Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan: Philosopher, President, Plagiarizer?

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The man behind Teacher's Day in India left a strong legacy as both scholar and president. But an early accusation of plagiarism remains.

The man whose birthday marks Teacher’s day has a tricky legacy. On the one hand, he is revered as among India’s greatest academics and philosophers of modern times, bringing Hindu thought and ideas to challenge the implied superiority of Western ones.

As ambassador, he fostered warm India-USSR relations, helping build a friendship that would later prove invaluable. He served as India’s first Vice-President for two terms before becoming the President, where he called for unity and fellowship at a time when the Cold War was sparking crisis after crisis worldwide.

On the other hand, advocation of Advaita-Vedantic thought has been linked to nationalist movements, that interpreted it to mean that an all-inclusive  Hindu religion should subsume and be above other religions. By including all of the worlds under a perennial ambit, he depicts Hinduism as the upper level in a hierarchy of global religions.

His legacy as the eponymous teacher behind Teacher’s Day also holds a sad mirror to the state of Indian academia today. Accused of plagiarism by a student of his at Calcutta University, his story reflects the rampant ‘cut and paste’ culture that is rampant today.

Yet, it may turn out that he has only plagiarized himself; a victim of a sense of racism that permeated Calcutta University at the time. How could a ‘Madrasi’, it was felt, step into one of India’s most hallowed institutes and write books on such ambitious themes, as ‘Indian Philosophy’?

The current state of affairs might not be wholly one of racism, though. The Indian education system seldom encourages original thought, and we are taught to copy passages verbatim from our textbooks for many of our essays.

The prevalence of plagiarism amongst Indian students is well documented and observable – absence of a national law to deal with plagiarism has been universally lamented, from Nature.com to medical journals and our own publications.

Yet, contemporary plagiarism often exists solely to fill pages or fulfill requirements. Radhakrishnan had no small ambitions. Academia can often be entrenched within hyper-specificity, yet his books are both incredibly ambitious and richly detailed – combining breadth with depth. A list of his major works speaks volumes by itself:

  • The Philosophy of Rabindranath Tagore (1918)
  • Indian Philosophy (1923)
  • The Hindu View of Life (1926)
  • An Idealist View of Life (1929)
  • Eastern Religions and Western Thought (1939)
  • Religion and Society (1947)
  • The Bhagavadgītā: With an Introductory Essay, Sanskrit Text English Translation and notes (1948)
  • The Dhammapada (1950)
  • The Principal Upanishads (1953)
  • Recovery of Faith (1956)
  • A Source Book in Indian Philosophy (1957)
  • Religion, Science & Culture (1968)

Most academics would seldom dare to write authoritative pieces on such broad topics, but Radhakrishnan has managed to, and with aplomb. Most of the above have laid the foundation for much on the ongoing research into Hindu, Vedic and Buddhist thought – oft clubbed together as Eastern thought in an exercise of simplification.

By 1921, he had built up a significant reputation for himself internationally from within South Indian academic circles. His final position in philosophy at Mysore University precluded his first big appointment – that for the King George the Vth chair at the University of Calcutta. It was too tempting a position to resist, and he left to the much-publicized mourning of his students in Mysore – who carried him in a human-pulled carriage to the railway station, weeping as his train pulled away.

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Radhakrishnan left the Madras Presidency for Calcutta not without a large share of academic ambition. But the position he was to fill was felt to be one deserving of a Bengali – thus summoning the spectre of university politics.

Radhakrishnan’s early days in the University of Calcutta were scarred by institutional hostility. Within a few weeks of joining, a journal called ‘The Modern Review’ began publishing a tirade of criticisms against him on charges of intellectual dishonesty, poor English and Bengali skills and an unfamiliarity with referencing styles and schools of Western thought.

The most serious accusation against his character appeared in 1929, one that proved harder to escape than university politics.

Jadunath Sinha, a student whose thesis had been reviewed by Radhakrishnan prior to the publication of Indian Philosophy, accused him of plagiarism in 1929. Sinha claimed, with examples published in Modern Review, that Radhakrishnan had copied whole passages from Sinha’s thesis for use in Indian Philosophy. According to a newspaper clipping from the time, he sued Radhakrishnan for Rs.20,000.

Radhakrishnan denied these charges and allegedly counter-sued for Rs.1,00,000 declaring in turn that Sinha had plagiarized earlier authors. He argued that since all of them were forced to rely on the same texts and translations, the chance of ideas appearing similar in form and phrasing was high. Claiming that since his lectures intersected with the subject matter of his book prior to its publication, Radhakrishnan suggests that it was very likely that Sinha had unwittingly written Radhakrishnan’s own words as his own.

It is hard to verify what happened – but the charge of plagiarism continues to be used against Radhakrishnan. A 2012 article by the Pakistani newspaper Dawn is often mentioned by his critics. The same charges are repeated in the portal roundtableindia.org, which aims to be a voice for Dalit stories.

Existing tensions between Brahmin faculty and Dalit students in many universities have increased the suspicion such forums hold for highly-regarded Brahmin figures like Radhakrishnan. Narratives and counter-narratives work against the idea of texts ostensibly published for their own sakes.

While academics have been appointed as Presidents before, Radhakrishna is in a class of his own when it comes to stature within scholarship. His books are seen as authoritative contributions to the body of knowledge in Comparative Religion.

He was among the last breed of Indian scholars familiar with the root languages of the scriptures and key religious texts. Sheldon Pollock, Chair of South Asian Studies at Columbia University, calls this the ‘Crisis of the Classics’ in a 2011 article. Writing on the breed of scholars who emerged post-Independence and wrote on the ancient texts in Sanskrit, Tamil, Malayalam, Urdu, Gujarati, Kannada (and more), he says:

Two generations later their works have not been replaced not because they are irreplaceable— it is in the nature of scholarship that later knowledge should supersede earlier—but because there is no one capable of replacing them.

So many of India’s doyens emerged from the period immediately following independence. We owe much to their legacy, but the future demands that we craft our own legacies.  We need to introspect as to whether we can still generate new and bold ideas, or if we must only replace the old ones. Either way, the era of Ctrl-C and Ctrl-V must come to an end.

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2 Comments

  • Thank you Madras Courier for this excellent initiative of being stories from South India to rest of the country! Radhakrishnan is an important figure but my knowledge of him was rather limited before reading this article that raises a critical question about the state of Indian academia and lack of rigour in dealing with plagiarism – as valid today as before- by connecting it with a biography of a historical figure. Can’t wait for next dish on this thali!

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