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  • To my Karmic Guru-Dev with Gratitude: Wiktor Osiatyński, February 1945–April 2017
  • Vijayashri Sripati (bio)

In ancient India, there lived a renowned acharya (teacher) named Dronacharya, who taught archery only to the royals. In the forest, overlooking the opulent marble palace, lived Ekalavya—a shudra (a lower-caste Hindu). Ekalavya longed to learn archery. But as an “untouchable,” he was shunned and forced into a life of illiteracy. Undeterred, he sculpted Drona’s clay bust and mounted it in front of his thatched hut. He worshipped it daily, before practicing archery. (Note: Hindus practice idol worship, and equate teachers to God—Guru-Dev.) Years sped by. One day, the royals, King Dhritarashtra and Drona, happened to witness Ekalavya’s martial prowess and [End Page 1007] were astounded. “Who taught you archery?” asked Dhritarashtra. “There he is,” replied Ekalavya, pointing to Dronacharya.1 What Dronacharya was to Ekalavya, Professor Wiktor Osiatyński is to me.

Indeed, I introduced myself to him in just this way on the first day of Wiktor’s class at Central European University (CEU) in September 2007. Wiktor had instructed all of us to tell him why we had chosen his course. It is a tribute to his reputation as a teacher and mentor that my narrative resonated with his students from over fifteen countries: they spontaneously applauded him.

Wiktor’s truly enchanting signature course, “Constitutionalism and Human Rights,” beckoned me from Harvard to CEU that September. To understand Wiktor’s contribution requires noting that during the 1990s, American constitutional law and public international law (including human rights) evolved in parallel ways. (As a result, fewer scholars noted how their own constitutions were historically integral to, and intersected with, international law. And, conversely, the majority of international law scholars unwittingly ignored, and so shrouded, the constitutional dimension of many critical post–1989 developments—e.g., peace-building and UN territorial administration.) Credit goes to Wiktor, who as early as 1995, made understanding and exploring these intersections possible. Notable was his signature course, which he taught at CEU since 1995 and at other universities, including Harvard and Stanford. Small wonder that his fame spread to India. I therefore contacted him in 2001 at Chicago University School of Law, where he was teaching his signature course. Typically, emails bearing foreign names are ignored. But not if Wiktor is the recipient. Wiktor very kindly couriered me his course materials, encouraging me to keep in touch. And, in touch I kept.

Indeed, in reflecting upon Wiktor’s life, and now his death, I believe Thomas Carlyle’s adage best describes him: “A great man shows his greatness by the way he treats little men.” Wiktor was deeply spiritual (see his Rehabilitation, 2004). As a result, he had no ego, and was truly cosmopolitan. He took seriously my desire to learn from him, adopting me as his student. A charming intellectual and truly gifted teacher, he banned typing, writing, and bubble-gum-chewing in class! Instead, he rightly pushed us to listen, think, engage, and question. His class, therefore, rocked. A true feminist, he encouraged women students to join him in his public presentations. Meanwhile, he never punished those who unwittingly wore their hearts on their colorful sleeves!

Wiktor put his high-profile activity on the international stage towards nobler ends —never to promote his own works. Take the remarkable conference he co-conceptualized in 2001 in Warsaw, setting vital but uncharted [End Page 1008] issues center-stage (e.g., coercive constitutional reform in African debtor-states). He thus amplified new voices. As he later wrote, “The idea of rights has seldom served the poor . . . and oppressed.”2 This conference culminated in an edited book in 2003.3 In 2004, I received a karmic gift from Warsaw: Wiktor’s glittering Christmas card and that book.

Over the years, Wiktor always treated me, a little woman, with dignity in the “small places,” where we met, “so close and so small that they cannot be seen on any maps of the world”4—his CEU office/classroom/auditorium, the nearby cafés, other cities, and the Boston Concert Hall, Massachusetts. These are the places from where “universal human rights begin.”5 And...


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