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Dr. Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan : What is his legacy for Indian education?

posted Aug 20, 2011, 2:30 AM by Sarat Kumar Sarvepalli   [ updated Oct 14, 2011, 3:20 AM ]
 – DECEMBER 22, 2006
Only a rudimentary Indian education. He had certainly no Western education. Thus, his education thought and philosophy as such was very orthodox, thought
it was cast in the pre-colonial mental makeup. Take the life of Dr. S. Radhakrishnan.I gave a second reading of his biography his son and distinguished history writer Savapalli Gopal this time when I sat down to type these lines. Sarvapalli Gopal had done a historic duty, he didnt hide or gloss over any unpleasant sides of his great father’slife. Here I want to only point out that he was born poor and for him life seemed a struggle from the very beginning. And the poor man only wanted a government job.That too at the Presidency college,Madras. But that eluded him. All his attempts to reget the place there, he once had as a teemporary hand, failed and that was his one great disappontment. Of course as fate willed it,he went on to produce history in every step he took afterwards and reached the very height of his career that had no parallel in Indian society.

His career

But what I want to say here is this: even he didnt think for a minute what jobs came his way.He was always acutely felt the job insecurity.Even as a Spalding Professor at Oxford his tenure was only for five years when he was appointed and he despaired about his future for he was not yet fifty. And also when he read the just published Nehru’s Autobiography he jotted down in his diary”Puts us all to shame for our selfishness and careerist tendencies”.So,when one job came to an end he seized upon another. Though he continued in the Chair for longer,when India attained Independence he was ready to take on non-academic and even diplomatic assignment.This time a Ambassador’s job in Moscow. He served two terms as Vice-President for the simple reson there was no vacancy for the next slot.

Even after he served a term as President, he was tempted to stay on. Of course Kamaraj’s assurances didnt materialise ‘Indira Gandhi had her own ideas. He returned home and for such an eminent philosopher, his retirement didn’t give him peace of mind. He missed the Delhi political air! I thought a philosopher of his eminence woud have found an inner peace in a quiet retirement. Radhakrishnan was,I thought, afterall an Indian like all of us! See how our leaders,great men and women conduct themselves these days in Delhi!All seek cushy jobs, Rajya Sabha nominations or some other jobs that would come with all the privileges and comforts of government accomodation in plush New Delhi environment!

Radhakrishnan’s contribution to Indian education.

Radhakrishnan had had the rare honour of teaching at Oxford and occupying the Splading Chair on Eastern religions and philosophy. What he achieved at that point of time, when the British rule was very intact would remain greatly in the history of India. Today after nearly a generation of changes,his philosophy’s impact remains debatable. Certainly, there would not be many to take his very highly rhetorical orations. Philosophical thought itself had undergone radical change.

All this doesnt distract us from the historic role he played in raising India’s image as a contributor of an ancient religion, Hinduism and certainly gave a new interpretation giving Indian thought a contemporary relevance. His was not an academic philosophy, nor was it only a religion with a theology of its own, like Christianity. One of his achievements in his time was to resist the many threats of Christianity to claim any superiority.

Now,this neednt hold us,for the world is at a different level of religious conflicts and we all, everywhere, in the West and the East are encountering multicultural societies,there is massive migration of people across nations and continents, there is in every major country the conflicts of religions, ethnic identity crises and much more issues like environment, HIV/AIDS etc.

A changed world

There is also much more international co-operation and a sort of growing mutual toleration of ethnic minorities. So much water had flown down the bridge,so to say,to look back to what Radhakrishnan achieved in religious understanding and philosophy.
The point is Radhakrishnan brought about a new outlook for Indians to look at themselves as a people with a confident future. That is what matters.Thus, his contributuions in various fields,in education particular,has to be seen in the broad historical perspective. He did achieve a confident intellectual outlook for Indians to take their world forward. As an educator his pervasive influence still persists with us.We naturally invoke his name when we think of Indian philosophy or religion or seek for a modern interpretation of Hinduism. In education what he did is now completely forgotten.

Radhakrishnan seen now

Now looked in retrospect, Radhakrishnan looks like a prisoner of his own time and space and his mental world also was very much conditioned by his upbringing and constraints. He was a traditional Indian,with only a rudimentary Indian education. He had certainly no Western education.Thus,his education thought and philosophy as such was very orthodox, thought it was cast in the pre-colonial mental makeup. When Independence came he had only a limited role to shape education policy.Also he knew England and India well, yet he didn’t extend his horizon further. He didnt foresee the growth of America nor he foresaw the collapse of Communism. Radhakrishnan was given to an Indian view point and that too he was constrained by Gandhi’s overwhelming presence. Hence he cast his thoughts in a rather,in my view restricted mentalscape. Thus, now at this distance of time,in the new century,his education legacy as such seems to me honestly as nothing very much.

Unprecedented changes : his reforms overtaken

Changes have been unprecedented and so large-scale and so fast. All his university education reforms have been overtaken by new demands, new responses.
Even we cant have much help from Radhakrishnan’s vast corpus of writings, much education content as such.

New education content

Today we need more liberal arts courses,more mix of liberal and science and technology courses etc. Our basic education approach and attitude has to be to first make education widly accessible, create a more egalitarian approach, give students more choices, almost more like the American campus life style opportunities. In fact,as I see,events have overtaken even our present education practices. Students as pirations have radically changed. Nobody wants to go to school or college to learn,to study or become better citizens! Everyone wants to study for a degree of course but it is the job one has always in mind! So so many education courses revolutions too! Skills learning is the name of the game today. So are the attitudes of institutions. There is a supply side, not a demand side to education today. Hence thre is also a heavy emphasis on commercialisation. In fact,a gross commercialisation of education at all stages!

At another level is the current world education perceptions. No one,an educator or educationist or even a parent wants an interference from the government! So there is the heavy rush to private schools and private schools under all sorts of streams, names have literally mushroomed! At another level, there is the great question of school or education quality. Education quality? No one seems very much worried about this in India,as far as I can see.It is only a pious talk!There is now the heavy rush and the chance to make quick big money!

Class education vs mass education

In England there is a furious debate.The hihly rated Public Schools in England,the 241 leading fee-paying schools said”highly-trained academic teachers” should be given special contracts and be allowed to focus solely on top-set groups. The chairman of these schools heads conference is none other than a very expensive,17,500 pounds a -year St.Pauls school in London says the demand must be conceded plus the government’s non-interference with the schools functioning! He wants a secondary school system run by a commission independent of politicians!

Even in a highly divisive class conscious society, this demand is seen as “grossly politically incoreect”! But then,as in India, politiicans can talk and do nothing!

Social realities

The social realities are always different.The education world is evolving at its own pace and atits own set perceptions.All these develop, ents would have been unforeeable in Radhhakrishnan’s time. Hence,it is not fair to invoke his name in our current debates. We have to find our own light. In fact,we have to more and more look to the US education because what we have now is not a class education.It is a mass education .All the way.The Us has over 3,700 colleges and universities and offer a wide range of some 600 programmes at graduate ,post-graduate and doctoral levels. Indian studetns in US universities alone make 11.5 per cent of foreign students.Even our university education is becoming more and more a quantitative expansion and a mass education.

So,the standards are what they are and there is,in my view too,not a big worry.This is the time of expansion and what India needs is a competitive edge,say,with China.Specially in high Tech fields.My real worry is the large scale migration of highly talented and trained students and faculty to American shores.This had now become the dominant education syndrome. Migrating at the first opportunity is the mindset of an average student and the aspiration of every middle class family! Where this trend woud lead to?What are the implications of this dominant trend for higher education?No one,not in the UGC nor in the HRD ministry or the education minister,the Prime Minister and the President of India talk on this sensitive issue!


There is also the internal decay in the Indian education system. There is very much of non-functioning of the institutions, UGC is stagnant,National Accreditation and Assessment Council is simply irrelevant in the face of so much internal decay and corruption.I have no interest in corruption.I like to look at the positive side of the Indian education scene. Under Dr.M.M.Joshi,the then education minister,the very higher education in the country was irrevocably damaged.The indoctrination of higher education led to severe break with the Western education traditions. Astrology, Vedic mathematics and the revision of history and the very basic concepts of Indian histoiry, like the coming of the Aryans, are all big scars.The new government, it looks,hasnt done much to change things, except the text books revision project.The new appointments to bodies like the Simla based Institute of Advanced Study, another of Radhakrishnan’s pet project, under Mr.Arjun Singh,had further discouraged me to have an optimistic view of things!

Quantity vs quality

So let quantity dominate,so to say,the quality for some more time!. Fortunately,we are now having an edge.This we shouldnt lose at any cost.India had emerged as a software dominant power. Let this advantage be always with us.So,I overlook,of course, sadly, the many short comings. Also the many deficiencies of education content,more and more the humanities courses are downgraded.This would dmage us in the long run.We have to devise some radical concessions. We have to introduce some selective, exclusive and privileged courses in the Public Schools and also universities so that the students who go out in the world are always rich,privileged and self-employed! Anyway,let the education scenario evolve for some more time.As they say,time is the best healer!

Prof J.N.Mohanty

As it happened I also read the other eminent Indian philosopher, who went on later to the same prestigious position, as a fellow of All Souls College,at Oxford and before and later he,again like Radhakrishnan occupied the chair of philosophy at Calcutta,namely Prof. J. N. Mohanty.His autobiography (OUP 2002) made a deep impression on me.In just about 100 and odd pages, here was philosophical wisdom at its best. It so happens that Mohnty,had also taught at Santiniketan and the names of professors he mentions were also I have known! He studied at Gottingen, Germany and later worked with Edmund Husseral, one of the immortals in philosophy. He worked with some of the big names, including Hannah Arendt, the author of the well-known volume on “Authoritarianism”. 

She was moved only by ideas and it is ideas,over action,that mattered. She put in the real of ideas Socrates, Kant, Husseral, Wittgenstein and Heideggar. Mohanty says,Anna herself deserves a place among them. The New York Times described her in its obiutuary she was among “the ten most influentialintellects in the world”.

Prof Mohanty worked with Edmund Hasseral all at Freiburg all his life.

Anthony Quinton

One surprising personal interest in Mohanty’s volume is his inviting while he was professor at New York’ New School the famous Oxford philosopher, Anthony Quinton, now Lord. Quinton. Isiah Berlin, another great Oxford philosopher wrote to Mohanty in support of Quinton.Berlin wrote “Quinton was possibly one of the most well-read British philosophers since David Hume.”This was high praise”. Readers might be surprised if I say that Anthoy Quinton (now Lord Quinton,Member of the House of Lords) was none other than my own New College philosophy tutor! In those days when there were few students at Oxford,we students were having large rooms and also ample time, there used to be two tutorials a week in every subject.

Mine being the PPE (Philosophy, Politics and Economics) course, Quinton set me very stimulating questions for my tutorial and he treated me with lot of attention and affection. Of course I didnt become an academic and that is another story! I took my wife soon after my marriage in 1971 and I took her to New College and we had a long conversation with Quinton.

My friendship continues to this day and just only a year ago I received a beautiful handwritten affectionate letter from him and he presides over some of the prestigious institutions and trusts in U.K. Thanks to Quinton’s friendship, I read more of philosophy in Oxford than the other subjects! A near genius in the subject and a nice person to know,I would say.

Mohanty on Radhakrishnan

Mohanty: a sucessor to Radhakrishnan

There are some memorable pages, some deeply moving. As he was almost a successor to Dr.Radhakrishnan, I was searching for any reference to him.There is just only one sentence. It is: ” Much of the work, for example, of Radhakrishnan left me cold, and I was bored to death”! Of course further reading him I have come to appreciate his arguments. Radhakrishnan was always talking in grand theories, grand constructs, much of which stood because no one at that time looked at Indian philosophy more than as an exposition of Hinduism. So, in Radhakrishnan we have got allreligion and Philosophy mixed up.

Ideas only matter

In the case of Mohanty, he questions religion and God, He, as a thinker and as an idea seeker, says religion doesn’t matter, God even doesn’t matter. All mattered was philosophical thinking and it should gain an autonomy that is critical for philosopical thinking. So,in his view that either Western philosophy or Eastern philosophy,must have the freedom to think.

“Thinking is hard;to follow the path of thinking is harder still. Conventional religious belief impedes both thinking and action” (page 120).”The ability to think with a conceptuality which transcends traditions-in my case.Indian,German and Americanamazes me.Dialogue with other traditions is also a dialogue within oneself”

We dont have leaders

It is a great pity we dont have committed leaders,neither the Prime Ministers or the education ministers who are sensitive to knowledge and education. If we really want to reform and raise academic standards we have to invite original thinkers like Mohanty and seek his guidance. Simple popularity of office for any serious intellectual or knowledge seekers does no good. This might sinit only to philosophers and scientists who seek ceremonial government offices!

All this seems very true and relevant for Indian philosophical thinking tradition. And yet, we cant under estimate Radhakrishnan’s services for philosophy, education and the country. As for his educational work,he was an outstanding teacher and his university reforms, when he held university offices were all models of university administration. But alas! Nothing really significant happened by his heading the University Reforms Commission. As he said later the report was buried with’ respectful inattention’ (Gopal, page 211).

Indian universities dont matter

It is another matter Indian universities multiplied and reduced our higher education as a farce.We dont rank in any international league of world universities.
After I gave a gap, I came back to Mohanty. I thought I should say some more new perspectives emerged. Here they are. While it is true Radhakrishnan’s conceptuialisation of philosophy, I mean academic philosophy,is not so original, it is all a handiwork of syntheses and compromises with textual doctrines,I dont agree with Mohanty that Radhakrishnan’s expositions didn’t have much value.

Radhakrishnan’s breakthrough

Radhakrishnan did achieve a breakthrough in bringuing the Indian philosophical traditions closer to the Western academic world.That was a very great achievement. Also Radhakrishnan brought the wider public wherever they were closer to Indian thought and religion.His achievements are in fact multi faceted and multi-layered. Mohanty takes very,very narrow view of his own conceptions of Indian academic philosophy. He is not forth coming, nor asks bold questions nor he gives any bold answewrs. Like say,why Indian philosophy is popularly conceived as a spiritul philosophy, Why we have not evolved out of religion and developed a pure philosophy’

More importantly, Mohanty or even Radhakrishnan who had moved with British English speaking philosophers.And yet,they havent interacted with the British philosophy. Why? What is the stumbling block? In fact, it is not Radhakrishnan or Mohanty but some others like Prof.Daya Krishna who boldly went for radical interpretations of Indian philoisophy. Daya Krishna went on to question the very questions of Indian philosophy being spiritual. He proved,in a way, that there is no vaild ground to think so.That is another issue’.

Please come to India

The point is that thinkers like Mohanty, given their status and wisdom must return to India (he lives in USA) and work for creatuing a new radical change in our higher education system.Given his intellectual prestige, it is only such men can turn the tide towards higher aspirations for our country in the intellectual world.

Indians dont practice beliefs

My point is that we Indians however great never practice our beliefs,be it religious beliefs or secular beliefs.Our leaders all want to die,preferably,only in office! Even Nehru didnt consider retiring and taking rest after his fatal illness. Says JuditBrown: His friend Mountbatten invoked Edwina’s refusal to listen to his advice to take rest and died while on travelling to Burma. So, Mount batten reminded Nehru of his (Mountbatten) advice to his wife and invokked Edwina’ name to persuade Nehru to retire. Nehru didnt oblige. My point is this:we Indians some how become so attached to power,authority and also accustomed to subordination to a superior authoroty. Thus, even now dynasty poltiics comes easy to us, we have no sense of self-worth at all and we are all too willing to surrender ourself respect and serve any family and authority.

All we want a career,a job to cling to. Our scoeity had not yet evolved into a modern one.The Indians were and even now continue to live, yes, a people and they are still a mass, as subjects of a government with which they dont interact much except in some vague way in times of General Elections or some such State occasions or to obey or compile with some government order.The Statein India is still understood as a machinery with power, physical and coercive power. The common policeman or a lowly clerk still evokes a sense of fear and authoruity over the common people, right?

Individual liberty foreign to Indian thought

Indians have no inviduality,the concept of individual liberty is not an Indian conception.This concept is not rooted in Indian tradition.We are always a ‘spark of the Dinine’,whatever this concept of our religious tradition means. Indian citizens are no inviduals. They are always a mass of people. People are still more not living like citizens.To live like citizens involves and imposes on us cerain conditions.We Indians have not yet known or taught the true meaning of citizenship. To become citizens in a truly fuller and robust sense, we need to be taught our identity. The idea and ideology of citizenship ,in the modern world originates from the Frennch Revolution and the Frech Revolutionaries only transformed the French subjects of Louis XVI into independent citizens. Citizens live with fellow citizens and thus there is a deeper sense of belonging.To a State,to a nation and a civic society.Our civic consciousness as a subject for edcuational ideology in India is as good as non-existent.

The time has come for Indian educators to give a high priority for teaching citizenship in keeping with the latest developments and knowledge of the current world.We are living ina globalising world,so our national and international identity,of course after catering to the local and regional and ratehr the chuvinistic identities are sought to be built by the local political power centres.But any modern education has to balance these two contrasting and often conflicting identities, the more ethnic and as such narrow identities and at the same time, the globalising, international, multicultural and secular identities of modern people world citizens.

The subject is at the very heart of any modernand progressive education. An education charter as such can be constituted only on the theme of creating men and women, from the schools and the colleges and our universities by training them to become responsible citizens of their respective living spaces. Aristotle spokeof a polis,a city state. Today the scenario is that we have a six billion of common humanity, bound inextricably into a common destiny. The very economic integration, the tele-communications technological growths, Information Technology, the Internet grwoth is the latest technological integrating force and of course the negative forces, nuclear threat, degradation of the environment and in my own perspective, I see the rather foolhardy leaders from the development nations presiding over the destiny of mankind. 

Why my emphasis on developed countries? The developonmg countries, the Middle East, the emergent militant international terrorism, yes, is posing an altogether a new challenge.But then the response, the rational and enligtened response should be through what man had achieved. Acting responsibly through an international collective initiative. Now with George Bush,in his second term,and with the allies he has got and the Opposition to the US-UK continuing their unilateral of war in Iraq had rendered the UN and other international agencies weaker and almost helpless. The Opposition led by France and Germany seems to be the only reasoned stand against the drift of the world into an unfathomed abyss.

An activist education agenda

In such a darkened scenario, what education we can talk of? But education, as I often say,in primarily an engagement of the mind. So, as educators we cant rest helpless, we have top summon up all our inner reserves of man and forge ahead with a radical advocay of common sense and a vigorous reasonng power. No education would be worth its name unless it has courage to stand up and speak the truth. Unless modern education reaches out to all people,gives enough courage to people to reach out to citizen groups, civic societies and interact and exchange information through all the available means, it is no education at all.
What we need is not a passive copncept of education. What we need for the new century is an activist education agena.

Sir A Lakshmanaswamy Mudaliar

A long-serving Vice – Chancellor & a formidable educationist

Dr. S. Radhakrishnan is known for his unique distinctions. He served as vice-chancellor of Andhra university at Waltair for two terms and he recruited talented persons as university staff. He consulted far and wide, leading scientists in Europe when he searched for science staff.

He appointed some of the big names, Humayun Kabir, Hiren Mukerjee, V.K.R.V. Rao who all went on to create a name in national life.

Also his Mysore days friend Dr. C.R. Reddy was the first vice-chancellor of Andhra university and as a Cambridge man he was more brilliant and in later years the two friends went their own ways.

Dr. Radhakrishnan was also vice-chancellor of Benaras university and whatever he did were all landmarks in Indian higher education. The legendary vice chancellor, Sir Ashutosh Mukerjee was a discover of talents, it was he who discovered Radhakrishnan and C.V. Raman and many others.

Soon after relinquishing his VC’s post at Waltair, Radhakrishnan badly wanted to become the Director of Public Instruction in Madras! He didn’t succeed because there were English men, senior to him in the Provincial Education Service. It is another matter, Dr. Radhakrishnan went on to become a professor at Oxford and later, to newe heights of fame and high offices.

In the South we had a formidable figure in Sir A. Lakshamanswamy Mudaliar who served as vice-chancellor of Madras university for an unprecedented 27 years!
By all standards A.L. Mudaliar is perhaps the best known and much respected, even much feared vice-chancellor in his time. He had the distinction of becoming the VC when India was still under the British rule and after Independence there was no one to touch his sphere of activity. I know well from my close movements with the late Kamaraj and Bhakthavatsalam, that they dared not touch Mudaliar! Such was his persona, withdrawn and given to studied elegance, a pleasing rhetoric and diction, when he delivered his speeches, as he did when I was for two of his last years in the Legislative Council, the usual time limit prescribed for us was waied for him.

So he was to deliver his well constructed arguments in chaste English. At a very early age, I was one of the youngest to be elected to the Council Members of the council were Sir. A.L. Mudaliar, Dr. Raja Sir Muthiah Chettiar and others. I, fresh from Oxford and with strong convictioons, I dared to challenge the formidable man with my own private member bill that sought to restrict the term of the Madras VC for three years at a time.

The fierce opposition I encountered when I rose to speak readers can’t imagine! There were shouts and countershouts and Mudaliar men in full strength and sought to block my way through my speech!

However, I did succeed to make my impact on a subject that was a forbidden terriorty for educated Tamil society for such a long time!

Thus, the term of the VC was subsequntly reduced to three years and Mudaliar had to relinquish his pet office!

Sir A.L. Mudaliar survived in pre-Independence India as well as in post-Independence India, thanks to his unique survival skills! As Ashis Nandy, the sociologist, says Indians are archetypal survivors! As a nation of historic invasions, we have learnt to survive at all times. So, this survival instinct is inbuilt into our character. Unfortunately this skill survives to this day! Mudaliar was also helped by the peculair Tamil character, the non-Brahmin movement, Justice Party all helped him to endear himself to a pro-British establishment and after Independence he survived as the spokesman for the new order in international forums.
He along with his equally illustrious brother Sir. A. Ramaswamy Mudaliar no doubt became symbols of great accomplishments. But they were no nationalists or freedom lovers. So, I had the determination from early on to do whatever in my capacity to change this obnoxious side of Tamil character.

I am glad I did accomplish this fundamental change in the Madras university history. Many were the tales told about Mudaliar’s ways, his whims and fancies.
Dr. Malcolm Adishesiah and N.D. Sundaravadivelu who all followed him became my friends and we used to exchange notes! Dr. Raja Sir Muthaiah Chettair was one to embrace me…. in the council premises soon after my speech on Madras university. However, I like to place on record Mudaliar was a phenomenon. Never after we would have such a great son of Tamil Nadu and he would remain an archetypal VC for others to be inspired and to accomplish great deeds.
The VCs, these days have become faceless people, they seem to live in fear and isolation for much of their official times! Once out of office, they fade away. It is a great pity but then that is how university life and its social role is today!

Alas! Today the VC’s post had been devalued in society, reduced to such powerlessness.

It would be a new dawn if we only manage to lift at least some of our established universities to new heights of greatness.