Dr. Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan (September 5, 1888 – April 17, 1975), was a philosopher and statesman. One of the foremost scholars of comparative religion and philosophy in his day, he built a bridge between Eastern and Western thought showing each to be comprehensible within the terms of the other. He introduced Western idealism into Indian philosophy and was the first scholar of importance to provide a comprehensive exegesis of India’s religious and philosophical literature to English speaking peoples. His academic appointments included the King George V Chair of Mental and Moral Science at the University of Calcutta (1921) and Spalding Professor of Eastern Religions and Ethics at Oxford University (1936-1939). He became Vice President of India in 1952 and was elected President in 1962, an office he held until 1967. In India, his birthday is celebrated as Teacher’s Day in his honour.
Life and Career
Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan (Sarvepalli is his family name, and Radhakrishnan is his first name) was born at Tiruttani, a town in Tamil Nadu, South India, 64 km to the northwest of Chennai (formerly known as Madras). His mother tongue was Telugu. His early years were spent in Tiruttani, Tiruvallur and Tirupati. His primary education was in Gowdie School, Tiruvallur. He graduated with a Master’s Degree in Arts from the University of Madras. In 1921, he was appointed to the most important philosophy chair in India, the King George V Chair of Mental and Moral Science at the University of Calcutta. Radhakrishnan 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. In 1929, Radhakrishnan was invited to take the post vacated by Principal J. Estlin Carpenter in Manchester College, Oxford. This gave him the opportunity to lecture to the students of the University of Oxford on Comparative Religion. He was knighted in 1931 and was known as Sir Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan until India attained independence; thereafter, he was addressed as Dr. Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan. He worked as the Vice-Chancellor of Andhra University from 1931 to 1936. In 1936, Radhakrishnan was named Spalding Professor of Eastern Religions and Ethics at the University of Oxford, and was elected a Fellow of All Souls College. After 1946, Radhakrishnan’s academic career was cut short when his country needed him to be ambassador to UNESCO and later to Moscow. He was also elected to the Constituent Assembly of India in 1946.
According to Babajan Gouffrav, a member of the Soviet Union’s Politburo, Ambassador Radhakrishnan was allowed to see Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose somewhere in the Soviet Union, on the condition that the Ambassador would not converse in any manner with Netaji. After this strange meeting, Ambassador Radhakrishnan informed Prime Minister Nehru about Netaji’s presence in the Soviet Union. Rumors of this meeting reached the Indian press, and speculations were rife in New Delhi about ways and means of securing the release of Netaji from Soviet custody, but nothing was done at the official level to secure Netaji’s release.
Radhakrishnan subsequently became Vice President, and later, President (1962-1967) of India. When he became the President of India in 1962, some of his students and friends requested him to allow them to celebrate his birthday, September 5. He replied, “Instead of celebrating my birthday, it would be my proud privilege if 5 September is observed as Teachers’ Day.” Since then, Teachers’ Day has been celebrated in India on this day.
Radhakrishnan argued that Western philosophers, despite all claims to objectivity, were biased by theological influences from their wider culture. In one of his major works he also showed that Indian philosophy, once translated into standard academic language, is worthy of being called philosophy by Western standards. His main contribution to Indian thought, therefore, is that he placed it “on the map”, thereby earning Indian philosophy a respect in the West that it had not had before. In his major work on the Idealist View of Life he made a powerful case for the importance of instinctive thinking as opposed to purely intellectual forms of thought. He is well known for having commented on the Prasthana Trayi of the Gita, the Upanishads and the Brahma Sutra.
He was elected as a Fellow of the British Academy in 1938. He was awarded the Bharat Ratna in 1954 and the Order of Merit in 1963. He received the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade in 1961 and the Templeton Prize in 1975 a few months before his death. The Oxford University instituted the Radhakrishnan Chevening Scholarships and the Radhakrishnan Memorial Award in his memory.
“It is not God that is worshipped but the group or authority that claims to speak in His name. Sin becomes disobedience to authority not violation of integrity.”