Yardstick to judge a human being: is he a builder or a destroyer ?: Nehru at BHU

This week we bring to our readers excerpts from a speech by Jawaharlal Nehru at Banaras Hindu University to commemorate the birth centenary of Madan Mohan Malaviya

India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru
India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru
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NH Web Desk

This week we bring to our readers excerpts from a speech by Jawaharlal Nehru at Banaras Hindu University to commemorate the birth centenary of Madan Mohan Malaviya, as an example of the political culture of the freedom struggle, where ideological differences, which Nehru undoubtedly had with Malaviya, did not come in the way of mutual respect.

I remember the day this university was started-not the exact date which I forget-for a very different reason. I could not be present then though I very much wanted to, but it clashed with something else. The fact is that on that very day, I was getting married in Delhi. It was Vasant Panchami, an auspicious day both for the inauguration of the University and for my marriage.

As far as Malaviyaji is concerned, I do not remember when I met him first because it must have been soon after my birth. I used to watch him from afar during my childhood. He was a revered adult and I a child and rather shy with adults….

I do not remember exactly but I think Malaviyaji joined the Congress the very next year after its inception. Therefore, his life was linked to the growth of the freedom movement being spearheaded by the Congress. He was one of the moving spirits behind the Congress and served his country with dedication…


Malaviyaji’s attention was drawn right from the beginning to education and our ancient culture. That was at a time when education was available to a handful of people only and they were influenced by Western culture… We had begun to copy the non-essentials of Western culture… We paid less attention to the learning which had made Europe great…Therefore Malaviyaji drew our attention to the need to imbibe only the best from the West and at the same time to hold on to the invaluable heritage of Indian culture.

He was himself extremely well versed in European culture and the English language. He had great respect for Western science…So, in a sense what he wanted to do was to link European science and Indian culture, the new Western industrial civilisation with our ancient traditions. This is exactly what we are trying to do today. So, he started this university with this great goal in mind…

He was a perfect example of all the best in our culture, which is a soft heart and unbending principles, his capacity to build rather than to destroy, and to forge a link between opposing viewpoints. The yardstick to judge any great human being is whether he is a builder or a destroyer. This is especially true in India where fissiparous tendencies are so many, whether a leader attempts to unite or separate gains greater significance…

There is great diversity in India though there is a common bond of unity too. Every state from Assam to Kanyakumari has a different lifestyle, dress, and food, etc. Yet you will find a tremendous bond, a cultural unity, which has come down from ancient times. The two things are not opposed to each other…This has been Indians’ strength through the ages. At the height of her greatness, India was a land where the windows of the mind were wide open to new ideas…

I feel that this is fundamental to Indian culture and has been engraved on rocks and stones 2200 years ago by Emperor Ashoka. He preached religious tolerance to his people. We must treat all religions with respect in order to beget respect for our own religion. This is the keystone of India’s ancient culture. India has been moulded by it through the ages. People belonging to various religions came and intermingled with the people of India. They were welcomed with open arms and were gradually absorbed in our society. The real culture of India has not been to divide but one of synthesis, of keeping the doors and windows of our minds open. So, you should study culture here and learn but do so in a manner which makes you realize that our culture is unique but not something which belongs to any one particular community or religion. On the contrary, it is an amalgam of ideas from all over the world…


Excerpts from the speech at BHU on 30th December 1961 to comemmorate the birth centenary of Madan Mohan Malaviya.

(Selected and edited by Mridula Mukherjee, former Professor of History at JNU and former Director of Nehru Memorial Museum and Library)

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