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Nehru, the Scientific Temper, and the Association of Scientific Workers of India

Jawaharlal Nehru coined the term, ‘scientific temper’, in his book, The Discovery of India, in 1946. He was also the first of our leading politicians who talked about the conflict of our leading politicians who talked about the conflict between science and religious dogma: not the basic values which all religions preach and which are, for all practical purposes, identical, but the dogma that gives a religion its identity; different religions have a totally different set of dogmas which are entirely a matter of belief and for which no rational or reliable evidence exists.

Nehru became the first President of the Association of Scientific Workers of India (ASWI), a trade union of scientists who had at least a B.Sc. degree or equivalent, founded in the late 1940s. P.M.Bhargava (PMB) had the privilege of being a member of the first Executive Committee of the ASWI, one of the main objectives of which was to develop scientific temper. Nehru was the first to recognize the role of scientific temper in the development and progress of the country.

Unfortunately, over the decades, the ASWI, which had at one time – say, the early 1950s – most of the leaders of the scientific community as members, has declined into virtual non-existence. For example, the Hyderabad branch of which PMB was the Secretary was, between 1950 and 1953, very active with nearly 500 members, including Dr M Channa Reddy who later became the Chief Minister of Andhra Pradesh.

Dr Channa Reddy himself later succumbed to superstition as evidenced by the fact that he carried a lucky wand in his hand given by a god man, so that power would continue to remain in his hands! The Hyderabad branch of ASWI has been extinct for some time.

Nehru’s penchant for scientific temper is an excerpt from the article, “A reassessment of the contribution of Jawaharlal Nehru to science”, in the book, Nehru Revisited, edited by MV Kamath and published by Nehru Centre, Mumbai.

Society for the Promotion of Scientific Temper

In 1963, with the falling credibility of ASWI, Satish Dhawan who later became one of our foremost space scientists and the Chairman of Indian Space Research Organization, Abdur Rahman, the historian of Science, and PMB, felt that a national society set up exclusively for promotion of scientific temper could be a social asset. Thus they prepared a statement which was published in 1964 in Seminar,  This statement was used to a lunch the Society for the Promotion  of Scientific Temper at the Occasion of an international symposium on nucleic acids held in the then Regional Research Laboratory (today, the Indian Institute of Chemical Technology) at Hyderabad in January 1964.

The above mentioned symposium was Indaia’s first major international meeting in molecular biology and related fields in India; it was attended by most of the leading molecular biologists of that time from across the world, including the Nobel Prize-winning co-discoverer of the structure of DNA, Francis Crick. (This meeting is now a part of the history of biology as several major discoveries in neology were reported for the first time at this meeting.)

Many international participants in the above symposium, including Francis Crick, along with many well-known and progressive Indians such as S. Husain Zaheer (the then Director – General of CSIR, Government of India), Abdur Rahman, Satish Dhawan, Mohit Sen and Maqdoom Mohiuddin (well-known leaders of the Communist movement in India), were present at the launch of the society for the promotion of the Scientific Temper; they all strongly supported the statement on scientific temper.

Membership to this organization required that an applicant signs the following declaration:

I believe that knowledge can be acquired only through human endeavour and not through revelation, and that all problems can and must be faced in terms of man’s moral and intellectual resources without invoking supernatural powers.

This seemingly innocuous requirement, unfortunately, turned out to be the undoing of the fledgling Society. All those who were involved in the setting up of the Society and those who actively worked for it later (which included many highly reputed academicians), had assumed axiomatically that scientists of the country would have no hesitation in signing this declaration which merely reflected the basic spirit of scientific temper. By definition, scientific temper, denies that any “external” agency which would be outside the purview of science can have any role in solving any problem – individual or collective.

All those concerned were, therefore, taken aback when scientist after scientist across the country refused to sign the declaration. It demonstrated to their great chagrin and disillusionment the extreme lack of scientific temper in the scientific community itself – a situation that largely continues.

We believe that it is this situation that is responsible in a mojor way for our many failures in science, and this is not underrate our success in science and technology which we have documented with pride in our book, The Saga of Indian Science Since Independence. In a Nutshell (Universities Press, 2003). It did not take us long to realize that the situation was in total contrast with that prevailing then in the top scientific community of the ‘developed’ (scientifically and technologically advanced) countries around the world.

The society for the Promotion of Scientific Temper died a natural death: this chapter on development of scientific temper in the country was closed but many lessons were learnt form it, one of them being that scientific temper was an important ingredient of any recipe for not  only social and economic but also scientific and technological advancement of our country.


During the period 1964-1980, many proponents of scientific temper – individuals and organizations –emerged in the country that made a vital social contribution. Examples would be Kerala Shastra Sahitya Parishad that played a major role in achieving total literacy in Kerala, the Banglore Science Forum, Paschim banga Vigyan, Manch, Marathi Vigyan Parishad, and Jana Vignana Vedika of Andra Pradesh. Their national and often successful efforts would need separate books to describe and discuss.

The Method of Science Exhibition

In 1975, PMB was asked by Dr Rais Ahmed, the then Director of the National Council for Education research and Training, to prepare a national exhibition on the method of science. This exhibition was prepared in Hyderabad at the then Regional Research Laboratory (now the Indian Institute of Chemical Technlogy), between 1975 and 1976 with financial and other support from a large number of organizations in India and abroad.

The exhibition was set up in Bal Bhavan in Delhi in a 5,000 sq.ft. independent building (called the Polish pavilion) during January – March 1977. It was to be inaugurated by the then Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi. She, however, lost the election towards the end of March 1977. The travails of the exhibition then began.

The Morarji Desai government that followed, found the exhibition undesirable in many ways, particularly as it emphasized questioning; no totalitarian or sectarian regime like the one we had at that time,, likes to encourage questioning. For this and other equally flimsy reasons that pertained to certain contents of the Exhibition, the above Government arranged for it to be surreptitiously dismantled week of  August 1988.

This clandestine operation was done secretly at night, without anyone knowing anything about it. This incident raised much public hue and cry – nationally and internationally. It led to several enquiries, one of them initiated by the PM’s office, and to a court case.

The stolen exhibition was finally located, and purchased in a badly damaged condition by the Andhra Pradesh Government. It was then redone and launched in Hyderbad amidst much fanfare, where it became a major academic attraction. However, after a while, it lost the patronage of the Government and once again fell into disarray. It was then transferred with the permission of its creator, PMB, to Birla Scince Centre in Hyderabad, where it was never exhibited properly and eventually, after a few years.

It went through a second process of destruction on account of, perhaps, the same reasons that led to its first virtual destruction. Interestingly, the only objects from the exhibition that survived were some priceless paintings by Lazma Coud and Surya Prakash. These paintings which were an integral part of the exhibition were surreptitiously added to the personal collection of Smt Nirmala Birla.

We discovered this only when they were exhibited with much elan in an art exhibition of the personal collection of Smt Birla at the same venue where the exhibition was initially set up. Perhaps, in course of time, other priceless memorabilia and paintings that were an integral part of the exhibition and a labour of love by some of India’s best known painters would find their way into the same personal art collection, for art has a price whereas scientific temper asks for a price of the exploiters and the exploited!

The story of this much publicized exhibition is  an excerpt from the 920 – page book titled, Vandalisation of a Work of Art and Science, edited and published by B. Permanent for Geedee Medical Adis in 2005, in which all the material pertaining to the Exhibition including  correspondence, press reports, reports of the enquiry and the court case, has been put together.

The Statement on Scientific Temper

In 1979, PMB was invited to a conference at the Tata Institute for Social Sciences in Bombay where he met for the first time, Bakul Patel, who was then involved in setting up the Nehru Centre in Bombay with her husband, Rajini Patel, one of the best-known criminal lawyers of the country. (Bakul Patel later became the Sheriff of Bombay) Their common commitment to scientific temper and rationalism, led to a lasting friendship. Together, in October 1980, they held a meeting on scientific temper in Coonoor, which was presided by P N Haksar, one of the most distinguished civil servants our country has ever had.

The above meeting led to “A statement on scientific temper” which was signed by some of the best- known intellectuals in the country, in addition to the participants of the meetings; many others wrote about their support to the statement – which was widely publicized and debated in the country – later, after publication of the statement. Some of the comments on this statement have been put together in the book, Science and Sensibility by K V Subbaram, published by manthan Publications, Rohtak, in 1989.

Amongst the many commentaries on the Statement on Scientific Temper, perhaps the most noteworthy was that of the late Swami Ranganathananda who later became head of the Ramakrishna Mission. This commentary led to the Nehru Centre Organizing a debate in Mumbai about a year later, between a group of 15 persons chosen and headed by Swami Ranganathananda that felt that there was an alternative to the Statement on Scientific Temper, and another group of 15 selected by the Nehru Centre.

The group of 30 unanimously elected Mr P N Haskar to chair the debate which was spread over three days, and followed all the norms of a healthy, strictly academically-oriented debate. All the seats open to the public in the hall in the ‘Discovery of India’s pavilion of the Nehru Centre (that was still under construction at that time) were booked in advance; the public was invited to take part in the debate in the afternoons.

Although at the end of the debate, the consensus was that the Nehru Centre team  had won but that was not so important. What was important was the high quality of the debate and the exemplary manner in which it was conducted – perhaps a fitting ode to Indian culture and to scientific temper. The debate was widely covered by the press.

The Scientific Temper and Method of Science in History in India

Indian successes in science and technology form the time of Harappa and Mohenjadaro (that is, some 5,000 years ago) to the end of the 19th century are well-known and well documented. India was, during the above period, a leader in many areas such as mathematics, astronomy, medicine and sugery. For example, no other country in the world had a mathematician like Bhaskaracharya, whose equally talented daughter, Leelaati, had a flair for numbers and could solve numerous mathematical riddles given by her father in Sanskrit Shlokas (Verses), such as the following:

  • A herd of elephants. A half and a third of that half went into a cave. One sixth and a seventh of that were quenching their thirst on the river and one eighth and one ninth of that eighth were enjoing themselves in a lake full of lotuses. The chief of the herd and his three beloveds were playfully engaged in a love grame. How many elephants were in the herd?
  • From a heap of lotuses, one third were offered to Lord Shankara, a fifth to Vishnu, one-sixth to the sun god, and one fourth to the goddess. The reminder of six lotuses was laid at the feet of the Guru. Tell me the total count. (The above two slokas show how Bhaskaracharya brought life and exscitement into the dry sums of fractions, ratios and proportions.)
  • A lake inhabited by a number of Charkravaka and Karunch birds. There stands a lotus half – a – hand above the water level. A light breeze displaces it to submerge two hands away. Tell me quickly the depth of water. (this very picturesque scence is an ideal setting to demonstrate what is known today as Pythagoras theorem. Visualize the submerged lotus and its original state before the breeze does its act, and the familiar right-angled triangle would become evident.
  • How many different types of idols of Lord Shiva would you get if his ten hands were to hold ten different weapons – arrow, bow and snake et al – every time changing their configuration. Likewise, how many idols of Lord Vishnu would be possible with him holding four such things? (the concept of “permutations” – arrangements of objects in a distinctly identified manner – is explained in this shloka by visualizing different images of Shiva and Vishnu, each distinguished form the other by the configuration of weapons.)
  • Bees equal to the squre root of one-half from a swam flew towards the Malati Trees. Eight-ninth of the swarm also followed them. Out of the two bees remaining, one ws lured by the sweet smelling lotus and got entangled. His outcry was responded by his mate. Tell me, the number of bees in the swarm. (if one thought that solving a quadratic equation was quite boring, this swarm of bees would dispel that notion),
  • There is pole, nine hands tall. At its feet is a snake hole. A peacock is perched on top of the pole. A snake approaches the hold from a distance thrice that of the height of the pole. The peacock sights the snake, swoops down diagonally at the same speed and grabs it at a distance from the hold. Will you tell me quickly wht the distance is? ( like the submerged lotus, this one too demonstrates the use of right- angled triangles.)
  • Four streams feed a well. Each one its own fills up the well in a half, a third, a fourth and one full day. If all four flow simultaneously, how much time would it take to fill up the well?
  • There was a lake full of dainty lotuses and a flock of swans. Once when the sky was overcast with clouds, ten times the squre root of the total number in the flock flew towards lake Manas. Left behind in the lake were only three lovelorn paris. Tell me my little girls, the number of swans in the flock.
  • A man gifts his beloved a number of gems to adorn her with ornaments. One-eighth of these beautify the parting  of her hiar, three-seventh of the remaining go into a necklace long enough to rest in the cleavage of her of armlets. Out of the gems left after that, three fourths make a waistband with jingling bells. Sixteen gems were left over with which she bedecked the plaits of her hair. Tell me quickly the total number of gems.
  • An oil-lamp and a cone are standing three hands apart. The lamp is three-and-a hand. Tell me how far the shadow of the cone would fall. ( this is one of the more ingenious of Bhaskaracharya’s real-life-oriented problems. Visualize the oil-lamp and its rays falling on the cone standing some distance apart!. It is easy to see the usage of rule governing the rations of sides in similar triangles.
  • In an intense foreplay the pearl-necklace of a woman falls apart. One-third drop down on the floor and one-fifth slip under the bed. She manages to pick up one-sixth and the man lays his hands on one-tenth. Finally only six pearls are seen locked up in the thread. Tell me how many pearls the necklace wad made of?

These riddles have been exquisitely choreographed in on Odissi dance ballet, “Leelavathi”, by Jhelum paaranjpye.  A legitimate of scientific temper, and of the method of science an understanding of which comes instinctively with scientific temper, in ancient and medieval India. Reproduced an article by us, “The scientific temper and the scientific method in science in India through history, with special reference to biology”.

We believe, clergy have been the primary stumbling block in the spread of scientific temper which, unlike the clergy’s religions (be they Christianity or Islam, Hinduism, Sikhism or Judism) that divide people, unites them.

Courtesy :  Angels, Devil and Science

- A Collection of articles on scientific temper

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