The Discovery of India by Jawaharlal Nehru: Book Summary and Analysis

The Discovery of India’ written by Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first Prime Minister, is a sojourn to India’s past. I had intended to read this book since long, yet it never quite happened. The length of the book was somewhat intimidating running into 634 pages.  

The book has two forewords – one by Indira Gandhi, Nehru’s daughter and third Prime Minister of India, written in 1980 and the other by Sonia Gandhi in 2004. In Indira Gandhi’s words, “Books fascinated Jawaharlal Nehru. He sought out ideas. He was extraordinarily sensitive to literary beauty.” It is she who edited this book, as after the release from prison, Nehru had no time to re-read his writings.

The Discovery of India by Jawaharlal Nehru

The book is written over a period of 5 months, while Nehru was imprisoned at the Ahmednagar fort in 1946. It is divided into 10 chapters with a continuous narrative flow. The historical facts are mentioned chronologically which gives a beautiful perspective on India – the past and the pre-independence era.

The first entry is done on 13th April 1944 from Ahmadnagar Fort prison, where Nehru had already passed 20 months of his term. This was his ninth term of imprisonment. This is also the period when Indian National Congress has been declared illegal and many of its leaders are put behind bars by the British.

The initial pages are dedicated to Nehru’s account of his wife’s ill health and how she was being treated and cared for in Europe.

It is after about 40 pages that Nehru begins with the history of India and focuses on Indus Valley civilization, the foundation of Buddhism, the evolution of Hinduism, the advent of Mughals and Islam and the final British India period. It is going back to the history lessons but with perspective from a man who became ‘India’s first Prime Minister’.

The appeal of the book lies in its honesty. Nehru has been candid about his feelings for Gandhiji and Bose; his understanding of world politics and affinity towards Russia and China and an antagonist perspective over USA and UK. He believed that Russia had become stronger. He weighed his friendship for China over Japan and preferred a cordial relationship with Czechoslovakia over Germany. There is even an instance where he refuses to meet Mussolini, as it would have made a negative impression on Abyssinia.

India was in my blood and there was much in her that instinctively thrilled me. And yet I approached her almost as an alien critic, full of dislike for the present as well as for many relics of the past that I saw.

It is overwhelming to read the honesty with which Nehru approaches his understanding of India.

Nehru’s credits his travel during the general elections for provisional assemblies held in 1937 for providing him with the deep knowledge about the people of India. He writes that the largest gatherings for his rallies were of 100,000 and the smallest was of 20,000, thus increasing his interaction with the people.

Sometimes as I reached a gathering, a great roar of welcome would greet me: Bharat Mata ki Jai – ‘Victory to Mother India.

He would ask them unexpectedly what they meant by that cry and what they meant by ‘Bharat Mata’ or Mother India? Some would answer it is the ‘dharti’ or earth but then Nehru would ask what they understood by earth – as their village/ district or the whole of India? And then he would explain that India is the mountains, plains and rivers and, the millions residing in this land.

Nehru discusses some important aspects that affected India – socially, economically, politically and religiously. However, this comes in a sporadic and in a disjointed manner. He constantly quotes Western Academics on Indian culture and lifestyle.

On writing about the past, he says that the ambiguity in the interpretation of Indian history has come from the fact that unlike the Greeks, the Chinese or the Arabs, Indians in the past had not maintained written records. This poses difficulty to fix dates or create an accurate chronology. To Nehru, it was surprising to know that the lack of historical sense did not affect the masses; their view of the past was build up from the traditional accounts and myth that were handed to them from generation to generation.

On Hinduism

Nehru says that the word ‘Hindu’ does not occur at all in our ancient literature. The first reference to it in an Indian book is in a tantrik work of the eighth century AC, where ‘Hindu’ meant ‘a people’ and not the followers of a particular religion. Hinduism was actually Arya dharma.

He traces the revival of Hinduism to the foundation of the early Vedanta; Shankara (or Shankaracharya) built a system which is called Advaita Vedanta or non-dualist Vedanta. According to him, it was this philosophy which represented the dominant outlook of Hinduism during his time. It was based on pure monism; the only ultimate reality was the metaphysical sense of the Atman, the absolute soul.

Then he introduces Swami Vivekananda, who together with his brother disciples founded the non-sectarian Ramakrishna Mission of service. It was rooted in the past and full of pride in India’s heritage.

And, then he writes about Mahatma Gandhi on his definition of Hinduism as, “If I were asked to define the Hindu creed, I should simply say: search after truth through non-violent means. A man may not believe in God and still call himself a Hindu. Hinduism is a relentless pursuit of truth.

Progress versus Security

The people in India had confined themselves within their own boundaries. While the West was imbibing progressive thoughts, India continued to look back into its golden past and that led to its subsequent decay.

Nehru felt that the logical Indian mind that had even put society into professional compartments (that gave rise to the caste system) was quite capable since ancient times. There was no mass slavery in India as compared to the west. Yet, progress was stagnant as subordination to caste system became ingrained.

He had probed the term ‘lower castes’. “Who were the depressed classes and the untouchables? The ‘depressed classes’ is a new designation applying rather vaguely to a number of castes near the bottom of the scale. There is no hard and fast line to separate them from others.

Another interesting aspect is about the backwardness of women in India. He believed that purdah or the seclusion of women have stalled social progress. He talks highly about the women involved in the freedom struggle. And, cites how his father, Motilal Nehru, though for his paternal love for the women in his family and in general, disliked them going on the streets to join protests. On the other hand, “Gandhiji has indeed written and spoken with passion in favour of women’s equality and freedom and bitterly condemned their domestic slavery.

India also became progressively ruralized. As a result of the British policy, the reverse process of population shifting from towns to villages and industry to agriculture was happening. He delves upon the fact that Indian were satisfied within the realm of their social life, that further restrained their strive for economic prosperity.

Indian Languages and Art

Sanskrit had been a dead language for long as it was not widely spoken and was limited to the educated upper caste people. But, this language and the literature left an indelible mark in South East Asia, in countries like Indonesia, Java, Bali, Cambodia and Malay. Nehru has gone in length to write about the glorious Southern empires and its impact in creating glorious past through references in literature, art and architecture.

Through the existing literature, he says that we understand that there was a great deal of river traffic. According to Jatakas, ships traveled from Benares, Patna, Bhagalpur and other places to the sea and thence to southern ports and Ceylon and Malaya. Old Tamil poems tell us about the flourishing ports of Kaveripatnam on the Kaveri river in the south. Among the exports from India were silk, muslin, the finer sorts of cloth, cutlery and armour, brocades, embroideries and rugs, perfumes and drugs, ivory and gold. The Iron pillar in Delhi, dated between 4th to 7th century AC in Gupta inscription has baffled the modern scientists on how it withstood the oxidation and other atmospheric changes.

When Alexander invaded, Indians had the advantages of war elephants that other armies did not have. ‘The Indo Aryan theory of warfare strictly laid down that no illegitimate methods to be employed and a war for righteous cause must be righteously conducted.’ This view was, however, changed under Chanakaya who approved of deceptive methods to win a war. It is interesting to note that Chanakaya in his ‘Arthashasthra’ describe weapons of warfare which can destroy a hundred persons at one time.

Mughals in India

Nehru elaborates this period through the Turkish invasion, Afghan invasion and then a Turco-Mongol or the Mughal invasion. He says, “The Mughals were outsiders and strangers to India and yet they fitted into the Indian structure with remarkable speed and began the Indo-Mughal period.

This period had a two-pronged effect – one that led an exodus of people to the south and those who remained became rigid and exclusive. Akbar’s success was astonishing, for he created a sense of oneness among the diverse elements of the north and central India. Shah Jahan was a contemporary of Louis XIV of France, le Grand Monarque and the Thirty Years War was ravaging in Europe. As Versailles took shape, the Taj Mahal and the Pearl Mosque grew up in Agra and the Jama Masjid in Delhi and Diwan e Am and Diwan I Khas in the imperial palace.  

British in India

During the 18th century, there were four protagonists for power in India – Marathas, Tipu Sultan, British and the French.

Nehru provides insights into various battles that were fought and how the British finally gained control over India. The superiority in discipline and technique of foreign trained armies had been noticed at an early stage by the Indian rulers; they employed French and English officers to train own armies and the rivalry between the two helped to build up Indian armies but in the end, the internal conflicts gave an upper hand to the British.

And, then proceeds to their governance in India and influence on its people.

The British had strengthened the feudal lords, whom they could easily manage, replacing the Princes. He calls the Revolt of 1857-58 as a feudal uprising though there were some nationalistic elements in it.  

In criticism of the British Planning Committee, Nehru says that the aim of the planning committee was to ensure an adequate standard of living for the masses and economists estimated a per capita income between Rs.15-25 per month, which was much lower than Western standards where it was around Rs.65 per capita per annum.

Further, the British had created a new caste or class in India, the English educated class, which lived in a world of its own, cut off from the mass of population and looked always, even when protesting, towards its rulers.

An excerpt from the message by Rabindranath Tagore on his eightieth birthday (May 1941), a few months before his death says, ‘As I look back,’, he says ‘The best and noblest gifts of humanity cannot be the monopoly of a particular race or country; its scope may not be limited nor may it be regarded as the miser’s hoard buried underground. That is why English Literature which nourished our minds in the past, does not even convey its deep resonance to the recesses of our heart.’ Yet, after so many years of independence, we have continued to take English into our ambit while neglecting the rich native literature. 

Following the start of World War II in September 1939, it was suggested that the national planning committee should suspend its activities. President Roosevelt had spoken in terms of greater promises but his policy had not radically changed. The Cripps proposal further suppressed the civil liberties under the cover of war. It was a time when Indians and the world realized the dual belief system of British – they were fighting the war against the autocracy of the axis powers and in India, denying democracy to its citizens.

About Indian National Congress

There is a history about National Congress, the organisation was started in 1885 with a larger representation of lower middle class, young people and students. Nehru cites the advent of new leadership under Bal Gangadhar Tilak brought aggressiveness in organising agitations, replacing the old guard under Dadabhai Naoroji. Though it brought a clash in 1907, and Congress lost its relevance and extremists gained momentum. Then, Congress had become a dynamic organisation under Gandhi’s leadership. Yet, “Very few persons in India accept in its entirety his doctrine of non-violence or his economic theories, yet very many have been influenced by them in some way or the other.

On the Muslim League front, Nehru says that “MA Jinnah left congress not because of any difference of opinion on the Hindu-Muslim question but because he could not adopt himself to the new and more advanced ideology, and even more so because he disliked the crowds of ill-dressed people, talking in Hindustani, who filled the congress. His idea of politics was of a superior variety, more suited to the legislative chamber or to a committee room.” He points out that Khilafat movement and the Balkan wars had distanced Muslims from Congress.

Ofcourse, then there are details on the Indian National Congress and their contribution in the independence struggle, detailing provincial governments, lack of support from the British and their stand on various proposals on governance. 

Nehru ends the book with, “We are on the eve of General Elections in India and these elections absorb attention. But the elections will be over soon—-and then? The coming year is likely to be one of storm and trouble, of conflict and turmoil. There is going to be no peace in India or elsewhere except on the basis of freedom.”

One thought on “The Discovery of India by Jawaharlal Nehru: Book Summary and Analysis

  1. Pingback: India 2020 by APJ Abdul Kalam and YS Rajan – Bookishloom

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