Thursday, 29 July 2010

Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan

A major exponent of Hinduism was Sir Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan (1888-1975), whose Indian Philosophy (2 vols, 1923-27) became a textbook on the subject. Born in South India, he early encountered the writings of Swami Vivekananda (1863-1902), who influenced him strongly in the new mood of Vedantic universalism struggling against rival emphases of Christianity. This was the era of British Raj imperialism, in which Hinduism was the runner-up.

Originating at the town of Tirutani in Andhra Pradesh, Radhakrishnan was born into the brahman caste and reared to Vedantic teaching. In 1904 he entered the Madras Christian College, where he studied Western philosophy, and observed the Christian criticism of Vedanta as having no ethical content. He was subsequently to repudiate the aspersions, and became a professor at Mysore and Calcutta Universities.

His early writings railed at the critics of Hinduism. In 1921, Radhakrishnan gained the prestigious George V chair in philosophy at Calcutta University, where he composed his Indian Philosophy, a mature work not relying on polemic. In 1926 he was invited to Oxford to give the Upton Lectures, and a sequel occurred in the Hibbert Lectures of 1929. These lectures achieved publication as The Hindu View of Life (1927) and An Idealist View of Life (1929). The lastmentioned is regarded as his more developed work.

In 1931 Radhakrishnan was knighted by the British government, whose policies he had not always agreed with. He subsequently became a professor of religion at Oxford University in 1936, the association with Oxford continuing for many years.

Radhakrishnan was closely associated with the philosophy of Advaita Vedanta, and favoured a modernised version of this outlook, which elevates the atman-Brahman themes of nondualist identity. He defended and elaborated the factor of intuitive experience which is inherent in that teaching.


A frequent criticism has been that Radhakrishnan tended to claim Advaita as a yardstick of assessment for all religions and philosophies. He also tended to ennoble the caste system in some arguments, though recognising the problems in Hindu society.

“In a sense, Radhakrishnan ‘Hinduizes’ all religions,” and in the context of Vedantic interpretation. The same commentary deduces the view of this Indian philosopher as meaning: “Religious claims.... ought not to be taken as authoritative in and of themselves, for only integral intuitions validated by the light of reason are the final authority on religious matters.” Quotations from M. Hawley, “Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan” (2006), Internet Encyclopaedia of Philosophy.

“Radhakrishnan clearly preferred to be called a philosopher rather than a theologian” (Shepherd, Minds and Sociocultures Vol. One: Zoroastrianism and the Indian Religions, 1995, p. 580). To this remark, I felt obliged to add that “almost in the manner of a theologian, he wrote that the scheme of social classes and ashramas is helpful but not indispensable” (ibid.). The priestly adjuncts of Indian religion are now closely debated by diverse Indian scholars and Indian rationalists.

“Never in the history of philosophy has there been quite such a world-figure.” This assessment of Radhakrishnan comes from Life and Writings, citing the philosopher George P. Conger. Radhakrishnan undeniably achieved a widespread influence. While famous at Oxford, his administrative appointments extended to Benares and Delhi Universities; he was the Indian ambassador to Russia, and in 1952 he became the first Vice-President of India. He was subsequently the President of India during the 1960s.

His informed books caused a wide readership in the West to give some serious consideration to the formerly marginalised Indian philosophy. See also indohistory.


See further Radhakrishnan, Eastern Religions and Western Thought (Oxford, 1939); idem, The Bhagavadgita (London, 1948); id., The Principal Upanishads (1953); id., The Brahmasutra (London, 1961). See also P. A. Schilpp, ed., The Philosophy of Sarvapelli Radhakrishnan (New York, 1952); R.N. Minor, Radhakrishnan: A Religious Biography (Albany, 1987).

Kevin R. D. Shepherd
July 29th 2010

ENTRY no. 27
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