Chhattisgarh’s Traveling Talking Guru on Postmodern Thought

Professor Rajeshwar Dayal Saxena had a paralytic stroke two years ago. Considering that it would now be difficult for the octogenarian to fend for himself in Bilaspur, his Bengaluru-based son Pranav asked him to come and stay with him. Saxena, however, already had about 15 young people taking turns caring for their sick teacher for years. None of them studied with him, as he had retired from a government college in 1997. But his aura is such that his house continues to be frequented by many young people, who treat it as a place of pilgrimage.

“When I first met him ten years ago while at university, like many others, I was fascinated by his knowledge,” says Aaditya Soni, 28, a photographer . “When he was left alone after the death of his wife Geeta five years ago, we persuaded him to let us stay with him and take care of him. Once I stayed for eight months in a row says Soni.Other active members include Mudit Mishra, Upasna Banjare, Monika Sahu and Satyam Rawat.

Born in Budaun district of UP in 1937, Saxena earned an MA and PhD from Sagar University, before coming to Bilaspur in Chhattisgarh and starting teaching Hindi literature at a college. At the same time, he takes informal lessons at home on philosophy, sociology and contemporary politics. Like an old guru, he talked about a series of questions with his students taking notes. While many teachers remain confined to their subject, Saxena crosses a staggering number of disciplines. “I saw its three major phases – staunch leftist, socialist and post-modernist,” says Braj Kishore Singh, principal of a college in Gariyaband district. However, Saxena examines post-modernism through the Marxist prism. “He is the greatest authority on Western and postmodern thought in Chhattisgarh. His home has always been a center of intellectual discourse,” Singh says. Ambikapur-based poet Mahesh Verma says he learned philosophy and politics from him. “He is able to sense the essence of any subject and instantly reach the heart of Zizek or Derrida. He taught us how Ferdinand de Saussure’s propositions can be found in Sanskrit linguistics,” explains Verma.

Like an old guru, he spoke on a range of topics, his students taking notes. many teachers remain confined to their subject, Professor Saxena crosses a staggering number of disciplines.

While few people in India talked about postmodernism, Saxena was able to decode and dissect the philosophy and teach his students in an accessible language. But he remains modest. “My time is up. Very few come to see me now,” he told Outlook. He couldn’t have been more wrong. There are so many examples over the years of his young students carefully recording his life and teachings in their notebooks and on camera.

“Every time I call him for a question of philosophy, he starts talking as if he were reading a text. I couldn’t have learned politics and life if I hadn’t met him,” Verma says. The philosophy of science was a center of interest. “His bhaav (sensitivity) and gyaan paksh (wisdom) are both great,” says Soni.

One of the first questions he asks any visitor is: what are you reading these days? And what is he reading these days? Steven Pinker’s recent book Ratioality “explains how, in the age of post-truth, our lives are trapped in conspiracy theory and fake news.”

The old man is more alert than ever.

(This appeared in the print edition as “The Guru”)

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