“We seem to be alienated from nature, leading sceptical, artificial and self-centred lives”
Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan (1888-1975) was one of India’s most important 20th century thinkers, who fused Eastern and Western inspirations to forge a holistic philosophy in opposition to the mechanistic capitalist age.
While he became the second president of independent India, between 1962 and 1967, his political and spiritual ambitions went much further and deeper.
In the words of Professor Narayan Champawat, “he sought to revitalize idealist philosophy as an answer to the crisis of world civilization and aspired to be a midwife to the world’s unborn soul”. (1)
Radhakrishnan found himself in fundamental opposition to a Western industrial capitalist civilization in which human beings were rapidly losing all sense of belonging to a meaningful greater whole.
He wrote in An Idealist View of Life, first published in 1929: “Since the primaeval unity is broken, man is uncertain and wavering. We seem to be alienated from nature, leading sceptical, artificial and self-centred lives. (2)
“Thousands of young men the world over are breaking their heads in vain against the iron walls of society like trapped birds in cages”. (3)
The problem, he said, was that “a purely mechanical explanation” (4) for the world was offered by contemporary culture.
For Western intellectuals the universe was nothing but “the product of unconscious, mechanistic energy towards which we cannot have any feeling of reverence or worship”. (5)
Declared Radhakrishnan: “We are slaves of a mechanical system of ideas. Rationalist codes of morality sacrifice flexibility and richness to correctness and consistency. Professing to act on principles, our intellectuals are cut off from the deeper sources of vitality and their souls are at strife with their minds”. (6)
This mechanistic world had inevitably spawned its own kind of philosophy, a fake philosophy which did not reveal deep truths but concealed them behind layers of narrow specialist sophistication.
He wrote: “If the philosophers today are not so influential as they used to be, it is to no small extent due to the fact that they are specializing in abstruse problems which are beyond the comprehension of a layman.
“They manipulate abstract concepts with the weapons of logical analysis. Philosophy which was once the pursuit of wisdom has become the possession of a technique”. (7)
Against this modern outlook, Radhakrishnan insisted on a completely different vision of reality: “The truth of the universe is not a mathematical system or a biological adjustment or a psychological pluralism or ethical individualism but a spiritual organism… Nature is one large whole with matter, life, mind and value as its constituents”. (8)
This vision was based on a holism which Radhakrishnan partly sourced from the metaphysics of his native Hindu culture.
He explained: “If science teaches us anything, it is the organic nature of the universe. We are one with the world that has made us, one with every scene that is spread before our eyes. In a metaphor common to the Upanishads and Plato every unit of nature is a microcosm reflecting in itself the entire all-inclusive macrocosm.
“We are solid with the world and are deeply rooted in it. We are not merely spectators of the universe but constituent parts of it”. (9)
Organisms, said Radhakrishnan, were not separate from their environment but “inextricably intertwined”. (10)
He said: “To understand life is to possess it as a whole in the unity of thought. Primitive man lived in vital unself-conscious union with nature. When his critical intelligence develops, a dualism is set up between man and the rest of reality. This dualism is the source of fear”. (11)
The Indian philosopher, described by Champawat as “the greatest exponent of Vedanta in the 20th century”, (12) echoed Peter Kropotkin when he argued: “Nature in its ultimate being abhors evil and strives for goodness. This is the first principle of all ethics”. (13)
Like the Russian anarchist, with his emphasis on mutual aid as a factor in evolution, Radhakrishnan saw a structure of abstract (or “ideal”) values and principles behind the physical reality of our world.
He wrote: “An idealist view finds that the universe has meaning, has value. Ideal values are the dynamic forces, the driving power of the universe”. (14)
Ultimately, for Radhakrishnan, this meaning came from the oneness of everything, awareness of which amounted to spiritual freedom. The subject knows his deepest self is one and the same as the Absolute Spirit.
Because we belong to the universe, we are not limited to studying or observing it in a supposedly detached and rational way, but we can also grasp it from within, without the use of physical bodily senses.
This intuitive insight, “the extension of perception to regions beyond sense” (15) was immensely important for Radhakrishnan. He said that it was “native to the soul”, (16) “spiritual wisdom at its highest” (17) and the “ultimate vision of our profoundest being”. (18)
Unfortunately, mechanistic modern civilization dismissed the possibility of such intuition and humanity was cut off from its native wisdom. “So long as the individual suffers from separateness he is restive and homesick. He is always striving to get beyond his separateness” (19) said Radhakrishnan. “We have not found our true selves, and we know that we have not”. (20)
He urged individuals to make the effort, if they were able, to become aware of their connection to the universe and the intuition that this provided.
He asked his readers: “Have you that spiritual dimension to your being, that mood of reflective inqury and self-contemplation, that anxiety of mind to know the things spiritual in which is the true dwelling-place of man? Or do you belong to the race of unreflective people who are satisfied with business or politics or sport, whose life is dull prose without any ideal meaning?” (21)
Champawat explains that the spiritual journey proposed by Radhakrishnan passes through the level of action without attachment to the fruit of action (nishkama karma) towards the final goal of spiritual freedom (moksha). (22)
Radhakrishnna himself explains that the seeker of this awareness follows an inner rhythm which goads him on.
“By following his deeper nature, he may seem to be unwise or unmoral to those of us who adopt the conventional standards. But for him the spiritual obligation is of more consequence than social tradition.
“The inward constraint is more important than the law imposed from without. He craves for inner truthfulness, utter sincerity, and not conventional propriety. He is fighting for the rehaping of his society on sounder lines”. (23)
Such people – “the thinkers, the artists and the heroes” – break down the barriers between the individual and the universal. And yet, paradoxically, at the same time they also appear to be cut off from their fellow human beings.
“They are lonely, self-centred, not by choice but by necessity. Genius has no place for team-work. Poets and prophets do not go into committees”. (24)
Radhakrishnan said that the person who has achieved spiritual freedom has a vision of life so clear and complete that “it lives through days of darkness, beholding the sun with the eye of the soul”. (25)
Such a person struggles to reconcile the existent world with the vision he carries within. “His life burns out in a blaze of sorrow and suffering. He is able to face crises in life with a mind full of serenity and joy, the joy which is the sign of proper fulfilment of function, nature’s seal that life’s direction is right and secure”. (26)
In keeping with his holistic approach, there was no dividing line between Radhakrishnan’s metaphysical and political views.
Champawat writes: “The cornerstone of Radhakrishnan’s social philosophy was the axiom flowing from his Idealist metaphysics, that all human beings are of the same divine essence and therefore of equal worth and entitled to the same fundamental rights.
“He was convinced that social justice was not possible without economic justice. He opposed capitalism because concentration of economic power is not just. He also opposed communism and fascism since all forms of regimentation and totalitarianism deny freedom and rights of man”. (27)
Radhakrishnan often emphasised the role of religion in shaping society along the right lines, but this was not religion as understood in the West – he insisted that God was a “symbol” for the Absolute. (28)
He cast his net wide for inspiration and in An Idealist View of Life he manages to cite no fewer than nine other organic radical inspirations: Hans Driesch, Mohandas Gandhi, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Georg Hegel, Carl Jung, Plotinus, Herbert Read, Friedrich Schelling and Rabindranath Tagore.
Radhakrishnan noted with interest that Plotinus and Neo-Platonism, “which originated in Alexandria, where Oriental modes of thought were not unknown” had presented the West with a more organic vision until the purely rationalistic approach prevailed. (29)
And he identified Hegel as belonging to the perennial metaphysical tradtion, with his monistic view of the universe which held that “all reality is a single spiritual organism”. (30)
The hope for contemporary human society lay in the revival of this tradition, which presented an inspiring alternative to the dead-end and dead-eyed modern cult of quantity and superficiality.
He wrote: “We are waiting for a vital religion, a live philosophy, which will reconstruct the bases of conviction and devise a scheme of life which men can follow with self-respect and joy”. (31)
Radhakrishnan called for “creative minds” to come forward “at a time when humanity is struggling to rise from a state of subjection to authority to one in which perfect self-determination is possible”.
He added: “The prophet souls and not the priest minds, the original men of understanding and not the mechanical imitation of the inherited habits are needed to help our wandering generation to fashion a goal for itself. Prophecy is insight. It is vision. It is anticipating experience. It is seeing the present so fully as to to foresee the future”. (32)
And he stressed: “The golden age is in the future vision, not in the fabled past”. (33)
Video link: Documentary on Dr Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan (27 mins).
Audio link: The voice of Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan (1 min)
1. Narayan Champawat, ‘Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan’, Great Thinkers of the Eastern World: The major thinkers and the philosophical and religious classics of China, India, Japan, Korea and the world of Islam, ed. by Ian P. McGreal (New York: HarperCollins, 1995), p. 279.
2. Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, An Idealist View of Life (London: Unwin Hyman, 1988), p. 169.
3. Radhakrishnan, p. 223.
4. Radhakrishnan, p. 16.
5. Radhakrishnan, p. 40.
6. Radhakrishnan, p. 156.
7. Radhakrishnan, p. 144.
8. Radhakrishnan, pp. 247-48.
9. Radhakrishnan, p. 43.
10. Radhakrishnan, p. 198.
11. Radhakrishnan, p. 45.
12. Champawat, p. 283.
13. Radhakrishnan, p. 122.
14. Radhakrishnan, p. 10.
15. Radhakrishnan, p. 113.
16. Radhakrishnan, p. 123.
17. Radhakrishnan, p. 138.
18. Radhakrishnan, p. 114.
19. Radhakrishnan, pp. 216-17.
20. Radhakrishnan, p. 64.
21. Radhakrishnan, p. 10.
22. Champawat, p. 280.
23. Radhakrishnan, p. 155.
24. Radhakrishnan, p. 162.
25. Radhakrishnan, p. 91.
27. Champawat, pp. 282-83.
28. Radhakrishnan, p. 86.
29. Radhakrishnan, p. 103.
30. Radhakrishnan, p. 135.
31. Radhakrishnan, p. 65.
32. Radhakrishnan, p. 39.
33. Radhakrishnan, p. 13.