S.Radhakrishnan’s Talisman – A Vision of ‘Dharmaniṣṭha’

A giant amongst modern intellectuals, S.Radhakrishnan was an exemplar for his ability to articulate the timeless essence of Indian philosophical thought in contemporary western idiom.

By Raghava Krishna, Associate Dean for Academics at Rashtram

The philosophy of the school room in one generation will be the philosophy of government in the next.

U.S. President Abraham Lincoln


The role a society accords to its teachers and philosophers can tell us a great deal about the self-confidence of that culture. India’s neglect of its own philosophy is perhaps best illustrated by the space we have accorded to our teacher-philosopher-president – Shri S.Radhakrishnan, in our nation’s collective memory.

A giant amongst modern intellectuals, S.Radhakrishnan was an exemplar for his ability to articulate the timeless essence of Indian philosophical thought in contemporary western idiom and engage with the global intellectual streams without fear or favour. He was a great ambassador of Indian culture who highlighted the remarkable achievement of our civilization that got the ‘multitude interested in metaphysics’.

His masterful demonstration of the Indic scholarly tradition and his formulation of ‘Spiritual Liberty, Political Equality and Economic Fraternity’ is a talisman of Dharmaniṣṭha that can hold a mirror to the practitioners of the sort of lazy liberalism that is in vogue in today’s India.


India’s ‘founding fathers’ is a rather loosely defined term for a narrowly constructed imagination. It is often invoked only to provide thrust to an even smaller conception of this great nation i.e. the ‘Idea of India’ paradigm. There is little space in that august company for the ancient or modern purveyors of Indian philosophical thought, our ṛṣi-s who were rooted in the Indian ethos – not even when they are presidents. This problem of accommodation in the pantheon is resolved through cerebral gestures and shibboleths that we mechanically dole out every year, like the ‘Teachers day’ celebrations. This is a travesty for a civilization that was built on the foundation of knowledge with gurus as the lodestars.

It is important to reflect on the place we’ve accorded to a philosopher in post-independent India. In the west, we can sense a continuity and coherence between the works of philosophers and the design of socio-political systems – From Hegel to Huntington, the impact is real and traceable. In India, our rootedness in our own philosophical systems was strangulated first by the colonialists and then, ironically, by the modern Indian state. This led to the lopsided ascendancy of the political dimension, where activism is mistaken for truth-seeking. Is this perhaps the reason why a vast majority of our country engages in schizophrenia, playing Jekyll and Hyde between their lived experiences and some notion of constitutional patriotism.

It is the philosopher who synthesizes the inherent constitution of a people and the constitution of a Republic, it is the philosopher who harmonizes the natural ways of a civilization and tethers it to the fundamental requisites of a modern nation-state.

In S. Radhakrishnan, India had one such philosopher and we missed the opportunity to listen and be informed, for we have been too busy with revolutions and activism. We missed a chance to let the civilizational ideal of ‘Dharma’ define and guide our ‘Constitutional Morality’.

An Idealist and his ideals

What do we mean by rootedness and Indian ethos? It can be defined as a place you start from if you are from this land or an attitude of respect and empathy for tradition but the best way to answer this question is to go back to S.Radhakrishnan’s words – He alludes to the importance of tradition and a sense of history and the role they play in ‘developing a higher mind’ (in a short collection of his essays titled Foundation of Civilization), he writes:

“This land of ours is no sandbank thrown up by some recent caprice of the earth. It is a stately growth with roots striking deep through the centuries. Nations have a history as well as a geography – They live and grow not by the forces of wind and rain but by the passions and ideals that animate them”

Enlightening us further on the very pursuit of studying the past, he says:

“In these days of startling scientific developments, it may not be useless to point out that reconstructing the mosaic of the long forgotten past is not a less ennobling performance on the part of human mind than calculating the movements of the stars or making ships fly in the air”

How reassuring and contemporary these words sound! Contrast them with the ‘India stepping away from the past’ sort of sermons we are given, and we get a sense of the divergence between what India is and what it thinks it ought to be in the name of modernity.

The most striking aspect of S.Radhakrishnan’s oeuvre is the startling expanse of his intellectual survey. From eastern philosophies to western advances in science, from the nature of religious experience to an analysis of possible substitutes, to spirit, matter and mind and finally to the question of human personality and its destiny, nothing escapes this philosopher’s gaze.

In his book An Idealist View of Life, Prof. Radhakrishnan delves deep into the question of religion and its role in society. He examines the modern challenge to religion, the substitutes such as naturalistic atheism, agnosticism, scepticism, humanism, pragmatism, modernism and authoritarianism to give us a distilled essence of why the ‘spiritual and the transcendental’ elements that religion provides are at the very core of human experience with no alternatives. 

He provides a strong riposte to the criticism of religion as dogma and how religion, particularly Hinduism, is a ‘working hypothesis of man’s conduct’ that delivers a cordial harmony between man and god. He also draws on the Vedantic tradition to explore the nature of mind and reaffirms the primacy of ‘intuition’ that is Svatahsiddha (Self-established), Svasamvedya (self-evidencing) and Svayamprakasa (self-luminous). 

He sums it up thus:

“Intuition is its own cause and its own explanation. It is sovereign. Intuition is a positive feeling of calm and confidence, joy and strength. Intuition is profoundly satisfying. It is peace , power and joy”

It is from this vantage point that he asserted the fundamental distinction of Indian philosophy and the civilization that that philosophy spawned, the broad contours of which can be captured as below.

India’s philosophy is essentially spiritual – In other words, it flows from the intuitive insights into the cosmos to the constitution of the natural and social environment. It neither precludes nor eulogizes Politics or Ethics (Plato and Aristotle) or Theology or Natural Sciences (Bacon, Newton) or History or Sociology (19th century). It was concerned with the fundamental question of the nature of reality and took inspiration from the immense diversity and plurality to weave sustainable and meaningful ways of life based on those first principles. 

The questions of political or social organization were subsumed in this grand scheme which was based on ṛta and dharma – S.Radhakrishnan provided the modern version of this timeless philosophy when he said that we should strive for “Liberty in spiritual pursuits, Equality in political matters and a sense of Fraternity in economic activities” (In the book The Hindu View of Life).

 This is Dharmaniṣṭhaand this is how the Indian civilization survived the invasions and ravages of time.This holds deep lessons for contemporary liberalism which is facing a moment of catharsis as it struggles with the waning explanatory power of ‘reason’ without any conception of the deeper metaphysics that can lead it to intuition. The homogenizing impulse of such misplaced philosophy has led to the loss of faith and human imagination, culminating in nihilism.

As we approach another ‘Teachers Day’, a vast majority of schools will perhaps celebrate this as they would any other occasion. The secular rituals and protocols would take center stage without the burden of a critical analysis of the ideas and ideals of the person and their relevance, without sparking the curiosity of the child to try and engage with the ideas behind the man.

We should do better.  S.Radhakrishnan, if he were alive, would have disapproved of such an attitude. He would have instead urged institutions to go back to the primary purpose of education and life, and to trade opulence for knowledge. He exemplified the core spirit of this knowledge centric culture when he decided to give away a part of the imposing, colonial style presidential mansion at Simla to set-up what we now know as the Indian Institute of Advanced Study (IIAS).  

The students would do well to remember the professor’s words:

“Every great achievement is a vision in the soul, before it becomes a fact of history”.

Apply Now