Nehru's Word: The panorama of India’s past

This week we bring to you another extract from ‘The Discovery of India’, in which Jawaharlal Nehru takes us on a panoramic journey through India’s past

Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru
Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru
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Mridula Mukherjee

This week we bring to you another extract from ‘The Discovery of India’, in which Jawaharlal Nehru takes us on a panoramic journey through India’s past, from Mohenjo Daro to “the intimate contact with the Persians, the Egyptians, the Greeks, the Chinese, the Arabs, the Central Asians, and the peoples of the Mediterranean”, and through the Himalayas to “the Ganges, above all the river of India, which has held India’s heart captive and drawn uncounted millions to her banks since the dawn of history.”

During these years of thought and activity my mind has been full of India, trying to understand her and to analyse my own reactions towards her. I went back to my childhood days and tried to remember what I felt like then...

As I grew up and became engaged in activities which promised to lead to India’s freedom, I became obsessed with the thought of India. What was this India that possessed me and beckoned to me continually, urging me to action so that we might realise some vague but deeply-felt desire of our hearts?

The initial urge came to me, I suppose, through pride, both individual and national, and the desire, common to all men, to resist another’s domination and have freedom to live the life of our choice. It seemed monstrous to me that a great country like India, with a rich and immemorial past, should be bound hand and foot to a far-away island which imposed its will upon her. It was still more monstrous that this forcible union had resulted in poverty and degradation beyond measure. That was reason enough for me and for others to act. But it was not enough to satisfy the questioning that arose within me. What is this India, apart from her physical and geographical aspects? What did she represent in the past? What gave strength to her then? How did she lose that old strength? Does she represent anything vital now, apart from being the home of a vast number of human beings? How does she fit into the modern world?

The future that took shape in my mind was one of intimate co-operation, politically, economically, and culturally, between India and the other countries of the world. But before the future came there was the present, and behind the present lay the long and tangled past, out of which the present had grown. So to the past I looked for understanding.

India was in my blood and there was much in her that instinctively thrilled me…. I was eager and anxious to change her outlook and appearance and give her the garb of modernity. And yet doubts arose within me. Did I know India? — I who presumed to scrap much of her past heritage? There was a great deal that had to be scrapped, that must be scrapped; but surely India could not have been what she undoubtedly was, and could not have continued a cultured existence for thousands of years, if she had not possessed something very vital and enduring, something that was worthwhile. What was this something?

I stood on a mound of Mohenjo-daro in the Indus Valley in the north-west of India, and all around me lay the houses and streets of this ancient city that is said to have existed over five thousand years ago; and even then it was an old and well-developed civilisation. ‘The Indus civilisation,’ writes professor Childe, ‘represents a very perfect adjustment of human life to a specific environment that can only have resulted from years of patient effort.’

And it has endured; it is already specifically Indian and forms the basis of modern Indian culture. Astonishing thought: that any culture or civilisation should have this continuity for five or six thousand years or more; and not in a static, unchanging sense, for India was changing and progressing all the time. She was coming into intimate contact with the Persians, the Egyptians, the Greeks, the Chinese, the Arabs, the Central Asians, and the peoples of the Mediterranean. But though she influenced them and was influenced by them, her cultural basis was strong enough to endure. What was the secret of this strength? Where did it come from?

I read her history and read also a part of her abundant ancient literature, and was powerfully impressed by the vigour of the thought, the clarity of the language, and the richness of the mind that lay behind it. I journeyed through India in the company of mighty travellers from China and Western and Central Asia who came here in the remote past and left records of their travels, I thought of what India had accomplished in Eastern Asia, in Angkor, Borobudur, and many other places.


I wandered over the Himalayas, which are closely connected with old myth and legend, and which have influenced so much our thought and literature. My love of the mountains and my kinship with Kashmir especially drew me to them, and I saw there not only the life and vigour and beauty of the present, but also the memoried loveliness of ages past. The mighty rivers of India that flow from this great mountain barrier into the plains of India attracted me and reminded me of innumerable phases of our history.

The Indus or Sindhu, from which our country came to be called India and Hindustan, and across which races and tribes and caravans and armies have come for thousands of years; the Brahmaputra, rather cut off from the main current of history but living in old story, forcing its way into India through deep chasms cut in the heart of the north- eastern mountains, and then flowing calmly in a gracious sweep between mountain and wooded plain; the Jumna, round which cluster so many legends of dance and fun and play; and the Ganges, above all the river of India, which has held India’s heart captive and drawn uncounted millions to her banks since the dawn of history.

The story of the Ganges, from her source to the sea, from old times to new, is the story of India’s civilisation and culture, of the rise and fall of empires, of great and proud cities, of the adventure of man and the quest of the mind which has so occupied India’s thinkers, of the richness and fulfilment of life as well as its denial and renunciation, of ups and downs, of growth and decay, of life and death.”

(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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