Pandit Jawarharlal Nehru (1889-1964)
First Prime Minister of India, who worked with Mahatma Gandhi to achieve independence from British rule peacefully.
As a humanist, Nehru considered that his afterlife was not in some mystical heaven or reincarnation but in the practical achievements of a life lived fully with and for his fellow human beings: “…Nor am I greatly interested in life after death. I find the problems of this life sufficiently absorbing to fill my mind,” he wrote. In his Last Will and Testament he wrote:
“I wish to declare with all earnestness that I do not want any religious ceremonies performed for me after my death. I do not believe in such ceremonies, and to submit to them, even as a matter of form, would be hypocrisy and an attempt to delude ourselves and others.”
Nehru came from a wealthy Brahmin family, and had a privileged education in England at Harrow School, Cambridge University, and the Inner Temple in London where he studied law. He soon realised how few Indians were able to enjoy an education like this. He devoted his life to improving the conditions of all the Indian people – and to achieving independence from British rule. When Nehru returned to India in 1912 he went into politics as an active member of the Indian National Congress party. Nehru had a liberal, progressive and nationalist outlook.
He became a follower and close associate of Gandhi. Their close relationship was unusual because they were very different in their beliefs. Gandhi was widely recognised as a holy man. Nehru, on the other hand, rejected religion. He had seen the effects of superstition on the lives of his people and wrote of religion that “…it shuts its eyes to reality.” Nehru thought that religion was at the root of the stagnation and lack of progress in his country. The basis of Indian society at that time was unthinking obedience to the authority of sacred books, old customs, and outdated habits. He felt that these attitudes and religious taboos were preventing India from going forward and adapting to modern conditions: “No country or people who are slaves to dogma and dogmatic mentality can progress, and unhappily our country and people have become extraordinarily dogmatic and little-minded.” He felt, therefore, that religions and all that went with them must be severely limited before they ruined the country and its people. He was deeply concerned that so many Indian people could not read or write and wanted mass education to release Indian society from the limitations that ignorance and religious traditions imposed. He knew that industrialisation was needed to feed the growing population and that illiteracy denied people the skills required.
The independence movement in India was very active throughout the 1920s and 1930s, and rapidly grew. It wanted to see a socialist, secular, democratic society based on human values and dignity, one that valued peaceful co-existence within the complicated structure and culture of Indian society. The British government of India sent Nehru (and other leaders) to prison many times. However when India became independent after the l939-45 war, it was Nehru who became the first Prime Minister of the newly independent India.
The Nehru Centre, a fine modern building in Bombay, was intended as a memorial to the man to whom modern India owes so much. It is a meeting ground for the people of India whose diverse backgrounds formed the basis of Nehru’s work. One of the objectives of the centre is: “To inculcate and promote new social values, secularism and integration; and to spread a humane self-reliant and rational outlook on life”, ideals which guided Nehru’s life.