Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan – the end of an era

By Zuhair Siddiqi

guest-contributor“In these dark and threatening times we have to rediscover the vital truths, those great patterns of thought and behaviour, those great moral and spiritual values, the oneness of God and the bro­therhood of man, which are asso­ciated with Islam. Unfortunately, in the course of centuries these central truths are obscured, and rites and rituals, creeds and dog­mas, have covered up the simplicity of the message of Islam. It is the duty of thinkers in each generation to recapture the origi­nal purity and dynamic vigour of the ancient message and re-express it in the idiom of their age”.

Whose voice is this? Not Iq­bal’s. Nor that of any Muslim. It is the voice of Sarvepalli Radha­krishnan, the Indian philosopher and statesman, who passed away last week at the ripe old age of 87.

Born in an orthodox Brahman family steeped in the Hindu tradi­tion, Radhakrishnan grew into a serious student of philosophy and religion, and ultimately rose to be one of the greatest Indian thin­kers of the present age. He taught philosophy at the Univer­sities of Madras, Mysore, Cal­cutta and Benares, and also serv­ed as the Vice-Chancellor of the Universities of Andhra and Bena­res. Long before India attained freedom, his profound scholar­ship and gift for exposition had found international recognition in his appointment as Spalding Pro­fessor of Eastern Religions and Ethics at the University of Oxford. A string of international’ honours followed, including half a dozen doctorates and an ho­norary’ professorship at Moscow University in 1956. During the long years of his career as a tea­cher, he wrote over a score of books on philosophy and reli­gion.

In spite of his deep commitment to religion and his articulate dis­agreement with materialist philo­sophy, he was chosen as India’s Ambassador to the Soviet Union, in the earlier years of freedom. His intellectual eminence, tower­ing personality and deep under­standing of human affairs, contri­buted notably towards the conso­lidation of his country’s relations with its giant Communist neigh­bour. He returned from. Moscow in 1952 to be the first Vice-Pre­sident of the Indian Union. Ten years later he was elected Presi­dent. He retired in 1967—to be succeeded by the eminent Mus­lim intellectual, Zakir Husain. Already past 75, he then faded into a life of retirement and contem­plation; “by unperceived degrees he wore away”, and little was heard of him until the end came a few days ago.

Radhakrishnan and his suc­cessor, Zakir Husain, were in a sense, mutually radhacomplementary personalities in contemporary In­dia. The one a devout Hindu and the other an equally devoted Mus­lim, both had the sublimity of mind and the breadth of vision to discern and appreciate the ele­ments of truth and virtue in reli­gions other than their own. Out of this appreciation was born a perfect tolerance and an earnest belief in the possibilities of the mutual co-existence of various faiths. Also a deep awareness of the need for, a sincere understanding among the followers of dif­ferent creeds, particularly in so­cieties embracing more religions than one. Both the savants com­bined with a deep and extensive knowledge of their respective re­ligious and cultural systems a wide and keen understanding of the modern world and its inevit­able and growing impact upon traditional values and ancient institutions. Both were forward-looking. Inspired and guided, but not shackled, by all that is va­luable in the past, they shared the vision of an order which should ensure for the individual a harmonious blend of inner peace and serenity born of refined spiri­tual faith, and the intellectual and material blessings of modern phi­losophy and science.

Like the mystics of old, Muslim as well as Hindu, Radhakrishnan believed in some kind of a re­conciliation between the teach­ings of different religions. His ideal of reconciliation was, under­standably, more in harmony with the essence of the Hindu ideology than with any other faith. And his perpetual hark-back to the Hindu ideology in the course of his speeches as India’s spokes­man often jarred on secular ears.

But his belief that religious teach­ings were a concern of philosophy rather than theology involved an ultimate rejection of dogmatism, which he regarded as a divisive force and a major cause of con­flicts between faiths. The ideal faith of which he dreamed would demand “loyalty to the whole of mankind, and not to this or that fraction of it, a faith to which the secular and emancipated mind might cling even in the face of disaster”.

Like all great thinkers of the age, Radhakrishnan was dismay­ed and alarmed at the deadly chasm between man’s fantastic intellectual powers and the rela­tive poverty of his ability to prevent the abuse        of these powers for destructive ends. Like many of them, he thought that the chasm could be filled only through a radical trans­formation of the human individual and the birth of a new man. And his faith in a divine purpose in creation sustained his hope in such a moral rebirth of man.

lqbal lamented the failure of man, who had succeeded in har­nessing the rays of the sun and charting the paths of the planets, to dispel the gloom and suffering that blights his own life, and to realize the world of his ideals. The promise of a world really worth living in, he imagined, would be realized through the mard-i-mu’min, with his combina­tion of love, obedience to the law and self-control. Radhakrishnan’s ideas on the subject offer a striking parallel: “Our scientific and technical achievements are of a staggering character. We are trying to touch the stars and reach the moon, yet we are clinging to established relationships among sovereign states which, in the nuclear age, will lead to disaster. The human individual is to be re­newed if human society is to be preserved”.

These ideals are, in essence, in harmony with the ancient Bib­lical ideal of men beating their swords into ploughshares. And if the ideal has survived two thou­sand years of man’s inhumanity to man—of mutual hate and hostility, of senseless cruelty and vandalism, of massacres and wars, there may still be some sense in the hope that it may ultimately triumph. In the pre­sent age, when man at times ap­pears perilously close to self-annihilation, any voice that re­minds us of that ideal helps to strengthen the hope that springs eternal in the human breast.

Source: Pakistan Economist  26 April 1975