- Between Two Worlds: East and West: An Autobiography
The British philosopher Anthony Quinton once described J. N. Mohanty as "The one and only x who is a specialist in Navya-Nyāya, Husserl, and Frege." Between Two Worlds: East and West is the extraordinary story of Mohanty's career as a student, teacher, and scholar of Indian and German philosophy. Told against the backdrop of the struggle for Indian Independence, the trauma of partition, the intellectual and cultural glory of Calcutta, postwar Germany, and the United States of the last generation, Mohanty's story is a page-turner filled with fascinating anecdotes from his own life as well as the lives of the many remarkable thinkers and public figures he has encountered. It is also a story of the concrete historical situations that enabled Mohanty's singular contribution to philosophy: the decades of study with some of India's most learned paṇḍits, the opportunities offered during his years as a student in Göttingen, and his close collegial relationships with Aron Gurwitsch, Hans Jonas, and Hannah Arendt. Though he set out to write an autobiography that was explicitly not a philosophical text, Mohanty observes that "since my life has been primarily dedicated to the pursuit of philosophical ideas, the connection of the story of my life to my philosophical interests was almost unavoidable" (p. ix). In addition to brief discussions of some of the philosophical questions he has pursued in his previous writings, Mohanty here reflects on cultural identity, the life of the mind, and religion and spirituality, as well as social and political questions.
Born in 1928, Mohanty enjoyed a pleasant and comfortable childhood supported by the loving attention of an extended family. (In this story families are adaptable, ever incorporating others into the love and care of a network grounded in mutual support, shared food, and conversation.) The family home was in the small village of Nilakaṇṭhapur (the seat of the blue-necked god, i.e., Śiva), where Mohanty's [End Page 139] father had been raised. His father had left the village for a successful career as a judge under the British Raj, bringing both social prominence and moderate wealth. But his father's career required periodic moves, and it was the village to which they regularly returned that Mohanty considered home. It is a pleasure to read Mohanty's descriptions of the cycle of the seasons, village life, local customs, family characters, and the rambling house with its temple and many rooms. Mohanty still thinks of himself as a "village boy," and these pages are written with much tenderness and enough historical background to contextualize his descriptions.
Unlike his father, Mohanty was not educated in the village school. He himself was born in the regional capital of Cuttack and educated at the English government school in town. Mohanty has fond recollections of his teachers and the special school holidays, including the sports festivals, the single religious holiday observed by the school—the worship of the goddess of learning, Saraswati—and the distribution of prizes for academic distinction. Mohanty would inevitably receive numerous prizes. Later, at his matriculation from high school, Mohanty achieved the highest scores in all of Orissa, and stood first in the university following his studies of mathematics, logic, and Sanskrit in Cuttack. Upon completion of his study of philosophy and law at Presidency College (Calcutta), Mohanty again stood first in the First Class, and then again for his graduate work at Calcutta University. Mohanty's schooling was augmented with lessons from private tutors at home that preceded or followed the regular school hours. "Every morning," Mohanty writes, he and his siblings
would recite conjugations and declensions of Sanskrit verbs and nouns loud enough to be heard outside the house; we would compete to do it first. The pandit [Nilakantha Misra, Mohanty's first Sanskrit teacher] taught me all the grammar that I learnt later. He also taught this ten-year-old boy the primer of logic Tarkasaṃgraha, and Kalidāsa's Raghuvaṃśaṃ. (p. 6)