Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan was an Indian philosopher and statesman who was the first Vice President of India from 1952 to 1962 and the second President of India from 1962 to 1967.
Radhakrishan was awarded the Bharat Ratna, the highest civilian award in India, in 1954. Among the many other honors he received were the British Knight Bachelor in 1931 and the commonwealth Order of Merit (1963), but ceased to use the title “Sir” after India attained independence. His birthday is celebrated in India as Teachers’ Day on 5 September. He was also awarded the Templeton Prize in 1975 in recognition of the fact that “his accessible writings underscored his country’s religious heritage and sought to convey a universal reality of God that embraced love and wisdom for all people”.
One of India’s most influential scholars of comparative religion and philosophy, Radhakrishnan built a bridge between the East and the West by showing how the philosophical systems of each tradition are comprehensible within the terms of the other. He wrote authoritative exegeses of India’s religious and philosophical literature for the English-speaking world. 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 Oxford University (1936–1952).
Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan was born on September 5, 1888, at Tiruttani, forty miles to the north-east of Madras, in South India. He was born into a poor Brahmin family. His father was a subordinate revenue official in the service of a local zamindar (landlord). His mother’s name was Sitamma. Radhakrishnan’s father found it very difficult to educate his son with his low income. He also had a large family to take care of.
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 Primary Board High School at Tiruttani for primary education. After his initial schooling in Tiruttani, in 1896 he moved to the Hermansburg Evangelical Lutheral 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 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.
From Vellore he 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. Radhakrishnan wrote his thesis for the M.A. degree on “The Ethics of the Vedanta and its Metaphysical Presuppositions”. He was afraid that this M.A. thesis would offend his philosophy professor, Dr. Alfred George Hogg. Instead, Hogg commended Radhakrishnan on having done most excellent work. Radhakrishnan’s thesis was published when he was
Radhakrishnan studied philosophy by chance rather than choice. Being a financially constrained student, when a cousin who graduated from the same college passed on his philosophy textbooks in to Radhakrishnan, it automatically decided his academic course. Later on he felt deep interest in his subject and wrote many acclaimed works on philosophy, both Eastern and Western.
In April 1909, he was appointed to the Department of Philosophy at the Madras Presidency College. From then on, he was engaged in the serious study of Indian philosophy and religion, and was a teacher of Philosophy.
In April 1909, Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan was appointed to the Department of Philosophy at the Madras Presidency College. Thereafter, in 1918, he was selected as Professor of Philosophy by the University of Mysore, where he taught at its Maharaja’s College, Mysore. By that time he had written many articles for journals of repute like The Quest, Journal of Philosophy and the International Journal of Ethics. He also completed his first book, The Philosophy of Rabindranath Tagore. He believed Tagore’s philosophy to be the “genuine manifestation of the Indian spirit”. His second book, The Reign of Religion in Contemporary Philosophy was published in 1920.
In 1921 he was appointed as a professor in philosophy to occupy the King George V Chair of Mental and Moral Science at the University of Calcutta. He represented the University of Calcutta at the Congress of the Universities of the British Empire in June 1926 and the International Congress of Philosophy at Harvard University in September 1926. Another important academic event during this period was the invitation to deliver the Hibbert Lecture on the ideals of life which he delivered at Harris Manchester College, Oxford in 1929 and which was subsequently published in book form as An Idealist View of Life.
In 1929 Radhakrishnan was invited to take the post vacated by Principal J. Estlin Carpenter at Harris Manchester College. This gave him the opportunity to lecture to the students of the University of Oxford on Comparative Religion. For his services to education he was knighted by George V in the June 1931 Birthday Honours, and formally invested with his honour by the Governor-General of India, the Earl of Willingdon, in April 1932. However, he ceased to use the title after Indian independence, preferring instead his academic title of ‘Doctor’.
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. He was elected as the second President of India (1962–1967).
When he became President, some of his students and friends requested him to allow them to celebrate his birthday, 5 September. He replied,
“Instead of celebrating my birthday, it would be my proud privilege if 5 September is observed as Teachers’ Day.”
His birthday has since been celebrated as Teachers’ Day in India.
Radhakrishnan along with Ghanshyam Das Birla and a few other Social Workers in the pre-independence era formed Krishnarpan Charity Trust.