Nehru’s take on religion and mythology

Great minds discuss ideas; average minds discuss events; small minds discuss people.

Eleanor Roosevelt

Therefore, I thought people who are seeking to nourish their minds should benefit from the views of a great personality about his knowledge and ideas regarding religion, religious scriptures and mythology. If I continue with the introductory stuff, this post is going to get too lengthy. I will stop right here. Hope you read it till the end!

Nehru says:

“How are we to consider the scripture of various religions, much of it believed by its votaries to be revealed scripture? To analyse it and criticize it and look upon it as a human document is often to offend the true believers. Yet there is no other way to consider it.

I have always hesitated to read books of religion. The totalitarian claims made on their behalf did not appeal me. The outward evidences of the practice of religion that I saw did not encourage me to go to the original sources. Yet I had to drift to these books, for ignorance of them was not a virtue and was often a severe drawback. I knew that some of them had powerfully influenced humanity and anything that could have done so must have some inherent power and virtue in it, some vital source of energy. I found great difficulty reading through many parts of them, for try as I would,I could not arouse sufficient interest; but the sheer beauty of some passages would hold me. And then a phrase and a sentence would leap up and electrify me and make me feel the presence of the really great. Some words of the Buddha or of Christ would shine out with deep meaning and seem to me applicable as much to-day as when they were uttered 2,000 or more years ago. There was a compelling reality about them, a permanence which time and space could not touch. So I felt sometimes when I read about Socrates or the Chinese philosophers, and also when I read the Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita. I was not interested in metaphysics, or the description of ritual, or the many other things which apparently had no relation to the problems that faced me. Perhaps I did not understand the inner significance of much that I read, and sometimes, indeed, a second reading threw more light. I made no real effort to understand mysterious passages and I passed those which had no particular significance for me, Nor was I interested in long commentaries and glossaries. I could not approach these books, or any book, as Holy Writ which must be accepted in their totality without challenge or demur.Indeed, this approach of Holy writ usually resulted in my mind being closed to what they contained. I was much more friendly and opened to them when I could consider them as having been written by human beings, very wise and far-seeing, but nevertheless ordinary mortals, and not incarnations or mouthpieces of a divinity, about whom I had no knowledge or surety whatever.

It has always seemed to me a much more magnificent and impressive thing that a human being should rise to great heights, mentally and spiritually, and should then seek to raise others up, rather than that he should be the mouthpiece of a divine or superior power. Some of the founders of religions were astonishing individuals, but all their glory vanishes in my eyes when I cease to think of them as human beings. What impresses me and gives me hope is the growth of the mind and spirit of man, and not his being used as an agent to convey a message.

Mythology affected me in much the same way. If people believed in the factual content of these stories, the whole thing was absurd and ridiculous. But as soon as one ceased believing in them, they appeared in a new light, a new beauty, a wonderful flowering of a richly endowed imagination, full of human lessons. No one believes now in the stories of Greek gods and goddesses and so, without any difficulty, we can admire them and they become a part of our mental heritage. But if we had to believe in them, what a burden it would be, and how, oppressed by this weight of belief, we would often miss their beauty. Indian mythology is richer, vaster, very beautiful, and full of meaning. I have often wondered what manner of men and women they were who gave shape to these bright dreams and lovely fancies, and out of what gold mine of thought and imagination they dug them.

Looking at scripture then as a product of the human mind, we have to remember the age in which it was written, the environment and mental climate in which it grew, the vast distance in time and thought and experience that separates it from us. We have to forget the trappings of ritual and religious usage in which it is wrapped, and remember the social background in which it expanded. Many of the problems of human life have a permanence and a touch of eternity about them, and hence the abiding interest in these ancient books. But they dealt with other problems also, limited to their particular age, which have no living interest for us now.”

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2 thoughts on “Nehru’s take on religion and mythology

  1. Totally agree.

    But why does the new emergent prophets and religions still rely on that divine power and other myths and superstitions? Are the people still not ready?

    1. I was waiting for someone else to reply but i think no one seems interested. Anyhow, here I am.

      Your question regarding the reliance of people on divine power and myths and superstitions is answered by Nehru himself under another heading; Life’s Philosophy. He says that there are many thinking minds in world who rely on religion and its dogmatic beliefs to approach to life’s problems. And I also think that people need this magical element of myths and superstitions present in religion to deal with the obscure problems of life because there are many aspects of life where scientific knowledge fails to soothe the pain.
      Nehru further argues that there are many uncharted regions which science has yet to venture and that life does not merely consist of all the visible things all around us. There is more to it. For instance science cannot come with an answer to the “purpose of life”. That is where religion and the the superstitions and beliefs it is based upon comes to work.
      ‘The Karma theory of cause and effect’ which is deemed as superstition is also said to be an ‘intellectual speculation about which we know next to nothing’.

      The point is that there is nothing as new and in case of a religion you can be sure of it as ‘the roots of present lay in the past’. As long as there will be vague forces in the nature, things that cann’t be scientifically proved, there will be a need for myth and divine power and people will not be ready even then !

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