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Thoughts on 'Glimpses of World History by Nehru' - Part 1

Nehru became India's first prime minister: a position he held with distinction until his death. His thoughts and actions have shaped the nation more than any other's since.
Thoughts on 'Glimpses of World History by Nehru' - Part 1

It is no exaggeration to say that Jawaharlal Nehru was, by any definition of the word, a great statesman. A prominent figure in the Indian freedom movement, Nehru went on to become India's first prime minister: a position he held with distinction until his death in 1964. Beloved by the masses, held in regard by elites, his thoughts and actions have shaped the nation more than any other's since. It makes sense, then, to see what made this great man tick.

But short of using an ouija board and talking to his spirit, the only way to truly understand would be by reading his books. Two of them, Discovery of India and Glimpses of World History are collections of letters he wrote to his young daughter, Indira Priyadarshini Gandhi, bound together as single volumes. The third is an autobiography. All of them offer great insights into his mind and thought processes. Here I delve into Glimpses, and try to make sense of whatever I find within. The idea was to do this in the month of January 2019, reading forty pages a day.[1] The impressions which follow are my thoughts immediately after having finished that day's portions.

Day 1

Reading Nehru is refreshing. It's difficult to overstate this feeling. He has a flowing hand which was adapted in this instance to explain the subtleties of history to his daughter, who was between 10 - 14 years of age when these letters were posted. One can easily just get lost in the words themselves and not take anything in, for his pace is both peaceful and measured.

Nehru himself writes in the foreword to this book that readers indulge him when it comes to the finer nuances of the history he talks about. Since he wrote from prison, he wrote mostly from memory and did, in his view, manage to get certain details wrong. Fair enough: the impressive bit is that he was able to recollect so much history in the first place. Interspersed within facts, however, are glimmers of his keen intelligence and Dharmic philosophy.

Nehru doesn't mince words. He calls out Alexander's barbarism and Darius's nobility with equal measure (though it is telling that he doesn't talk about Alexander's virtues or Darius's vices) and cautions against lionising the cult of violence around the former. That, however, is the sole anomaly among his almost universal praise of leaders by name. While he makes great show of not liking kings, he seems to admire a fair few. Indeed, the reason he seems to portray Alexander in a negative light is because of his famously capricious nature and fits of violence. His argument doesn't seem to be that one's object of admiration ought to be non-violent: more that one's object of admiration ought not to have obvious personality defects.[2]

However, this one bugbear aside, it's remarkable how well he remembered his history. There is some material a discerning scholar of history might sigh at as a simplistic view of the evolution of societies, but that doesn't seem to be very out of the norm for his era. There are small asides about Judea and the kingdoms of the Israelites which, while accurate, might raise the hackles of less progressive people. But excepting them, his admiration of and politeness towards societies not his own are exemplary. Nehru truly seems to embody the belief that there are endless philosophies in the world, all with something of worth to teach, and the sect which makes it a duty to respect others raises its own worth.[3] Truly the thoughts of a noble mind.

And finally, one of my greatest takeaways from this is Nehru's love of non-violence and his belief in both society and socialism. He was a true believer in both Gandhi and Lenin. His belief of "united we stand, divided we fall" is a core belief of every society, and on the flip side of that coin, his faith in the fruits of the Russian Revolution seem quaint today.[4] Nehru's faith in his countrymen and his obvious joy in seeing them stand on their own feet for a cause they all believe in is humbling. To read from a freedom fighter the pride of learning about another's awakening and subsequent embrace of the movement, one is reminded of Ashoka the Great's values: to gain victory over one's own self is the greatest victory of all.

Day 2

Nehru goes into the history of Rome, having explained 2000 years of Chinese history previously, making sure that his daughter isn't overwhelmed by the grand stature of Rome in the minds of the Europeans of the day. He stresses on the point that the Romans weren't the rulers of the world, and the epithet of "Mistress of the World" oft attached to Rome is a misleading one. There were great empires and greater cultures in the world the Romans had no control over. He talks about Christianity, Judaism, the Sassanids, the prodigious outpouring of conquerors from Central Asia and the remnants of the Greeks. But more importantly, he talks about the goings on in India at the time. He goes into detail about the reigns of those who succeeded Ashoka and the reverence on the part of the Central Asians towards India, which had provided them both religion and culture. He explains the rise of Buddhism, its affect on Brahmanism, the subsequent triumph of the latter over the former in India (but nowhere else, it must be understood), and the colonisation of South East Asia by Indian peoples. I ended today's reading just before the discussion on the Huns started.

Nehru's ardent nationalism shines through his writings at this point. It is quite easy to understand that he is proud of the culture which birthed him.[5] It would also be unjust to judge him through the prism of modernity, whence nationalism is a dirty word and the worth of cultures is looked at with a lot more objectivity and less relativism than it was in his day. While I did hesitate at some of what he writes about there being peoples more cultured than Romans in China (for Nehru does not adhere to our post-modernist judgement of cultural non-relativism), I give him leeway. He remains extremely respectful by the standards of the time.

One thing which Nehru seems to have stressed and seen everywhere is class conflict. Inequality bothered him a lot. His views about the same among Romans and the cruelty of Roman slavery are very pointed: he unequivocally refers to it as a bad thing and sees it as a proximate cause of the downfall of the Empire. Concern for his fellow man flows liberally through his writings.

At the same time, he stresses the egalitarianism of Indian society at the time. Citizen assemblies being assembled to check the powers of rulers, the rise of Buddhist Monasteries, the famous Hindu tolerance - his views on ancient India are very positive. Is it imaginable for Nehru, an ardent freedom fighter, to do anything but lionise the distant past[6] and look back at it with rose-tinted glasses? A very understandable fault, but for someone who stressed looking at the other, darker side of things, he seems to not have applied it to his own country. He makes no mention of the failure of Indian Empires to endure, as Chinese Empires did, nor does he have paid much attention to it at this stage. I do hope that his thoughts veer in that direction at some point.

Days 3 & 4

Note: I fell asleep after having finished Day 3's reading, and as such have combined my thoughts on days 3 and 4. At this stage, I don't feel there to be any meaningful difference between my inferences from these parts of the book: the only difference seems to be the personalities and empires which colour in the outlines of history in different pages.

Nehru's own biases rear their head his writings. Not to say that it's unnatural, one is bound to impart some of his biases to his children. Nevertheless, it is important to remark that this part of his letters seems to be extremely strongly influenced by them. A good portion of these eighty pages was Indian history, not something Nehru could have been objective about. He talks about the end of the Guptas, the Hunnic invasion of India, the greatness of Harsha, the Southern Empires of the Cholas, the Pallavas and their stretching out to influence South East Asia. He also talks about the Tang and the Sung dynasties in China and the birth of Korea and Japan as kingdoms. He mentions the rise of Islam, the fall of Rome, the rise of Constantinople, the events of these times all the way to 1066, when William the Bastard became William the Conqueror.

Without going into details about the exact events Nehru talked about, one can see, again, his contrast of the chaos and relative barbarism of the West with the relative culture, order and harmony in India. His idealised vision of India as a bunch of village panchayats which happened to be part of kingdoms snap forth repeatedly, and he repeats the fact that kingship in India was not the same as royalty in the West. Indian kings had to respect popular assemblies and the wishes of the people. Or rather, not that they had to, but they definitely did so. This was in contrast to the West, which had slavery, internecine struggles between Christian sects, a violent society, and relatively little development. [7]

Nehru's admiration of the Chinese people is also plainly visible. One can say that his entire approach of "Hindi-chini bhai bhai"stems from a genuine regard for the accomplishments of the Chinese people. His thoughts on their sophistication, their culture, and their history speak to nothing less than a consideration of the Chinese brothers and sisters.[8]

His views on the Arabs are also very positive. The simmering tensions between Hindus and Muslims in India at the time must have dominated his thoughts, for he talks about how, prior to the Ghazni invasions, Arabs and Hindus had shared many peaceful, fruitful contacts. He talks about the golden age of the Arabs and the beauty of Baghdad, the militaristic nature of their people and their many conquests. His pinpointing of the great change in Hinduism towards being rigid and uncompromising[9] towards the Muslim invasions bears further scrutiny, and I would like to read up more if and when I get the chance.

  1. Except the first, when I did not read anything, and the second, when I covered up for the first day. ↩︎

  2. One wonders what he truly thought of Chandragupta Maurya. He seems to lionise him in his writings. Surely he could not have believed that the man was blameless in the deaths of hundreds as he went about conquering India? ↩︎

  3. Has no one taught the RSS this? ↩︎

  4. Yet, as I must keep reminding myself, the latter was normal for many intellectuals in his day and age. ↩︎

  5. Not unjustified, of course ;) ↩︎

  6. Disclaimer: This view on Nehru's thoughts is entirely mine. I am unsure if any Nehruvian scholar would agree with me on this or not. ↩︎

  7. One is reminded of Gandhi's response to the question of his thoughts on Western Civilization, "I think it's a great idea." ↩︎

  8. That the end of his life saw Chinese aggression is sadly ironic. ↩︎

  9. As is the nature of all old faiths, as Nehru reminds us ↩︎