Registered with the Registrar of Newspapers for India under R.N.I 53640/91

Vol. XXXIII No. 8, August 1-15, 2023

Telliyavaram Mahadevan, who personified simplicity and epitomised superior intellect

-- by Dr. A. Raman (

Arcot Lakshmanaswami ­Mudaliar, the longest-serving Vice-Chancellor (VC) of the University of Madras (UoM) and a highly distinguished surgeon-academician, regarded three of his professorial colleagues, Telliyavaram M.P. Mahadevan (Dr. Radhakrishnan Centre for Advanced Study in Philosophy), Thoppur S. Sadasivan (Centre for Advanced in Botany & Plant Pathology), and Gopalasamudram N. Ramachandran (Department of Crystallography & Biophysics) in great esteem and as extraordinarily brilliant intellectuals. Such was the respect this academic trio – Mahadevan, Sadasivan and Ramachandran – commanded not only within the UoM, but also in the academic circles of India and world. In the present article I am briefly chronicling the life and works of T(elliyavaram) M(ahadevan) P(onnambalam) Mahadevan (24 August 1911-5 November 1983) – hereafter ‘TMP’. Articles on Sadasivan and Ramachandran and the splendid science they fostered have been featured by me and Vijayshree Venkataraman, respectively, in previous issues of the Madras Musings.

I was studying in the Presidency College then. I used to wonder why students and academics from diverse departments of the UoM were rushing to the philosophy department on certain days. Later I understood that they were rushing to listen to TMP’s occasional lectures on Indian philosophy, intended for the students of M. A. (Philosophy) class. TMP’s profundity as an effective interpreter and commentator of Indian philosophy was lofty and well known globally. Not surprising therefore, many international scholars enthusiastic to learn Indian philosophy and worldviews came to Madras to complete their master’s and doctoral studies under TMP’s direction. After retirement from UoM he delivered lectures on Sankara Vedanta on certain Sunday mornings in his house, aptly named Sankara Vihar on Medavakkam Tank Road, Ayanavaram. I have seen people crowding in the front yard of Sankara Vihar to listen to his talks. His erudition was immense and people thronged to listen to him – similar to a magnet attracting iron filings. His command over the English language was superb. He lectured with utmost clarity, dealing especially with an extremely complex subject, viz., philosophy. His authority and scholarship over the Sanskrit language and literature added lustre to his discourses.

TMP was born in Madras in 1911. He completed his B.A. (Philosophy) from UoM studying through the Pachaiyappa’s College, Madras. He earned his first-class Honours (Philosophy) from UoM, studying through the Presidency College, Madras, in 1933. He joined the Department of Philosophy, UoM, to pursue his Ph.D. He earned his PhD by executing a critical commentary, the Philosophy of Advaita: with Special Reference to Bharatitirtha-Vidyaranya working under the direction of S(atalur) S(undara) Suryanarayana Sastri, which was published as a monograph (284 pages) by Luzac & Company, London in 1938. Importantly this monograph includes a sparkling foreword by Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, then the Spalding Professor of Eastern Religion & Ethics, University of Oxford. TMP’s early career – between 1937 and 1943 – was at the Pachaiyappa’s College, his alma mater. In 1944, he joined the Department of Philosophy, UoM, as a lecturer. While being an academic at the UoM, he explored many Indian-philosophical works including the Upanishad-s. Those studies resulted in books. A few examples are (1) The Upanishads: Selections from 108 Upanishads (G.A. Natesan & Company, 1942, 400 pages), (2) Time and Timeless (Upanishad Vihar, 1953, 88 pages), (3) Gaudapada: A Study in Early Advaita (University of Madras, 1954, 281 pages), (4) The Idea of God in Saiva Siddhanta (Annamalai University, Chidambaram, 1955, 29 pages), (5) Outlines of Hinduism (Chetana Limited, Bombay, 1956, 312 pages), (6) The Sambandha Vartika of Suresvaracharya (University of Madras, 1958, 611 pages), further to scores of articles published in professional journals. In 1948-1949, he was invited to America, where he first lectured on Advaita at the School of Philosophy, Cornell University, Ithaca. Then he travelled throughout U.S.A. and lectured in various American universities. He was the General President of the Indian Philosophical Congress held in Nagpur in 1955. He was the Area Secretary of the Union for the Study of Great Religions. In 1967, he was honoured with Padma Bhushan, which he received from Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, President of India. TMP passed way in 1983.

Throughout his life, TMP stayed committed to understanding and explaining various aspects and dimensions of Indian philosophy, especially the Advaita, as made known by the Bagavadpada lineage: Gaudapada, Govinda, and Samkara I. In the earlier segment of his life, TMP was strongly influenced by Ramana Maharishi. TMP accepted Maharshi’s cardinal thought that we humans will never get at reality if we consider what we perceive as real: the dream world would present itself to us as real, as long as we are within it; but as soon as we awaken, we will realize its unsubstantiality. TMP especially admired Maharishi’s steadfast silence: because he believed in that the ‘self’ is best trained and equipped in silence. Maharishi always explained that silence is ever ‘speaking’, because it is the perennial flow of language; silence leads to self-realisation; once a human realises the self, then no problem will prevail. To TMP, Maharishi Ramana was a complete, perfect artist; anything that he touched turned orderly and pleasant. In the latter part of his life, TMP came under the influence of Sri Chandrasekarendra Saraswati, the 68th pontiff of the Kamakoti Peetam, Kanchipuram. TMP, in one of his essays on Sri Chandrasekarendra Saraswati published on, indicates that he (TMP) was strongly inspired by the following words of the ­Acharya, ‘I am prone to come to the conclusion that there lives none without predominantly selfish motives. But with years rolling on, an impression, that too a superficial one true to my nature, is dawning upon me that there breathe on this globe some souls firmly rooted in morals and ethics who live exclusively for others voluntarily forsaking, not only their material gains and comforts but also their own sadhana towards their spiritual improvement.’

As I write this note, words of Ernst Friedrich Schumacher (1911-1977), renowned for his classic Small Is Beautiful: a Study of Economics as if People ­Mattered (1973, Blond & Briggs, London), echo in me: ‘Any intelligent fool can make things bigger, more complex, and more violent. It takes a touch of genius, and a lot of courage to move in the opposite direction’. TMP lived a simple life, made Indian philosophy simple and easy for every one of us to understand, epitomizing an intellect of a courageous genius.

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