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Remembering Dr. Radhakrishnan: 8 Little-Known Facts About India’s Legendary Teacher and Philosopher President

Scholar, teacher, philosopher and statesman, Sarvepalli Radhakrishanan was one of 20th century’s greatest thinkers. On Teacher’s Day, here are some little-known facts from his inspiring life.

“True teachers are those who help us think for ourselves.” – Dr. Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan

September 5 is a special day in the history of India. Dr. Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, a legendary teacher and India’s second President, is remembered on this day. Widely recognised and respected as one of the 20th century’s most respected Indian thinkers, he wasn’t just a teacher.

He was also an accomplished scholar, a distinguished philosopher, a consummate statesman and an effective diplomat.

Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan

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Born on 5 September 1888 in Tiruttani (a small temple town in Tamil Nadu), Radhakrishnan grew up to become an exemplary teacher who always strove to bring the best out of his students. Such was his clarity and comprehensiveness as a teacher that students of other colleges used to attend his philosophy classes during his years at the Madras Presidency College, the Mysore University and the Calcutta University.

Later, when Radhakrishnan became the second President of India, some of his fans and students met him to request his permission to commemorate his birthday with a celebration. He replied by saying,”instead of celebrating my birthday separately, it would be my proud privilege if September 5 is celebrated as Teachers’ Day.”

Decades later, his legacy continues to play a pivotal role in inspiring teachers across India to contribute to nation-building.

On the occasion of Teacher’s Day, we bring you eight facts that you may not have known about Dr Radhakrishnan.

1. Credited for taking Indian philosophy to the western world, Dr Radhakrishnan’s reason for choosing philosophy for his MA were the free textbooks he got from a cousin!

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After completing his school education, Radhakrishnan’s father wanted him to become a priest at a temple rather than study further. However, he worked hard to win a scholarship from the Madras Christian College that enabled him to pursue his BA and graduate with first class honours in 1906.

While he was initially interested in the physical sciences for his masters, he chose Philosophy as he got free textbooks from a cousin who had just graduated in the subject! However, he quickly grew to love the subject and even wrote several books on the subject.

2. When he got a one-of-a-kind farewell from his students in Mysore.

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The year was 1921 and Radhakrishnan was attending a farewell ceremony organised for him by the students of Maharaja College, Mysore. When he came out after the ceremony, his students requested him to board a decorated horse cart. Interestingly, the horses were absent from their positions.

Though curious about the cart, Radhakrishnan complied with the students’ wishes. After he sat inside, his students took the places of the horses and pulled the wagon all the way to the Mysore railway station to drop their beloved teacher!

3. The first book he wrote was about the philosophy of Rabindranath Tagore, which he believed to be the true manifestation of Indian spirit.

A rare photograph of the three legends, Sir Maurice Gwyer, Rabindranath Tagore, and Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, coming out from Sinha Sadan

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In 1920, Radhakrishnan was invited by the Vice-Chancellor of the Calcutta University to take up the post of Professor of Mental and Moral Science. He accepted and it was during his tenure in Calcutta that he interacted closely with Tagore. Deeply impressed by the Nobel Laureate’s philosophy, he chose to base his first book on it.

Later, he was invited to deliver the Upton lectures at the Manchester College and the Haskell lectures at Chicago. He also served as the Spalding Professor of Eastern Religions in the Oxford University for three years.

During his time abroad, he would frequently use the platform to talk about India’s quest for freedom from colonial rule. After his return to India, he went on to publish some of his finest works that include The Religion We Need, The Heart of Hindustan and The Future Civilisation.

4. A very effective diplomat, he laid the foundation of India’s relationship with the Soviet Union (now Russia).

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Radhakrishnan was sent as India’s second ambassador to Moscow (1949-53) at the height of the Cold War. In an eventful three years, Radhakrishnan managed to positively amplify India’s relationship with the Soviet Union.

In the 1940s and 50s, philosophers were widely admired in Russia. Impressed and intrigued by Radhakrishnan’s credentials, Stalin finally agreed to meet him in January 1950. It should be noted Stalin had not received Radhakrishnan’s predecessor even once!

During the meeting, the ambassador patiently answered Stalin’s many questions (like why Ceylon was not a part of India and if India still employed British officers in its army and navy) before suggesting that USSR take the initiative to end the Cold War. Stalin answered by saying that it takes two hands to clap and that there was another side responsible for the Cold War too.

Radhakrishnan replied with a sentence that left Stalin at a loss for words. “As a peace-loving country, the Soviet Union should withdraw its own hand as it takes two hands to clap.”

His tenure as an ambassador was also responsible for garnering Soviet support on Kashmir. This can be seen in the UN Security Council meeting in 1951, where USSR blasted USA and UK for meddling in Kashmir’s internal affairs.

5. When he greeted Chairman Mao Zedong with a pat on the cheek!

S Radhakrishnan with Mao Zedong

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In September 1957, Radhakrishnan was on a visit to China as India’s Vice President that included a meeting with Chairman Mao Zedong (communist revolutionary, poet, political theorist and founding father of the People’s Republic of China).

On his arrival at Mao’s residence, Radhakrishnan was received at the door by Mao himself. After shaking hands with the Mao, he patted the surprised leader on his cheek. Mao had never been subjected to such familiarity but Radhakrishnan was quick to put him at ease by saying, “Mr Chairman, don’t be alarmed, I did the same to Stalin and the Pope!”

6. Though his persona resembled that of a stern headmaster, he had a great sense of humour too.

President John F. Kennedy with President of India, Dr. Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan

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In the annals of Rashtrapati Bhawan, there are many anecdotes about the Philosopher President and his subtle sense of humour. One of the most famous among them goes as follows:

When the king of Greece came on a state visit to India in 1962, Radhakrishnan (newly appointed as the President of India back then) welcomed him saying: “Your Majesty, you are the first king of Greece to come as our guest. Alexander came uninvited! ”

7. When his appointment as President of India was welcomed by Bertrand Russell

Ex – President Dr Radhakrishnan greets Padmashri Mohammed Rafi

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When Radhakrishnan was appointed the President of India in 1962, Bertrand Russell (one of the world’s greatest philosophers) welcomed the news by saying, “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.

His tenure as President (1962-67) saw some of the biggest challenges to India’s integrity – the deaths of two prime ministers as well as two of Independent India’s wars (with China and Pakistan). His sage counsel helped see India through those trying years. Also, every month, the simple and stoic leader would accept only Rs. 2,500 out of his presidential salary of Rs. 10,000 and donate the rest of the amount to the Prime Minister’s National Relief Fund.

8. His name was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature for five consecutive years!

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Between 1933 and 1937, Radhakrishnan was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature for five consecutive years. While he never won the Nobel Prize, he did win several prestigious awards and titles including Bharat Ratna in 1954, a knighthood from George V in 1931 and an honorary membership of the British Royal Order of Merit in 1963.

He was also honoured with the Templeton Prize in 1975, for promoting the notion of “a universal reality of God that embraced love and wisdom for all  people”. Interestingly, the legend donated all the award money to Oxford University!

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Written by Sanchari Pal

A lover of all things creative and happy, Sanchari is a biotech engineer who fell in love with writing and decided to make it her profession. She is also a die-hard foodie, a pet-crazy human, a passionate history buff and an ardent lover of books. When she is not busy at The Better India, she can usually be found reading, laughing at silly cat videos and binge-watching TV seasons.