Nehru’s Word: Learn from the past, not live in it

'Today the keepers of our consciences are men, narrow and bigoted and with no knowledge of anything except empty forms and ceremonials...There is no room for bigots in the modern world'

Pt Jawaharlal Nehru
Pt Jawaharlal Nehru
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Mridula Mukherjee

That history in again on the front-burner is evident from the fact that the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Education has taken up for examination ‘reforms in the content and design of school text books’ with ‘focus on removing references to un-historical facts’ and ‘ensuring equal or proportionate references to all periods of Indian history’ and asking the various stakeholders across the country to send in their suggestions by the 15th of July.
Many historians believe this is likely to be, among other things, another attempt to rewrite history glorifying the Ancient ‘Hindu’ past and trying to vilify the medieval period seeing it as ‘Islamic’. It is indeed ironic that this attempt at projecting a communal view of history was noted and critiqued by Jawaharlal Nehru in an article written in prison nearly 90 years ago, which we bring to you in two parts in this and the following week:

The more I read of the Aryans of old the more I wonder at their many-sided excellence. Fresh from their cradle in Central Asia they came down to India and swept over western Asia and Europe. They were full of life and the joy of life, and the burden of the world sat lightly upon them. It was indeed the Satyayuga, the dawn of history, and the long ages of sin and sorrow had yet to come. Warriors they were who rejoiced in battle and yet bowed down to knowledge and virtue. They loved to fight and conquer but the greatest quest for them was the search for knowledge.

"They loved freedom and honour and preferred death to dishonour of the Aryan name. ‘Never shall an Arya be subjected to slavery’ was their proud charter. And so they marched into India singing songs in praise of the high gods, with faith in themselves and, like the Saracens thousands of years later, in the firm belief that heaven was guiding them in their divine mission.

“It is good to think of the past and to gather strength and courage from the examples of the great men of old. But it is also dangerous, and in India we are especially liable to this danger. We are prone to think too much of it and to endow the ancients with every virtue under the sun. And instead of any desire to emulate them and to gird up our loins for the purpose, we sink further into apathy and bemoan our miserable lot.

"We have vague ideas of past splendour and a golden age when the land flowed with milk and honey, and sorrow and suffering hid themselves away from the haunts of men. We do not analyse the springs of past greatness or try to find out what qualities we lack which our ancestors possessed. I think that we can learn a great deal from them; none the less let us remember that the world has not remained stationary during the last few thousand years.


“The world progresses and advances in knowledge and culture even though there are occasional lapses and retrogression. All history teaches us this lesson of general progress, and indeed life would be a burden difficult to carry if we did not believe that a better order of things is gradually evolving itself in this world of sorrow. To that order our ancient civilisation can contribute a great deal, but only if we understand its essentials and live up to them and not lose ourselves in a forest of empty forms and symbols, forgetting the core and the essence.

“I shall not venture to enumerate the essentials of that ancient civilisation. I am not competent to do that. But I shall touch briefly on some obvious points. It seems to me that the old Aryans were a very 'positive' people. They were active and inquisitive and adaptable. They loved freedom and would suffer no restrictions on their physical or mental liberty.

"They were not afraid of thinking, of ‘looking down into the pit of hell’, if necessary, and of arriving at novel and disconcerting conclusions. They looked forward in the realms of thought, as well as towards the countries of the earth, for fresh advances and conquests. They had the spirit of adventure in them and life was to them a wonderful game, a quest after the knowledge of this world and the next.

“And we, their puny descendants, who pride ourselves in our high ancestry, what are we? A passive, inactive and indolent race forgetful of the idea of freedom or honour. Our guiding principles in life are a number of restrictions. Thou shalt not eat or drink with another, thou shalt not touch such and such, thou shalt not cross the seas and so on and so forth.

"The one great restriction of old we have forgotten: ‘Thou shalt not be subjected to slavery’. We have little time to think of it, I suppose, for we are too busy with our cooking and our other ceremonial practices. Like the frog of old we sit in our stagnant pool and imagine that it is the centre of the universe and all knowledge and virtue are in us and there is nothing more to seek or discover. And nature has had its revenge on us.

“The world has marched on and left us far behind immersed in our superstitions and observances which we do not even understand. Like our old architecture, our faith has lost its ancient purity and simplicity and has been covered up with a mass of abuses and crude symbols and orientation.

"Today the keepers of our consciences are men, narrow and bigoted and with no knowledge of anything except empty forms and ceremonials. There is nothing more frightful, said Goethe, than a teacher who only knows what the scholars are intended to know. But here the teacher is far more ignorant than the scholar.

“We must get rid of this inertia and woodenness and recover some elasticity of thought and movement. We must honour reason more and test everything by the light of that reason, however feeble it may be. There is no room for bigots in the modern world. We must cultivate the spirit of enquiry and welcome all knowledge whether the source of it is the East or the West. Above all we must get rid of the gross abuses that have crept into us and threaten to poison our whole system. If we cannot conquer these weaknesses of ours then we sink deeper and deeper into the morass and perish.”

(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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