Jawaharlal Nehru's Speech: The Concept of Man

Address at the UNESCO symposium, New Delhi, December 20, 1951

I am grateful to you for this opportunity of attending the last session of this Symposium. I must apologize for not having attended the opening session to welcome you all here. I looked forward to it greatly, not merely to perform the formal function of opening but rather, as the President suggested, to participate in some way in your discussions and talks and to try and gather some light from those discussions. I was greatly disappointed that I could not do so. It is good of you to ask me to speak but I feel somewhat hesitant because of the presence of very eminent friends who have come from distant countries. There are specialists and men and women of great experience; and for me to say something about the great subject of your debate appears rather presumptuous to me. If I had the chance and the occasion to attend some of your sessions, I would have listened to what was said, perhaps, sometimes participated or put a question but mostly listened. I would have listened, because I have been anxious to find out what you had in your mind and to find out how that would help me to understand for myself some of the problems that confront us.

Most of us, I suppose, are burdened with the complexity of our present-day problems. We live our day to day lives and face our day to day difficulties but somehow that is not enough. One seeks something behind that daily round and tries to find out how one can solve the problems that affect the world. For one whom circumstances have placed in a position of great responsibility, it is particularly difficult to avoid thinking about these problems. During the last few weeks I have been going about this great country and seeing multitudes of human beings, surging masses of my countrymen and countrywomen. I have thus invariably thought of what was going to happen to these people, what they were thinking and in which direction they were going.

These questions apply to us also because we are in the same boat. And then I think of the multitudes in other countries. What about those vast masses of human beings? Some of us here are functioning on the political plane and presuming to decide the fate of nations. How far do our decisions affect these multitudes? Do we think of them or do we live in some upper stratosphere of diplomats and politicians and the like, exchanging notes and sometimes using harsh words against one another? In the context of this mighty world, its vast masses of human beings and the tremendous phase of transition through which we are passing, politics becomes rather trivial. I have no particular light to throw on the problems that you have been discussing; rather I would like to put some of the difficulties that I have in my mind before you and I hope that when I have occasion to read some of the reports of what you have been saying to each other, perhaps, those addresses might help me to understand the methods of solving some of these problems.

Now, one of my chief difficulties is this: somehow it seems to me that the modern world is getting completely out of tune with what I might call the life of the mind — I am leaving out the life of the spirit at the moment. Yet, the modern world is entirely the outcome of the life of the mind. After all, it is the human mind that has produced everything that we see around us and feel around us. Civilization is the product of the human mind and yet, strangely enough, one begins to feel that the function of the mind becomes less and less important in the modern world or, at any rate, is no longer so important as it used to be. The mind may count for a great deal in specialized domains; it does and so we make great progress in those specialized domains of life but, generally speaking, the mind as a whole counts for less and less. That is my impression. If it is a correct impression, then there is something radically wrong with the civilization that we are building or have built. The changes that are so rapidly taking place emphasize other aspects of life and somehow prevent the mind from functioning as it should and as perhaps it used to do in the earlier periods of the world's history. If that is true, then surely it is not a good outlook for the world, because the very basis on which our civilization has grown, on which man has risen step by step to the great heights on which he stands today, the very foundation of that edifice, is shaken.

In India we are more particularly concerned about the primary necessities of life for our people. We are concerned with food for our people, with clothing, shelter and housing for our people, with education, health and so on. Unless you have these primary necessities, it seems futile to me to talk about the life of the mind or the life of the spirit. You cannot talk of God to a starving person; you must give him food. One must deal with these primary necessities, it is true. Nevertheless, even in dealing with them one has to have some kind of ideal or objective in view. If that ideal or objective somehow becomes less and less connected with the growth of the human mind, then there must be something wrong. I do not know if what I say is true or whether you agree with it and I do not know, even if it is true, what can be done to improve it. I am, if I may say so, a great admirer of the achievements of modern civilization, of the growth of and applications of science and of technological growth. Humanity has every reason to be proud of them and yet if these achievements lessen the capacity for future growth — and that will happen if the mind deteriorates — then surely there is something wrong about this process. It is obvious that ultimately the mind should dominate. I am not mentioning the spirit again but that comes into the picture, too. If the world suffers from mental deterioration or from moral degradation, then something goes wrong at the very root of civilization or culture. Even though that civilization may drag out for a considerable period, it grows less and less vital and ultimately tumbles down. When I look back on the periods of past history, I find certain periods very outstanding. They show great achievements of the human mind, while some others do not. One finds races achieving a high level and then apparently fading away — at least fading away from the point of view of their achievements. And so I wonder whether something that led to the fading away of relatively high cultures is not happening today and producing an inner weakness in the structure of our modern civilization.

Then the question arises in my mind as to which environment is likely to produce the best type of human being. You talk about education and that obviously is very important. But apart from school or college education, the entire environment that surrounds us naturally affects the development of the human being. What kind of environment has produced these great ages of history? Are we going towards that environment or going away from it, in spite of the great progress that we have made in many departments of human life? The Industrial Revolution that started about 200 years ago brought about enormous changes, largely for the good. That process, I take it, is continuing and the tempo of change becomes faster and faster. Where is it leading us to? It has led us in one direction towards great conflicts and possibly greater conflicts are in store for us which threaten to engulf a large part of humanity in a common cataclysm.

There is an essential contradiction in this race between progress and building up on the one hand and this element on the other, which is likely to destroy all that we have built up. Most of us seem to live as if both are inevitable and have to be put up with. It is very odd that we wish to build and build and build and at the same time look forward to the possible destruction of all that we build. The destruction may externally be through war but what is perhaps more dangerous is the inner destruction of the mind and spirit, after which the destruction of the outer emblems of the mind and spirit may follow. Is it, I wonder, some resultant of the growth of the Industrial Revolution that is over-reaching itself? Have we lost touch with the roots that give strength to a race, humanity or the individual just as a city dweller, perhaps, loses touch with the soil and sometimes even with the sun, living an artificial life in comfort and even in luxury? He lacks something that is vital to the human being. So whole races begin more and more to live an artificial life, cut off, if I may say so, from the soil and the sun. Is that not so? These ideas trouble me. This growth of a mechanical civilization, which has obviously brought great triumphs and helped the world so much, gradually affects the man and the mind. The mind which produced the machine to help itself gradually becomes a slave of that machine and we progressively become a mechanically minded race.

I suppose the vitality of a group, an individual or a society is measured by the extent to which it possesses courage and, above all, creative imagination. If that creative imagination is lacking, our growth becomes more and more stunted, which is a sign of decay. What then is happening today? Are we trying to improve in this respect or are we merely functioning somewhere on the surface without touching the reality which is afflicting the world and which may result in political conflict, in economic warfare or in world war?

So, when there are discussions on the concept of man, as visualized in the Eastern ideal or the Western ideal, they interest me greatly from a historical point of view and from a cultural point of view, although I have always resisted this idea of dividing the world into the Orient and the Occident. I do not believe in such divisions. There have, of course, been differences in racial and national outlook and in ideals but to talk of the East and the West as such has little meaning. The modern West, meaning thereby a great part of Europe and the Americas, has, more especially during the last 200 years or so, developed a particular type of civilization which is based on certain traditions derived from Greece and Rome. It is, however, the tremendous industrial growth that has made the West what it is. I can see the difference between an industrialized and a non-industrialized country. I think the difference, say between India and Europe in the Middle Ages, would not have been very great and would have been comparable to the difference between any of the great countries of Asia today.

I feel that we think wrongly because we are misled in our approach. Differences have crept in and been intensified by this process of industrialization and mechanization, which has promoted material well-being tremendously and which has been a blessing to humanity. At the same time, it is corroding the life of the mind and thereby encouraging a process of self-destruction. I am not, for the moment, talking or thinking about wars and the like. We have seen in history races come up and gradually fade away, in Asia, in Europe and other places. Are we witnessing the same thing today?

It may be that this will not take effect in our life-time. In the past anyway, one great consolation was that things happened only in one particular quarter of the world. If there was a collapse in one part of the world, the other part carried on. Now, the whole world hangs together in life and death so that if this civilization fades away or collapses it will take practically the whole world down with it. No part of it will be left to survive as it could in olden times. During the so-called Dark Ages of Europe, there were bright periods in Asia, in China, in India, in the Middle East and elsewhere. In the old days, if progress was limited, disaster was also limited in extent and intensity. Today, when we have arrived at a period of great progress, we have also arrived at a period of great disaster and it is a little difficult for us to choose a middle way which would enable us to achieve a little progress and, at the same time, to limit the scope of disaster. That is the major question. A person who has to carry a burden of responsibility is greatly troubled by the practical aspects of this question. I should have liked your conference to throw light on this question. Am I right in saying that the mental life of the world is in a process of deterioration, chiefly because the environment that has been created by the industrial revolution does not give time or opportunity to individuals to think? I do not deny that today there are many great thinkers but it is quite likely that they might be submerged in the mass of unthinking humanity.

We are dealing with and talking a great deal about democracy and I have little doubt that democracy is the best of all the various methods available to us for the governance of human beings. At the same time, we are seeing today — by today I mean the last two decades or so — the emergence of democracy in a somewhat uncontrolled form. When we think of democracy, we normally think of it in the rather limited sense of the 19th century or the early 20th century use of the term. Owing to the remarkable technological growth, something has happened since then and meanwhile democracy has also spread. The result is that we have vast masses of human beings brought up by the industrial revolution, who are not encouraged or given an opportunity to think much. They live a life which, from the point of view of physical comfort, is incomparably better than it has been in any previous generation but they seldom have a chance to think. And yet in a democratic system, it is this vast mass of human beings that will ultimately govern or elect those who govern.

Are they likely to elect more or less the sort of persons they need? That becomes a little doubtful. And I think it may be said without offence — and I certainly can say without offence, for I belong to that tribe of politicians — that the quality of men who are selected by this modern democratic method of adult suffrage gradually deteriorates. There are outstanding individuals chosen, no doubt, but their quality does deteriorate because of this lack of thinking and because of the application of modern methods of propaganda. All the noise and din and the machinery of advertisement prevent men from thinking. They react to this din and noise by producing a dictator or a dumb politician, who is insensitive, who can stand all the din and noise in the world and yet remain standing on his two feet. He gets elected while his rival collapses because he cannot stand all this din. It is an extraordinary state of affairs. It is all very well for us to praise the growth of democracy and I am all for it. The point that I wish to make is not in regard to democracy but rather in regard to the fact that modern life does not encourage the life of the mind. If the life of the mind is not encouraged, then inevitably civilization deteriorates, the race deteriorates and ultimately both collapse in some big cataclysm or just fade away and become as other races and civilizations have become.
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