September 05, President Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan’s birthday is celebrated as Teachers’ Day in India. On Sunday, September 05, 2021, I want to share my reflections on the philosophy of Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan.
Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan (1888—1975)
As an academic, philosopher, and statesman, Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan (1888-1975) was one of the most recognized and influential Indian thinkers in academic circles in the 20th century. Throughout his life and extensive writing career, Radhakrishnan sought to define, defend, and promulgate his religion, a religion he variously identified as Hinduism, Vedanta, and the Religion of the Spirit. He sought to demonstrate that his Hinduism was both philosophically coherent and ethically viable. Radhakrishnan’s concern for experience and his extensive knowledge of the Western philosophical and literary traditions has earned him the reputation of being a bridge-builder between India and the West. He often appears to feel at home in the Indian as well as the Western philosophical contexts, and draws from both Western and Indian sources throughout his writing. Because of this, Radhakrishnan has been held up in academic circles as a representative of Hinduism to the West. His lengthy writing career and his many published works have been influential in shaping the West’s understanding of Hinduism, India, and the East.
Radhakrishnan located his metaphysics within the Advaita (non-dual) Vedanta tradition (sampradaya). And like other Vedantins before him, Radhakrishnan wrote commentaries on the Prasthanatraya (that is, main primary texts of Vedanta ): the Upanishads (1953),Brahma Sutra (1959), and the Bhagavadgita (1948).
As an Advaitin, Radhakrishnan embraced a metaphysical idealism. But Radhakrishnan’s idealism was such that it recognized the reality and diversity of the world of experience (Prakrit) while at the same time preserving the notion of a wholly transcendent Absolute (Brahman), an Absolute that is identical to the self (Atman). While the world of experience and of everyday things is certainly not ultimate reality as it is subject to change and is characterized by finitude and multiplicity, it nonetheless has its origin and support in the Absolute (Brahman) which is free from all limits, diversity, and distinctions (Nirguṇa). Brahman is the source of the world and its manifestations, but these modes do not affect the integrity of Brahman.
In this vein, Radhakrishnan did not merely reiterate the metaphysics of Shankara (8th century C.E.), arguably Advaita Vedanta’s most prominent and enduring figure, but sought to reinterpret Advaita for present needs. In particular, Radhakrishnan reinterpreted what he saw as Shankara’s understanding of Maya strictly as illusion. For Radhakrishnan, Maya ought not to be understood to imply a strict objective idealism, one in which the world is taken to be inherently disconnected from Brahman, but rather Maya indicates, among other things, a subjective misconception of the world as ultimately real. [See Donald Bauer, Maya in Radhakrishnan’s Thought: Six Meanings Other Than Illusion (1985) for a full treatment of this issue.]
We need a methodology to study philosophy and to understand philosophical statements. Logical Positivism, also known as Scientific Empiricism aims to clarify concepts in both everyday and scientific language. It describes analysis of language as the function of philosophy. This analysis of language and of concepts is important to understand questions of belief and ideology which affect what we think we ought to do individually and socially. I would use this method of ‘Applied Philosophy’ to analyze the philosophical doctrine of ‘Advaita’ and to study the views and philosophy of Adi Shankara and his efforts to interpret the true or real identity.
In the study of a man, the know-er and the known are one. The man is the observer and the observed fact is that of the man’s nature. If a man has to know the truth about his true or real self, the man has to understand the truth and reliability of his own cognitive powers. If the Subject called man is identified as an Object called Soul, or Spirit, the Truth or Reality of Soul, or Spirit involves a structural/functional relationship between the Subject and its Object.
Dr. Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan’s metaphysics fails to account for the existence of the Spirit in the physical, material, terrestrial, or immanent realm called Earth. Just like Shankara, Radhakrishnan claims that the Absolute (Brahman) is identical to the true or real Self (Atman) without clarifying the structural and the functional relationship between the human body and its indwelling Soul, Spirit, or Atman. In any case, Hinduism cannot be defined as the Religion of the Spirit. In my experience, most Hindus worship Mother Earth as the physical manifestation of the Absolute (Brahman). In my analysis, the Spirituality of the Hindu experience always includes a Material Basis to account for the relationship between the man, the Earth, and God.