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Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan

Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan (1888 – 1975)

Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan was a philosopher, politician and academic and was considered one of the greatest Indian thinkers of the twentieth century.  He was born on September 5, 1888 and lived to age 86.  Throughout his adult life he was a well known public figure in his native India, serving as both Vice-President and President. In addition to his political career, he was also a renowned writer on Hindu philosophy. Radhakrishnan is known to some as a “bridge builder” between the East and the West for his efforts to expand Western society’s knowledge about India and their understanding of Hindu thought and religion. He showed that the philosophical systems of each tradition are comprehensible within the terms of the other (Behur 1-4). One is hard pressed to find Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan’s own words about his life story since he steadfastly refused to write an autobiography (Braue 1-2).

Early Life

Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan was born during a time when Hinduism was in the midst of being renewed and restored in the hearts of millions of Indians (Harris 2-3). He was the second of five sons and one daughter born to Sarvepalli Veeraswamy and Sitamma, poor Brahmins living in the town of Tirutani in Tamil Nadu state.  Tirutani had a population of about 170 000 and was considered a pilgrimage destination due to its major Subrahmanya temple (Minor 4). Radhakrishnan’s family kept the name Sarvepalli as an indication of their place of origin. In the middle of the 18th century the family moved from Sarvepalli to another village located in the Nellore district of Andhra Pradesh. All were devout Vaisnavaties and worshipped the well-known god Krsna (Minor 3-4).  Radhakrishnan’s early life was spent in the religious centers of the small towns of Tirutani and Tirupati.  His father was employed as a subordinate revenue official in the service of the local Zamindar [landlord] and with limited income the family lived in relative poverty.


Radhakrishnan grew up in a traditional Hindu atmosphere (Harris 3). His parents were very orthodox and his father did not want his son to learn English [his mother tongue was Telugu] and pressed his boy to become a priest. However, despite their orthodox views, his parents sent him away to several Christian Missionary Institutions – the Lutheran Mission School in Tirupati (1896 – 1900), Voorhee’s college, Vellore (1900 – 1904) and Madras Christian College in Madras (1904 – 1908) (Kohli 38-39). Sarvepalli was an excellent student and was awarded multiple scholarships which helped sustain him throughout his academic career.

In 1906, he received a B.A. with honours in philosophy, and in 1909 obtained an M.A. and was a most distinguished alumni. He main interest was in the Vedas and Upanishads and spent much of his time specializing in these subjects as well as studying Hindi and the Sanskrit language. He wrote his thesis for his M.A. on the ‘Ethics of the Vedanta and its Metaphysical Presuppositions”. At only age 20 his thesis was recognized and published. Radhakrishnan’s passion for philosophy developed more by chance than choice. A cousin, recently graduated from the same college, was kind enough to pass on his textbooks in philosophy.  This generosity decidedly influenced his academic path (Kohli 40-41).

Marriage and Family

In 1903, at age 16, it was arranged by his family that Radhakrishnan was to be married to Siva Kumaramma, his 10 year old first cousin (Minor 4). The couple had their first daughter together in 1908, the first of six children over the proceeding fifteen years. Their family included four daughters and two sons, one of which died shortly after birth (Kohli 39). Their youngest son, Sarvepalli Gopal, would go on to become a distinguished and notable historian and biographer (Braue 4). Radhakrishnan’s devoted wife, Sivakamu, died on November 26, 1956 and their marriage was “the end of a long chapter”, as he put it.

Teaching Career

Sarvepalli’s education had shaped a most disciplined mind and strong individual, acquiring many qualities of a potentially great leader. Spanning from 1909 to 1952, his career had three notable phases, teacher of philosophy, leader in higher education and finally politician and statesman.

In 1909 he accepted a teaching position at the Madras Presidency College in the Philosophy department where he spent seven years teaching and researching in the area of Indian Philosophy and Religion.  In 1916, he advanced to a full professorship (Braue 4).  He impressed the senior professor of philosophy so much that his mentor actually ended up asking him to lecture his classes. Radhakrishnan was endowed with a great intellect and gifted with an amazing memory enabling him to employ a vast vocabulary and eloquent communication style, to great advantage (Kohli 38-40).

The Vice-Chancellor of the University of Calcutta took notice of this extraordinary academic mind and offered Sarvepalli the King George V Chair of Mental and Moral Science, a prestigious position which he occupied twice – from 1921 to 1931 and again from 1937 to 1941.  He was clearly honoured by this appointment and described the position as “the most important philosophy chair in India”.  As chair, he represented the University of Calcutta at the Congress of the Universities of the British Empire and the International Congress of Philosophy at Harvard in 1926.  Radhakrishnan also presented many lectures at numerous universities: Chicago, London, Manchester and Oxford.  He then accepted a position at Manchester College in Oxford in addition to teaching comparative religion at the University of Oxford (Braue 4).

In 1931, he was knighted by England for his great services to education and subsequently stepped down as the King George V Chair in order to accept the Sir Sayaji Rao  Gaekwad Chair at Banaras Hindu University. Later in his academic career he also occupied the Spalding Chair in England until 1952, when he was appointed Professor Emeritus at Oxford. (Braue 4-6).

The second key phase of Radhakrishnan’s life, as a leader in higher education, spanned from 1931 to 1962.  He was made the Vice-Chancellor of Andhra University and served as a member of the International Committee on Intellectual Cooperation of the League of Nations. Throughout this time he delivered many presentations at universities all over his native India.

During World War II he also toured and lectured in China (Braue 6-7), and from 1953 to 1962 he held the post of chancellor of Delhi University.  In 1940, he achieved a milestone by being the first Indian to be elected as Fellow of the British Academy. As a professor, he was always very popular with his students and was loved and respected as a remarkable teacher. The genesis of his popularity was his genuine empathy and his great ability to engage people of all ages. This combination of attributes and skills continued to win him respect throughout his long and memorable public life (Behura 3).

Rise in Politics and Political Career

After the end of the Second World War, Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan began a shift from his academic career with a view to apply his philosophy and religious studies toward political and social development.  He served as head of the Indian delegation to the UNSECO conferences held in Paris from 1946 – 1952 (Braue 7) and was later elected to the position of Chairman of UNESCO in 1948.

When India received independence from Great Britain in 1947, Sarvepalli was still India’s key representative at UNSECO. He would later also be awarded the titles and responsibilities of Ambassador-Extraordinary and Minister Plenipotentiary of India to the Soviet Union from 1949 to 1952 (Kohli 44).  Radhakrishnan was widely thought to be one of the most respected and successful of all diplomats in Moscow at the time. He had met Stalin twice, as the Ambassador of India, with Stalin commenting, “ You are the first person to treat me as a human being and not as a monster. You are leaving us and I am sad. I want you to live long.” (Kohli 45). Dr. Radhakrishnan, the diplomat, was considered a very sympathetic and humane person, open to other viewpoints, and never considered to be an elitist intellectual.

After his return to India in 1952, Sarvepalli was elected as India’s first Vice-President, an inaugural position that had been created under the new constitution. He would be re-elected in 1957, not long after the death of his wife. During his many tours around the world his main objective was to impress upon foreign leaders India’s viewpoint on major international issues and increase his country’s role on the global stage.

In many of his books and dissertations, Radhakrishnan takes great pains to interpret Indian thought in a way that Westerners could relate to. (Kohli 45) Through his public life he remained steadfastly committed to high principles, dignity and moral authority. This integrity of purpose made him a highly revered figure in India and internationally he became one of the best-liked and respected public figures of all time.

In May of 1962, this well regarded philosopher and statesman was elected President of the State of India, succeeding Dr. Rajendra Prasad, becoming the second Head of State of a newly independent India. During his presidency, India was faced with war on two separate occasions, first with China and subsequently with Pakistan. In 1967,  Sarvepalli made an emotional farewell broadcast to the nation and told his loving country that he would not seek another term as President and would retire from public life.

After the death of Nehru in 1964, he described the former leader as “an earnest of the age to come, the age of the world men with world compassion.” And went on to say, “The best way to honour his memory is to get on with the work which he left unfinished, his work of peace, justice and freedom at home and abroad” (Dehruy 8).  Radhakrishnan’s dedication and efforts made a great contribution towards the realization of Nehru’s objectives.

Philosophical Beliefs

Sarvepalli often described philosophy as “ the attempt to think out the presuppositions of experience, to grasp. By means of reason, life or reality as a whole”(Braue 42). He attained prominence due to his eloquence in describing Indian philosophy according to Western academic standards, enabling non-Indo cultures to understand and consider Eastern philosophies and, most particularly, from India. He once stated his greatest challenge was that western philosophers, despite claiming to be objective, were inevitably influenced by the theological teachings of their own cultures.

Radhakrishnan’s philosophical work took two distinct directions. His philosophy is Indian idealism (Braue 44). First, his Indian Philosophy was defined as Radhakrishnan interpreted it. Originally what he presented was no different than the “Vedanta” which he had defined earlier.  Later, he changed its designation to “Hinduism” or the “Hindu View”. The second direction was the construction of a philosophical system from experimental grounds without relying on Indian thought (Minor 43).

Radhakrishnan tried to clarify for his western audiences that Hinduism is a progressive unity and that the history of Hinduism is of evolutionary advancement. He saw the method of “Hinduism’s” historical development as characterized by a critical attitude toward the traditions of the past in a modern sense, not just accepting past thoughts (Minor 45). Radhakrishnan was also an advocate of the class system of Hinduism. He believed that it was the only democratic solution to racial problems. Caste was a way to organize society and suggested that it is entirely functional, not a “mystery of divine appointment” (Minor 45-46). Thus, the foundation of the caste system are the ideas of free will, equality and democracy (Minor 45-46).

Radhakrishnan wrote many books on his philosophical beliefs and he was well known for his ideas on the Prasthana Trayi, the Bhagavadgita, the Upanishads and the Brahma Sutra.


Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan died on April 17,1975 after a prolonged illness. At that time, Prime Minister Mrs. Indira Gandhi said, “As a teacher, he was deeply involved with the welfare of youth. As a statesman, he had deep understanding of the practical problems of nation building. He contributed significantly to the consolidation of our political parliamentary traditions. Now death has claimed him, but the memory of his commanding presence, the resonance of his voice and the radiance of his thought cannot fade and will remain a part of our legacy.” (Kohli 48)

Every year on September 5th, on Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan’s birthday, “Teachers Day” is celebrated all across India and the government gives national awards to teachers. Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan will remain one of the greatest Indian philosophers of the 20th century and of all time (Kohli 48-49).


Braue, Donald A. (1985) Maya in Radhakrishnan’s Thought. New Delhi: Narendra Prakash Jain.

Dehury, Dinabandhu (2010) Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan as Statesman. Orissa: Orissa Government.

Gopal, Sarvepalli (1989) Radhakrishnan, a Biography. Delhi: Oxford University Press.

Harris, Ishwar C. (1982) Radhakrishnan: the Profile of a Universalist. Columbia: South Asian Books

Hawley, Michael (2003) “The Making of a Mahatma: Radhakrishnan’s Critique of Gandhi. Studies in Religion 32(1-2), 135-148.

Kohli, A.B. (2001) Presidents of India. New Delhi: Reliance Publishing House.

Kumar Behura, Dillip (2010) The Great Indian Philosopher: Dr. Radhakrishnan. Orissa: Orissa Government.

Michael, Aloysius (1979) Radhakrishnan on Hindu Moral Life and Action. Delhi: Concept Publishing Company.

Minor, Robert N. (1987) Radhakrishnan A Religious Biography. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Minor, Robert N. (1997) Radhakrishnan as Advocate of the Class/Caste System as a Universal Religio-Social. International Journal of Hindu Studies 1(2), 386 – 400.

Murty, K. Satchidananda and Vohra, Ashok (1990) Radhakrishnan: His Life and Ideas. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Schilpp, Paul A. (1992) The Philosophy of Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers

Sharma, Arvind (2002) Modern Hindu Thought. New Delhi: Oxford University Press.


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Article written by Ryan Booth (Spring 2012), who is solely responsible for its content.