Despite being a philosopher and author of international repute in his times, Dr Radhakrishnan is today a largely forgotten icon in his own country.
As the Ukraine agitates, Putin dictates, Obama triangulates and the Europeans equivocate – the magazine National Interest ran an aptly timed essay on the origins and meaning of the 19th century neologism: ‘realpolitik’. An unexpected name shows up in that essay: Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, an idealist philosopher who is now barely remembered in his own country, India, far less in the outside world.
Changes in historiographical methods, emergence of new sub-disciplines (subaltern, post-structuralism, multiculturalism, post-colonial…et al) have reduced the footprint of Radhakrishnan’s influence. If he is remembered, at all, it is as a philosopher of Vedanta and India’s President.
He was a widely sought after speaker-thinker of his era, he had rarely been a moralizing scold. Yet, that is precisely what he came across as in that essay where he chastises Europe for the Great War – which was brought about thanks to a patchwork of self-interest and miscalculations – yet, which he insisted was: “the penalty which Europe pays for its steadfast loyalty to a false ideal”. For paying homage to the false Godhead of realpolitik.
This anathema towards realpolitik, however is not a surprise if one does read him. And that precisely is what is rare now. As Amitabha Bhattacharya wrote on his centenary “Radhakrishnan is often worshipped, some-times criticized and scarcely read these days”. For a man who wrote as prolifically as he did, to much my generation – he is largely an unknown. At best, he is remembered as a President, if luckily as a historian of Indian philosophy.
His own philosophical explorations are known, even less so. His own life story is largely forgotten, despite an excellent and admirable biography written by his son, the late Sarvepalli Gopal. It is a dense 384-page biography called ‘Radhakrishnan’.
More than Radhakrishnan as a great historical figure, what came through the pages was how strikingly calm he seemed through out his life. As if he were a man, who despite frenzied actions, had successfully cultivated a sense of detachment: from the early days of poverty, when he was born into a poor Telugu Brahmin family in Madras Presidency to his regal hours as President of India. Given the improbability of this ascent, even his own birth (he was possibly an illegitimate child from his mother’s relationship with a district official), he lived, convinced (like Churchill) that “over me beat invisible wings.”
The idea of God guiding his life, while still tempering it with reason, was an insuperable principle for him. That said, he doesn’t seem to have had much use for religious rituals or the practice of Hinduism, with which he was often superficially identified with it. Muhammad Ali Jinnah says to him in 1940s, on a train: “You are one of my main enemies. You have made Hinduism respectable.”
During the early years of his life, Radhakrishnan wrote monumental treatises on Indian philosophy that became the primer on the subject: it attracted readers as varied as the playwright GB Shaw to the investment banker Siegmund Warburg. By the end of his life in 1975, Radhakrishnan was probably the most widely read Indian after Gandhi and Nehru. Even as an orator, he seems to have impressed many – with his commitment to the philosophic tradition of Idealism and the more quotidian idealisms of daily life – including those who fought bare-knuckled in political trenches.
He was deemed important to listen to but often harmless as far as political intrigue was concerned. In this sense, he brought respectability to every dinner table and speaking gallery. In 1954, before racial desegregation, at the peaks of the Eisenhower Republican era, he spoke to the US Senate: “No society is static; no law is unchanging; and no constitution is permanent. Given time and patience, radical changes may happen in both in human nature and in systems of society which reflect human nature.”
A young Congressman from Massachusetts sat in the gallery and made notes of the speech. A decade later, he repeated the very same lines to Radhakrishnan, when they met at the White House, by which time the Congressman was known widely as JFK (John F Kennedy)
In this youth, Radhakrishnan looked upon Gandhi as a the light of truth that had come to shine upon India in its darkest hour. In Gandhi’s persona, resonated his own deep Hindu faith in the idea of the Avatara Purusha – the embodiment of the Age’s consecrated hopes. That said, his only real intellectual equal, his friend if one may say so, was Nehru.
As a young man, he seems to have sought out intellectually interesting father-figures/friends – he was great admirer of Tagore, was roommate with CV Raman, cultivated students like the master-philosopher Mysore Hiriyanna,and was friends with diplomat-scholar KM Panikkar. His intellectual hero remained the greatest of all Vedantins, the Jagadguru Adi Sankara. Like Gandhi, Radhakrishnan had little instinctive interest in music or the arts although later in life, he seems to have been fond of ‘My Fair Lady’.
Radhakrishnan was also an successful educator and institution builder: building from grounds up, the Andhra University, fostering the Banaras Hindu University, the Indian International Center (built by Rockefeller Foundation’s grants, no less).
In the newly independent India, Nehru sought to keep Radhakrishnan close for missions that he considered important; and sent him to represent India across the world: including, in the court of that Communist Czar, the much feared Stalin. Yet, strangely, Stalin took a liking to Radhakrishnan, who in turn – take page out of Christ – openly critiqued Communism for its mindless stress on conformism & lack of freedoms, while still not blaming Stalin in person.
True to the spirit of the non-aligned times, he also critiqued America for its racialist policies and warmongering rhetoric against the USSR. He found friends in America who agreed with him, including President Eisenhower, who complained that the extremists have been more vocal (hinting, none so subtly, at Joe McCarthy).
In Moscow, he became the only ambassador who was invited to meet with Stalin, twice. Stalin expressed his desire to meet S. Radhakrishnan with the words: “I would like to meet the ambassador who spends all his time in bed – writing.” Stalin at Radhakrishnan’s farewell in 1952 sought to impress him with these lines: “when a Russian peasant sees a wolf, he knows how to deal with it. Liquidate, Mr. Ambassador.”
In their final meeting, to the horror of the apparatchiks, Radhakrishnan patted Stalin on his cheek and quoted Christ: “what shall it avail a man if he gain the whole world & lose his own soul.” Visibly moved by this, Stalin replies: “I too was in a theological seminary for some time and miracles may happen.” Patting powerful men on the cheek seems to his favorite way of disarming them.
He does the same to Mao, who is amazed that somebody could treat him like a young man. Mao’s mandarins, predictably, panic. He did the same to the Pope too. All this point to a man who was comfortable around power, for in his own way, he esteemed it, but his true respect was far away – in the world of books, ideas and speculations.
Amidst a grueling public life, he continued to write; including monumental translations of the Upanishads, long essays and innumerable letters. Towards the end of Radhakrishnan’s life he had become a go to guy for many a world leader (In the biography is a delightful letter from the Canadian Nobel laureate Prime Minister Lester Pearson who thanks Radhakrishnan for telling him that diplomacy is neither an art nor a science, but merely a dodge!).
Radhakrishnan becomes a voice that argued for religion, that said man is a spiritual being who is beholden to a Supreme power and a (Hegelian) fulfillment of history comes only if Man reconciles with each other and with oneself. In this, there was an effort to bring together the dominant Marxist rhetoric and the Hindu unitarian vision of the world.
This sense of religiosity came from a deep and engaged place; one that was open to progress and improving freedoms, but also saw no reason to abandon the past. The rationalist philosopher-mathematician Bertrand Russell, no slouch nor willing to tolerate metaphysical nonsense, sent Radhakrishnan the first volume of his autobiography before it was out in print, seeking his thoughts.
The only person Radhakrishnan wronged, in his life, was his wife, if indeed ‘wronged’ is the word. She struggled and suffered thanks to his many extra-marital affairs. None of them seem to have been a consequence of his scheming, but that rather women found him attractive and he was, despite a public vocation, a solitudinal figure. Longing takes many forms. The author of this biography (a son writing about his father) has a remarkable paragraph about his mother’s anguish, loneliness and grudging acceptance of what life had to offer her. It was unfair, and one gets the feeling, everyone involved knew it. She couldn’t keep up with him, intellectually and socially; he shone too brightly and freely to see any value of in being tied down in the shades of domesticity. At her death, however, he was heart broken and deeply anguished. How much of that was guilt, how much gratitude towards her is hard to say. Ever the writer, he concludes about her: “a long chapter has come to an end”.
The acme of Radhakrishnan’s public life comes as Vice President and President of India: posts that factions within the ruling Congress Party were reluctant to grant, for Radhakrishnan never joined the mother ship. He had also praised the RSS for their willingness to help a young country in times of calamity, despite being against their contestable ideas. He was close to Gandhi, and then Shyama Prasad Mukherjee, the founder of the Jana Sangh. None of this went down well with Nehru, who sought to enroll him in his “camp”.
Despite these minor kerfuffles, after an honorable two term as Vice President, serving under the middling tenure of Rajendra Prasad as President -he became the President of India. He becomes the Indian that non-Indians wanted to talk with. Many puffed up their public profiles by seeking audience with him. Radhakrishnan, in turn, was quite at home conversing with Jackie Kennedy and her kids on one hand and Allen Dulles (the boss of the CIA) on the other. He comes across as supremely self-assured man possessed of the kind of knowledge and confidence that comes from having the done the hard work early on in life with books, labor and diligence.
This freespiritedness also came about because he was a man who, despite enjoying the experience of being around people, recognized that life may be a gift and the conduct of life merely theater. His son the biographer writes, despite much warmth that he spread around, he was a private person and few were allowed into his personal space. An invisible line demarcated his interior life, in to which no one was privy to. In this he was like Nehru, and very unlike Gandhi, to whom his life was an open book.
Towards the end of his life, Radhakrishnan is one of the key forces that helps bring Indira Gandhi to power. He hoped to play, somewhat naively, the philosopher in her political grooming. To wit, this seems to be a common ailment amongst philosophers: Plato took it upon himself to ‘educate’ the tyrant Dion of Syracuse, who after early genuflection had little use for him; Martin Heidegger envisioned himself as a greater teacher for the Nazis, but they had nothing but contempt for him in due course.
Radhakrishnan, ironically, never recognizes this pattern in history, or merely concludes he is exempt from such iron laws that govern the relationship between thinkers and rulers. During the course of their life, from these pages, it is hard to say if theirs was a flirtatious relationship. In any case, she played up to his vanity in her early days; but, she was made of sterner stuff and didn’t take too well to his critiquing of her governance. She also wanted to promote Zakir Hussain as President.
As his biographer notes, at his cremation in 1975, people from all walks of life poured in. Only two individuals were conspicuously absent: the Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and her political appointee President F.A.Ahmed. This paragraph that he wrote in a letter to a friend who had suffered deaths in his family summarizes the equanimity that marks much of his life:
I have had my share of sorrow and suffering in the world but go through life in a spirit of utter surrender. Look at the way in which I travel all alone from China to Mexico. I am protected by the grace of the Divine and the prayers of my friends. When there is nothing more to be done by me on earth, I will pass out, with no grievance but with an utter thanksgiving, for all that life has meant for me in joy and sorrow, in triumph and in defeat.
His last week in life was spent in a state of debilitating silence after a stroke. A man known for his oratory and charm, for his ability to attract men and women had gone silent, his eyes had an emptiness to them. His family was unable to communicate with him. In that week, when he lay in that vegetative state, he was awarded the prestigious Templeton Prize. By then, like much of his, it was the prize that was seeking Radhakrishnan’s validation. It meant little to him by then.
He died on April 17th, 1975.