For those who might have never heard of Sri Radhakrishnan, he was a twentieth century Indian scholar whose writings on Hindu philosophy and world religions first earned him a professorship at a small Christian college in Madras, from which he himself had matriculated and where he was subsequently employed to teach philosophy, remaining for seven years; then at the University of Mysore, where for three years he also taught philosophy; then at the University of Calcutta, where for seven years he chaired something called the Mental and Moral Science Department; and finally at Oxford University in England, where in 1936, as the first Indian ever to teach at that school, he was invited to assume the newly endowed Spalding Chair of Eastern Religions.
And there he remained for the next sixteen years, quite content just to teach and write, until the leaders of the newly independent Indian state persuaded him to come home and become India’s first Vice President; and eventually, its second full President.
My own interest in his work began back in my thirties, when I happened upon a lengthy foreword that he’d written for some new translation of the major Hindu Upanishads; in fact, I was so captivated by his foreword that after I’d finished reading it, I had to put the book down and couldn’t even imagine continuing on to the Upanishads themselves until I’d first fully digested the priceless logic and personal truth that I’d just stumbled upon.
In Hindu thought, Radhakrishnan had written, there are three perfectly logical, but wholly different notions of the divine.
Hindus call these Dvaita Vedanta, or Dualism; Vishishta Dvaita Vedanta, or Qualified Dualism; and Advaita Vedanta, or Non-Dualism (think ‘Monism’, if you’re bothered by the awkward negative).
In the first belief system, Dualism, there are two discrete parts to reality: the being of people and their world—the Created—and the being of whoever or whatever they see as the Creator; but there’s no interaction whatsoever between the two. The Creator imbued the Created with everything that it would need to survive and prosper, and then just went his or her or its own way. In fact, the Creator might even be dead by now; no one knows—or can ever know. No one even knows what the Creator is, or was or whatever.
In the second, however, the two parts of reality can and frequently do interact. The Creator cares about the Created—quite like a parent—and remains available for support; whence prayers routinely move in one direction, and revelations, miracles, divine punishment and so forth in the other.
In the third, non-dualistic or ‘monistic’ way of looking at things, there’s only one being—that is, the Creator and Created are ultimately one and the same. The Creator became the Created—through which even today, he/she/it continues to create.
As someone who’d grown up in the second environment—but had forsaken it long ago—I was stunned, relieved, thrilled to find out that there was at least one religion in the world that saw nothing wrong with that third view! Oh, I knew myself well enough to know that I’d probably never become a Hindu—or anything else that might threaten my intellectual independence—but at the same time, I realized that I’d been an Advaita Vedantist all my life; I just hadn’t known that someone of Radhakrishnan’s academic stature—as a philosophy professor, no less!—had a perfectly respectable, positive name for it.