Tribute By Dr. V. Rajagopalan

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Dr. Vishnu Bhat came to Madras Christian College in 1964 to pursue his Masters in English Language and Literature. This statement by itself means nothing. But when one qualifies it with the knowledge that Dr. Vishnu Bhat, hardly out of his teens before he took his B.A. in English from Kerala University (he hailed from Kasaragod), had had education in the patasala and, therefore, was steeped in Sanskrit/vedic tradition – then the first statement becomes quite meaningful. Learning in the patasala is tough, rigorous and is usually divided into two categories – dvē vidyē… parā caiva aparāca. The two categories are parāvidyā and aparāvidyā. The former (also known as Brahma vidyā) was considered greater learning and the latter encompasses all other learning which includes Vēdas, Vēdānga, Śilpa, Tarka, Nyāya, and Āyurvēda. In other words, education at the patasala was holistic combining the secular with the spiritual. So, when Dr. Bhat came to MCC to study M.A. English he was a complete man.

In 1966, he was appointed lecturer in the department by Prof. Bennett Albert who measured men as goldsmiths test gold. Since then till he retired as the Head of the Department he was an overpowering presence fortifying all company by making them see that much is possible and excellent that was not thought of. Dr. Radhakrishnan, one of the most brilliant students of the department, described him via Emerson as ‘the prophesy of the mind’.

For forty years he was a teacher. Before we came to know 24×7, he was the first to practise it. He was a teacher by divine right. He taught everyone alike – the cognoscenti, the proverbial mercenary and the Tom of middling intellect. In 40 years, he became a sort of a cult and established, in the words of his contemporary Prof. V.S.Venkataramanan, his own gurukula and there are several men and women who graduated from that gurukula who owe their academic existence to Dr.Bhat. In a way he mulched the soil for their genius to sprout. He was the trusted lieutenant of every H.O.D of the department whom he served. Be it preparation of the timetable or holding the chairmanship of examination or teaching, he was ever ready. His presence lubricated the administrative machinery of the department in such a way as to make every H.O.D. sit easy of care. He was at ease with language and literature as he was with Sanskrit and English. He followed the Sanskrit injunction to the hilt which is

–You acquire knowledge by devotion, by questioning and by humility.

His life has been a testament of human relationships overriding barriers of race, religion and social prejudice. That an Israeli youth who came to India to learn Sanskrit met him in adventitious circumstances and took him for a father embellishes the fact. Simonides tells Pericles in that eponymous play, “We are gentlemen/ That neither in our hearts nor outward eyes/ envy the great nor do the low despise”. That was Prof. Bhat, who always believed in the principle of unity. (I was his student between 1967 and 1972.  Some of us were taught as much and more outside the classrooms). Coming back to the issue of unity I still remember him telling us that molecules and atoms were united by the law of unity. Unity of the material and the spiritual is caused when the soul is injected into the sperm/ovum he once said. He described death as the disunity of the spiritual and the material. Vignettes of thought issued from his lips. Once one Padmanabhan, my senior (only person to get A+ those days in English), and I were treated to a simple explanation of perennial philosophy as we were sitting on a cement bench at Tambaram Railway Station. Once he drew a distinction between two kinds of simile ­– this is not a lotus; this is her face; this is a conch and not silver. In the first lotus is transcended – the one suggests the other. In the next example one negates the other. This is vārthā (report) he said. Then he would give an example of naiyika jñāya from Shelley – like a ghost from an enchanter fleeing (unseen to the seen); suddenly speaking intertextually (even before the word was bandied about) he would refer to Shakespeare’s “intrinsicate” (Antony and Cleopatra). In the context of metaphysical poetry he taught us vakrōkti (dislocation of ordinary expression).  Drawing a distinction between atiśayōkti vakrōkti (poetic exaggeration) (for eg. Ten thousand flowers I saw all at once) and atiyukti vakrōkti (gross exaggeration) he said metaphysical conceits are examples of upacāra vakrōkti. He adored Emerson, revered Wordsworth and worshipped Kālidāsa. He could quote at will all major writers. He knew the Amarakōśa and Aṣṭādyāyī like the flat of his hand. If I understand him correctly he did not agree with Derrida’s dismantling of ontology. The present day is a day of conflict between the epic and the burlesque he said. How true he was!

He practised athiti dharma better than anyone else I have seen practise it. One day I asked Dr. Radha Bhat, “How much coffee powder do you buy?” Such a good sahadharmacarini she had been that she laughed and cautioned me, “Don’t ask sir this question.” I don’t think that history has recorded of anyone who went to Dr.Bhat’s house and came back without sipping a convivial tea. His granary was always full and the larder replenished with diurnal precision. Thither everyone, Tibetan monks and all, could repair hand in hand without any doubt of hospitality – intellectual and gastronomic. Time stood unmolested in his presence. People went there to learn either for sitting an examination or for knowledge uplift. One of the frequent callers was Dr. Michael Lockwood. Between them they have published translations of Bhagavadajjukam and Mattavilāsaprahasanam and an original writing on Pallava Art. Bhagavadajjukam has a brilliant investigation of metatheater in Sanskrit Drama. Dr. Bhat’s motto – for the good of the many and for the happiness of the many – and therefore after retirement he couldn’t say no to Dr. Lockwood and went to Harvard to give a series of lectures on Art, Philosophy and Epigraphy, though he had spurned such offers earlier.

The Sanskrit tradition poses the question ‘Who is a good scholar’? It answers thus, the one who has mastered the grammar of thought, word and expression and interpretation (padavākya pramāΔajña). Well and truly Dr. Bhat was a scholar. He never coveted. Never was unduly worried about money. He knew big money can be acquired only with stained fingers. More than that he believed in yāvat bhriyēta jaṭharam – one has no right to more than what one needs for oneself. He may have indulged a bit of verrilai. But has not Nammālvār said: “uÐÐum cōru paruku nīr tinnum verrilai ellām kaÐÐan

“This fell sergeant death/ Is strict in his arrest” Prof. Bhat has passed into the peace of Brahman. He may have been ailing before he passed away. But so did Shri Ramana and Sadasivabrahmendra.  “Death where is thy sting,” Prof. Bhat would have asked. If god chooses to send his elect the experience of via dolorosa it is to tell that pain is an insignificant thing. The last stanza of Abhijñāna-Śākuntalam (Prof. Bhat’s most favourite play) is a benediction. Kālidāsa says,

May the self-existent Lord who unifies in
Himself the dark and the light
Whose infinite power pervades the universe
Annihilate forever the round of my births.

Well that was after Prof. Bhat’s heart – to be relieved from the circle of births and deaths. Already his soul has achieved salvation for he passed away on 7th of September, 2007 Ekādaśī day and his blessings are always there on his wife Ms. Radha Bhat, who is a professor of English at Meenakshi College and his three children, Hari, Priya and Pratibha and his daughter-in-law Rajni. On behalf of the department of English, which includes all past and present students, I pray that God give the family courage to withstand the loss of beloved husband, father, and father-in-law.

Dr. V. Rajagopalan
Former Head
Department of English
Madras Christian College
January 2008