CHENNAI: Even in the best of times, he would never splash. Simple, diligent, duty-bound like Kant’s kin, yet always cheerful and helpful while immersing himself fully like an ‘Aazhwaar’ in the great, noble world of philosophical ideas. That was Prof Rajendra Swaroop Bhatnagar, whose death in Jaipur on Wednesday, November 6, 2019, leaves behind a void hard to fill in the current Indian philosophical scene.
To many of his students of Philosophy, including this writer, it is a deep, personal loss. The reflective flame in Prof. Bhatnagar, whose long association with the Department of Philosophy, University of Rajasthan, gently wafted out at the age of 86, after a brief illness, his family said. He was suffering from a lung infection for which he was admitted recently to a hospital in Jaipur, but the infection spread to other parts, the end came. The cremation took place on November 7.
Much of Rajasthan may be a desert, but the flowers of ‘creative philosophizing’ nurtured by great contemporary Indian philosopher, late Prof Daya Krishna and others, always bloomed and smelt sweet in the Philosophy Department at the University in Jaipur. Many believe it is still a ‘Pink City’. For Daya Krishna firmly believed and practiced what may be termed the larger fellowship of the spirit, allowing the young crowd in particular to question and perpetually revisit ‘received wisdoms’, both East and West, texts fundamental to human progress.
Along with the likes of splendid post-Independent Indian thinkers like Arindam Chakraborty, Ramchandra Gandhi, Govind Chandra Pande, Sibajiban Bhattacharya, M.P. Rege, R.C. Dwivedi, Mukund Lath, K.J. Shah, Prof. R S Bhatnagar was part of Daya Krishna’s ‘Jaipur Experiment’, basically to encourage people to think creatively, without being trampled by dogma, traditions.
As a former professor of Philosophy, Bhatnagar formally retired from the department in 1992, but his “long association” with it and its philosophical activities stretched to five decades. “He was associated with its every single activity till his last breath,” recalls Dr Arvind Vikram Singh, the present head of the department in the University of Rajasthan.
Hailing from Uttar Pradesh, Bhatnagar was a product of the University of Allahabad. He did his doctoral research under Prof R N Kaul, on ‘Hegel in the Light of Existentialism’. He started teaching in the University of Allahabad in the mid-1950s’, then moved on to ‘Banasthali Vidyapeeth’, in rural Rajasthan near Jaipur, started by Pandit Hiralal Shastri way back in 1935, after giving up a very lucrative civil service, inspired by Gandhiji’s ideas of ‘Swaraj’ and rural reconstruction. Prof. Bhatnagar later joined Philosophy department at Rajasthan University in 1970.
An excellent scholar in Greek Philosophy, Philosophy of Science, Early Continental Philosophy, it was later in his life that Bhatnagar started studying the Indian classical texts, recalled Dr Singh in a telephonic conversation from Jaipur. “He (Bhatnagar) was a great philosopher; recently, his translation of Plato’s ‘Republic’ in Hindi, titled, ‘Nagriki: Platone Ki Politiya Ka Hindi Anuvada’ is a classic in itself. It is a huge contribution to understanding comparative philosophical perspectives. Prof. Bhatnagar’s Hindi translations of other Dialogues of Plato like ‘Theatetus’, ‘Meno’ and ‘Symposium’, are also to be published soon. “They will enrich the understanding of Greek Philosophy in India,” said Dr Singh, adding, his “seminal ideas on philosophy of mind, is encapsulated in his unpublished work ‘Our Minds’.
In the sprawling lovely Rajasthan University campus when I happened to be there in the mid-1980s’, with the lofty Auroville hills in the backdrop- the range of colours of flowers in early spring was real magic, Prof Bhatnagar in his Socratic demeanor, was prompt at any seminar, fairly a fast rider on his dog-eared scooter. One great quality with Daya Krishna as a Philosopher and teacher was he would let students/faculty say whatever they wished to say on the topic in discussion. Prof Bhatnagar’s interventions, in his soft tone, were always instructive and insightful, even hard criticisms couched in courteous language - ‘Kani Iruppa Kai Kavarthattru’, as our Tamil saint-poet Tiruvalluvar would say, likening the choice of hard words in speech to picking an unripe fruit when the ripe fruits are right before us. Till the every end, Bhatnagar remained that way.
Author of scores of scholarly papers in a range of subjects in Philosophy in national and international journals, one major work Prof Bhatnagar was associated with Prof Daya Krishna as the ‘Editor’ of the Journal of the Indian Council for Philosophical Research (JICPR), was in compiling the ‘Author and Subject Index’ of JICPR, that ran into several volumes, during 1983-1993.
Apart from writing papers for and editing important texts like ‘Philosophy, Society and Action (Essays in honour of Professor Daya Krishna)’, Bhatnagar was also involved in the project of indexing of ‘Agenda for Research, Indian and Western Philosophy’. One of his more recent philosophical works that saw the light of day in 2016 was, ‘Aspects of Life: An Invitation to Think’ (published by Partridge India, A Penguin Random house company). The many-sidedness of Bhatnagar’s philosophical passion comes forth in that work in addressing issues that dog or day-to-day lives like conflict in values, by applying the concepts of philosophy.
It is a work that bristles with human warmth, the philosopher’s covenant with understated humour, the occasional ironic potshots that turns into a mirror on ourselves and cross references to diverse philosophical traditions, makes it a refreshing read for today’s younger generation in particular.
In one of his seminal papers, ‘On Concepts (JICPR April-June 2006)’, he so finely unwinds, with a toothcomb as it were, the different types of concepts fundamental to structure of thought itself, namely concepts that ‘organises our experience’, and evaluative concepts like ‘duty’, ‘utility’ and so on. “A life of concepts is characterised by numerous dimensions; they make experience intelligible. Of course, they make lifeblood of thinking (itself). They get busy even with themselves,” Bhatnagar writes. In another perceptive paper on ‘On the Notion of Right’, he argues that rights are intrinsic to being a ‘person’ in any society; at the same time “rights do involve an inter-personal space for their fulfilment,” underscoring the importance of the ‘other’ in any social change situation. The deep influence of Immanuel Kant on Bhatnagar’s thinking is seen in such papers.
On a personal note, it was Prof Bhatnagar who prodded me to write a monograph on two remarkable contemporary Indian Philosophers, Ramchandra Gandhi and Daya Krishna, after their demise in 2007. It came out as a small book, titled, ‘A Gandhi and a Socratic Gadfly- In Memory of Two Indian Philosophers’. In my acknowledgements, I had expanded his name as ‘Ranjit Singh Bhatnagar’ instead of ‘Rajendra Swaroop Bhatnagar’. On seeing the first copy of the book, he promptly called me up from Jaipur and with a hearty laugh, quipped: “Venkatesh, you have made me a lion!” I could not figure it out for a moment what he meant, until he explained the error. We then tried to manually correct it here in Chennai in as many copies possible!
About the growing Hindu nationalism in the country, Prof Bhatnagar was of late concerned. In a response to this writer several months back, he said, “the essence of religions, whichever denominations it might have, is in the notions of ‘holiness’, ‘purity’, ‘charity’; the ‘mantras’, if I may call them so, help and not fight assimilation, not destruction, help harmony and peace, not dissension. And If I may add, love, not hate is the proper guide for the folks of today. With love. Rsb.” Such was the journey of reflection and suffering of R S Bhatnagar. RIP.