Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan

Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan (1888-1975) was an Indian philosopher, statesman, and articulate interpreter of Hindu tradition to the West.

Radhakrishnan was born near Madras into a Brahmin family of orthodox Hindu persuasion. However, he was educated in Christian missionary institutions and was exposed both to routine religious criticisms of Hindu tradition and to the mainstream of Western philosophy. As his religious and philosophical sensibilities developed, he found himself more and more drawn to the values of the Vedanta. From the very first, he had felt himself imbued with a "firm faith in the reality of an unseen world behind the flux of phenomena." He was offended by the dogmatic and ill-informed criticisms leveled at Hindu culture by some of his teachers; and his sense of pride in his own tradition was deeply aroused by the eloquence of Vivekananda and Rabindranath Tagore.


The Idealist Thinker

Radhakrishnan resolved to explore his own tradition in fuller detail and wrote his master's thesis, The Ethics of Vedanta (1908), in part to refute the Western prejudice that the Vedanta simplistically affirmed the "illusory" (maya) nature of the world and lacked ethical content and power.

At the same time, Radhakrishnan found that he could not ignore the paralyzing superstitions which dominated Hindu social institutions and the life of the masses as integral features of their deepest religious commitments. He was encouraged by some of his more sensitive Western teachers to continue his research into Hindu philosophy in order to probe its innovative and universal potentials. He found much in Western philosophy—particularly in the idealists and the work of Henri Bergson—which was tangent to the Hindu and specifically Vedantic validation of mystical intuition and the spirituality of the universe.

Radhakrishnan was persuaded that philosophical enterprise must not simply provide rational verification and analysis but must give a profound and transforming insight into the spiritual content of existence in its personal and historical dimensions as an antidote to the dehumanizing values increasingly predominant in Western civilization. For Radhakrishnan, the unique strength of the Vedanta was its validation of personal spiritual striving for deeper penetration into the meaning of life itself.

Radhakrishnan combined this commitment with a humanistic focus on the need for social change and reform which he mediated in part by a reinterpretation of traditional Hindu religious forms and texts. His translation and interpretation of the Bhagavad Gita (Song of the Lord) strives to move traditional Hindu institutions (for instance, the caste system) in the direction of "democratic" values. He proved himself capable of performing this potentially awkward synthetic task by stressing the more profound aspects of Hindu philosophy which inherently transcend the provisional historical and social forms associated with normative Hinduism. Some of his other major works—An Idealist View of Life and Eastern Religions and Western Thought—and his scholarly commentaries on Vedantic materials are also marked by a distinctive "this-worldly" humanism uniquely imbued with Vedantic mysticism.

There is an equally powerful psychological emphasis in much of Radhakrishnan's work on the therapeutic consequences of personality integration through intuition of the essential relation of the self to the sacred force from which all phenomena spring. And this he combines with a theory of history which affirms that its most important dimension is the evolution of human spiritual consciousness. Hindu mysticism and related techniques are, therefore, not modes of withdrawal from reality but are means for strengthening personal autonomy, active capacity for love, and conscious participation in the unfolding destiny of the universe.

This evolutionary historical perspective had a marked impact on Radhakrishnan's interpretation of the traditional doctrine of Karma (action—the law of ethical retribution). The individual is responsible not only for his own destiny within a static cosmology of personal transmigration but for the welfare of all men. Each person acts (or does not act) to promote future possibilities. In this way individual salvation is tied to the fate of mankind and the ultimate goal of the historical process itself. Although his concept of "true humanity" is deeply steeped in Vedantic teaching, he has several specific human models who embody his own commitment to reforms incorporating Western values within the deeper matrix of Hindu spirituality: they are Rabindranath Tagore, Mohandas Gandhi, and Jawaharlal Nehru. For Radhakrishnan, these paradigms of modern Indian creativity show an extraordinary ability to synthesize conflicting value systems by employing the pristine mystical and ascetic models which lie at the heart of Hinduism. It is with these men in mind that he asserts, "Man is not a detached spectator of a progress immanent in human history, but an active agent remolding the world nearer to his ideals."

Radhakrishnan's understanding of the role of the traditional yoga is also shaped by this commitment. Its aim is to provide a disciplined framework which facilitates the fulfillment of worldly obligations while continually reinforcing the universal search for spiritual perfection. The yoga renders the individual more capable of acting in the world and serving his fellowmen.


From Theory to Practice

Many of Radhakrishnan's writings seem to be "apologetic"—designed for popular consumption by Western readers; and he engaged in debates with Western theologians and philosophers who criticized Indian forms of spirituality. But the great bulk of his work is distinguished by a power clearly evident in the development of his own distinctive philosophy of life. His work as an educator and cultural ambassador to the West and his many public services to the Indian government are further evidence of his many talents. He served variously as professor of philosophy and religion at the universities of Mysore, Calcutta, and Oxford, and he had many teaching engagements at major universities in the United States. From 1949 to 1952 he was ambassador to the Soviet Union, returning to India to serve for ten years as vice president of India and chancellor of Delhi University. He was also President of the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) from 1952-54. From 1962 to 1967 Radhakrishnan was president of India. He combined these activities with a continuing program of productive writing and lecturing, all of which made him a living embodiment of the values which he espoused. Radhakrishnan died on April 17, 1975 in Madras, India. The Indian Government ordered a week-long state of mourning.


Further Reading on Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan

Radhakrishnan's political writings have been collected and printed as President Radhakrishnan's Speeches and Writings (New Delhi, 1965). The most extensive volume on Radhakrishnan the philosopher, which also includes an autobiographical memoir, is Paul A. Schilpp, ed., The Philosophy of Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan (1952). Consult also C. E. M. Joad, Counterattack from the East: the Philosophy of Radhakrishnan (1933); S. J. Samartha, Introduction to Radhakrishnan: The Man and His Thought (1964); and the anniversary volume Radhakrishnan: Comparative Studies in Philosophy Presented in Honour of His Sixtieth Birthday (1951), edited by W. R. Inge and others.


Additional Biography Sources

(Sarvepalli, Gopal) Radharkrishnan, A Biography, Unwin Hyman, 1989.

(McGreal, Ian, ed.) Great Thinkers of the Eastern World, Harper-Collins, 1995.

New York Times (April 18, 1975).