Born on September 5, 1888, in Thiruttani in the erstwhile Madras Presidency to subordinate revenue official Sarvepalli Veeraswami and Sarvepalli Sitamma, Radhakrishnan received primary education from KV High School in Thiruttani before moving to the Hermansburg Evangelical Lutheran Mission School in Tirupati in 1896. He was a brilliant student and attended Voorhees College in Vellore before joining the Madras Christian College at the age of 17. He studied philosophy and obtained a Master’s degree in 1906. His MA thesis was on The Ethics of the Vedanta and its Metaphysical Presuppositions.
In academia, politics:-
Radhakrishnan embarked on an academic career and joined the Department of Philosophy at the Madras Presidency College in 1909. Nine years later, he moved to the University of Mysore.
He was offered professorship at the University of Calcutta in 1921 where he held the King George V Chair of Mental and Moral Science. He served as the Vice-Chancellor of Andhra University from 1931 to 1936 before being named the Spalding Professor of Eastern Religions and Ethics at the University of Oxford and was elected Fellow of the All Souls College.
He succeeded Madan Mohan Malaviya as the vice-chancellor of Banaras Hindu University in 1939, a position he held till 1948. From 1953 to 1962, he was the chancellor of the University of Delhi. Radhakrishnan represented India at the United Nations Educational Cultural and Scientific Organisation (Unesco) from 1946 to 1952. He was also India’s envoy to the erstwhile Soviet Union from 1949 to 1952. On his return to India in 1952, he was elected the vice president.
On May 11, 1962, Radhakrishnan was elected the President, succeeding Rajendra Prasad, the nation’s first President. He retired from politics five years later.
Radhakrishnan is counted among India’s best scholars of comparative religion and philosophy. His defence of Hinduism against ‘uninformed Western criticism’ has been highly influential in India as well as the Western world. He is also credited for having made Hinduism more readily accessible to the Western audience.
In 1954, he was honoured with Bharat Ratna. In 1968, he became the first person to be awarded the Sahitya Akademi fellowship, the highest honour conferred by the Sahitya Akademi on a writer. Shortly before his death in 1975, he was bestowed with the Templeton Prize for advocating non-aggression and conveying “a universal reality of God that embraced love and wisdom for all people.”
When he became the President of India, some of his students and friends requested him to permit them to celebrate his birthday, on September 5. He suggested that instead of celebrating the occasion, it would be better if it be observed as Teacher’s Day. Since then, the day has been dedicated to teachers.
When he was 16, he married Sivakamu, a distant cousin. The couple had five daughters and a son. His wife passed away in 1956 and Radhakrishnan died on April 17, 1975 at the age of 86.
1. Radhakrishnan studied philosophy by chance not by choice. As a student he faced financial difficulties. So when a cousin, passed on his philosophy books, it automatically decided his academic course.
2. His written works include Indian Philosophy, (two volumes, 1923–27), The Philosophy of the Upanishads (1924), An Idealist View of Life (1932), and Eastern Religions and Western Thought (1939).
3. He was nominated 16 times for the Nobel Prize in literature, and 11 times for the Nobel Peace prize. He also received the honorary membership of the British Royal Order of Merit in 1963.
4. For services to education, he was knighted by King George V, and formally invested by the Governor-General of India, the Earl of Willingdon. However, he never used the title after independence, and preferred to use the academic title of Doctor. Dr Radhakrishnan led the Indian delegation to Unesco from 1946 to 1952 and was elected as chairman of Unesco’s executive board (1948-49).