Radhakrishnan, Sarvepalli

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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

Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan

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Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan

Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan (1888-1975) was an Indian philosopher, statesman, and articulate interpreter of Hindu tradition to the West.

Radhakrishnan was born near Madras into a Brahmin family of orthodox Hindu persuasion. However, he was educated in Christian missionary institutions and was exposed both to routine religious criticisms of Hindu tradition and to the mainstream of Western philosophy. As his religious and philosophical sensibilities developed, he found himself more and more drawn to the values of the Vedanta. From the very first, he had felt himself imbued with a "firm faith in the reality of an unseen world behind the flux of phenomena." He was offended by the dogmatic and ill-informed criticisms leveled at Hindu culture by some of his teachers; and his sense of pride in his own tradition was deeply aroused by the eloquence of Vivekananda and Rabindranath Tagore.

The Idealist Thinker

Radhakrishnan resolved to explore his own tradition in fuller detail and wrote his master's thesis, The Ethics of Vedanta (1908), in part to refute the Western prejudice that the Vedanta simplistically affirmed the "illusory" (maya) nature of the world and lacked ethical content and power.

At the same time, Radhakrishnan found that he could not ignore the paralyzing superstitions which dominated Hindu social institutions and the life of the masses as integral features of their deepest religious commitments. He was encouraged by some of his more sensitive Western teachers to continue his research into Hindu philosophy in order to probe its innovative and universal potentials. He found much in Western philosophy—particularly in the idealists and the work of Henri Bergson—which was tangent to the Hindu and specifically Vedantic validation of mystical intuition and the spirituality of the universe.

Radhakrishnan was persuaded that philosophical enterprise must not simply provide rational verification and analysis but must give a profound and transforming insight into the spiritual content of existence in its personal and historical dimensions as an antidote to the dehumanizing values increasingly predominant in Western civilization. For Radhakrishnan, the unique strength of the Vedanta was its validation of personal spiritual striving for deeper penetration into the meaning of life itself.

Radhakrishnan combined this commitment with a humanistic focus on the need for social change and reform which he mediated in part by a reinterpretation of traditional Hindu religious forms and texts. His translation and interpretation of the Bhagavad Gita (Song of the Lord) strives to move traditional Hindu institutions (for instance, the caste system) in the direction of "democratic" values. He proved himself capable of performing this potentially awkward synthetic task by stressing the more profound aspects of Hindu philosophy which inherently transcend the provisional historical and social forms associated with normative Hinduism. Some of his other major works—An IdealistView of Life and Eastern Religions and Western Thought—and his scholarly commentaries on Vedantic materials are also marked by a distinctive "this-worldly" humanism uniquely imbued with Vedantic mysticism.

There is an equally powerful psychological emphasis in much of Radhakrishnan's work on the therapeutic consequences of personality integration through intuition of the essential relation of the self to the sacred force from which all phenomena spring. And this he combines with a theory of history which affirms that its most important dimension is the evolution of human spiritual consciousness. Hindu mysticism and related techniques are, therefore, not modes of withdrawal from reality but are means for strengthening personal autonomy, active capacity for love, and conscious participation in the unfolding destiny of the universe.

This evolutionary historical perspective had a marked impact on Radhakrishnan's interpretation of the traditional doctrine of Karma (action—the law of ethical retribution). The individual is responsible not only for his own destiny within a static cosmology of personal transmigration but for the welfare of all men. Each person acts (or does not act) to promote future possibilities. In this way individual salvation is tied to the fate of mankind and the ultimate goal of the historical process itself. Although his concept of "true humanity" is deeply steeped in Vedantic teaching, he has several specific human models who embody his own commitment to reforms incorporating Western values within the deeper matrix of Hindu spirituality: they are Rabindranath Tagore, Mohandas Gandhi, and Jawaharlal Nehru. For Radhakrishnan, these paradigms of modern Indian creativity show an extraordinary ability to synthesize conflicting value systems by employing the pristine mystical and ascetic models which lie at the heart of Hinduism. It is with these men in mind that he asserts, "Man is not a detached spectator of a progress immanent in human history, but an active agent remolding the world nearer to his ideals."

Radhakrishnan's understanding of the role of the traditional yoga is also shaped by this commitment. Its aim is to provide a disciplined framework which facilitates the fulfillment of worldly obligations while continually reinforcing the universal search for spiritual perfection. The yoga renders the individual more capable of acting in the world and serving his fellowmen.

From Theory to Practice

Many of Radhakrishnan's writings seem to be "apologetic"—designed for popular consumption by Western readers; and he engaged in debates with Western theologians and philosophers who criticized Indian forms of spirituality. But the great bulk of his work is distinguished by a power clearly evident in the development of his own distinctive philosophy of life. His work as an educator and cultural ambassador to the West and his many public services to the Indian government are further evidence of his many talents. He served variously as professor of philosophy and religion at the universities of Mysore, Calcutta, and Oxford, and he had many teaching engagements at major universities in the United States. From 1949 to 1952 he was ambassador to the Soviet Union, returning to India to serve for ten years as vice president of India and chancellor of Delhi University. He was also President of the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) from 1952-54. From 1962 to 1967 Radhakrishnan was president of India. He combined these activities with a continuing program of productive writing and lecturing, all of which made him a living embodiment of the values which he espoused. Radhakrishnan died on April 17, 1975 in Madras, India. The Indian Government ordered a week-long state of mourning.

Further Reading

Radhakrishnan's political writings have been collected and printed as President Radhakrishnan's Speeches and Writings (New Delhi, 1965). The most extensive volume on Radhakrishnan the philosopher, which also includes an autobiographical memoir, is Paul A. Schilpp, ed., The Philosophy of Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan (1952). Consult also C. E. M. Joad, Counterattack from the East: the Philosophy of Radhakrishnan (1933); S. J. Samartha, Introduction to Radhakrishnan: The Man and His Thought (1964); and the anniversary volume Radhakrishnan: Comparative Studies in Philosophy Presented in Honour of His Sixtieth Birthday (1951), edited by W. R. Inge and others.

Additional Sources

(Sarvepalli, Gopal) Radharkrishnan, A Biography, Unwin Hyman, 1989.

(McGreal, Ian, ed.) Great Thinkers of the Eastern World, Harper-Collins, 1995.

New York Times (April 18, 1975). □

Radhakrishnan, Sarvepalli

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RADHAKRISHNAN, SARVEPALLI (1888–1975), philosopher, president of India (1962–1967). Dr. Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan was independent India's second president, serving from 1962 to 1967. From 1952 to 1962, he had served as vice president under India's first president, Dr. Rajendra Prasad. Radhakrishnan was the leader of the Indian delegation to the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization from 1946 to 1952, becoming president of that organization during his last two years there. He served as India's ambassador to the Soviet Union from 1949 to 1952.

Radhakrishnan, a Tamil Brahman born just outside Madras in 1888, was one of India's most distinguished philosopher-statesmen, and a world-renowned exponent of Hindu philosophy. His brilliant master's thesis at the University of Madras was titled "The Ethics of the Vedanta and Its Metaphysical Presuppositions." Between 1909 and 1929, Radhakrishnan held professorial positions at the universities of Madras, Mysore, and Calcutta. During this time, he received international attention for his flawless speeches when he represented Indian universities at the Congress of the Universities of the British Empire in June 1926, and at the International Congress of Philosophy at Harvard University in September 1926. At Harvard, he bemoaned the lack of spiritualism in modern civilization.

In 1929 Radhakrishnan became the principal of Manchester College, Oxford University. From 1936 to 1939, he held the chair of Spalding Professor of Eastern Religions and Ethics, and was elected Royal Fellow of the British Academy. He returned to India in 1939 and, until 1949, served as vice-chancellor of Benares Hindu University. Thereafter, during his vice presidency from 1952 to 1962, he was also chancellor of Delhi University. With the spread of his reputation for eloquence and brilliance, he was invited frequently to give lectures on Hinduism and eastern philosophy in the West.

Aldous Huxley observed that Dr. Radhakrishnan's mastery of the English language was beyond excellence and that Radhakrishnan was "the master of words and no words." American scholar George P. Conger noted: "Among the philosophers of our time, no one has achieved so much in so many fields as has Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan of India..William James was influential in religion, and John Dewey has been a force in politics. One or two American philosophers have been legislators. Jacques Maritain has been an ambassador. Radhakrishnan, in a little more than thirty years of work, has done all these things and more. . . . Never in the history of philosophy has there been quite such a world figure. With his unique appointment at Banaras [University] and Oxford, like a weaver's shuttle, he has gone to and fro between the East and West, carrying a thread of understanding, weaving it into the fabric of civilization." Radhakrishnan died in 1975.

Raju G. C. Thomas


Gopal, Sarvepalli. Radhakrishnan: A Biography. Oxford and New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1989.

Minor, Robert N. Radhakrishnan: A Religious Biography. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1987.

Parthasarathi, G., and D. P. Chattopadhyaya, eds. Radhakrishnan: Centenary Volume. Oxford and New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1990.

Radhakrishnan, Sarvepalli, and Charles A. Moore. A Source Book in Indian Philosophy. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1967.

Rama Rao Pappu, S. S., ed. New Essays in the Philosophy of Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan. New Delhi: South Asia Books, 1995.

Rodrigues, Clarissa. The Social and Political Thought of Dr. S. Radhakrishnan: An Evaluation. New Delhi: Sterling Publishers, 1992.

Radhakrishnan, Sarvepalli

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Radhakrishnan, Sarvepalli (1888–1975). Hindu philosopher and President of the Indian Republic. After various professorial posts in India, he became the first Spalding Professor of Eastern Religions and Ethics at Oxford, 1936–52. He was Vice-President of India, 1952–62, and President, 1962–7. Radhakrishnan held strongly that all religions are different paths leading to the same goal, and that beyond the differences of credal formulations and practices there is an essential unity, since ‘the signpost is not to be confused with that to which it points’.

He wrote many books, including Indian Philosophy, The Hindu View of Life, Eastern Religions and Western Thought, and translations with commentary of the Upaniṣads and of the Bhagavadgītā.

Radhakrishnan, Sir Sarvepalli

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Radhakrishnan, Sir Sarvepalli (1888–1975) Indian philosopher and statesman, president (1962–67). As professor of Eastern religions and ethics at Oxford (1936–52), Radhakrishnan did much to reconcile classical Hindu philosophy with contemporary social forces. Radhakrishnan served as vice president (1952–62) to Jawaharlal Nehru.