Today, the East is making its mark across realms, many of which were earlier seen as Western bastions.
At such a time, remembering Dr Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, who principally wrote about the assimilation of the East and the West, is only apt.
In Bertrand Russell’s words, his election as the head of state was ‘an honour to philosophy… a tribute to India’ and yet Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan is rarely ever remembered as a philosopher.
For a scholar of his stature, one who wrote extensively, he is largely unknown to most Indians. At best, he is remembered as the president whose birthday is celebrated as Teachers’ Day every year.
Dr Radhakrishnan was undoubtedly an able statesman, but there was a lot more to him than that – a scholar, a philosopher, an educator and perhaps even a spiritual guide if one closely follows the way he led his public and private lives.
Building Andhra University and serving as the Banaras Hindu University vice chancellor are only a few feathers in this scholar’s hat. Occasionally referred to as the ‘philosopher-ruler’ by those of his colleagues who were well-versed in Plato’s philosophy, the feather that should have stood apart and outshone the others, perhaps, would be his contribution to Indian philosophy.
Dr Radhakrishnan could synthesise the core message of Advaita Vedanta with our everyday experience of living with other beings. He was a proponent of the ancient school and personified wisdom, learning and oral traditions which have adorned Indian culture and philosophy for thousands of years.
Perhaps more credit-worthy is the fact that with his profound knowledge of the religions of the East and the West, he could ensure that Indian philosophy found its deserving place vis-à-vis the world. This was evident when he influenced and left mesmerised a galaxy of world thinkers and cultural leaders who were involved with the founding of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) at the Sorbonne, with his lecture.
The brilliance of Dr Radhakrishnan as a philosopher can be seen in his little-known and even lesser-read books. While those like The Principal Upanishads, The Dhammapada, The Hindu View of Life and Indian Philosophy Vol 1 & Vol 2 can be broadly classified as interpretations, other books like The Idealist View of Life and Eastern Religions & Western Thought can be read to understand his ideas.
The central theme that runs through much of Dr Radhakrishnan’s philosophy is assimilation – of the East and the West, of transcendentalism and practical-ism, of theory of pure self and contemporary welfare ethics. He advocated for a healthy marriage of ancient knowledge and modern science, considering that their common goal is truth. This does not come as a surprise given that Dr. Radhakrishnan was influenced by Rabindranath Tagore, who pleaded for the assimilation of the best of the East with the best of the West.
Dr Radhakrishnan’s emphasis on learning from both the East and the West and valid criticism of both is obvious from a number of occasions. The belief that a “supreme being” is the guiding light of his life while substantiating it with reason is a classic example of this quality. Yet, the ethics of action, a concept he borrows from the Bhagavad Gita and the Sikh thought, plays a central part in most of his interpretations of Hindu idealism. He criticised the West’s single-minded obsession with modern technology and emphasis on pursuing luxuries and comforts just like he had little to do with rituals and rites within Indian culture.
Even during his political tenure, Dr Radhakrishnan was known to approach issues with a certain metaphysical stance. It was perhaps because of this trait that he had an admirer in Joseph Stalin, whom Dr Radhakrishnan, much to the horror and amazement of everyone around, patted on the cheek. He is known to have done the same to Mao Zedong and even the Pope. His philosophical orientation guided his approach to his political duties, which was one of detachment from any allurement of power or money. As one of his colleagues said, “…his role in politics – as an Ambassador, Vice-President, and President of India – was that of a Sthitaprajna”.
His unbiased and profound knowledge of various religions around the world and his study of different systems and traditions of philosophy brought to light the potential for a new discipline of Comparative Religions, of which he was seen as the chief exponent, and his fame soon spread to universities abroad.
Despite all of this, Dr Radhakrishnan as a philosopher remains largely forgotten today, if not completely unknown. Except for a biography written by his son, S Gopal, titled Radhakrishnan: A Biography, and perhaps a few other sources, there is little we have written about Dr Radhakrishnan and other thinkers of the past. The difficulty we have in taking pride in our philosophers is lamentable. It becomes worse when a philosopher who is regarded as the chief exponent of an entire discipline is not part of any scholarly curriculum.
The assimilation of the East and the West, which Dr Radhakrishnan wrote about, is perhaps more relevant today in a world of international cooperation and co-existence. At a time when the East is emerging and claiming its place in all realms, it is imperative that in order to get Indian philosophy the place it deserves, we embrace our philosophers and present them in the correct light, without any remorse but also without any romanticism.