One of India’s most distinguished twentieth-century scholars of comparative religion and philosophy,his academic appointments included the King George V Chair of Mental and Moral Science at the University of Calcutta (1921–1932) and Spalding Professor of Eastern Religion and Ethics at University of Oxford (1936–1952).
His philosophy was grounded in Advaita Vedanta, reinterpreting this tradition for a contemporary understanding. He defended Hinduism against “uninformed Western criticism”,contributing to the formation of contemporary Hindu identity. He has been influential in shaping the understanding of Hinduism, in both India and the west, and earned a reputation as a bridge-builder between India and the West.
Radhakrishnan was awarded several high awards during his life, including a knighthood in 1931, the Bharat Ratna, the highest civilian award in India, in 1954, and honorary membership of the British Royal Order of Merit in 1963. Radhakrishnan believed that “teachers should be the best minds in the country”. Since 1962, his birthday is celebrated in India as Teachers’ Day on 5 September.
Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan was born in a Telugu Brahmin family in a village near Thiruttani India, in the erstwhile Madras Presidency near the border of Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu states. His father’s name was Sarvepalli Veeraswami and his mother’s was Sitamma. His early years were spent in Thiruttani and Tirupati. His father was a subordinate revenue official in the service of a local zamindar (landlord). His primary education was at K.V High School at Thiruttani. In 1896 he moved to the Hermansburg Evangelical Lutheran Mission School in Tirupati.
Radhakrishnan was awarded scholarships throughout his academic life. He joined Voorhees College in Vellore but switched to the Madras Christian College at the age of 17. He graduated from there in 1906 with a master’s degree in Philosophy, being one of its most distinguished alumni.
Marriage and family
I was married to Sivakamu,a distant cousin, at the age of 16. As per tradition the marriage was arranged by the family. The couple had five daughters and a son, Sarvepalli Gopal. Sarvepalli Gopal went on to a notable career as a historian. Sivakamu died in 1956. They were married for over 51 years. Former Indian Test Cricketer VVS Laxman is his great grand nephew.
Radhakrishnan started his political career “rather late in life”,after his successful academic career. His international authority preceded his political career. In 1931 he was nominated to the League of Nations Committee for International Cooperation, where after “in Western eyes he was the recognized Hindu authority on Indian ideas and a persuasive interpreter of the role of Eastern institutions in contemporary society.” 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. He was also elected to the Constituent Assembly of India. Radhakrishnan was elected as the first Vice-President of India in 1952, and elected as the second President of India (1962–1967).
When he became the President of India, some of his students and friends requested him to allow them to celebrate his birthday, on September 5th. 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 been celebrated as Teachers’ Day in India.
Along with Ghanshyam Das Birla and some other social workers in the pre-independence era, Radhakrishnan formed the Krishnarpan Charity Trust.
Radhakrishnan tried to bridge eastern and western thought,defending Hinduism against “uninformed Western criticism”, but also incorporating Western philosophical and religious thought.
Criticism and context
Radhakrishnan’s ideas have also received criticism and challenges, for their perennialist and universalist claims,and the use of an East-West dichotomy.
According to Radhakrishnan, there is not only an underlying “divine unity” from the seers of the Upanishads up to modern Hindus like Tagore and Gandhi,but also “an essential commonality between philosophical and religious traditions from widely disparate cultures.” This is also a major theme in the works of Rene Guenon, the Theosophical Society, and the contemporary popularity of eastern religions in modern spirituality.Since the 1970s, the Perennialist position has been criticised for its essentialism.