Nehru and the culture of ‘Scientific Temper’

Remembering India's first Prime Minister and a true visionary


In remembrance of Nehru on his 56th death anniversary his role as a democrat with scientific temper which has made immense contribution to India has to be highlighted. Nehru conceptualised the term ‘scientific temper’ in 1946 and defined it as an attitude of logical and rational thinking.The term ‘scientific temper’ is contemporary, but appeals to rational enquiry are not new to Indian ethos. 

We are proud land of Sushruta,physician in 8th century BC and of Aryabhatt ,mathematician in 5th century but tragedy is today we still have prejudices for ‘scientific temper’ as envisaged by Nehru.His vision of scientific temper should be seen in the context of his understanding of science and religion for a better appreciation. For Nehru science was not merely an individual’s search for truth but it should be an integral part of one’s thinking and action. He was more interested in social consequences of science which has made it possible to view traditional beliefs in a new light based on facts. One should not accept tradition simply because it is tradition as our sages of yesteryears were exploring too. 

In The Discovery Of India, Nehru writes, “The scientific approach, the adventurous and yet critical temper of science, the search for truth and new knowledge, the refusal to accept anything without testing and trial, the capacity to change previous conclusions in the face of new evidence, the reliance on observed fact and not on pre-conceived theory, the hard discipline of the mind, all this is necessary, not merely for the application of science but for life itself and the solution of its many problems.”

His concern in giving priority to Science was the reason that he was elected the first non-Scientist as Chairman of Indian Science Congress in 1937 (British India) there in the meeting he said “It is science alone that can solve the problems of hunger and poverty, of insanitation and illiteracy, of superstition and deadening custom and tradition, of vast resources running to waste, of a rich country inhabited by starving people.”

Nehru’s legacy of scientific temper got reflected when our Constitution adopted it as a fundamental duty of every citizen. The importance of spreading scientific temper in the country was highlighted in various science and technology policy statements adopted by him as Prime Minister.

At Tata Institute of Fundamental Research in 1954 he said “Lots of people may not know, why such an emphasis is being put on science. Why so much money is being spent Why did I take the trouble to come from Delhi? The big countries have more power while our country has remained poor….If we wish to empower our country, which is now independent, we have to create a strong base–so we can learn the basics…This may not show immediate results but finally result in the uplift of the country.”

History of modern India since Independence is marked by immense contribution of Nehru as PM in establishing centres of scientific learning with the start of establishing Atomic Energy Commission with Bhabha and several Institutes of Research to make India self reliant in science and technology which is a must for any vibrant democracy.Today we have privilege to be a leading Science power in the world only because of Pandit Nehru’s legacy.

Earlier this year Nobel Laureate Venki Ramakrishnan at a programme in Bengaluru highlighted the need for both a spirit of inquiry and for science to spread through large and small collaborations. “I think science flourishes when there is real freedom of thought and opinion and minimum ideological interference,” he said. 

The above statement is the soul of Nehru’s core belief where democracy and science together can only solve socially relevant issues, like poverty and hunger.So it is imperative for India’s democracy and it’s Government both at the Centre and the States that they should remove the obstacles that undermine scientific temper for inclusive and peaceful development of Indian society.

(Picture is of Nehru and Einstein taken on Nehru’s visit to Princeton University,US)

*The author is Director Centre for Objective Research and Development (CORD)



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