The Calm, Studied Brilliance Of Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan

The Calm, Studied Brilliance Of Sarvepalli RadhakrishnanFirst vice president and second president of India Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, whose birthday – 5 September – is celebrated as Teachers’ Day.
  • Despite being a philosopher and author of international repute in his day, Dr Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan is a largely forgotten icon today.

The magazine National Interest once ran an essay on the origins and meaning of the nineteenth-century coinage “realpolitik”. An unexpected name shows up in that essay: Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, an idealist philosopher who is now barely remembered in his own country, India, far less in the outside world.

Changes in historiographical methods and emergence of new sub-disciplines (subaltern, post-structuralism, multiculturalism, post-colonial, among others) have reduced the footprint of Radhakrishnan’s influence.  If he is remembered, at all, it is as a philosopher of Vedanta and India’s president.

While this writer knew of Radhakrishnan’s stature as a widely sought-after speaker-thinker of his era, he had rarely been a moralising scold. Yet, that is precisely what he came across as in that essay where he chastises Europe for the Great War, which was brought about thanks to a patchwork of self-interest and miscalculations, yet which he insisted was: “The penalty which Europe pays for its steadfast loyalty to a false ideal.” For paying homage to the false godhead of realpolitik.

This anathema towards realpolitik, however, is not a surprise if one does read him.  And that precisely is what is rare now.  As Amitabha Bhattacharya wrote on his centenary, “Radhakrishnan is often worshipped, some-times criticized and scarcely read these days.” For a man who wrote as prolifically as he did, to much of my generation, he is largely an unknown.  At best, he is remembered as a president or, if lucky, as a historian of Indian philosophy.

His own philosophical explorations are known, even less so.  His life story is largely forgotten despite an excellent and admirable biography written by his son, the late Sarvepalli Gopal. It is a dense 384-page biography called Radhakrishnan.

I had read Radhakrishnan’s writings for the first time in high school and was amazed to discover somebody who wrote with so much clarity about faith and ideas that animated much of my upbringing. Since then I have read him, but knew little about him except for the usual hagiographic blather that Indians do when writing about their leaders. This biography is an exception to the overwhelming mediocrity that marks such writing – including, as it turns out, was the case of Gopal’s three-volume biography on Jawaharlal Nehru that drew flak for its venerating tone. This biography, however, of his father, published in 1989, is a scrupulous bit of scholarly writing.

More than Radhakrishnan as a great historical figure, what came through the pages was how strikingly calm he seemed throughout his life. As if he were a man who, despite frenzied actions, had successfully cultivated a sense of detachment – from the early days of poverty when he was born into a poor Telugu Brahmin family in Madras Presidency to his regal hours as president of India. Given the improbability of this ascent, even his birth (he was possibly an illegitimate child from his mother’s relationship with a district official), he lived convinced (like Winston Churchill) that “over me beat invisible wings”.

The idea of a god guiding his life, while still tempering it with reason, was an insuperable principle for him. That said, he didn’t seem to have had much use for religious rituals or the practice of Hinduism, with which he was often superficially identified. Muhammad Ali Jinnah says to him in the 1940s while on a train: “You are one of my main enemies. You have made Hinduism respectable.”

During the early years of his life, Radhakrishnan wrote a monumental treatise on Indian philosophy that became the primer on the subject; it attracted readers as varied as the playwright George Barnard Shaw to the investment banker Siegmund George Warburg. By the end of his life in 1975, Radhakrishnan was probably the most widely read Indian after Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru. Even as an orator, he seems to have impressed many with his commitment to the philosophical tradition of idealism and the more quotidian idealisms of daily life – including those who fought bare-knuckled in political trenches.

He was deemed important to listen to but often harmless as far as political intrigue was concerned. In this sense, he brought respectability to every dinner table and speaking gallery.  In 1954, before racial de-segregation, at the peaks of the Eisenhower Republican era, he spoke to the United States Senate: “No society is static; no law is unchanging; and no constitution is permanent. Given time and patience, radical changes may happen in both in human nature and in systems of society which reflect human nature.”

A young Congressman from Massachusetts sat in the gallery and made notes of the speech.  A decade later, he repeated the very same lines to Radhakrishnan when they met at the White House, by which time the Congressman was known widely as “JFK”.

In his youth, Radhakrishnan looked upon Gandhi as a light of truth that had come to shine upon India in its darkest hour. In Gandhi’s persona resonated his own deep Hindu faith in the idea of the “avatara purusha” – the embodiment of the age’s consecrated hopes. That said, his only real intellectual equal, his friend if one may say so, was Nehru.

He disliked Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, who he saw as a mediocre thinker and a political schemer; he also disliked Jagjivan Ram, whom he saw as corrupt, as also Krishna Menon, who he saw as a hardline anti-American doctrinaire. None of these men served in public life and government with the requisite self-abnegation that he valued in Gandhi, and to a lesser degree in Nehru.

An interesting side observation: in the entire book, there was not a single mention of one particular name – B R Ambedkar. This writer didn’t find it in the index either. Wonder why.

As a young man, Radhakrishnan seems to have sought out intellectually interesting father-figures/friends. He was a great admirer of Rabindranath Tagore, was roommates with C V Raman, cultivated students like the master-philosopher Mysore Hiriyanna, and was friends with diplomat-scholar K M Panikkar. His intellectual hero remained the greatest of all Vedantins, the Jagadguru Adi Sankara. Like Gandhi, Radhakrishnan had little instinctive interest in music or the arts, although later in life he seems to have been fond of the musical My Fair Lady.

Radhakrishnan was also a successful educator and institution builder: building from the ground up the Andhra University, fostering the Banaras Hindu University, and even that great watering hole of Indian left-leaning intellectuals in Delhi, the India International Centre (built by Rockefeller Foundation’s grants, no less).

In the newly independent India, Nehru sought to keep Radhakrishnan close for missions that he considered important, and sent him to represent India across the world, including in the court of that Communist Czar, the much-feared Joseph Stalin. Yet, strangely, Stalin took a liking to Radhakrishnan, who in turn openly critiqued communism for its mindless stress on conformism and lack of freedoms while still not blaming Stalin in person.

True to the spirit of the non-aligned times, he also critiqued America for its racialist policies and warmongering rhetoric against the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. He found friends in America who agreed with him, including president Eisenhower, who complained that the extremists have been more vocal (hinting, none so subtly, at Joe McCarthy).

In Moscow, he became the only ambassador who was invited to meet with Stalin twice. Stalin expressed his desire to meet Radhakrishnan with the words: “I would like to meet the ambassador who spends all his time in bed – writing.” Stalin at Radhakrishnan’s farewell in 1952 sought to impress him with these lines: “When a Russian peasant sees a wolf, he knows how to deal with it. Liquidate, Mr. Ambassador.”

In their final meeting, to the horror of the apparatchiks, Radhakrishnan patted Stalin on his cheek and quoted Christ: “What shall it avail a man if he gain the whole world & lose his own soul.” Visibly moved by this, Stalin replies: “I too was in a theological seminary for some time and miracles may happen.” Patting powerful men on the cheek seemed to be his favourite way of disarming them.

He did the same to Mao, who is amazed that somebody could treat him like a young man. Mao’s mandarins, predictably, panicked. He did the same to the Pope, too. All this points to a man who was comfortable around power, for in his own way he esteemed it, but his true respect was far away – in the world of books, ideas, and speculations.

Amidst a grueling public life, Radhakrishnan continued to write, including monumental translations of the Upanishads, long essays, and innumerable letters. Towards the end of Radhakrishnan’s life, he had become the go-to guy for many a world leader. (In the biography is a delightful letter from the Canadian Nobel laureate prime minister Lester Pearson, who thanks Radhakrishnan for telling him that diplomacy is neither an art nor a science, but merely a dodge.)

Radhakrishnan became a voice that argued for religion, that said man is a spiritual being who is beholden to a supreme power and a (Hegelian) fulfilment of history comes only if man reconciles with each other and with oneself. In this there was an effort to bring together the dominant Marxist rhetoric and the Hindu unitarian vision of the world.

This sense of religiosity came from a deep and engaged place – one that was open to progress and improving freedoms, but also saw no reason to abandon the past. The rationalist philosopher-mathematician Bertrand Russell, no slouch nor willing to tolerate metaphysical nonsense, sent Radhakrishnan the first volume of his autobiography before it was out in print, seeking his thoughts.

The only person Radhakrishnan wronged in his life was his wife, if indeed ‘wronged’ is the word. She struggled and suffered, thanks to his many extramarital affairs. None of them seems to have been a consequence of his scheming, but that rather women found him attractive and he was, despite a public vocation, a solitudinal figure. Longing takes many forms. The author of this biography (a son writing about his father) has a remarkable paragraph about his mother’s anguish, loneliness, and grudging acceptance of what life had to offer her. It was unfair, and one gets the feeling, everyone involved knew it. She couldn’t keep up with him, intellectually and socially; he shone too brightly and freely to see any value in being tied down in the shades of domesticity. At her death, however, he was heartbroken and deeply anguished. How much of that was guilt, how much gratitude towards her is hard to say. Ever the writer, he concludes about her: “A long chapter has come to an end.”

The acme of Radhakrishnan’s public life comes as vice president and president of India: roles that factions within the ruling Congress party were reluctant to grant, for Radhakrishnan never joined the mother ship. He had also praised the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) for their willingness to help a young country in times of calamity despite being against their contestable ideas. He was close to Gandhi, and then Syama Prasad Mookerjee, the founder of the Jana Sangh. None of this went down well with Nehru, who sought to enrol him in his “camp”.

Despite these minor kerfuffles, after an honourable two terms as vice president, serving under the middling tenure of Rajendra Prasad as president, he became the president of India. He became the Indian that non-Indians wanted to talk to. Many puffed up their public profiles by seeking audience with him. Radhakrishnan, in turn, was quite at home conversing with Jackie Kennedy and her kids on the one hand, and Allen Dulles (the boss of the Central Intelligence Agency) on the other. He came across as a supremely self-assured man possessed of the kind of knowledge and confidence that comes from having done the hard work early in life with books, labour, and diligence.

This freespiritedness also came about because he was a man who, despite enjoying the experience of being around people, recognised that life may be a gift and the conduct of life merely theatre. His son, the biographer, writes despite the warmth that he emanated, he was a private person and few were allowed into his personal space. An invisible line demarcated his interior life, to which no one was privy. In this he was like Nehru, and very unlike Gandhi, to whom his life was an open book.

Towards the end of his life, Radhakrishnan was one of the key forces that helped bring Indira Gandhi to power. He hoped to play, somewhat naively, the philosopher in her political grooming. To wit, this seems to be a common ailment among philosophers. Plato took it upon himself to ‘educate’ the tyrant Dion of Syracuse, who after early genuflection had little use for him. Martin Heidegger envisioned himself as a greater teacher for the Nazis, but they had nothing but contempt for him in due course.

Radhakrishnan, ironically, never recognises this pattern in history, or merely concludes he is exempt from such iron laws that govern the relationship between thinkers and rulers. During the course of their life, from these pages, it is hard to say if theirs was a flirtatious relationship. In any case, she played up to his vanity in her early days; but she was made of sterner stuff and didn’t take too well to his critiquing of her governance. She also wanted to promote Zakir Hussain as president, an early example of ‘secular’ politics in play as fractures revealed the fading unilateral dominance of the Congress in the political space.

As his biographer notes, at his cremation in 1975, people from all walks of life poured in. Only two individuals were conspicuously absent: then-prime minister Indira Gandhi and her political appointee president F A Ahmed. This paragraph that he wrote in a letter to a friend who had suffered deaths in his family summarises the equanimity that marked much of his life:

“I have had my share of sorrow and suffering in the world but go through life in a spirit of utter surrender. Look at the way in which I travel all alone from China to Mexico. I am protected by the grace of the Divine and the prayers of my friends. When there is nothing more to be done by me on earth, I will pass out, with no grievance but with an utter thanksgiving, for all that life has meant for me in joy and sorrow, in triumph and in defeat.”

His last week in life was spent in a state of debilitating silence after a stroke. A man known for his oratory and charm, for his ability to attract men and women, had gone silent; his eyes had an emptiness to them. His family was unable to communicate with him. In that week, when he lay in that vegetative state, he was awarded the prestigious Templeton Prize. By then, like much of his life, it was the prize that was seeking Radhakrishnan’s validation. It meant little to him.

He died on 17 April 1975.

Thanks to Ramachandra Guha, who read this and helped correct an error.

This piece was originally published in Story South Asia.

Keerthik Sasidharan was born in Palakkad; was educated in Canada and lives in NYC. His writings have appeared in The Hindu, The Caravan and other publications. He is working on his first book, to be published by Aleph Book Company.


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