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Thoughts on 'Glimpses of World History by Nehru' - Part 2

Observations of Nehru's writings: all the way from the coming of the Arabs to Lord Clive and the fall of Bengal
Thoughts on 'Glimpses of World History by Nehru' - Part 2

As I continue my observations of Nehru's writings, I've come to realise that Nehru makes for a biased, yet great guide of history. In the previous part, I covered his letters up to the coming of the Arabs; now as I go further, I hope my observations of this man continue to reveal more and more of the subtle and powerful mind within.

Day 5

Nehru talks about a transition period in his letters. The brief, but glorious civilisation of the Arabs shone but for a moment before it too became stale. It is unfortunate, Nehru reflected, that Islam came to India nearly 400 years after its founding: it seemed to have lost a certain vitality and animation of spirit, for that was precisely the medicine India required. Northern India's introduction to Islam was through the sword of the Turkman, not the smile of the Arab. That, according to Nehru, has coloured interactions between Hindus and Muslims from day one.

However, before I delve into his thoughts on India, I must say that these forty pages have been mostly about the West. There's been little discussion of Japan (apart from the mentioning of the Fujiwara clan and their dominance over the Emperor), Korea or even China. The Southern Sung, the fall of the Tang and the kingdom of Korea are mentioned briefly; but that is in review, not in any new explanations. He focusses on covering the Emirate of Cordoba, the Holy Roman Empire, the sweeping reforms of Gregory VII[1], the Crusades and the fracturing of the Kingdom of Islam, the coming of the Normans, the spread of religion and Christian intolerance, and finally, a little of the spark of vitality growing in Western Europe.

Nehru's remark in one of his older letters about Europe having a clean break with its past, unlike India and China, which lent itself to a reimagining and rebirth of sorts, comes out in full force here. One of my complaints against Nehru was that he seems to have idealised India and China. His insistence on the relative barbarity of the West compared to the East seems to be the work of Nehru the Freedom Fighter, not Nehru the Thinker. In this batch of letters, however, we see Nehru the Thinker come out in full force and admit that while the books of government by ancient Indian and Chinese authors do talk about respecting the will of the people, it is hardly fair to say that the kings of that time followed those rules rigidly.

Nehru the Thinker also talks about the nature of civilisational growth. In India, he says, while the coming of Mahmud from Ghazni might have caused Indian society to erect barriers around its sacred structures, it was a process going on for quite some time. Indian society had begun losing its vital spark for a while now. This loss resulted in a veneration of the old and an almost religious reverence of it. Very few new things were coming out of India, says Nehru. We were stuck in the past: this is seen in the art and architecture of the time, which became grotesque.[2]

In contrast, we see new vitality in Europe. The power of the English Kings was humbled by the signing of the Magna Carta, the Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire became a figurehead. There were clashes between him and the Pope, from which the Pope would often emerge victorious. However, after the crusades failed, faith began to be replaced with reason and the scientific method. A new Gothic architecture began to be seen at around this time: first in the building of cathedrals and churches, and then in the building of city halls and other secular buildings as well. The Gothic architecture, says Nehru, is a sign of the times. It showed that Europe was beginning to look ahead and make new things. It wasn't stuck in the past, the way India and China were.

But in particular, Nehru points to the rise of the bourgeoisie and their concentration in cities. These were the free cities of Europe, not the older, imperial cities. Their claim to greatness was the strength of their merchant class, one which became strong enough to topple kings later. Their rise and the rise of great cities in Europe points towards progress, according to Nehru, and with that, perhaps, their inevitable conquest of Asia.

Day 6

Nehru goes through the history of the Mongols, and proclaims admiration towards the Great Khan! Out of all the things I'd been expecting, this one was at the bottom of my list. Nehru himself remarks upon the fact that he, Nehru, a man of peace and culture, admires an illiterate nomad from Central Asia!

More than that, however, he gets into territory much more familiar to me. The Mongol Empire, the caravans of Asia careening through a Silk Road under pax Mongolia, the stretching out of the Spanish hand to cover the Americas and the beginning of the Age of Discovery. He talks about the hubris of the Church and the inquisition, the War of Roses and Jeanne d'Arc, the formation of Switzerland and the fall of Constantinople, and the coming of the Renaissance and the rise of curiosity.

He talks about India as well. He talks about the coming of Mahmud from Ghazni and the Delhi Sultanate and goes on to describe the coming of Islam to India. He is careful, one must understand, to separate religion from cruelty. At no point does Nehru say that Islam is a cruel religion or that it was within the nature of those who follow Islam to be cruel. Far from it. He does, however, make it out that those from Central Asia and Afghanistan are a hard people. That was true before Islam, Nehru says, and it remained true after Islam. There should be no confusion about their Islamisation being the cause of their hard natures.[3]

However, more significantly, he talks about ascendent cultures and decaying ones. The influx of new ideas from Islam seems to have revived India: we see new art, new architecture and a fresh impetus for growth. We also see the decline of faith in Europe: from a near fanatical obsession with authority and religion we see the emergence of a more questioning, less satisfied people. The church tries to dampen their spirit, but the Renaissance cannot be denied. New styles of art, sculpture and architecture rise and thus begins the Age of Discovery, when Europeans go on in their rickety ships to discover the Americas and chart unknown seas. A new influx of gold and silver comes in to pay for Asian luxuries, which causes Europe to try and acquire more of them. The rise of the bourgeoise happens in parallel to the rise of the Sea Trade.

There isn't much to say here. Nehru is harsher towards both India and China than he was previously. He's more equitable in his praise and critique. He doesn't praise the Tuglaq Sultans as model humans, nor does he proclaim the Mongols bloodthirsty savages. He accepts the flowering of European thought and art with good cheer and condemns the Inquisition as perhaps the worst sin ever committed upon humans.[4]

There is a certain acceptance in his writings, though. He doesn't seek to question the reasons behind certain events. For example, while he acknowledges that the sack of Constantinople was an immediate cause of the Renaissance, he also mentions that Europeans had been studying works from the time of the Greeks for quite a while. These statements, while not contradictory, do make me think that Nehru perhaps did not think too deeply about the whys and wherefores of history. Why did the Renaissance flower then, and not before, had these texts been available to the Europeans for centuries?[5] Counter-examples exist, to this of course. He does talk about the conversion of Hindus to Islam for two reasons: increasing social standing and to avoid taxation.[6] Even so, however, the question of the non-Islamization of India remain unaddressed. It would have been nice to know Nehru's thoughts on why Islam was unable to absorb India.

I admit, though, the previous paragraph was a critique with very modern origins. I don't think history was a very scientific study in those days: certain truths were taken as granted, and events which had happened had happened. The currents of history happened to change at that particular time, and thus a particular event happened. Nehru's take on history, while not as detailed as ours, remains, nonetheless, a masterful take on a complex topic.

Day 7

"Ultimately empires rest not so much on their strength as on the servility of the people over whom they dominate." As I read these concluding words of letter 82, I have to incline my head towards Pt. Jawaharlal. Well said, sir. Nehru talks of another turning of the world[7] with the rise of Europe over Asia. This session began with Nehru remarking on how amazing it is that the order of the world was going to be reversed in the coming years. Till the period he's already covered, Alexander and Rome have been the only European powers to gain any sort of foothold in Asia: and Rome's was but a small one. On the other hand, the nomads of Central Asia have always been a force of change and chaos, establishing empires from the time of Attila and beyond. And that's about to change.

Before I go forward, though, I must point out that I think Nehru is being over-generous to the Central Asians. As Prof. John Darwin points out, it is true that Central Asians were a fierce lot and famed for their empire-building. However, they have had a smaller impact on Europe than Nehru wishes one to believe. The Mongols definitely came up to Hungary and threatened all of Europe before Subutai was forced to withdraw, but that was about it. The Ottoman Turks occupied just as much of Europe as Rome occupied Asia, and while the Huns were a notable exception to most Central Asian conquerors and actually settled down in what is called Hungary now, that's where the line is. Europe has almost never been Central Asia's playground. Central Asia had enough territory to be playing around in without going into tiny Europe.

Nehru talks about Timur-i-lang at length. Timur was a great conqueror and a very able general, but he was as close to a barbarian as it gets. He wallowed in wanton destruction, Nehru says, and unlike his ancestors, the Mongols of Genghis, he had little to do with empire or state building. He came and went, leaving behind a trail of desolation. That bit of desolation included Delhi, which was struggling after the death of Feroz Shah Tuglaq and had no means to withstand the great conqueror.

Nehru goes on to describe the battles of Indo-China and the great states of Sri Vijaya, Malacca and Cambodia. The various empires and their fights are described, as is their relationship with China. It is irksome, however, to see the deference Nehru pays to China at this point. The description of China as the "big brother" to whom one may send gifts (tributes) is grating and a little too idealistic for someone of Nehru's intellect. While the Ming were great rulers and a great Empire, they were not the ideal beings Nehru seems to see them as.

Nehru also talks about the beginning of the Age of Discovery. While he had talked about it previously, he talks about the coming of the Portuguese to the East and their domination of the spice trade for nearly a century, before the Dutch burghers and English ships chased them off their islands. He speaks about the relationship between China, Korea and Japan at this point and how Japan reacted unfavourably towards foreign traders.

However, while the churn of history is interesting, Nehru's asides on the rise and fall of States are much more illuminating. Nehru says that the state which stops being dynamic stops progressing. While the arts and crafts flourished in India (indeed, the state of Vijayanagar is praised mightily in his letters), there are no reports of there being any kind of political awakening in either India or China. While peasants revolted in Europe and events like the Protestant Reformation occurred, nothing similar really took off in India. Europe took the printing press and used it to its fullest extent, but Indians remained satisfied with their lot. Indian history, says Nehru, is dotted with the comings and goings of kings.

An apt comment. We do not really see anything similar to the Magna Carta, much less the French Revolution when it comes to India. Prof. John Darwin had an interesting thing to say about the state of progress in China: it had reached a local maximum. China required proper administration of both the Yellow River and the Yang-tse, which required a centralised polity. This meant China needed to be a single political unit to function at maximum efficiency. With its grand canals and waterways, China was as efficient a political unit as it could be at this point. The introduction of new ideas would cause this state to change, and China would need to dip before going back up again.

But really, Nehru's comment about Indians lacking any kind of political awakening and just being satisfied with whatever is happening makes me think about India. Cultures do not form in isolation: what about India, then, causes us to become and remain Dharmic, and accept our lot in life so easily?

Day 8

On Fatehpur Sikri, Nehru says, "It is a deserted city and there is no life in it; but through its streets and across its wide courts the ghosts of a dead empire still seem to pass." More than Nehru's telling if history, more than his analytical ability, I find these slight poetic musings very pleasing. They have a certain charm of a well-read and well-learned person.

He talks about Europe in this reading. Most of it focusses on the battles between kings and nobles, and the ascension of religions. A fair bit of it, though, focusses on the men of the renaissance, on Michelangelo and Leonardo, and for a while, a disapproving glare falls on Machiavelli. Nehru compares the princes of Europe unfavourably to those of India and China. The barbarity of Europe, again, seems in contrast to the civility of China and India. Yet, he says, the art of the period was courtly art in Hindustan, and Europe seems to have gone beyond merely courtly art. He talks about the flowering of the sciences in Europe and the reach of the printing press, plainly putting it out that India did not have that same drive towards scientific thinking and engineering which Europe seemed to.

Indeed, he says, the people of Hindustan seemed to have lost their grasp on the glories of the past; they merely look at them with longing and envy. The old Aryan values of self-rule and independence seem to have been lost, and Akbar was an autocratic monarch in every sense. The people of this time have become servile and accustomed to any ruler. The rise of the bourgeoise in Europe seems to have no parallel in India. There was no formation of a parliament, no civil wars between nobles and kings, no popular assemblies at all. All there seems to be, as Nehru says, is stagnation and a sense of inevitable resignation about events.[8] A certain weariness characterised the Hindustan of this time, and Babur's memoirs point towards this very strongly. What happened, one thinks, of the Indians of the time of Fa Hien and Huen Tsang? Did Alberuni and Ibn Batutah come across a country from another dimension?

He is much more descriptive, however, about the events of England and the Netherlands. The formation of the Dutch Republic is examined in great detail, as is the coming of Oliver Cromwell. However, what Nehru is adamant about is that the revolutions which beheaded kings and toppled nobles were not popular, but bourgeoise. The revolutions were those of the merchants and traders, and not of peasants. Those were yet to come, in his opinion. Even religious fights were caused due to the wants and abilities of this class: Calvinism seems to have interpreted the economics of the merchants favourably, hence they supported it, for example.

The common thread in Western Europe is this class getting stronger and stronger. The countries which allowed this class to get stronger were the ones who went on to become the great powers of Nehru's time.

Day 9

The decline and fall of the Mughal Empire forms the greater bulk of Nehru's writings in these forty pages. The period of Akbar, says Nehru, was the rule of an enlightened despot. Akbar sought to create a sustainable empire, but he did so not for the sake of the people of Hindustan, no. He did so for the sake of his dynasty and the Mughal nobility. Akbar was a great man, and so his empire lasted for over a hundred years despite the frivolous rule of Jahangir and Shah Jahan. Aurangzeb too, was a strong ruler, but he was hardly the enlightened despot Akbar was. His rule saw the destruction of the very pillar of Akbar's empire: tolerance. The Mughal Empire reached its furthest extent of power in terms of area, but the empire was fracturing due to the internal stresses the emperor had exerted. A couple of decades after Aurangzeb saw the empire beset on all sides and various factions proclaiming independence.

As Nehru acknowledges, most empires fall because of the iron laws of economics. The Mughals were no exception. The building of the Taj Mahal does not excuse Shah Jahan for ignoring the plight of his drought-stricken subjects. And nothing can excuse Aurangzeb's policies of derision towards Hindus. It lead, Nehru says, to the kind of religious nationalism among Hindus which he sees in his time. A kind of pride in being of a Hindu nation. It was exemplified by the Marathas and the Punjabis.

Of course, he talks about the genius of Lord Clive and his capture of Bengal. Nehru is no admirer of Clive, but he says that he did what was necessary for empire-building. Empires are built using blood and iron[9], and the English used plenty of that. While the methods used by Clive and his successors led to official censure by the English parliament, Nehru says that they ultimately admired these methods and used them again and again.

Nehru talks at length about the Manchus of China, the conditions in Europe and to an extent, those prevailing in Europe. He seems to be an admirer of the American, French and Industrial Revolutions in equal measure.

I'm not sure what more I can gain about him at this stage. Nehru's thoughts about the events he describes are clear enough: he condemns any kind of aggression and, to an extent, laments the servility of his countrymen. Indians, according to Nehru, have become docile and servile: a far cry from their ancient Aryan sympathies towards freedom and self-rule.[10] Thus we see the difference between the time of Ashoka the Great and Akbar the Great. While the same epithet is used for both, the plight of their subjects, according to Nehru, was very different. Ashoka's subjects were prideful and political: the village councils held great power and could check the king wherever they wanted. Akbar, on the other hand, ruled as a total despot over a docile and servile people.


  1. My first hearing of this name was in the book "The making of the Middle Ages" by Dr. Robert Southern. It is a great book if one wishes to delve deeper into the intricacies of this period. Had Nehru read it before writing his letters, I bet his views would have been much evolved. Alas, the book's time hadn't arrived: it was to be published in 1955. ↩︎

  2. His words, not mine. ↩︎

  3. As an aside, I must mention that the RSS seems to have taken this philosophy and utterly binned it. I could, perhaps see them being a nationalist organisation, but a militant Hindu organisation does nobody any good. ↩︎

  4. One wonders whether Nehru would have made this statement had Nazi crimes been committed by then. ↩︎

  5. Another notable example is his view on the "everlasting law" (the example he gave was the Everlasting Law of the Mongols, which did not really survive in full beyond Genghis) which, he says, nearly every great ruler has tried to frame. None have truly lasted. Yet, it must be said, the Common Law system was staring at him in the eye. He was a trained lawyer by profession, after all. ↩︎

  6. I imagine, though, that the taxation rate was either bearable, or that it wasn't properly levied. After all, why would someone not convert to escape a crushing economic burden? Hinduism, as Nehru himself points out, is (was?) quite an open-minded religion. ↩︎

  7. Figuratively, of course. The world literally turns on its axis once a day. ↩︎

  8. This is not what Nehru actually said: I'm extrapolating from his words. ↩︎

  9. Not Nehru's words, of course, I'm quoting the famous chancellor of Imperial Prussia, Bismarck. ↩︎

  10. I'm quite sure the RSS would be in total agreement with Nehru here. They would, furthermore, blame Islam for this rot. There is something to be said about Nehru doing the same, but the manners in which they go about it are very different. ↩︎