Biography

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2413

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.

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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, interrupted only by a trip to China in 1944, when at the invitation of the Chinese government he delivered twelve lectures on Indian and Chinese philosophies and religions in Chungking (Chongqing). These were published as India and China in the same year.

Radhakrishnan had long shown an interest in international affairs. From 1931 to 1936 he had been a member of the Committee of Intellectual Cooperation of the League of Nations, and in 1946 he was appointed leader of the Indian delegation to the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) at its conference in Paris. He became chairman of UNESCO’S executive board in 1948.

He continued to write books at a steady rate, including Is This Peace? and Religion and Society. The latter, which discussed the meaning of religion and its application to modern problems of war and peace, family, and marriage, was based on the Kamala lectures he had given at the University of Calcutta in 1932.

In 1948 Radhakrishnan resigned as vice chancellor of Benares University in order to accept a position as chairman of the Indian Universities Commission, which had been established by the newly independent government of India. In the same year, Radhakrishnan published a translation of and commentary on a major work in the Hindu canon, the Bhagavad Gītā, which he dedicated to the recently assassinated Mohandas K. (Mahatma) Gandhi. The ten thousand copies of the first printing of this book were sold out within twelve months, and it has long continued to be a popular and authoritative work. Its success is due to the fact that Radhakrishnan wrote not only for scholars but also for the general reader with an interest in spiritual matters. He believed that great works such as the Bhagavad Gītā must be understood anew by each generation, in a way that provides insight into the problems of the time. To this end, he alluded in his explanatory notes and commentary to parallels between the Bhagavad Gītā and other religious texts, and with modern philosophical literature. He continued with this method in his translation of the Buddhist work the Dhammapada, which was published in 1950.

In July, 1949, Radhakrishnan’s involvement in public life deepened when he was appointed India’s ambassador to the Soviet Union, although he still retained his professorship at Oxford, where he spent eight weeks of each year. He remained in Moscow until 1952, when he was elected vice president of India for five years by both houses of Parliament. Radhakrishnan’s principal function as vice president was to preside over the Rajya Sabha, the upper chamber of the national legislature. During his years in this capacity, he won admiration from all political sides for his sense of fairness, his impartiality, and his ability to act as a conciliator.

In addition to fulfilling his public duties, Radhakrishnan continued his scholarly work. His translation of the Upanishads, The Principal Upanishads, was published in 1953, and in 1954 he gave the Sir Edward Betty memorial lectures at McGill University in Canada, which were published as East and West: Some Reflections in 1955. Recovery of Faith attempted to show how modern human beings could renew their religious faith by transcending dogma and sectarian differences. Another translation of a Hindu scripture, The Brahma Sutra, appeared in 1960, followed in 1961 by Fellowship of the Spirit.

In 1962, Radhakrishnan was elected president of India, a position he held until 1967. British philosopher and mathematician Bertrand Russell declared that Radhakrishnan’s appointment as president was an honor to philosophy, and there were frequent allusions by commentators to Plato’s ideal of the philosopher-king.

After retiring from public life, Radhakrishnan continued to write, publishing Religion in a Changing World, The Present Crisis of Faith, and Our Heritage. In 1975, shortly before his death, he became the first non-Christian to receive the Templeton Prize for Religion.

Influence

Radhakrishnan’s universalist philosophy has its roots in the work of two nineteenth century Indian religious figures: Ramakrishna and Vivekananda, both of whom had a strong awareness of religions other than Hinduism. Ramakrishna believed that all religious teachings represented different paths to the same goal, and this was the basis of the movement founded in 1897 by his follower Vivekananda, whom Radhakrishnan acknowledged as a formative influence on his own work.

In scope and philosophical depth, Radhakrishnan vastly extended the work of these earlier figures. He interpreted and developed the whole range of Indian philosophical thought to make it relevant for the times in which he lived. At a time when there was much ignorance and prejudice against non-Christian religions in the West, Radhakrishnan’s work in comparative philosophy and his dedication to drawing out the unity between East and West laid the foundation for a great leap in intercultural understanding. His work ensured that Indian philosophy received its rightful place in world culture as a venerable tradition with much to offer to the modern world. His promotion of a universal religion that would meet the needs of a scientific and technological civilization that had lost its moral and spiritual compass has had a lasting impact. It revealed Radhakrishnan as at once a philosopher and a practical man of affairs with a deep concern for the well-being of humanity.

In spite of these major contributions to human thought, Radhakrishnan has not been immune to criticism. Some have disputed whether he was a philosopher in his own right. According to this view, Radhakrishnan was merely a historian or chronicler of Hindu thought, not an original thinker. His Western critics also argue that he grasped Christianity only from an outsider’s point of view and frequently misinterpreted and distorted it in his eagerness to establish parallels with Indian thought. Critics in India claim the opposite, that he distorted the Indian texts in order to please the West.

Radhakrishnan’s response to such criticism was to say that all great philosophers restate and interpret the thought of their masters and make no claim to originality. He would also reiterate the “perennial philosophy,” the belief that all religious traditions point to the same underlying reality. Scholars of Radhakrishnan also point out that whatever Radhakrishnan may have said about his own work, in his writings he sometimes questioned ancient authorities, reserving the right to develop his thought on independent lines in pursuit of his goal of a vital philosophy that had power to heal a fragmented, secular, war-torn world.

Additional Reading

Agarwal, Sudarshan, ed. Dr. Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan: A Commemorative Volume, 1888-1988. New Delhi: Prentice-Hall of India, 1988. Records and honors Radhakrishnan’s contribution to the functioning of parliamentary democracy in his capacity as first chairman of the Rajya Sabha, the second chamber of the Indian parliament.

Ahluwalia, B. K., ed. Facets of Radhakrishnan. New Delhi: Newman Group, 1978. Twenty-two essays that illuminate all aspects of Radhakrishnan’s work as philosopher, diplomat, humanitarian, scholar, and patriot. Many of the essays are by prominent people who had known Radhakrishnan personally.

Arapura, J. G. Radhakrishnan and Integral Experience. Bombay: Asia Publishing House, 1966. A critical study of Radhakrishnan’s methodology, epistemology, and “perennial philosophy.”

Banerji, Anjan Kumer, ed. Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan: A Centenary Tribute. Varanasi: Benaras Hindu University, 1991. Contains the texts of some rare lectures and letters as well as reminiscences of those who knew Radhakrishnan. Covers his work as statesman, philosopher, and scholar.

Gopal, Sarvepalli. Radhakrishnan: A Biography. London: Unwin Hyman, 1989. A comprehensive biography. Although it is written by Radhakrishnan’s son, it is an objective account of Radhakrishnan’s life: well-documented, readable, and balanced in its conclusions. Contains thirty-one photographs.

Harris, Ishwar. Radhakrishnan: The Profile of a Universalist. Calcutta, India: Minerva Associates, 1982. A study of Radhakrishnan’s religious thought that emphasizes his universalism. Covers the tradition of universalism in Indian thought, the evolution of Radhakrishnan’s views, the influence on him of Christianity and other faiths, and of Vivekananda and Tagore, and a comparison of his thought to that of Western theologians Paul Tillich and Frithjof Schuon.

Minor, Robert N. Radhakrishnan: A Religious Biography. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1987. Much of this is based on interviews with Radhakrishnan’s family, friends, students and acquaintances. It seeks to place his thought in the context of his experience, to analyze the method by which he formulated his philosophical outlook and to highlight his own definitions of his major concerns.

Murty, K. Satchidanda, and Ashok Vohra. Radhakrishnan: His Life and Ideas. Delhi, India: Ajanta Publications, 1989. The authors describe themselves as “critical admirers” of Radhakrishnan, and this is a compact, balanced introduction to all aspects of his life and work. Not as detailed as Gopal, above.

Parthasarathi, G., and D. P. Chattopadhyaya, eds. Radhakrishnan: Centenary Volume. Delhi, India: Oxford University Press, 1989. Contains twenty-nine articles by Eastern and Western scholars on Radhakrishnan’s philosophical thought and his achievements as a statesman.

Rodrigues, Clarissa. The Social and Political Thought of Dr. S. Radhakrishnan: An Evaluation. New Delhi: Sterling Publishers, 1992. An in-depth examination of Radhakrishnan’s social and political views.

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