Nehru on Scriptures

The following is from The Discovery of India by Jawaharlal Nehru, written by the first Prime Minister of India while in British custody in Ahmadnagar in 1944.

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 no 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, should seek to raise others, 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 eye 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…

… if people believe in the factual content of these [religious] stories, the whole thing [becomes] 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 admire them as they become 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”

He ends this wonderful panegyric to religious text with a warning:

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

Bernard Payeur