Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan Biography

Biography (Survey of World Philosophers)

0111207239-Radhakrishnan.jpgSarvepalli Radhakrishnan, left, pays an official visit to Yugoslavia in 1965. (Library of Congress) Published by Salem Press, Inc.

Article abstract: As the preeminent modern interpreter of Indian philosophy to the West and as a lifelong exponent of the “perennial philosophy,” Radhakrishnan bridged the gap between two cultures and fostered the growth of universal spiritual values.

Early Life

Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan was born to orthodox Hindu Brahman parents in a small town fifty miles northwest of Madras. He was raised in a Hindu atmosphere, but because it was necessary for him to learn English if he was to attain secular success, his parents sent him to a Lutheran mission school when he was eight years old. He remained there for five years before going to Voorhees College in Velore, where he married a distant cousin, Sivakamu. She was to bear five daughters and a son.

Continuing his studies at Madras Christian College, he became very familiar with both Hinduism and Christianity. Radhakrishnan was distressed by his Christian teachers’ criticisms of Hinduism, and he determined to study closely the religion into which he had been born. After choosing for his thesis the topic of ethics in the Vedanta, he was awarded an M.A. in philosophy in 1909. He was then appointed to the post of lecturer for the Provincial Education Service, and two years later, in 1909, he became assistant professor of philosophy at Madras Presidency College. He became a full professor in 1916.

Life’s Work

In 1918, Radhakrishnan was named professor of philosophy at the University of Mysore. In the following three years he wrote his first books, a study of the Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore, and The Reign of Religion in Contemporary Philosophy, a book that made him well known in academic philosophical circles. As a result, he was invited to become the King George V Professor of Philosophy at Calcutta University, a position he was to occupy for nearly twenty years. The appointment marked the beginning of the most fruitful period of his intellectual life and quickly led to international recognition.

It was at Calcutta that he wrote his monumental two-volume Indian Philosophy. Not only did this work give a huge stimulus to the study of philosophy in Indian universities; it was the first work on Indian philosophy that could be appreciated by scholars trained in Western traditions, because Radhakrishnan had the unique gift of being able to discuss Indian thought in the light of Western philosophy. A decade later, Radhakrishnan explained that his principal purpose in writing Indian Philosophy was to show that Indian thought was not strange and antiquated but had a contribution to make to the spiritual awakening of the world.

In 1926, at a time when little was known in the West about Indian philosophy, Radhakrishnan was invited to deliver the annual Upton Lectures at Manchester College, Oxford University. He gave four lectures, speaking without the assistance of any notes, presenting Hinduism not as a set of fixed dogmas and rituals but as a tolerant faith with a wide vision and moral values that were relevant for contemporary life. These lectures were published as The Hindu View of Life, a small volume that has had lasting importance as an interpretation of Hinduism to Western readers.

In August of 1927, Radhakrishnan visited the United States and delivered the Haskell Lectures in comparative religion at the University of Chicago; he also lectured at Harvard University. Kalki: Or, The Future of Civilization, a critique of the ills of a technological society and an outline of how they might be overcome, was based on the Harvard lectures.

In autumn, 1929, Radhakrishnan returned to Oxford to take up the Upton Chair of Comparative Religion at Manchester College, Oxford, and he also gave the Hibbert Lectures at the Universities of Manchester and London, which cogently analyzed the idealist tradition of East and West. Radhakrishnan’s international reputation as a philosopher of the first rank was now firmly established. In June, 1931, he was knighted by King George V, and on his return to India later that year, he became vice chancellor of Andhra University at Waltair.

In addition to his administrative duties at Andhra, Radhakrishnan continued to publish widely. The Hibbert Lectures appeared in 1932 as An Idealist View of Life, which was widely regarded by Western and Eastern scholars as a significant, original contribution to religious and philosophical thought. Radhakrishnan himself regarded it as his major work. East and West in Religion, which sought to establish that Eastern and Western traditions had throughout history borrowed from each other, followed in 1933, and Freedom and Culture in 1936. In that year Radhakrishnan was again invited to England, where he became Spalding Professor of Eastern Religions and Ethics at Oxford University. He resigned from the position of vice chancellor at Andhra but continued as the George V Professor of Philosophy at Calcutta. It was agreed that each year he would spend six months in England and six months in India.

At Oxford his teaching duties were light and he was thus able to spend much time in writing and research. One of the fruits of this labor was Eastern Religions and Western Thought, in which he endeavored to create a synthesis of Eastern and Western religious and philosophical thought. His goal was to lay the groundwork for an inclusive philosophy that would carry greater spiritual force and profundity than existed in either tradition when considered in isolation.

In 1939, Radhakrishnan became the first Indian to be elected to the British Academy. He returned to India in July, and when World War II broke out in September, he applied for leave of absence from Oxford. That same year, he accepted the vice chancellorship of Benares Hindu University, the largest university in India. He served in this position throughout World War II,...

(The entire section is 2413 words.)