Updated: June 7, 2012 16:26 IST

The philosopher President

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Dr. Radhakrishnan Peruraigal volumes I and II. Photo: Special Arrangement
Dr. Radhakrishnan Peruraigal volumes I and II. Photo: Special Arrangement

Dr. Radhakrishnan Peruraigal volumes I and II: Translated by K Diraviyam; Palaniappa Brothers, ‘Konar Maligai’, 25 Peters Road, Chennai 600 014. Volume I Rs.220; Volume II Rs.250

The two volumes are a translation of Dr. Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan’s speeches. A third volume is to be published soon. A common thread runs through all his speeches. There is always some reference to faith, religion and philosophy. Quoting Carl Jung, he says many mental illnesses are due to the lack of religious belief. Again quoting Dr. Elmer Hesse, president, The American Medical Association, Dr. Radhakrishnan emphasises that doctors should acknowledge their fallibility and the role of Providence in the success or otherwise of any treatment.

In an All India Radio speech, he warns of the dangers of fanatic self-approval, where we think that those with beliefs different from our own are wicked. “Judge not, that ye be not judged,” he warns, striking his philosopher’s gavel.

In another speech, he says India is not just a geographical entity. He quotes Professor Childe of the London University, and argues that India is guided by a way of life that is older than the Egyptian and Babylonian civilisations. Today’s Greece bears little resemblance to ancient Greece, but the Indian value system remains rooted in its tradition which is thousands of years old. Even Grecian stoicism, he says, was not indigenous to that country, but was the influence of Buddhist beliefs, which found their way from India into Greece through Egypt.

Dr. Radhakrishnan refers to advances in medicine in ancient India. He quotes Dr. Kenneth Walker, FRCS, who, in his ‘The Story of Medicine,’ writes on how Ayurveda talks about blood circulation, although credit for discovery of blood circulation is given to Harvey, who came centuries later. That plague spreads through rats and malaria though mosquito bite also seem to have been known in ancient India.

The former President’s observations on democracy and the role of the CAG (Comptroller and Auditor General) could well have been written for today. He says a party in power should remember that the Opposition may be numerically weak, but this does not mean that it lacks wisdom. If the ruling party suppresses the Opposition and stifles voices of dissent among its own members, then even if it has won a majority in the election, it is an undemocratic dispensation.

The CAG’s job is to lay bare all the facts before the people. He should not bother about the political consequences of his reports. Radhakrishnan warns that if people begin to be disturbed about how public money is spent, it could affect the very foundations of our parliamentary system. A corrupt government, lack of economic growth and lack of unity are the three main causes of social upheavals in any country. It is ironical that so many years after his speeches were made, many of Radhakrishnan’s dreams for his country remain unfulfilled.

One of the speeches in the collection is about drama. Radhakrishnan says Indian theatre has sad scenes but never sad endings. One is reminded of Orwell’s observation on the incompatibility of a tragic ending with a belief in God. When belief in God is strong, Orwell argues, it is expected that virtue will be rewarded and vice punished. Could the absence of sad endings in Indian drama be attributed to our theistic leanings? Radhakrishnan’s speeches prompt us to ask ourselves many such questions.

Even in his political speeches, the philosopher in Radhakrishnan comes to the fore. He quotes Camus, Auguste Comte, Whitehead and many others. Camus felt that man’s life on earth was akin to Sisyphean labour. There was no hope of success in life, and whatever one did, one would always be back to Square One. But Radhakrishnan’s philosophical moorings keep him from taking such a negative point of view. To him, life becomes meaningful when viewed through the prism of philosophical understanding.

It is difficult to translate Radhakrishnan’s speeches; on the whole, the author has done a fine job, although there are some glaring slips. He spells ‘kolvadu’ (to kill) (pg163, vol II) as ‘koLvadu’! Instead of the Sanskrit word Agnyai, he could have used the Tamil word ‘kattalai.’ For ‘old fashioned,’ he uses the colloquial word ‘Karunataka.’ Such colloquialisms have no place in a book of this nature.

Translating Radhakrishnan’s observations on how we merely echo what we read in newspapers and do not think for ourselves, the author comes up with a puzzling sentence. He says that the result of this is that we become obsessed with libidinous interests, alcohol, and the national flag! The translator actually uses the words ’Desiya kodi’ (pg 299, vol I), leaving one totally flummoxed! One hopes that in subsequent editions, such errors will be corrected.

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