Jawaharlal Nehru was a rationalist but he did not dismiss the human mind’s spiritual quest. Being modern does not mean being unconcerned with or contemptuous of tradition and culture. It means identifying with the dynamism in tradition and accelerating its modernising tendencies.
A nuanced and essentially Indic understanding of the spiritual quest guided Nehru’s endeavours in this respect. This understanding, achieved through reflection spread over millennia, came almost intuitively to a sophisticated Indian like Nehru, as it did to several ordinary people in his country. That is why Nehru could win the faith of countless Indians despite a sustained campaign against him for not being “culturally rooted and sufficiently Hindu/Indian”. He never hid his aversion to “superstitious practices and dogmatic beliefs” and “uncritical credulousness” that often go with religion. But, he also knew that, “religion had supplied some deeply felt inner need of human nature, and the vast majority of people all over the world could not do without some form of religious belief. It had produced many fine types of men and women, as well as bigoted, narrow-minded, cruel tyrants.”
Nehru felt “at home” in a “pantheistic atmosphere” and was attracted to “the advaita philosophy of Vedanta”. In his own words, “I can appreciate to some extent the conception of monism, and I have been attracted towards the advaita (non-dualist) philosophy. The diversity and fullness of nature stir me and produce a harmony of the spirit, and I can imagine myself feeling at home in the old Indian or Greek pagan and pantheistic atmosphere, but minus the conception of God or gods that was attached to it.” He further notes, “Some kind of ethical approach to life has a strong appeal for me, though it would be difficult for me to justify it logically. I have been attracted by Gandhiji’s stress on right means.”
In the Hindu worldview, “ethics and conduct” are much more important than the acceptance of a particular doctrine. That is why Nehru, who always emphasised scientific temper, could win the love and confidence of not just ordinary people but religious scholars as well.
As first-hand received knowledge of the freedom struggle fades, misconceptions like Nehru was “ignorant” of Indian culture and had “contempt’ for Hinduism have become widespread. In 2004, at a conference of scholars of Indian religions and cultures at Esalen institute, California, I was amazed to hear from a very respected scholar of philosophy and history that “the rise of Hindutva politics in India is due to the fact that Nehru suppressed religion, particularly its public display”.
Any Indian brought up in “Nehru’s India” would find this statement bizarre. Nehru and his colleagues, in continuation of Gandhi’s idea that “every religion has some element of Truth”, tried to evolve a state which sought to neither privilege nor suppress any religion — it sought to provide space to atheists as well. Even after Nehru’s demise, when the word “secular” was inserted into the Preamble of the Constitution, through the 42nd amendment, care was taken to translate it in Hindi not as “dharma-nirpeksha’ but “panth-nirpeksha” — because in several Indian languages, the term “dharma” stands not for a religious doctrine, dogma or faith system, but for the “inherent nature” of things, or for law.
The need to address the “spiritual” was not merely personal for Nehru. Reflecting on the human condition, he noted in a conversation with R K Karanjia in 1960, “the need to find some answer to the spiritual emptiness facing our technological civilisation”. He had realised quite early on, the deep interconnection between the poetic and the spiritual. In 1922, while in prison, he read a lot of “religious” works. In a letter to Gandhi, Nehru insightfully described the Ramcharitmanas as “a spiritual autobiography” of the poet Tulsidas.
After Independence, Nehru was as insistent on having autonomous national institutions of letters, fine arts, music, drama and film as he was eager to have institutes of technology and nuclear reactors. The most important function of these initiatives in Nehru’s vision was to address the “spiritual emptiness facing our technological civilisation”. What he could not tolerate was using religion for political gains — communalism and the politics of hurt sentiments.
The recent Ayodhya verdict reflects a situation characterised by the helplessness of law instead of its rule, the reason being that the judiciary was expected to resolve a matter which though apparently legal, was essentially political. It is for us to think whether Nehru’s insistence on running our polity “in accordance with political principles, not religious sentiments” has become more important with time.
This article first appeared in the print edition on November 14, 2019 under the title 'Nehru, rational spiritualist'. Agrawal is a writer and historian. His latest book is Who is Bharat Mata?, an edited collection on Nehru.