Nehru's Word: The desire to revitalise India

In this extract from ‘The Discovery of India’, Nehru asks, what are India’s strengths and weaknesses and how the West was able to overtake her and almost the whole of Asia

Jawaharlal Nehru
Jawaharlal Nehru
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Mridula Mukherjee

This week we bring to you another extract from ‘The Discovery of India’, in which, after surveying the vast panorama of Indian history, Nehru asks, what are India’s strengths and weaknesses? How was the West able to overtake her and almost the whole of Asia in the march of technical progress? How did the “mental alertness and technical skill” of earlier times deteriorate? And was there still some evidence of that earlier vitality? It was this vitality, he says, that they were trying to revive through the struggle for freedom from colonial rule.

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"The search for the sources of India’s strength and for her deterioration and decay is long and intricate. Yet the recent causes of that decay are obvious enough. She fell behind in the march of technique, and Europe, which had long been backward in many matters, took the lead in technical progress. Behind this technical progress was the spirit of science and a bubbling life and spirit which displayed itself in many activities and in adventurous voyages of discovery.

New techniques gave military strength to the countries of western Europe and it was easy for them to spread out and dominate the East. That is the story not only of India, but of almost the whole of Asia.

Why this should have happened so is more difficult to unravel, for India was not lacking in mental alertness and technical skill in earlier times. One senses a progressive deterioration during centuries. The urge to life and endeavour becomes less, the creative spirit fades away and gives place to the imitative.

Where triumphant and rebellious thought had tried to pierce the mysteries of nature and the universe, the wordy commentator comes with his glosses and long explanations. Magnificent art and sculpture give way to meticulous carving of intricate detail without nobility of conception or design.

The vigour and richness of language, powerful yet simple, are followed by highly ornate and complex literary forms. The urge to adventure and the overflowing life which led to vast schemes of distant colonisation and the transplantation of Indian culture in far lands: all these fade away and a narrow orthodoxy taboos even the crossing of the high seas.

A rational spirit of inquiry, so evident in earlier times, which might well have led to the further growth of science, is replaced by irrationalism and a blind idolatory of the past…. It is not surprising that in this condition of mental stupor and physical weariness India should have deteriorated and remained rigid and immobile, while other parts of the world marched ahead.

Yet this is not a complete or wholly correct survey. If there had only been a long and unrelieved period of rigidity and stagnation, this might well have resulted in a complete break with the past, the death of an era, and the erection of something new on its ruins. There has not been such a break and there is a definite continuity.

Also from time to time vivid periods of renascence have occurred, and some of them have been long and brilliant…. But something vital and living continues, some urge driving the people in a direction not wholly realised, and always a desire for synthesis between the old and the new.

It was this urge and desire that kept them going and enabled them to absorb new ideas while retaining much of the old....

We are an old race, or rather an odd mixture of many races, and our racial memories go back to the dawn of history. Have we had our day and are we now living in the late afternoon or evening of our existence, just carrying on after the manner of the aged, quiescent, devitalised, uncreative, desiring peace and sleep above all else?...

No people, no races remain unchanged. Continually they are mixing with others and slowly changing….History has numerous instances of old and well-established civilisations fading away or being ended suddenly, and vigorous new cultures taking their place. Is it some vital energy, some inner source of strength that gives life to a civilisation or a people.

Something of that vitality….I have sensed at times in the Indian people also; not always, and anyway it is difficult for me to take an objective view. Perhaps my wishes distort my thinking. But always I was in search for this in my wanderings among the Indian people.

If they had this vitality, then it was well with them and they would make good. If they lacked it completely, political efforts and shouting were all make-believe and would not carry us far…. I felt they had vast stores of suppressed energy and ability and I wanted to release these and make them feel young and vital again. India, constituted as she is, cannot play a secondary part in the world. She will either count for a great deal or not count at all….


Behind the past quarter of a century’s struggle for India’s independence and all our conflicts with British authority, lay in my mind, and that of many others, the desire to revitalise India. We felt that through action and self-imposed suffering and sacrifice, through voluntarily facing risk and danger, through refusal to submit to what we considered evil and wrong, would we re-charge the battery of India’s spirit and waken her from her long slumber.

Though we came into conflict continually with the British Government in India, our eyes were always turned towards our own people. Political advantage had value only in so far as it helped in that fundamental purpose of ours. Because of this governing motive, frequently we acted as no politician, moving in the narrow sphere of politics only, would have done, and foreign and Indian critics expressed surprise at the folly and intransigence of our ways.

Whether we were foolish or not, the historians of the future will judge. We aimed high and looked far. Probably we were often foolish, from the point of view of opportunist politics, but at no time did we forget that our main purpose was to raise the whole level of the Indian people, psychologically and spiritually and also, of course, politically and economically.

It was the building up of that real inner strength of the people that we were after, knowing that the rest would inevitably follow. We had to wipe out some generations of shameful subservience and timid submission to an arrogant alien authority.”

(Selected and edited by Mridula Mukherjee, former professor of history at JNU and former Director of Nehru Memorial Museum & Library).

(This was first published in National Herald on Sunday)

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