Biographical Dictionary of Twentieth-Century Philosophers

By Stuart Brown; Diané Collinson et al. | Go to book overview
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Radhakrishnan, Sarvepalli

Indian, b: 5 September 1888, Tiruttani, near Madras, d: 16 April 1975. Madras. Cat: Idealist. Ints: Metaphysics; epistemology; Eastern religions; Western philosophy. Educ: Madras Christian College. Infls: Advaita Vedanta. Appts: 1931-6, Vice-Chancellor, Andhra University; 1936-52, Professor of Eastern Religious and Ethics, University of Oxford; 1939-48, Vice Chancellor, Benaras Hindu University; 1946-52, Head Indian delegation, UNESCO; 1949-52, Indian Ambassador to Russia; 1952-62, Vice-President of India; 1962-7, President of India.

Main publications:
(1923) Indian Philosophy, vol. I, London: George Allen & Unwin.
(1927) Indian Philosophy, vol. II, London: George Allen & Unwin.
(1927) The Hindu View of Life, London: George Allen & Unwin.
(1931) An Idealist View of Life, London: George Allen & Unwin.
(1933) East and West in Religion, London: George Allen & Unwin.
(1939) Eastern Religions and Western Thought, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
(1947) Religion and Society, London: George Allen & Unwin.
(1948) The Bhagavad Gita, London: George Allen & Unwin.
(1960) The Brahma Sutra, London: Allen & Unwin.

Secondary literature:
Gopal, S. (1989) Radhakrishnan: A Biography, New Delhi: Oxford University Press.
Schilpp, Paul Arthur (1952) The Philosophy of Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, La Salle: Open Court Publishing.

Radhakrishnan's philosophy is mainly founded on Shankara's Advaita Vedanta, although he has modified it to some extent. The influence of Shankara is at its most explicit in his metaphysics. According to Radhakrishnan, the sciences are unable to provide an adequate account of reality since they cannot account for values and religious experiences. For him, the purpose, values and qualities of existence that are to be found in the world require an ontological foundation. And this foundation is provided by the Absolute, Supreme or Brahman, which is free from the distinctions of subject and object, beyond speech and mind, indescribable and eternal.

The problem with a philosophy that posits oneness as Reality is the nature of its relation to the world as we know it-that is, as consisting of distinct objects. For Sankara, the world of phenomena including Ishvara (personal aspect of Brahman or personal God) is an illusion (maja) or magic (indrajala) and therefore dismissible. Radhakrishnan, however, does not treat the world of Ishvara as unreal. For him, the world is real since it is a creation of the Supreme. However, unlike the Supreme which is uncreated and eternal, the world is temporal, imperfect and dependent. 'Maya' has a standing in the world of reality…it is not so much a veil as the dress of God' (1960, p. 157). And Ishvara too is an aspect of the Absolute and is not an illusion.

The comprehension of Brahman, according to Radhakrishnan, takes place through intuitive knowledge-the intimate fusion of the mind with reality. In intuitive knowledge, the subject becomes one with the object of knowledge. In this it differs from perception or inference, the other two modes of knowing, where the subject-object distinction persists. Since Radhakrishnan views intuition as a valid means of knowledge, he is led to hold that religion is a proper concern of philosophy rather than theology.

Religious faith and religion, according to Radhakrishnan, play important roles in man's comprehension of reality and the evolution of the divine nature in man, which in turn promote peaceful coexistence, justice and equality.

Given Radhakrishnan's views about the divine nature of mankind, it is surprising that he endorsed the caste system which decides the status of an individual in society on the basis of heredity. In The Hindu View of Life (1927, pp. 98-126) he regards the caste system as a singular achievement of Hinduism. Radhakrishnan seems to justify the equity of the caste system the basis of


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