting back into academics as a student at this age, especially in a subject I have no academic background in. However, it has also been very exciting, especially thanks to my wonderful classmates (who, surprisingly, are of all age-groups, including some quite near my own) and my teachers, who have been very supportive and understanding. How well I will do is something that remains to be seen, but so far, I am enjoying this new journey and look forward to where it leads.

Now that you know the background, you probably get an idea of how and why I am reviewing a book which is obviously on Philosophy. However, before you think that this is going to be a post filled with philosophy jargon, let me reassure you…. This is not going to be a technical review, and the only reason it appears here on the blog is because it relates to what I have been writing about for all these years. So do read on, and I would love to hear what you think of it.





 

The story of this review begins last week. It was our last day of class before the Diwali vacation (yes, I have Diwali vacations now!!) and Sharmila ma’am, who teaches us Contemporary Indian Philosophy (which involves the philosophy of Lokmanya Tilak, G.G. Agarkar and R.D Ranade among others), walked in with a book. She usually brings books related to the philosopher she is teaching, but this time, she said it was her new book, which had just been published. Now, those of you who know me, know that I can’t ever keep my hands off books, especially new ones, so I was among the first to stretch my hand out for it.

And what a surprise it was. I expected a philosophical tome, considering the title. Instead, the first page I turned to, had ten points (yes, bullet points) explaining what is philosophy. I flipped through some more pages, and found more points… and questions…. And more questions. We obviously did not have time to read the book in the class, so I requested her permission to borrow the book to read, and she graciously agreed. Over the next few days, I found myself going over the book every now and then, flipping through the pages, reading at random. It’s a small book, and can be read at one go, but it isn’t the kind of book you read at one go. Its one which is meant to be read slowly, critically. It is meant to provoke thought.

So, what is the book about?

Sharmila ma’am says she was inspired to write this book during the lockdown, a period when she found herself unable to interact with students as she has been used to. The situation made her think of philosophy in a different way, or rather in a manner different from what is usually taught in class, philosophy which we encounter in our everyday life, but from the point of someone who has spent her entire life immersed in philosophy.

The book attempts to answer the kinds of questions those of us who take up philosophy face – Why philosophy? What is philosophy exactly? And so on… and in trying to answer these questions, Dr. Virkar talks of philosophy in various contexts, all of which concern our regular, day to day lives. She speaks of such varied topics such as the Philosophy of Archaeology, of Traffic Management, of Heritage, of Vacations, of Relationships, of Food, of Fun Philosophy and the philosophical analysis of home. She writes about the Philosophy of Tourism and Philosophical Tourism, of the Philosophy of Photography and Philosophical Photography… the list goes on. And she talks of these, not just as topics, by trying to expound on them, but posing questions which can be raised in each of these fields. These questions are by no means complete, they are her questions, but considering her background, they are quite comprehensive.

It is interesting to think of answering a few basic questions with many more, but that is exactly what Dr. Virkar does in the book. Through her topics and questions, she tries to bring out the fact that philosophy is not something that exists outside the world we live in, but it is very much a part of our lives, whether we study it or not, and whether we are aware of it or not.

These questions are meant to provoke thought, which is what philosophy essentially is about.

The book has other, heavier, topics as well, such as Humanity and Humanitarianism, Corporate Yoga, Business Epistemology, Philosophy of Management and Existence at Four Levels. However, each of these topics are dealt in a very simple manner, touching upon topics in an easy language, without going in too deep. Each of these topics is an excellent read, whether you know anything about them or not.

So that’s what the book about. But why did I like it so much?

I was hooked, as soon as I read this from the introduction –

Philosophy is nothing but conceptual geography elucidating interconnections among seemingly unrelated concepts or highlighting the known connections in radically different ways.

I could not have put it better, but this quote summarizes perfectly, my journey from physics to travel writing to aesthetics and heritage to philosophy. Making connections requires asking questions, whether the questions are articulated or not.

My internal questions from my travel experiences, and visiting temples, led me, first to Jnanapravaha Mumbai, where I began to make the connections between what I knew and what I was seeing, through all that I was learning. That led me to the Asiatic, which is where I developed an interest in philosophy, and began to read more about it, which is what has led me to where I am today, and what I am doing now. Where it will lead me next, remains to be seen! But there is no doubt that questions like these are the crux of everything we are, everything we do, whether we are aware of it or not. This only highlights the importance of asking these questions in the first place, of being conscious of these questions, and acting in accordance with them.

There is another aspect of this that I must mention. Samhith, as a student of the IB board, had, as one of his subjects, the Theory of Knowledge (TOK). As part of this, they were encouraged to ask radical questions about how they know what they know. This, I know now, is the essence of Epistemology, but it was taught not as a philosophy, but as critical thinking. During the pandemic, one of the things I enjoyed most, were those discussions with him related to TOK, though I think I learnt more from him than he did from me! Reading this book reminded me of many of those discussions, and made me wish once again, that philosophy was taught to us at school as it was to him! Books like this, and questions like these, will go a long way in bridging that gap. 

P.S. The book was launched today at the University. It will be available online for sale. 

Comments

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