PANDIT Nehru said, “Radhakrishnan has served India in many faculties. But, above all, he is an illustrious teacher from whom all of us have learnt much and will continue to learn…” Though the rest of the world celebrates Teachers’ Day on October 5, his birthday is officially Teachers’ Day in India.
A freshly independent nation that had been under the heel of invaders for more than 1,000 years needed thinkers to make it believe in its eminence again. Thus a man with no political background or sponsorship, one who had not raised as much as a finger against the colonialist and had been even knighted by them was chosen to be in the upper echelons of power in India — even being its first citizen.
Born in a Telugu-speaking family in Thiruttani, where his father worked for a local zamindar, Radhakrishnan himself would question the legitimacy of his birth later. And his son, a leading historian, would write in detail about the events surrounding his birth.
A cousin on graduation passed on to him some used philosophy books and getting the books free was the main reason Radhakrishnan would choose to study philosophy. Radhakrishnan would go on to become one of the most influential 20th-century scholars of comparative religion in the world.
Professor William Skinner, Principal of Madras Christian College, gave a testimonial, “he is one of the best men we have had in the recent years”, which enabled him to get employed in Presidency College.
Radhakrishnan would teach Philosophy at Madras, Mysore, and Calcutta universities before being appointed as the Spalding Chair professor for the study of Eastern religions and ethics at Oxford University. This made him a world-renowned figure and most of the award money he received later in life a grateful Radhakrishnan would donate to Oxford.
But all wasn’t rosy and he would walk in and out of scandals. Once when a student of his accused him of pinching his words for a book, Radhakrishnan would defend himself saying those were the exact words he had taught the students and had been in his notes for a decade.
Being the greatest creative intellect of his generation in India attracted a lot of attention, not all moral. There were strains in his family when as a prize catch as a companion he had a series of affairs, many of them he didn’t even publicly deny ranging from women from the highest strata of Madras society.
Radhakrishnan commenced his political vocation “rather belated in life”, and was chosen for inspiring the pride of Indians in their intellectual traditions. His relationship with Nehru was exceptional and one term as a diplomat and two terms of the vice presidency went smoothly as he was more of India’s roving ambassador and a one-off role as a kind of cultural conduit builder between the East and the West.
Nehru made him President against the wishes of many Congressmen who felt that the post should go to one of them or a freedom fighter. When Radhakrishnan was appointed the President of India, Bertrand Russell hailed the news by reminding the world of Plato’s wish that every Greek state appoints a philosopher as king. Radhakrishnan was and will be the most cerebral of India’s first men and he charmed world leaders like Stalin and Eisenhower.
Radhakrishnan was never ever insistent on formality or etiquette. When the sovereign of Greece came to India on a state visit, Radhakrishnan welcomed him at the airport. “Your Majesty. You are the only King of Greece to come to India at our invitation. Alexander the Great came unsolicited.”
Radhakrishnan once even patted Mao Tse Tung on the cheek on a state visit (At the point, Mao was the closest one could get to God for a quarter of the world’s population).
Radhakrishnan’s helm at the Rashtrapati Bhavan was the most depressing age India ever went through with two wars and three prime ministers in five years. The Chinese invasion and war with Pakistan exhausted the country’s resources (Radhakrishnan would donate a bulk of his Rs 10,000 salary to the Prime Minister’s National Relief Fund every month). Handling three prime ministers, all different in attitude and work spirit, was difficult. And Radhakrishnan never kept his thoughts to himself. One of his public speeches angered Indira Gandhi who decided not to support him for a second term. And the post of President slipped into the hands of political loyalists again.
This was the equivalent of being pushed from a pedestal for the philosopher. The limelight was off him and this thrust him into the shadows and he died a quiet lonely life in the two-storey art deco building Girija on the wide road named after him in Mylapore.
Radhakrishnan got the Bharat Ratna in 1954 and many other awards but the Nobel eluded him though being nominated. The Templeton Prize, which honours individuals who explore the deepest questions of the universe and humankind’s place and purpose within it, came to him when he lay paralysed in a deathly coma and there is a doubt if he ever knew about being awarded it.
— The writer is a historian and an author