Nehru: India’s Extraordinary Atheist Prime Minister,Nicole Scott,Free Inquiry

Jawaharlal Nehru . (Credit: Prakash pandey07 – Wikipedia.)

Historians have been reluctant to acknowledge that India’s most famous prime minister—Jawaharlal Nehru (1889–1964)—was not only an atheist but an extraordinarily learned atheist. His atheism did not develop as a reaction to a religious upbringing or the suffering of the Indian people (though he thought only a secular society could alleviate that suffering). Nor did Nehru become a nonbeliever due to the contradictions and violence inherent in “holy” scriptures. Rather, Nehru’s atheism was grounded in his education and reading of science: specifically, his remarkable understanding of history, evolutionary biology, and physics. Comparing Nehru to Napoleon, the Australian diplomat Walter Crocker wrote in his 1966 book, Nehru: A Contemporary’s Estimate (Oxford University Press), “few indeed have been Heads of Government in our time with such a force, or range, of mind.” Crocker added: “Few errors in reasoning ever escaped him” and told of how he once witnessed Nehru correcting a Nobel Prize winner for a careless statement the scientist had made. On religion, Crocker wrote that Nehru was a “declared agnostic.”

But Crocker’s observation is exceptional, because writers often mask Nehru’s atheism—or “agnosticism”1—while focusing on his critique of religion. For example, in his 1956 Jawaharlal Nehru: A Biography (Macmillian Publishers), Frank Moraes correctly states that Nehru believed religion replaced clear thinking with dogma and that politicians especially should eschew religion and concern themselves with improving Indian society. But Moraes also states that “it is not that [Nehru] is godless but he feels religion is a purely personal and private affair which has no place in politics, particularly Indian politics, which has always been sensitive to fanatical religious appeals.” As I will show, Nehru was in fact “godless,” and it is further nonsense for Moraes to backpedal by later admitting that “In the stress of the moment, Nehru has been known to give vent to utterances suggesting a profound skepticism in the existence of the Almighty.” I say “nonsense” because many of Nehru’s “utterances” were done during his nine jail terms (total time served: nine years) when, by Nehru’s own accounting, he had plenty of time to ponder theology and was more bored than “stressed.”

Similarly, in 1968 the Catholic Reverend Victor Z. Narivelil wrote a well-researched master’s degree thesis titled “Nehru and the Secular State of India.” Like Moraes, Narivelil emphasized that because of India’s history of religious conflicts, Nehru wanted a strict separation of church and state. Religion, he thought, should be a private matter. But to Narivelil, Nehru’s “secularism” was merely the means by which Nehru resisted communalism in India. Instead of doing the “easy” thing and creating a Hindu state, Nehru had “courageously” kept India’s diverse faiths on an equal footing so that all classes of people could identify with him and the Indian state. By Narivelil’s account, Nehru was thus a “humanist,” not a “secularist.” And Narivelil does not even entertain the possibility that the “courageous” Nehru was an “atheist.” (The ecumenical spirit of Vatican II didn’t extend that far!)

Indian writers have also shied away from Nehru’s atheism. C. A. Perumal (“Nehru and Secularism,” The Indian Journal of Political Science, July–September 1987), accurately argues that Nehru thought religion regulated every aspect of an individual’s life and that only a “secular state” could unite India, which was plagued by communalism. But Perumal thinks that Nehru’s main problem with religion was that, by attributing all worldly phenomena to God’s will, religion inhibited the introduction of scientific methods into Indian society. By Perumal’s account, Nehru thought religion should address “final causes” and let science deal with the “immediate causes” of worldly phenomena. Perumal is correct that Nehru wanted science to prevail in India, but religion was more than an inhibitor that should “stay in its lane.” As Suneera Kapoor and Shrawan Singh state in their more honest piece (“Nehru and Gandhi on Religion,” The Indian Journal of Political Science, July–September 2005), Nehru thought orthodox religion “absurd” and a personal god “very odd.” Yet, even these two authors circumvent Nehru’s atheism by quoting Nehru’s commonsense statement that “Whether we believe in god or not, it is impossible not to believe in something, whether we call it a creative life-giving force or vital energy in matter which gives its capacity for self movement and change and growth.” Yes, these are Nehru’s words, but to Nehru this “force” or “energy” had nothing to do with metaphysics or the supernatural. Rather, Nehru was probably referring here to atoms! More on this shortly.

It should be added that Free Inquiry has also not recognized Nehru’s extraordinary atheism. In the archives, he’s only mentioned twice. In a 2016 op-ed (“Two Nations, One Abyss,” December 2015/January 2016), Tom Flynn credited Nehru with launching “a vigorous secularizing campaign” under the assumption that (here Flynn quoted University of Chicago’s Ronald Inden) “In order to modernize, India would have to set aside centuries of traditional religious ignorance and superstition and eventually eliminate Hinduism and Islam from people’s lives altogether.” This statement was fundamentally accurate, though I doubt Nehru ever really thought he could eradicate religion from India. However, while recognizing Nehru’s (unsuccessful) efforts to secularize Indian politics, Flynn never delineated Nehru’s beliefs. In the next FI issue (February/March 2016), a letter from a Hindu challenged Flynn by asserting—contrary to all evidence—that Nehru “never was a secularist.” Besides these two instances, Nehru seems to have been forgotten in these pages. It’s time to make amends!

Nehru’s Path to Atheism

In his An Autobiography (The Bodley Head, 1936), Nehru chronicles how his areligious “temper” developed early in life, beginning with the influence of his father, an important Indian politician who served twice as president of India’s Congress and who had no taste for religion. It accelerated in college and during World War I, when he read Bertrand Russell and “first heard the modern definition of faith: to believe in something which your reason tells you cannot be true.” At university he was particularly influenced by “scientific studies,” including Karl Marx’s “scientific” analysis of capitalism and the inequalities it generated. Throughout his life, Nehru always maintained that although Marx did not—indeed, could not—anticipate how capitalism would adapt to left-wing challenges and government interventions, his analysis of capitalism’s nature was fundamentally correct. And only socialism—not a dogmatic socialism but one modified to India’s special conditions—could alleviate poverty, especially in rural India. Before 1947—when India achieved independence—Nehru thought that instituting socialism through constitutional means was impossible and concluded “There is no way out except by revolution or illegal action.” Perhaps his conclusion was reached—or reinforced—in 1927 when his father and he were invited to the Soviet Union, where Nehru was impressed by the nation’s efforts to reduce inequality. Although Nehru’s attitude toward the USSR changed during Stalin’s reign of terror, he always thought that the early USSR offered India a model for alleviating its own poverty.

Marx’s dialectical materialism also enabled Nehru to understand a major problem with religion:

[T]he religious man is concerned far more with his own salvation than with the good of society. … Moral standards have no relation to social needs but are based on a highly metaphysical doctrine of sin. An organized religion invariably becomes a vested interest and thus a reactionary force opposing change and progress.

No one better exemplified the problem than Gandhi, “the greatest peasant, but with a peasant’s outlook on affairs, and with a peasant’s blindness to some aspects of life.” To Nehru, Gandhi glorified poverty, “the usual religious attitude everywhere … [but] poverty seemed to me a hateful thing, to be fought and rooted out in any way.” Nehru often wondered how the faith-based Gandhi, his peace-loving good friend, could “accept the present social order … which was based on violence and conflict.”2 In the end, because it justified Indian suffering,

The spectacle of what is called religion, or at any rate organized religion, in India and elsewhere has filled me with horror, and I have frequently condemned it and wished to make a clean sweep of it. Almost always it seems to stand for blind belief and reaction, dogma and bigotry, superstition and exploitation, and the preservation of vested interests.

Of course, Nehru understood why people were drawn to religion. In his autobiography he wrote that Catholicism, Hinduism, and Buddhism all offer comfort, “the assurance of a future life which will make up for the deficiencies of this life.” In England, the Church of England “has served the purposes of British imperialism and given both capitalism and imperialism a moral and Christian covering.” And among the non-oppressed, religion—he thought—also fulfills an inner human craving, a search for meaning.3

While Marx influenced his understanding of capitalism and religion, Nehru’s atheism was ultimately grounded in his understanding of history and science. In his remarkable Letters to His Daughter (1929), Nehru explains—with no references to god—the origins of the solar system and man. Exhibiting familiarity with George Darwin’s 1898 hypothesis that the moon had been spun from Earth, Nehru speculated that Earth—“merely a speck of dust hanging in the air”—may have been ejected by the sun. In 1912, German meteorologist Alfred Wegener had presented evidence for continental drift, a view Nehru conveyed to his daughter as he explained how continents and seas had evolved over time. And pointing to the fossil record as evidence, Nehru explained human development in terms of Charles Darwin’s theory of natural selection. He emphasized the similarities between man and animals, with man’s greater “intelligence” being their main difference.

As for religion, Nehru expressed a view still held today: gods originated “through the fear of the unknown. … [humans] not understanding nature and much that happens around us.”  Being “simple and ignorant” people and fearing punishment from the gods, prehistoric man created temples and “terrible” images to worship. To drive home to his daughter (then twelve years old) the irrational and “foolish” nature of religion, Nehru explained that to placate their imaginary gods, Cretans sacrificed humans, including women and children. According to Crocker, Nehru so wanted to distance his daughter from religion that he did not even allow her to hear fairy tales.

Nehru’s understanding of science increased over time. In a 1938 address to India’s National Academy of Science, he talked knowledgeably of “astonishing developments in scientific thought,” specifically quantum mechanics:

[T]he reality of even a particle of matter, we are told, is not its actuality but its potentiality. Matter becomes just a “group agitation” and nature a theatre for such agitation or “for the inter relations of activities.” Everywhere there is motion, change, and the only unit of things real is the “event,” which is and instantaneously is no more. Nothing is except a happening.

As for mankind: “[Humans] may be specks of dust on a soap-bubble universe.” During this speech, Nehru implored scientists, as they worked in their respective specialties, not to lose sight of the bigger picture: scientists must have a “social objective” and work with politicians to solve India’s social problems. Nehru always believed that science not only discovered important truths but also could, on many different levels, alleviate poverty in India.

In perhaps his most famous work, The Discovery of India (John Day Company, 1946), Nehru wrote that science was so “widening it boundaries”—especially into the “invisible” world—that it might eventually “help us to understand the purpose of life in its widest sense, or at least give us some glimpses which illumine the problem of human existence … [by] the application of the scientific method to emotional and religious experiences.” After the United States had exploded an atomic bomb in 1945, many world leaders undoubtedly learned more about atoms, but Nehru understood the issue on a fundamental level:

Space-time and quantum theory changed the picture of the physical world. More recent research into the nature of matter, the structure of the atom, the transmutation of the elements, and the transformation of electricity and light … have carried human knowledge much further. Man no longer sees nature as something apart and distinct from himself. Human destiny appears to become a part of nature’s rhythm energy.

He later added, “The belief that all things are made of a single substance is as old as thought itself; but ours is the generation which, first of all in history, is able to receive the unity of nature, not as a baseless dogma or a hopeless aspiration, but a principle of science as sharp and clear as anything which is known.”

Nehru’s Legacy

After India achieved its independence in 1947, Nehru served as prime minister for eighteen years, first as interim prime minister and then as full prime minister of the new republic. As A. M. Rajasekhariah has beautifully documented (“Jawaharlal Nehru’s Contribution to Secularism in India—an Estimate,” The Indian Journal of Political Science, April–June 1987), Nehru was instrumental in establishing India as a secular state, embodied in Part 3 (“Fundamental Rights”) of India’s Constitution and several of its amendments. Envisioning “a political structure in which the individual was not subject to any social inequalities imposed by religious sanctions,” Nehru—in the words of Chester Bowles in a 1954 Ambassador’s Report—“created a secular state in which the 45 million Muslims who chose not to go to Pakistan may live peacefully and worship as they please.” In fact, although Indians still debate the meaning of “secularism,” and although religious intolerance still rears its ugly head there, India—thanks to Nehru—is more firmly secular than the United States is.

During his long stint as prime minister, Nehru enacted many other policies.

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Nehru’s Wikipedia entry nicely summarizes his policy accomplishments—especially in education—and his failures, such as the Indo-China War of 1962. It also summarizes his extraordinary popularity, not only among Indians but among world leaders such as Dwight Eisenhower and Winston Churchill, who in 1955 called Nehru “the light of Asia,” greater than even Gautama Buddha. Almost all Indians I have met remember him, although their opinions of him vary. On a recent trip to Ecuador, I spoke with four elderly Indian expatriates, all of whom criticized Nehru’s “mixed economy” for inhibiting entrepreneurship and economic growth. Yet they also credited him with industrializing India. And when I detailed Nehru’s scientific/atheistic worldview and his efforts in creating India’s secular state, these four critics—now working in Silicon Valley—nodded approvingly.

[1] I assume that any advocate of the scientific method (such as Nehru) conceives no real difference between agnosticism and atheism. As Richard Dawkins has often said, ultimately most scientists are atheists because theism has no evidence to support it. Yet scientists must also be open to new evidence, and if worthwhile evidence for god appeared, then scientists would be obligated to modify their views. So—almost by definition—every scientifically oriented atheist is also an agnostic.

[2] Throughout much of his life, Nehru expressed much ambivalence toward Gandhi, whom he clearly loved and respected but whose religious nature always rubbed Nehru the wrong way. In 1960, late in his life, Nehru’s opinion clearly had softened. He called Gandhi “a great and mighty leader” who waged “an almost continuous struggle … against inequality for the underdog.” Nehru cited Gandhi’s campaign to overturn the caste system and end untouchability in India.

[3] On the other hand, Nehru thought that although religion offered a false answer to those who sought life’s “purpose,” a materialist lifestyle didn’t necessarily fulfill the craving. During a 1960 interview, he worried that increasing affluence and leisure time were producing increasingly discontented younger generations, manifested in growing rates of juvenile delinquency, alcoholism, and crime. To Nehru, leisure time left “the human mind hungry for something deeper in terms of moral and spiritual development.” The “struggle for survival” had kept previous generations busy, but satisfying their material needs now left newer generations in a “spiritual vacuum.” To Nehru, “spiritual” fulfillment could be gained only one way: by leading an honorable moral life and working to help the oppressed. His definition of true “spirituality” closely resembled that of Robert Ingersoll (see my “Ingersoll’s Practical Definition of Spirituality,” unpublished manuscript). [MK: We certainly can’t refer readers to an unpublished manuscript. Rephrase?—JL]

Historians have been reluctant to acknowledge that India’s most famous prime minister—Jawaharlal Nehru (1889–1964)—was not only an atheist but an extraordinarily learned atheist. His atheism did not develop as a reaction to a religious upbringing or the suffering of the Indian people (though he thought only a secular society could alleviate that suffering). Nor did …