Dr Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan | Biography | Essay

Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan was an Indian philosopher and statesman of wide repute. He was born on 5 September 1888 in a Niyogi Telugu Brahmin family at a village Thiruttani, 84 km to Madras (now Chennai) in India. His father was Sarvepalli Veeraswami and his mother was Sitamma. Veeraswami was a subordinate revenue officer under a local zamindar.

Early Life and Education: Radhakrishnan’s early years were spent in Thiruttani and Tirupati, both famous as pilgrim centres in South India. His primary education was at Primary Board High School at Thiruttani. At the age of 8 years in 1896, he was moved to the Hermannsburg Evangelical Lutheran Mission School in Tirupati. Later he joined Voorhees College in Vellore but switched to the Madras Christian College at the age of 17. He graduated from there in 1906 and obtained a Master’s degree in Philosophy, is one of its most distinguished alumni. He was awarded scholarships throughout his academic life.

He wrote his thesis for the M.A. degree on the ethics of the Vedanta titled ‘The Ethics of the Vedanta and its Metaphysical Presuppositions’. He was afraid that his thesis would offend his Western philosophy professor Dr Alfred George Hogg. But surprisingly, Hogg commended Radhakrishnan for having done such excellent work on philosophy. Radhakrishnan’s thesis was published when he was only 20. The thesis indicates the general trend of Radhakrishnan’s thoughts. In his own words, “Religious feeling must establish itself as a rational way of living. If ever the spirit is to be at home in this world, and not merely a prisoner or a fugitive, spiritual foundations must be laid deep and preserved worthily. Religion must express itself in reasonable thought, fruitful action and right social institutions.”

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Marriage: Radhakrishnan was married to Sivakamu, a distant cousin, at the age of 16, by arranged marriage as per the traditional system. The couple had five daughters and a son, Sarvepalli Gopal, who went on to a notable career as a historian.

Career: In 1909 he was appointed to the Department of Philosophy at the Madras Presidency College. Thereafter, in 1918, he was selected as Professor of Philosophy at the University of Mysore. By that time he had written many articles for journals of repute like The Quest, Journal of Philosophy and The International Journal of Ethics. He also completed his first book, The Philosophy of Rabindranath Tagore. He believed Tagore’s philosophy to be the “genuine manifestation of the Indian spirit.” His second book The Reign of Religion in Contemporary Philosophy was published in 1920.

Philosophy: In 1921 he was appointed as a professor in philosophy at the University of Calcutta. He represented India at the International Congress of Philosophy at Harvard University in September 1926. Another important academic event during this period was his Hibbert Lecture on the ideals of life in 1929 which was subsequently published in book form as An Idealist View of Life. Referring to his sermon on ‘Revolution through Suffering’, an Oxford Daily observed, “Though the Indian preacher had the marvellous power to weave a magic web of thought, imagination and language, the real greatness of his sermon resides in some indefinable spiritual quality which arrests attention, moves the heart and lifts us into an ampler air.”

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In 1929 he was invited to take the post vacated by Principal J. Estlin at Harris Manchester College. This gave him the opportunity to lecture to the students of the University of Oxford on Comparative Religion. For his services to education, he was awarded a knighthood by George V in June 1931. However, he ceased to use the title of Knighthood after Indian independence, preferring instead his academic title of ‘Doctor’.

Awards and Honours: He was the Vice-Chancellor of Andhra University from 1931 to 1936. In 1939 Pandit Madan Mohan Malaviya invited him to succeed him as the vice-chancellor of Banares Hindu University, and Radhakrishnan served there till January 1948. When India became independent in 1947, Radhakrishnan represented India at UNESCO and was later Ambassador of India to the Soviet Union, from 1949 to 1952. He was elected as the first Vice President of India (1952-1962), and the second President of India (1962-1967).

Being one of India’s most influential scholars of comparative religion and philosophy, Radhakrishnan built a bridge between the East and the West by showing how the philosophical system of each tradition are comprehensible within the terms of the other. He was awarded the Bharat Ratna, the highest civilian award in India, in 1954. He was also awarded the Templeton inc Prize in 1975 in recognition of the fact that “his accessible writings underscored his country’s religious heritage and sought to convey a universal reality of God that embraced love and wisdom for all people.”

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Teachers Day Celebration: When he became President of India, some of his students and friends requested him to allow them to celebrate his birthday on 5th September. He replied, “Instead of celebrating my birthday, it would be my proud privilege if 5 September is observed as Teachers Day”.

Conclusion: His birthday has since been celebrated as Teachers’ Day in India. He breathed his last on 17 April 1975. But he belongs to the ages as an ideal teacher and philosopher.