The views of Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan

Remembering the architect of independent India’s social institutions on his 126th birth anniversary.

A life of strenuous endeavour for human betterment is not possible, if we are not persuaded that life has a meaning. Many of our popular writers today seem to be possessed by the one desire to escape from the world of meaning and teach us the essential purposelessness of life. They make us believe, with a good deal of cleverness and sophistry, that life is infinitely complicated and totally inexplicable. Many of our students are taught to assume that free-will and personal responsibility are illusions, that human beings are conditioned almost wholly by their physical make-up and the society in which they live, and that the only sense that the religious statements make is emotional and subjective. This is a generation which knows how to doubt but not how to admire, much less to believe. This aimlessness, this indifference to basic issues, is to no small extent, responsible for the decline of standards, for the fading of ideals, for the defeat of human endeavour.

        —–Dr Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, First University Education Commission report

The then prime minister of India, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru described Dr Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan as “the symbol of India”. If Nehru and Ambedkar are architects of our political institutions, Dr Radhakrishnanan is definitely the architect of our social institutions.  He had an unparalleled understanding of philosophy of religion and education, and an extraordinary ability to convert seemingly contradictory thoughts into complementary ones. Condensing his great and complex philosophical volumes into a blogpost runs the risk of oversimplification, for which I plead guilty to.

For Dr Radhakrishnanam, religion was not about path to salvation. He says, “For me the road to salvation is through incessant toil in the service of my country and humanity.”Religion is neither about set of concrete dogmas defining its identity, as he argues that “There are some things which are more important that our particularistic allegiances: truth and humanity and that universal religious consciousness which is the common possession of all human beings by virtue of their spiritual endowment. So long as our group loyalties are strong and overriding we cannot belong to the general human society”. The principles defining religion should not be frozen in time and must reflect the changing society and, should be tested to reason and logic as he explains that “We call it faith simply because spiritual perception like other kinds of perception is liable to error and requires the testing process of logical thought” [1].

Dr Radhakrishnan realised that survival of social institutions is intrinsically linked to the survival of political institutions. Laws cannot be a source of norms; instead, rule of law is possible only in an orderly society, and spiritual consciousness is a weapon to establish this order.  As a prominent writer and philosopher Humayun Kabir explained “Radhakrishnan accepted Mahatma Gandhi as his leader, as ‘in Gandhi we have that rarest kind of religious man who could face a fanatical, patriotic assembly and say that he should, if he had to, sacrifice even India to the Truth.’ Only such recognition of universal values can secure the fate of civilization and humanity on this earth, for a ‘civilized society is possible only in an ordered community, where there is a rule of law before which the poor man and the rich, the weak nation and the strong are equal, which believes that the world belongs to all’

As a person who believed in evolution of religion according to changing times, Dr Radhakrishnan argued that there is nothing called “irreligion”. Atheism is a quest for higher religion compatible with the increased knowledge. Secularism itself is a spiritual construct. He explains: “There is no state religion. All the different forms are given equal place, provided they do not lead to corrupt practices. Each one is at liberty to approach the unseen as it suits his capacity and inclination. If this is the basis of our secular state, to be secular is not to be religiously illiterate. It is to be deeply spiritual and not narrowly religious”.

The importance of religion as a social institution can be realised easily today. Our rivers were much safer and cleaner when they were worshipped as goddesses than by all the environment laws put together. The belief in humanity and common good can protect human beings better than draconian laws. It is this power of religion as a social institution, tested to logic and adapted to changing times that Dr Radhakrishnan wanted us to believe in. However, he also warned about the fragile foundation of this institution. The fissures created by fundamentalists restricting the religion to mere symbols and dogmas, the fear and suspicion spread by the “liberals”  that religion in public space is all about imposing one’s culture onto another destroyed this institution irrevocably.

Dr Radhakrishnan believed that religion and science can not only coexist but one is incomplete without the other. Acquiring knowledge involves devotion/discipline (Bhakti) and Faith (Shraddha). It must be complimented by other process like Hearing/Listening (Shravana), Reflection (Manana) and Contemplation (Nididdhyasana). As Dr.Paitoon Patyaiying explains Dr Radhakrishnan’s reasoning, “one who hears he understands up to a point. But when he reflects on what he hears, he adds faith to a knowledge which increases faith. There is great insistence on the need for logical inquiry. Without it faith will degenerate into credulity. However, without the material supplied by faith, logical reasoning may turn into mere speculation”[2].

He chaired the first University Education Commission also known as the Radhakrishnan Commission which produced a masterpiece of education policy literature. In that he argued that universities must focus on teaching democratic principles like liberty fraternity, equality and social justice, and explained in detail as to how understanding each of these principles impact society. He argued against the demarcation of universities on lines of discipline streams as any education is incomplete without the knowledge of all the three streams  (1) Science and Technology (2) Social studies including History (3) Humanities including language and literature, fine arts, ethics, philosophy and religion.

Dr Radhakrishnanan views on an “ideal teacher” are contrary to many of the common teaching practices today. He warned against idolising teachers as gurus and becoming a congregation of faithful without openness of mind. He encouraged the students to question and criticise their teachers. The Indian education system did not change much from what he cautioned more than 60 years ago.  “The process of education becomes dull and boring if we are unable to interest the live minds of the students. What they learn unwillingly becomes dead knowledge which is worse than ignorance. Learning is an activity of thought. It is not stuffing the mind with facts. We must be able to use what we learn, test it, throw it into fresh combinations. It must become vibrant with power, radiant with light” [3].

As we celebrate the 126th Birth anniversary of Dr Radhakrishnan, it is time to revive his thoughts on the importance of building social institutions which can share the burden of political institutions. These institutions may not necessarily be based on religion. They can have their foundations on modern principles of individual rights, equality and fraternity, and operate through education. That would be a real tribute to one of the greatest philosophersof modern India.

[ 1]. The Philosophy of Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, by  Paul Arthur Schilpp

[2]. S.Radhakrishnan’s Philosophy of Religion, by  Dr.Paitoon Patyaiying

[3]. First University Education Commission Report, 1948  

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