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Mainstream, Vol XLV, No 50

Reminiscences of Radhakrishnan

Monday 3 December 2007, by Hiren Mukerjee

November 23, 2007 marked Prof Hirendranath Mukerjee’s birth centenary. The veteran parliamentarian, CPI leader, distinguished scholar-historian and eminent Marxist intellectual passed away in Kolkata on July 30, 2004 at the age of 97. Remembering him on this occasion we are reproducing an article he wrote in Mainstream (April 26, 1975) following the death of Dr Sarvapalli Radhakrishnan. We are also reproducing two pieces written by distinguished parliamentarians Prof Madu Dandavate and Rabi Ray (that appeared in the Mainstream Independence Day issue in 2004) and a tribute by Gopalkrishna Gandhi, the present Governor of West Bengal, that was published in The Hindu around the same time.


The first awardees of Bharatratna were three eminent Indians—Raman, Rajaji and Radhakrishnan. I remember once having written somewhere that those were the three Rs of Indian sensibility. With Radhakrishnan’s passing away, all three are gone—a loss to India that can hardly be measured.

Death, of course, is inexorable. And death at ripe, old age, much beyond the biblical span, is not to be unduly grieved over. For a considerable time now, Radhakrishnan was virtually non est. Yet his death is a wrench; it means a gap in India’s life which can be filled by none else. A Bharatratna, in every sense of the term, has left us for ever.

“This world of ours,” Radhakrishnan once wrote, “is not the natural home of perfection.” No men is perfect nor can be, nor even wish to be, for perfection is dull, like paradise, a full stop to things and therefore abysmally dismal.

There were chinks in the armour of greatness which Radhakrishnan could claim he could put on, but in his own very individual way he did have a certain greatness. Once in 1940 or 1941, speaking in his presence before a small and select crowd, I had presumed to say some impishly critical things about him, adding, however, that he was the only great man I knew to whom I could say anything to his face—since then, I have known a few more, of course, but that is another story. Perhaps the provocation was an English friend’s whispering into my ears that he had felt bowled over by Radha-krishnan’s “words of superb wisdom”, making me retort that the “words”, doubtless, were fine but were somewhat phoney. This kind of thing never made a difference to the affection which Radhakrishnan had for me, for he knew that while I admired him tremendously, I did have my reservations about much of what he thought important.

I came to know him from a distance when I was a student of Calcutta University and he was one of the luminaries on its then, truly bejewelled Faculty. He would often take the chair when some foreign academic celebrity gave a lecture, and he would speak scintillatingly at the end, making us all so proud of our India, then unfree and very much in need of such patriotic salve. He had a hand, I learnt, in my selection, through many channels, as a Government of Bengal scholar for study abroad. I was at Oxford when in 1929-30 he gave his celebrated Upton Lectures at Manchester College. I can easily recall the pride I felt at his speaking with grace and power, not a scrap of a note assisting him, words flowing sonorously and effortlessly for a full hour, eastern and western lore felicitously drawn upon to fortify his formulations.

Once, in his audience, I found myself next to E.B. Havell—then a hero to all of us for the great work he had done for Indian art studies—who asked me why the “professor” had translated anandam not as “bliss” but as “perfection”. Even now, I remember Havell’s question but not whatever answer I must have given, for that could have been of little value. Celebrities in Oxford’s academic life, I remember, listened almost with astonishment to Radhakrishnan’s exposition which was unique, not only because of his apparent mastery of Indian thought as well as of Western learning, but also for his easy and colourful handling of a language to which he had not been born.

With my friend and teacher, J.C. Ghosh, then lecturing in Bengali to ICS probationers in Oxford, I met Professor Radhakrishnan often in Oxford and also more rarely in London. Shedding his turban but not his long coat, he would board a bus with me to come to my digs for a meal and a chat, and of course his room in Walton Street were always open to us—he would sit by the fire, take off his socks, and perhaps sip coffee holding the cup in characteristic fashion, his fingers all around it. Could one believe it, but it is a fact that one day Dr Ghosh joked: “Ah, professor, it’s a lovely May morning, with girls in beautiful summer frocks, wandering in the streets, but you are a bigwig and you can’t accost any of them!” And Radhkrishnan at once replied: “D’you think I can’t go and fall in love with the next girl? I can, but I won’t.” These words have remained stuck in my memory, words, to my mind, redolent of the peculiar combination in the cultivated Indian thinking, of attachment and detachment at the same time.

In the summer of 1930, when Gandhiji’s Civil Disobedience movement was at its height, Radha-krishnan was called upon to give a sermon in the chapel of Manchester College, Oxford, a Unitarian foundation which saw no anomaly in a heathen speaking from the pulpit. He took as the text of his sermon a passage from Ezekiel: ”I will overturn, overturn, overturn it; and it shall be no more until he came whose right it is and I will give it him.” (Ch 21, verse 26) We knew later that he was, when he spoke, feverish and unwell, which perhaps lent his speech—an unforgettable one—a kind of agonised intensity, the voice of his country hungering and thirsting for freedom from foreign subjection.

A couple of years later, when Radhakrishnan gave the Hibbert Lectures in London, Bertrand Russel was in the audience and told him, as one eminent expositor of philosophy to another, that he had never heard philosophy better expounded—a truly significant tribute. It was characteristic of Russell that when Radhakrishnan tried to get him to come to India, perhaps to Mysore, for a while, he said he did not relish the idea of witnessing the Middle Ages in the twentieth century!

Manchester College is somewhat on the periphery, as it were, of Oxford, but it was not long before Radhakrishnan’s reputation got him honourable admission to the University’s “holy of holies”. A perceptive benefaction created for him the Spalding Chair of Comparative Religoin, and Radhakrishnan became a full-fledged Professor of the University, a Fellow of All Souls and Honourary Doctor of Civil Laws, the University’s highest distinction. When Oxford tried belatedly to make up for an ealrier (and imperialist-motivated) indifference to Rabindranath Tagore by sending three of its distinguished alumni to Shantiniketan with the scroll of an honorary doctorate, it was appropriate that Radhakrishnan did the honours. The very first book that Radhakrishnan had published, when barely thirty, was on The Philosophy of Rabindranath Tagore (1918) and he had grown to be the Poet’s successor, so to speak, as India’s first cultural ambassador to the world.

It was characteristic of the man that he did not hesitate, when he was a member of the League of Nations’ Committee on Intellectual Cooperation and his luggage as he travelled was immune from Customs examination, to bring back from Europe every time in the early and middle thirties a collection of valuable books on socialism which British Indian Customs would never have permitted entry in this country. I recollect vividly how some of my friends, like the late Sajjad Zaheer, helped in this matter. When Radhakrishnan grabbed me affectionately for a job, my first, at Andhra University, I found that the Professor had dumped the contraband in Andhra University library which was thus endowed with the best single collection anywhere then in India of socialist literature. It is with some chagrin that I discovered that some years later, when he and I had left Waltair, his successor in office, Sir C.R. Reddy, had, with a zeal worthy of a better cuase, handed over the priceless collection to the “authorities”, presumably the police.

RADHAKRISHNAN was never a socialist, but he had tremendous intellectual curiosity and an innate liberalism of thought. “Cut out your class war stuff and I am with you,” was the sort of things he would and did say from time to time, and that was the furthest he came to Marxism. But at Andhra he encouraged me because, as he said once publicly, I was perhaps sowing what used then to be described as “dangerous thoughts” in the minds of my students but that, according to him, was good work since it “stirred the soil” of yong people’s brains and made them fruitful! Once, during my eighteen month stint at Andhra University, his international stature helped me against the wrath of the British Collector of Vizagaptanam, a powerful member of the university Syndicate, who had seen a letter of mine in The New Statesman and Nation and thought I was a sedictious character who should be outside the University’s portals.

His British Knighthood notwithstanding, Radhkrishnan was a patriot to the core, and though, understandably, aloof from national struggles wished them well. During the August 1942 movement, he was the Vice-Chancellor of Banaras Hindu University and developed for a time a certain allergy towards communism because he thought the policies of the party and the alleged activities of some of its members were deterimental to the nation’s intersts. Even so, he never could descend to being a full-throated antagonist to the revolutionary ideology of the modern age. It was a good job, indeed, that as freedom came he was inducted into the Constituent Assembly and then sent to Moscow as India’s Ambassador. He was no diplomatist, but his personality and his accomplishments gave him a unique position in the diplomatic corps—he would not dine and wine in the usual way, his social graces were different from those of the West (compare, in this connection, C.E.M. Joad’s book on him, Counter-attack from the East), perhaps in the midst of conversation he would hum to himself Sanskrit hymns while the other fellow wondered what had happened, but he was accepted as a highly worthy representative of India, in some of his ways a bit of a freak but a magnificent person. No wonder Stalin, who had cold-shouldered his predecessor in the Indian Embassy, Smt Vijayalakshmi Pandit, received him with great respect. Radhakrishnan spoke to Stalin on a level of easy equality which no politician in his place could imagine possible, and as he left his host, wished him well and tapped him gently on the shoulder, a typical Radhakrishnan gesture, which startled Stalin and nearly brought tears into his eyes. The man of steel, tempered and perhaps somewhat twisted in the protracted fire of revolutionary ordeals, had not experienced such a gesture as man to man for a long stretch of years.

FROM 1952 to 1962 Radhakrishnan was the Vice-President of the Republic of India, chairing the Rajya Sabha with unmatched grace and authority, bending a sometimes turbulent House to his will in a manner that remains unique. From 1962 to 1967 he was the President of India, a position which Jawaharlal Nehru had wished him to occupy even earlier, and it is a pity that for some time the Philosopher-President did appear to develop some symptoms of alienation from the Prime Minister, a doubtful episode which is better forgotten, for it was irrelevant to the basic theme of their friendship. Perhaps the trouble, if it can be said respectfully, with Radhakrishnan was that with his endless interest he was even drawn a little towards political power and some taste for it, and it was a good thing that the phase was very transient. As head of state, he symbolised powerfully the spirit of our India and the golden words that flowed like a felicitious torrent from his lips when he spoke at world gatherings left most foreign dignitaries somewhat dazed and spellbound.

If one had heard him often, one came to feel, however, that there was a certain much-of-a-muchness quality to his orations. There is no doubt at all, however, about their superlative excellence, just as there is no doubt about the power and beauty of his written work—The Hindu View of Life (1926), The Idealist View of Life (1932), Eastern Religion and Western Ethnics (1939) and, above all, his magnum opus, the two volume on Indian Philosophy (1923, 1927), apart from many other remarkable books flowing from his pen. He did have at one time his share of detractors who slyly hinted at his alleged unoriginality, and once or twice, even insinuated charges of plagiarism. Perhaps sometimes, as I have known, his stupendous memory scooped up what somebody else had said or thought, and in the fluent felicity of his exposition unconsciously reproduced it, but no carping criticism could affect the quality of his truly stupendous scholarship and his unequalled mastery of language. One could quarrel, of course, with some of his ideas, his predilection, for example, for an eclectic ensemble of idealist thought. I told him once, doubtless presumptuously, that the title of one of his Oxford lectures, “The World’s Unborn Soul”, was a terrible irritant! His fixation about religion would make him say, for instance, that “the mechanism of the world is a problem for science, but not its mystery which is the subject of religion”, a very strange statement indeed, from a twentieth century philosopher. When he contested Albert Schweitzer’s dictum that Indian thought, in the main, suffered from “world-and-life-negation”, he appeared to be doing some special pleading—but of course, in whatever he did, his manner was impressive and elegant. Someone has formulated the basic grouse against him picturesquely by pointing out that Radhakrishnan’s work inspires rather than instructs the reader, but alas! we have had in India “an unwholesome surfeit of inspiration from Yajnavalkya to Vivekananda”.

Wherever he was, his books would also be there. And so, thinking of him, one visualises Radhakrishnan, whether in Rashtrapati Bhavan or in a friend’s house alongside the Lakes in Calcutta, half-stretched in bed among masses of books and papers, turning pages even as he gossiped—yes, he enjoyed gossip, sometimes also with an ironic twist, gossiped about men and things, about cabbages and kings or what have you, all with an unmalicious, but also a frank unsanctimonius human curiosity that nothing could kill till his sight declined and the partings from his beloved books made the salt of his spirit lose its savour and he lost all zest for life. For months on end he was alive but dead to the world. Even so, as he returns to the elements the Indian earth shakes and heaves with a loss that is irreparable.

(Mainstream, April 26, 1975)

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