Recalling Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan’s encirching journey from being a professor at Mysore University to becoming the first Vice President of India.

In his autobiographical note Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan at the age of forty-nine, a la Hegel wrote, ‘a man makes up his account with life when he has a work that suits him and a wife whom he loves’. This implied that he regarded philosophy and its teaching in particular and education and research as the most suitable profession for him. Of course, it also implied that he loved his wife.

Soon after completing his M.A. degree from Christian College, Madras, he became a teacher in Presidency College, Madras. Because of his affable mannerism, he was very popular among the students. He would usually pat the shoulders and back of his students.

Radhakrishnan’s popularity as a teacher can be gauged from the send-off he was given by the students of Mysore University. On the day of his departure, the students brought a horse carriage without the horses. They decorated the carriage with flowers and requested Radhakrishnan to sit in it. They pulled and pushed the carriage all the way to the railway station which was five kilometres away from Maharaja College. Even the platform was packed with students and other admirers of the City.

In the year 1915, Gandhiji had returned from South Africa. He was already a celebrity. In Madras, he was staying with the famous journalist and publisher GA Natesan. Natesan invited Radhakrishnan who was then twenty-seven and lecturer in logic in the Presidency College for a meeting with Gandhiji. Radhakrishnan reported the proceedings of the meeting and termed it as ‘bad’. In those days, Gandhiji was advocating alternative medicine and health services.  

 “Gandhiji said to me, ‘Don’t drink milk, which is the essence of beef’. I replied ‘In that case, we are all cannibals. For we drink our mother’s milk, which (by the same logic) is the essence of human flesh’. The conversation then turned to medical relief. Gandhiji said, ‘Thousands of births took place in the jungle. They do not need any medical attention’. I said, ‘Thousands die in the jungle too’. Gandhiji then said, ‘How do you know?’ I also said, ‘How do you know?’ Natesan tried to ease the atmosphere by saying to Gandhiji, ‘Don’t you know he is a Professor of logic’.”

The second terse meeting between Gandhiji and Radhakrishnan took place in 1947. By that time Gandhiji had become an established and revered leader of Indians. Radhakrishnan too had become famous all over the world. Radhakrishnan had written his commentary on the Bhagavad Gita. He wanted to take permission from Gandhiji to dedicate his work to him. The meeting took place in Birla House. Gandhiji allowed Radhakrishnan to dedicate Bhagavad Gita to him as he knew that ‘you will not write anything unworthy’.

Gandhiji in those days was conducting his well-known and controversial experiments with brahmacharya – physical and spiritual celibacy. Gandhiji said, ‘I am your Arjuna, you are my Krishna. I am like Arjuna dharma sammudh acetah – confused’. With this prelude, Gandhiji put before Radhakrishnan the doubts regarding his theory behind the experiments he was carrying out. Gandhiji held the view that one could be said to have achieved perfect chastity in thought, word and deed if one can control his libido even when sharing the same bed with a person of the opposite sex. Gandhiji wanted Radhakrishnan’s opinion on this theory.

Radhakrishnan candidly replied in his characteristic teacher like manner and said that some social customs and conventions were essential for the community and that Gandhiji as the greatest leader of the Indian people should not discard them.

On the day of Radhakrishnan’s departure from Moscow where he was serving as Ambassador, to be the first Vice President of India, Radhakrishnan was told by the then Foreign Minister Vyshinski that Stalin would like to meet him. A meeting was arranged. Radhakrishnan informed Stalin that India has peacefully resolved the problem of its princes. Raising his right hand Stalin swooshed it with force as if it was a chopper and said ‘Liquidate Ambassador’, and repeated ‘Kulaks! Liquidate!’

Radhakrishnan replied to Stalin, ‘We have our history and tradition to guide us, and we will try to continue to follow our path of peace, and if we succeed it will be a lesson for other nations’. While departing Radhakrishnan in the way he treated his students patted Stalin on the shoulders and back and passed his hand over Stalin’s head. Radhakrishnan, while reminiscing about the meeting, said, “Stalin’s face looked somewhat bloated.” Stalin, in response to Radhakrishnan’s gesture, said, “You are the first person to treat me as a human being and not a monster. You are leaving us and I am sad. I want you to live long. I have not long to live.”

Radhakrishnan wished Stalin well and Stalin bade him farewell with moist eyes. This emotional display by Stalin was unprecedented. Stalin died after almost six months after the meeting.

Radhakrishnan showed his stern teacher like behaviour to Nehru also. In 1962 after the debacle with China Nehru, a resolution was passed by the cabinet for the removal of the then Defence Minister Menon. However, Nehru was reluctant to sack Menon. In his meeting with the President, Nehru requested Radhakrishnan to write to him advising the sack of Menon. Radhakrishnan sarcastically pointed out to Nehru that it would be like placing the cart before the horse. The constitution explicitly says that the President should take the decision on the advice of the Prime Minister. So, Nehru is reversing the roles. Nehru also saw the point and acted accordingly.   

The author is a former Professor of Philosophy, Delhi University, Delhi.