The late Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan was a great citizen of Madras, and he was a man of international renown. He was philosopher, man or letters, educationist, India’s roving cultural ambassador and evangelist of moral and religious values. His recent passing has left a great void. The latter-day Heroic Age of India seems to have come to an end.
He was hardly forty when his public image–a spare tall figure, a keen yet serene face, a pair of eyes sparkling and unwavering, an alert head mounted by a big white turban–was already a familiar abroad as in India. And the adventures of his mind and the pilgrimages of his soul were recorded in a series of books that quickly arrested the attention of savants all over the world. “Professor Radhakrishnan’s volumes on Indian philosophy,” said Mahamahopadhaya S.Kuppuswami Sastri in the course of an article in the New Era, “easily surpass similar works about the same subject in respect of form and matter, in respect of expository brilliance and estimative tact, and in respect of textual correlations and technical elucidations.” The double merit of the work was that it was an interpretation of Indian philosophy from within, as also an exposition of Indian thought in an idiom at once intelligible and attractive to the West. If that was Hinduism, said many Christians after reading The Hindu View of Life (1927), well, they were Hindus too! In every religion there is the mystical core, which age cannot impair, nor modernity render redundant. There are, however, other features of religion–the doctrinal formulations, the load of ritual, the draperies of custom–and these might call for change, and undergo change too, without affecting the potency of the core. Dr Radhakrishnan was bold enough to reassess the ends and means of human life in the wider perspective of traditional Hinduism and modern thought. So successfully did he compel the attention of a world audience–as Swami Vivekananda had done before him–that Prof. C. E. M. Joad called him “The liaison officer” and added; “Thus Radhakrishnan invokes the religious insights of the East to give a spiritual background to the recommendations of the worldly wisdom of the West.”
An Idealist View of Life (1932) was unquestionably Dr Radhakrishnan’s most valuable and weighty contribution to constructive philosophy for in it East and West meet creatively and achieve a voice of irresistible persuasion. It is the function of philosophy “to provide us with a spiritual rallying centre, a synoptic vision, ... a samanvaya,” and to find out whether “the convictions of the religious seers fit in with the tested laws and principles of the universe.” And it is just this that Dr Radhakrishnan accomplished in An Idealist View of Life in a language that often rose to heights of pure eloquence, as Dr Inge recognised, and sometimes indeed even grazed the heights of poetry.
During the latter part of his life, Dr Radhakrishnan brought out English renderings of our prasthana traya–the Upanishads, the Gita and the Brahma Sutras–as also of the Dharmapada. If the younger Radhakrishnan saw Hinduism more in its visible dynamic aspects, it was but natural that the mellowed philosopher should rather go to the perennial underground river–the abiding nectarean springs–of our immemorial spiritual traditions. The wheel returned to where it had started from, and one could thus see in the massive corpus of Radhakrishnan’s writings a rounded completeness and fulfilment.
Genius, it has been said, is three parts memory and one part industry. And while Dr Radhakrishnan’s memory was phenomenal, his industry was prodigious. He read voraciously, and remembered everything he read. But he also held great offices with unfailing distinction. Vice-Chancellorship, Presidentship of the P. E. N. and of the Sahitya Akademi, Ambassadorship, Presidentship of India, all admirably became him and yet left him unaffected. Without the reserves of the spirit, the inner poise, the hidden fire, without the spirit that moved and sustained our great Acharyas, the splendour of his ministry over a period of half a century couldn’t have been possible. And whatever the outer envelope of his thought or office of ministry, what illumined and rendered it purposive was the agni within, the same that also cast an ambience around him. And this cannot be taken away, for his work and his memory will abide with us forever.
To strike a personal note, Dr Radhakrishnan was far off, far removed from my humbler sphere of life, and accordingly few were the occasions I was privileged to meet him. In 1932, I reviewed at length his collection of essays,The Heart of Hindustan, in the Federated India of Madras, then edited by Vavilla Venkateswara Sastrulu. Next year I reviewed An Idealist View of Life in the same paper. Dr Radhakrisnan was Vice-Chancellor at Waltair, and wrote generous letters on receipt of my reviews.
It was at the first All-India Writers’ Conference at Jaipur in 1945 that I was introduced to Dr Radhakrisnan by our mutual friend, K. S. Venkataramani. Dr Radhakrishnan said he has just read my biography of Sri Aurobindo which Dilip Kumar Roy had sent to him. I met D. Radhakrishnan again at the Annamalainagar and Baroda (1957) sessions of the All-India Writers’ Conference. I met him more than once in the Andhra University, first when he came as Chairman of the Universities’ Commission, next when he came to participate in the Silver Jubilee Convocation, and later still when he came to lay the foundation-stone of the new Convocation Theatre. With his extraordinary memory for faces and facts, he always spotted me out in a group or a crowd, and made me feel at home.
In 1951, I visited him in his rooms in All Souls, Oxford. He was then India’s ambassador to Russia, but preferred to spend six months in Oxford. He was reading the proofs of a hook in the press–if I remember aright, it was theUpanishads–and he gave me a banana, from Jamaica he said. He talked about his days as Andhra’s Vice-Chancellor. “A Vice-Chancellor,” he said, “should go to the Syndicate having first made up his mind about the main items on the agenda. He should be able to persuade the Syndicate to accept his point of view.” Then he added, “And when he fails, he should quit.” This was to stand me in good stead when I became Vice-Chancellor of Andhra for a term. Walking with me to the gate, Dr Radhakrishnan said that Rishis in ancient India had perhaps led cloistered and purposive lives like many of the dons in All Souls. Wasn’t it possible to revive that ancient spirit once again in India?
I recall another meeting too vividly. About fifteen years ago, I attended a meeting of the English Advisory Board of the Sahitya Akademi which was held in Dr Raidhakrishnan’s residence as Vice-President of the IndianRepublic. He was a fine host, and the business was transacted quickly. Humayun Kabir, Mulk Raj Anand and a few others were present. When one of the members launched an attack upon me for my survey of ‘Indian Writing in English in the recently published Contemporary Indian Literature Radhakrishnan as Chairman decisively came to my rescue. Constraint gave place to laughter all round.
My last meeting was but a couple of years ago. I went to see Dr Radhakrishnan at his Mylapore residence, ‘Girija’. His son Dr Gopal took me to him and mentioned my name. Dr Radhakrishnan remembered everything, made kind inquiries about my son and daughter, and about my own work as well. There was the same old undiminished lustre on his face, the same old keenness and kindness in his eyes. He referred to my article on Rajaji in the Triveni. As I rose to take leave, Dr Radhakrishnan said with his hands in a gesture of benediction: “God bless you!” I would love to remember him always as he looked then.