Re-reading notes: The Discovery of India

Following my new year resolution of re-reading books for at least first three months of the year, I am re-reading The Discovery of India by Jawahar Lal Nehru. I had read it long back and only vaguely remembered being impressed by the way it inspired you to study history beyond a list of events, people and wars. While re-reading it now, that aspect has no longer remained novel. By now, I know that the only meaningful way to study history is indeed to go beyond those lists and dates. But the same exposure to more of life and world, which has made the idea not-so-novel, has given me better ability to use the content of the book in that way.

I have read only about one-third of the book till now. But I still find some observations worth noting down.

Among other things, Nehru discusses ancient India’s relationships with other contemporary civilizations. When I read his views on the relationship with ancient Greece, I was reminded of some portions of History of Western Philosophy by Bertrand Russell. Russell, of course, discusses the various philosophers of Greece at length. What is interesting is when he talks about the effect of orient (including India) on Greek philosophy, he makes it out to be mostly negative. The eastern influence, which according to Russell seems to have started only with Alexander’s conquests, brought esoteric practices, obsession with other-world, superstition, magic and everything irrational to ruin the more rational Greek philosophy. Nehru’s version doesn’t necessarily counter the influence Russell speaks of. But according to him the contact of the two civilizations much pre-dated Alexander. Nehru says that Pythagoras was influenced by Indian philosophy. (Pythagoras himself was a great influence on Plato.) Even during and post-Alexander period, Nehru’s version talks of more constructive synthesis between Indian and Greek thoughts, which does not feature in Russell’s version at all.

Of course, Nehru and Russell are writing for different reasons in different countries on presumably different subjects (History of India in case of Nehru vs. History of Western Philosophy in case of Russell). But what links the books together is that they were written at about the same time. In 1940s – during the second world war! Nehru’s inclination to find and point out praise-worthy elements in Indian history and philosophy is understandable. There was a need to bring respectability to Indian identity to justify India’s claim to independence. But when you read Nehru, you can also see that while he may be modulating his expressions for political necessity, he is not a fanatic nationalist, who needs to glamourize everything Indian. Nor is his ambition so misplaced that he will deliberately mislead you about India and history. He is critical of things he sees wrong in India. He appreciates the good that he sees outside India. So, I think there is a need to take Russell’s dismissal of oriental philosophy and its influence on West with a pinch of salt. I do not know what the contemporary Western philosophers think about it. But I hope, for the sake of the discipline, that it isn’t the same dismissal.

There is another interesting claim in the book. Vedic religion was not big on idol-worshipping. In India the first idols that were made were those of Buddha. And that too hundreds of years after his death. Vedic/Brahminic Gods made their entry later in the world of statues. The effect was apparently Greek. And the word बुत for statue apparently comes from “Buddha”.

One place where I cringed was when Nehru dismissed the linguistic diversity of India. Fifteen languages cover entire India according to him and the “so-called” hundreds of languages of India is about bad definition of language in census. Let’s be fair to him on this count though. The diversity of India – most visibly represented by the linguistic diversity – was considered a threat to or even a proof of non-existence of a united Indian identity. Many who tried to “impose” one language on India had no sinister motives against the other languages. They were simply overwhelmed by the need to maintain the unity of India which they were sure was essential for our freedom and progress. In retrospect it is easy to see the problems it created and easier still to find faults with what they tried. But let’s be a little generous here, and not judge those well-intentioned people by a future they couldn’t have known about. They did get a lot of things right. We do have a more stable country today than many other more unfortunate former colonies

Finally, do you identify with the following?🙂

“Probably there was more unity and harmony in the human personality in the old days… But the problem is a more difficult and complex one now, for it has grown beyond the limits of the human personality. It was perhaps easier to develop some kind of harmonious personality in the restricted spheres of ancient and medieval times. In that little world of town and village, with fixed concepts of social organization and behaviour, the individual and the group lived their self-contained lives protected, as a rule, from outer storms. Today the sphere of even the individual has grown world-wide, and different concepts of social organization conflict with each other and behind them are different philosophies of life. A strong wind arising somewhere creates a cyclone in one place and an anti-cyclone in another.”

I do. Remind me to do another post about it!

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