His work of uplifting the minds and the intellects of Indians would be incomplete if we let ourselves swayed by the amusements and the insanities of the 21st century.
By Subhash Jangala
Veeraswami, a revenue official in the office of a local landlord and Seetamma his wife, were blessed with their second son in the year 1888. Unbeknownst to them, history was being written in their humble house in Tiruttani, a tiny temple town in the erstwhile Madras Presidency. Radhakrishnayya, as Shri Radhakrishnan sometimes referred to himself, was born in the Sarvepalli family which traced its roots in the village of Sarvepalli in the Nellore District of Andhra Pradesh. A diligent and reticent child since school, Radhakrishnan’s curriculum at the Lutheran Missionary School stimulated and stirred his mind. The first lessons of Bible at school and his impassioned reading of Swami Vivekananda and VD Savarkar roused deeply philosophical questions in his young mind.
The late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were the peak of Colonial expansion. The colonial powers brought with them, Christian missionary institutions which played a crucial role in expanding and reinforcing Western European beliefs and practices across the sub-continent. During the philosophy course in his Master of Arts class at the Christian College at Madras, Radhakrishnan was taught the “inherent inadequacies” of the Hindu philosophy. The style of teaching made him believe that the political state of affairs of India was an outcome of the fragile and imperfect philosophy of Indians grounded in The Vedanta and The Bhagavad Gita. A debilitating feeling of helplessness crept over him. He wished he could quickly learn Indian philosophy and disprove the claims of his Christian professors. However, in the 1900s, no University in India taught Hindu philosophy, let alone nurturing experts in the ancient texts. He was facing the perfect storm. To counter the claims of his exceptionally erudite and thoroughly meticulous teachers, Radhakrishnan had no option but to go the whole hog, alone, at barely 19 years old. The spirit of nationalism powered his search for truth and this internal churning produced one of the finest philosophical arguments by an amateur in India, “The Ethics of the Vedanta and Its Metaphysical Presuppositions”. In this short work, Radhakrishnan picked the logical weaknesses in the Christian criticisms of Hindu practices while accepting the degradation in spiritual practice in India over the centuries.
After completing his MA, Radhakrishnan went through a phase of abject poverty. Running jobs and errands, he found it difficult to support his wife and several brothers. On some occasions, with no money to buy banana leaves on which food was served, the family ate off the floor. A recommendation letter from one of his British teachers helped him find a job as an Assistant Inspector of Schools. A vacancy for a Malayalam Master soon arose at Madras at a salary of Rs. 60 per month. Since he knew no Malayalam, Radhakrishnan was directed to teach Philosophy instead and the story of Radhakrishnan – The Teacher, began.
Barely 22 years old, when Radhakrishnan taught, students filled the class room to the brim. While he taught in Presidency College, students from across Madras thronged to hear him teach. His reputation for kindness, nationalistic fervour and a sharp intellect spread far and wide. Of the many distinguished people to have sought his blessings was Srinivasa Ramanujan, the Indian mathematical genius who visited Radhakrishnan for blessings before leaving to Cambridge, “as instructed by Goddess Bhavani in his dream”. Radhakrishnan’s penchant for learning was endless. He read widely in the areas of philosophy, poetry, history psychology, ethics, the Upanishads, the Bhagavad Gita, Buddhism and Jainism. He already had a strong fundamental understanding of Christianity. It was said that in the field of Philosophy, only a few could match Radhakrishnan’s understanding and synthesis of the West and the East. With a mission to spread the message of the Gita and the ethical teachings of Vedanta, Radhakrishnan wrote to international journals. He was successful in publishing the same.
Freedom struggles became more mainstream in the 1930s when Radhakrishnan’s passion for Indian culture and philosophy were regularly appreciated by luminaries of the Indian resistance including Annie Besant, Bal Gangadhar Tilak and Rabindaranath Tagore. Supported by an actively patriotic, western educated elite in southern India, Radhakrishnan kept improving on his originality, wit, satire and comparitive philosophy. In 1920, he published The Reign of Religion in Contemporary Philosophy, which was a sharp, abrasive indictment of the how western philosophical thought was corrupted by religion instead of being endorsed and corroborated by it. In this book of stunning brilliance, Radhakrishnan puts Indian culture and philosophy on an equal pedestal with the western. The Reign, through its affirmation of the importance of independent enquiry, re-invigorated the teachings of Vivekananda in a country that was battling a vastly powerful colonial empire.
He was subsequently successful in claiming the King George V Chair of Mental and Moral Science at the University of Calcutta, the most prestigious chair of Philosophy in the Indian sub-continent. While in Calcutta, he authored the massive work, Indian Philosophy running into 1500 pages. In Indian Philosophy, Radhakrishnan injected vitality into India’s ancient texts. He re-interpreted with great poise, logic and temporal empathy, the essence and spirit of ancient Indian philosophical thought, liberating it from the clutches of the ignorance and malice, with which it was viewed by the West. By respecting Western religion and philosophy in his arguments, he not only showed how Indian thought was not very different from western thought but also projected the culture of India as one of the glories of human achievement.
Radhakrishnan traveled to the West on being nominated to represent Calcutta University at the Congress of Universities of the British Empire. The Oxford University seized the chance to listen and invited him to deliver the Upton Lectures on Hindu Thought. His audiences were awestruck with the clarity of thought, his control of the English language and his exposition on metaphysics. He travelled onward to the United States. At the International Congress of Philosophy at Harvard, his oratory brilliance and sartorial wit were in full vigour. For him bondage was a blight and his speeches across Europe were teeming with patriotic vitality and liberal vigour. On his return to India, Radhakrishnan, without basking in the laurels and grand receptions, dived immediately into the freedom struggle. His fight for education reform was driven by his denunciation of a system of schools and colleges that supplied a fixed number of servants to an English master. He fought fiercely to make Universities free of colonial control.
After coming back to India, Radhakrishnan nurtured the newly born Andhra University, shepherding it through caste-strifes and political conflicts. Under his leadership, Sir CV Raman was appointed the honorary professor of physics and Mokshagundam Visveswarayya turned Andhra University into the first South-Indian educational institution to offer studies in technology. The University, in the then far-flung Visakhapatnam, suddenly boasted of world-class faculty, strong funding from the local princes and an active flow of international students and faculty, all attracted by Radhakrishnan’s presence.
As independence grew nearer, Radhakrishnan played a key role in being a key interlocutor between the Mahatma, the British and the Indian masses. His scholarly distinction combined with warm relations with senior English bureaucrats often allayed prejudices, fears and incompatibility. Radhakrishnan’s assurances to the British and his influence over the public pressurized the colonial powers to take decisions which otherwise would have not seen the light of the day.
Radhakrishnan’s advice to the young in India has survived a century. Freedom of thought, self-criticism and the courage to think against group-think were the pillars of his teachings. As India looks towards 2047 and celebrates Azadi ka Amrit Mahotsav in great pomp and might across the country, one of the important themes of the celebration is Vishwa Guru Bharat. The emphasis under the theme is how India can serve as a source of inspiration to the world through its cultural ethos, spiritual learnings and ancient civilizational values. There can be no better moment to re-dedicate ourselves to the idea of Vishwa Guru Bharat than the birth anniversary of India’s brightest philosophical guru of the 20th Century.
Radhakrishnan is as Indian as they come. He travelled thousands of Kilometers across the Atlantic, the Pacific and the Himalayas, carrying the message of India to continents and countries which had forgotten the civilization that India was. Radhakrishnan shined a new perspective on India, not only to the world but also to fellow Indians. Two centuries of colonialism and several centuries of dogmatic degradation had shoved the masses into deep philosophical slumber. It required a human of Radhakrishnan’s eminence to shake an entire nation out of numbness and oblivion. To call Radhakrishnan, a re-incarnation of Swami Vivekananda would not be an inaccurate claim.
On this Teacher’s Day, let us recall the teachings of Radhakrishnayya. Let us search for our true-self, hidden behind walls of un-truths, falsehoods and hypocrisies. His work of uplifting the minds and the intellects of Indians would be incomplete if we let ourselves swayed by the amusements and the insanities of the 21st century. As we head to 2047, let us re-dedicate ourselves to his ideals of national transformation, uncorrupted by greed and materialism and unobstructed by personal prejudices.
(The author is an Officer of the 2011 batch of the Indian Revenue Service, presently posted as Joint Director of Income Tax in New Delhi. The views expressed in the article are personal and do not reflect those of the Government of India.)