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Celebrating Dr Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan: A Teacher Par Excellence

A look at the life of the man who insisted that “teachers must be the best minds in the country”.

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(This article was first published on 5 September 2017. It has been republished from The Quint’s archives to mark Dr Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan’s birth anniversary.)

Dr Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan’s birthday is celebrated as Teacher’s Day across India. You know that the former President of India was a distinguished teacher, an effective diplomat, a cultural ambassador and an exemplary philosopher. But did you know that Dr Radhakrishnan’s tryst with philosophy occurred more by chance than choice?

Dr Radhakrishnan was born in 1888, to a poor family in a village near Thiruttani in Tamil Nadu. He drawn to Hindu and Indian philosophy, a passion he fuelled with the books that his cousin passed down to him. His thesis on Vedanta made him a spokesperson of sorts for ‘Neo-Vedanta’.

After graduating from the Madras Christian College armed with a Masters’ Degree in the subject, Dr Radhakrishnan began his academic career by teaching at the Madras Presidency College.

He was later invited by the University of Mysore to take up the role of a Professor in Philosophy, thus kick-starting an illustrious academic career that was peppered with scholarships and awards.

Dr Radhkrishnan went on to represent the University of Calcutta at Harvard University, and was also invited to teach at the Harris Manchester College in Oxford. He was knighted by Geroge V in 1931 for his services, and was named Spalding Professor of Eastern Religions and Ethics at the University of Oxford in 1936. He also served as the Vice-Chancellor of Andhra University and the Banaras Hindu University over the course of his academic tenure.

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Tryst with Politics

His association with politics began rather late in life. In 1931, he was nominated to the League of Nations ‘Committee of Intellectual Cooperation’, owing to his vast knowledge in Indian and Eastern philosophy.

Following India’s Independence in 1947, Dr Radhakrishnan became the Indian representative at the UNESCO from 1946-1952, simultaneously fulfilling his responsibilities as the Indian Ambassador to Russia from 1949 to 1952.

According to IANS, his role as the envoy to Moscow was of utmost importance as the Cold War was its peak, and Dr Radhakrishnsn’s effective diplomacy lay the grounds for initiating Soviet/Russian support for India on Kashmir.

In fact, veteran diplomat Maharaja Krishna Rasgotra, in his memoir ‘A Life in Diplomacy’ terms the decision to send Radhakrishnan to Moscow, “Nehru’s most imaginative choice for the post at that particular time”.

Though never an active member of the Congress, he was elected to the Constituent Assembly. He was elected as the first Vice-President of India in 1952, and was subsequently made the President of India in 1962. As President, Dr Radhakrishnan made 11 foreign trips, including the USSR and US.

He has been credited for cooling tempers during the anti-Hindi agitation of 1965. According to IANS, it was his refusal to accept then Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri’s recommendation to take back ministers who had resigned over the agitation that forced Shastri to bow down and work for a compromise, bringing the agitation to a stand-still.

But above all, Dr Radhakrishnan was a teacher par excellence, who believed that “Teachers should be the best minds in the country", prompting his birthday to be celebrated nationally as ‘Teacher’s Day’.

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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