Jawaharlal Nehru (1889)
It was on this date, November 14, 1889, that the first Prime Minister of independent India, Jawaharlal Nehru, was born in Allahabad, central India, the son of a successful and politically active Hindu lawyer. He grew up in a wealthy family under the British occupation and was educated at Harrow, a leading English school, and read widely. He later earned a degree in natural science from Trinity College, Cambridge, and a law degree from the Inner Temple. He remained in England until 1912 and befriended Atheist-turned Theosophist Annie Besant.
In 1916, Nehru met Mohandas Gandhi, another British-educated Indian, at the Indian National Congress and was attracted to Gandhi’s ideas on independence and nationalism. Witnessing for himself the brutal suppression by the British of the nationalist movement, and being severely beaten up by the British in 1928, Nehru became an energetic supporter of Gandhi’s Civil Disobedience movement. “No country or people who are slaves to dogma and dogmatic mentality can progress,” said Nehru.* From 1920 to 1947, Nehru spent a total of ten years in jail for his political resistance to British rule. The movement was ultimately successful in expelling the British from India. On 15th August 1947, Nehru became the first Prime Minister of Independent India.
Nehru’s philosophy of life he detailed in a 1944 book, Discovery of India, written while in prison:
Religion merges into mysticism and metaphysics and philosophy. There have been great mystics, attractive figures, who cannot easily be disposed of as self-deluded fools. Yet mysticism (in the narrow sense of the word) irritates me; it appears to be vague and soft and flabby, not a rigorous discipline of the mind but a surrender of mental faculties and a living in a sea of emotional experience. The experience may lead occasionally to some insight into inner and less obvious processes, but it is also likely to lead to self-delusion.**
And in his Autobiography, Nehru wrote, “The spectacle of what is called religion, or at any rate organized religion, in India and elsewhere, has filled us with horror, and I have frequently condemned it and wished to make a clean sweep of it.”†
Born a Hindu, Nehru died an atheist on 27 May 1964. His life’s work was to create an India where there would be no religious influence upon the government. It was Jawaharlal Nehru who said,
I want nothing to do with any religion concerned with keeping the masses satisfied to live in hunger, filth, and ignorance. I want nothing to do with any order, religious or otherwise, which does not teach people that they are capable of becoming happier and more civilized, on this earth, capable of becoming true man, master of his fate and captain of his soul. To attain this I would put priests to work, also, and turn the temples into schools.‡
* Kenneth McLeish, Key Ideas in Human Thought, 1993. ** Jawaharlal Nehru, Discovery of India, 1944. † Jawaharlal Nehru , quoted in Ira D. Cardiff, What Great Men Think of Religion, 1945; repr. 1972. ‡ Jawaharlal Nehru, quoted in journalist Edgar Snow’s story of the rise of Communism in China, Journey to the Beginning, 1958.
Charles Lyell (1797)
It was also on this date, November 14, 1797, that pioneering Scottish geologist Charles Lyell was born the oldest of 10 children of an active naturalist. He was educated at Oxford and turned from the law to geology, publishing his greatest work, The Principles of Geology, in three volumes from 1830-1833. His researches demonstrated that the earth had to be far older than the Judeo-Christian chronology, and his 1863 work, The Antiquity of Man, prepared the way for Darwin to posit his ideas of human origins.
Lyell was knighted for his scientific accomplishments in 1848 and became a Baron in 1864. He maintained a theism until 1870, but by 1873, according to his autobiography, Lyell had abandoned not only any formal Christian creed, but had repudiated the ideas of immortality and a personal God, saying only that he thought it “probable” that there was some sort of “Supreme Intelligence.”* He died on 22 February 1875, the greatest geologist in Europe.
* Life, Letters, and Journals of Sir Charles Lyell, Bart., 2 vols., 1881.
Originally published November 2003.