According to reports in various newspapers, the government is considering celebrating renowned ancient sage Adi Shankaracharya’s birth date, May 11, as National Philosopher’s Day. Lest someone accuse the establishment of wasting time and resources on meaningless drivel, May 11 will be just an observance day, not a public holiday. (We already have 21 of those.)
Incidentally, there is already a World Philosophy Day in existence, a UNESCO initiative since 2002. Even if it’s not really clear by whom, it’s observed on the third Thursday of November to honour new ideas on contemporary problems. Clearly, there is a need to engage in debates on the bigger existential questions that lurk somewhere deep in the recesses of our heads. The tiresome business of living makes sure we never get around to it. If nothing else, maybe having a day dedicated to critical thinking will do something for the reputation of philosophy in India. Right now, popular belief is that it is difficult and pointless, a lost cause pondered on only by people who have nothing else going for them.
In the hierarchy of subjects of choice for Delhi’s English-speaking college-going students, philosophy is right at the bottom, somewhere above Home Science and Sanskrit Honours. In fact, philosophy is a euphemism for doing nothing at all and a wannabe young philosopher gets his very first challenge on campus itself — to resist sarcastic jibes from fellow students and apply the lucid reasoning of Roman thinker Seneca, the original adherent of Stoicism. Broadly, he said you can always find reason to cheer by training yourself to remember that life could be infinitely worse. Hardly comforting when you’re in despair but sound logic to eventually make peace with a situation.
The concept of a teenager actually studying philosophy to gain wisdom is considered very amusing. Philosophy as a subject is unfairly maligned only because there don’t appear to be any tangible benefits of studying it. But by seeking to answer questions central to our existence, I’m not sure it isn’t superior to doing English or History Honours. It is a regret of mine, that when I studied it I found it a dreadful bore, and now, 25 years later when I thoroughly enjoy reading Nietzsche and Schopenhauer, I have nobody to explain the finer nuances of the texts to me. Like Shakespeare, the theories and ideologies propounded centuries ago need to be taught with the right contexts.
We have to look no further than the billion dollar industry thriving on humanity’s pursuit of worldly wisdom to know that philosophy remains deeply relevant. Mere success isn’t good enough for a generation that has a manic compulsion to feel good about themselves. Any business to do with self help, motivation and meditation is guaranteed to succeed. It’s why books like Chicken Soup for the Soul and The Power of Positive Thinking sell 15 million copies. This is the modern equivalent of the ancient purpose of philosophy: teaching people how to live.