I recently finished reading ‘The Discovery of India’ written by the first Prime Minister of India, Jawaharlal Nehru. The book in the image above is my Dad’s book from around 30 years ago which made reading it a unique experience. The print was clean and only a five to six lines in the whole book were smudged. The binding also seemed to be slightly weak but it held together quite firmly. I took it on a few of my travels and the only precaution I needed to take was to handle it carefully and place it in a safe spot in my backpack. It had that distinct scent of old paper which made me oddly nostalgic. The paper had made that scent its own and there is no book I have read that emanated such a strong essence.
It was an interesting read. The first half of it was dedicated to history before the colonial period and the second half was dedicated to the colonial period along with the freedom struggle. It was filled with Nehru’s personal opinions and conclusions. The writing had finesse and beauty. Rather than a book about history, it was more like Nehru’s interpretation of history and how various events affected India and built her culture and legacy. This is in contrast to conservative British thought of the time which looked down upon Indian civilisation and considered Englishmen as the reformers of Indian science and culture.
Nehru starts by exploring ancient Indian civilisation. He writes about the highly sophisticated ancient Indian settlements. He also writes about the development of art and culture of the time through the lens of ancient Indian texts such as the Bhagvad Gita and Mahabharata. The teachings of these texts are retold in every household and the teaching percolate through these stories. He explores the role of Buddha in Indian rational thought and how he urged people to reject superstition. In Nehru’s eyes, Buddha was an exceptional critical thinker and philosopher who gave the Indian people a new perspective on how to look at life and its problems.
The book explores early Indian sea voyages and the influence of Hinduism and Buddhism in South East Asia. It also explores India’s contacts with China. Due to both countries rich history and culture Nehru seemed to believe that this would result in a cooperative friendly relationship in the future when India is independent.
A large part of this book is dedicated to these Golden years of Indian civilisation which then moves onto the Islamic invasions of India and Mughal rule. Jawaharlal Nehru acknowledges that post 1000 AD marks the steady decline of Indian culture and science. Unlike right wing thinkers he does not predominantly attribute this to Islamic invasion but rather to a variety of reasons. These reasons are the repeated invasions from the North Western frontiers, the increasing effect of dogmatic and superstitious thoughts in the minds of Indians and an obsession with the past without a vision for the future. He acknowledges the degrading effect that Muslim invasions had on India’s vitality and culture but makes distinction between various Islamic tribes that invaded India. Some tribes were nomads only interested in plundering Indian wealth while other brought along with them new culture and thoughts.
The Mughal rule is depicted as a just rule that prospered as long as it was tolerant. The book speaks glowingly about Akbar and his rule. Nehru, however also acknowledges that despite the Mughals, India fell behind in technology and culture. She had not been able to create new literature that lived up to our past epics and Indian literature and drama was mostly limited to retelling old stories. Similarly she had stopped undertaking sea voyages and was soon outmatched by European powers. Hence India stagnated and isolated herself just as the European powers started their ascent.
This story moves onto Aurangzeb and his religious authoritarianism. His disdain for Hinduism and destruction of temples creates a backlash in India and the Marathas become stronger. Aurangzeb marks the weakening of Mughal rule and their control is whittled down until they control only a few regions around Delhi. This chaos in India creates an opportune moment for the British to take over India and establish its rule. Nehru makes a distinction between Mughal rule and British rule. Mughal rule was different from British rule because Muslim invaders settled down in India and Indianized their customs. They did not rule to enrich some other country and India’s wealth was not plundered to enrich another land.
The advent of British in India was a humiliating experience for India. They occupied India by force and there was a distinct difference between the white Europeans and the Indians. This reflected in British policy and behaviour. This forced Indians to introspect and ask themselves how they found themselves in this position. This threw up many Indian thinkers.
One of the few good things the British did was that they formalised the education system. Many of the Congress leaders would study in Britain and this sharpened their critical thinking. A large part of this book is dedicated to the effect of Mahatma Gandhi on Indian thought and freedom struggle. He energised the freedom movement and gave Indian frustration a vision for the future. People followed him for his principles and his ability to connect with them. He never supported the violent acts committed during the civil disobedience movements. He always believed in non-violence and was unwilling to use unethical means to achieve a just result. These unwavering ethics made him an example for people to follow.
The book also details how the British economically exploited India. It talks about the racial discrimination that the British practiced and how Europeans were always given more value than Indians. This discrimination takes more barbaric undertones in Nazi Germany. The irony of World War 2 is that British fought these fascist forces to perpetuate its own imperial empire that was built upon racism and English superiority. There was Military rule in India that had no accountability to the Indian people. In some tragic sense the Europeans dug themselves into this hole by believing in their racial superiority over other people. Nazi Germany just took this up a level and started the barbaric genocide of the Jewish population.
Another area the British had a deep impact on India was in unravelling her long history. The book details how the British researched and unearthed Indian history and events. They attempted to create an accurate picture of historical events and built a timeline of history. They excavated the ruins of Mohenjo Daro and Indus valley. This work gave Indians a much more complete view of their history. It also impressed upon the British about the rich heritage of India and many British scholars are quoted in the book about the deep impressions left on them by Indian history and literature.
Nehru displays a deep sympathy with The Chinese during these colonial years. He writes about how the Chinese too had been humiliated through the Opium wars and then by the war with Japan. He sees many parallels between India and China; two historically rich societies which stagnated and were subsequently subjugated by Imperial forces. Due to this similar history and culture it seems as though Nehru believed that India and China were destined to be friends. In many chapters across the length of Indian history he writes about the parallel events in China. This sympathy towards China may have clouded his subsequent strategic judgement towards India’s neighbour.
Similarly he also seems to be impressed by the progress of Soviet Union. He was also impressed by American innovation but it seems as though he found the Soviet system more impressive. While he still believed in individual rights and freedom of expression he believed the socialist economic practices would be more beneficial to the common man than a capitalist system. He writes a lot about a planned economy and about the need to limit profits.
Many more questions are discussed in ‘The Discovery of India’. Nehru talks about the various groups in the colonial period like ‘The Muslim League’, the Hindu Nationalist groups, the corporate groups like the Tatas and various modern Indian personalities. I particularly enjoyed reading the holistic view Jawaharlal Nehru built about Indian history until the British period. He gives history a direction and illustrates how Indian society progressed. Even when it started to stagnate it created art and threw up new thinkers. The book creates a dynamic image of India which kept progressing through the ages and assimilating various cultures which created the rich society we have today.