Insight and Action
Joseph Prabhu's Anatomy of Wisdom
By Ruth Broyde Sharone
“Wisdom includes action as well as knowledge,” maintains Joseph Prabhu, a professor of philosophy and religion for four decades, a passionate interfaith activist, and Mother Teresa’s first altar boy in India. “Action brings insight into dynamic motion,” Prabhu explains, “and insight without thoughtful action, to my mind, is seriously incomplete.”
Prabhu believes that three main elements characterize wisdom:
an objective, universalist attitude,
deep insights into the contemporary situation based on that objective attitude, and
appropriate action that integrates the universalist attitude with the insights, and then gives voice to them.
Born in Bangalore, India, raised in a Catholic family, and educated in Calcutta by Jesuits – great scholars and early molders of young Joseph’s character – Professor Prabhu today also gives generous credit for his eclectic world outlook to India’s sensurround environment of pluralism and diversity. East and West met comfortably in his backyard. Growing up, he was exposed to Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, Zoroastrianism – as well as Christianity – and he acknowledges that he became the beneficiary of every teacher and spiritual leader he encountered, regardless of the religion each one practiced.
Nevertheless, it is clear to his friends and university colleagues that Prabhu identifies most deeply with the late Raimon Panikkar-Alemany, a Catalan Spanish Roman Catholic priest and also a passionate proponent of inter-religious dialogue.
The son of a mixed-marriage – a Spanish Roman Catholic mother from a well-educated Catalan bourgeoisie family and a Hindu Indian father who belonged to an upper caste family from South India – Panikkar achieved great intellectual and cultural acclaim during his lifetime as a comparative religious scholar with an unusually broad horizon. He became known for his great erudition and intellectual grasp of multiple religious experiences, and he was lauded for his bravura comparison of St. Thomas Aquinas’s philosophy with the eighth-century Hindu philosopher Adi Sankara’s interpretation of the Brahma Sutras.
According to Prabhu, who is in the final stages of completing a book about Panikkar titled: Panikkar As A Modern Spiritual Master (Orbus Books, 2017), Panikkar was both a philosophical poet and a poetic philosopher. “His thought overstepped philosophical boundaries, and it became challenging for academicians in the field of comparative religion to embrace the totality and complexity of his views.”
It is obvious why Professor Prabhu chose Panikkar as his teacher and mentor, for he, too, has spent a lifetime interpreting – with agility and grace – many religious traditions and disciplines. In fact, he was the successor to Professor Huston Smith, the well-known and much admired scholar of religions, in the World’s Religions course at UC Berkeley in 1996-97. Prabhu likes to say he is “a Catholic and closet Buddhist who attends an Episcopalian church and maintains a deep love for Hindu scriptures.” (He can read Sanskrit.) When he is not teaching at Cal State LA – or guest lecturing around the globe in Oxford, Heidelberg, Chicago, Bangalore, Delhi and elsewhere – Prabhu spends much of his time championing interfaith engagement in Los Angeles and doting on his wife, Betty, a retired professor of English, his daughter, Tara, a clinical psychology professor at UCLA, and his two grandchildren, Kiran and Maya.
Prabhu was selected as program chair for the 2009 Parliament of the World Religions held in Melbourne, Australia, and served as a trustee for the Parliament Board for seven years. Since 2007, he has served as co-chair of the Southern California Parliament of the World Religions.
A professor’s professor and simultaneously popular among his students, Prabhu specializes in teaching courses that lay out the lives, philosophies, and eccentricities of the likes of Kierkegaard and Hegel – with a nod to Nietzsche, whom he regards not just as a moral philosopher but as a prophet for our times. “Nietzsche ultimately went mad and spent the last eleven years of his life in a sanatorium because he couldn’t come to terms with the implications of what he deemed the Death of God.”
Prabhu regards Kierkegaard as an exemplar of action because his short but extremely intense life was taken up with the fight against what he took to be the overly theoretical attitude prevailing at the time, espoused primarily by his opponent, Hegel. Prabhu sees a striking parallel between Kierkegaard and the 20th century Jewish philosopher and mystic, Abraham Joshua Heschel, who said: “A Jew is asked to take a leap of action rather than a leap of thought. He is asked to surpass his deeds, to do more than he understands in order to understand more than he does.”
Atheism is not a new concept, but Prabhu stresses the intellectual and practical value of contrasting 19th century philosophers with the new atheists of our time: Richard Dawkins, of Oxford, Daniel Dennett of Tufts University, the late Christopher Hitchens, and the neuroscience writer Sam Harris. “These four (except for Sam Harris, who is deeply bound up with Buddhist meditation – a non-theistic spirituality), are what I would call ‘reductive atheists.’ They think of religion in starkly negative terms, whereas Nietzsche, considered an atheist, was keenly aware of the role that religion plays in human lives. Nietzsche was a spiritual humanist, rather than a reductive humanist like Hitchens.”
Prabhu would like to see us articulate a wisdom that is particular and appropriate for our times, characterized by a certain dynamic and counter-dynamic. “Wisdom requires we take account of both and view them in relationship to one another.” He describes that “certain dynamic” as an economic and technical globalization brought about by the Internet, jet travel, immigration, refugees, crossing of borders, and more. “For people who are adept at managing this new economy and technology and who have the skills – like software engineers – of going from one place to another either physically or virtually – globalization is a definite boon.”
At the same time, however, a counter-dynamic is at work that Prabhu underscores and says must not be ignored. “For people who are not agile at adapting to the new economy and technology, globalization is an extremely frightening development. What we are currently observing, as a consequence, is the growth of various forms of fundamentalism and exclusivism. Take Islam, the most notorious case, and ISIS in particular. ISIS wants to interpret a particular Hadith from the Kor’an which invokes the idea of a Caliphate that will come into being before the End Times and this runs counter to many suras and hadiths from the very same Holy Scripture. The latter are far more open, both in expecting the world to continue and given that span of time, predicting our capacity to live peaceably with others.” This, too, he emphasizes, is another important indicator of successful globalization.
One wonders if Mother Theresa ever considered the future of her very first altar boy. A passionate, unstoppable activist herself, she set new standards for what it means to be “engaged” with the world. If she were still with us she would most likely concur with Joseph Prabhu’s definition regarding the difference between wisdom and knowledge.
“When we talk about a learned person we are considering a person who has acquired a lot of knowledge, but a ‘wise’ person is more than one who merely accumulates knowledge. What constitutes wisdom is what I would call the cutting edge, the integration of knowledge coupled with appropriate action. We can – and often do – have knowledge without wisdom, but we cannot have wisdom without knowledge; otherwise, it is ill grounded. To lift knowledge to the level of wisdom, one has to possess intuition, be familiar with history and the arts, and be able to harvest the creative imagination.”