On occasion of Teacher’s Day, we trace the life and journey of Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, in whose memory the day is celebrated
Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan was an Indian philosopher and statesman. He was the first Vice President of India (1952–1962) and the second President of India from 1962 to 1967.
After pursuing an MA in Philosophy in 1908, Radhakrishnan was appointed as a faculty member by the Department of Philosophy at Madras Presidency College. Apart from teaching at the college, he also taught in the University of Calcutta, the University of Oxford, and the University of Mysore. In 1939, Radhakrishnan served as the Vice Chancellor of Banaras Hindu University. In honour of Radhakrishnan, the University of Oxford instituted the Radhakrishnan Chevening Scholarships and the Radhakrishnan Memorial Award in his memory.
He placed Indian philosophy on world map. He is credited for creating and shaping the contemporary Hindu identity and for connecting India to the West with his philosophies.
Radhakrishnan was married to a distant cousin at the age of 16, for 51 years, until his wife, Sivakamu, died in 1956. The couple had five daughters and a son, Sarvepalli Gopal, who went on to a notable career as a historian.
In 1918 he completed his first book, The Philosophy of Rabindranath Tagore. He believed Tagore’s philosophy to be the “genuine manifestation of the Indian spirit”. His second book, The Reign of Religion in Contemporary Philosophy was published in 1920.
Radhakrishnan was bestowed with several awards during his academic career. He was appointed a Knight Bachelor in 1931, was elected Fellow of the British Academy in 1938 and was awarded the prestigious Bharat Ratna in 1954. He also received the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade in 1961.
As President of India, he accepted only Rs 2,500 out of his salary of Rs 10,000 and donated the remaining amount to the Prime Minister’s National Relief Fund every month.
Radhakrishnan started his political career “rather late in life”, after his successful academic career. In 1931 he was nominated to the League of Nations Committee for Intellectual Cooperation. When India became independent in 1947, Radhakrishnan represented India at UNESCO (1946–52) and was later Ambassador of India to the Soviet Union, from 1949 to 1952.
Radhakrishnan was loved and respected by all his students. When he became the President of India, some of his students and friends requested him to allow them to celebrate his birthday, on September 5. He replied, “Instead of celebrating my birthday, it would be my proud privilege if September 5th is observed as Teachers’ Day.” His birthday has since then been celebrated as Teachers’ Day in India.
Radhakrishnan was one of the most prominent spokesmen of Neo-Vedanta. His metaphysics was grounded in Advaita Vedanta, but he reinterpreted Advaita Vedanta for a contemporary understanding.
Radhakrishnan saw Hinduism as a scientific religion based on facts, apprehended via intuition or religious experience. According to Radhakrishnan, “[i]f philosophy of religion is to become scientific, it must become empirical and found itself on religious experience”.
Although Radhakrishnan was well-acquainted with western culture and philosophy, he was also critical of them. He stated that Western philosophers, despite all claims to objectivity, were influenced by theological influences of their own culture.
Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan passed away on April 17, 1975.
Former Indian cricketer VVS Laxman is the great grandnephew of Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan.