The reflective ideas of Nehru on history
by C I Issac on 27 May 2010 8 Comments

Jawaharlal Nehru, the first prime-minister of India, visualised his socio-political and economic insights for a future India by imbibing lessons from history. He was not a professional historian in the strict sense of the term, but he had a good sense of history and was reflective in the bulk of his literary creations and letters, including his memoirs [Autobiography]. Thus his literature unequivocally substantiates that he was not a professional historian in the modern sense of the term.


However, his vision was closely amalgamated with the annals of history - both national and international. He found enough room inspiration from the lessons of history. He dreamed of a socialist India, different from his contemporary socialistic archetypes. That is why he suggested a mixed economy; an Indian socialistic alternative. Notwithstanding its success or failure, the lessons from the past that he acquired through study of the history of political economy since the French Revolution, considerably influenced his new paradigm. He had confidence in the Indian mindset portrayed through our itihasa-purana tradition [1].


It is generally held that one reason for Hitler’s failure was his ignorance or reluctance to learn from history. The Indian mind is amazingly analytical and has a taste for putting ideas and concepts realistically. To Indians, democracy and secularism are not western ideas but part and parcel of their age-old tradition, which the rest of the world calls mythology. From time immemorial, from tribals to aristocracy, all appropriately responded to threats of external and internal anti-dharmic forces. A.L. Basham underlines this particular Indian response; “...we have ample evidence to show that great empires rose and fell in India, and that, as in religion, art, literature and social life, so in political organization India produced her own system, distinctive in its strength and weakness” [2].


The ancient Indians maintained a well-argued historical and chronological tradition – the itihasa-purana mode. The incorporation of this age-old Indian tradition and its time-scale [yugas & manvantharas] method into the category of mythology is an exercise of Euro-centric reductionism of the Indian past. This historical tradition was not identifiable to those familiar with Greek historical writing [3]. The advocates of Abrahamic-reductive-mythological time-scale, which fixes the age of the origin of humanity at 4000 BCE, could not fathom Hindu time calculations. To them, Abrahamic traditions and canons are unique historical events. Nehru was a subject of this Euro-centric notion [4]. But our itihasa-purana is an orally transmitted pattern of history. So, for the effective transfer of the bare facts of history from generation to generation, it is an essential condition to coat facts with sugar. Thus history to Indians [Hindus] is not only a meagre narration of bare events in a chronological order but:

“Dharmartha kama mokshanam upadesha samnnvitham

Poorva vritham katha youktham Itihasam prachkshathe”


Above all, to the Indians, history has a purpose to serve, evolutionary but progressive in character, which targetted material and spiritual enrichment of society. Distinguished astronomer and writer Prof. Carl Sagan of Cornell University, USA, opines: “… the calculations of the age of the universe based on this cosmology works out to be fairly close to our current scientific estimates – and [Hinduism] is the only ancient religious tradition on the Earth which talks about the right time-scale” [5].


Even though Nehru believed Euro-centric notions of historiography, he was a proud Indian. He was well aware of the glorious days of India and always tried to imbibe pride and self-esteem from the itihasa-purana tradition. “We shall learn also of the great days of India when Ramayana and Mahabharata were written and India was a rich and powerful country” [6].


G.P. Singh observes “the two epics, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, include almost all the elements of historical tradition” [7]. But Nehru was not free from the general Indian intellectual timidity and believed: that ancient Indians lacked historical sense and historical writings; that pre-Mohammedan India did not produce historians like Herodotus, Thucydides, Livy, Tacitus, etc. Thus he laments: “Unlike Greeks, and unlike the Chinese and Arabs, Indians in the past were not historians. This was very unfortunate and it has made it difficult for us now to fix dates or make up an accurate chronology. Events run into each other, overlap and produce an enormous confusion. …” [8].


He ignored the universal fact that hitherto all accredited works in history are tailor-made [9] to fit the occasion or the interest. He totally bypassed our rich antiquity contained in itihasa-purana. He tried similarly to fix the date of our scientific tradition of history by mimicking Euro-centric reductionism, and thus sees the only real early book on history as Kalhana’s Rajatarangini, a history of Kashmir written in the 12th century CE, considered by many as history with proper traits. “For the rest we have to go to the imagined history of the epics and other books, to some contemporary records, to inscriptions, to artistic and architectural remains, coins and to the large body of Sanskrit literature, for occasional hints” [10]. It is a paradox that critics of itihasa-purana mode are enthusiastic to praise Kalhana, ignoring the fact that he had given due consideration to ancient texts [purana] as source materials for the composition of his masterpiece, Rajatarangini [11].


The historiographical transactions of ancient India almost to the end of the Gupta period were broadly based on itihasa-purana tradition. It thus contained myth, genealogy and historical narrative. “From the time of Vyasa to Kalhana various traditions of historiography, including the Vedic, Epic, Puranic, Buddhist and Jain, flourished one after another” [12]. It never infringed the integrity and persistence of the nation. Nehru identified and recognized this fact: “This lack of historical sense did not affect the masses, for like elsewhere and more so than elsewhere, they built up their view of the past from the traditional accounts and myth and story that were handed to them from generation to generation. This imagined history and mixture of fact and legend became widely known and gave to the people a strong and abiding cultural background” [13].


Nehru observes that the disregard of history had a criminal consequence that still chases the nation. The absence of proper understanding of history “produced a vagueness of outlook, a divorce from life as it is, a credulity, a woolliness of the mind where fact was concerned” [14]. Fact is the core of history; Indians from the very beginning of this civilization preserved it sacredly. That is why “the dawn of history is heralded in India by the hymns sung by the Rishis and enshrined in the Rig-Veda Samhita” [15]. According to Nehru the Indian mind was vague and indefinite in the dominion of the knowledge system - history. But in other areas they excelled and outperformed the rest of the world. In the “… realms of philosophy; it was analytic and synthetic, often very critical, sometimes skeptical. But where fact was concerned, it was uncritical, because perhaps it did not attach much importance to fact as such”16.


While skeptical of our way of preserving the past, Nehru was aware of the source and continuity of Indian nationalism. He recognized the vital role Hindu culture, institutions, philosophers and religion that played to sustain the spirit of nationalism through ages. He accepted Indian nationalism as Hindu nationalism [17. He highlights the role of Vivekananda as enough to substantiate the importance of sages in the Indian renaissance [18]. He accepts that Indian spiritualism is different from that of the West, and that Indian spiritualism and science are inseparable. “Fifty years ago, Vivekananda regarded modern science as a manifestation of the real religious spirit, for it sought to understand truth by sincere effort” [19]. Nehru arrived at this conclusion by accepting Albert Einstein’s testimony [20]. He  accepts the absence of the western model of history never crippled the Indians onward movement. “Liberty of thought and action is the only condition in life, of growth and well-being. Where it does not exist, the man, the race, the nation must go” [21].


This immense freedom guaranteed by the Hindu way of life is the undisclosed reality behind the success of democracy in independent India. “Swami Vivekananda always gave emphasis to the aspect of freedom which was reflected in Upanishads as the answer to the truth about universe” [22]. Above all he identified an exclusive Indian spiritual reality, the progressive movement of spiritualism along with time. On the other hand, it is notable that the religion and spirituality of the Semitic world still remain in one way or other, under the fetters of fundamentalism [23]. He was not reluctant to praise [24] Indian Vedanta and the longstanding Rishi hegemony in the long running process of nation building. Finally, Nehru expresses his faith in the Indian style of spirituality which spins around monism or Advaita philosophy of Vedanta. Nehru by accepting our un-infringed tradition confesses that Vedanta will be the future religion of thinking humanity [25]. Yet on several occasions he pretends to be pro-West and contemptuous of Hindu; this observation still remains as an enigma!


He identified the partiality of historiographers. “He [Herodotus] was, of course, partial to the Greeks, but his account is very interesting …” [26]. Nehru is too critical of the Indian lapse of failing to keep chronicles and praises the Greeks for their approach to chronological presentation of facts, for “drawing some moral and lesson from them for future behaviour” [27]. He passes judgment by not considering the merit [Dharmartha kama mokshanam upadesha samnnvitham] of the Indian approach of itihasa-purana: “the whole conception of history in ancient India was influenced by the speculative and ethical trends of philosophy and religion” [28].


While talking about history, Nehru fell on the horns of dilemma. He was too proud of the Indian past and its ascetic inheritance, patient enough to note the extraordinary ability of Indian sages to attach human business of life into the ashramas and purusharthas. He believed such methodical approach of putting ideas and concepts made Indian life a meaningful affair [29]. In this manner he courageously questioned the veracity of the dichotomous racial question of Aryan and non-Aryan fabricated by imperial interest [30]. But he still found fault with the Indian method of telling the past: “Nevertheless it is true that Indians are peculiarly liable to accept tradition and report as history, uncritically and without sufficient examination. They will have to rid themselves of this loose thinking and easy way of arriving at conclusions” [31].


Nehru was no historian, but the influence of our historical tradition reflected in his effort to design economic and political ideas. The practicability of the Indian experiment in democratic institutions was doubted by the West, but Nehru was confident about its success as he was well aware of Hindu [immense freedom of expression] tradition. Similarly he was an ardent socialist; hence he was not ready to imitate Marxian or Soviet paradigms. All these are sufficient to show how far Nehru was influenced by our itihasa-purana tradition. Thus he ushered in a new economic policy for India [32].


Even though Nehru was the product of Euro-centrism, he retained a soft corner for the Indian past and tailored it to fit the changing present. He was always in search of Indian tradition and knowledge systems for developing alternatives for Western systems. He was well aware of the drawbacks of our present textual history. “Even the British period is distorted with the object of glorifying British rule and British virtues. Very slowly a more correct perspective is developing. But we need not go to the past to find instances of the manipulation of history to suit particular ends and support one’s own fancies and prejudices. The present is full of this, and if the present, which we have ourselves seen and experienced, can be so distorted, what of the past?” [33].


He was well aware of the prejudice behind Indo-European historiography: real history in India begins with the advent of the Englishman and all texts before them are a mystic way a preparation… Above all, the colonial historiographic exercise brought before us an obscure and contemptuous account of what happened here in the millennia preceding the Raj [34]. Nehru was confident of the birth of a living history tradition with an Indo-centric approach in free India [35]. In ancient India there were historians and historiography. The traditional Indian understanding of its past differs from the Greco-Roman, but there was no poverty of historical knowledge and works in ancient India. It is true there some chronological questions remain a challenge in the itihasa-purana tradition, particularly of non Jain-Buddha tradition. The need of the hour is the formulation of an Indian paradigm.  


End notes

1] Itihasa-purana mode is the traditional Indian way of understanding history. Nehru observes: “…, but always there was the back-ground of Indian mythology which I had imbibed in my earliest years. … That influence is a good influence both culturally and ethically, and I would hate to destroy or throw away all the beauty and imaginative symbolism that these stories and allegories contain”. Jawaharlal Nehru, The Discovery of India, London, [New impression of the fourth edn] 1960, pp 89, 90

2] A. L. Basham, The Wonder That was India, New Delhi, 1995 [first pub. 1954], p 47.

3] “The Indian historical tradition – the itihasa-purana, as it is called – was in a form not easily recognizable to those familiar with Greek historical writing. … the inability of modern scholars to perceive and concede the awareness of change, so necessary to a sense of history, in the itihasa-purana, and this precluded them from seeing the historical basis of the tradition”. Romila Thapar, Interpreting Early India, Delhi, 1993, p 20.

4] “I do not think I ever attached very much importance to these stories as factually true, and I even criticized the magical and super-natural elements in them”, Jawaharlal Nehru, op cit, p 89.

5] Krishnan Ramaswamy, Antonio de Nicolas and Aditi Banerjee [Editors], Invading the Sacred, Chapter 16: Is there Prejudice in Hinduism Studies? By Sankrant Sanu, New Delhi, [second imp], 2007, pp 175, 176.

6] Jawaharlal Nehru, Letters From Father to His Daughter, [first edn. 1929] III [edn], Allahabad, p 6.

7] G. P. Singh, Ancient Indian Historiography, New Delhi, 2003, p 11.

8] Jawaharlal Nehru, Discovery of India, V [edn], 1948, Calcutta, p 75.

9] “… history is what the historian makes”. E. H. Carr, What is History? Harmondsworth, UK, 1977, p 26.

10] Jawaharlal Nehru, Discovery of India, V [edn], 1948, Calcutta, p 75.

11] G. P. Singh, op cit, pp 113, 114.

12] Ibid, p 14.

13] Jawaharlal Nehru, The Discovery of India, London, 1960 [edn], op cit, p 91.

14] Ibid.

15] R. P. Chanda, The Indo-Aryan Races, Delhi 1978, p 1: Quoted from G. P. Singh, Ancient Indian Historiography, New Delhi, 2003, p 17.

16] Jawaharlal Nehru, The Discovery of India, London, 1960 [edn], op cit, p 91.

17] “A famous disciple of Ramakrishna’s was Swami Vivekananda, who very eloquently and forcibly preached the gospel of nationalism. This was not in any way anti-Muslim or anti any one else, … None the less Vivekananda’s nationalism was Hindu nationalism, and it had its roots in Hindu religion and culture”. Jawaharlal Nehru, Glimpses of World History, Penguin Books New Delhi, 2004, p 507.

18] “Rooted in the past and full of pride in India’s heritage, Vivekananda was yet modern in his approach to life’s problems and was a kind of bridge between the past of India and her present”. Jawaharlal Nehru, Discovery of India, Penguin Books, New Delhi, 2004, p 368.

19] Jawaharlal Nehru, Discovery of India, Meridian Books, London, 1960, p 574 n.

20] “In the materialistic age of ours, says Professor Albert Einstein, the serious scientific workers are the only profoundly religious people” …, Ibid.

21] Jawaharlal Nehru, Discovery of India, Penguin Books, op cit, p 369.

22] Ibid, p89.

23] “Progressively, Vivekananda grew more international in outlook: Even in politics and sociology, problems that were only national twenty years ago can no longer be solved on national grounds only. They are assuming huge proportions, gigantic shapes. They can only be solved when looked at in the broader light of international grounds. International organizations, international combinations, international laws are the cry of the day. That shows solidarity. In science, every day they are coming to a similar broad view of matter”. Ibid, pp 369, 70.

24] “So Vivekananda thundered from Cape Comorin on the southern tip of India to the Himalayas, …..”, Jawaharlal Nehru, The Discovery of India, London, 1960 [edn], op cit, p 341.

25] Jawaharlal Nehru, Discovery of India, Penguin Books, op cit, p 369.

26] Jawaharlal Nehru, Glimpses of World History, Penguin Books New Delhi, 2004, p 46.

27] “Like the Greeks, that were strongly imaginative and artistic and they gave rein to this artistry and imagination in dealing with the past events, intent as they were drawing some moral and lesson from them for future behavior”. Jawaharlal Nehru, The Discovery of India, London, 1960 [edn], op cit, p 91.

28] Ibid.

29] “The Indian mind was extra ordinarily analytical and had a passion for putting ideas and concepts, and even life’s activities, into compartments. The Aryans not only divided society into four main groups but also divided the individual’s life into four parts: … [ashramas] … In this way also they adjusted the two opposing tendencies which often exist side by side in man – the acceptance of life in its fullness and rejection of it”. Ibid p 74.

30] “The word arya ceased to have any racial significance and came to mean ‘noble’, just as un-arya meant ignoble and was usually applied to nomadic tribes, forest-dwellers, etc”. Ibid.

31] Jawaharlal Nehru, Discovery of India, V [edn], 1948, op cit, p 77.

32] “… radical programme was taken at Karachi in 1931, when the Congress passed a resolution on Fundamental Rights and National Economic Programme, accepting that ‘political freedom must include real economic freedom of starving millions’. … and state ownership or control of key industries, mines and means of transport”. Bipin Chandra, The epic Struggle, New Delhi, 1992, p 36.

33] Jawaharlal Nehru, Discovery of India, V [edn], 1948, op cit, pp 76, 77.        

34] “The histories of India that most of us have had to read, chiefly written by Englishmen, are usually long apologies for the panegyrics of British rule and barely veiled contemptuous account of what happened here in the millenniums preceding it”. Ibid.

35] “Many competent historians are at work now, but they often err on the other side and their work is more a meticulous chronicle of facts than living history. But even today it is strange how we suddenly become overwhelmed by tradition and the critical faculties of even intelligent men cease to function. This may partly be due to the nationalism that consumes us in our present subject state. Only when we are politically and economically free will the mind function normally and critically”. Ibid, p 75.


The author is a retired Professor of History, and lives in Trivandrum 

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