“A good teacher must know how to arouse the interest of the pupil in the field of study for which he is responsible. He must himself be a master in the field of study and be in touch with the latest developments in the subject. He must himself be a fellow traveler in the exciting pursuit of knowledge.”
Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan was born on September 5, 1888, at Tiruttani, forty miles to the northeast of Madras, in South India. He was born into a poor Brahmin family. His father Sarvepalli Veeraswami was employed on a meager salary in the zamindari. His mother’s name was Sitamma. Radhakrishnan’s father found it very difficult to educate his son with his meagre income. He also had a large family to take care of.
But little Radhakrishnan was a brilliant boy. His father did not want him to learn English or go to school. Instead he wanted him to become a priest. However, the talents of the boy were so outstanding that his father finally decided to send him to school at Tiruttani itself.
He was highly intelligent and he went through most of his education on scholarships. After his initial schooling in Tiruttani, he joined the Lutheran Mission School in Tirupati for his high school.
When Radhakrishnan was 16 years old, he joined the Voorhee’s College in Vellore. At the same age, his parents got him married to Sivakamuamma while he was still studying at Vellore.
From Vellore he switched to the Madras Christian College at the age of 17. He chose philosophy as his major and attained a B.A. and M.A. in the field. In partial fulfillment for his M.A. degree, Radhakrishnan wrote a thesis on the ethics of the Vedanta titled as “The Ethics of the Vedanta and Its Metaphysical Presuppositions”, which was a reply to the charge that the Vedanta system had no room for ethics.
He was afraid that the thesis, would offend his philosophy professor, Dr. A.G. Hogg. Instead, Dr. Hogg commended Radhakrishnan on doing an excellent job.
Professor A.G. Hogg was highly amazed at his intellect at such a young age and said of the thesis, “This thesis which he prepared in the second year of his study for this degree shows a remarkable understanding of the main aspects of the philosophical problems, a capacity for handling easily a complex argument besides more than the average mastery of good English”.
Radhakrishnan’s M.A. thesis went on to be published when he was just 20.
After he graduated with a Master’s Degree in Arts from Madras University, Radhakrishnan accepted an Assistant Lectureship at the Madras Presidency College in 1909. He was just 21 years old.
In the early years of his teaching life, Radhakrishnan was very poor. He ate his food on banana leaves and not in a plate, as he could not afford to buy one. Once it so happened that he did not have the money to buy even the banana leaves. So that day he carefully cleaned the floor, spread the food on it and ate it.
His salary those days was only about Rs. 17 per month and he had a big family of five daughters and a son to support. He had borrowed some money and could not pay even the interest on it. He had to auction his medals to meet his needs.
Right from his early days, he was exceedingly popular among his students. As a professor at Presidency College, Madras, he was always an evocative teacher. He was offered professorship in Calcutta University when he was less than 30 years old.
When he was around 40 years old he was called to serve as Vice-Chancellor of Andhra University. He remained in that post for five years. Three years later, he was appointed the Vice Chancellor of Banaras Hindu University. In both the jobs Radhakrishnan was well loved for his excellent teaching ability and his amiability.
Recognition of his scholarship came in 1936, when he was invited to fill the Chair of Spalding, Professor of Eastern Religions and Ethics at Oxford. He retained the chair for 16 years. His mastery on his subject, his clarity of thought and expression made him a much sought after teacher. But what made him even more popular were his warm heartedness and his ability to draw out people. This aspect of his personality continued to win him countless admirers throughout his long and illustrious public life.
He was always practical and he had a keen insight into human nature. He was comfortable in the company of the learned, but had no contempt for those who had been kept bereft of higher education. He did not feel very much at ease with all sorts of men and enjoyed only the company of those who he knew intimately.
Once, Radhakrishnan was invited to dine at the residence of H.G Wells. Besides, Wells and Joad, both of who were Radhakrishnan’s good friends, there was one other person present. He was J.N. Sullivan, who was a well-known writer on scientific subjects.
The talk was continuous and eager and it included science, philosophy, the state of the world, and the possible collapse of the western civilization. Radhakrishnan spoke very little and was silent most of the time. He sat there refusing one after another the dishes of an elaborate meal, drinking only water, and listening intently.
Others, knowing of his reputation as a great speaker and conversationalist, were very surprised at his silence. Joad later recounted this incident and said, “We were surprised and impressed not so much because what he did say was always to the point, but because his silence in such a discussion was a richer and more significant thing that any positive contribution he could have made.”
Joad also described Dr. Radhakrishnan as a liaison officer between the East and the West. By training and temperament, he was peculiarly well equipped to reconcile the conflicts between the East and the West. Equally at home with Kant and Hegel, Shankaracharya and Ramakrishna Parmahansa, he was a citizen of the world.
To the West, he seemed to be the typical western intellectual, while the East regarded him as a sage, who symbolized the ancient wisdom of the Orient. As a conversationalist, he was always thought provoking and scintillating, but he never tried to monopolize the conversation. He was as good a listener as a talker. Though words came to him in a torrent, he knew the value of silence – which in his case was more eloquent than the rhetoric of brilliant men.
Dr. Radhakrishnan was a very straight man, who did not hesitate to call a spade a spade if the occasion demanded it. His spirit of independence found aggressive expression in a famous encounter he had in 1942 with the then Governor of Uttar Pradesh, Sir Maurice Hallett.
Dr. Radhakrishnan, who had gone to Lucknow to protest against the closing of Banaras Hindu University, of which he was the then Vice-Chancellor, discovered in Sir Maurice an autocrat, who refused to listen to reason. The Governor lost his temper when Radhakrishnan defended the students who had been punished for having participated in the struggle for freedom.
Dr. Radhakrishnan rose to the occasion. In words burning with indignation, he gave a bit of his mind to the Governor. During the 20-minute exchange of hot words, Dr. Radhakrishnan forgot that his job was that of a lecturer. In a matter of minutes he had become the voice of Indian nationalism.
In 1949, Dr. Radhakrishnan was appointed ambassador to the Soviet Union. The appointment raised many eyebrows because people wondered what kind of an impression Radhakrishnan, a student of idealist philosophy, would make on Joseph Stalin, an ardent communist.
In 1950, Radhakrishnan was called to the Kremlin to meet Stalin. During the meeting, Radhakrishnan referring to Stalin’s infamous “bloody” purges said, “We had an emperor in India who, after a bloody victory, renounced war and became a monk. You have also waded your way to power through force. Who knows that might happen to you also.”
Stalin unperturbed by the remark smiled and replied, “Yes, miracles do happen sometimes. I was in a theological seminary for five years!”
However, a few days before Radhakrishnan’s departure for India, Stalin called on Radhakrishnan. His face was highly bloated and he looked unwell. Radhakrishnan felt really sorry for the notorious communist and patted him on the cheek and the back.
Stalin was deeply moved by his gesture. He held Radhakrishnan’s hand and said, “You are the first person to treat me as a human being and not as a monster. You are leaving us and I am sad. I want you to live long. I have not long to live.” Stalin died six months later. Thus Radhakrishnan’s considerate gesture led to a relationship between India and the Soviet Union, which flourished for many years.
In 1952, when he was 64, Radhakrishnan was elected the Vice-President of India. As the Vice- President, Radhakrishnan had to preside over the Rajya Sabha (Upper House) sessions. Often, during heated debates, Radhakrishnan would intervene with slokas from the Sanskrit classics or quotations from the Bible to calm the charged atmosphere.
Nehru on seeing his tact commented later, “By the way in which Radhakrishnan conducted the proceedings of the Rajya Sabha, he had made the meetings of the House look like family gatherings!”
Dr. Radhakrishnan was honored with the Bharat Ratna in 1954. Around the same time, an 883-page compilation titled “The Philosophy of Dr. Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan” was released in America.
In 1956, when Radhakrishnan was 68 years old, his devoted wife, Sivakamuamma, passed away after sharing more than 50 years of married life.
Radhakrishnan continued to be the Vice-President for two terms. In 1962 he was elected President of India at the age of 74.
It was in that very same year, when Dr. Radhakrishnan became the President of India that his birthday in September came to be observed as ‘Teachers’ Day’. It was a tribute to Dr. Radhakrishnan’s close association with the cause of teachers and to the 28 Great Lives- Leaders of People great teacher himself. Whatever position he held whether as a President or Vice President, Dr. Radhakrishnan essentially remained a teacher all his life.
Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, who was one of his closest friends throughout, said about Dr. Radhakrishnan:
“He has served his country in many capacities. But above all, he is a great Teacher from whom all of us have leant much and will continue to learn. It is India’s peculiar privilege to have a great philosopher, a great educationist and a great humanist as her President. That in itself shows the kind of men we honor and respect.”
Radhakrishnan’s tenure as President was marked by the disastrous Indo-China war of 1962, the end of the Nehru-era with Nehru’s death in 1964, and India’s victorious performance against Pakistan in 1965 under Lai Bahadur Shastri. All through the years, Radhakrishnan guided each of the Prime Ministers wisely and helped see India through those trying years safely. Radhakrishnan refused to continue for another term as President after his term ended in 1967.
At the age of 79, Dr. Radhakrishnan returned to Madras to a warm homecoming. He spent his last years happily at his house “Girija” in Mylapore, Madras.
Dr. Radhakrishnan died peacefully on April 17, 1975 at a ripe old age of 87.
One of the most striking things about Dr. Radhakrishnan was his versatility. His powerful mind, his power of speech, his command over the English language, his dedication to work and his mental alacrity greatly contributed to his success in life. He will truly be missed as a leader and a teacher who had the wisdom of a sage, detachment of a philosopher and the maturity of a statesman.