Saluting a Visionary

The struggle for freedom from British rule in India saw the emergence of many leaders, thinkers and social reformers who envisioned a change in the structure and tenor of education in India. For example, Gandhi rejected the British model of education and worked to create an alternative that was based on an awareness of national identity and culture – through values and ideals such as self-reliance and the cooperative spirit. Aurobindo wrote about a renaissance in India and wanted to establish a system of education that was not narrowly intellectual. Tagore, (who was not wholly nationalistic) by responding to his personal inclination for music, poetry, dance, drama and art, established the need, in education, for aesthetics that was Indian in origin and development.

Dr. Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, through his studies of classical Indian philosophy and thought, explored how modern Indian education could be shaped. This article, on the occasion of Teachers’ Day, September 5, traces the evolution of his vision of education. It does not raise questions on his thought from a sociological point of view, but examines, instead, through biographical detail, his contributions to early modern Indian education.

Radhakrishnan was born and raised in the town of Tiruttani, on the border of Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh (Sarvepalli is a town in Andhra Pradesh, from which his ancestors hailed, about 200 miles north of Tiruttani). The town of Tiruttani is one of many temple towns sprinkled over the landscape of this region. Over the centuries, these temple towns have been associated with myths, legends and stories about gods and goddesses and interlinked deeply with the landscape of ancient Tamilnadu. Oceans, rivers, hills, waterfalls, trees, flowers, birds and animals are part of the mythology associated with the temples, and goddesses and gods often had a myth or legend that was linked with any of these natural elements.1 It was in such a sacralised landscape that Radhakrishnan spent the early years of his childhood. Perhaps a childhood memory of such an intensely religious atmosphere is sparked off as he recalls in later years: “ From the time I knew myself, I have had firm faith in the reality of the unseen world behind the flux of phenomena, a world which we apprehend not with the senses but with the mind, and even when I was faced with grave difficulties, this faith has remained unshaken.”2

All the schools that Radhakrishnan attended in Tiruttani and Tirupati (a neighboring town) were run by Christian missionaries. The same pattern of education continued through college, at Voorhees College established by the Reformed (Dutch) Church of America. It was here that Radhakrishnan had his first exposure to Western philosophy in the religious milieu of Christian Evangelism.3 The rigorous approach to Western philosophy introduced to Radhakrishnan at this time in his life, perhaps, gave him an idea as to how he could develop his studies of his own religion, Hinduism (of which he had undergone no formal training). He was, as an interpreter of his own religion and equipped with what may be called a ‘western education’, placed in a peculiar position of familiarity with the two different approaches to philosophy.

With his knowledge of Sanskrit (which he learnt as part of his Master’s degree from Presidency College, Madras) and of the ethos of Hinduism, he began to ‘interpret’ his culture and religion to an alien, western audience. His work could never have been under the influence of what Borges called ‘illusory closeness’ to his culture and language: believing himself to be closer to his tradition and language than one actually is. He also could not have faced difficulty of temporal distance, i.e., the problem of a translator who deals with very old texts, particularly in an ancient language, which is analogous to that of a translator who deals with a foreign language.4 Sanskrit, however, unlike other ancient languages of the world like Greek or Latin, never went completely out of written and oral use and was accessible to students in most universities.

A notable step in his career as a translator of texts such as the Upanishads, the Gita, and so on, was an invitation to deliver the Upton lectures at the University of Oxford, published as The Hindu View of Life. He also delivered the Hibbert Lectures, which were later published as The Idealist View of Life, which is often seen as his mature work. Perhaps the biggest award from a foreign country that was conferred on him was the knighthood from King George the fifth of Britain, in 1931. What followed was a flood of writing on a variety of subjects – religion, society, education, and philosophy. It was his passion for writing and translation that led to his varied and vibrant career – among the many roles he held were Chairman of the University Commission of India, (which rejected the teaching of religion of the sectarian kind) Vice- President of India, and eventually, President of India, in 1962.

It was at Calcutta University, early in his career as a translator, that Radhakrishnan began to take a serious interest in education. (It was at this time that Radhakrishnan found the time to work on the two volumes of Indian Philosophy, perhaps the best-known introduction to the subject.) It is not surprising that Radhakrishnan described the aims of education in traditional terminology. ‘Self-knowledge’ for the individual is a term used by many philosophers and educators; but each philosopher uses it in a sense peculiar to his own imagination and understanding. Radhakrishnan’s use of the term is derived from his reading and translation of the Upanishads and the Gita; in the sense of restraint of the emotions and the senses, the development of discrimination, and discipline. His ideas of ‘Truth’ and ‘compassion’ (from the Dhammapada) are also undeniably derived from his readings of these texts – the truth that is outside the pursuit of self-interest, and compassion for the powerless.5

Apart from such intellectual definitions, Radhakrishnan also explicitly gave guidelines to teachers and students. The student has to study with diligence, sincerity, and work extremely hard. Knowledge and skills are not just for personal acquisition, but have to be given back to society as service. A student should have humility, courage, and a cooperative spirit.

Radhakrishnan placed a great deal of importance on the role of the teacher. A good teacher, besides knowing his subject thoroughly, is committed to the role he plays in inspiring his students. Most importantly, he does not do things for fame or power. A good teacher is also open to correction. He should develop a sense of objectivity about his mentors and colleagues.

These kinds of definitions were perhaps based on an underlying idea that Radhakrishnan had of the university. Places of learning are often built upon closely cherished ideals of what society can be, and how people can be shaped. Radhakrishnan did not see the university as simply a place where learning or scholarship occurred; rather, as a place where a person also developed his or her ethical sensibilities. His definition of the university seems to suggest that it could be a place where learning and scholarship could be combined with a sense of national unity and communal harmony. When an educator’s thinking takes different directions, it is not easy to identify a single ‘core’ idea common to all his thinking. The sensibility that overrides his nationalistic aims for education, and which seems to have informed his literary, philosophical and educational output, however, can be found in his Religion and Society in which he writes about:

“…the renewal of the heart, the transformation of values, the surrender of the spirit to… the eternal. We all look up to the same stars, we dream beneath the same sky… and it does not matter if we endeavor to find the same truth along different roads. The riddle of existence is so great that there cannot be only one road leading to an answer.”6

Notes and References
1  For a detailed portrait of the living tradition of South Indian temple culture, see Wood, Michael. The Smile of Murugan: A South Indian Journey. (London, Penguin: 2000)

2  Radhakrishnan, S. excerpts from Religion in Transition “My Search for Truth” online article <>

3  For all details of Dr. Radhakrishnan’s biography, I am indebted to Robert Minor’s biography. Minor, Robert N. Radhakrishnan: A Religious Biography. (New York, State U of NY: 1987)

4  Maria Herrera in an essay has summarized the problems of the interpretation of culture, and translation, as outlined by Jorge Louis Borges (among others). See Ed. Deutsch, Eliot. Culture and Modernity : East-West Perspectives. “On the Interpretation of Traditional Cultures” (Delhi, Motilal Banarsidass: 1991): 505-525.

5  The chapter on Education in Clarissa Rodrigues’ book succinctly summarizes Dr. Radhakrishanan’s views on the different aspects of education. Rodrigues, Clarissa. The Social and political Thought of Dr. S. Radhakrishnan. “Education“ (New Delhi, Sterling Publishers, 1992): 117-160.

6  Radhakrishnan S. Religion and Society. (London, George Allen and Unwin: 1966): 227.