Tuesday, January 04, 2011
The Discovery Of India - Jawaharlal Nehru
‘There are no facts; only perspectives’, said someone as I enquired of my bookworm friends of Select Bookshop about the ‘most authentic’ historical works.
True. There are only perspectives.
One can look at the story of man from many different angles and each angle will give a different story.
The history I learnt in school was all about empires, kingdoms, dynasties, kings, wars and palace intrigues.
And then there is the story of the common men and women, of their everyday life, of their occupations, of their beliefs…that we are not very familiar with
Yet another book I have, but not read, is a unique perspective: the story of man’s relationship with soil through ages, their interacted with each other and the consequences of man’s treatment of soil…
And even when the angle is the same, two different people looking at it, would see two different things depending on where they come from.
“If you plunder from West to East, you become Alexander The great; if you do the same thing from East to West, you become Genghiz Khan, the barbarian”…
Facts or perspectives, history is charming.
Surely, this one, ‘The Discovery of India’ is a perspective. Actually, it is more than that. It is a judgment.
Sooner or later I had to read this book.
First, it was charming history. And then it was the perspective of a man who received my country in a state of wet clay and moulded the delicate thing into a shape of his fancy, whether or not I like it.
It becomes important for each one of us to know that man, who decided our collective destiny, through his views, opinions, ideas and thoughts.
It is a very well written book. His chronological account of India’s long story of glory, wrapped in his own views and opinions, is interesting and gripping. The narrative – nostalgic at times, instilling pride all the time, replete with quotes of noted people all over the world about India, her people and her heritage, testifying to her high stature – make this a delectable piece of work.
The big thick volume is not formidable as I had feared.
Nehru states that history is not the story of kings, empires and palace intrigues as presented most of the time, but the story of common men and women. He even runs down kings and princes at times.
However, his own narrative does not exclude kings, kingdom, wars and invasions. No account of history can.
He does, though, give an account of the common man’s story, of trade between India and different countries, of the state in which people lived in different periods, of their creative work, of their religion, of the changing structure of society and other dimensions to history, wherever possible.
The book is not merely an account of history but an analytical study of history too as it contains very deep analyses spanning sociological and psychological dimensions of the many dynamics. The analyses are not microscopic but panoramic describing the character and nature of societies & peoples and the various changes that came over them over hundreds of thousands of years.
With every page I flipped, I learnt something important and interesting.
While this is a classic that I would recommend to everyone, many things can be said in it’s criticism.
Nehru is judgmental and his prejudice is obvious in many places.
Nehru was not religious and did not think much of religion and this he makes obvious in his writing, where he openly expresses his disinterest/disinclination towards religion and metaphysics. His choice of words when discussing religion, such as priest-craft, dogma, ritual, ceremony etc. show his contempt and disdain for religion.
He professes faith in 'analytical and scientific' approaches to the problems of life versus religious and traditional approaches.
This perceived mutual exclusivity between science and religion, I find quite immature. It’s the trait of a common man and not a statesman and that too, supposedly a scholar.
Having read Nehru’s views, I cannot help comparing them with those of Tagore and hence appreciating Tagore’s superior sensibility and thoughtfulness.
Even when Tagore condemns the evil practices prevalent in the Hindu society, he takes care not to malign religion itself.
He carefully distinguishes religion from the distortions of it as a result of it’s incorrect understanding and application by people in their lives.
He observes that decay and degeneration are a natural phase of evolution of every civilization, of every society and that a decaying branch does not imply a defective tree.
His works are full of detailed discussions and debates among his characters that represent different schools of thought - traditional, revolutionary and reactionary. And through these discussions, he takes up several questions related to religion, society, reformation and gives each viewpoint an equal chance. One argument at a time, without being rhetorical, he shows how religion is separate from its interpretation and application by people.
He peels the layers of dust one by one and helps the reader see the core and understand it for what it is. He then lets them form their opinion based on what they have seen.
Nehru seems to lack that insight, that thoughtfulness, that maturity and that sensitivity when he categorically slights religion, religious leaders, their doctrines and most of all, the Brahmins. His generalizations show an absence of balance in his approach.
A statesman of international acclaim ought to have been more responsible and not loose with his pen.
He gives some concessions here and there; speaking of the period of Ramayana and the Mahabharata, he says there was no idol worship nor worship of anthropomorphic forms, but only worship of elements and mantras and meditation. Of all the schools of thought, he says, Advaitha or monism is more agreeable to him than the others.
But on the whole, he derides religion and looks down upon the religious sentiments of people.
Most of those who resent religion usually revere spiritualism. But Nehru seems irreverential of spirituality too, which is obvious from his scornful remarks such as ‘sitting in a corner and contemplating instead of solving the problems of the surroundings’, ‘worrying about after life instead of addressing the concerns of this life’ etc.
Solving existential problems according to him, it seems, is what people ought to do versus chasing religion and god.
Nehru disapprovingly says that in old ancient India that there was much individualism and focus on individual goals, progress & betterment and nothing was said about the role of man in society, his responsibility towards society etc.
Elsewhere in the book, he seems to be contradicting himself. “…The caste system, the autonomous village community and the joint family…In all these three, it is the group that counts; the individual has a secondary place…”
My thought – perhaps because of the stable robust social structures like the caste system, the autonomous village community and the joint family, that would take care of the stable functioning of the society, men did not have to worry about keeping the society functioning and were free to focus on individual goals like self realization.
Another instance of his judgment… an appalling one!
He was disturbed by the temple carvings at Srirangam or Madurai – observe his choice of words again - “decadent carvings”, he says.
“The Indo Mughal art was in marked contrast with the decadent, over elaborate and heavily ornamented temples of the North and South………. Inspired architects and builders put up with loving hands the Taj Mahal at Agra.”
Of the fact that those hands were cut off – 20000 of them, there is no mention whatsoever!
“...free education was well known in India from the most ancient times. That education was traditional; not very good or profitable but it was available to poor students without any payment, except some personal service to the teacher…”
This allusion to Gurukulas and Gurudakshina also shows his judgment and insufficient understanding of our past.
He is pro Muslim.
There is repeated emphasis on the idea that the decay of the Indian civilization/society began before the invasion of Mongols, Arabs, Turks and Mughals. I doubt this.
Without any of the vehemence that he has shown in other places for violence and aggression, he relates the plundering and pillaging of Somnath by Ghazni Mohammed. He says Islam never invaded India and tries hard to prove it – by explaining how a Ghazni or a Ghori Mohammed recruited Indian soldiers into his army and attacked an Islamic kingdom in western Asia, and other such examples.
Of the ‘convert to Islam or die’, of the women who were abducted from the streets to become part of harems not only by Muslim kings but by their many nobles, of the burning and razing down of entire towns, of their savageness, there is no account!
“The chivalry of India was dust before the war skill of Chengiz Khan…”, he says instead of eulogizing Indian chivalry in warfare.
Although the books claims to be a ‘discovery of India‘, South India is almost completely excluded. There are references to the South here and there but nothing much. As if it were not a part of India…
South has so much history and culture. I don’t know why he did not think it necessary or important to write about it.
The chapter ‘Life's Philosophy’ – where he expresses more faith in one philosophy than another, where he makes observations about several important people and schools of thought – Marx, Lenin, Communism, school of ethics, philosophy, religion, their adequacies and inadequacies – this chapter should have had examples. Without examples, without substantiation, the generalizations are difficult to comprehend and lack the power to convince.
His resentment towards the British rule too seems prejudiced – his dislike for the British is strong, perpetual and unwavering. He gives them no concessions whatsoever.
He resents everything that the British were and did.
I clearly remember reading Gopal Krishna Gokhale or another’s work where it is mentioned that people welcomed British rule after a prolonged period of savageness during Muslim rule - there is no mention of that anywhere in Nehru’s work.
He compares the viceroy to Hitler and portrays the British as complete villains throughout, which I think is not fair.
There’s just half a page on Tilak and Gokhale.
A little more than one third of the book is about Gandhi and Congress, fortunately the last third of the book. When the narrative reaches the British occupation of India and the struggle, then onwards it becomes less interesting and somewhat repetitive in the underlying lamentation.
As you read this book, of the past glory, of our ancient richness, of the vitality of our civilization, a tidal wave of pride rises in your mind.
But it also crashes at the realization of how little of that glory and richness is left in the society, life and thought of India today.
Read this book, surely. It is most interesting.
But remember, ‘there are no facts; only perspectives’, and this one is a judgment.