The unabating curiosity of Dr. Raj Mansukhani

A few years ago, I was at the counter of a Coffee Bean when I saw a man looking over the book I had left on the table. He looked over it for a few good seconds, seemingly wanting to go over a few pages, before eventually walking away. The man was Dr. Raj Mansukhani of the Philosophy Department.

It wouldn’t be the only time I’d see him glossing over some book he just happened to come across. I was attending a symbolic logic class Dr. Mansukhani was sitting in on—a class that, prior to that term, he had been teaching annually—when I saw him eye the book of his seatmate. After some time, he asked if he could take a look at it, again glossed over it a little, and scribbled something on his notebook before returning his attention to the lecture.

There’s a certain and almost child-like curiosity that Dr. Mansukhani exudes, a quality you wouldn’t expect from most adults. “Yeah, I can’t help it. I read books from so many different fields. I think it’s necessary for philosophy, I think it’s very difficult to do philosophy unless you have backgrounds on so many things. Although there are so many other things that I don’t know much about,” says Dr. Mansukhani.


Unusual fields

It’s been decades since Dr. Mansukhani actually walked the halls of DLSU as a student (he’s no longer certain of his ID number, though he thinks it was 77). He had actually started as a psychology major and had practically finished the program, but instead of submitting his thesis, he decided to shift to what at the time was Philosophy and Letters. There, he would befriend his current colleagues, Dante Leoninci and Victor Gojocco.

Eventually, he got a master’s degree and a doctorate degree in Philosophy, recently a doctorate in criminology, and for more than over 25 years, he’s been teaching. “I never saw myself as a teacher because as I was growing up I was very, very shy, and to actually speak in public was very terrifying. But I was invited to teach, and I realized I liked doing it, and I get a certain satisfaction out of doing it,” he says.

Aside from teaching CRITHIN and INTFILO, and other more ‘conventional’ courses, such as symbolic logic and philosophy of science, he also teaches a variety of peculiar subjects. For one, he used to teach thanatology, or the study of death. “We usually don’t talk about death very much, alright, but it’s a big elephant in the room, everybody knows we’re all gonna die, and nobody talks about it,” he says.

In the past year, he’s also held phenomenology clinics. “I think phenomenology is very, very important. [It’s] the ability to describe our experiences, and when you describe your experiences and you see what’s essential in those experience, I think a lot of insights come up,” he says. He once taught an existentialism class using a phenomenological approach to tackle Heidegger’s difficult Being and Time.

What led him to these seemingly obscure fields (though he later says some of these are not obscure at all) was a challenge to himself. “When I was in college, what I did was I tried to test myself, and I wanted to know whether I could actually understand very, very, very difficult stuff, particularly in philosophy, so I tried reading Kant, I tried reading Hegel, which is very difficult to understand,” he says. “So I got into semiotics, I got into phenomenology, deconstruction, and stuff like that, simply because they were very difficult, and I wanted to test myself [on] whether I could understand it.”


Exploring the unconscious

Last term, he taught a philosophy of unconscious course, an interdisciplinary course that attempts to explore the depths of the unconscious. “Our conscious minds are just a very small portion of the totality of who we are,” explains Dr. Mansukhani.

The class tackles the peculiar subject by first going through the theories of Sigmund Freud. For the first few weeks, you could mistake it for a class in psychology, but his approach changes dramatically when the lesson moves on to Carl Jung.

If you happened to pass by room 1407 of the Br. Andrew Building in the past term, you might have come across a room of students sitting with their eyes closed, listening intently as Dr. Mansukhani—who is a Jungian himself—sat in front of the class and put them into a trance. If you lingered a little longer, you’d see the students coloring blank sheets of paper with crayons, drawing an assortment of figures and mandalas.

The idea of a trance might seem somewhat occult, but as Dr. Mansukhani clarifies, “People have a lot of misconceptions about what a trance is. We actually go in and out of trances on a daily basis.” The moments you’re blanked out in an elevator, or when you’re watching a film in a movie house – these are common instances of trances. “When you’re in a trance, what’s happening is you’re focusing your attention on one thing and you forget other things.”

“I’ve had a lot of training in Ericksonian hypnotherapy and what I do is I use conversation and storytelling to get people into a trance because sometimes I find it more effective to communicate with other people’s unconscious because I think that real change comes from there.” Simply telling someone to stop smoking, for example, wouldn’t normally get them to stop smoking; communicating, on the other hand, with the unconscious is a more effective way of bring about that change.

“I think in order to get people to transform and to give them wisdom rather than just knowledge, I think you need to be able to put things there at that unconscious level, and one way of doing that is to get people into a particular state of mind which I call a trance.”

Another way Dr. Mansukhani taps into the unconscious is through dream analysis. From a Jungian perspective, dreams are essentially a means for the unconscious to communicate with the conscious mind. “I’ve had many instances where a dream would show me something which I needed to recognize,” says Dr. Mansukhani.

Trances, dream interpretations, and coloring sessions: the style of this Philosophy of the unconscious class is so different that even for the philosophy program, which many consider as being ‘out there,’ it is somewhat of an outlier. Dr. Mansukhani himself has to prepare differently for the class. “I have to put myself in a certain state of mind, so I don’t know what I’m going to say [in class]. I have a general idea, but sometimes I say things that surprise me later on because I have to speak from somewhere else,” he says. “I have to let my unconscious do the talking in a sense.”

“(Like) if you’re Eric Clapton and you’re improvising his blues, you don’t know exactly what you’re going to play, but it comes out nice anyway.” This spontaneity is something that he explores in one of his former pursuits: Flamenco, a type of Spanish folk art that includes singing, dancing, and guitar playing.


Flamenco and the duende

“Somewhere along the way, something happened, there was [a] misstep or we left the rhythm and we kind of had to improvise along the way and we managed to do it,” shares Dr. Mansukhani of one of a previous Flamenco performance in Hong Kong. “There’s a kind of thrill that you get when you’re able to do that in front of a crowd. It sort of tests you.”

When talking about the folk art, which he studied in Spain, Dr. Mansukhani mentions the concept of the duende, one of those words whose definition is difficult to translate because of its ties to Spanish lore and culture. It’s a word that seems deeply tied with spontaneity, expressiveness, and feeling.

“We would attend one performance after another, and we didn’t feel it, we didn’t feel that duende. And then one day we went to a guitarrero, and he showed us some guitars. And then all of a sudden, he just said, ‘Can you play a few chords?’ he told Miguel (Dr. Mansukhani’s friend), and Miguel played a few chords in one particular style, and I did the hand clapping, and all of a sudden he broke out into song and verses that he just made up right then and there, and it felt really, really powerful. It really gave me goose bumps.”

It’s been six months, however, since Dr. Mansukhani has picked up a guitar, because his last performance was particularly hard on him. It was a show in Teatrino, Greenhills, and at the time their band, Quinto, hadn’t played in more than a year.

“If you haven’t performed for a long time and then you start and then you do a performance and it’s for a group of 300 people or something, it’s nerve racking,” says Mansukhani. “I get nightmares just thinking about the performance,” he later adds, despite saying they did very well in that performance.

He doesn’t go so far as to say that he’s quit for good, however. “I don’t know. I hope not because I’ve managed to collect 7 guitars and I don’t know what to do with it.”


Not knowing

According to one of his former students, you can ask Dr. Mansukhani about anything and he’ll have something to say about it. Indeed, he often litters his lessons with examples from a vast number of fields including psychology, physics, and even behavioral economics. Yet when asked about something he doesn’t know much about, he’s quick to admit it. “There are a lot of areas that I have blind spots about, alright, for example history, economics, and so forth.”

What he does know, he has other people to thank for. “I learned a lot from older people, and I had a lot of mentors who trained me as well,” he says. “[When I wanted to learn something] I would always look for somebody who’s much, much, much better than me, and go to them and ask them questions and so forth.” Sometimes, there’s even a synchronistic—a Jungian concept on chance occurrences—aspect to it. “Very often what happens is if I have a very strong need for something, somewhere along the way I kinda encounter someone who’s also into that. It’s a very strange thing, but it’s happened almost all the time.”

In one of his existentialism classes a few years ago, Dr. Mansukhani got into a debate with his students, one that wasn’t resolved by the end of the class. Then at the beginning of the next meeting, he admitted that, after some thought, he had to concede certain points. It’s almost strange to see a professor to go out of his way just to tell his students that he was wrong.

“I supposed it’s because I don’t think of myself as having all the answers, and I know I don’t have all the answers. I’m also very suspicious of people who say that they do,” he explains.

Over the years I’ve seen him sit in on several classes. He was my seatmate a few times in Gojocco’s Nietzsche elective a few years back (on one occasion, I witnessed the two engage in an impassioned debate). An upperclassman told me Dr. Mansukhani attended their classes as well. The striking thing is that he doesn’t just attend these classes. When he’s not eying the books of his classmates, Dr. Mansukhani is taking notes, asking questions—the things you’d expect of a good student.

And in a lot of ways, Dr. Mansukhani is exactly that: a good student.

John Sarao

By John Sarao

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