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Giriraj Rao: A Tribute

May 2008
Giriraj Rao: A Tribute

Well known, well respected and well liked community veteran Giriraj Rao passed away at the age of 83 on April 1. A funeral held at the Wages and Sons in Stone Mountain on Saturday April 5 was attended by over 500 people who formed a veritable mosaic of ethnicities and nationalities, as well as a wide cross section of friends, family, officials and well wishers.

Mathew Rao, the elder son of Giriraj Rao cremated the mortal remains of Giriraj Rao according to Hindu rites. Standing by him were younger brother Shawn, stepmother Elena, stepsister Alisa, and Lynnne Douglas, a relative visiting from California.

The funeral service started with a somber worship and prayer by the family with rituals conducted by Pandit Phani Kumar, the chief priest of the Hindu Temple of Atlanta at Riverdale. Mr. Rao’s sons performed the final rites before the casket was brought into the main chapel for the eulogy, attended by many dignitaries and friends, including representatives of the King Center, the Mayor of Atlanta’s officers, and representatives from the National Park Service, the Coca Cola Company and diverse community organizations.

While Robert Sullivan of the Coca Cola Company co-presided, Subash Razdan, Chairman of Gandhi Foundation of USA (GFUSA) welcomed the gathering—as per the wish of the late Giribhai (as he was popularly known in the community). Razdan thanked everyone for their love and prayers during Giribhai’s illness and month-long stay in the hospital. After a moment of silence, Pandit Kumar recited shlokas from the Gita, followed by the prayer Raghupati Raghava Raja Ram sung by the melodious Madhavi Dave.

Addressing the congregation, Razdan said, “We are gathered here to celebrate the life of our friend Giribhai, meaning brother Giri. It was Giri’s passion to improve the lives of others. By nature, he was blind to the faults of others. Even after knowing the failings of others, his regard for them remained the same. He was a man of many virtues.” Rev. Maria Clemente of Doorway into the Infinite Ministries, in her eloquent tribute, said, “So we gather together today to honor and celebrate the life of a great man, Giriraj Rao, and to know that indeed his soul does endure? As soon as I met him in the year 2000, I realized that this was a man who not only talked the talk, but also walked the walk. I thought, ‘Here is a man of great integrity and deep wisdom; a man who is the living embodiment of the power of peace even while standing in the courage of his convictions.’ We are gathered here today because we answered the clarion call of our beloved Giribhai. Let us remember him by continuing to answer his call for unity, peace, and hope. Let us pay tribute to his soul by loving each other, working together, and creating the change we want to see in the world.”

GFUSA Deputy Executive Director Antony Thaliath spoke about the eventful life and career of Giriraj Rao and the many accolades that Mr. Rao received for his services to the community. Retired Coca-Cola Executive Robert Sullivan said that he had nothing but fond memories of working with Giri, who had been a jovial, dedicated and conscientious colleague. Giri had an inquisitive mind and enjoyed talking on a variety of subjects. “It was no use arguing with him, because in the end, he always won,” he quipped.

Giribhai’s son Shawn said that his father loved meeting people and conversing with them. Most of the time, his father would get carried away, so usually the events organized by him ran behind schedule! He said his dad believed firmly in duty to one’s family, career, children’s education, his homeland India and adopted country America. He not only looked after his immediate family but also supported distant relatives. He was a multi-dimensional man who strongly believed in inclusiveness, diversity and tolerance. He respected all religions and faiths. When the Gandhi statue was dedicated on a cold January Saturday, his overjoyed dad had said, quoting Jackie Gleason, “How sweet it is”. Shawn concluded his tribute with the words “Dad, your life, your legacy. How sweet it is!”

Following Shawn’s tribute, Madhavi Dave sang “Ghunghat ke pat khol”, an elevating, devotional song originally sung by Juthika Roy. Choosing a few (from the numerous) messages of condolence received, Mr. Razdan read tributes from Indian Ambassador Ronen Sen, Deputy Chief of Mission Ambassador R.S. Jassal, Consul-General of India Ambassador S. M. Gavai, and the BAPS Swaminarayan Temple.

City of Atlanta Chief of Staff and GFUSA Vice-Chairman Greg Pridgeon read a message of condolence from Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin, who commended Giribhai’s role in bridge building. “Atlanta has been enriched and blessed by the vision, courage and leadership of Giriraj Rao. He will live on in our hearts,” Mayor Franklin said.

CEO and President of the King Center Isaac Farris said that his late aunt, Coretta Scott King, always had a smile on her face when she talked of Giri Rao. “The King family is grateful to him and his team for playing a big role in the establishment of the Gandhi statue as well as the refurbishing of the Gandhi Room at the Freedom Hall at the MLK Historic Site. Brother Rao, we salute you for a job well done,” he said.

Troy Lissimore, the former Superintendent of the National Park Service related that Giriraj Rao was very passionate about forging a bond between the GFUSA and the King Center. Matthew Rao recalled that his father was a caring and protective man. “If the soul is like a bird in a cage, then I am sure that bird will be perched on my shoulder to guide me always” he said. Hindu Temple of Atlanta President Dr. Ravi Sarma described Giribhai as a karma yogi, who believed in universal brotherhood. He said that Giribhai had all the attributes of a realized Hindu. To him, the message was more important than the medium, as reflected by Giribhai’s involvement in staging plays like Chandalika and Gajamukha. IACA Board Member Vir Nanda said that Giribhai and he had worked closely on many IACA programs.

Dr. Joy Berry, former Executive Director of the Human Rights Commission and matriarch of the Gandhi statue project, recalled Giribhai’s involvement in the Interfaith Coalition of Metro Atlanta. Dr. Berry also said that the spiritual head of the Vedanta Center of Atlanta, Swami Yogeshananda, who was Giribhai’s college mate at Berkeley, had remarked, “Irreplaceable!” upon hearing of Giribhai’s demise. A slideshow on the life of Giriraj Rao was screened after the eulogies.

- Mahadev Desai

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