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The teacher of teachers


An American scholar Jacques Barzun once said ‘Teaching is not a lost art, but the regard for it is a lost tradition’. And as the adage goes, ‘Teaching is the profession that teaches all the other professions‘, the Indian tradition has always respected teachers and Gurus. While the teachers and Gurus are both inspiring, the teacher in the general sense teaches a subject and the Guru in the Indian sense unveils the ignorance for wisdom to dawn.The ‘Teachers’ Day’ in India on 5th September every year is celebrated to commemorate the birthday of one such accomplished teacher acclaimed as one of the greatest thinkers and philosophers of modern India ~ Dr. Sarvapelli Radhakrishnan (1888-1975). He was recognized as a multi-faceted personality – an eminent educationist, a scholar of eastern and western religions, a world philosopher, a cultural ambassador, a biographer and above all a seeker of truth.

The origin of Teacher’s day in India

Somewhere in this glitter of modern consumerism, Dr Radhakrishnan and his accomplishments as a scholar and as a teacher have been less remembered. Teacher’s day may be slipping into oblivion but it matters for those who value their teachers and who value learning. Many learned people, teachers and professors have either heard about him as a scholar but know almost nothing about his contribution to education. Today we seem to know more about film actors and their lives than that of greats like Dr. Radhakrishnan.

While most of us who are from India would have some recollection of Teacher’s day celebration during our school days, we may not know the incident that was behind 5th Sept becoming Teacher’s day. In fact teachers from India may not know about this and even if they did, they may not know what Dr.Radhakrishnan’s real contributions are at the world stage.

The celebration of ‘Teacher’s day’ has an interesting story behind it. When Dr. Radhakrishnan became the President of India in 1962, some of his students approached him and requested to allow them to celebrate September 5, as his “birthday” nationally. In reply Dr. Radhakrishnan said, “instead of celebrating my birthday separately, it would be my proud privilege if September 5 is observed as Teachers’ Day”. The request showed Dr. Radhakrishnan’s reverence for the teaching profession. From then onwards, the day has been observed as Teachers’ Day all over India.

Kennedy, Gandhi with Dr.S.Radhakrishnan

Dr. Radhakrishnan made his first visit to the United States in 1963 when John F. Kennedy was the President. When Dr. Radhakrishnan alighted from the plane the weather was stormy with heavy rains in Washington. The young American President greeting his Indian counterpart with a warm handshake and a smile expressed disappointment at the rain that spoilt the warm reception he had arranged to India’s Head of State. To this, it is said, he smiled and remarked courteously

“We cannot always control events, but we can always control our attitude towards events”.

In another incident in December 1947, when Radhakrishnan saw Mahatma Gandhi in Delhi, he told Gandhi that he intended to dedicate his book to him. Gandhi objected to this saying he was the seeker and Dr. Radhakrishnan the teacher: “Who am I? What is my service? You are my Krishna, I am your Arjuna.”

Who is a good teacher?

Dr. Radhakrishnan loved his teaching profession more than any other professions he had taken up during his eventful lifetime. Dr. S. Radhakrishnan believed that

“A good teacher must know how to arouse the interest of the pupil in the field of study for which he is responsible. He must himself be a master in the field of study and be in touch with the latest developments in the subject, he must himself be a fellow traveler in the exciting pursuit of knowledge…”

According to him,

“the aim of education is not the acquisition of information, although important, or acquisition of technical skills, though essential in modern society, but the development of that bent of mind, that attitude of reason, that spirit of democracy which will make us responsible citizens.”

His influence

Dr. Radhakrishnan is considered as one of the greatest philosophers of India and the world. In 1952 the Library of Living Philosophers, an institute of world-wide repute, brought out a massive 898 page volume on ‘The Philosophy of Sarvapelli Radhakrishnan, devoted wholly to a critical appreciation of his writings.

India’s highest award, the Bharat Ratna, was conferred on him in 1954 in recognition of his meritorious service to mankind.

Dr.S.Radhakrishnan started his career as a college teacher, Vice-chancellor, a Spalding Professor of Eastern Religions and Ethics at Oxford University held many high offices in Indian and abroad culminating in his becoming the Head of the Indian Republic. His 40 odd books on philosophy and religion bear the stamp of his distinctive genius for clarity and precision.

His philosophy was unbiased and inclusive as one can find in his remarks. “Those who separate themselves from the rest of the world in the name of religion or race, nation or polity are not assisting human evolution but retarding it”.

There are some 50 plus countries that have a dedicated day for their teachers while more than 100 countries including New Zealand celebrate the 5th of October as World’s Teacher’s day.  But in our life pursuits, we easily seem to forget our teachers and Gurus who have built and channelised our capabilities. In the Hindu tradition world the teacher (Guru) is considered even greater than God as Sant Kabir says

“I face both God and my guru. Whom should I bow to first? I first bow to my guru because he’s the one who showed me the path to God.”

It’s also a great day for budding teachers to take the pledge to create educated people and not just qualified ones.

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