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Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan and Human Solidarity

Mon, 10/15/2012 - 00:13 -- razinadmin

By: Ramin Jahanbegloo

Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan is not a thinker, whom one can separate from the entire canon of Indian philosophy. He was one of the most acute interpreters of the Indian tradition as it is found in the Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita. Confirming himself  as a pragmatist statesman, he nevertheless established his philosophical thoughts along the Indian tradition and Hindu philosophy. N a sense, Dr. Radhakrishnan was a multi-faceted personality, who believed in a healthy marriage of ancient wisdom with modern science. He believed that, “those who condemn Indian culture as useless are ignorant of it, while those who commend it as perfect are ignorant of any other.” Therefore, Radhakrishnan’s originality consisted in the depth with which he grasped the significance of his time, but also the crisis that modern man was facing. It is important to note that his immediate concern was with the spiritual progress of humanity. He had realized that the teachings of the great spirits of India could provide an answer to the perplexing challenges of the modern age. “To improve the world we have to return to an idealist view, to philosophic thought, to spiritual values”, he declared at the first General Conference of the UNESCO in Paris in November 1946. This was the conviction with which he tried to adopt a universalistic outlook in order to build a bridge of understanding between the East and the West. We can find echoes of Tagore’s philosophy of the Absolute in early works of Radhakrishnan. According to Radhakrishnan, Tagore was in essence a Hindu Vedantist in line with the philosophers of the Vedas and the Upanishads. Therefore, in him Radhakrishnan saw one affirmed Truth, Beauty and Unity while not trying to avoid the temporal and being in time with his own era. Thus, to Radhakrishnan, Tagore spoke, at the same time, to India, exalting and interpreting her Vedantic philosophy, and to the world. Yet, Radhakrishnan’s encounter with Tagore’s work did not influence, but mainly justified his personal readings of the Vedanta which had started ten years before in 1908. However, Radhakrishnan’s affinities with the Tagorean thought was in many ways the product of an Indian nationalist who wanted to argue against those who described Tagore as a borrower from Christianity. “ India should be allowed to solve her problems according to her national genius”, wrote Radhakrishnan in his study on The Philosophy of Rabindranath Tagore. “ It is not because India guards under her soil the bones of our fathers, but because she stands for an eternal principle-that life is a spiritual aspiration, matter the handiworks of spirit, and all universe one in spirit.” This is a view that Radhakrishnan had already established in his readings of Vivekananda while still a student at the University of Madras in 1906. Radhakrishnan’s readings of Vivekananda’s work express his major concern to defend the Vedanta as the ethical foundation of a universal brotherhood. The religious universalism, which Vivekananda preached was later, developed by Radhakrishnan in his own philosophical work as a foundation to an interfaith dialogue and a East-West unity. Thus, Vivekananda originally influenced many of Radhakrishnan’s contributions to the discussion on religious universalism. Like Vivekananda, Radhakrishnan saw in Vivekananda a reformer and a reviver of the universalistic tradition of the Advaita Vedanta. His praise of Advaita was a response to the missionary criticism of Indian traditions which he had experienced during his student years at  Madras Christian College. For Radhakrishnan, the Vedanta represented the spirit of Hinduism. “Though Hindu religious thought has traversed many revolutions and made great conquests”, he wrote later in 1927 in The Hindu View of Life, “the essential ideas have continued the same for four or five millenniums. The germinal conceptions are contained in the Vedanta standard.” Many critics have pointed out the striking feature of Radhakrishnan’s Vedantic idealism of not condemning Man’s commitment to action. The ethics of action, which he obviously found in his readings of the Bhagavad Gita, is an important touchstone in his philosophical system. For Radhakrishnan an ideal was an active life. “The Vedanta ethics does not ask us to sit with folded hands or, like the mystic, look down on earth or up to heavan, at nothing in particular.” Affirmed Radhakrishnan in The Ethics of Bhagavad Gita and Kant. For him, Man was made to act, not just to meditate. Therefore, there is a close connection between theory and practice in Radhakrishnan’s universalistic philosophy. Once we realize this as the true spirit of Radhakrishnan’s philosophy, we can easily comprehend his approach to politics as a philosopher and a statesman. In other words, the practice of Indian philosophy did not lead Radhakrishnan to disinterestedness in the affairs of the world. On the contrary, his philosophy, throughout his life took the path of moderation and dialogue. Radhakrishnan believed in eternal truths of spirit and he rejected any violent break with tradition, but he was convinced that “rules change from age to age”. In his famous book, Religion and Society, he confirmed that “there must be no violent break with social heredity, and yet the new stresses, conflicts and confusions will have to be faced and overcome…Though dharma is absolute, it has no absolute and timeless content…The principle of dharma, the scales of value, are to be maintained in and through the stress of the new experience.” There is no question that in Radhakrishnan’s view of Man and life, truth appears as the result of a moral experience.“Truth can never be perceived except by those who are in love with goodness”, he underlined in his Eastern Religions and Western Thought. There is actually no conflict in Radhakrishnan’s mind between Hinduism as a way of life and Hinduism as a mode of thought. Radhakrishnan repeatedly indicates in his writings that there is no separation between the outer Man and the inner Man, because “the realm of spirit is not cut off from the realm of life…The two orders of reality, the transcendent and the empirical, are closely related.”  Therefore, Radhakrishnan’s philosophy as that of Tagore, defends the idea of a whole Man as a multidimensional being. Many of Radhakrishnan’s observations on this matter is related to his understanding of the religious experience as the experience of the Universal. Radhakrishnan is convinced that Hinduism has a universal spirit and that such a spirit can become a vital element for bringing world peace. It is Radhakrishnan’s assertion that “every attempt to gain universality on the part of the historical religions (brings) them to the Indian religious thought.” That is to say, the religious thought on which Radhakrishnan takes his philosophical character is completely universal in character. He finds all creative forms of religious life moving towards an ideal of unity. This movement towards universality transcends all historical boundaries and particularities of culture. It is, therefore, non dogmatic and non humanistic. Last, but not least, the main aim of Radhakrishnan’s religious universalism is not to start a new religion, but to establish a comprehensive link between the old religions of mankind.  “We do not want a new religion”, proclaims Radhakrishnan in Recovery of Faith, “but we need a new enlarged understanding of the old religions.” For Radhakrishnan, to be truly religious is to serve mankind. Therefore, he saw the inter-faith dialogue as a necessary outcome of the cultural border-crossing. It follows that Radhakrishnan saw the Religion of the Spirit as the ultimate faith of mankind. In Radhakrishnan’s conception of the religion of the spirit a special place is offered to the two concepts of universality and tolerance. It is a fact; Radhakrishnan is universal in his religious outlook. But he also considers religious tolerance as a major factor to world progress. “The barriers of dogmatic religions are sterilizing men’s efforts to coordinate their forces to shape the future”, asserts Radhakrishnan in Fellowship of the Spirit, “ If religions are to heal humanity’s divisions, if they are to bring peoples nearer one another, they must take themselves seriously, forget their partisan strife, affirm that religion is a matter of spirit and not form and its loyalty is to the whole world and not simply to the members of any one community. Such a view of religion will help us to develop the quality of tolerance.” Radhakrishnan ties both universality and tolerance to the idea of peaceful co-existence which is inherent in his definition of Hinduism and Indian culture. “We have had in our country peaceful co-existence of different religion.”, writes Radhakrishnan in Eastern Religions and Western Thought. “ It is not mere passive co-existence but an active fellowship, a close inter-relation of the best of different religions. Co-existence is the first step and fraternity is the goal.” This is because Radhakrishnan considers all religious creeds as relative and he views no theological system larger than reality. For him, there seems to be no incompatibility between religious thought and pluralism. According to him, God is not all, but He is in all. This whole process is identical with the world’s multiplicity and our experience of the unity of the divine reality. As Radhakrishnan sees it, the sole spiritual vocation of Man is to progress toward a self-fulfillment that carries him beyond his temporal ends. “ The destiny of Man”, writes Radhakrishnan, “is to know himself”. Ethics, therefore, is the outcome of spiritual self-realization. The ethical cannot be achieved without the spiritual, nor can it be unconditional and limitless responsibility. Indeed Radhakrishnan informs us that “ The Gita asks us to live in the world and to save it.”. Therefore, the whole meaning of Man’s destiny resides in his awareness of oneself and the world. According to Radhakrishnan, “ the future of civilization depends upon the return of spiritual awareness to the hearts and minds of men.” The civilization, which he has in mind, is to be a “fellowship of Man” sustained by a philosophia perennis. Radhakrishnan sets before himself the task of outlining a philosophy in pursuit of wisdom as the foundation for the solidarity of the human race. His spirit of conciliation is well expressed in the remark that “ mankind is still in the making” and that “every religion is attempting to reformulate its faith in accordance with modern thought and criticism.” In Radhakrishnan’s frame of reference, the new world order is founded on mutual respect between religious traditions. It is, of course, this spirit which led him to ask in Eastern Religions and Western Thought for an enlightened synthesis of “the best European humanism and Asiatic religion”.  According to Radhakrishnan, the more mankind has a humanistic attitude towards life, the more becomes integrated in the whole universe. That is to say, civilization is a work of spirit and as such its basic principle is the realization of the dignity of human spirit which is the abode of the Absolute. As Radhakrishnan declares in The Pursuit of Truth,  “Man is not a detached spectator of progress immanent in human history, but an active agent remolding the world nearer to his ideals. Every age is much what we choose to make it. The trouble with our civilization is that in our anxiety to pursue the things of time, we are neglecting the things that are not of time, the enduring and the eternal. The significance of man’s life is not exhausted by his service of the earthly kingdom. The whole complex range of human life becomes shallow, aimless, and unsatisfying if it is not shot through with a sense of the eternal. We must build all relationships on a basis of understanding fellowship, remembering the controlling principle that life on earth is meaningless apart from its eternal background. Growth of civilization is marked by an increase of genuineness, sincerity, and unselfishness. The only effective way of altering society is the hard and slow one of changing individuals. If we put first things first through patient effort and struggle, we will win power over circumstances and mould them. Only a humanity that strives after ethical and spiritual ideals can use the great triumphs of scientific knowledge for the true ends of civilization.” In other words, for Radhakrishnan, the moral and scientific progress of humanity depends fully on the growth of his spiritual conscience. Man has to strive for the recovery of the spirituality which he has lost. Again Radhakrishnan makes it clear, that, “Man, as he is, is incomplete, ignorant, unregenerate, and he wishes to complete himself, to get beyond his present imperfections; and he tries to achieve completeness of being…. And if we are able to attain that kind of perfectness of being, completeness of being, we try to use that wisdom for the purpose of creating a better life in this world.” For Radhakrishnan, Being is the foundation of all existence. Therefore, Ultimate Reality is one, not many, because God and the Absolute are clearly identified. In order to show the essential unity of God and the Absolute, Radhakrishnan introduces the concept of the Divine Spirit. The real destiny of Man lies in the unity between the human and the divine. “Man”, says Radhakrishnan, “ is a complex, multi-dimensional being including within him different elements of matter life, consciousness, intelligence and the divine spark.” Therefore, Man is bound to progress morally, spiritually and politically. In other words, as a philosopher Radhakrishnan emphasizes on the unity of Man, both as an individual and as a human community. While believing in the reality and authenticity of spiritual experience in “the lines of Uddalka, Buddha, Samkara, Socrates, Plato, Muhammad, St.Paul, Plotinus, Porphyry, Augustine, Dante, Eckhart, St. Bernard of Clairvaux, St. John, Spinoza, Blake, Ruysbreck and other seers and sages of humanity”, he sets before himself the task of outlining a philosophy which is at once a mystical idealism and an ethics of inter-connectedness. To Radhakrishnan, the world is a continuous and dynamic spiritual experience. He is, therefore, led to believe that the moral force is at the centre of all human affairs. That is to say, its is the universal moral principle which constitutes Man’s vision of freedom. Without moral force no progress can be achieved, because “the change necessary is not in the surface of things, but in the foundation of human nature.”

Like Gandhi, Radhakrishnan believes in the moral foundation of politics. To him, therefore, politics and religion are not two separate matters. “Religion includes faith in human brotherhood”, declares Radhakrishnan, “and politics is the most effective means of rendering it into visible form.” According to Radhakrishnan, politics is not about power and violence, but it is the art of promoting human solidarity. For Radhakrishnan, the primary aim of politics lies in its service to the moral improvement of each individual as a social being. That is to say, quite simply, “ If a durable peace and stable world are to be built out of the wreckage of this war, we must have a positive conception of the values for which we stand. The fate of the humane race depends on its moral strength, and moral power consists here as elsewhere in renunciation and self-limitation.” Radhakrishnan’s rejection of narrow sects and dogmas goes hand in hand for him with the idea of human society becoming one. In his book Towards a New World, he expresses his optimistic views on the future of our world. “The concept of one world must be implemented in every action of every nation, if that one world is to become established. I have no doubt that the world will become one….. We are being led from state to state the concept of one family on earth. If we’re able to achieve it, we should do so by handling our own minds and hearts.” Radhakrishnan’s basic stress is here on the spiritual progress of mankind towards a harmonious whole. To him, by realizing the imperishable Truth (Sat), Man reaches the ultimate goal of the human life. This is only possible if a whole change is brought in human mental structure. “We must alter our values”, underlines Radhakrishnan in Religion and Society, “ we must recognize that violence is an unfortunate breach of community, and devise other ways of establishing satisfactory relationship.” For Radhakrishnan, it is clear that nonviolence is the highest religion and the highest truth. Here he shares the views of the Bhagavad Gita and Gandhi. In reply to Radhakrishnan’s question “What is your religion?” Gandhi wrote in 1936: “My religion is Hinduism which, for me, is Religion of humanity ... I am being led to my religion through Truth and Non-violence, i.e., love in the broadest sense. I often describe my religion as Religion of Truth ... We are all sparks of Truth. I am being led nearer to It by constant prayer … To be true to such religion, one has to lose oneself in continuous and continuing service to all life. Realization of truth is impossible without a complete merging of oneself in, and identification with, this limitless ocean of life. Hence, for me, there is no escape from social service.”  In the manner of Gandhi for Radhakrishnan, there was no escape from politics. Dr. Radhakrishnan was elected the President of India in 1962. Bertrand Russell hailed this election as a triumph for philosophy. As a humanist philosopher-statesman, Radhakrishnan continued his efforts to bring about a spiritual regeneration of mankind. On the eve of leaving the office of the President on May 1967, he proclaimed: “ Humility of heart and complete identification with the poorest in the land must accompany the exercise of power. Otherwise, power breeds arrogance. Unlimited power distorts our values, hardens the heart and confounds the understanding. Monumental self-righteousness is the course of individuals as of nations.” Spirit, Satya (Truth) and solidarity are the three pillars on which rests the grand edifice of Radhakrishnan’s thought. For Radhakrishnan, there can be no solidarity without spirit and truth. This spirit is the principle of life itself. It is capable of lifting the world off its hinges and transform the particular Man into universal Man. Last but not least, Radhakrishnan is a thinker and a practitioner who engaged in an open cross-cultural understanding. Time and again, he insisted on the idea of interdependence of nations. “This is an age of interdependence and our way is clear.”, he wrote in Towards a New World, “ We must surrender a part of our sovereignty, work together for the elimination of every kind of injustice wherever we find it….We must have this sense of world community that we must give our young people, our students, in the plastic years of their lives. You must make them feel that they all belong to one human family. There is no such thing as this nation or that nation superseding the claims of the human community.”

The lesson that we learn from reading Radhakrishnan today is that there can be no human community without human solidarity and in order to achieve this we need to end the divide between “we” and “they”. To quote Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, “So many civilizations have come, floated on the surface, disappeared again. What remains is humanity. It is for the sake of that humanity that we have to work.”  Therefore, the real goal of Man lies in the unity of the life of spirit. Man’s ideal is to make humanity one with the spirit. This is because unity transcends diversities while glorifying the plurality of human cultures. The fellowship transcends the barriers of race and nation. Humanity needs to cope, in one way or another, with the plural world. That is to say, for Radhakrishnan, the religion of the spirit is a religion of fellowship among believers, not a clash among beliefs. Conscious of the fact that cultural distances need to be bridged, Radhakrishnan invites his readers to struggle for a new spiritual partnership across the boundaries of race, politics and religion. “We today live in a society which is giving way to the inexhorable claim of a new order”, declares Radhakrishnan in The Spirit of Religion, “We cannot stay the advance of time. If we clasp to our heart something that is past, if we cling to something that is defunct, we will be left behind.” No doubt for Radhakrishnan the ideal of universal religion and cultural synthesis between the West and the East implies the need for a continuous dialogue of cultures within the global system. Radhakrishnan firmly believed that the end of life was to turn a particular individual into a universal Man. Deeply rooted in the Indian culture as he was, Radhakrishnan sought there the foundation of his philosophy and his ethics. Though refusing the idea of Indian monopoly of wisdom, he maintained that the message of Hinduism was worthy of universal application. That is why he always emphasized: “ Indian wisdom is essential not only for the revival of the Indian nation but also for the re-education of the human race.” Radhakrishnan’s faith in India and Indian philosophy made him a lover of mankind who considered that humanity’s destiny was “to become more human, more spiritual, (and) more capable of sympathetic understanding.”



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