Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan (5 September 1888 – 17 April 1975), was born as Sarvepalli Radhakrishnayya into a Telugu Niyogi Brahmin family of Sarvepalli Veeraswami and Sithamma in Tiruttani of North Arcot district in the erstwhile Madras Presidency (now in Tiruvallur district of Tamil Nadu).His family hails from Sarvepalli village in Nellore district of Andhra Pradesh. His father was a subordinate revenue official in the service of a local zamindar.
Radhakrishnan’s primary education was at K. V. High School at Thiruttani. In 1896 he moved to the Hermansburg Evangelical Lutheran Mission School in Tirupati and Government High Secondary School, Walajapet. He joined Voorhees College in Vellore for his high school education. After his F.A. (First of Arts) class, he joined the Madras Christian College (affiliated to the University of Madras) at the age of 16 in 1904. He graduated from there and also finished his Masters in Philosophy from the same college in 1908. His conservative father did not want the boy to learn English and hoped that he would become a priest. But the young Radhakrishnan excelled in his studies and was awarded scholarships throughout his academic life.
His cousin who graduated from the Madras Christian college passed on his philosophy textbooks to Radhakrishnan and that became an automatic choice for Radhakrishnan to pursue Philosophy subject in his degree.
Sarvepalli wrote his bachelor’s degree thesis on “The Ethics of the Vedanta and its Metaphysical Presuppositions”. It “was intended to be a reply to the charge that the Vedanta system had no room for ethics.” Two of his professors, Rev. William Meston and Dr. Alfred George Hogg, commended Radhakrishnan’s dissertation. Radhakrishnan’s thesis was published when he was only twenty. Radhakrishnan lauded Professor Hogg as ‘My distinguished teacher,’ and as “one of the greatest Christian thinkers we had in India.’
The Spirit of Abheda
Radhakrishnan explains how the Vedanta philosophy requires us to look upon all creations as one or non-different. He quotes, “In morals, the individual is enjoined to cultivate a Spirit of Abheda, or non-difference.” This according to Radhakrishnan “naturally leads to the ethics of love and brotherhood”. He also says, “The Vedanta requires us to respect human dignity and demands the recognition of man as man.”
Marriage & Career
Radhakrishnan was married to Sivakamu, a distant cousin, at the age of 16. The couple had five daughters named Padmavati, Rukmini, Sushila, Sundari and Shakuntala. They also had a son named Sarvepalli Gopal who went on to a become a reputed historian. Sivakamu died on 26 November 1956.
After completing his M.A. in 1908 Radhakrishnan got a temporary teaching position in Department of Philosophy, at Presidency College, Madras, with the assistance of testimonial from Professor William Skinner, who was acting Principal of Madras Christian College. In reciprocation, Radhakrishnan dedicated one of his early books to William Skinner.
At Presidency college he taught diverse topics in psychology and European philosophy. He also learned Sanskrit during this period. His article “The Ethics of the Bhagavadgita and Kant” published in The International Journal of Ethics in 1911 provided the much-needed break to reach out to the Western audience. In 1916 he was posted to Anantapur, Andhra Pradesh where he worked for three months, and in 1917 he was transferred to Rajahmundry. All these assignments were temporary teaching posts and in 1918 he got a secured appointment as faculty in philosophy at Mysore University, Maharaja ‘s College, Mysore.
In February, 1921 he got academic appointment to the George V Chair as professor in Philosophy at Calcutta University. When he left Maharaja ‘s College, Mysore after the farewell ceremony his students made him to sit in the cart and pulled it all the way to Mysore railway station to drop him. Radhakrishnan was influenced by Rabindranath Tagore’s writings and the same is reflected in his philosophical ideals. He also completed his first book, The Philosophy of Rabindranath Tagore. He believed Tagore’s philosophy to be the “genuine manifestation of the Indian spirit”. His second book, The Reign of Religion in Contemporary Philosophy was published in 1920.
He represented the University of Calcutta at the Congress of the Universities of the British Empire in June 1926 and the International Congress of Philosophy at Harvard University in September 1926. He delivered Hibbert Lecture on the ideals of life at Manchester College, Oxford in 1929 and this was subsequently published in book form as An Idealist View of Life.
In 1929 Radhakrishnan joined as Principal at Manchester College. This gave him the opportunity to lecture to the students of the University of Oxford on Comparative Religion. For his services to education he was knighted by George V in the June 1931 Birthday Honors, and formally invested with his honor by the Governor-General of India, the Earl of Willingdon, in April 1932. However, he ceased to use the title after Indian independence,and instead preferred his academic title of ‘Doctor’.
Educationist, Diplomat and Statesman
Radhakrishnan was one of those stalwarts who attended Andhra Mahasabha in 1928 where he seconded the idea of renaming Ceded Districts division of Madras Presidency as Rayalaseema. In 1931 he was nominated to the League of Nations Committee for Intellectual Cooperation.
He was the vice-chancellor of Andhra University from 1931 to 1936. In 1936 Radhakrishnan was named Spalding Professor of Eastern Religion and Ethics at the University of Oxford, and was elected a Fellow of All Souls College.
In 1936 and again in 1937, he was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature. This was followed by further nominations for the award several times up to the 1960s. In 1939 Dr. Radhakrishnan succeeded Pt. Madan Mohan Malaviya as the Vice-Chancellor of Banaras Hindu University (BHU). He served as its Vice-Chancellor till January 1948. Shortly after his resignation from BHU in 1948, Radhakrishnan was named chairman of the University Education Commission, which submitted its report in 1949.
Radhakrishnan had been actively involved in the then newly incorporated UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization), leading the Indian delegation from 1946 to 1951 and serving on its Executive Board as Chairman in 1948-49. Radhakrishnan also served for the two years immediately following Bharat’s independence as a member of the Indian Constituent Assembly.
He served as Ambassador of Bharat to the Soviet Union, from 1949 to 1952. He laid the foundation for Bharat’s relationship with Soviet Union as Ambassador. He suggested to Stalin that Soviet Union should take the initiative to end the cold war. When Stalin answered by saying that it takes two hands to clap and that there was another side responsible for the Cold War too, Radhakrishnan replied “As a peace-loving country, the Soviet Union should withdraw its own hand as it takes two hands to clap, “that left Stalin at a loss for words.
From 1953 to 1962 he was chancellor of the University of Delhi. Radhakrishnan was elected as the first Vice-President of Bharat (1952-1962), and elected as the second President of Bharat (1962 –1967). In September 1957, Radhakrishnan was on a visit to China as Bharat’s Vice President. On his arrival at Mao’s residence, Radhakrishnan was received at the door by Mao himself. After shaking hands with the Mao, he patted the surprised leader on his cheek. Mao had never been subjected to such familiarity but Radhakrishnan was quick to put him at ease by saying, “Mr Chairman, don’t be alarmed, I did the same to Stalin and the Pope!” When the king of Greece came on a state visit to Bharat in 1962, Radhakrishnan (newly appointed as the President of Bharat back then) welcomed him saying: “Your Majesty, you are the first king of Greece to come as our guest. Alexander came uninvited!”
When Radhakrishnan was appointed the President of Bharat in 1962, Bertrand Russell one of the world’s greatest philosophers welcomed the news by saying, “It is an honour to philosophy that Dr. Radhakrishnan should be President of India and I, as a philosopher, take special pleasure in this. Plato aspired for philosophers to become kings and it is a tribute to India that she should make a philosopher her President.”
During his tenure as Vice President and President of Bharat, the world witnessed Korean war, political tensions between Bharat and China and Bharat and Pakistan. The cold war divided the world into East and West. Radhakrishnan rightly appealed for the promotion of a creative internationalism based on the spiritual foundations of integral experience. He strongly believed that such an approach would improve the understanding between people and lead to tolerant nations.
When Radhakrishnan became the President of Bharat, some of his students and friends requested him to allow them to celebrate his birthday, on 5 September. He advised them to celebrate September 5th as Teachers’ Day. His birthday has since been celebrated as Teacher’s Day in Bharat.
Along with G. D. Birla and some other social workers in the pre-independence era, Radhakrishnan formed the Krishnarpan Charity Trust.
He was against State institutions engaging in any sort of religious activity as it was against the secular vision of the Indian State. Radhakrishnan not only tried to defend Hindu Dharma against uninformed western criticism but tried to bridge the eastern and western thought on Philosophy and religion.
Philosopher par excellence
He was self-motivated in his defence of Hinduism against “uninformed Western criticism”. According to the historian Donald Mackenzie Brown, He had always defended Hindu culture against uninformed Western criticism and had symbolized the pride of Bharatiyas in their own intellectual traditions.
Radhakrishnan was one of the most prominent proponents of Neo-Vedanta. He reinterpreted Advaita Vedanta for a contemporary understanding. According to Radhakrishnan, maya is not a strict absolute idealism, but “a subjective misperception of the world as ultimately real.” According to Radhakrishnan, intuition plays a specific role in all kinds of experience. Radhakrishnan saw Hinduism as a scientific religion based on facts, perceived through intuition or religious experience. According to Radhakrishnan, Vedanta offers the most direct intuitive experience and inner realisation, which makes it the highest form of religion.
“The man of action finds his God in fire, the man of feeling in the heart, and the feeble minded in the idol, but the strong in spirit find God everywhere”. The seers see the supreme in the self, and not the images.” (From his writings collected as The Hindu View of Life, Upton Lectures, Delivered at Manchester College, Oxford, 1926).
Radhakrishnan strongly believed that doctrines and scriptures are records of personal insights and are therefore necessary for religious faith. This belief left a mark on Radhakrishnan’s philosophical and religious outlook which reflects in his writings.
Radhakrishnan’s idealism was such that it recognized the reality and diversity of the world of experience (prakṛti) while at the same time preserving the notion of a wholly transcendent Absolute (Brahman), an Absolute that is identical to the self (Atman).
“What the scientist does when he discovers a new law is to give a new ordering to observed facts. The artist is engaged in a similar task. He gives new meaning to our experience and organizes it in a different way due to his perception of subtler qualities in reality” (An Idealist View of Life 194).
“The Hindu philosophy of religion starts from and returns to an experimental basis” (The Hindu View of Life 19). Unlike other religions, which set limits on the types of spiritual experience, the “Hindu thinker readily admits of other points of view than his own and considers them to be just as worthy of attention” (The Hindu View of Life 19). Experience and experimentation are the beginning and end of Hinduism, as Radhakrishnan understood it.
Religion, according to him “Religious feeling must establish itself as a rational way of living. If ever the spirit is to be at home in this world, and not merely a prisoner or a fugitive, spiritual foundations must be laid deep and preserved worthily. Religion must express itself in reasonable thought, fruitful action and right social institutions.”
Some of the prominent writings of Radhakrishnan include- Indian Philosophy, 2 volumes, The Philosophy of the Upanishads, An Idealist View of Life, Eastern Religions and Western Thought, and East and West: Some Reflections, Recovery of faith, The Hindu View of Life, An Idealist View of Life, Search for Truth.
In the words of George P. Conger, U S philosopher, “Among the philosophers of our time, no one has achieved so much in so many fields as has Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan of India … William James was influential in religion, and John Dewey has been a force in politics. One or two American philosophers have been legislators. Jacques Maritain has been an ambassador. Radhakrishnan, in a little more than thirty years of work, has done all these things and more… Never in the history of philosophy has there been quite such a world-figure. With his unique appointment at Banaras and Oxford, like a weaver’s shuttle, he has gone to and fro between the East and West, carrying a thread of understanding, weaving it into the fabric of civilization.”
Awards and Honors
- Knight Bachelor in 1931. However, he ceased to use the title “Sir” since 1947 after Bharat’s independence.
- Elected Fellow of the British Academy in 1938.
- 1947: election as Permanent Member of the Instutut international de philosophie, Paris.
- Recipient of the Pour le Mérite for Sciences and Arts, an order of Merit, Germany. (1954)
- Recipient of the Bharat Ratna (1954)
- Sash First Class of the Order of the Aztec Eagle (1954), Mexico.
- 1961: the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade.
- 1962: Institution of Teacher’s Day in Bharat, yearly celebrated at 5 September, Radhakrishnan’s birthday, in honour of Radhakrishnan’s belief that “teachers should be the best minds in the country”.
- Honorary member of the Order of Merit (1963), United Kingdom
- 1968: Sahitya Akademi fellowship, the highest honour conferred by the Sahitya Akademi on a writer (he is the first person to get this award)
- 1975: the Templeton Prize in 1975, a few months before his death, for advocating non-aggression and conveying “a universal reality of God that embraced love and wisdom for all people.”He donated the entire amount of the Templeton Prize to Oxford University.
- 1989: institution of the Radhakrishnan Scholarships by Oxford University in the memory of Radhakrishnan. The scholarships were later renamed the “Radhakrishnan Chevening Scholarships”.
- 1933–37: Nominated five times for the Nobel Prize in Literature.
Between 1933 and 1937, Radhakrishnan was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature for five consecutive years. Commemorative stamps on Dr. Radhakrishnan released by India Post in 1967 and 1989. Sarvepalli Radhakrishna (1988) a documentary film about Radhakrishnan, directed by N. S. Thapa, was produced by the Government of India’s Films Division.
Radhakrishnan retired from public life in 1967. He spent the last eight years of his life at the home he built in Mylapore, Madras and died on April 17, 1975. Radhakrishnan is a rare personality who attained eminence as an academician, educationist, philosopher, diplomat, statesman and humanist with a touch of humour.