Nehru's Word: Wrong to imagine we are the best in the world

"The fact is that every country and every people have admirable points about them; they have great achievements to their credit, and they have also bad periods in their history."

Jawaharlal Nehru (photo: National Herald archives)
Jawaharlal Nehru (photo: National Herald archives)

Jawaharlal Nehru

These days we are repeatedly told the world has much to learn from us, our religion and culture is the best in the world, our scientific achievements from thousands of years ago are unrivalled. This chest-thumping despite our declining position in various global indices such as the hunger index and the democracy index. In contrast, Jawaharlal Nehru, speaking to a gathering of university students in October 1955, said that while “it is natural for one to like one’s own country and one’s own people… it is wrong to start imagining that we are the highest and the best in the world”. He advised them to read, think and align their action with their thought.

You know that I once wrote a book called The Discovery of India. I was engaged in that quest long before I wrote that book. It was not mere curiosity that led me to that quest. I was engaged in many activities and I wanted a proper reconciliation between my activity and my thought. Thought without action is abortion. Action without thought is folly.

Of course, we sometimes act on some impulse or irrepressible urge. If suddenly you throw a brick at me and my hand goes up to protect myself, it is an automatic, instinctive action and not a result of deliberate thought. Our living is conditioned by a series of automatic actions from morning till night. Anything we do outside that common range of actions, however, has to be preceded by some measure of thinking. The more action and thought are allied and integrated, the more effective they become and the happier you grow.

There will then be no inner conflict between a wish to do something and inability to act or between thinking one way and acting in another. The happiest man is he whose thinking and action are coordinated.

Happiness, after all, is an inner state of mind. It is little dependent on outside environment. Happiness has very little to do, for instance, with whether you are rich or not rich. Some of the most miserable persons I have come across in my life are the rich people. It is true that poverty makes one miserable in a very acute way. But my point is that it is not wealth but coordination of one’s thought and action which removes inner conflicts. It is in that way that integration of personality is achieved.

We were engaged, as you know, in a very great movement in India. Since that movement was intimately concerned with the freedom of India, it led me to wonder what exactly is India. I knew, of course, the geography of India. I also knew many other odd facts about India. I was not prepared to accept it on faith that because I was born in India, therefore India was the greatest country in the world. That is the kind of folly in which the people of every country indulge.

There are quite enough people in India who think that India is obviously the greatest country. In the days when we were politically subject, and could not take much pride in our political condition, we prided ourselves on our spiritual greatness. Having nothing else to get hold of, we took refuge in spirituality.

If you go to other countries—I shall not name them as I do not wish to cause offence—you will find the people there think that their country is the chosen country, the torch-bearer of civilisation, the most advanced country, the most revolutionary country, the country with the biggest buildings, the country with something unique, some mission or other.

It is natural for one to like one’s own country and one’s own people. It would be unnatural not to do so. It is good to be a little proud of one’s own country. But it is wrong to start imagining that we are the highest and the best in the world.

The fact is that every country and every people have admirable points about them; they have great achievements to their credit, and they have also bad periods in their history. This applies not to countries only but to individuals. Nobody is perfect; he has weaknesses and failings. Nobody is thoroughly bad either. We are all mixtures of good and evil. But we should try to further the good in ourselves and in others.

Most of you probably did not see Gandhiji at close quarters. He had amazing qualities. One of these qualities was that he managed to draw out the good in another person. The other person may have had plenty of evil in him. But he somehow spotted the good and laid emphasis on that good, the result was that that poor man had to try to be good. He could not help it. He would feel a little ashamed when he did something wrong.

People who always seek evil in others find it. This applies to nations as well as individuals. Go to a foreign country. You are likely to find many things that you do not like. Are you going to spend your time finding out the evil in other countries, or rather in finding out the good in them, and profiting yourself and others by your contact?

We are all much too apt to look at the evil in other individuals and countries rather than the good. Perhaps some of you know the saying in the Bible about the person who could not see the beam in his own eye and saw the mote in the other’s eye. I am sorry if you think I am rambling. But this is, I might inform you in secret, a very clever attempt to get behind your mind. I am at least being frank with you.

That is how I came to write the Discovery of India. And before that, I wrote my autobiography, which again was an attempt to fix myself in the context of the Indian struggle. Actually, the book was more about the struggle in India than about myself. Of course, I was naturally a kind of central figure from my point of view as everybody is from his point of view.

Then I wanted a larger canvas to think about and I wrote Glimpses of World History. I am no historian. Perhaps that was as well, because there are very few historians that I know who can talk intelligently about history. They are so full of facts and figures that they are overwhelmed by them. They are lost in a forest and do not see some obvious things because they are always crawling about in the underwood.

(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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