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Contemporary Philosophy

Radhakrishnan's Thought and Existentialism

Juthika Das
Handique Girls' College, Guwahati, INDIA

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ABSTRACT: I attempt to show the similarities between the viewpoints of Radhakrishnan and the existentialist thinkers. The philosophy of Radhakrishnan is an attempt to reinterpret and reconstruct the Advaita Vedanta of Sankara in the light of scientific knowledge and techniques of modern time. Existentialism is an attitude and outlook that emphasizes human existence. For Radhakrishnan, the human is essentially subject, not object. The existentialists assert that the human is not an object to be known, but a subject. Both Radhakrishnan and the existentialists emphasize the immense potential and present day condition of humanity. Radhakrishnan acknowledges the reality of suffering and misery of worldly existence. The existentialists maintain that there are antinomies, contradictions and distress at the root of existence. Radhakrishnan is concerned with liberation as a state of freedom. Freedom is the central concept around which the existential enquiry revolves. Though Radhakrishnan has certain affinities with existentialism, he regards it as a stage in the human's pilgrimage through life.

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The philosophy of Radhakrishnan is an attempt to reinterpret and reconstruct the Advaita Vedanta of Sankara in the light of scientific knowledge and technique of modern time. The philosophy of Advaita follows the basic tenets of the Upanishadic philosophy. Radhakrishnan does not propound any system of philosophy. He is bound to tradition like his contemporaries. But, his philosophy is distinct from others by some of its peculiar features. It is based on his own experiences and reflections.

Existentialism is an attitude and outlook that emphasizes human existence. 'Existence precedes essence'-this is the maxim of existentialism. Existentialism deals with the problems the individual has to face in life, with the ways how he faces them, with his feelings and emotions and above all, with his outlook on life and experience. It recognises freedom and responsibility of the individual man.

Soren Kirkegaard is regarded as the father of 'Existentialism'. He starts discussion on it. It is further developed in the hands of subsequent thinkers like Karl Jaspers, Gabriel Marcel, Martin Heidegger and Jean Paul Sartre. It must be admitted that there are divergent interests and points of view within existentialism.

There are certain affinities between the viewpoints of Rahdakrishnan and the existentialist thinkers.

Indian thought, in general; investigates into the self. Radhakrishnan also maintains that "In India, 'Atmanam Viddhi,' know the self, sums up the law and the prophets." (1) We do hear in this 'Atmanam Viddhi' the voice of existentialism.

The two great propositions of the Upanishads are ' Tattvamasi' (Thou art that) and 'Aham Brahmasmi' (I am Brahman). These two propositions assert that man is neither a thing nor an object. Man is not the product of something. He is one with Brahman. Thus, the self is identified with Brahman, the one. For Radhakrishnan, man is essentially subject, not object. The ultimate reality is one with our deepest self. Brahman is Atman, the Universal Spirit. The existentialists assert that man is not an object to be known, but a subject. Karl Jaspers, one of the existentialists maintains that "My true self is not the individual soul, but the supreme self, the one, and therefore. I reach my authentic being in identifying myself with the one." (2)

According to Radhakrishnan, man is more than matter, life or mind or all these taken together. Man has grown out of physical, vital and animal life into the power of manhood. Kierkegaard speaks of the 'individual existence' in a sense in which a man is not simply a biological, psychological or social animal, but in which a man is a 'human being.'

In Radhakrishnan, we often find that "Man is always more than he is able to comprehend of himself." (3) Radhakrishnan is quite akin to Jaspers as Jaspers also holds the view that man is always more than himself.

Both Radhakrishnan and the existentialists emphasize on the immense potentialities of man. Radhakrishnan maintains that man must be transformed and transmuted to a higher level of existence in course of evolution. Man's greatness is not in what, he is but in what he can be. Jean Paul Sartre asserts about man that-"it-is-what-it-is-not and that it is not what-it-is." (4) Man exists and makes himself develop into what he wants to be.

Radhakrishnan realises deeply the present-day condition of man. The present period is a period of uncertainty. Man has lost his happiness and peace. The life becomes artificial and mechanical. Radhakrishnan writes, "we live in a period of agonizing strain, of grave anxiety, of manifold disillusionment. The world is in a condition of trance." (5)

Existentialism is also deeply concerned with the condition of man in the modern age. In the present time man has lost his freedom, individuality, humanity. Man is reduced to a machine. Different disciplines treat man not as an individual, but as an object. Existentialism points out that a type of thought which dominates the treatment of objects is inadequate to the existing individual.

Radhakrishnan, in spite of the crisis of present time maintains an optimistic attitude. According to him, man's unrest is not a mere negative force. He is not only oppressed by new doubts but is inspired by new horizons, new perspective and a thirst for new relations with fellowmen. We are in the beginning of a new age. Jaspers also believes that present discontents and unrest indicate the birth of a future. He expresses, " we live, so to speak, in a seething cauldron of possibilities, continually threatened by confusion, but always ready in spite of everything to rise up again." (6)

Radhkrishnan acknowledges the reality of suffering and misery of worldly existence. This empirical world is the source of all kinds of sorrows and suffering. Man is the victim of suffering so long as he confines himself to this world. Like other Advaitin thinkers, Radhakrishnan affirms the inevitability of death and transitoriness of human existence. But he also affirms that the suffering of life can be transcended. Man is intended for something greater than confinement in this world. He can rise above it. (7) Radhakrishnan makes suffering and misery of worldly existence an aspect of the process of spiritual growth. Again, death is not a denial of life. It is only a condition. Death is only a change from one life to another Death terminates the present life of man in order to substitute a new life for it. It is not possible for man to exhaust all the potentialities of life in a single life. Hence, we must accept some possible forms of life after death.

The existentialists depicts a gloomy picture of life. There are antinomies, contradictions and distress at the root of existence. The feeling of anxiety or anguish or dread (angst, angoisse) is a peculiar feature which characterizes the outlook of the existentialist thinkers. We have to face all these, otherwise we evade the truth of our own being. Existentialists think that an important fact of life is death. Death is man's inevitable end. Heidegger has carried out the detailed study of the existential meaning of death. (8) It pulls man up into authentic existence out of his inauthentic existence. Jaspers refers to death, chance, guilt, suffering struggle as boundary situations. These boundary situations reveal to us our ' Existenz'-the authentic self.

Radhakrishnan, like the existentialists distinguishes between the inauthentic and the authentic existence as between bondage and liberation. Bondage is the self-alienation of man from his real being. Liberation results from the realisation of the real nature of man. Inauthentic existence is the life of worldliness. It signifies the ignorance of man of his real nature. The authentic existence is the way of man who wants liberation. It signifies the attempt of man to liberate himself from egocentric limitations and the realisation of the real-self.

Like other advaitin thinkers, Radhakrishnan is primarily concerned with liberation. Liberation is a state of freedom. It means the realisation of the self in its pure nature. Freedom is the central concept around which the existential enquiry revolves. Freedom constitutes man's basic nature. Freedom is inherent to human existence. The practice of freedom is man's authentic existence. It is to be lived through responsible decision and action.

According to Radhakrishnan-moksa, nirvana, eternal life are not an escape from life, but the realisation of life's fullest possibilities. The perfection of personality. (9) Each one's life is a road to himself, to self-realization.

In the existentialists we find that man seeks to liberate himself from his state of 'fallenness' and direct it towards the realisation of his highest potentialities. Herein lies man's freedom.

In his later writings, Radhakrishnan often refers to existentialism. He maintains that existentialism is one of the basic types of thought. It appears in the history of philosophy whenever we stress the difference between the individual being of man and the being of objects in nature. Though Radhakrishnan has much more in common with existentialism, he regards it as a transitional phase of individual development. He states, "Existentialism is a stage in man's pilgrimage through life. It has to transcend itself: for an analysis of the human predicament reveals the fact of God as Being and God as perfection." (10)

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(1) Radhakrishnan,S, Indian Philosophy, Vol 1, P 28.

(2) Jaspers, Karl, Quoted in Existentialism and the Modern predicament by F.H. Heinmann, p 64.

(3) Radhakrishnan,S, Recovery of Faith, P. 87

(4) Sartre, Jean Paul, Being and Nothingness, Eng. Trans. Hazel E. Barnes, P 156.

(5) Radhakrishnan,S, Religion and Society, P. 11

(6) Jaspers, Karl, Reason and Existenz,Eng.Trans William Earle, P 49.

(7) Radhakrishnan,S, Towards a new world, p-64-5

(8) Heidegger, Martin, Being and Time, Eng. Trans. J Macquarrie & E.S. Robinson PP 279-311.

(9) Radhakrishnan,S, The present crisis of Faith P53.

(10) P.A. Schlipp (edited) The philosophy of Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan: Radhakrishnan's Autobiography P.59).

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