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Remembering Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan: Teacher's Day

On this day, 131 years ago, Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, India's first vice president and second president, was born. He was the classic philosopher-king of Plato who chose to remain uninvolved-involved. A brilliant teacher and philosopher, this Bharat Ratna awardee was the most illuminating interpreter of India's heritage, and was equally at home in Western philosophical thought. ' am your Arjuna" Gandhi once told him, "and you are my Krishna India celebrates his birthday as Teachers' Day.

What brought Radhakrishnan to academics?
“He had raised himself step by step. When would he reach the summit of the Mount Everest of his career? Would he aspire to higher things in the life and emulate such a man as Woodrow Wilson, who was at one time a professor; and ended up as President of the United States of America?” ~ Richard Littlehailes

Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan was born on September 5, 1888, at Tiruttani, forty miles to the northeast of Madras (now Chennai) in South India. He was born into a poor Brahmin family. His father Sarvepalli Veeraswami was employed on a meager salary in the zamindari. His mother, Sitamma, was a homemaker.
Radhakrishnan's father found it difficult to educate Radhakrishnan on his small income. He also had a large family to take care of. Veeraswami wanted his son to become a priest. However, the talents of the boy were so outstanding that his father finally decided to send him to school at Tiruttani itself. Highly intelligent, Radhakrishnan went through most of his education on scholarships. After his initial schooling in Tiruttani, he joined the Lutheran Mission School in Tirupati for his high school.

When Radhakrishnan was 16 years old, he joined the Voorhee's College in Vellore. At the same age, his parents got him married to Sivakamuamma while he was still studying at Vellore. From Vellore he switched to the Madras Christian College at the age of 17. He chose philosophy as his major and attained a B.A. and M.A. in the field.

In partial fulfillment for his M.A. degree, Radhakrishnan wrote a thesis on the ethics of the Vedanta titled as "The Ethics of the Vedanta and Its Metaphysical Presuppositions", which was a reply to the charge that the Vedanta system had no room for ethics. He was afraid that the thesis would offend his philosophy professor, Dr. A.G. Hogg. Professor Hogg was impressed by the precious young boy and said of the thesis, "This thesis which he prepared in the second year of his study for this degree shows a remarkable understanding of the main aspects of the philosophical problems, a capacity for handling easily a complex argument besides more than the average mastery of good English".

Radhakrishnan's M.A. thesis went on to be published when he was just 20. After he graduated with a Master's Degree in Arts from Madras University, Radhakrishnan accepted an Assistant Lectureship at the Madras Presidency College in 1909. He was just 21 years old.

In the early years of his teaching life, Radhakrishnan received only about Rs. 17 per month on which he had a big family of five daughters and a son to support. He had borrowed some money and could not pay even the interest on it. He had to auction his medals to meet his needs.
Right from his early days, he was exceedingly popular among his students. As a professor at Presidency College, Madras, he was always an inspirational teacher. He was offered professorship in Calcutta University when he was less than 30. When he was around 40 years old he was called to serve as Vice-Chancellor of Andhra University. He remained in that post for five years. Three years later, he was appointed the Vice Chancellor of Banaras Hindu University. In both the jobs Radhakrishnan was well-loved for his excellent teaching ability and his amiability.

Recognition of his scholarship came in 1936, when he was invited to fill the Chair of Spalding, Professor of Eastern Religions and Ethics at Oxford. He retained the chair for 16 years. His mastery on his subject, his clarity of thought and expression made him a much sought after teacher. But what made him even more popular were his warm-heartedness and his ability to connect with people.

Why was he respected as an outstanding philosopher?
“To this generation, so tormented between modern knowledge and ancient faith, your scrupulous studies have pointed the way by which man may be saved from traditional superstition and modern skepticism.” ~ Haile Selassie, Emperor of Ethiopia, honoring Radhakrishnan
A man of profound learning, Dr. Radhakrishnan provided illuminating commentaries on prasthanatrayt - the three-fold canon of Hindu religion - which consists of the Brahma Sutra, the Upanishads and the Bhagavadgita. He had deep faith in the values cherished by the Upanishads. He was equally well-versed in the traditions of western rationalism. By any measure he was one of the rarest and most forceful combinations of the idealistic thought of the Upanishadic origin and the ethics of action so essential to the current times.

The Upanishadic philosophy, it was believed before he wrote on it, preached a way of life which could not be reconciled with the values related to man's mundane affairs. The skill of Radhakrishnan lies in constructing a system in which absolute idealism running through the history of Indian thought and western activism, the theory of pure self and the contemporary welfare ethics, transcendentalism and practicalism could telescope into each other.

Three major issues are reflected in Radhakrishnan's writings: the redefinition of the vision of the Advaita Vedanta (the philosophy of non-dualism), the relationship between Brahman and the world, and the place of action in human life. These issues remain so intertwined in his thinking that it is difficult to speak about anyone of them in isolation.
He is one of those committed interpreters of the Indian tradition, who take Indian Philosophy and Indian religions as a unified thought system. He was convinced that it is the Ultimate Reality, the Brahman, the all-embracing spirit that alone forms the foundation of all that goes in and around us pervades all his works. Even in his later life, when he entered the career of a diplomat, he was known to have adopted a certain metaphysical stance, a vantage point of transcendental wisdom and neutrality. In this sense, his role in politics-as an Ambassador, Vice-President, and President of India-was that of a Sthitaprajna (the uninvolved-involved).

Radhakrishnan markedly deviated from the central Advaita Vedanta assumption of Mayavada, i.e. the assumption that the phenomenal world in which man operates with various interests, desires, attachments, plans, and so on, is illusory. The original postulates of the Upanishads and the Brahmasutra - which were systematically organised by Shankara - that the spatiotemporal world is ephemeral, and that the only thing that matters in life is the realisation of Brahman are corrected by Radhakrishnan in his unique attempt to synthesize the Absolute and the world, the other-worldly and the worldly, the spiritual and the material, the permanent and the contingent.

“As President of our Republic, he reflected the Platonic ideal of the philosopher-king and, in his searching enquiries and expositions on profound questions and problems of philosophy, he was rightly regarded during his lifetime as the foremost modern philosopher”, wrote Shanker Dayal Sharma on Radhakrishnan.
NotePhilosopher King is the idea according to which the best form of government is that in which philosophers rule. The ideal of a philosopher king was born in Plato’s dialogue Republic as part of the vision of a just city. It was influential in the Roman Empire and was revived in European political thought in the age of absolutist monarchs. It has also been more loosely influential in modern political movements claiming an infallible ruling elite.

When did the philosopher become king?
In 1949, Dr. Radhakrishnan was appointed ambassador to the Soviet Union. The appointment raised many eyebrows because people wondered what kind of an impression Radhakrishnan, a student of idealist philosophy, would make on Joseph Stalin, an ardent communist.

In 1950, Radhakrishnan was called to the Kremlin to meet Stalin. During the meeting, Radhakrishnan referring to Stalin's infamous "bloody" purges said, "We had an emperor in India who, after a bloody victory, renounced war and became a monk. You have also waded your way to power through force. Who knows that might happen to you also." Stalin unperturbed by the remark smiled and replied, "Yes, miracles do happen sometimes. I was in a theological seminary for five years!"
In 1952, when he was 64, Radhakrishnan was elected the first Vice-President of India. As the Vice-President, Radhakrishnan had to preside over the Rajya Sabha (Upper House) sessions. Often, during heated debates, Radhakrishnan would intervene with shlokas (verses) from the Sanskrit classics or quotations from the Bible to calm the charged atmosphere. Nehru on seeing his tact commented later, "By the way in which Radhakrishnan conducted the proceedings of the Rajya Sabha, he had made the meetings of the House look like family gatherings!" Dr. Radhakrishnan was honored with the Bharat Ratna in 1954. Around the same time, an 883-page compilation titled "The Philosophy of Dr. Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan" was released in America.

Radhakrishnan continued to be the Vice-President for two terms. In 1962 he was elected President of India at the age of 74. It was in that very same year, when Dr. Radhakrishnan became the President of India that his birthday in September came to be observed as 'Teachers' Day'.
Whatever position he held, whether as a President or Vice President, Dr. Radhakrishnan essentially remained a teacher all his life.

When he became the President, some of his students and friends requested him to allow them to celebrate his birthday, on September 5. He replied, “Instead of celebrating my birthday, it would be my proud privilege if September 5th is observed as Teachers’ Day.” His birthday has since then been celebrated as Teachers’ Day in India.

Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, who was one of Dr. Radhakrishnan's closest friends, couldn’t be happier to celebrate the day as Teacher’s Day: "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. It is India's peculiar privilege to have a great philosopher, a great educationist and a great humanist as her President. That in itself shows the kind of men we honour and respect."

Where did his philosophy focus on?

  • Metaphysics: Radhakrishnan located his metaphysics within the Advaita (non-dual) Vedanta tradition (sampradaya). And like other Vedantins before him, Radhakrishnan wrote commentaries on the Prasthanatraya (that is, main primary texts of Vedanta): the Upanisads (1953), Brahma Sutra (1959), and the Bhagavad-Gita (1948). As an Advaitin, Radhakrishnan embraced metaphysical idealism. But 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). While the world of experience and of everyday things is certainly not ultimate reality as it is subject to change and is characterized by finitude and multiplicity, it nonetheless has its origin and support in the Absolute (Brahman) which is free from all limits, diversity, and distinctions (nirguṇa). Brahman is the source of the world and its manifestations, but these modes do not affect the integrity of Brahman.

  • Intuition: Radhakrishnan associates a vast constellation of terms with intuition. At its best, intuition is an "integral experience". Radhakrishnan uses the term "integral" in at least three ways. First, intuition is integral in the sense that it coordinates and synthesizes all other experiences. It integrates all other experiences into a more unified whole. Second, intuition is integral as it forms the basis of all other experiences. In other words, Radhakrishnan holds that all experiences are at the very root intuitional. Third, intuition is integral in the sense that the results of the experience are integrated into the life of the individual. For Radhakrishnan, intuition finds expression in the world of action and social relations.

  • Varieties of experiences: Radhakrishnan recognizes three categories of cognitive experience: sense experience, discursive reasoning, and intuitive apprehension. For Radhakrishnan all of these forms of experience contribute, in varying degrees, to knowledge of the real (Brahman), and as such have their basis in intuition. Perhaps the most understudied dimension of Radhakrishnan's interpretations of experience is his recognition of "supernormal" experiences. "The idea of God,"Radhakrishnan affirms, "is an interpretation of experience”. It follows here that religious experiences are, for Radhakrishnan, context relative and therefore imperfect. They are informed by and experienced through specific cultural, historical, linguistic and religious lenses. Because of their contextuality and subsequent intellectualization, experiences in the religious sphere are limited.
  • Religion and Science: Radhakrishnan argues that Hinduism, as he understands it, is a scientific religion. His understanding of scripture as the scientific records of spiritual insights holds not only for Hinduism, but for all religious creeds. Correctly understood, the various scriptures found in the religions of the world are not an infallible revelation, but scientific hypotheses: "The creeds of religion correspond to theories of science".

  • Applied ethics: Radhakrishnan's ethical mystic does not simply see the inherent value of the world and engage in its affairs. Rather, the ethical individual is guided by an intuitive initiative to move the world forward creatively, challenging convention and established patterns of social interaction. For Radhakrishnan, this ethically integrated mode of being presents a positive challenge to moral dogmatism. The positive challenge to moral convention, according to Radhakrishnan, is the creative promotion of social tolerance and accommodation.

Who must learn from him?

Those who attack Indian culture – and those who attack in the name of Indian culture

He particularly noted in India the conservatives glorifying the ancient heritage and the radicals believing in the futility of it. Both were in his eyes equally wrong. He observed that "those who condemn Indian culture as useless are ignorant of it, while those who glorify it as perfect are ignorant of any other" .

He pleaded for a healthy marriage of ancient knowledge with modern science as their common goal is truth. He had realized that the scriptures of the ancient age cannot and will not provide answer to the perplexing problems of the modern age. But nevertheless, the wisdom and teaching of the ancient philosophers, thinkers and scholars should remain the life-spring of inspiration.

Those who constrain themselves with mental limitations

A philosopher is normally secluded, rigid and reserved; a diplomat, on the other hand, has to be just the opposite of these qualities; he has to be more formal, tactful and evasive, and sometimes even devious in his talk and behaviour.
It was rather strange and even somewhat inexplicable how Nehru thought, of all the people, of Dr. Radhakrishnan who was a novice in diplomacy, to succeed Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit (Nehru’s sister) as Ambassador to the Soviet Union.

But to the surprise and happiness of all, Dr. Radhakrishnan during his term in Moscow proved to be one of the most unconventional and successful diplomats of the time. In all his political assignments in India, he commanded respect by the sheer force of his learned but humble personality.

The confrontational members of today’s Parliament

As Chairman of the Rajya Sabha, Dr. Radhakrishnan brought superlative charm, dignity, poise, wit and wisdom to the affairs of the House. He kept the proceedings lively and bright by his timely humorous interventions. He believed in the democratic dictum that it is the right of the majority to rule and the right of the Opposition to Oppose. Both the treasury benches and the Opposition tried to observe remarkable restraint under his watchful eye; no rude, crude, ugly and repulsive behaviour by members was allowed.

Perhaps the quality, the level and the standard of the members at the time might have also contributed a great deal to the chastened mood of the House. Dignity rather than levity, humour rather than slander, criticism rather than abuse, and satire rather than vulgarity marked the character of the debates. Harmony instead of acrimony had an upper hand.

In one of the seminars on "Parliamentary Democracy" in the Central Hall of Parliament, Dr. Radhakrishnan declared that "the majority is not always right and the minority is not always wrong". In all his utterances and observations in the House or outside, one could see in him the majestic scholarship and undiminished zeal for rectitude and honesty.

Those who don’t realize that to be human is to suffer

The last days of Radhakrishnan were tragic: he had lost his speech, his eye-sight, his memory. In a moving tribute to the former President, Baharul Islam wrote: “The tragic illness of the physician who had cured the illnesses of the soul of so many could not be cured by physicians of the body: unscrutable are the ways of God!”

But Radhakrishnan would not have complained. He once said: “It is by suffering that we understand. The condition of true human life is to suffer pain and endure loneliness ...often suffering is not punishment but discipline. When the great blow falls, when we stand in our darkest hour, shocked, baffled and defeated for the moment, when the foundations slip away and the world seems to be cracking, we have to bear it all, face the storm, cling to hope and believe in love.”

How impactful was his term as President?
In 1952, Dr. Radhakrishnan was chosen to be the Vice President of the Republic of India and in 1962 he was made the Head of the State for five years.

It was the crowning glory of Indian democracy that an educationist aloof from politics but with an international acclaim as a profound scholar was placed in the position of the President. And it was an advantage for a young country like India to have him to interpret its domestic and foreign policies abroad to expound its outlook and aspirations emphatically and in the right way which was much needed in a world of uncertainty and disbelief among nations.

His appointment as President was hailed by Bertrand Russell who said "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".

History reserved for Radhakrishnan's term of office as President much suspense and surprise. Within months of his ascendancy in 1962 there was the Chinese invasion.

The nation's morale was dealt a blow but Radhakrishnan’s voice, firm and resolute came on the air to reassure a shaken nation: "Owing to the difficult terrain and numerical superiority of the Chinese, we suffered military reverses. These have opened our eyes to the realities of the situation. We are now aware of our inadequacies and are alive to the needs of the present and the demands of the future. The country has developed a new purpose, a new will".

In 1965, Pakistan violated India’s Western frontiers. Dr. Radhakrishnan in his broadcast to the nation on September 25, 1965 said, "Pakistan assumed that India was too weak or too afraid or too proud to fight. India, though naturally disinclined to take to arms felt the necessity to defend herself when attacked. Pakistan also assumed that communal disturbances would occur in the country and in the resulting chaos she could have her way. Her miscalculations must have come to her as a rude shock."

Dr. Radhakrishnan had great faith in Indian democracy. In his farewell broadcast to the Nation on May 12, 1967, he said that despite occasional forebodings to the contrary, the Indian Constitution had worked successfully so far. But democracy, he warned, was more than a system of the Government. "It was a way of life and a regime of civilised conduct of human affairs. We should be the architects of peaceful changes and the advocates of radical reform", he said.

As President of India, he accepted only Rs 2,500 out of his salary of Rs 10,000 and donated the remaining amount to the Prime Minister’s National Relief Fund every month.

Radhakrishnan saw during his terms in office an increasing need for world unity and universal fellowship. The urgency of this need was pressed home to Radhakrishnan by what he saw as the unfolding crises throughout the world. Radhakrishnan challenged what he saw as the divisive potential and dominating character of self-professed international organizations such as the League of Nations. Instead, he called for the promotion of a creative internationalism based on the spiritual foundations of integral experience. Only then could understanding and tolerance between peoples and between nations be promoted.

It is perhaps tragic that those who celebrate him as a great teacher know little of what his teachings were. Today, he stands reduced to “10 things you did not know about Dr. Radhakrishnan”. To know the philosophy of this truth-seeker is to know his presidency.

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