Article on Dr. Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan

by A. Ranganathan

“It is an honour to philosophy” observed Lord Russell in 1962, “that Dr. Radhakrishnan should be President of India.” Lord Russell regarded it as a fulfilment of the Platonic dream that philosophers must be kings. However, unlike Plato who did not admit poets in his Republic, Dr. Radhakrishnan began his distinguished career as an interpreter of the poetry of Rabindranath Tagore. In his interpretative work, ‘The Philosophy of Rabindranath Tagore’, Dr. Radhakrishnan not only viewed this famous poet as a historic link in the long chain of India’s cultural evolution, but also as the prophet of modern India’s cultural renaissance. Indeed Dr. Radhakrishnan’s Republic (in the geographical and cultural sense of the term) is different from Plato’s Republic.

Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan was born on September 5, 1888 at Tiruttani, in South India. After a distinguished career at the Madras Christian College, Radhakrishnan joined the Madras Presidency College as a lecturer in philosophy. Finally, at the close of a long and distinguished career of teaching at several Indian universities, Dr. Radhakrishnan was appointed Spalding Professor of Eastern Religions and Ethics at Oxford. As Spalding Professor and a Fellow of All Souls College, Oxford, Dr. Radhakrishnan was the most outstanding representative of India’s intellectuals in Britain.

Although Dr. Radhakrishnan is justly renowned as a philosopher, he is essentially a creative artist. It is perhaps significant that the Goethe Plaquette was awarded to him, since he symbolised Goethe’s ideal of the creative artist who becomes a different being in the successive stages of his career. For he has achieved distinction in four different fields of intellectual and political endeavour–Indian philosophy in its wider perspectives, diplomacy, social thought and comparative religion.

Dr. Radhakrishnan has recorded in his charming autobiographical essay entitled “Fragments of a Confession” that historical writing, which is different from historical research, is a creative activity. He has argued that just as our political problem is to bring East and West together in a common brotherhood which transcends differences, so in the world of philosophy, we have to bring about a cross-fertilization of ideas in the history of modern thought. And addressing the International Congress of Orientalists in New Delhi on January 4, 1964, Dr. Radhakrishnan referred to Alexander’s role in reconciling different sections of mankind during the ancient age. Let me quote his words: “ Alexander abandoned the view that the non-Greek world was barbarian and that its people were fit only to be slaves. All men possessing wisdom and virtue are of one family. Plutarch says that Alexander brought together into one body all men everywhere, uniting and mixing in one great loving cup, as it were, men’s lives, their characters, their marriages, their very habits of life. He looked upon the whole inhabited world as his fatherland. All good men are of one family; the only foreigners are the wicked. Alexander felt that it was his sacred mission to reconcile mankind. In Egypt, in Iran, in North-West India, he felt the impact of the great civilizations of the East and looked upon them as worthy partners of the Hellenic civilization. Shortly before his death, Alexander held a banquet to celebrate the end of a great war, and he invited to it 9000 people–Hellenes and non-Hellenes. At the end of it he prayed for peace, for the partnership of all peoples of the world to live in unity and concord: Homa-noia, of one mind; the world should be based on a communion of minds and hearts.

In the concluding chapter of the second volume of ‘Indian Philosophy’, Dr. Radhakrishnan has correctly stressed that the republic of Indian thought “never developed a Monroe Doctrine in matters of culture.” He has not only revealed this liberal frame of mind in his exploration of the spiritual depths and metaphysical flights of Hindu philosophy, but has also added a new dimension of sympathetic insight in his interpretation of Buddhist philosophy. As an interpreter of the Hindu religious classics, Dr. Radhakrishnan has followed the hallowed tradition of the great exponents like Sankara, Ramanuja and Madhva. For he has written commentaries on the Gita, the Upanishads and the Brahma-sutras. He had already written on the ethical idealism of the Buddha and given a celebrated lecture, ‘Gautama the Buddha’ (which was hailed as “a masterpiece on a master-mind by a master-mind”) and won for him the coveted Fellowship of the British Academy. And he has also commented on the classic texts of Buddhism like the Dhammapada. It is this catholicity of outlook which has led him to investigate the bearings of Indian philosophy on politics and literature, and the deeper implications of religion and ethics, in his perceptive essays on poets like Kalidasa and Tagore, religious and political figures like Buddha and Gandhi, singers and saints like Tyagaraja and Ramana Maharshi.

Seldom in history has there been a philosopher so representative of his age, one who so completely articulates the aspirations of his contemporaries in trying to usher in a new era of understanding between nations. Dr. Radhakrishnan has presided over sessions of the UNESCO, and has served for a period of nine years on the International Committee of Intellectual Co-operation set up by the League of Nations, which included among its members such great scientists and scholars as the late Madame Curie, Albert Einstein and Gilbert Murray.

The similarity between Gilbert Murray and Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan is truly striking. Like Murray, who perceived the values of Greek poetry as constituting a source of creative insights in his understanding of international relations, Dr. Radhakrishnan has drawn upon the ancient fountain-head of Indian philosophy in his assessments of the contemporary international scene. In all his writings on social and political themes, Dr. Radhakrishnan has emphasized the dignity of the individual as an end in himself, in order to visualize a new social order based on religion and ethics which is essentially a state of mind derived from an idealist view of life and an understanding of the varieties and depths of religious experience reflecting the permanent values of civilization.

Dr. Radhakrishnan’s philosophy of tolerance has the following features: The ideal of an integrated personality that recognizes no cold war between the sciences and the humanities and views the empirical knowledge of the West as the complement of the intuitive wisdom of the East, a humanistic appreciation of the classics by a mind which is free from the shackles of dogma, the preservation of an atmosphere of intellectual freedom so that life is lived for the sheer joy of intellectual and artistic creation. This approach is reflected in some of his more important speeches during the last twenty years. In fact, this writer has often reflected on the need to publish these speeches. For these speeches reflect some of the great moments in contemporary Indian history–moments of ecstatic joy and moments of deep anguish. He delivered a memorable speech on the midnight of August 14, 1947, which immortalized the moment of our freedom. And the new nation was born just at the moment when he ended his speech. It would be relevant in this context to quote a few extracts from his speech: “History and legend will grow round this day. It marks a milestone in the march of our democracy. A significant date it is in the drama of the Indian people who are trying to rebuild and transform themselves...When we see what the Dutch are doing in Indonesia, when we see how the French are clinging to their possessions, we cannot but admire the political sagacity and courage of the British people. We on our side, have also added a chapter to the history of the world. Look at the way in which subject peoples in history won their freedom. Let us also consider the methods by which power was acquired. How did men like Washington, Napolean, Cromwell, Lenin, Hitler and Mussolini get into power? Look at the methods of blood and steel, of terrorism and assassination, of bloodshed and anarchy by which these so-called great men of the world came into the possession of power. Here in this land under the leadership of one who will go down in history as perhaps the greatest man of our age we have opposed patience to fury, quietness of spirit to bureaucratic tyranny and are acquiring power through peaceful and civilized methods...The greatest among the Englishmen, wished to modernize the country, to raise its intellectual and moral standards, its political status. They wished to regenerate the whole people. But the small among them worked with sinister motives... The freedom we are attaining is the fulfilment of this dual tendency among British administrators.”

Shakespeare can freeze your blood by dropping a kerchief. And it is said that Schiller cannot produce this sensation o terror even while describing a burning city. On a different plane, this writer felt that General Kaul is not able to sustain his argument or even make an intelligent point in his The Untold Story. Obviously General Kaul has not mastered the subtle art of indictment! Radhakrishnan criticized Nehru and Menon for their ‘credulity and negligence.’ Indeed this celebrated indictment which was broadcast in the wake of the NEFA disaster conveyed a sense of national shock which the General is unable to reflect in his clumsily written book.

While reflecting on Dr. Radhakrishnan’s speeches, one must refer to his great speech which was delivered on January 26, 1967. It was a truly great speech, which reflected the disillusionment and frustration of the Indian people. And this speech also cost him a second term as the President of India. For Mrs. Indira Gandhi was obviously piqued by his warning that “unless we destroy corruption in high places, root out every trace of nepotism, love of power, profiteering and black-marketing which have spoilt the good name of this country in recent years, we will not be able to raise the standards of efficiency and administration.” This speech was a commentary on Congress misrule in India–a commentary by one of India’s greatest philosophical commentators!

Dr. Radhakrishnan believes that there is great scope for a deeper dialogue between India and the West based on a fellowship of faiths and an understanding of cultures. He has argued that the Western influence on Hinduism has transformed it into “an ethical religion with a social gospel.” Similarly the development of the discipline of comparative religion, facilitated by the anthropological vistas unveiled by Sir James Frazer, was also due to the publication of the Sanskrit classics in Europe. The impact of Indian philosophical thought on Western intellectuals like Schopenhauer, Goethe, Emerson, Whitman, Thoreau, Yeats and several others, and Western influences on Indian leaders such as Gandhi and Tagore, are some aspects of this cross-fertilization of cultures leading on to a more fundamental understanding between India and the West.

Viewed in this perspective, Dr. Radhakrishnan’s works, The Hindu View of Life, An Idealist View of life, East and West in Religion, Eastern Religions and Western Thought, East and West and Religion in a Changing World can be regarded as significant contributions to study of comparative religion and the East-West cultural dialogue. Dr. Radhakrishnan’s greatness lies in the fact that he has always emphasized the need to realize “the truth of the world’s yet unborn soul by a free interchange of ideas and the development of a philosophy, which will combine the best of European humanism and Asiatic religion, a philosophy profounder and more living than either, endowed with greater spiritual and ethical force.”