I read Jawaharlal Nehru’s Discovery of India for the first time, when I had just joined college. Since then, I must have re-read it at least half a dozen times, the latest being in October when I was preparing for recording a conversation with Shyam Benegal for Kitab — my weekly show on Rajya Sabha TV. This time, the reading acquired added poignancy given the current environment characterised by vulgar, in fact hostile rejection of intellectual vocation; and political scene populated by “leaders” who proudly display their ignorance of Indian history and culture while aggressively professing great love and reverence for “Bharat Mata“. Naturally, some of this environment reflected in the recording also, when nonchalantly admitting their ignorance of the text, some of the audience condemned it nonetheless. After all, “why should anybody bother to read such a thick and obviously dated book?”
The question was blunt enough and the answer can be similarly straight: “Going through this book will help you in knowing that leaders of our freedom movement were struggling not merely for political freedom, but for regaining the soul of India and for creating a just and compassionate society.”
The idea of India — a nation self-confident enough to look at itself critically, not suffering from self-pity of present or delusions of the past, committed to a just and inclusive growth-pattern, conscious of its historical role — was not Nehru’s alone. It was shared by all forward looking leaders and thinkers of his generation — their disagreements (sometimes quite acrimonious) notwithstanding. In fact, People like BR Ambedkar and Bhagat Singh were critical of the Congress party, precisely because they thought that it was not doing enough to realise the shared vision of an egalitarian and just society.
The slogan desiring the ‘Jai’ or victory of Bharat Mata was popularised during the freedom struggle. Nehru recalls that he used to ask his audiences the “meaning of the expression Bharat Mata“, and proceeds to decode the slogan. He writes, “…what counted ultimately were the people of India, people like them and me. who were spread all over this vast land. Bharat Mata — Mother India was essentially these millions of people, and victory to her meant victory to these people” (page 53).
There can be no “people” without shared memories, dreams and aspirations. And, “A nation like an individual has many personalities, many approaches to life. If there is sufficiently strong bond between these different personalities, it is well; otherwise those personalities split up and lead to disintegration and trouble” (page 562). To Nehru, “discovery” of India meant discovering the matrix of “strong bond” holding the personalty of India together and to identify the potential threats as well. It was a search of destiny, as given its human, material and cultural resources “India can only be in the frontline in the comity of nations; it is her destiny”.
Written in Ahmednagar Fort prison during April-September 1944, the “discovery” begins with reflections on national and international political situation of the time. In these, reflections are interwoven with the memories of his wife Kamla Nehru who after a prolonged illness, passed away in February, 1936. Nehru’s reflections on this admittedly less than perfect relationship reach to the fundamental “problem of human relationship” which is “often ignored in our fierce arguments about politics and economics”, he reminds his reader, “it was not so ignored in the old and wise civilisations of India and China” (page 34).
This book is an attempt to trace the evolution, nature and problems of the “wise civilisation of India”. Starting from reflections on contemporary political scene, the book turns into a poignant re-telling of the evolution of Indian society, its culture and economy. Nehru notes the remarkable continuity of Indian culture and its material context from Indus Valley Civilisation to his own time, and also the “break” in its natural growth caused by the British colonialism. Delving into the heritage of literature, art, science and philosophy, he underlines the crucial fact that one can not imagine Indian civilisation without diversity and dialogue amongst various viewpoints. He underlines the importance of scientific temper and method for understanding the mysteries of nature, but is clear about its limitations as well — science can hardly tell us anything about the purpose of life, hence there must be moral basis and ethical dimension to the life of individual, community and nation. To him, one of Gandhiji’s greatest contributions was his “stress on right means” (page 16), ie, the ethical idea of the purpose of life.
Quite contrary to popular ignorance, Nehru did not dismiss religion summarily. He was, of course motivated by the desire to see a “culture less based on religion, and more on morality and ethics” (page 577). As a matter of fact, by making ethics more important than dogma and belief as a principle of social organisation, Nehru is speaking here in a quintessentially Indian way. He did not fancy himself as a crusader against religion, because, “…religion had supplied some deeply felt inner human needs of human nature” (page 13). As for himself, he felt attracted “towards the advaita philosophy of Vedanta” and felt at home “in the old Indian or Greek pagan and pantheistic atmosphere, but minus the conception of God or Gods that was attached to it” (page 16).
In Nehru’s own words, this book is an attempt to “travel into the past and peep into the future”. He borrows TS Elliot’s words to describe his venture as an attempt to “balance myself on that point of intersection of the timeless and time” (page 627). This book, so directly concerned with the events of that time has a timeless quality, because such a balance on the “point of intersection of the timeless and time” is always needed in the lives of individuals and nations. More so, these days, when we seem to be living under the illusions regarding past and confusions regarding future, coupled with a disastrous lack of a higher ethical vision.
(All page numbers are Discovery of India, Penguin edition, New Delhi, 2010)