I’ve been reading about a famous mid-twentieth century Indian Buddhist who was deeply involved in the founding of independent India. No not, Dr. B. R. Ambedkar—Jawahalarl Nehru, the First Prime Minister of India. In his Ph.D. dissertation, “Reinventing Buddhism: Conversations and Encounters in Modern India, 1839-1956, Douglas Fairchild Ober examines the century of Buddhist revival in India before Ambedkar’s landmark conversion to Buddhism in 1956. One of the central figures of this century of revival culminates in the Buddhist statecraft of Nehru. And Nehru’s Buddhism was, as you will see from the quotes below, distinctly Modern. Nehru had studied natural science as an undergraduate at Trinity College in England, before studying law. He professed a Buddhism that was rational, ethical and conducive to the what he called “the scientific mind.” From Ober’s paper:
“Nehruvian Buddhism, although not averse to using Buddhist symbols to generate emotional appeal, fully adhered to a Buddhism as the “religion of reason,” a modern, moral code that did not require any form of formal, institutional commitment. This is seen in two remarkable statements made by Nehru, first in his early writings, and later in front of a crowd of International leaders. In The Discovery of India, he declares:
Buddha had the courage to attack popular religion, superstition, ceremonial, and priestcraft…he condemned also the metaphysical and theological outlook, miracles, revelations, and dealings with the supernatural. His appeal was to logic, reason and experience, his emphasis was on ethics, and his method was one of psychological analysis…it is remarkable how near this philosophy of the Buddha brings us to some of the concepts of modern physics and philosophic thought. J. Nehru, The Discovery of India.
Nearly a decade later during a massive Buddhist ceremony in Sanchi, where he presided over the installation of Buddhist relics in a new Buddhist vihāra constructed with state funds, he added,
All that is necessary is not this Vihara in stone and brick but some kind of a temple in each one’s mind and heart which will enshrine those eternal [universal Buddhist] truths and which will guide us along the right path which we forsook so long ago… J. Nehru, “Buddhism only path to escape from disaster,” in MahaBodhi Vol. 61/1 – 2 (1953), 5.
The “truths” which Nehru and other state leaders regularly highlighted were by no means unique to Buddhism but they recognized that Buddha was one of the first great teachers of human reasoning, non-violence and ethics. (Ober, p 313.)
…”From his [Nehru’s] vast reading of world history and his experience at the forefront of anti-colonial affairs, Nehru had attempted to create a novel model of Indian citizenry: the calm, reasoned, scientific Indian (Buddhist). The word Buddhist would never formally be vocalized, for like Nehru himself, being a modern Buddhist meant just being a modern rational Indian.” (Ober, pp. 345-346.)
The research dispels the notion that Modern Buddhism is the pawn of Western colonialism. On the contrary, Nehru’s decade-long resistance to British colonial rule prior to independence landed him in prison for several years. Ober writes that “…it challenges the idea that Indians had ‘forgotten’ the Buddha and were therefore a blank slate upon which the Orientalists constructed the Indian Buddhist past.” (Ober, p. 21).
Furthermore, it dispels the notion that Buddhism is a-political, that Buddhism has nothing to say about governance and political affairs. On the contrary, along with his compatriot and fellow Buddhist, Dr. B. R. Ambedkar, ethical Buddhism is the foundation for ethical statecraft (Nehru) and egalitarian democracy (Ambedkar).