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Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan — the President who defended Hinduism against Western criticism

ThePrint remembers Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan and his contributions in the field of education and as a political leader.

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New Delhi: After years of colonial rule, India was uncertain about the path ahead. At this moment, not only did the country need great leaders to sustain its freedom struggle, but also a set of eminent thinkers to overcome any sense of internalised inferiority. In this context, contributions of India’s first Vice-President and second President — Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan — must not be forgotten.

Regarded as one of the most influential Indian philosophers and thinkers of his time, Radhakrishnan was a force to reckon with because of his unparalleled contribution in disseminating the central tenets of Hinduism to audiences in both India and the West.

It is no wonder that Radhakrishnan’s birthday, 5 September, is celebrated as Teacher’s Day in India — he was an academic for more than four decades, illuminating several minds while redefining the art of teaching.

India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, had once said about him: “He has served his country in many capacities. But, above all, he is a great teacher from whom all of us have learnt much and will continue to learn…”

Radhakrishnan passed away on 17 April 1975.


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Family life

Radhakrishnan was born on 5 September 1888 in a Telugu-speaking family in Tiruttani in what was then the Madras Presidency and is now the state of Tamil Nadu. His father Veeraswami worked in the tehsildar’s office and had to provide for seven other people — his wife, five sons and a daughter — with his meagre salary.

Radhakrishnan attended a local primary school and then joined the Lutheran Mission High School in Tirupati for his secondary education. At the age of 15, he was married to 10-year-old Sivakamuamma, the daughter of a station master.

In his later years, however, Radhakrishnan, would not remain faithful to his wife. In Radhakrishnan: A Biography, his son Sarvepalli Gopal writes: “It was also at Mysore that Radhakrishnan, no longer compelled to concentrate on making his way in an inhospitable world, found time for sexual adventurousness…The affair with the neighbour’s wife was to set the pattern for the long series of involvements of which this was the first.”

Penchant for philosophy

Studying at a Christian missionary school in Tirupati, a Hindu pilgrimage centre, had opened the doors for Radhakrishnan to learn about another religion. His next destination was Vellore’s Voorhees College, where he studied from 1900 to 1904, which again exposed him to the doctrines of Christianity and, more specifically, Dutch Reform Theology, as writer Michael Hawley mentioned in a paper on him.

For his bachelor’s and master’s degrees, Radhakrishnan went to the prestigious Madras Christian College (MCC), where he studied philosophy.

Radhakrishnan’s decision to study philosophy was a bit of an accident. One of his cousins, who was also a student at MCC, gifted him three old books — Stout’s Psychology, Welton’s Logic and Mackenzie’s Ethics — which made up his mind for him.

In Radhakrishnan: His Life and Ideas, the authors K. Satchidananda Murty and Ashok Vohra write that the same place allowed him to read great Western philosophers such as George Berkeley, John Locke, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Aristotle and Plato also showed him that Christian missionaries did not think very positively of Hinduism.

This left a lasting impact on Radhakrishnan. As he once recalled: “The challenge of Christian critics impelled me to make a study of Hinduism and find out what was living and dead in it… I prepared a thesis on the ethics of the Vedanta, which was intended to be a reply to the charge that the Vedanta system had no room for ethics”.

He is also believed to have said that as a result of his experiences at this institution, “a critical study of Hindu ideas was thus forced upon me…The need for philosophy arises when trust in tradition is shaken”. He sought to spread the correct teachings of Advaita Vedanta among those who were ill-informed about the true essence of the Hindu religion.

Professional life

Radhakrishnan started his professional life by taking up the position of a teacher of philosophy at the Presidency College, Madras, in 1909, where he also immersed himself deeply in the study of Hindu texts such as the Upanishads, the Bhagavad Gita, and the works of great Indian and Western thinkers.

Writings of Indian scholars such as Swami Vivekananda and Rabindranath Tagore had a strong impact on Radhakrishnan’s sensibilities. During this time, his article ‘The Ethics of the Bhagavad Gita and Kant’ was published in The International Journal of Ethics, allowing him to gain recognition in the West. Soon after, he began writing for other top international journals such as The Monist and Mind.

In his obituary in The New York Times, Radhakrishnan was described as one who “had filled a unique role as a kind of cultural bridge builder between the spiritualism of the East and the rationalism of the West”.

Radhakrishnan’s approach to philosophy was greatly informed by his own religious upbringing. He, in fact, once remarked: “My approach to the problems of philosophy from the angle of religion, as distinct from that of science, was determined by my early training. I was not able to confine philosophy to logic and epistemology.”

Radhakrishnan’s first major professional break came in early 1921 when he took up the George V Chair of philosophy, the most prestigious such chair in India, at Calcutta University.

It was in Calcutta that Radhakrishnan’s two volumes of Indian Philosophy were published — the first in 1923 and the second in 1927. His 1926 and 1929 lectures at Oxford University were also published during this period — the first as The Hindu View of Life and the second as An Idealist View of Life.

In 1936, Radhakrishnan was appointed as the H.N. Spalding Chair professor for the study of Eastern religions and ethics at Oxford University. Under the terms of appointment, he had to spend two terms every year at Oxford and could spend the rest of his time in India. He continued to teach at Oxford till 1952. From 1939 to 1948, he also served as the vice-chancellor of the Banaras Hindu University.


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Life in the Soviet Union

In 1949, Radhakrishnan was appointed as India’s ambassador to the Soviet Union. The book The Diplomatic Ideas and Practices of Asian States edited by Ashok Kapur describes the impact Radhakrishnan had on Indo-Soviet ties.

When Radhakrishnan went to the Soviet Union, the relations between the two states were far from cordial. According to the book, a two-pronged strategy was adopted to improve relations with Moscow: First, Radhakrishnan developed good relations with people close to Joseph Stalin, and second, the Indians created an image that Radhakrishnan slept for only two hours and worked on his philosophical works all night.”

The Soviets had deep respect for philosophers, and as the book puts it: “The approach that Stalin was missing something in not meeting Radhakrishnan worked.”

Not only did this lead to a meeting between Stalin and Radhakrishnan, a rather rare event for most ambassadors, but also positively transformed Indo-Soviet ties when Nehru decided to not vote for the US resolution calling for a ceasefire at the 38th parallel during the Korean War.

Radhakrishnan returned to India in 1952, serving first as its vice-president for 10 years (1952-1962) and then as the President from 1962 to 1967.

Sarvepalli Gopal writes that during his time as Vice-President, Radhakrishnan had developed a close friendship with Nehru who, aware of his persuasive capabilities, often encouraged him to take more overseas tours. “It was generally thought that while Nehru minded the store at home, Radhakrishnan was being sent abroad as the best salesman of India’s policies,” he writes.

He is reported to have voiced issues concerning both India and the world during his term as President. It is said that he had postulated a peace plan for the Vietnam War in 1965.

As The New York Times mentioned in its obituary, his term saw the closing years of Nehru’s life, second Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri’s term, and the initial years of Indira Gandhi as the next leader.

After the end of his term in 1967, Radhakrishnan retired from public life.


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