I was happy that Brahman and Person: Essays by Richard De Smet, ed. Ivo Coelho (Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 2010) was released at De Nobili College, Pune, on 2 March 2010, which happened to be, fittingly, the 13th death anniversary of Fr De Smet.
The book was released at the hands of Dr Noel Sheth, SJ, former President of Jnana Deepa Vidyapeeth, Pune, and well-known Indologist. Dr Sheth paid homage to Fr De Smet in glowing terms. Dr John Vattanky said a few words also about the person of De Smet and about the book.
The book contains 14 essays by De Smet spanning a period from 1957 to 1996, a veritable campaign on the notion of person. (One essay could not be traced: "Contemporary Philosophical Anthropology," New Consciousness 1973.) De Smet's concern was (1) to trace out the history of the term 'person' as it emerged in the West; (2) to use this history to highlight the inappropriateness of translating nirguna Brahman as impersonal Absolute; (3) to raise a notion of person from within Indian thought, drawing upon both orthodox and heterodox streams, not discounting also the contribution of great contemporary Indian thinkers.
De Smet's thesis is that the term 'person' was fleshed out in the Christian effort to speak precisely about God, and that this meaning was lost in the modern age of the West, so much so that an obscure German philosopher called F.H. Jacobi could decide that 'person' could be applied only to beings having qualities, and therefore only to finite beings. This choice influenced a certain number of German philosophers, and also, eventually, the great, mostly German, translators of the Sanskrit works, who rendered saguna as personal and nirguna as impersonal. This fateful choice led to the still current situation in India, where the para Brahman is regarded as impersonal, and, conversely, the Christian God is regarded (with condescension) as personal and therefore as somehow anthropomorphic.
This thesis, presented several times at various meetings of Indian philosophers and Indologists, led to the declaration by no less a Vedantin than T.M.P. Mahadevan that the Brahman of the Upanisads was nothing if not personal. For person is an analogical term, a term that is capable of being applied not only to human beings but also to the divine Absolute, though of course in a super-eminent way.
The problem is that India does not have a proper and adequate equivalent to the notion of person, especially to that notion worked out by Thomas Aquinas, "a singular subsistent of an intellectual nature," one capable of interpersonal relationships and therefore intrinsically social. Vyakti is rooted in the idea of manifestation and leans towards 'modalism'; purusa really means male human being, and has its own history heavily coloured by Samkhya; jana has no philosophical tradition behind it. In the end, if we go by the article De Smet contributed to the Marathi Encyclopedia of Philosophy, it would seem that he settled for vyakti as best rendering 'person'; the felicity of this choice seems to be borne out by the current usage of vyakti in Marathi and related languages not only as 'individual' but also as 'person.'
The 14 essays that make up Brahman and Person include one translated from the German (earlier published in Kairos), and 7 entries translated from the Marathi Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
This publication is a first step towards making De Smet's rather voluminous output more easily accessible and available, his publications being mostly in the form of articles in a variety of rather inaccessible and mostly Indian journals. That was part of his 'ascetical' option to write for people of other faiths rather than for Christians, and for an Indian public rather than for a Western one.
Hopefully De Smet's Sankara essays, his doctoral dissertation on Sankara, and his notes for students (Guidelines in Indian Philosophy) will be made available in the same way.