While his distaste for religion in public life may be well known, India's first Prime Minister Pundit Jawaharlal Nehru was actually deeply influenced by one religious figure, in whose teachings he often found intellectual solace - Buddha.
"The story of Gautam Buddha has influenced me from my childhood. That influence was two-fold. First, it influenced me as a story and secondly, I liked the scientific attitude reflected therein, the scientific and ethical attitude." Nehru said, as displayed on one of the large placards at an exhibition on 'Lord Buddha through the eyes of Jawaharlal Nehru' at Nehru Museum and Library.
Mridula Mukherjee, Director, Nehru Memorial Museum and Library speaking at a panel discussion following the inauguration of the exhibition, said, "Buddha had a great appeal for Nehru. In fact, it was more than an appeal -- a truly romantic fascination for the principles Buddha stood for."
As a person of reason, Nehru was naturally attracted by the criterion of rationalism propounded by Buddha. He favoured the spirit of scientific enquiry and attacked superstition, rituals and dogma. The exhibition displays big placards revealing references made to Buddha by Nehru at various points of time in his life.
On display are also beautiful paintings, small statues, books gifted to Nehru on his visits to Buddhist shrines.
One of the placards reads, "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 scientific spirit. The Buddha asked no man to believe in 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 Buddha himself. That seems to me the essence of his message...."
The influence of Buddha on Nehru invariably showed in his worldview. His foreign policy always looked to evolve equations of peace and their sustainance. It aimed at resolution of conflict. On November 28, 1956, Nehru said, "It is essentially through the message of Buddha that we can look at our problems in the right perspective and draw back from conflict and from competing with one another in the realm of conflict, violence and hatred."
Many such references are included in the handbook taken out by Nehru Museum and Library. Professor V P Dutt, a well-known foreign policy commentator, remarked in the discussion, "He had a temper for peace. It was only his temper for peace that led directly to the principles of 'Panchsheel' and 'Non-Alignment'."
Described on a placard, Nehru's message to International Buddhist Cultural Conference, Sanchi on 29 November 1952, reads, "The message that Buddha gave 2,500 years ago shed its light not only on India or Asia but the whole world. The question that inevitably suggests itself is, how far can the great message of the Buddha apply to the present day world? Perhaps, it may, perhaps it may not; but I do know that if we follow the principles enunciated by Buddha, we will win peace and tranquility for the world."
In United Nations General Assembly, on Oct 3, 1960, Nehru said, "In ages long past a great son of India, the Buddha, said that the only real victory was one in which all were equally victorious and there was defeat for no one. In the world today that is the only practical victory; any other way will lead to disaster."
Nehru's approach to politics also reflected values reinforced upon him by teachings of Buddha. His knowledge of Buddhist principles strengthened his immense regard for a democratic system of representation and impeccable integrity. Eminent historian Bipin Chandra, expressing his views in the discussion, said, "Nehru understood the idea that social change can be brought about by broadest social consensus. This was because of the great influence Buddha, Ashoka and finally Gandhi had on him."
Nehru's speech in Lok Sabha on March 28, 1957 clearly explains his preference for dialogue and moderate approach. He had said, "Parliamentary democracy demands many virtues. It demands of course, ability. It demands a certain devotion to work. But it demands also a large measure of cooperation, of self-discipline, of restraint.
"Parliamentary democracy is not something, which can be created in a country by some magic wand. Parliamentary democracy naturally involves peaceful methods of action, peaceful acceptance of decisions taken and attempts to change them through peaceful means again."
Nehru was deeply committed to morality in politics. Chandra said, "In 1942, Gandhi announced Nehru as his successor only because he thought Nehru was best person to practise morallity in politics and of course, he had great concern for the poor."
Besides, Nehru never failed to visit Samadhi Statue of the Buddha at Anuradhapura in Sri Lanka whenever he went there. He first visited there in 1931 and followed it up by visits in 1939, 1954, 1957 and 1962.
Perhaps, as an ultimate tribute to the two individuals who inspired him most, Nehru said in his Independence Day speech from Red Fort on August 15, 1956, "One feels proud that the soil on which we have been born has produced great souls like Gautama Buddha and Gandhiji.
"Let us refresh our memories once again and pay homage to Gautama Buddha and Gandhiji and great souls like them who have moulded this country. Let us follow the path shown by them with strength and determination and cooperation."