Teachers’ Day: 10 things to know about India’s ‘philosopher President’ Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan

Updated on Sep 05, 2017 10:05 AM IST

In 1962, the birthday of former president Professor Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan was first observed as Teachers’ Day on September 5.

Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan(Shutterstock)
Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan(Shutterstock)
Hindustan Times, New Delhi | ByHT Correspondent

It was in 1962 that the birthday of former President professor Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan was first observed as Teachers’ Day on September 5.

Dr Radhakrishnan was the President of India, the vice-president and the Indian envoy to the Soviet Union; but above all, he was a philosopher and a teacher.

On this Teachers’ Day, here are 10 things you should know about the ‘philosopher President’ of India:

1) Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan was born on September 5, 1888, into a poor Brahmin family at Tamil Nadu’s Tiruttani, a town in the then Madras Presidency.

It is said his father wanted him to become a priest and not study English. Radhakrishnan was eventually sent to a school in Thirupati.

A brilliant student, he was awarded scholarships throughout his academic life. Radhakrishnan joined the Voorhee’s College in Vellore, though he later moved to the Madras Christian College at the age of 17. There, he studied philosophy but it wasn’t by choice. He didn’t have enough money to buy books, and his cousin, who had graduated in philosophy from the same college, passed on his books -- the choice was made for Dr Radhakrishnan.

His thesis on Vedanta philosophy, which was published when he was just 20, was hailed as one of the best.

2) Radhakrishnan completed his MA in philosophy in 1908 and became a faculty member at the Madras Presidency College. He went on to teach at the University of Calcutta, the University of Oxford, and the University of Mysore. He also served as the vice chancellor of Andhra University and the Banaras Hindu University.

3) Radhakrishnan was popular among his students and is credited with bringing Indian philosophy to the West. When the professor was leaving the University of Calcutta to teach in Mysore, his students arranged and drove him in a flower-decked carriage from the varsity to the railway station, according to India Today.

4) The late president was married to his distant cousin Sivakamu at the age of 16. His wife died in 1956.

Former Indian cricketer VVS Laxman is the is the great grandnephew of Dr Radhakrishnan.

5) Before holding vice presidency in 1952, Radhakrishnan was appointed as the ambassador to the UNESCO in 1946 and then to the Soviet Union.

He was elected the President of Republic of India in 1962. British philosopher and Nobel laureate Bertrand Russel said of his appointment: “It is an honour to philosophy that Dr Radhakrishnan should be President of India and I, as a philosopher, take special pleasure in this. Plato aspired for philosophers to become kings and it is a tribute to India that she should make a philosopher her President.”

Dr Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan (1888 - 1975) , the second president of India, administers the oath of office to prime minister Indira Gandhi at the Rashtrapati Bhavan in New Delhi. (Getty Images)
Dr Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan (1888 - 1975) , the second president of India, administers the oath of office to prime minister Indira Gandhi at the Rashtrapati Bhavan in New Delhi. (Getty Images)

6) When he became the President, some of Radhkrishnan’s students requested him to allow them to celebrate his birthday. He replied, “Instead of celebrating my birthday, it would be my proud privilege if September 5 is observed as Teachers’ Day.” His birthday has since been marked as a day to commemorate the contribution of teachers to our lives.

7) It is said the former prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru wanted Radhakrishnan to succeed Rajendra Prasad as president in 1957 but due to strenuous opposition from Maulana Azad, this did not happen. Nehru ensured that Radhakrishnan became the leader of the Indian Republic in 1962.

8) Radhkrishnan’s presidency was tumultuous. India witnessed two wars during his time in office -- against China months after his ascendancy and against Pakistan in 1965.

In his broadcast to the nation on September 25, 1965, he said: “Pakistan assumed that India was too weak or too afraid or too proud to fight. India, though naturally disinclined to take to arms felt the necessity to defend herself when attacked. Pakistan also assumed that communal disturbances would occur in the country and in the resulting chaos, she could have her way. Her miscalculations must have come to her as a rude shock.”

In 1964, Nehru passed away and Lal Bahadur Shastri’s death two years after in Uzbekistan came as a shock.

9) The great Indian thinker, S Radhakrishnan “throughout a long life had never been guilty of a mean deed; and it is unlikely that he ever had a mean thought”, his son Sarvepalli Gopal wrote in a biography.

10) In an article in India Today, former politician K Natwar Singh said then prime minister Indira Gandhi did not take kindly to Radhakrishnan’s public criticism of her government and she denied him a second term in 1967. “This was a great blow to Radhakrishnan.”

The last few years of Radhkrishnan’s life were lonely and depressing, said Singh, adding: “The most articulate of men lost his power of speech, then the body gave way and lastly his mind.”

“Finally, in the early hours of 17th April 1975, Radhakrishnan drifted out of the harbour of a silent tide,” his son wrote in his biography

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