Why Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru’s concept of ‘scientific temper’ is very critical to the future of our children?

The future belongs to science and those who make friends with science.
Jawaharlal Nehru

Nehru’s birthday, November 14, as we all know, is celebrated as Children’s Day every year in India. On this occasion, it is appropriate to pay tribute to a formative leader of India who illuminated a lot during his lifetime and beyond. Through his intellectual legacy, he continues until this day to guide India on the path of liberal democracy. His vision of India was that of a secular and modern nation. A flamboyant personality and yet a clear thinker, he held his own during much of the freedom struggle.

Nehru led from the front, expressing his positions during the course of various constitutional, political and other debates in the colonial period thereby indelibly stamping free India-to-come with his vision. He became India’s first Prime Minister and held that post for almost 17 years. He has been described severally as architect of modern India, world statesman and great administrator.

In the days that freedom fighters were incarcerated, many of them took to writing. Nehru showed his capacity as a historian of the first order, even though his own first degree at Trinity College, Cambridge, England was in the natural sciences. The strength of his scholarship lingers on in the form of the ‘Discovery of India’, ‘Glimpses of World History’ and ‘An Autobiography.’ It is difficult to condense the thought of such a complex body of work in such a short space. In this post, I choose to focus on the concept of “scientific temper” that was very dear to Nehru. He considered science to be rational, universal and inspired by the eighteenth-century European Enlightenment.

This was not to be mistaken with scientific expertise or building resources in science and technology, the latter having been pursued in different ways. For Nehru, who was an agnostic, science had multiple functions to perform: not only was it an instrument to solve the economic problems of a developing society like ours, it also had to make India a strong and self-reliant country with scientists competent to hold their own in the world scientific community. Part of this policy was the building of top-notch scientific educational and research institutions that Nehru promoted like the IIT’s, CSIR, ICMR, ICAR,  and, aided by business houses, institutions like the IISc and the TIFR.

While many celebrate the fact today that its India’s large pool of managerial and scientific manpower that is winning accolades worldwide and also bringing in the moolah, very few acknowledge that it was Nehru’s educational and scientific policies that made possible such an achievement including the Indian “IT revolution” [R. Guha, p. 1962]. That makes him a great visionary who though much derided for his economic policies could peep into the future and build the foundation for the Knowledge-based Economy (KBE) that we are all busy celebrating as the current and future source of wealth-generation.

What was important to Nehru was not just the change in the mere economic status of his country but also a change in the attitudes or the narrow-mindedness of its citizens. 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. . . . Who indeed could afford to ignore science today? At every turn we have to seek its aid.”

But what did he mean by scientific temper? Srirupa Roy in her book “Beyond belief: India and the politics of postcolonial nationalism” notes that Nehru’s emphasis on the need for scientific temper predated independence (p.123). The features of scientific temper were mainly two-fold as Roy elaborates:

1. Scientific temper referred to a mentality or an outlook rather than a specialized body of knowledge. It addressed itself to universalist concerns of “values of life” rather than to narrow and specialized questions of scientific research and application (Roy, p.124)

2. Unlike scientific expertise alone, the project of scientific temper was a call for the diffusion of “science mindedness” throughout the population. The growth of scientific temper was measured by the extent to which ordinary people were using the methods of science to life’s problems (Roy, p.125)

Clearly what the above meant was that science would not just play a role in building scientific expertise but also help reject superstition, prejudice and injustice As Prof. Yashpal has noted, “science will also have to come forward in changing our thoughts and eradicating various social evils, including casteism, extremism…”(Times of India, 16th May 2005). India, in Nehru’s vision, could become a great country if the people adopted such a ‘scientific temper.’ Nehru pointed to the contradictions in the lives of scientists themselves who uphold science in the laboratories but discard science in everything else they do in their life.

Beyond Nehru’s lifetime, the propagation of the concept of ‘scientific temper’ was negligible and became reduced to a debate among intellectuals of various hues. As part of the 42nd amendment to the Indian Constitution in 1976, ‘scientific temper’ joined the list of Fundamental Duties of every Indian citizen vide Part IV-A, Article 51-A (h): ‘to develop the scientific temper, humanism and the spirit of inquiry and reform.’

A group of intellectuals led by P. N. Haksar released a “Statement on Scientific Temper” in October 1980. It has on and off been noticed at the highest levels of governance as a concept bearing great transformative potential. In his first Independence Day address to the nation from the Red Fort in 2004, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh also called for the promotion of scientific temper, which he added must become a “national movement” and not a prisoner of bureaucracy or ideology.

A full and proper assessment of the impact of ‘scientific temper’ in the 62 years since independence is yet to be made. There is countervailing data that superstition, occult, irrationality, prejudice, gender inequality and injustices are very resilient in Indian private and public life, in other words, the idea of ‘scientific temper’ has not sufficiently penetrated Indian society. These days, because of the electronic media, news travels faster and there is greater awareness of these issues. A positive fallout of such media analysis and debates might be greater skepticism of superstitions and their peddlers. A moot point for research could be the ways in which the concept has panned out in the context of urbanization.

In the final analysis, to do justice to Nehru’s vision for India, ‘scientific temper could be a useful concept in ‘deschooling’ our society from received wisdom about obscurantist and superstitious practices that it is led to believe is in its interest. Scientific temper has to be an essential component of the socialization of our populace and needs to be promoted as an integral approach to nation-building. If that succeeds, then there can be no greater tribute to Jawaharlal Nehru and the millions of children who form the destiny of our nation.


1. R. Guha, ‘Verdicts on Nehru’, Economic and Political Weekly, May 7, 2005.
2. Srirupa Roy, “Beyond belief: India and the politics of postcolonial nationalism”(Duke University Press, USA: 2007).

***An important recent contribution to the discussion on scientific temper is Prof. Amartya Sen’s The Argumentative Indian : Writings on Indian History, Culture and Identity (Penguin, 2006).
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  1. Quote

    /** Beyond that how can we take these biases and shoot them down via science? Can each bias be picked apart using science and logic as the tools? It is not just enough that our education system changes to accommodate this. Parents need to be forced into this as well.

    Before we can force parents, we need to introspect ourselves.. how many of us can claim to be completely free from bias? If there is bias, how much are we biased, and in what way?

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    Will certainly give Amartya Sen’s book a read. As inadequate as wikipedia might have been, I think it gave me a foundation to start. Sometimes a single line definition gives the kick that is needed (at least for me) rather than a dissertation. Please do let me know if the definition in wikipedia itself was wrong.

    And about Panditji, I frankly and abashedly have to admit that I do not know enough about him to be a critic. But, I know just enough to salute him for his contributions to India.

  3. Quote
    pk.karthik said November 25, 2009, 1:52 am:


    Excellant post on scientific temper.I am total agree about inculcating this into our education system.

    I do have a difference of opionion about Nehru being instrumental in brinning this into our system.We Indians have been having it all along for generations , but religion and superstion played a havoc for past few 100 years.

    In will be very difficult in a nation like India where religion takes a strong precedence over science,as the unknown and the unexplored are generally attributed to God.Only when we come out of this mind set can we really appreciate this concept.Relegion should be kept mutually exclusive to science.

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    Thanks Ganesh. The definition in Wikipedia was perfect for a start. I think with Sukumar that your analysis was superb using that bare definition.

    Its just that scientific temper in the context of Indian society is a big topic and hence needs some more reading material. Please see this link for a brief review of what Prof Amartya Sen’s book has to offer:

    Like you say its difficult to deny Nehru’s contributions to modern India. What is puzzling is the amazing resistance to give him his due.

    As Prof Sen shows we Indians may have demonstrated scientific temper over the ages but what is important is its translation, its interlocution, its popularization and making it as a part of State-thinking that Nehru achieved for scientific temper in independent India.

    Every concept in a particular epoch has a champion and scientific temper found Nehru as its champion in the nation-building exercise after 1947 to the point of its final inclusion in the Constitution in 1976.

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    Thanks Karthik for your kind words.

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    Great Post Abdul…Scientific Temper needs to be incorporated in young minds to change the world into a better planet…but again the work should start from grass root level i.e. from primary school level onwards. Unfortunately our education system is mark, rank and admission oriented and always the children are under immense competitive pressure to get high scores. This system clouds the childs thoughts and does no facilitate rational and logical thinking…

    Implemeting Scientific Temper calls for drastic educational and social reforms…

    I still remember,in his victory speech in 1999, the then PM AB Vajpayee emphasised the need for inclulcating ‘Scientific Temper’ in education in an implicit way through formulation of a plan based on the inculcating reasoning based study in all fields of education.

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    Thanks Deepak. Moving away from the rote and exam system is the first step. You have very aptly expressed it that the existing system ‘clouds the childs thoughts.’

    A first step probably lies at the levels at which we understand the educational process for what it seeks to help attain: data, information, knowledge and wisdom. Scientific temper works at the level of knowledge and wisdom.

    Most educational experience from you have stated in your comment is a mere attainment of data and information translated into skills to perform jobs competently. Attainment of knowledge and wisdom through a process of patient learning and questioning is an altogether different experience.

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    /** We Indians have been having it all along for generations , but religion and superstion played a havoc for past few 100 years **/

    What about other parts of the world? If the whole world had been enlightened with scientific temper, and if we had lagged, then what you are saying might be right. But, history shows, that galileo had been murdered by semitic religionist, just because he said something against what is said the books. Compared to that, in india, it had been an relatively open society.

    SO, where the havoc happened is important. Also, we should have comparative analysis, when we are dealing with history..

    /** In will be very difficult in a nation like India where religion takes a strong precedence over science,as the unknown and the unexplored are generally attributed to God.

    Can you cite examples, where in india religion took precedence over science ? Specifically for indic religions, science and religion are NOT much in contradictory. Religion starts where science ends.. and you have stated it, religious explanation are attributed where science fails to explain.

    Generally speaking, it is book based religions, that has major problems with science, because there is no mechanism to resolve when science contradicts with religions books, which is strictly followed. That’s why, when galileo said earth is round, the catholic church at that time could not tolerate and hence killed him.

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    /** Only when we come out of this mind set can we really appreciate this concept.Relegion should be kept mutually exclusive to science.

    almost all the scientists in india had been scientists and also religious. For example, the mathematician Ramanuja is said to be avid devotee of Laxmi Narasimhar, where he said that the devi would appear in his dreams and reveal the mathematic theorems.

    And J.C. Bose, who invented radio, also proved that Plants too have life, and he proved it. Prior to that, the europeans believed that plants are non living things. But Bose said that this is not his invention, but this knowledge is existing for thousands of years in indian civilization.

    I am sharing an interesting article in Nytimes, on how science and faith co-existed in the chandrayaan project..

    “Fly Me to the Deity”

    Although we talk a lot about scientific temper, we are hesitating to apply it for sensitive topics like religion..

    I also wonder, how abdul could keep religion away from scientific temper, while she conveniently brings in caste and other beliefs in to its purview.

  10. Quote
    pk.karthik said November 25, 2009, 10:13 pm:

    Senthil ,

    Answer to ur question 1 .Why not other parts of the world? I dont care about it really as ST is not a fundamental right there and it is not personally affecting me.But here in India its a fundamental right so I need to question religion and superstition here ( a beautiful aspect of Indian Democracy).

    You want me to cite examples :Here you go-Chicken Pox and Small pox being attributed to goddess and instead of trying to find a treatment we blamed a God for bringing it on us.But my question is why would any God be partial to these 2.I mean u have deadlier ones like Plague and so on.Now when a a guy called Edward Jenner questioned it we have accepted that Small Pox could be eradicated.Dont you think we should have “left ” it to God?

    I would like to counter yor Galileo argument with one simple reasoning .Just because Catholic Church does a stupidity ,doesnt mean Hindus should do the same.If we need to repeat all follies of the west then we should invade the world like Hitler.Do you think that it is feasible ,logically and reasonable.

  11. Quote


    My question#1 was raised, bcoz you have accused that indian religion and superstition played havoc for few centuries. ST is a fundamental right only from 1947, but that is a non-issue here. I am highlighting the point that, we are self-denigrating ourselves here.
    If you say, that i dont care about what happened in other parts of the world, but i would criticise myself for all mistakes, the its not a pragmatic stance.

    Next, let me come to chicken pox.. I dont know how you have taken treatment for it in your childhood. But i will explain, the treatment that is part of the religious practice here.

    1. First the patient is isolated and surrounded with neem leaves and turmeric water is sprayed.
    2. Till the chicken pox subsides, the patient is given only light food, like “Rice kanji”.
    3. To keep the body cool, tender coconut is given.
    4. Also, the mother’s gold chain, is worn by the patient.
    5. Within 4 days the diseases subsides, and the patient is asked to bath heavily, to cool down the body. This would continue for around 15 days.
    6. Slowly the heavy food is introduced to the patient.

    In case of small pox, there will be fluid filled blisters all over the body. In that case, a paste prepared using neem leaves, turmeric and castor seeds is applied over that.

    I do agree, that the chicken pox is attributed to goddess, but please tell me, if any of the above procedures is against scientific temper?

    I may tell a dozens of reasoning, why it is attributed to god.. but why anything related to god is always rejected as superstition? Till today, in rural areas, the chicken pox and small poxes are handled using the above procedures, along with faith in god..

    Now i am asking you, that does any one object when we explain them the scientific reasoning? Or do any one issue a decree against you for speaking against their beliefs?

    When science has not matured, they had a form of practices, to handle a disease, and associated it to god. Now no one objects to scientific reasoning of the same.. Then why we are ostracizing the rural beliefs?

    This is where i am dead against.. the intellectual denigration of the rural beliefs which we dont like.. I dont know about others, but i came from that part of life style, and what i am seeing from the intellectuals and urbanites are the utter contempt for the rural people and their practices.

    We need scientific temper, and its good to find scientific reasoning for many of the things, and it is also necessary to impart this scientific temper among our people.

    But why should make the rural society and their practices as the villain, for us to become the hero? Why cant we deal this positively, without denigrating anything else?

  12. Quote

    /** I would like to counter yor Galileo argument with one simple reasoning .Just because Catholic Church does a stupidity ,doesnt mean Hindus should do the same.If we need to repeat all follies of the west then we should invade the world like Hitler.Do you think that it is feasible ,logically and reasonable.

    Karthick.. You have understood my comment wrongly.. I did not say, we should follow what the catholic church did.. Rather, i highlighted this point, to convey the message that indian society or religion is relatively open than those western societies, and that we need not denigrate ourselves in an isolated manner.

    When we are judging about past history of india, we have to do it in a comparative and relativistic way and find whether we are better or worse than the rest of the world. There is no single place in this world, even today, that is all perfect, and we should not be idealistic.

  13. Quote


    Even today, there is no effective allopathic treatment for jaundice. There are only vaccines for hapatatis virus, but no curative one.

    People today look towards ayurvedic treatment for this, and its a working model in rural and semi rural areas.

  14. Quote

    Abdul’s quote of the online book review in The Hindu is excellent.. The review is very positive.

    I am reproducing a quote from the same review, which i feel it as important point of sen..

    Another insightful essay in the book is `The Reach of Reason.’ Western thought identifies reason with the age of enlightenment and that the ideas of individual liberty, democracy and ethics came into societal practice from that period. Western scholars identify these as `modern’ and tend to point out that these thoughts were introduced by them into the colonies. Sen slams this type of `Samuel Huntingtonism’ and points out how values such as rationalistic and liberal ideas, analytical scrutiny, open debate, political tolerance and agreement, rights and justice — and science — were part of the multicultural Indian tradition since the days of Ashoka, Tiruvalluvar, Aryabhata, Brahmagupta, Madhwacharya, Nanak, Kabir, Akbar, Gandhi, Tagore and Nehru.

  15. Quote


    I think ST has been part of our cultural for quite some years. The famous Thiruvilayadal about “scent in a woman’s hair” is an example of that. Nakkeeran is a pure logic based guy, I am not telling this is true but the author had thought about this.

    On the other there are 2 issues

    Believers take a stance – “Every superstition/religous belief is the only way to do things”
    Non-Believers take a stance – “Every superstition/religous belief is the stupid and non-sense”

    As rationalilty demands I think ST should help our mind take a middle ground. “Non-stupid until proven” kind of argument.

  16. Quote


    Like the excerpt from your comment which I have copied below, there are several places in your comments in this post where you refer to me as “her/she.” This is not correct. Abdul is a man’s name.

    Extract from your comment: “I would value “Abdul Fakhri’s vision of scientific temper for modern india” very much, because, as a reader, i can discuss with the originator of the ideas. Abdul can further explain her vision, and such discussion would be a dynamic one.”

    Thanks for your extensive participation.

  17. Quote


    I am very sorry for this grave mistake.. I regret for this.. Dont know how i got your image as feminine.. I will correct myself..

  18. Quote


    I agree with you.. the subject of thiruvilayadal debate may be not important.. but the ample scope for debate allowed in indian society, on any topics, is demonstrated in that..

  19. Quote

    One more link, which would like to share here..


    Its book review on america’s healthcare.. The author T.R. Reid had experimented all medical treatments around the world to cure his shoulder pain..

    Where the america’s scientific allopathic system could not cure, india’s so called unscientific, superstitious ayurvedic medical system, cured it.. Interestingly, before starting the treatment, they looked in to Reid’s astrology to find if the treatment will work..

    More details in the above link..

  20. Quote

    It may be a surprise news for many.. ST is being implemented practically in gujarat..


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