By Zuhair Siddiqi
“In these dark and threatening times we have to rediscover the vital truths, those great patterns of thought and behaviour, those great moral and spiritual values, the oneness of God and the brotherhood of man, which are associated with Islam. Unfortunately, in the course of centuries these central truths are obscured, and rites and rituals, creeds and dogmas, have covered up the simplicity of the message of Islam. It is the duty of thinkers in each generation to recapture the original purity and dynamic vigour of the ancient message and re-express it in the idiom of their age”.
Whose voice is this? Not Iqbal’s. Nor that of any Muslim. It is the voice of Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, the Indian philosopher and statesman, who passed away last week at the ripe old age of 87.
Born in an orthodox Brahman family steeped in the Hindu tradition, Radhakrishnan grew into a serious student of philosophy and religion, and ultimately rose to be one of the greatest Indian thinkers of the present age. He taught philosophy at the Universities of Madras, Mysore, Calcutta and Benares, and also served as the Vice-Chancellor of the Universities of Andhra and Benares. Long before India attained freedom, his profound scholarship and gift for exposition had found international recognition in his appointment as Spalding Professor of Eastern Religions and Ethics at the University of Oxford. A string of international’ honours followed, including half a dozen doctorates and an honorary’ professorship at Moscow University in 1956. During the long years of his career as a teacher, he wrote over a score of books on philosophy and religion.
In spite of his deep commitment to religion and his articulate disagreement with materialist philosophy, he was chosen as India’s Ambassador to the Soviet Union, in the earlier years of freedom. His intellectual eminence, towering personality and deep understanding of human affairs, contributed notably towards the consolidation of his country’s relations with its giant Communist neighbour. He returned from. Moscow in 1952 to be the first Vice-President of the Indian Union. Ten years later he was elected President. He retired in 1967—to be succeeded by the eminent Muslim intellectual, Zakir Husain. Already past 75, he then faded into a life of retirement and contemplation; “by unperceived degrees he wore away”, and little was heard of him until the end came a few days ago.
Radhakrishnan and his successor, Zakir Husain, were in a sense, mutually complementary personalities in contemporary India. The one a devout Hindu and the other an equally devoted Muslim, both had the sublimity of mind and the breadth of vision to discern and appreciate the elements of truth and virtue in religions other than their own. Out of this appreciation was born a perfect tolerance and an earnest belief in the possibilities of the mutual co-existence of various faiths. Also a deep awareness of the need for, a sincere understanding among the followers of different creeds, particularly in societies embracing more religions than one. Both the savants combined with a deep and extensive knowledge of their respective religious and cultural systems a wide and keen understanding of the modern world and its inevitable and growing impact upon traditional values and ancient institutions. Both were forward-looking. Inspired and guided, but not shackled, by all that is valuable in the past, they shared the vision of an order which should ensure for the individual a harmonious blend of inner peace and serenity born of refined spiritual faith, and the intellectual and material blessings of modern philosophy and science.
Like the mystics of old, Muslim as well as Hindu, Radhakrishnan believed in some kind of a reconciliation between the teachings of different religions. His ideal of reconciliation was, understandably, more in harmony with the essence of the Hindu ideology than with any other faith. And his perpetual hark-back to the Hindu ideology in the course of his speeches as India’s spokesman often jarred on secular ears.
But his belief that religious teachings were a concern of philosophy rather than theology involved an ultimate rejection of dogmatism, which he regarded as a divisive force and a major cause of conflicts between faiths. The ideal faith of which he dreamed would demand “loyalty to the whole of mankind, and not to this or that fraction of it, a faith to which the secular and emancipated mind might cling even in the face of disaster”.
Like all great thinkers of the age, Radhakrishnan was dismayed and alarmed at the deadly chasm between man’s fantastic intellectual powers and the relative poverty of his ability to prevent the abuse of these powers for destructive ends. Like many of them, he thought that the chasm could be filled only through a radical transformation of the human individual and the birth of a new man. And his faith in a divine purpose in creation sustained his hope in such a moral rebirth of man.
lqbal lamented the failure of man, who had succeeded in harnessing the rays of the sun and charting the paths of the planets, to dispel the gloom and suffering that blights his own life, and to realize the world of his ideals. The promise of a world really worth living in, he imagined, would be realized through the mard-i-mu’min, with his combination of love, obedience to the law and self-control. Radhakrishnan’s ideas on the subject offer a striking parallel: “Our scientific and technical achievements are of a staggering character. We are trying to touch the stars and reach the moon, yet we are clinging to established– relationships among sovereign states which, in the nuclear age, will lead to disaster. The human individual is to be renewed if human society is to be preserved”.
These ideals are, in essence, in harmony with the ancient Biblical ideal of men beating their swords into ploughshares. And if the ideal has survived two thousand years of man’s inhumanity to man—of mutual hate and hostility, of senseless cruelty and vandalism, of massacres and wars, there may still be some sense in the hope that it may ultimately triumph. In the present age, when man at times appears perilously close to self-annihilation, any voice that reminds us of that ideal helps to strengthen the hope that springs eternal in the human breast.
Source: Pakistan Economist 26 April 1975