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At the end of this conversation (in the podcast version at 46'30") about Ashoka the Great scholar of Buddhism Richard Gombrich made this remark:

The Indian flag has [Ashoka's] wheel of the dharma on it. But that was Jawaharlal Nehru, who was virtually a Buddhist, a very, very [pure ?] Buddhist, and who invented the five principles and so on, which all comes from Buddhism.

Jawaharlal Nehru (1889 – 1964) was of course the first Prime Minister of modern India.

I am wondering whether the remark (made in a casual way after the "official" recoding had ended) should be taken at face value. Do we know anything definitive from Nehru's upbringing or perhaps his autobiographical accounts? And is there a consensus view among historians?

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I am currently reading Nehru's 'The Discovery of India' which is about Indian history as well as his experiences of Indian freedom struggle. I think you can download it legally from here.

Although he has substantially praised Buddhism in the book, that is equally true about Hinduism as well. Actually, what he seems to be interested in is the sociological implications of Buddhist and Hindu philosophies rather than the religions themselves.

From The Discovery of India, p. 26, about Nehru's personal beliefs.

Religion, as I saw it practised, and accepted even by thinking minds, whether it was Hinduism or Islam or Buddhism or Christianity, did not attract me. It seemed to be closely associated with superstitious practices and dogmatic beliefs, and behind it lay a method of approach to life's problems which was certainly not that of science. There was an element of magic about it, an uncritical credulousness, a reliance on the supernatural.

Yet it was obvious that religion had supplied some deeply felt inner need of human nature, and that the vast majority of people all over the world could not do without some form of religious belief. It had produced many fine types of men and women, as well as bigoted, narrow-minded, cruel tyrants. It had given a set of values to human life, and though some of these values had no application to-day, or were even harmful, others were still the foundation of morality and ethics.

About Buddhism from pages 130-131:

The Buddha story attracted me even in early boyhood, and I was drawn to the young Siddhartha who, after many inner struggles and pain and torment, was to develop into the Buddha.
...
When I visited countries where Buddhism is still a living and dominant faith, I went to see the temples and the monasteries and met monks and laymen, and tried to make out what Buddhism had done to the people. ... There was much I did not like. The rational ethical doctrine had become overlaid with so much verbiage, so much ceremonial, canon law, so much, in spite of the Buddha, metaphysical doctrine and even magic. Despite Bud- dha's warning, they had deified him, and his huge images, in the temples and elsewhere, looked down upon me and I wondered what he would have thought.
...
But I saw much also that I liked. There was an atmosphere of peaceful study and contemplation in some of the monasteries and the schools attached to them. There was a look of peace and calm on the faces of many of the monks, a dignity, a gentleness, an air of detachment and freedom from the cares of the world.

Finally, this paragraph, from p. 131 presents the conclusive evidence:

The pessimism of Buddhism did not fit in with my approach to life, nor did the tendency to walk away from life and its problems. I was, somewhere at the back of my mind, a pagan with a pagan's liking for the exuberance of life and nature, and not very much averse to the conflicts that life provides. All that I had experienced, all that I saw around me, painful and distressing as it was, had not dulled that instinct.

Thus, I think it is fair to say that he was very much attracted to Hindu and Buddhist philosophies (one can find similar paragraphs about Hindu philosophies too), but he did not identify himself with any of the religions, certainly not with Buddhism.

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  • +1. I think secular is a good word to describe him- at least outwardly. In so far as his personal beliefs go, I would say he was very "Westernised". – Rajib Mar 9 '15 at 3:02
  • @Rajib Ah, yes, secular is the word. Maybe a secular Hindu is how he would have described himself. Also, you surely mean "westernized" in the sense of his secular beliefs and not in the sense of Christianity, right? – taninamdar Mar 9 '15 at 3:07
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    Westernized in the sense that both Jinnah and Nehru were elite, suave, debonair, ate pork, went for parties and so on. That has nothing to do with religion. The split from religion is what was a "western" import. – Rajib Mar 9 '15 at 4:46
  • +1 very promising start. Am looking forward to these references too. – Drux Mar 9 '15 at 5:34
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    @Drux added quotes from the book. – taninamdar Mar 9 '15 at 7:54

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