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Radhakrishnan, Sarvepalli


RADHAKRISHNAN, SARVEPALLI (18881975), Indian philosopher, statesman, and president of India (19621967). Born in Tirutani, a small town south of Madras noted as a pilgrimage center, Radhakrishnan attended Christian missionary schools for twelve years, until his graduation from Madras Christian College in 1908. The tension between the Hindu piety he learned at home and the Christian doctrine he was taught at school generated an interest in comparative philosophy, religion, and ethics that occupied him for the remainder of his life. Both of his major works, An Idealist View of Life (published in 1932 on the basis of his 1929 Hibbert Lectures) and Eastern Religions and Western Thought (lectures delivered at Oxford University, 1939), show the interplay of Indian and Western religious thought characteristic of his entire life's work.

The scant information that Radhakrishnan disclosed concerning his personal life is contained in a brief essay, "My Search for Truth" (1937). A seventy-five-page essay, "The Religion of the Spirit and the World's Need: Fragments of a Confession" (1952), intended as an autobiographical writing, offers one of the clearest summaries of his thought but treats his personal life in a few unrevealing pages. In refusing an editor's request for a brief autobiography, Radhakrishnan insisted, in "Fragments of a Confession," that discretion prevented him from doing so, and further, that his writings were worth more than his personal life.

In 1908, at the age of twenty, Radhakrishnan published his master's thesis, "The Ethics of the Vedānta and Its Metaphysical Presuppositions," and continued publishing one or more works almost every year for the next five decades. His first full-length work, The Philosophy of Rabindranath Tagore (1918), reveals most of the themes that would occupy him throughout his career: the Indian sources, varieties, and ethical implications of religious and philosophical intuition. With the exception of his first original work, The Reign of Religion in Contemporary Philosophy, wherein he criticizes the influence of religion on philosophy, Radhakrishnan's writings are characterized by the intimate relationship between religious experience (particularly the Hindu mystical tradition) and philosophy (particularly modern Western idealism). With the publication of his next major works, Indian Philosophy (vol. 1, 1923; vol. 2, 1927), The Hindu View of Life (1926), and An Idealist View of Life (1932), Radhakrishnan established his case for the positive relationship between idealist philosophy and a universalist religious attitude that he later termed "religion of the spirit."

In various ways, all of Radhakrishnan's mature writings focus on three closely related concerns: his presentation and positive interpretation of classical Indian religious thought, or Vedanta, especially as found in its three fundamental scriptures, the Upaniads, the Bhagavadgītā, and the Brahma Sūtra ; his defense of philosophical idealism, both in its Indian expression and as found in Western philosophers from Plato to Hegel and F. H. Bradley; and his critique of contemporary (and especially Western) materialist and scientific thinking insofar as it excludes religious and spiritual values. On behalf of each of these three concerns, Radhakrishnan sought to show that although brahman (the Absolute) is the ultimate self-sufficient reality, the world is nevertheless valuable and worthy of humanity's deepest commitment and dedication.

Radhakrishnan's own dedication to the affairs of the world could not have been more convincing: in addition to his positions as professor of philosophy (University of Mysore, 1918-1921; University of Calcutta, 19211931 and 19371941) and university administrator (vice-chancellor of Andhra University, 19311936; vice-chancellor of Banaras Hindu University, 19381948; chancellor, University of Delhi, 19531962), he served in many demanding diplomatic positions, including head of the Indian delegation to UNESCO (19461952) and Indian ambassador to the Soviet Union (19491952). He was vice-president of India from 1952 to 1962, and president from 1962 to 1967.


In addition to An Idealist View of Life (1932; 2d ed., London, 1957) and Eastern Religions and Western Thought (Oxford, 1959), which represent Radhakrishnan's major works in philosophy and in comparative religion and ethics, respectively, three other of his works are especially to be recommended. For the Indian expression of Radhakrishnan's religious and philosophic position, the fullest account is his 240-page introduction to the Brahma Sūtra, The Philosophy of Spiritual Life (New York, 1960). The best introduction to his understanding of contemporary religious life and thought is Recovery of Faith (New York, 1955). The Philosophy of Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, edited by Paul Arthur Schilpp (New York, 1952), contains twenty-three essays covering all aspects of Radhakrishnan's thought, as well as his "Replies to Critics," his semiautobiographical essay "Fragments of a Confession," and a complete bibliography of his writings through the year 1952.

New Sources

Banerji, Anjan Kumar, ed. Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, A Centenary Tribute. Varanasi, 19911992.

Brookman, David M. Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, in the Commentarial Tradition of India. Bhubaneswar, 1990.

Gopal, Sarvepalli. Radhakrishnan, A Biography. Delhi and New York, 1989.

Kulangara, Thomas. Absolutism and Theism: A Philosophical Study of S. Radhakrishnan's Attempt to Reconcile Sankara's Absolutism and Ramanuja's Theism. Trivandrum, 1996.

Murty, K. Satchidananda Radhakrishnan: His Life and Ideas. Delhi, 1989.

Nandakumar, Prema S. Radhakrishnan. Makers of Indian Literature. New Delhi, 1992.

Parthasarathi, G., and D. P. Chattopadhyaya, eds. Radhakrishnan: Centenary Volume. Delhi; New York, 1989.

Robert A. McDermott (1987)

Revised Bibliography

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