Dr. Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan was born on September 5, 1888 at Tiruttani, which was part of erstwhile Madras Presidency and current Tamil Nadu in a Telugu-speaking Family. His father was Sarvepalli Veeraswami and mother was Sitamma. He was a Hindu and Brahmin by birth but espoused a tolerant approach to all religions while being all along a staunch torch bearer of Hinduism. He placed higher faith in humanity and humanitarianism, which earned him immense respect and admiring love from everyone from all parts of the world.
He came from a humble and simple background. His father was a subordinate revenue official in the service of a local zamindar or landlord at Tiruttani. This was before the time when the Zamindari System was scrapped after India attained the Independence. His early years were spent in Tiruttani and Tirupati. He rose in life by dint of his hard work and by the merit of his own capabilities.
He studied at different schools, wherein he learnt various subjects and perceived the Indian philosophies in practice during his times. He studied at various places and in different ambiences and thus his life was filled with multicultural and multi-religious experiences. He grew up in Tiruttani where he did his initial education at K.V. High School. Tiruttani has a famous temple devoted to Lord Muruga. In 1896, he went to Hermannsburg Evangelical Lutheran Mission School at Tirupati. He obtained a part of his education between 1896 and 1900 at Tirupati. He later studied at Vellore’s Voorhees College but switched to the Madras Christian College at the age of 17. He got his B.A. and M.A. degree in Philosophy from the University of Madras affiliated college, Madras Christian College. He graduated in 1906 at M.C.C.
His family was poor but he did not allow his economic background from disturbing his education and future success. He used every right opportunity to rise in life. He was both resourceful and frugal and would not hesitate to take decisions on time. One can attribute his extraordinary rise in life to his supreme intellect.
As Philosopher and Professor of Philosophy
Dr. Sarvepalli joined government educational service in Tamil Nadu. In April 1909, Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan was appointed to the Department of Philosophy at the Madras Presidency College. In 1918, he left Madras Presidency College to teach as Professor of Philosophy at the Mysore Maharaja’s College, which was part of Mysore University. He became Professor of Philosophy there. When Professor Radhakrishnan left Mysore to work at the Calcutta University, he was taken from Mysore Maharaja’s College to the Mysore Railway station in a carriage pulled by his students, who wanted to show their devotion, love and gratitude to their guru. He later associated himself with various prestigious educational institutions in India and abroad. He taught philosophy in five different universities.
Dr. Sarvepalli was a self-made man. His family was poor but he never allowed his economic poverty to make him lag behind in life. In fact, his decision to pursue his graduation degree in philosophy was because a relative handed over to him her old philosophy books. Radhakrishnan studied philosophy by chance rather than by his choice.
Dr. Sarvepalli knew the value of things and not just its price and that is why his growth was unstoppable. He taught philosophy at five different universities. He became a famous teacher, philosopher and later the President of India.
He was also the author of many books including ‘The Philosophy of Rabindranath Tagore’, which was his first published book. He believed Tagore’s philosophy to be ‘the genuine manifestation of the Indian Spirit’. His second book was the ‘The Reign of Religion in Contemporary Philosophy’ was published in 1920. He joined the Calcutta University in 1921 as ‘The King George, the Fifth Chair for Mental and Moral Science’. He represented India at several philosophy and scholarly association meets. His other books include two volumes of ‘Indian Philosophy’, ‘Laski on the Future of Civilisation and Indian Philosophy’, ‘Idealistic View of Life’, ‘Eastern Religion in Contemporary Thoughts’. He was devoted to Advaita philosophy, which made the western world realise that it was both ethical and relevant. He brought all this wisely through his book, ‘The Ethics of Vedanta and Its Metaphysical Presuppositions.’
According to Dr. Sarvepalli, a philosopher and scientist are quite similar – the latter creates things, whereas the former creates ideas.
In 1926, he was invited to the Great Britain to deliver the talk, ‘The Hindu View of Life’, which he delivered exceptionally well and was well received by the whole world. Prof. Radhakrishnan was invited to take the post vacated by Principal J. Estlin Carpenter at Harris Manchester College. He also delivered the Master Mind Lecture on Buddha at the British academy and was awarded Fellowship of the Academy.
He became the Vice-Chancellor of Andhra University in 1931 and that of Banaras Hindu University in 1939. He was also a Spalding Professor at Oxford. He received over 105 honourary distinctions from all over the world. He was the Chairman of University Education Commission in 1948, which submitted its report in 1949 on The Medium of Instruction, Course of Study, Examination System, Standards of Teaching, Indiscipline and Discipline and other aspects of education.
The Commission gave the following holistic suggestions -
1. To teach that life has meaning
2. To awaken the innate ability to live the life of the soul by developing wisdom.
3. To acquaint with the social philosophy, which should govern all institutions – educational, economic and political
4. To train for democracy
5. To train for self-development including character development, cultural development
6. Education is a life-long process
7. The Commission also gave importance to the cultural heritage of India and vocational training
His birth anniversary is celebrated as Teacher’s Day through India every year. It is learnt that his students once paid him a visit on his birthday to show their respect for him as their teacher when he was the President of India. He told his students to mark his birthday as Teacher’s Day — a day to celebrate the contribution of teachers in nation’s development. He believed that the minds of teachers should be the best in the country because they build the people of a nation.
As a Writer
We are already aware of the prowess of Dr. Sarvepalli’s pen. He wrote many books on many aspects of life including how a human being should conduct himself, how the ideal student-teacher relationship should be. He wrote the path-breaking paper known as ‘The Ethics of the Bhagavad Gita’ in 1911. ‘An Idealist View of Life’ is another incredible book by him, which relates spirituality and modern life. He was the author of multiple books on religion and philosophy.
On India’s Polity
He was the leader of the Indian delegation to UNESCO from 1946-50. He became the Chairman of UNESCO’s University Education Commission in 1948 and its President in 1952. In 1949, India became a sovereign nation. After being a great academician, philosopher-king, celebrated author, he went to hold several important political posts with the support of India’s first Prime Minister Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru. According to Dr. Sarvepalli, “The Cry for Swaraj is the outer expression of the anxiety to preserve the provinces of the soul”. In his book, the ‘Indian Philosophy’, he said, “Political subjection, which interferes with this inner freedom is felt as a gross humiliation.”
Jawaharlal Nehru and Dr. Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan got along quite well.
Dr. Radhakrishnan was elected to the Constituent Assembly of India. The leader of the USSR, Joseph Stalin found a kind and friendly soul in Dr Radhakrishnan. According to him, Dr. S. Radhakrishnan was the first person to treat him like a human. He was the Ambassador Extraordinary and Minister Plenipotentiary to the erstwhile USSR between 1949 to 1952. He was the first chairman of the Rajya Sabha. He was elected the Vice-President of India (between 1952 and 1956 and between 1957-1962). He was the President of India between 1962 and 1967.
His years as the President saw India witness the Green Revolution. He also handled crucial war situations during his years of presidency. He was friendly with one and all. He commanded respect wherever he went — be it to Africa, USSR, America or Europe. The world recognised him as a giant intellectual. He was a member of the Intellectual Cooperation of The League of Nations. He was given a rousing reception at England when he visited Britain.
His Philosophy on Hinduism
Dr. Radhakrishnan was a beacon of light to one and all. He was a great advocate of the religion of Hinduism. He was a proponent of Advaita philosophy, a branch of Vedanta Philosophy, which is based on the Upanishads. He was the bridge between the eastern and western Philosophy. He helped the outside world to understand the Indian Philosophy well through his scholarly writings and talks. He knew Sanskrit, Pali, Prakrit among other languades. His early years in Tiruttani, a temple town of ancient origin, ensured his strong grounding in Hinduism. He wrote the book, ‘The Philosophy of the Upanishads’ with a foreword by Rabindranath Tagore. He also wrote ‘The Philosophy of Hinduism’. He was greatly influenced by Swami Vivekananda. He was an authority on the Bhagavad Gita.
His paper on ‘The Ethics of Bhagavad Gita’ in 1911 and his book ‘The ethics of Vedanta and its Metaphysical Presuppositions’ were intended to be replies to the charge that the Vedanta system had no room for ethics. In his own words, “The Challenge of Christian critics compelled me to study Hinduism and find out what is living and what is dead in it. My pride as a Hindu roused by the enterprise and eloquence of Swami Vivekananda, who was deeply hurt by the treatment accorded to Hinduism in missionary institutions.”
He was a staunch defender of Hinduism against the “uninformed western criticism”.
Dr. Radhakrishnan and Mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan
In 1948, the great mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan visited Dr. S. Radhakrishnan to seek his blessings before leaving for Cambridge. Dr. Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan encouraged genius Srinivasa Ramanujan.
Awards and Recognitions
Dr. Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan received many awards including India’s Highest Civilian Award, The Bharat Ratna in 1968, The Sahitya Akademi Fellowship in 1968 and the Templeton Award from America in 1975. Earlier in 1931, he was knighted by King George V for his services to education.
He donated the proceeds of The Templeton award to the Oxford University. He was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature 16 times. He was also nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize 11 times.
His association with J.R.D. Tata
JRD rendered service to the building of modern India’s airline industry and air force. JRD’s report included requirements of radar, signalling and other equipment including spare parts’ manufacture. JRD Tata was appointed as Honourary Air Commodore in the Indian Air Force by Dr. Radhakrishnan.
Dr Radhakrishnan was married to Sivakamu, a distant cousin who was his distant relative. He married at the age of 16. He has five daughters and one son. His son, Sarvepalli Gopalan, became a noted historian.
Thus, Dr. Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan was many people rolled into one — a distinguishing mark of genius.
He believed that we should first find peace within ourselves and that the peace would reflect in the world. At his core, he was a peace-lover and humanitarian. He was non-aggressive in nature, devout, peaceful, religious and spiritual by nature. He was a role model world citizen, an exemplary human being, a magnificent scholar, a philosopher king, genius writer, a wise and learned teacher and a towering statesman. He possessed an extraordinary personality, which was inimitable and remarkable. However, it is to be understood quite clearly and simply that he was no revolutionary or freedom fighter and was not a member of any political party for a long time. He remains a great inspiration for teachers and students alike.
He passed away on April 17, 1975 leaving behind the wealth of his life’s philosophy, kindness, humanitarianism and teaching.
Dr. S Padmapriya, Ph.D, Author, Educator and Thinker, from Chennai. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not represent the stand of this publication.