Nehru's Speech: Science and Humility

Speech of Jawaharlal Nehru at the Science Congress, Calcutta, January 14, 1957 

I am coming here today from Hirakud where I performed or helped in the opening ceremony of a very magnificent piece of work of Indian engineers, the great Hirakud Dam. This, I am told, is the longest in the world. A day before that I performed or participated in a completely different function at Nalanda, a great university centre of 1,500 years ago in Magadha, which is now Bihar. At this place, where the ruins of the university still exist, my mind went back to the days of the Buddha. I thought of his message which, apart from its religious significance, was a message of tolerance, a message against superstition, rituals and dogma. It was a message essentially in the scientific spirit. The Buddha asked no man to believe anything except what could be proved by experiment and trial. All he wanted men to do was to seek the truth and not accept anything on the word of another, even though it be of the Buddha himself. That seems to me the essence of his message, besides tolerance and compassion; and it struck me that the message, far from being out of date today, had a peculiar significance in this world of ours. 

The spirit of dogma, I say with respect, has affected badly the religious quest and made both minds and practices conform too rigidly. Rigid and intolerant ideas, ideas which assert in effect that “I am in possession of the truth, the whole truth, every bit of the truth, and nobody outside the pale has it,” narrow men’s minds, shutting the door against a tolerant and objective approach, where men not only look up at the heavens without fear but are also prepared to look down into the pit of hell without fear. It seems to me that people in the Buddha’s time were more advanced in tolerance and compassion than we are, although they were not so advanced in technology and science. While I was at Nalanda it struck me that quite apart from the religious issues, there might be something worthwhile in the pagan view of life, because it is a tolerant view of life. While it may hold one opinion it respects the opinion of the others, and allows that there may be truth in the others’ opinions, too. It looks at the universe and the mysteries of the universe and tries to fathom them in a spirit of humility. It realizes that truth is too big to be grasped at once, that however much one may know, there is always much else to be known, and that it is possible that others may possess a part of that truth; and so, while the pagan view of life worships its own gods, it also does honour to unknown gods. 

The scientist is supposed to be an objective seeker after truth. Science has grown because in a large measure the great scientists have sought truth in that way. But I suppose no man today, not even a scientist, can live in a world of his own, in some kind of ivory tower, cut off from what is happening. Therefore, science today has perhaps begun to cross the borders of morals and ethics. If it gets divorced completely from the realm of morality and ethics then the power it possesses may be used for evil purposes. But above all, if it ties itself to the gospel of hatred and violence, then undoubtedly it will have taken a wrong direction which will bring much peril to the world. I plead with the scientists here and elsewhere to remember that the scientific spirit is essentially one of tolerance, one of humility, one of realization that somebody else may also have a bit of the truth. Scientists should note that they do not have a monopoly of the truth; that nobody has a monopoly, no country, no people, no book. Truth is too vast to he contained in the minds of human beings, or in books, however sacred. 

I remember a deputation that went to Cromwell, the English Dictator, and insisted that he should follow a certain line. Cromwell replied — and his reply is rather well known — “I beseech you gentlemen in the bowels of Christ to consider whether it is possible that you may be in the wrong.” 

Let us be a little humble; let us think that the truth may not perhaps be entirely with us. Let us co-operate with others; let us, even when we do not appreciate what others say, respect their views and their ways of life. 

Let us go back to an ancient age in India, Asoka’s period 2,300 years ago. This man who was infinitely more than an emperor has left memorials all over this great land — memorials which you can see today. Among the messages that he gave, there is one which I think we should all remember not only in this country but elsewhere. Addressing his own people he said, 

"If you reverence your faith, while you reverence your own faith you shall reverence the faith of others. In reverencing the faith of others, you will exalt your own faith and will get your own faith honoured by others.” 

If you apply that message of tolerance not only to religion but to the other activities of human life such as politics, economics and science, you will find that it puts things in a different context. It is a context which is not very much in evidence today in the world where differences of opinion are not liked, where the tendency is to suppress the view, the opinion, or the way of life that is not approved of, where ultimately science itself becomes vitiated by a narrow outlook. This would have been bad enough at any time, but when we have the new weapons forged by the work of scientists hovering above us, then it becomes far more important and vital how people think today, how they react to other people’s thinking, whether their minds are full of hatred and violence and intolerance, or whether they are growing in tolerance and in the appreciation of others. 

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