Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, originally named Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, was born into a Telugu-speaking family in Tiruttani, which was part of the North Arcot district in the erstwhile Madras Presidency (now in Tiruvallur district of Tamil Nadu). He was the second of three siblings, born to Sarvepalli Veeraswami and Sithamma. The Radhakrishnan family hailed from Sarvepalli village in Nellore district, Andhra Pradesh. His formative years were spent in Thiruttani and Tirupati. Radhakrishnan’s father served as a subordinate revenue official under a local Zamindar (landlord). He received his primary education at K. V. High School in Thiruttani before moving on to the Hermansburg Evangelical Lutheran Mission School in Tirupati and later to Government High Secondary School in Walajapet in 1896.
Education of Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan
Radhakrishnan’s educational journey was marked by scholarships that supported him throughout. He initially attended Voorhees College in Vellore for his high school education. Following this, he joined the Madras Christian College, affiliated with the University of Madras, at the young age of 16. He completed his graduation in 1907 and obtained his master’s degree from the same institution.
Interestingly, Radhakrishnan’s path into philosophy was accidental. Due to financial constraints, he inherited philosophy textbooks from a cousin who had also studied at the same college. This serendipitous event led him to embrace the field of philosophy.
His bachelor’s degree thesis, titled “The Ethics of the Vedanta and its Metaphysical Presuppositions,” aimed to counter the claim that Vedanta philosophy lacked ethical principles. Radhakrishnan’s work garnered praise from his professors, Rev. William Meston and Dr. Alfred George Hogg.
In his early academic years, Radhakrishnan’s faith was challenged by Christian critics of Indian culture, which prompted him to delve deeply into the study of Hinduism and Indian philosophy. He defended Hinduism against uninformed Western criticism while maintaining respect for his Christian teachers.
“The Spirit of Abheda”
Radhakrishnan’s writings, including “The Ethics of the Vedanta,” sought to address misconceptions about Vedanta philosophy. He emphasized the concept of “The Spirit of Abheda,” advocating the view that all creation is interconnected and non-different. This perspective naturally led to an ethic of love and brotherhood, emphasizing the equal treatment of all individuals and the recognition of human dignity.
Marriage and Family Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan
In May 1903, at the age of 16, Radhakrishnan entered into an arranged marriage with Sivakamu, who was ten years old at the time. The couple had five daughters named Padmavati, Rukmini, Sushila, Sundari, and Shakuntala, as well as a son named Sarvepalli Gopal, who later became a notable historian. Many of Radhakrishnan’s family members, including his grandchildren and great-grandchildren, pursued diverse careers across various fields worldwide. Notably, former Indian cricketer V. V. S. Laxman is his great-grandnephew. Sivakamu passed away on November 26, 1956, after being married to Radhakrishnan for approximately 53 years.
Radhakrishnan’s academic career was characterized by excellence. In April 1909, he joined the Department of Philosophy at the Madras Presidency College. Subsequently, in 1918, he was appointed Professor of Philosophy at the University of Mysore, where he taught at Maharaja’s College, Mysore. During this time, he authored numerous articles for esteemed journals and published his first book, “The Philosophy of Rabindranath Tagore.” He believed that Tagore’s philosophy represented the genuine spirit of India.
In 1921, Radhakrishnan assumed the position of a philosophy professor, holding the King George V Chair of Mental and Moral Science at the University of Calcutta. His representation of the university at various international events enhanced his academic reputation. Notably, he delivered the Hibbert Lecture on the ideals of life at Manchester College, Oxford, in 1929, later published as “An Idealist View of Life.”
Radhakrishnan’s academic journey also led him to the University of Oxford, where he was appointed the Spalding Professor of Eastern Religion and Ethics in 1936. He became a Fellow of All Souls College during his time at Oxford and received nominations for the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1936 and 1937. In 1939, he was invited to serve as the Vice-Chancellor of Banaras Hindu University (BHU).
Radhakrishnan’s political career began relatively late in life after a successful academic journey. He was initially known for his international authority before entering politics. He played a role in the Andhra Mahasabha in 1928, where he supported renaming the Ceded Districts division of Madras Presidency as Rayalaseema.
After India’s independence in 1947, Radhakrishnan represented India at UNESCO from 1946 to 1952 and served as the Ambassador of India to the Soviet Union from 1949 to 1952. He was also a member of the Constituent Assembly of India.
Radhakrishnan was elected as the first Vice-President of India in 1952 and later served as the second President of India from 1962 to 1967. Despite his limited political background, his motivation was rooted in his pride in Hindu culture and his dedication to defending Hinduism against misinformed Western criticism.
Upon becoming President of India, Radhakrishnan’s students and friends expressed a desire to celebrate his birthday, which falls on September 5th. In response, he suggested that instead of celebrating his birthday, the day should be observed as Teachers’ Day in India. Since then, September 5th has been celebrated as Teacher’s Day in honor of his commitment to education and teaching.