When I was in high school, a friend living in the US gifted me a book titled Sophie’s World written by Jostein Gaarder. It was “a novel about the history of philosophy”, aimed at introducing to the audience, particularly the young teenagers, the Western philosophy starting from pre-Socratic Greek philosophers to Descartes, Locke, Darwin, and Freud.
Written as a novel, the story revolves around Sophie Amundsen, a young teenager who was about to turn 15. One day she receives a strange letter containing a question: “Who are you?” which raises her curiosity and initiates her into a journey into Western philosophy.
The story contains a series of probing questions like: Where does the world come from? Is there a basic substance that everything else is made of? Do you believe in fate? The questions are followed by an overview of Western philosophers and their philosophical positions in a very simple language, which acts as anchor points for approaching these questions?
The best part is that the questions and the anchor points are not presented together. Instead, the protagonist Sophie, as well as the reader, is first introduced to a question in a particular chapter and is allowed to contemplate on the answer and only later in a subsequent chapter, the anchor points in the form of an established philosophical position is presented to assist further contemplation on the issue.
Thus, the readers do not remain merely a passive spectator of the story, but they share the philosophical journey with the protagonist Sophie Amundsen. Her questions become their questions; her contemplation becomes their contemplation, her journey becomes their journey. In fact, it becomes much more. The readers are smoothly and often unconsciously led to make an independent exploration into a reality of existence on their own.
This is exactly what happened to me. When I came to the chapter on Descartes, I was introduced to his famous quote “Cogito, ergo sum”, which means “I think, therefore I am”. The character Alberto in the book, who is himself a philosopher, enunciates the meaning of this quotation to Sophie thus: “That’s the way it was for Descartes. He perceived not only that he was a thinking, he realised at the same time that this thinking was more real than the material world which we perceive with our senses.”
While the book explored other ideas of Descartes including his notion of God and idea of a perfect entity, my mind became fixed on cogito, ergo sum ― that our thinking is more real than the material world. As I contemplated more on this, I realised there was more to it. It is not just that our thinking is more real than the material world, but that the material world has no independent existence of its own apart from my perception. In other words, the statement “I exist” alone is absolutely true and verifiable by the fact of “I” indulging in perception, thinking etc. The objects perceived, on the other hand, have no reality as such, except for them being available as objects of perception when the subject so desires by directing the mind and the senses towards it. For example, if I close my eyes, the objects which were perceived through eyes as independent realities, simply cease to exist as long as my eyes remain closed. This is even more evident when one sleeps. Therefore, there are no independent means for accessing or verifying the existence of a material world other than their temporary appearance when they are perceived by my mind.
In short, if I were to take this thought process to the logical conclusion, it translates into saying: “I” alone exist and everything else ― the world, the people, the relatives, friends, every person and every object ― has only an incidental and apparent existence by the virtue of being perceived by me.
This insight which was almost like a revelation to me, so wonderful and so powerful that the conviction of its truth has become deeply ingrained in my psyche. While I am not sure whether Descartes’ own conclusions were the same as mine or not, for me at least the exploration led to non-duality ― the reality of “I” alone.
While being born in a family following Advaita Sampradaya, I was exposed to phrases like “aham Brahmasmi” from childhood, which I began to appreciate more in the light of my contemplation on cogito, ergo sum, it was many years later I discovered that my insight and thought process were actually at the heart of advanced prakriyas or modes of Advaita teaching, such as “Drishti-Srishti-Vada” and “Eka-Jiva-Vada”.
While Drishti-Srishti-Vada posits that the transactional universe comes into existence only in the process of an individual’s observation of the world ― that is, creation is simultaneous with and through perception ― Eka-Jiva-Vada posits that there is just one jiva, the enquirer, who becomes bound and who ultimately attains liberation. There is no second person, second entity. The seeds of this doctrine of Eka-Jiva can be found in Gaudapacharya’s Mandukya Karika and was later developed by Vimuktatman.
Within the Advaita tradition, while the conventional way of teaching the highest reality is Srishti- Drishti-Vada or the doctrine of creation even before perception, which posits the material world as an objective reality at a transactional level, the prakriyas of “Drishti-Srishti-Vada” and “Eka-Jiva-Vada” are taught to advanced mumukshu seekers.
The point is, while I was not and still I am not fully familiar or even aware of all the nuanced details of the system of Advaita Vedanta, a simple statement, that too in a book on western philosophy, was able to lead me to the wonderful insight into the reality of existence which has been expounded by our Acharyas and Rishis for many thousand years.
Thus, it is possible to introduce deeper Hindu philosophies to people, especially to young teenagers in their impressionable years, by presenting these in an interesting manner, which raises their curiosity and impels them to probe deeper.
While we have our Mahabharata, Ramayana, Puranas and Yoga Vashishta like texts to accomplish exactly this, over the last decades, the Hindu parents have not been able to effectively utilise this, perhaps partly due to their own ignorance of Itihasa-Puranas.
In any case, I believe it is high time that Hindu scholars and teachers considered creating our own Sophie’s World that can introduce young readers to various Hindu philosophies and positively influence them to explore deeper questions of life and reality in the context of Hindu worldview.