Professor Emeritus D. Prithipaul – An Eminent Mauritian Intellectual

In the book ‘Pour une même bâtardise’ the great Pierre Renaud wrote an incisive piece of writing on Professor Dad Prithipaul. The writing is brief, but it is packed with humanity and brilliance, reflections on time, life, aesthetics, morality, religion, mysticism and sufism and at the same time visions of the Ulysses-like struggle of the lives of some intellectuals who eventually find solace outside Mauritius, because they are in fact never really ‘wanted’ or taken with the seriousness or respect they deserve.  These same individuals who are forced to leave actually never end up coming back home because  ‘on le dit qu’on peut aisément se passer d’un homme comme lui’.  At the time of the encounter with Pierre Renaud, Prof Prithipaul had then come for a short break to Mauritius proceeding on his way to a cultural tour of India. There are few words in the short but powerful exchange between the two men in 1975 that shook me to the core, such that I decided to direct some research time on Prof Prithipaul, and actually reached out to him in Alberta. Words like, ‘toute démarche spirituelle n`a pas besoin d`un support matériel’ and ideas discussing that ‘aesthetics remain an important part of our spiritual quest’ had a deep resonating connection with ordinary seekers like us.
What has happened to Professor Prithipaul since 1965? How did his career progress after a flat rejection by the then movers and shakers of the Mauritian government in the mid 60`s?
Professor Prithipaul is a retired Professor Emeritus from University of Alberta, Canada. He retired in 1992 after a brilliant and stellar career in Indian philosophy, having penned a few well-known books on the topics such as Comments on the Bhagavadgita, Moha in the Brahmanical Tradition, Advaita Vedanta, Ontology of Dharma, and Yogasutras of Patanjali, amongst his many other publications and writings. In 1963 to 1965 he was made to wait for 28 months in Mauritius for a possible job in his academic field of study after he had completed 9 years of deep study at Banaras and Sorbonne with some of the most renowned scholars in both Indian and Western philosophies.  After his doctorate, he worked as a teacher at Bhujoharry College, but his desire to switch and work in his own academic field of expertise met with a series of bureaucratic red tapes. A famous line that was the turning point of his time in Mauritius, was when the then Prime Minister told him ‘so what was really the issue, are you not getting your ‘dal douri’ paid off by Bhujoharry college.’?  Prof Prithipaul was not one to be allowed to become stratified with a good cushy teaching job, he had dreams of setting up a Center for Indian Studies in Mauritius as well as have a serious research journal with proposed contributions from francophone intellectuals and renowned contributors around the world. These noble plans did not unfortunately materialize as Prof D Prithipaul met with waves of resentment from the political class and the actual teaching job he desired was offered to an individual that fitted the political equation at the time (i.e caste related issues). In passing no one ever asked him or inquired on his experiences abroad, nor his research areas. There was no philosophical curiosity in Mauritius even from the so called ‘elites’.  In addition to travails with the official establishment, he was also shunned by friends, acquaintances, and relatives. He never got the job at the Teacher`s College and decided there and then to leave for Banaras Hindu University where he took a job as Senior Research Scholar, at the centre of Advanced Study of Philosophy. At Banaras he worked with the world renowed Sanskrit scholar Prof Murthy (a student of the renowned Professor Sarvapelli Radhakrishnan). The red tapes all seem to have had a catalytic effect on Professor Prithipaul`s career. From Banaras in 1965, he was offered a new position in the US, and became the first Mauritian researcher to join Harvard University and Harvard`s Centre for the Study of World Religions. At Harvard his career took a different and very interesting path. A recommendation from the eminent Professor Wilfred Cantwell Smith at Harvard, a scholar of Islam and comparative religions renowned for having taken an early lead in urging intellectual understanding of religious pluralism and dialogue among faiths, and who saw in the young researcher Prithipaul a rising star in Indian philosophical studies. Professor Prithipaul under the recommendation of stalwarts in his field of work like Professor Smith was offered the position of Associate Professor at University of Alberta, Edmonton. He had a brilliant career at the same University and ended his career in Canada as Emeritus Professor. Prof Prithipaul has had a passion to bring his expertise to Mauritius and start a process of re-awakening general knowledge in Eastern philosophy (Islam, Brahmanism, Buddhism, Jainism). In 1975, he proposed to the then Governor of Mauritius (D.Burrenchobay) a series of free public lectures to all on Hindusim and Buddhism.  Some years before (I mentioned this above), he did approach the Prime Minister (Sir S Ramgoolam) to set up a Centre of Indian Studies, endowed with a professional research Journal with articles from preferably francophone collaborators from around the Indian Ocean. These offers to both Burrenchobay and Ramgoolam were never acknowledged, nor did he ever receive a kind reply. The real kick in the stomach came in 1981, when on completing the manuscript of his seminal work ‘commentaries on the Bhagavadgita’, he wrote to PM Jugnauth, offering his book to be published in Mauritius, insisting it to be his humble gift to his much loved Island. Mauritius was dear to him and after the years abroad he still felt an emotional bond. Prime Minister A. Jugnauth never bothered to reply to this offer nor was the book thought to be important enough to be published in Mauritius.
Recently, I reached out to Professor Prithipaul who still resides in Alberta, Canada. The patience, kindness, and wealth of knowledge he possesses on varied areas such as  Brahmanism, Dharma, Buddhism, Islam and Jainism was a deeply humbling experience.  After spending an hour with him discussing his journey, hinduism and buddhism and Islam, one puts down the receiver in great awe. His ideas are simply revolutionary, and he reminded me that ‘India is the only country in the world to have invented a way of life based on the mystical experiences of Mokṣa, which is a trans-cultural experience. In fact, India is unique in having developed not one, but three ways of life based on such an Ontological reality - Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism. This is the fundamental theme of his latest book ‘THE LABYRINTH OF SOLITUDE.’ His story is the story of hundreds of immigrant intellectuals who gather knowledge externally, return home to share their spark to foster a positive change, but are instantly turned back in disgust because of political maneuverings. These maneuvers do seem to have something deeply sinister about them, and have cost many minds to be lost forever to the western world to the detriment of culture in Mauritius.The focus on pure and undistilled blind materialism in Mauritius since the 1960s has already had long lasting negative impacts in so called  ‘paradise’. A natural environment (physical and aesthetical) in grave disarray, a high and rising crime rate, public health concerns, all cry for an alternative type of investment on the island, i.e centers of advanced philosophical learning need to be developed so ever widening gaps and the sick concepts of ‘nou kont zot’ are bridged between faiths, and the modern Mauritian man and woman finally learn the essence of some of the world`s oldest faiths. Prof Prithipaul had about 40 years ago brought such noble ideas to the Island, but alas, some did not see its inherent and perennial value.


Merci, M. Gujadhur, pour votre article sur notre cher professeur Prithipaul, qui me fait revivre les bons moments passés au Collège Bhujoharry dans les années ’60, d’abord comme étudiant, puis comme enseignant.

A cette époque, nous étions vraiment gratifiés par Alex Bhujoharry qui nous avait donné, comme enseignants, des êtres extraordinaires, tels que le docteur Prithipaul (dont j’ai maintenant oublié le prénom, était-ce Dadabhai ?), l’écrivain Jean-Georges Prosper – celui-là même qui donna à Maurice son hymne national - et le génie scientifique Eugène Némorin. Je me rappelle comment ce dernier dessina sur le tableau noir le portrait de J.J Thomson – l’homme qui découvrit l’électron en 1897- et le portrait d’un autre Thomson pour les différencier l’un de l’autre. Je me souviens aussi comment Jean-Georges Prosper, au beau milieu de la lecture d’un texte, changea soudainement sa voix en lisant la phrase : « un homme passe dans le couloir » ce qui nous fait tourner la tête vers le corridor entre les salles de classe pour voir de qui il s’agissait alors que la phrase était dans le texte !

Quant au docteur Prithipaul, le calme et l’assurance, qui émanaient de lui, nous intriguaient. Plongés dans les sciences et les mathématiques en Lower Six, nous ne savions pas grand’ chose sur la philosophie. Il trouvait toujours des vertus dans des choses qui nous paraissaient anodines. Il nous encourageait à penser, à réfléchir sur des sujets hors de notre portée ou de voir des films tels que « La canne » dont nous ne comprenions pas grand’ chose. Tout vivaces que nous étions à cet age, la patience nous était étrangère. Mais, elle finissait par envahir notre être et nous faire goûter à son fruit malgré nous. Il n’y avait alors aucun sujet que nous ne puissions étudier. Bref, nous eûmes la meilleure formation que nous pouvions avoir, grâce au bon docteur!

Il est malheureux que l’inculte ‘westernised’ SSR l’avait trouvé surqualifié pour la petite île Maurice, de même que, plus tard, SAJ ne lui avait pas fait grand cas. La jalousie y serait-elle pour quelque chose ? Ou y avait-il quelque prétexte pour l’éloigner de chez nous ? A mon avis, le docteur Prithipaul aurait été d’un grand atout pour Maurice, surtout à l’aube de l’Indépendance du pays, en cimentant les liens entre les communautés.

Interesting piece. Goes to show how "nul n'est prophete en son pays". Somebody like Prof. Prithipaul surely still has a lot to offer to Mauritius, the more so today when we look at the type of communal/ethnic discourse that is frequently uttered. One quick clarification: Anerood Jugnauth was not the Prime Minister of Mauritius in 1981. He became Prime Minister after the first 60-0 in Mauritian electoral history in 1982. Therefore one of two things might have happened: either the incident occurred under the SSR regime in 1981 or that of SAJ in 1982.

Dear Rattan, Your deeply-felt and well-articulated tribute to Professor Prithipaul and his devotion and commitment to spreading in Mauritius his wide and diverse knowledge and wisdom garnered on all continents, as well as your disappointment at the opportunities missed by Mauritius, through sheer narrow loyalties and lack of vision, to take full advantage of Prof Prithipaul's offers and proposals, bring back personal memories - and I'm happy to learn he's still active in Alberta though retired. My memory of him goes back to those early 1960s when I was going through SC and HSC at the RCC, and became active in the Philosophical Society, among others, set up by our very creative English teacher, Dhiraj Jesseramsing. He did bring Prof Prithipaul quite a few times to talk philosophy to us after school - and we indeed found him to be a delightful teacher and an inexhaustible fountain of stimulating and challenging ideas. Thanks to you, and all the best to the Guru Emeritus !

M. Rattan Gujadhur,

This a most enlightening article on Professor Prithipaul. It speaks volumes of the lack of vision of our political leaders since Independence. Shame on them!