Prof S. Jeyapragasam (1949-2018):There Is a Thread You Follow–Identity, Journey and Destiny

BIOGRAPHIES, 22 Mar 2021

Paul Schwartzentruber – TRANSCEND Media Service


Tribute to a Gandhian teacher, scholar and philosopher. It is written as a memorial, a fine tribute to a dear friend and mentor Professor S. Jeyapragasam (1949-2018) who taught at Madurai Kamaraj University in South India.  The elegantly written essay beautifully framed with the notion of our “irresolvable singularity of possibility” has both breadth and depth that takes us on our journey to discover our Universal.  It’s a rare homage to an authentic Gandhian philosopher, teacher, scholar and activist. Jeyapragasam is

“a man from whom I learned how singularity could be woven integrally into the weft of  a life of self-giving and self-sacrifice. …., that our mutual dialogue took place within a horizon always haunted by the ghost (or ghosts) of Gandhi to whose thought and practice of nonviolence he had dedicated his life.”


There is a thread you follow. It goes among
 things that change. But it doesn’t change.
People wonder about what you are pursuing.
You have to explain about the thread.
But it is hard for others to see.
While you hold it you can’t get lost.
Tragedies happen; people get hurt
or die; and you suffer and get old.
Nothing you do can stop time’s unfolding.
You don’t ever let go of the thread.

— William Stafford, The Way It Is

Questions for the Journey

Is identity to be conceived as destiny or discovery, or as some degree of mixture of both? Is the journey of identity a predetermined path or an eventful unfolding? How is it that the journey can seem both full of surprise to ourselves and simultaneously, of puzzlement to others? Is it only in retrospect that one can imagine that identity, this identity we hold so intimate, was shaped by destiny, or chance or was simply happenstance? To ask such questions under the light cast by Stafford’s metaphor of the ‘thread’ only expands the questioning: how is it that ‘my’ journey weaves its way, haphazardly it seems, but not without some effect, among the monuments of “time’s unfolding” in  evolution, biological process, human history and culture? How is that my course, my journey seems both so remarkably singular and so remarkably common?

How is that others may see it and remark, but never really understand its whys and wherefores? How can identity be considered an achievement or an actuality when it is also always a process still unfolding? Is identity ever complete or completely actualized? Could it possibly ever be complete?  Despite and through all these questions, Stafford affirms, this is ‘the way it is’ for, of course the journey you perceive is you perceived, and  after all, whether by destiny’s design or countless acts of spontaneous will, “you don’t ever let go of the thread”. What such a thread, visible only to us, might be, and what our ‘clinging’ to it might mean—these are the questions to which I want to return but only after reflecting on this in a way that is more concrete, more personal.

The poet generalizes from her/his experience, speaking with some illuminating purchase about human life as such; the philosopher likewise, although attracted like a moth to universals, does well to turn back from ideas to the example, as Giorgio Agamben argues:

In any context where it exerts its force, the example is characterized by the fact that it holds for all cases of the same type, and, at the same time, it is included among these. It is one singularity among others, which, however, stands for each of them and serves for all (2013, III).

In advocating this method of reflection by example or ‘paradigm’ (Durantaye 2009, 200-246), Agamben is concerned that we not reduce our lives or (allow others to reduce our lives) to mere fixed identities explained by abstract ideas (e.g., being Canadian or Indian, male or female, scholar or farmer) but that we reclaim for ourselves the status of “a singularity without identity, a common and absolutely exposed singularity”  (2013 XV, 64,5). This, in turn, embodies a vision of human existence as an irresolvable, an open-ended “possibility or potentiality”. “There is”, he argues, “no essence, no historical or spiritual vocation, no biological destiny that humans must enact or realize” ( 2013 XI, 43). Agamben’s radical challenge to traditional claims of destiny, vocation or essence and indeed identity itself is, in fact, a refusal to resolve or to foreclose the human being on the level of the concept or even as what is actualized in any one time or place. There is nothing about the human being that is as fixed as identity often implies, Agamben agues, rather there is only a reality that is better described as perpetually “open”  (Agamben 2004, 92 ).

I want to return to these metaphors of singularity and openness, but in the spirit of Agamben’s exemplary method, I want to begin first with the narrative of my own life—at least so far as I have been able to articulate it in the present (Butler 2005, 78).  I want to use it, in all humility, as an example/paradigm to think about identity, journey and destiny, particularly in a cross-cultural sense and as an emergent dialogue of ‘roots and routes’. More particularly, I want to speak of that particular strand of my life (whether it was the result of pure karma or pure happenstance, I have no idea) which sent me from Canada to India and wound my way thence into a deep friendship with Dr. S. Jeyapragasam, a man from whom I learned how singularity could be woven integrally into the weft of  a life of self-giving and self-sacrifice. My life can be considered to be exemplary in these regards only because I had the good fortune to be welcomed into the open space of a dialogue with him. Finally it was because of this selfsame Jpji (as he was called by all), that our mutual dialogue took place within a horizon always haunted by the ghost (or ghosts) of Gandhi to whose thought and practice of nonviolence he had dedicated his life.

The Unsettling of all Contexts: From Canada to India through Liminal Space and into Privilege

When one enters the liminal space between cultures, the loose collection of identities one has accumulated for social interaction in one’s own culture are suddenly transformed into tokens of uncertain value. In that space, the question arises over and over again, for what can these ‘bits’ of myself be exchanged and how? That I had thought of myself as a Canadian, a male of a certain age, an intellectual and a dissident of sorts, a person committed to social change through some spiritual praxis—all of these tokens of my identity, seemed suddenly detached from my present reality. (This is after all what makes the liminal space between cultures both so liberating and so frightening.)

Although I also quickly came to realize that certain aspects of my cultural identity were deeply embedded in my very perception and evaluation of the world and my place in it (Donald 2001), these cruder masques of identity seemed more and more detached from it. I might grasp at them in moments of insecurity (of which there were many) but they rarely helped and often acted in ways I could not anticipate. Thus, I was confused and disconcerted by how the tokens were interpreted in the new system of exchange that was India: why should a westerner be such an unquestionably honoured guest?

Why should a man, for that matter, eat in the living room while the family watched in reverent silence and the women cooked in the kitchen? What I had dissented from in the west and rejected with deepest cynicism—the web of ideology around the claims of science, technology and capitalism—were still held in an odd awe here (in what seemed to me a remarkable innocence) and literacy in them was constantly sought after as though a magical elixir (Baudrillard 2005, 80 ff., ). Finally, my attempt to redefine myself as a spiritual dissident from the worst of the Judaeo-Christian heritage was only puzzling here (I was a Christian tout court) and, for the most part, my advocacy of social change carried no ‘radical’ valence whatsoever (hadn’t Gandhi after all suggested some such thing long, long ago?).

These are gross generalizations, I hasten to add, shaped primarily by my crudest and most awkward self-perception as I entered the unknown and vast complexity of contemporary India. But they were the intimate skin through which I received and perceived India. At the same time, what I experienced was also shaped externally in a very peculiar and particular way since I was travelling as a guest of Ekta Parishad, a grassroots organization which worked mostly in rural India and with tribal peoples (adivasis). Thus my interpreting guides were latter day Gandhian activists, many of whom (though not all) had engaged extensively with westerners before and shared these literacies with them. Nevertheless, they shaped my view of the cities—Delhi, Bhopal, Agra, Chennai, Kochi and Madurai—as places where ordinary people suffered untold indignities and injustices and where the true culture of traditional India could only be still discovered in cracks and crevices like the roadside dhaba or the intimate family gathering. Moreover, they took me to remote villages and tribal settlements where ‘who I was’ in terms of any of my identity markers was almost utterly dissolved.

There, in turn, I discovered with shock, daily life was carried on in a such a straightforward manner and yet with such a direct integrity that I hadn’t imagined possible. There one could and did gather fallen sal leaves, for example, and make plates from them on which dhal and a bit of rice could be offered to guests of honour. In fact, that was the honourable thing to do and constituted a seamless part of one’s life and livelihood (notions of job and career had not darkened any horizon here). Yet here too—especially here—one could feel the noose of industrialization and extractivism tightening and I saw many of the same people dispossessed of land and livelihood living miserably in rude shelters on the edges of cities slaving, women and men together, as day labourers on various inexplicable and nefarious construction projects which the state both sanctioned and supported.

Rajagopal, the founder of Ekta Parishad, who worked among such people all his life, interpreted this scarred and hidden face of globalization for me, as he had done for many visiting westerners, and hoped thereby to effect what he called a “globalization of the heart”. This vision, through which I came gradually to perceive and interpret what I was experiencing in India began to work slowly but inexorably on my deeper levels of embedded cultural perception. It began to dissolve into incoherence my liberal-socialism and its vision of social justice (as a simplistic righting of wrongs), as well as my spiritualized individual self-conception (with its embedded and unacknowledged privileges).

It also began to erode, slowly but surely, over the five years that I worked as a volunteer with Ekta Parishad, the deeper claims of privilege and the privileged view of which I had been barely aware before then. On the basis of what, I asked myself and still ask myself, is my identity as a Canadian established? On the basis of what claim to ‘identity’, in fact, does it entitle me to fly in and out of the lives of such people, or enable me merely to observe but never suffer their experience? Now, for the first time, I saw my prized mobility as privileged escape and immoral avoidance. Even the rationalization that what I was doing was ‘helping’ someone failed to assuage my newly awoken conscience.

As I tried intellectually and emotionally to unravel the disturbing privileges of this identity into which I had been born (innocently enough it seemed) and yet also to sort out my own culpability for it (which seemed to me more and more inescapable), I discovered that in my own country an awakening of momentous proportions had meanwhile occurred. Thanks to the clear and cogent self-articulation of indigenous peoples in the aftermath of the intergenerational harm inflicted upon them by Canada’s residential school system, new voices emerged telling a very different national story (Manuel and Derrickson 2015).

My ‘Canadian’ identity was revealed to be based on a string of falsities, a mythology of colonization in whose deceitful privileges I was still embedded. Overnight, it seemed to me, my self-understanding shifted from being a citizen of Canada, which had been mythologized as a place of fairness and inclusiveness (Saul 2008), to being a settler embedded in a still virulent system of “settler colonialism. . .that is such an overwhelming, violent, and dishonest reality in Canada and in so many other places” (Simpson 2017, 7).  My identity appeared to me to be not a result of the ‘luck’ of my birth but rather as the result of those privileges and benefits accruing from my ancestors’ theft of land, their refusal to return it and the continual denial of its proper connection of belonging to the original peoples. Thus the identity of ‘settler’ was no mere metaphor: it was my embodied reality in relation to an ongoing injustice (Tuck and Yang 2012).

Although it had dimensions far greater than my particular feelings of guilt and responsibility, this realization constituted for me, at least to begin with,  a very personal problem. “Confronting huge forces like colonialism”, as one Indigenous author has argued, “is a personal and in some ways, a mundane process. . . looking at it this way does give a proper focus to the effort of decolonializing” (Alfred, 25). The ‘little difference’ which I could make, began with me and meant at least owning up to the identity of settler, owning up to what it had meant for me in terms of privilege—and then beginning a process of giving up that privilege, repudiating it in  a personal way.

My naïve notion of fixing the injustices out there in the world collapsed with the realization that I was an active participant in them. Decolonializing for me, had to begin with unlearning and with an ethical reorientation of the most fundamental kind. Thus, while this identity of ‘settler’ spoke the truth in many ways about the concrete reality of my life and echoed the ethical crisis of what I experienced about myself in India, I realized that it could only be a placeholder. I mean to say that it held the starting point for the journey of self-reflection which unfolded from that identity and ethical crisis. It was in that liminal space that I first encountered my friend Jpji.

The Liminality of Encounter and Dialogue: S. Jeyapragasam and the Nonviolence of the Heart

My first memory of our encounter was marked by an unquestioning welcome into an unconditional dialogue.

I imagine him still, as I first met him on that late afternoon in the haze and heat of Madurai, sitting on a white plastic chair, in a neatly pressed white, short-sleeved shirt and lungi, his shirt pocket sagging with pens, his legs crossed under him and his bare feet dangling. He is smiling so broadly and warmly that his eyes are almost squeezed shut. Behind him, on the white board is sketched out a complex diagram of arrows and words, in both Tamil and English. ‘I am trying to identify all the elements of a holistic view of nonviolence’, he explains to me quietly, his face still beaming from the excitement of what he appears to be in the process of just now discovering. ‘What do you think’, he asks me in a soft voice, waving me to sit opposite him in the empty white plastic chair, ‘What is still missing’? I knew immediately that I have found a kindred spirit across a great cultural divide, someone who was reaching out in the sacredness of that friendship which Aristotle called a “friendship of the good”(Aristotle  2001. NE 8.3).

Few people in the west have thought about friendship as deeply as Aristotle had, in part because he extended its possibilities into the ethical domain. Thus Aristotle speaks of a ‘higher’ friendship based on virtue (NE 8.3 and 8.4). He further recognizes that such a virtuous friend can become ‘an other self’ (NE 9.4) and finally that such friendship becomes complete in a shared, active engagement “only when we make him/her our own, and she/he makes us their own” (NE 9.9/ Perälä 2016, 310). For Aristotle, long ago, as for Jpji that afternoon, this activity of friendship had to do with “ koinōnein logōn kai dianoias/sharing in reasoning and discussion”(NE 9.9).

My time with Jpji over the next eleven years was almost entirely preoccupied with this shared dialogue. We read, spoke and wrote together endlessly on a variety of his projects (and he had many on the go) and all the while he continually and gently explained to me what Gandhi had meant by such ideas as aparigraha (non-possession) and how that ‘non-grasping’ formed the basis for satyagraha (truth-force or ‘grasping the true’). “You should write and reflect about this”, he suggested with his broad smile, “what it could mean for you and in your country”. And that happened countless times over the years I visited him or by email when I had returned to Canada.  In effect, he was asking me to carry the dialogue with Gandhi back to my culture and my country, to enculturate it there. And also to carry it more deeply into my dialogue with myself as a Canadian.

A few years later he would confide to me about that first afternoon encounter, ‘I saw you were suffering’. We were sitting then on a dusty downtown side street under large banyan trees by the rickshaw stand in front of his favourite tea shop. ‘But you know, great works can come out of suffering’. ‘Great works’ was what JP’s life work was about, not only performing them himself but above all inspiring others to perform them. ‘Great works’ was really the whole point of the “sharing in discussion and reading”, reaching out to others with what he believed was a truly holistic vision of life, the vision of nonviolence.

JP was not just a ‘Gandhian’ in the loose way that iconic metaphor is still tossed around in India. He embodied, like a true disciple, the values, sympathies and beliefs in human self-transformation that Gandhi himself had embodied. Indeed, as I came to realize over time, he was one of last ripples from that great wave of magnificent, seismic disturbance that Gandhi had wrought in the ocean of India. In that very concrete way, his friendship, his kindness and his love became for me the vital instructive work of a teacher and mentor.

From Jpji, I learned above all that ‘great works’ are always works of self-giving; what made him such a singular person in fact, was the very nature and extent of this own self-giving. By the time I met him, JP had been working independently for several years after retiring as a Professor of Gandhian Studies at Madurai Kamaraj University. He was using his retirement pension and donations to fund the English/Tamil journal he published called Ahimsa/Nonviolence (with some 500 worldwide subscriptions) and also running weekend programs in holistic nonviolence for local people through what he called ‘The Betsy Institute for Nonviolence’.

He had rented a small office on the second floor of doctor’s house in the city where he, along with two young women and his sister-in-law, Anandhi, worked on the journal and an array of other translation and teaching projects. On the weekend, he would come to CESCI, The Centre for Socio-Cultural Interaction (, a local ashram near Madurai, to teach his classes. I often saw him sitting on the porch of his room between classes with a line of people waiting to eagerly chat with him. Eventually, over the time I knew him, both projects merged into a new form, The International Gandhian Institute for Nonviolence and Peace ( Rajagopal was the convenor of that organization, but JPji was the heart and soul. He had transformed himself and the professorial role into the practice of popular education and he was bringing all his skills along with a very compassionate heart to bear on that practice.

Over time, I learned that I was only a recent addition to Jpji’s circle of friendship, his ‘sharing in reasoning and discussion’.  This work of collaboration arose from JP’s spontaneous way of working by encouraging those around him to rise to what he called ‘excellence’. There was nothing elitist to this notion of excellence; it applied equally to foreign scholars who visited him and the remarkable cucumber farmer who attended his weekend classes bearing gifts of his produce. He had a large number of ex-students who continued to work devotedly with him, calling and dropping by throughout the course of the day to report on various projects he had passed on to them.

He also had come to know many Europeans and North Americans who had passed through and developed long-lasting friendships. It was not just the fact that these people submitted articles for the journal or volunteered to attend the workshops, or worked on translations into Tamil and back again to English or went to the Tuesday night inter-religious prayer service that he had begun in 1983, it was that in all of these things his quiet enthusiasm, encouragement and friendship was the catalyst for a great chain of collaboration that stretched around the globe and was open equally to everyone. “Integral process” he wrote, “is based on the assumption that we are all part of one another and we all inherit a common heritage” Jeyapragasam 2015). For JP, that process meant a commitment on the part of each of us, a commitment to realize a series of small but powerful acts toward each other:

Holistic knowledge (truth), forgiving and forgetting, justice, setting right the past mistakes, compensatory action, penance, rightful action, healing the wounds, transformation practices are all tools for the integral process. This is the way for human survival and excellence in the Nuclear Age (Jeyapragasam 2015).

This kind of commitment to integral process and its mutuality then, demanded overcoming the merely personal (in all its limited and limiting senses) and somehow reintegrating one’s energy in service of a larger vision. Gandhi had written extensively of his own struggles with overcoming the personal or what he called ‘self-purification’ (atmashuddhi). Such atmashuddhi, as Ajay Skaria argues, is actually a pre-ethical act, “the sacrifice that must precede self-sacrifice” (Skaria, 202-3, 231). In this sense, purifying the self is never an end in itself, rather for Gandhi it involved crossing a threshold, a threshold from a merely individual identity into what seems at first an unknown realm of mutuality and mutual integrity. There is an hidden irony here, of course, for, as others have recognized, it is only by letting go of the claim of the common identifiers of individuality (the nation, the role, the personality etc.,) to which we so desperately cling, that one may begin to enter into a space of true singularity, a space where we become able to give and receive what is true and beneficial to each other. This was in fact, for Gandhi, the reason that reducing oneself to a cipher (shunyata) was “the highest effort a man or woman is capable of making…the only effort worth making” (CW 33, 452 “Letter to Basil Matthews”. June 8, 1927).

But it also, he believed,  awakens us from “our trance” with the “politics of power” and allows us to engage for the first time in “real politics” (Skaria 237-8). This ‘politics of power’ makes me think not only of our most recent politics of the spectacle and the resentment of the ‘mimic men’ (Mishra 2017, 169-70) but also of the greater reaches of the politics of neo-liberalism and globalization which, being based on the ‘principle of dispossession’ had so little concern for either truth or benefit (Harvey 2003, 159). What Gandhi might have meant by ‘real politics’, by contrast, is something closer to the mutual benefit of a friendship in virtuous activity and that, he felt, could only be achieved as a result of a process of deep decolonization and self-purification.

To entice someone, especially someone from my culture and with my background, to venture  across that pre-ethical threshold is perhaps the most complex of tasks, one that can only be accomplished by means of vision and perhaps also through love. I was prepared by my experiences in both India and Canada to begin unlearning but I had no idea where it would lead nor what it would demand of me.

It was in this frame of spirit, that I heard Jp’s gentle voice of friendship: ‘You are a great writer’, he said to me during one of those conversations with conviction and gleam in his eye. ‘I think you must continue to write for the good of humanity’. JP could say those kinds of things without sensing the least exaggeration. It was not so much flattery (the useful lie) as an affirmation of belief and a pointing to something beyond the self. He really believed that each of us had a role to play and an arduous path of commitment to follow for the good of the whole. Once, when I had emailed him from the darkness of February in Canada and must have sounded despondent, he answered:

Dear Paulji,

Your letters always brings me joy and inspiration. I am glad your spirit is up. We are born as humans since we are blessed. We need to move forward using this birth as an opportunity for our onward journey even under impossible circumstances.  With gratitude, regards and prayers,

Yours sincerely,


I only learned much later, and from others close to him, about some of ‘the impossible circumstances’ he himself had endured. He had been forced out of his post at the University most unfairly by political pressure from the government for some things he had written. That set him on the path to the journal Ahimsa and the popular education work. Then, his son had been found inexplicably dead in a University residence. The family mourned for three years and he threw himself into his work more joyfully than ever, as if to say that the sadness of loss simply could not be allowed to be the final word. From his little office he created yet another forum for discussion and debate to honour his son, The Rajarajan Institute for Holistic Science.

Later still, when his wife’s struggles with mental illness became more intense in later life, he took her with him to the office everyday, gave her work to do and encouraged her with great patience and love. He knew how to take on such struggles and transform them as  the ‘opportunity for our onward journey.’ But his nature was also intrinsically joyful and positive. I never heard a harsh word or the least criticism of anyone. In the small Gandhian universe of Madurai there were some personal jealousies, as I heard, about his simple way of life and simple practice of nonviolence, but he rose above even those. Once, when there was a flare up of anger against him, he simply absented himself from an important local Gandhian conference. “I do not wish to give offence”, he told me.  It was not just that, it was also his “great work”, his vision of acting for the good of others: “From self-actualization”, he wrote, “we need to move to selfless actualization for all. That would open a new era of human excellence and superhuman evolution. However there is always the danger of giving up (Jeyapragasam 2015).” Selfless actualization for all, that is the ethical act properly speaking.

There was of course always the danger of giving up because the good was rarely visible or affirmed in the world around us except when it was enacted or embodied by someone. That explains also why the ‘vow’ was such an important part of Gandhi’s practice: in distinction from a ‘principle’ which subsisted in transhuman realm of universals or imperatives and might or might not be applied, the vow was secured by a concrete life commitment and was a commitment of one’s life to embody and enact the good (Skaria 224). In an intriguing parallel, Agamben also wants to affirm the political import of such a renewed conception of embodied life or what he calls “form of life”: the human being, he insists “always preserves its character as a real possibility, which is to say that it always puts its very living at stake” (Agamben 2016, 208).

To “preserve our character as a real possibility”—what can this mean but that our life is ‘realized’ only when, over and over again, we act by putting “our very living . . .at stake”. To return to Stafford’s metaphor, I may pick up the thread and follow it now, today, or in this circumstance but I have to enact that again tomorrow and the day after that. Each time “my living is at stake” because identity is not carried inside us like a talisman but is enacted and reenacted. The ‘thread’ I hold reflects the fact that ‘I’ am always only “a real possibility” presently unfolding. The form of our life is expressed and embodied in each of our actions and yet they, over and over again, form and inform our life.

In Jpji’s life, this form-of-life had an always surprising singularity, its unlikeliness which reflected its having just pulled back from the “danger of giving up”. Once when I visited him on the second floor of his family home (after he had given up the rented office and merged it into his own dwelling), he told me proudly, that his father had been a villager. ‘He came to Madurai and  opened a store, and after many years of saving, he himself built this house. This is his inheritance to me’. But there was more, I thought, and it constituted a kind of counter-story to that one: his father had also given him the name ‘Jeyapragasam’ in tribute to the radical Marxist and then Gandhian leader, Jayaprakash Narayan, who led a revolt against Indira Gandhi’s despotism in the seventies.

And that naming planted the seed of something in the young man, a seed which, however, he would nurture in his own way. In a turn-about which was quite unlikely in caste-conscious Tamil society, JP shifted from this youthful activism when he found himself drawn to study, and not just Gandhi, but the complex tradition of the early, Tamil philosopher-poets like Ramanuja. Ramanuja had a complex of vision called Vishishtadvaita—‘advaita’ or oneness with difference’( Thus, he affirmed the differences of the world in their reality and significance while recognizing that they were in process and that this difference was not yet the ultimate state of oneness in Brahmin.  This precarious balance allowed Ramanuja to assert that the differences in the world were real (not illusions) but that unity was and would be the ultimate reality.

And so the shopkeeper’s son  became a  custodian of the deeper layers of his people’s spiritual traditions. And then, in a final act of risk, he put those traditions in service of the radical social change envisaged by Gandhi, the Gandhi who said simply and clearly “Truth is God”. JP saw in Ramanuja’s affirmation and appreciation of our differences held within a unity of all things  an important theological premise to Gandhi’s nonviolent activism which involved “a surrender to the other—without subordination” (Skaria, 10).  For Jpji this surrender was daily praxis: ‘We need each other Paulji. We must learn from one another’, he often repeated to me. He followed the path of study to the university and then to a career of teaching where he hoped to influence many with this holistic vision. He told me once that his father could not at first understand this choice of career. “He was a practical man, and he asked me, ‘what will you build by doing this work?’ I told him I would build something that would take a long time to be completed. I told him that when it was completed it would become like a large banyan tree with many branches reaching down to the ground, all connected. I think then, he understood”. It is this great banyan tree which I see before my mind’s eye as I now remember my friend and teacher, Jeyapragasam. It is the image of shade offered to anyone, of shelter that is given unconditionally, of selfless actualization for all.

The Journey in Question:  Loneliness and Solitude

When my friend Jpji died suddenly in 2018 of a heart attack, I found that I had entered yet another state of liminality. Although my experiences in India had been ended by a sudden and debilitating bout of tuberculosis in 2012, I had continued to reflect on them deeply and, with his help, to gradually reorient myself through ‘our dialogue and reasoning’ together. But now, suddenly the thread I had been following seemed to slip from my hands. Losing my ‘own’ colleague and my dialogue with him left me feeling truly isolated and indeed uncertain about my own identity.

In fact, I think I found myself slipping between the states of ‘loneliness’ and ‘solitude’ described by Hannah Arendt at the end of her magisterial study, The Origins of Totalitarianism. I want to expand the focus of my reflection by turning briefly to her descriptions of those experiences which straddle the personal sphere and the political one.

Arendt concludes her lengthy reflection on the origins of totalitarianism by asking herself “what kind of basic experience of living together” was possible for human beings under a form of government “whose essence is terror and whose principle of activity is the logicality of ideological thinking” (Arendt 1966, 474). She finds the roots of this in the experiences of “isolation” and “impotence” as well as the “uprootedness and superfluousness” characteristic of human life under industrialization in the early part of the century. She then goes on to add that what was new about totalitarianism was the fact that it was not content with the isolation of people in the political or public realm, “it aimed to destroy private life as well”:

It bases itself on loneliness, on the experience of not belonging to the world at all, which is among the most radical and desperate experiences of man [sic] (475)

It is this vulnerability of loneliness, pushed into the private and intimate worlds, (combined with terror in the public realm) which opens people to the “logicality of ideological thinking” on which both Hitler and Stalin depended, Arendt argues, in an analysis that seems still frighteningly appropriate again in our time of resurgent, fascist ideologies of race. Then, as if to underline the utter inhumanity of such bio-politics as Foucault latter named them (Foucault 2008, 12), she goes on to note that there is a complex pathos to loneliness as such, and apart from this political use of it: loneliness is “both contrary to the basic requirements of the human condition

and one of the fundamental experiences of every human life” (emphasis mine). On the latter, she notes, stoically . . . we have only to remind ourselves that one day we shall have to leave this common world which will go on as before and for whose continuity we are superfluous in order to realize loneliness, the experience of being abandoned by everything and everybody (476).

Friends of a colleague who dies, I suggest, may also experience some such complementary form of  loneliness both empathetically and vicariously and so, to a certain extent, reach across this separation caused by death. I felt shaken to the core by my friend’s death and especially by the absence of his voice, the memory of which still echoes in my imagination and reminds me of a form of his presence that lingers still. Nevertheless, I wished my resulting loneliness to bear witness to the original loneliness he must have experienced in dying. We all die in the aloneness of our own body but we do not necessarily die alone.  By contrast, someone who dies without friends of the heart and mind must experience an utter social aloneness surrounded only by the incomprehension of others, as did Tolstoy’s character Ivan Ilych.

Arendt goes on to set her analysis of loneliness into even bolder relief by contrasting it with a lyrical description of its look-a-like, solitude. Her account of solitude recalls Aristotle’s insights into friendship and builds on them. Paradoxically, Arendt seems to be saying, solitude, rooted in the experience of dialogue, may be the only solace and the only response to our human experience of loneliness. In solitude, she writes I am ‘by myself’, together with my self and therefore two-in-one, whereas in loneliness I am actually one, deserted by all others”(476). In fact,  she explains all thinking is done in solitude and is a dialogue between me and myself; but this dialogue of the two-in-one does not lose contact with the world of my fellow men [sic] because they are represented in the the self with whom I lead the dialogue of thought (476).

This solitude, the inner dialogue —unlike the barren “logicality of ideology”— remains inherently open the world and, indeed can find its true completion only by going out of itself again into the world. As Arendt explains:

The problem of solitude is that this two-in-one needs the others in order to become one again: one unchangeable individual whose identity can never be mistaken for any other. For the confirmation of my identity I depend entirely upon other people; and it is the great saving grace of companionship for solitary men [sic] that it makes them ‘whole’ again, saves them from the dialogue of thought in which one remains always equivocal, restores the identity which makes them speak with the single voice of one unexchangeable person (476).

Going out into the world of others again is necessary, Arendt argues, because the two-in-one of our inner dialogue of thought is such that, while in it,  “one remains always equivocal” in one’s identity. We may understand this to mean, I think,  both ‘two-sided’ and ‘unresolved’ and thus as not having a definitive form. Whereas when we enter into an outer dialogue with an other again we become, ipso facto, “one unchangeable individual whose identity can never be mistaken for any other”. Thus thought cannot be a final state for human beings but must lead to dialogue and therein to the perception of ourselves as having a distinctive identity.

Indeed, for Arendt, it is the very going-out-of-oneself as an isolated monad which makes us “whole again. . .saves [us]. . .restores the identity which makes [us]. . .speak with the single voice of one unexchangeable person”.  Not only do we need friends in the Aristotelean sense, we become who we are or, at the least, recover who we are only after the fact of our dialogue with friends, a dialogue in which we see ourselves reflected in their eyes and hear ourselves speaking to them “with the single voice of one unexchangeable person”.

Identity Lost: Endings that Begin Again

Arendt’s profound insights here still leave some questions deeply unresolved. For example, what becomes of the solitude of thought? Does it simply vanish, flowing out into and washing back from the dialogue with the other as identity? In other words, does the identity we have achieved in that dialogue undo our solitude and its integrity? Or is there perhaps a way in which identity once achieved itself dissolves only to be reformed again out of the solitude? And among all of these forays into friendship, all of these identities created, is it not perhaps more true to say that we, in a deeper sense, subsist in the solitude, continually giving birth to identities but tied definitively to none of them?

This view would accord with the “itinerant and non-teleological view of moving through life” which is espoused in the one of ancient great ethical texts of Daoism, The Zhuangzi  (Ziporyn 2009). This ethic has been called “genuine pretending” by recent scholars: one accepts the temporary, real obligations of the roles and identities but one does not dissolve oneself completely into such forms or cling to them(Moeller and D’Ambrosio 2017, 184-85). This is a view which also has an odd affinity with Stafford’s vision of the thread and our unfolding with it. I want to conclude by attempting to draw out some of the implications of that possibility by referring to Agamben’s concepts of potentiality and singularity mentioned above.

Arendt frames her argument  in the context of her understanding of thought, or the life of the mind, but it could just as easily be framed in the linguistic terms developed by Wittgenstein and later Giorgio Agamben. If it were, it would emerge more clearly as an argument about identity as that which is realized in the embodiment or the enaction of the speech act. It would be an act of giving form, in the common speech of a particular dialogue, to the “voice of one unexchangeable individual” and to identity as that which can be known only by others and with them. We ourselves may catch a glimpse of this, our identity, and  hear, for a moment, our own unexchangeable voice only, it seems, as it is reflected in eyes or echoed in the hearing of the other. However, even after having tasted such momentary glimpses of identity, we might recognize that Arendt’s solitude of thought and Agamben’s ‘singularity without identity’“always preserves its character as a real possibility”.

Such singularity remains, that is to say, in the energy (energeia, potentia) which abides in the vibrant solitude of thought or in the irresolvable singularity of possibility that we continue to be/become. As long as we hold on it, this is a possibility that has not been exhausted or completely exchanged itself for the proffered identities or the constructed subjectivities much less for the “logicality of ideological thinking”. We may well experience the all-too-human loneliness of loss and death; we may well go “among the things that change”, where “people get hurt or die” and where we too “get old and die” but we do not need to get lost among them, or to “let go of the thread” which continues to unfold before us as long as we remain open to it. To let go of the thread in this sense would be to harden and contract around something that is lesser and more ephemeral. It would also be to abandon and to lose touch with the vibrant and creative potentiality that we are, and the fulsome solitude of our continuing anthropogenesis (Agamben 2016, 208) , our continual and ongoing becoming human. That, and not any momentary flicker of individual identity, is the thread we may chose to follow.

On some deep level I suspect, as I reflect on the life of my friend Jeyapragasam,  the act of spurning the claims of identity either as biopolitical discipline or even as self-achievement in effect means remaining open to what we are becoming may yet become. It might be, in that sense, an act of unlearning and resistance which allows us to cross the threshold  into true forms of ‘selfless actualization’ or the realm which Gandhi called “real politics”. That open is the vibrant and living space in which I will attempt to carry on my dialogue with him.

Having returned the vision I learned from the living witness Jeyapragasam himself, I want to give the final words to my friend who said all of this so much more directly and profoundly

Life is a mystery, challenge, risk and ever expanding complexity. We are called upon to move forward, to set right things and also carry others with us in the endless journey / pilgrimage / adventure. However we should also be prepared for failures, defeat and setbacks in our endless journey. Integral aspects and visions of co-creations may be very important. Individual humans are bound to perish but still they can facilitate the marching ahead of humanity. Let us do our best with our human body, which has no parallel as for as we know, before we lose it (Jeyapragasam 2015).

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Paul Schwartzentruber is an independent writer and researcher with primary interests in intercultural and inter-religious dialogues. He has lived and traveled extensively in the Middle East before recently returning to live in Halifax, Canada. Prior to that (2007–2012), he spent parts of five years in India working as a volunteer with the Gandhian land rights organization, Ekta Parishad, as well as with the International Gandhian Institute for Nonviolence and Peace in Madurai. He also published many scholarly articles on Gandhi and nonviolence for Ahimsa/Nonviolence, a journal of the IGINP. Paul has B.A. in English and Classics, an M.A. in Theology, and a Ph.D.

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This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 22 Mar 2021.

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