Nehru’s Word: Indian mythology is rich, full of meaning

‘Indian mythology is richer, vaster, very beautiful, and full of meaning. I have often wondered what manner of men and women they were who gave shape to these bright dreams and lovely fancies’

Nehru’s Word: Indian mythology is rich, full of meaning

Mridula Mukherjee

In recent times, Jawaharlal Nehru has been caricaturized as “Westernized”, “Anglophile”, alienated from Indian culture. The reality is that he had a deep understanding and appreciation of Indian history and culture, and a close affinity with the common people of India. The following extract from his epic Discovery of India demonstrates this in ample measure:

“Before the discovery of the Indus Valley civilization, the Vedas were supposed to be the earliest records we possess of Indian culture. There was much dispute about the chronology of the Vedic period, European scholars usually giving later dates and Indian scholars much earlier ones. It was curious, this desire on the part of Indians to go as far back as possible and thus enhance the importance of our ancient culture….

“The usual data accepted by most scholars today for the hymns of the Rig Veda is 1,500 B.C., but there is a tendency, ever since the Mohenjo-daro excavations, to date further back these early Indian scriptures.

“Whatever the exact date may be, it is probable that this literature is earlier than that of either Greece or Israel, that, in fact, it represents some of the earliest documents of the human mind that we possess. Max Muller has called it: ‘The first word spoken by the Aryan man’.

“The Vedas were the outpourings of the Aryans as they streamed into the rich land of India. They brought their ideas with them from that common stock out of which grew the Avesta in Iran, and elaborated them in the soil of India. Even the language of the Vedas bears a striking resemblance to that of the Avesta, and it has been remarked that the Avesta is nearer the Veda than the Veda is to its own epic Sanskrit.

“How are we to consider the scripture of various religions, much of it believed by its votaries to be revealed scripture? To analyse it and criticise it and look upon it as a human document is often to offend the true believers. Yet there is no other way to consider it.

“I have always hesitated to read books of religion. The totalitarian claims made on their behalf did not appeal to me. The outward evidences of the practice of religion that I saw did not encourage me to go to the original sources. Yet I had to drift to these books, for ignorance of them was not a virtue and was often a severe drawback. I knew that some of them had powerfully influenced humanity and anything that could have done so must have some inherent power and virtue in it, some vital source of energy.

“I found great difficulty in reading through many parts of them, for try as I would, I could not arouse sufficient interest; but the sheer beauty of some passages would hold me. And then a phrase or a sentence would suddenly leap up and electrify me and make me feel the presence of the really great. Some words of the Buddha or of Christ would shine out with deep meaning and seem to me applicable as much today as when they were uttered 2,000 or more years ago. There was a compelling reality about them, a permanence which time and space could not touch.

“So I felt sometimes when I read about Socrates or the Chinese philosophers, and also when I read the Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita. I was not interested in the metaphysics, or the description of ritual, or the many other things which apparently had no relation to the problems that faced me…. Nor was I interested in long commentaries and glossaries. I could not approach these books, or any books, as Holy Writ ¾which must be accepted in their totality without challenge or demur.

“Indeed, this approach of Holy Writ usually resulted in my mind being closed to what they contained, I was much more friendly and open to them when I could consider them as having been written by human beings, very wise and far-seeing, but nevertheless ordinary mortals, and not incarnations or mouthpieces of a divinity, about whom I had no knowledge or surety whatever.

“It has always seemed to me a much more magnificent and impressive thing that a human being should rise to great heights, mentally and spiritually, and should then seek to raise others up, rather than that he should be the mouthpiece of a divine or superior power. Some of the founders of religions were astonishing individuals, but all their glory vanishes in my eyes when I cease to think of them as human beings. What impresses me and gives me hope is the growth of the mind and spirit of man, and not his being used as an agent to convey a message.

“Mythology affected me in much the same way. If people believed in the factual contents of these stories, the whole thing was absurd and ridiculous. But as soon as one ceased believing in them, they appeared in a new light, a new beauty, a wonderful flowering of a richly endowed imagination, full of human lessons. No one believes now in the stories of Greek gods and goddesses and so, without any difficulty, we can admire them and they become part of our mental heritage.

“But if we had to believe in them, what a burden it would be, and how, oppressed by this weight of belief, we would often miss their beauty. Indian mythology is richer, vaster, very beautiful, and full of meaning. I have often wondered what manner of men and women they were who gave shape to these bright dreams and lovely fancies, and out of what gold mine of thought and imagination they dug them….Many of the problems of human life have a permanence and a touch of eternity about them, and hence the abiding interest in these ancient books.

(Selected and edited by Mridula Mukherjee, former Professor of History at JNU and former Director of Nehru Memorial Museum and Library)

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