|The Illuminating Life of a Legend:
Remembering Dr Pemmaraju Venugopala Rao,
By Dr. P. Ravi Sarma
Atlanta, GA: On December 25, 2012, in the early hours of the
morning, a great soul departed peacefully, surrounded by his
family and friends. Professor P. Venugopala Rao, popularly known
as “Dr. Rao”, “Rao Garu”, and “Rao uncle” to many
Atlanta, across the US, and abroad, passed away after a brief
hospitalization. He was 81 and his family just celebrated his
“Sahasra Chandra Darshana” event in November.
A man of brilliant mind and varied interests, Dr Rao had an
impact on everyone who came into contact with him and his
wonderful wife of 54 years, Lakshmi Garu. He was original,
creative and accomplished in a wide range of areas. He had an
incredible ability to relate to any person, from a small child
to a nonagenarian. He was inquisitive of the other person’s
interests and connected with everyone in some way or another. He
was known for his ability to listen and understand the concerns
of people who came to him and then offer advice that the person
found useful. One of his friends summed up this quality nicely
when he said that Dr Rao was a very patient negotiator and in
the end one might have disagreed with him, but never disliked
His daughters, Nalini and Salina paid rich tributes to their
illustrious father. Nalini acknowledged his great qualities and
thanked him for being there for her when she had to make
difficult decisions. Saleena walked all the assembled mourners
through the garden her father planted, with seeds of hope,
support, service, optimism, loyalty and creativity. Dr Rao’s
grand son Joseph recited the Gayatri Mantra to honor his grand
Dr Rao is survived by his wife, Lakshmi, daughter Nalini,
daughter Saleena and her husband, Shawn and grand son, Joseph.
A summary of Dr Rao’s varied accomplishments follows and one of
his poems is translated into English to give a glimpse of his
The varied accomplishments of Dr. Rao
1. Scientific and Academic: Ph.D. 1964 from University of
Oregon. Atomic Physicist, Emeritus Professor of Physics, Emory
University. Author of several scientific publications.
Recognized as a great teacher. Retired on August 31, 2012 at the
age of 81.
2. Artistic: Accomplished actor, stage director, director and
producer. Produced Ramayana Ballet (1975) Kanya Sulkamu (1982)
and Girija Kalyanamu (1985). Was stage director for several
Kuchipudi dance ballets produced by Dr Vempati China Satyam and
Mrs. Sasikala Penumarthi.
Painter, broad genre, including Hindu Mythology, nature,
abstract and secular art
Sculptor, well recognized works include, “Sahasra Linga” a great
Siva Linga consisting of one thousand smaller Siva lingas.
Craftsman, outstanding talent in wood working. Created Pooja
Mandirams and Vivaha Mandapams that are of great quality.
Designer, playing major role in designing the Mandir at the IACA
Center and the Gandhi Room at the Martin Luther King Jr. Center
Photographer, provided the cover illustration and pictures in
the book, “From Lakshmi’s Kitchen”, written by his wife, Lakshmi
garu, and published in 2012
3. Literary: Poet, both in Telugu and English. Deep thinker,
whose works include inquiry into science, religion and
philosophy. Two books of poems, “Kasmic Kavitha” (Poetry of the
Cosmos) (1989)and “Lokaniki Chatimpu” (Announcing to the world)
(2000) illustrate these themes. Two books of poems, “Sringara
Bhartruhari”, is a translation of the sensual poetry of poet
Bhartruhari and “Tiruppavi” the famous Tamil poem of Goda Devi
and her wedding to Narayana, is a work of great devotion. Both
these books contain the poetry in English.
Editor/ Publisher: Started the first Telugu magazine in North
America, “Telugu Bhasha Patrika” in 1971 and published it for
Two volumes of “Anthology of North American Telugu Poetry” and
eleven volumes of “Anthology of North American Telugu Short
Story”, most of them published under the banner of Vanguri
Foundation, started by Vanguri
Chitten Raju of Houston, TX. Dr.
Rao served as series editor for the foundation.
4. Community Leader: Great organizer. First elected president of
IACA in 1975, the Indian American Cultural Association of
Atlanta, he drafted the constitution of the organization and
served as parliamentarian over the next two decades in
maintaining the relevance of the organization to the growing
community. Started the Cultural Center Committee that resulted
in the establishment of India Cultural and Religious Center in
Constitutional expert: Wrote the constitutions of IACA (1975)
the Gujarati Samaj of Atlanta (1979) and that of the Telugu
Association of Metro Atlanta, TAMA (1982.) Helped in starting
many other community organizations over the years.
Parliamentarian, mediator, and advisor: Dr Rao was sought by all
for his organizational talents, knowledge of parliamentary
procedures, and his ability to listen to the various aspects of
an issue, especially in areas of conflict, and bring about
compromise between the various factions. People trusted him for
his unemotional and non-biased approach and appreciated his
ability to suggest a solution and a way out. He would mediate
between the various groups and show them the common ground.
5. Religious Scholar: Dr Rao was an avid reader and knew the
procedures of various Hindu observances. Before there were
temples, he would be the priest, performing Satyanarayana Pooja
in peoples’ homes and on one occasion performed a Hindu marriage
ceremony, when the priest missed a flight and missed the
wedding. He understood the philosophy and deeper meaning of the
religious practices and therefore, was not bound by tradition
and rituals. He thought of God as a universal being, not defined
by religion, tradition and dogma. In his mind, it was a loving
and caring God.
He taught courses on Religion and Hinduism at Emory University
and helped Professor John Fenton in his research on the newly
emerging Indian community in Atlanta and Georgia, leading to
publication of Dr Fenton’s book, “Transplanting Traditions, a
study of the Indian community in US.”
Professor Fenton also invited the Dalai Lama to Emory and during
the course of years, the Dalai Lama got to know Dr Rao. He then
invited him to teach his monks about the fascinating knowledge
that was unfolding in science. Thus started the “Science for
monks” project. Dr Rao traveled to Dharma Sala in India in the
2000s and spent summers there teaching Buddhist Monks, about the
world of science and religion.
He was a very respected member of the Atlanta interfaith
community, primarily working through the Faith Alliance of Metro
6. Astronomy and Astrology: Dr Rao knew astronomy and also
studied astrology. He would chart the planetary positions for a
person and also write the predictions based on Hindu astrology.
He created a show for the Fern bank Science Center Planetarium
based on Hindu Astronomy that ran for several weeks in Atlanta
in mid 1990s.
Encounter with Death
The Angel of Death came for my mother.
He was pleasant and gentle.
He asked me, “Who are you? What is she to you?”
That was my first encounter with Death.
“What kind of relative are you, who does not know me?
Who are you, why are you here?”
I replied in a threatening way.
“I am a friend of Truth.
I gather the souls of those whose lives have ended—
And free them of the attachments they developed
During their existence
And safely guide them to the Source of their origin.
That is my job.”
I composed myself and,
Realizing the Divinity in front of me,
I gathered my courage and asked this time,
“Who gave you this power?”
“The same Spirit that is in you, the Supreme Being,
That gave you the courage to question my authority,
Gave me the power and speaks through me.
I am also like you, waiting for her last breath.”
He was pleasant and friendly.
(I then spoke.)
“Please do not forget our acquaintance from today.
When it is time for me to go with you,
Kindly assign your helpers—
Sickness, Pain and Suffering—
To be elsewhere, and not come to me.
I smiled and told my new friend.
(Free translation of selected verses from the Telugu poem,
“Mrityuvutho Parichayam”, from the book, “Lokaniki Chatimpu”
(Announcing to the World), July, 2000.)