Thursday, July 14, 2011

Glimpses Of World History - Jawaharlal Nehru

A sincere, methodical reader of books as I am, I deferred the reading of certain books, set in foreign countries like China and Russia because I did not have sufficient knowledge about the socio, political, economic, cultural background of these counties and hence would not be able to get a full appreciation of these works.

A compilation of letters written to his daughter Indira from prison, it is simple, easy to read and intermingled with personal accounts. It makes effortless reading; in fact, it required less effort of me than Discovery of India did. The providing of several maps of different time periods helped in gaining perspective.

Narration, language and style are simple but of a good standard.
But given the fact that he was writing all these letters to a 13 year old daughter, the standard seems a little too high for us to believe that those letters were meant for his daughters alone. Added to this, the fact that all letters were carefully preserved and numbered confirm that when he wrote, he did so with the intention of getting them all published and hence had in mind a larger audience.
If he thought we, his countrymen, were naïve enough not to guess it, which he probably did, habitual as he was of underestimating the masses of his country and talking down to them, he was mistaken.

The book is voluminous but not formidable. It is rushed at certain places, but it does give the reader, as it promises, glimpses of world history, allowing him to sample various pieces if it so he may pick pieces he likes more for deeper study.

A must read.

Having said that, I must warn you to be careful while reading Nehru’s works, as he is highly prejudiced.
Even as he advises his daughter to be careful while reading history, to steer clear of biases, not to judge the past and to look at it with sympathy and all that, he is presumptuous enough to judge religion, to judge an entire class of people-the Brahmins, to judge rulers and emperors categorically and more. To make his judgment worse, he is partial. To give you a drift of the direction in which his opinions and prejudices are inclined, he slights religion, he is anti Brahmin and he is pro Muslim.

Though he writes about the subject of history, his language or tone wavers from that of the unbiased historian’s and becomes sarcastic here, slighting there, humorous here and ridiculing makes interesting reading though.
His choice of words which is derisive in places where he discusses religion, Brahminism, European crusaders, and even Alexander the Great, it turns grave, serious and matter-of-factly, when the narration turns to Muslim rule.

All the above notwithstanding, he is very proud of India and makes the reader very proud of being Indian. He frequently quotes visitors and foreign tourists who had great things to say about India.

The book is one thousand and one hundred plus pages long. I initially took notes, but every page had some point noteworthy and taking notes slowed my reading terribly. So here are a few points I noted now and then...


He calls people bathing in Triveni-Sangam a burden of tradition. He finds it unreasonable that religious people should think of other world and says he is bothered only about his duties in this world. Duties in this world are important, sure, but undervaluing spiritual interests is downright ignorant of Nehru.

“Whatever happens in a family - a birth, a marriage, a death - the priest steps in and payment is required…”, and much more has been said about Brahmins.
While a lot of it might be true, the other side of Brahminism - preservation of culture, tradition, heritage and legacy that give India its identity which was solely the responsibility of the Brahmins is not mentioned at all, making Brahminism a completely dark thing - which is far from truth.

He calls Jauhar a terrible rite...
This one beats me......”Chittor, the home of romance and chivalry, full of courage, but even then old fashioned and sticking to outworn methods of warfare, was overwhelmed by Allauddin's efficient army. There was a sack of Chittor in 1303, but before this could take place, men and women of fortress, obedient to old custom, performed the terrible rite of Jauhar - when defeat threatens and there is no other way, it was thought better for men to go out and die in the battle and women to burn themselves on a pyre. A terrible thing this was, especially for the women...”

Firstly, Indians practising chivalry in warfare is a matter of pride. Dharma Yuddha - fighting by rules laid down to prevent disruption of normal functioning of the State, as opposed to blind pillaging, plundering and destruction, is a matter of pride. He says Chittor was ‘sacked’ by Allauddin’s ‘efficient’ army!

And women jumped into the burning pyre to save their honour which they valued above all else in life. They preferred honourable death to coercion by lecherous men of the enemy and lifelong confinement to a harem guarded by eunuchs. Nehru calls this a terrible rite!

“China has never been the slave of religion and has not had any priestly hierarchy. India has always prided herself on her religion and her society has been priest ridden in spite of Buddha's attempts to rid her of this incubus.”
“An interesting development in China was the displacement of religious authority by secular authority. Education was secularized. The most obvious examples of this process are afforded by the use to which many old temples are now put. In Canton, a famous old temple is now used as a police training institute. In another places, temples have been converted to vegetable markets.”


On Alexander the Great, he says what was so great about him?
He condemns Theodosius the Great because he destroyed old temples and old statues which were the religion of people before Christianity...he was a strongly opposed to non Christians also to Christians who were not orthodox...
But elsewhere he does not condemn the destroying of Hindu temples and plundering and pillaging by Muslims.

He justifies all the savage invaders with one clever argument or another.

“The Muslims who came there - remember they were central Asians and not the Arabs - were full of zeal for their religion and wanted to destroy idols...but another reason for their destruction was perhaps the use of old temples as citadels and fighting places...that explains why Muslim invaders destroyed them...”

“Mahmud Ghazni - he was hardly a religious man. He was Muslim but only by the way. Above everything, he was a soldier and a brilliant soldier. He came to India to conquer and loot, as soldiers unfortunately do, and he would have done so whatever religion he might have belonged to...he threatened the Caliph of Baghdad, and the Muslim rulers of Sindh...we must not fall into the common error of considering Mahmud as anything more than a successful soldier.”

A lot of significant events that would have shown the Muslim kings' unworthiness of trust, cunning and deceit have been omitted.
For instance, just a line saying “Shahab Ud Din the afghan defeated Prithvi Raj.”
The story about how Prithvi Raj who forgave the captive Muslim king and spared his life was killed deceitfully by him is omitted...
The story of the Khilji king coveting the queen of Chittor and attacking Chittor only to abduct her is omitted.

“They(Muslims) were considering India their home. Allauddin married a Hindu lady and so did his son...”

Khushwant Singh, in his ‘Delhi’ says...”Allauddin Khilji was a homosexual, a fallen depraved fellow, whose pastime it was to have elephants thrown down valleys and in whose time, kingdom suffered...”

They abducted Hindu women and made them part of their harem. Even they married a Hindu woman, it was probably because she was renown for her beauty. Akbar married Jodha Bai – so people have been told from rooftops. What people don’t know is that he had a harem of 5000 – yes, five thousand women, and Jodha Bai was the only woman to enter his nuptial chamber twice – because she was his favourite beloved queen!

There is one line about Timur's intentions to massacre and destroy.

Khushwant Singh in Delhi writes, “he massacred 50000 people of Delhi with his scimitar... he found delight in raising pyramids of human skulls”

“...the tremendous energy of Mongols seemed to be lessening...the impulse to go on conquering waned...”
I am looking at his choice of words here...tremendous energy…which should have been ‘brute force’.

“…As the country went to pieces, arts fell with it. They lost vigour and life and became overburdened with detail and sometimes even grotesque. The coming of Muslims gave a shock and brought new influences with rid the degraded forms of Indian art of over-ornamentation. The old Indian ideal remained at the back, but it was dressed up simply and gracefully in the new garments of Arabia and Persia.
...the greatest triumph of the Indo Persian art is the Taj Mahal…”
His point about over-ornamentation and too much detail gives a useful insight into the approach to art, that certain Indian cultures had during certain time periods; an approach that was characterized by admiration for complexity, achieving of grandeur through complex undertakings and forgetting simplicity somewhere along the way.
But instead of being objective in his observation about this, he uses adjectives like decadent, grotesque, which is most disagreeable.

He does not forgive the cruel history of the church though. Spanish Inquisition, Crusaders, Roman Church, the struggle for power between two churches…


Though Nehru might not have written the below with the intention of putting in perspective the negligible magnitude or severity of Indian issues in the larger world context, I noted the below points for they made India’s much criticized issues seem very understandable and forgivable in the context of the terrible, monstrous things that were happening all the world over.

“Most of the glory of ancient Roman and Greek civilization was built upon mass slavery. Salves were treated with brute force and savageness. The gladiators were made to fight each other and die to provide entertainment to people. These were slaves.
Although India had it's caste system, people had freedom to live as they want within their castes and within their community - they had their gatherings, festivities. There was no brute force and no savageness. Even the small population of slaves that existed in India were mere domestic helps and were not subject to hazardous drudgery.”

Giving the example of Chaaravaaka the atheist who did not believe in God, and his works, he says, “There was freedom of thought and writing in India in the olden days. There was freedom of conscience. This was not so in Europe till very recent times.”

Crusaders - the brutal, savage history of the two religions Islam and Christianity - 'in Jerusalem, 'Under the portico of the mosque, the blood was knee deep and reached the horses' bridles'

Exaggeration of Hindu Muslim problems – “There is a tendency to give them far more importance than they deserve. Every quarrel between Hindu boy and Muslim boy is considered a communal quarrel, every petty riot is given great publicity. We must remember that India is a very big country and in tens of thousands of towns and villages, Hindus and Muslims live at peace with each other, and there is no communal trouble between them.”

“A good government is no guarantee against foreign invasion.”

“In 1840, the first world's anti slavery convention was held in London. Women came as delegates to it from America where the existence of Negro slavery was agitating many people. The convention however refused to admit these 'female delegates' on the ground that for any woman to take part in a public meeting was improper and degrading to the sex!”


“ is the twilight of capitalism which has lorded it for so long over the world. And when it goes, as go it must, it will take many an evil thing with it...”
How mistaken Nehru was...!

“Economic domination is worse than political domination”

“Capitalism produced socialism, Imperialism produced Nationalism”

“Internationalism is the foundation of all progress. Socialism works internationally but not in only one nation.”
It seems, Nehru was for free market, opposed to economic nationalism and opposed to protecting national markets by imposing tariff on imported goods.

“Growth of industries, products, aggressive search for markets and raw material for industries - rivalries of diff industrial powers – all these led to war”

“The acquisitive economy and this policy of individual grab with no planning with its waste and conflicts and periodical crises must go. In its place some form of cooperative economy must come.”


...people have leisure... so what is called civilization develops…

Beauty has three levels - Indication, Expression and Exposure. Spirituality indicates, art expresses and science exposes…

The man who has got everything he wants is all in favour of peace and order...

No man can succeed in great tasks unless the time is ripe and the atmosphere is favourable. A great man often forces the pace and creates his own atmosphere. But the great man himself is a product of the times and of the prevailing atmosphere.

The idea of human progress is a modern notion. There seems to have been no such idea in the past in Europe or Asia, or any of the old civilizations. People looked upon the past as an ideal period like the old Greek and Roman classical period. Indians looked at Satya Yuga, Dwapara Yuga… and all believed in deterioration or worsening of the race.

What is Marxism? – it’s a way of interpreting history and politics and economics and human life and human desires. It’s a theory as well as a call to action. It’s a philosophy which has something to say about most of activities of man's life.

There was false propaganda by armament industry to promote war - media, rumours etc. the same with most selling and marketing industry today.

The old religions have a way of covering and regulating every aspect of our day to day lives. Hinduism and Islam quite apart from their purely religious teachings lay down social codes and rules about marriage inheritance civil and criminal laws, political organization, and everything else. They lay down a complete structure for society and try to perpetuate this by giving it religious sanction and authority.

Humour and sarcasm - British professing to be the trustees of the dumb millions...
“Incidentally this process of conferring benefits often resolved itself into shooting down large numbers of the people benefited. Perhaps in this way, they were made to escape the miseries of this world and their departure for paradise was hastened.”

Inflation in Germany went to a point (post war) -they printed more and more notes that had less n less value - a postage stamp for a letter cost a million marks (German currency)!

Women in Russia have perhaps more freedom than in any other country and at the same time. They have special protection from the State. The first woman ambassador appointed by any government was the old Bolshevik Madam Kollontai.

The great depression and world crisis- In highly industrialized advanced capitalistic America many people took to the ancient method of barter which had existed in the old days before money came into use. Hundreds of barter organizations developed in America. Exchange associations arose to help this barter by issuing certificates. An interesting instance of barter was that of a dairyman who gave milk butter and eggs to a university in exchange for the education of his children.
England bartered coal for Scandinavian Timber; Canada gave Alluminium for soviet oil; US bartered wheat for Brazilian coffee.

War is not a pleasant subject to contemplate in all its horrid reality, and because of this the reality is hidden behind fine phrases and brave music and bright uniforms.

Plato held that slavery was essential. There was much effort to retain slavery in America!
We cannot judge the past from the standards of the present. It is equally absurd to judge the present by the standards of the past.

Often past is jealous of the future and holds us in a terrible grip and we have to struggle with it to get free to face and advance towards the future.

Karl Marx says "History has no other way of answering old questions than by putting new ones.'



KVS said...

Not related to this post but too curious to know:
Are you going to climb Mt. Everest?? To the peak????

சங்கரன் said...

//Capitalism produced Socialism . Imperialism produced nationalism//

quite interesting. but here the reverse happened, we moved from socialism to capitalism because ofthe mistake of moved from british imperialism directly to socialism.

Sowmya said...

KVS and சங்கரன்,

Thanks for your visiting after long.

Am I climbing Everest? Keep reading to know :)

That statement is about what happened in the past, not what should always happen... to put it in perspective.