The 5th of September is a red letter day inasmuch as India and the world are celebrating the 134th birth anniversary of Dr. Sarvapalli Radhakrishnan, the second President of India who was a monumental philosopher, educationist, scholar and statesman of international repute.
To ‘begin the beguine’, I am highly emboldened to narrate an amusing incident that took place when Radhakrishnan commenced his maiden visit to the United States on 3rd June, 1963. When he alighted from his aircraft, the weather was stormy with heavy rains in Washington. President John Fitzgerald ‘Jack’ Kennedy (popularly known as ‘JFK’) greeting his Indian counterpart with a warm handshake and a smile expressed disappointment at the rain that had dampened the warm reception he had arranged for him. To this, Radhakrishnan smiled and remarked courteously, ‘We cannot always control events, but we can always control our attitude towards events.’
There is an old English saying, “Mighty oaks from little acorns grow”. Radhakrishnan was born on 5thSeptember 1888 into a very humble Telugu-speaking Niyogi Brahmin family, in the Murugan Temple town of Tiruttani of Chittoor district in the erstwhile Madras Presidency. A born genius, Radhakrishnantook to Swami Vivekananda’s philosophy like a duck takes to water from a very early age. He studied at the Tiruttani Primary School and then moved on to study at the Hermansburg Evangelical LutheralMission School in Tirupati. He joined Voorhees College in Vellore for his high school education andjoined Madras Christian College in 1904. In 1908, heobtained his Master’s degree in Philosophy from the same college. Whilst in college, Radhakrishnan was induced to make a systematic study of Indian traditional thought and philosophy by the disparaging remarks of one of his British teachers about Hindu philosophy and culture. He immediately undertook an in depth study of the Bhagavad Gita and the Vedanta and soon felt so confident about his grasp of these classics that he offered to present a dissertation on the subject “The Ethics of the Vedanta and its metaphysical presuppositions” as a part of the MA degree examination of the Madras University. This was published in 1908 when he reached the tender age of twenty and at once established his fame as a notable philosophical writer of immeasurable ability. A momentous factor in Radhakrishnan’s life was his incisive reading of the translated works of our prodigious national poet and Nobel laureate GurudevRabindranath Tagore. Tagore’s poetry and prose resonated with Radhakrishnan’s own thoughts and hebelieved that Tagore’s philosophy was the genuine manifestation of the Indian spirit. Radhakrishnanauthored more than twenty major philosophical works, notably, “The Philosophy of Rabindranath Tagore”, “Indian Philosophy”, “Eastern Religion and Western Thoughts”, “The Principal Upanishads”, “Recovery of Faiths” and “Fellowship of the Spirit & Religion in a changing world”. Throughout his entire life and extensive literally career, Radhakrishnansought to define, defend, and promulgate his religionwhich he variously identified as Hinduism, Vedanta and the Religion of the Spirit. Inspired by Swami Vivekananda, he sought to demonstrate that his brand of Hinduism was both philosophically coherent and ethically viable. And like Swami ji, he believed that complete education was the only way for the development of an individual and aptly propounded, ‘The end-product of education should be a free creative man, who can battle against historical circumstances and adversities of nature.’ He commenced his teaching career at the reputed Madras Presidency College in 1909 and stayed there till he was appointed as a Professor of Philosophy at Madras University in 1918. Three years later,Radhakrishnan was invited by the prolific educator, jurist, barrister, mathematician and Vice Chancellor of Calcutta University Sir Ashutosh Mukherjee to hold the George V Chair in Philosophy in Calcutta University. In 1929, he became the Principal of Harris Manchester College, Oxford. In 1931, he was knighted by King George V for his services to education, but scrupulously preferred to be addressed by his academic title – Doctor. In 1931 itself, he was appointed the Vice-Chancellor of the newly founded Andhra University at Waltair. In 1936, he joined as Hibbert Lecturer and subsequently as Spalding Professor of Eastern Religion and Ethics at Oxford University where he taught Indian Philosophy with remarkable aplomb and elan. He was also elected a Fellow of All Souls College. Simultaneously, heserved as the Chancellor of Delhi University and the first Indian Vice-Chancellor of Banaras Hindu University with the blessings of the redoubtablescholar and educational reformer Pandit MadanMohan Malviya. In 1938, he was elected as a fellow of the prestigious British Academy. In 1941, he assumed the Chairmanship of the University Grants Commission. Radhakrishnan was elected the first Vice-President of India in 1952. For his sterling contributions to philosophy and statesmanship, the Bharat Ratna, the highest award of the nation, was conferred on him in 1954. He was elected as the President of India on 13th May, 1962 whereupon some of his students and friends requested him to allow them to celebrate his birthday on 5thSeptember. He replied nonchalantly, “Instead of celebrating my birthday, it would be my proud privilege if September 5th is observed as Teachers’ Day.” From then onwards, the day has been observed as Teacher’s Day throughout the world. Significantly, after he became the President of India, our first Prime Minister Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, who was one of his closest friends and ardentadmirers, paid him his personal tribute in glowing terms, ‘He has served his country in many capacities. But above all, he is a great teacher from whom all of us have learnt much and will continue to learn. It is India’s peculiar privilege to have a great philosopher, a great educationist and a great humanist as her President. That in itself shows the kind of men we honour and respect.’
In conclusion, I am irresistibly drawn to the ever inspiring words of the legendary American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow from his timeless poem “Psalm of Life”:
‘Lives of great men all remind us
We can make our lives sublime,
And, departing, leave behind us
Footprints on the sands of time;’
BRIEF NOTE ON THE AUTHOR
The author is an internationally reputed senior lawyer practising in the Supreme Court of India and various High Courts and Tribunals in India. He has been closely associated with some of the topmost Indian corporates as a lawyer and advisor. He addressed a select gathering of MPs and other eminent persons in the House of Lords in February,2009 and was awarded the prestigious “Ambassador of Peace Award”. In April,2009, he was also invited to the House of Commons. He was also invited by Chatham House and by the Universal Peace Federation in London several times. He is an avid debater, public speaker, writer, broadcaster, telecaster, artist, painter, sculptor, music critic and filmmaker. He is also an indefatigable lover of western classical music and has one of the largest private collections of western classical music in India.