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Dr. Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan - The Philosopher President

posted Oct 11, 2011, 7:37 AM by Sarat Kumar Sarvepalli   [ updated Oct 11, 2011, 8:43 AM ]

An Article from Press Information Bureau, Government of India

Dr.Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan was born on September 5, 1888, in a middle class family in the pilgrim town of Tirutani. His father, it is said, did not want his son to learn English, instead wanted him to become a priest. However, the talents of the boy were so outstanding that he was sent to school at Thirupati and then Vellore. Later, he joined the Christian College, Madras, and studied philosophy. Drawn by accident into philosophy, Radhakrishnan by his confidence, concentration and strong convictions went on to become a great philosopher. 

Philosophy and Life

His first book, "The Ethics of the Vedanta and Its Material Presupposition"', being his thesis for the M.A. degree examination of the Madras University, published in 1908, at once established his fame as a great philosopher of undoubted ability. All his later works are landmarks in their respective fields. Expressing abstract and abstruse philosophical thoughts in intelligible language is considered very difficult. But Dr. Radhakrishnan was one of the few who could accomplish this with ease and simplicity.

To him, philosophy was a way of understanding life and his study of Indian philosophy served as a cultural therapy. By interpreting Indian thought in western terms and showing that it was imbued with reason and logic he was able to give Indians a new sense of esteem, who were overcome by inferiority complex by imperial forces. But he also made clear to them that their long and rich tradition had been arrested and required further evolution and he exhorted Indians to cast off much that was corrupt and abhorrent.

Social Commitment

Dr. Radhakrishnan moved beyond being a mere academic and sought to engage his philosophical and religious studies in the political and social developments of the contemporary context.

He believed that in India, the philosopher's duty was to keep in touch with the past while stretching out to the future. This commitment to society, the crusading urgent tone in his scholarly writings, the modern note in his interpretations of even classical texts and his intellectual resistance to the deforming pressures of colonialism gave Dr. Radhakrishnan a distinct public image. He was a coin minted differently from the usual run of politicians and academicians.

Evocative Teacher

Far from being a stern and severe intellectual remote from the world, Dr. Radhakrishnan was a very humane person. Exceedingly popular among his students right from his early days as a professor at Presidency College, Madras he was an evocative teacher. He was offered the professorship in Calcutta University when he was less than 30 years old. He served as Vice-Chancellor of Andhra University from 1931 to 1936. In 1939, he was appointed the Vice Chancellor of Banaras Hindu University .Two years later, he took over the Sir Sayaji Rao Chair of Indian Culture and Civilisation in Banaras.

Recognition of his scholarship came again in 1936, when he was invited to fill the Chair of Spalding Professor of Eastern Religions and Ethics at Oxford which he retained for 16 years. His mastery on his subject and his clarity of thought and expression made him a much sought after teacher. But what made him even more popular was his warmheartedness and his ability to draw out people. This aspect of his personality continued to win him countless admirers throughout his long and illustrious public life.

In the last decades of British rule, his was the most sophisticated and exalted analysis of Gandhi's work and thought and in free India he provided the ideological armour for Nehru's foreign policy.

International Acclaim

His commitment to high principles and unfailing dignity lent nobility and moral authority to all the offices which he held. If in India Dr. Radhakrishnan was a highly respected figure, abroad he became one of the best-liked public figures of his time. He earned very early international recognition as a philospher. In 1952, the Library of Living Philosophers, an institute of world-wide repute, brought out a massive volume on 'the philosophy of Sarvapalli Radhakrishnan' devoted wholly to a critical appreciation of his philosophical doctrines.

After Independence, this philosophical luminary, who personified the essence of India yet had a universal vision, became an ideal ambassador to the Soviet Union, for the nascent nation poised to establish itself in the international arena.

Leading the Nation

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 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 rightway which was much needed in a world of uncertainity and disbelief among nations.

His appointment as President was hailed by Bertrand Russel 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 RadhakrishnanÕs 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 our 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.

Great Teacher

It was in 1962 when Dr. Radhakrishnan became the President of India that his birthday in September came to be observed as 'Teachers' Day'. It was a tribute to Dr.Radhakrishnan's close association with the cause of teachers. Whatever position he held whether as President or Vice President or even as Ambassador, Dr.Radhakrishnan essentially remained a teacher all his life. The teaching profession was his first love and those who studied under him still remember with gratitude his great qualities as a teacher.

Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, who was one of his closest friends throughout, said about Dr.Radhakrishnan: "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 IndiaÕs 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."

Bharat Ratna, the highest award of the nation, was conferred on him in 1954 in recognition of his meritorious service to mankind.