Why Dr. Radhakrishnan Still Matters

The thought of dismissing the celebration of Teacher’s Day is tempting for various reasons. The day has been reduced to one of the many ‘days’ that are observed in a year and nothing more. The other complaint in its favour is that it has become more of a ceremony and not a day with a purpose.

It might be worth our while to examine what relevance Dr Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan holds in our times, and why therefore Teacher’s Day should mean something to us. But this would also mean that we must do more than just calling him a great man or re-narrate the exciting tale that was Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan’s life. If a homage is to be paid to Radhakrishnan, it is for the values he stood for. Values which are in fact of great importance to contemporary India.

The Teacher’s View Of Life

This may mean an insult in today’s world, but in the context of Radhakrishnan, it refers to a particular outlook and commitment to the profession. Radhakrishnan as a teacher was capable of showing equanimity of mind and boldness of spirit in the most difficult of circumstances.

In his presidential address at the All-Bengal College and University Teachers’ Association, he had vociferously spoken against the colonial education policy. In what might ring a bell in our times, he had castigated an education system that did not nurture free-thinking minds and had advocated for allocating grants that did not have to go through the legislative machinery.

While serving as the Vice-chancellor of Banaras Hindu University, he managed to ward off troops from campus gates when they tried to storm into it. Before this incident, Radhakrishnan had arranged for special trains for students to go home to ensure that no violence ensued in the peak of the war and anti-colonial agitation.

These incidents only tell us what Radhakrishnan did as a teacher. There are many tales of his unwavering dedication to writing, even while being saddled with major responsibilities which testify him to be a man predisposed to scholarship. But it was a teacher and philosopher’s outlook towards life which Radhakrishnan had, and which demands our attention.

To many, the teacher’s outlook towards life may mean various things but it suffices to say that his was a view of the world that was not only shaped by learning but one in which knowledge seeks to find meaning in life and solutions in the midst of crisis, be it political or spiritual. His books found admirers in India as well as in the world.

‘The Hindu View of Life’ made a strong impact on the agnostic Nehru who read it twice in jail. It was primarily Radhakrishnan who made T.S. Eliot compare western philosophers to ‘school boys’. Bertrand Russell who had been criticised in ‘The Reign of  Religion in Contemporary Philosophy’ was effusive in his praise of Radhakrishnan’s book, ‘Indian Philosophy’.

In an age untouched by the banality of the prefix ‘post’ and when ethical and political crisis were considered coeval, Radhakrishnan advocated for a religion that was not altogether unreasonable and spirituality that could be free of deception. Despite being an ardent believer of Hinduism, he was outspoken in his criticism of caste and superstitions that blinded Hinduism.

Steering clear of abstractions, Radhakrishnan’s views found acceptance amongst scientists and men who had nothing to do with religion. As someone who did not bear a divisive agenda in mind, Radhakrishnan was critical, but not dismissive of any religion. Time and again, he had tried to explain religion using philosophy. In 1938, he had made concerted efforts to establish a department of Islamic studies at a university that was being chiefly funded by Hindu patrons. A serious scholar despite being a practising Hindu could do what is easily written off as a gesture of secularism in contemporary India.

Today when the relevance of humanities is routinely questioned, Radhakrishnan’s accomplishments are nothing short of inspiring examples. For he had displayed before the world, the tangible powers of the humanities. But the application of his learning was not confined to religion alone. In a long spanning career, much of which was devoted to governance and diplomacy, Radhakrishnan showed remarkable discernment in the handling of political matters, and on numerous occasions, he took control of the situation like a seasoned teacher.

The Argumentative Indian And The Pacifist Humanist

The strange and fascinating aspects of Radhakrishnan’s astuteness can be gauged from numerous incidents. Be it arguing with Gandhi or reasoning with Stalin. He was clear in stating his opinions and considerate in listening to others. But at the same, it was only possible for a humanist to introduce human dimension to the profession of diplomacy.

Radhakrishnan’s stint in Russia as an ambassador was remarkable. For the mighty Stalin it was unthinkable to find an ambassador surrounded by books; and one who could have ‘unbuttoned’ conversations with him. Radhakrishnan’s conviction in humanistic principles moved Stalin who had said, “This man speaks from a bleeding heart, not like an ordinary ambassador.” In another tete-e-tete conversation with the Russian leader, Radhakrishnan had cited the example of Asoka’s change of heart to which a ‘visibly moved’ Stalin had replied, “I too was in a theological seminary for some time and miracles may happen.”

In the name of an argument, we often tend to do what Karl Popper calls eliminating the opponent. An individual like Radhakrishnan tells us how one can argue with the most fearful of men with a bold yet benign spirit. Radhakrishnan patting Stalin’s cheek is a popular incident. But Stalin was not the only one, he did the same to the Pope and Mao Tse Tung. In political matters or any issue requiring reconciliation, we believe that persuasion cannot bear the weight of principles, but numerous instances from Radhakrishnan’s life show that the two could very well be balanced using one’s convictions.

It could only be a mind free of pettiness that could befriend a right-leaning Shyama Prasad Mukherjee, endear itself to a liberal like Nehru, and see the human side in ruthless Marxists like Mao and Stalin.

Radhakrishnan’s illustrious biographer and his worthy son Sarvepalli Gopal has called him a “philosopher influenced by his environment.” There is something remarkable about the environment as well as the scholar which it produced. The political milieu of which Radhakrishnan was a part was represented by individuals known for tolerance and mutual respect for each other despite their differences.

That is perhaps why Gandhi could call a Bose his son, who would later call the Mahatma, “the father of the nation.” It was possible for Rajagopalachari to pay tribute to Nehru proclaiming him to be more relevant than himself, irrespective of their disagreements.

This Teacher’s Day, teachers and statesmen alike have a lesson or two to learn from someone who upheld the dignity of both the professions.

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