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Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan biography

Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan

(1888-1975)

biography

Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan
Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan
Dr. S. Radhakrishnan is considered as one of the greatest thinkers of modern India. He interpreted Indian philosophy to the Western world through his lectures and books.
He was an excellent teacher and was connected with educational institutions for a century. In recognition of his teaching talents, his birth date i.e. 5 September is observed as Teacher’s Day. In later life, he served the nation, holding important cultural and political posts successfully culminating in his being elected as president of India.
Radhakrishnan was born on 5 September 1888 at Tirutani, forty miles from Madras, in a middle-class Brahmin family Sarvepalli is a small village in Andhra Pradesh from where his ancestors migrated to Tamil Nadu; hence, the prefix Sarvepalli in his name. He was the second son of Sarvepalli Veeraswami and Sitamma. Veeraswami was serving as a tehsildar in a zamindari on a moderate salary. Radhakrishnan had his early education up to the age of eight at Tirutani and the following twelve years in various Christian missionary institutions: Lutheran Mission High School Tirupati (1896-1900); Voorhees College, Vellore (1900-1904) and Madras Christian College (1904-1908) getting his M.A. in philosophy in 1908. Radhakrishnan wrote in his autobiographical essay that “my entire education was pursued in Christian missionary institutions which made me familiar with the New Testament as well as the criticism of the missionaries against the Hindu beliefs and customs. By this criticism of Indian thought they disturbed my faith and shook the traditional props on which I leaned. A critical study of Hindu religion was thus forced on me." He started writing on Indian philosophy while still a student. His thesis for the M.A. degree was The Ethics of the Vedanta and its Material Presupposition. It was intended he said to be a reply to the charge that the Vedanta system had no room for ethics. The thesis was published in the form of a book in 1908, his first book.
After doing his M.A. he qualified as a teacher in the Training College, Saidapet and joined the Madras Subordinate Education Service. He was married in 1904, at the age of sixteen, while still a student, to a ten-year-old girl, Sivakamuamma. In 1909, Radhakrishnan was appointed as assistant lecturer at the Madras Presidency College (1909-16) and later, as lecturer (1917-18). In 1918, Radhakrishnan was selected professor of philosophy at the University of Mysore. By that time he had become somewhat famous because of his teaching ability and his writings. Sir Ashutosh Mukherjee, vice-chancellor of the Calcutta University, while in search of talent offered him the prestigious post of George V professor of philosophy at the Calcutta University in 1921, the post which he held from 1921 to 1931 and again from 1937-1941. He had to leave Calcutta to serve as vice-chancellor of the Andhra University which was founded in 1926. In 1937, he again joined the Calcutta University but in 1939, Madan Mohan Malaviya, the founder and vice-chancellor of Banaras Hindu University requested him to be the vice-chancellor of his university. He agreed to work in an honorary capacity. He was already holding two positions: that of a professor at the Calcutta University and also a Spalding Professor of Eastern Religions and Ethics at the Oxford University, England, teaching for six months at each of the two universities. He managed to squeeze in the vice-chancellorship of Banaras Hindu University. He used to travel to Banaras over the weekends and return to Calcutta for teaching during the week. However, from 1941 to 1948, when his term for vice-chancellor was extended twice he served full-time at the Banaras Hindu University till 1948. In that year, his academic career came to an end and an important new phase in his life started.
During the four decades of his academic career (1909-48), he lectured as visiting professor not only in India but also in several foreign universities, spanning a period of almost a quarter of a century beginning with the Upton Lectures at Manchester College, Oxford University, England. The topic of the lectures was The Hindu View of Life which was issued later in the form of a book (1927). In September of the same year, he lectured at the International Congress of Philosophy at the Harvard University and those lectures were later published as Kalki or the Future of the Civilization (1929). In 1929, he was invited as professor of comparative religion at the Manchester College, Oxford once again and delivered Hibbert Lectures on An Idealist View of Life published in 1932. Some of his occasional lectures delivered at Oxford were published as East and West in Religion (1933). Then from the years 1936 to 1952, Radhakrishnan served for sixteen long years as Spalding Professor of Eastern Religion and Ethics at Oxford University All those years he travelled back and forth from England to India to perform his duties as a professor and a vice-chancellor at the Calcutta and Banaras Hindu University respectively.
Immediately after Independence the government was anxious to tone up the system of higher education in free India. For that purpose the University Education Commission was appointed in 1948 with Radhakrishnan as chairman. It recommended far reaching reforms in the educational system. Unfortunately, all of them could not be implemented. Radhakrishnan was also a member of the Constituent Assembly from 1947 to 1949. He led the Indian delegation to UNESCO from 1946 to 1952 and was elected chairman of the UNESCO Executive (1948-49).
From the academic to the political was a big, and risky jump but Radhakrishnan, to the surprise of many, came out winning laurels. An important assignment came his way when he was chosen as India’s first envoy to Moscow in 1949. The Ironman Stalin was quietly charmed by the genial philosopher. And before Radhakrishnan left Moscow in 1952, he had successfully laid the foundation of firm, friendly understanding between India and the Soviet Union, holding good till this day." On his return from Moscow, he was elected vice-president of India (1952-57) and again for a second term (1957-62). As vice-president he also held the position of the chancellor of the University of Delhi from 1953 to 1962.
On 11 May 1962, he was elected president of India and retired after five years in 1967. While as president, he continued his academic pursuits. M.C. Chagla, who was a minister in the Nehru Cabinet, describes the scene in Rashtrapati Bhawan when he went to meet President Radhakrishnan: I often saw him in his residence, Rashtrapati Bhawan. He used to meet me in his large bedroom which he had converted into a real office. He would sit up in his bed with papers and books scattered all round. It was more like a scholars room from Oxford than the majestic habitat of the president of India – Dr. Radhakrishnan was ideally suited to fill the role of the philosopher-king which Plato had described." As president, he paid very successful official visits to U.S.A. and Britain in 1963. When he relinquished office of the president in 1967 he gave a parting advice to the nation, “The feeling should not be encouraged that no change can be brought except by violent disorders. As dishonesty creeps into every side of public life, we should be wise and bring about suitable alterations in our life." He left for Madras in May 1967 to lead a lonely retired life; lonely because his wife Sivakamuamma had died in 1956 and his children were busy in their own affairs and families.
During his lifetime Radhakrishnan was awarded several honours and distinctions: Knighthood (1931) and honorary doctorates from a number of universities situated in different countries, Oxford, Cambridge, Moscow, Rome, Tehran, Ireland, Pennsylvania and Kathmandu besides several Indian universities. He was awarded the Bharat Ratna by the Government of India, in 1954. He was also awarded, shortly before his death, the Templeton Foundation Prize for progress in religion, the first non-Christian to receive the 40,000Euro prize.
Radhakrishnan was very close to Jawaharlal Nehru and as prime minster; Nehru sought his advice on several state matters. He was also close to Rabindranath Tagore for thirty years. Their association began when Radhakrishnan wrote a book, The Philosophy of Rabindranath Tagore in 1918, which was highly appreciated by Tagore. In a letter to Radhakrishnan, Tagore wrote: Your book delighted me. The earnestness of your endeavour and your penetration has amazed me. I am thankful to you for the literary grace of its language which is so beautiful and free from all technical jargons and a mere display of scholarship”. Radhakrishnan revered Gandhi as “the greatest living person because of his spiritual ideals”. But he had reservations about Gandhi’s type of political campaign that automatically elevated its followers to be heroes. Radhakrishnan could not understand the logic of burning foreign clothes, boycotting schools and colleges and Gandhi’s economic programme based on the archaic charkha.
Radhakrishnan Wrote several outstanding books on philosophy, ethics and religion: The Ethics of Vedanta and its Material Presupposition (1908); The Philosophy of Rabindranath Tagore (1918); The Reign of Religion in Contemporary Philosophy (1920); Indian Philosophy, 2 vol. (1923-27); The Hindu View of Life (1927); The Religion We Need (1928); KalkiOr the Future CivilizationAn Idealist of life (1932): East and West in Religion (1933); The Heart of Hindustan (1936) ; My Search for Truth (autobiographical) (1937); Gautamathe Buddha (1939); Eastern Religion and Western Thought (1939); Mahatma Gandhi (1939); Educationpolitics and War (1944); Is This Peace? (1945); The Religion and Society (1947); The Bhagwatgita (1948); The Great Indians (1949); The Dhammapada (1950); The Religion of the Spirit and the world’s Need (autobiographical) (1952).
As already stated earlier, the texts of some of these books were delivered as a series of lectures. His magnum opus remains The Indian Philosophy in two volumes. The book was written in response to the invitation of Prof. J.H. Muirehead who asked him to write for the ‘Library of Philosophy’ series. It is an oft quoted book. Jawaharlal Nehru quotes from it extensively in his book Discovery of India while explaining Hinduism and Buddhism. His books earned him fame among the intelligentsia the world over, and he came to be regarded as one of the greatest philosophers of the world. As a mark of this recognition, the ‘Library of Living Philosophers’ published, in 1952, an exclusive volume on the Philosophy of Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan devoted to the critical evaluation of his philosophical views. Other philosophers in the series included Bertrand Russell, G.E. Moore and Karl Jaspers. This was a rare distinction for Radhakrishnan.
He died in Madras on 16 April 1975 at the age of eighty-seven.


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