I recently got hooked onto “Glimpses of World History” by Jawaharlal Nehru, a gargantuan collection of letters on the history of human civilization that he sent to his teenaged daughter Indira from prison. It’s a veritable book to swallow and imbibe, so I’ve been taking notes, and will be posting the notes for posterity. The notes are distillates of Nehru’s writings, and are often his own quotes. Bold and Italics are mine.
| The importance of learning about the history of the whole world simultaneously. The modular version of history taught to us in school creates a mental picture of discontinuous stretches of time in discontinuous regions of the globe. The takeaway from history should be consciousness about the human world and civilization, so history as a subject for learning should be presented as a whole, with connections and comparisons. (teaching a subject as it is done versus a subject as should be learnt – think of science)
| History of the people
Real history should deal, not with a few individuals here and there, but with the people who make up a nation, who work and by their labour produce the necessaries and luxuries of life, and who in a thousand different ways act and react on each other. Such a history of man would really be a fascinating story.
Thus we see, as history progresses out of the dim past, people producing more and more and people specializing in different trades, exchanging their goods with each other, and in this way increasing trade. We see also new and better means of communication developing, especially during the last hundred years or so, after the steam engine came. As production grows, the wealth of the world increases, and some people at least have more leisure. And so what is called civilization develops.
| Where do the riches go to?
It is a strange thing that in spite of more and more wealth being produced, the poor have remained poor. They have made some little progress in certain countries, but it is very little compared to the new wealth produced. We can easily see, however, to whom this wealth largely goes. It goes to those who, usually being the managers or organizers, see to it that they get the lion’s share of everything good. And, stranger still, classes have grown up in society of people who do not even pretend to do any work, and yet who take this lion’s share of the work of others! And—would you believe it?—these classes are honoured; and some foolish people imagine that it is degrading to have to work for one’s living! Such is the topsy-turvy condition of our world. Is it surprising that the peasant in his field and the worker in his factory are poor, although they produce the food and wealth of the world? We talk of freedom for our country, but what will any freedom be worth unless it puts an end to this topsy-turvydom, and gives to the man who does the work the fruits of his toil? Big, fat books have been written on politics and the art of government, on economics and how the nation’s wealth should be distributed. Learned professors lecture on these subjects. But, while people talk and discuss, those who work suffer. Two hundred years ago a famous Frenchman, Voltaire, said of politicians and the like that “they have discovered in their fine politics the art of causing those to die of hunger who, cultivating the earth, give the means of life to others”.’
‘In the case of a larger group than the family, it is exactly the same—whether we take our neighbours, or the people of our city, or our countrymen, or the people of other countries even. So the growth of population resulted in more social life and more restraint and consideration for others. Culture and civilization are difficult to define, and I shall not try to define them. But among the many things that culture includes are certainly restraint over oneself and consideration for others. If a person has not got this self-restraint and has no consideration for others, one can certainly say that he is uncultured.
It is the twilight of Capitalism, which has lorded it for so long over the world. And when it goes, as go it must, it will take many an evil thing with it.
|Buddhism and Hinduism in India
Contrast how Ashoka spread his religion Dharma (~Buddhism) across Asia to how the rest of the modern religions (Christianity, Islam) were proliferated. It wasn’t a despotic, imperialistic venture, rather a peaceful, rational, diplomatic approach. The then Hinduism’s reaction to Buddhism in India is also noteworthy. Hinduism went for tolerance and assimilation, which paved the way for the almost disappearance of Buddhism from India within a thousand years.
|North and South India
It is important to remember the coexistence of different dynasties in the different parts, something that I hadn’t paid much heed to before. (N) Maurya end, Kushana — (S) Andhra-desha/ Satavahana, (N) Gupta — (S) Pallava, Kadamba, Chalukya, later when North was disintegrated into smaller territories, Cholas flourished in the south. Interesting: Chola king Rajendra came up to Bengal and defeated the king there.
|Shankaracharya and what makes India a singular cultural unit
But a more remarkable man arose in the south, destined to play a more vital part in India’s life than all the kings and emperors. This young man is known as Shankaracharya. Probably he was born about the end of the eighth century. He seems to have been a person of amazing genius. He set about reviving Hinduism, or rather a special intellectual kind of Hinduism called Saivism—the worship of Shiva. He fought against Buddhism—fought with his intellect and arguments. He established an order of sanyasins open to all castes, like the Buddhist Sangha. He established four centres for this order of sanyasins, situated at the four corners of India, north, west, south, east. He travelled all over India, and wherever he went he triumphed. He came to Benares as a conqueror, but a conqueror of the mind and in argument. Ultimately he went to Kedarnath in the Himalayas, where the eternal snows begin, and he died there. And he was only thirty-two, or maybe a little more, when he died.
It may interest you to know that among Hindu philosophers there was a man, named Charvaka, who preached atheism—that is, who said that there was no God. There are many people today, especially in Russia, who do not believe in God. We need not enter into that question here. But what is very interesting is the freedom of thought and writing in India in the olden days. There was what is known as freedom of conscience. This was not so in Europe till very recent times, and even now there are some disabilities.
Another fact which Shankara’s brief but strenuous life brings out is the cultural unity of India. Right through ancient history this seems to have been acknowledged. Geographically, as you know, India is more or less of a unit. Politically she has often been split up, though occasionally, as we have seen, she has almost been under one central authority. But right from the beginning, culturally she has been one, because she had the same background, the same traditions, the same religions, the same heroes and heroines, the same old mythology, the same learned language (Sanskrit), the same places of worship spread out all over the country, the same village panchayats and the same ideology and polity.
To the average Indian the whole of India was a kind of punya-bhumi—a holy land—while the rest of the world was largely peopled by mlechchhas and barbarians! Thus there rose a common Indian consciousness which triumphed over, and partly ignored, the political divisions of the country. Especially was this so as the village system of panchayat government continued, whatever the changes at the top might be.
Shankara’s choice of the four corners of India for his maths, or the headquarters of his order of sanyasins, shows how he regarded India as a cultural unit. And the great success which met his campaign all over the country in a very short time also shows how intellectual and cultural currents travelled rapidly from one end of the country to another.
| Some ironies when seen retrospectively
Nehru abstracts from Nitisara by Shukracharya, which was a book on law and polity in the middle ages in India as the Arthshastra was for the Mauryan period. A particularly ironic quote:
Another very interesting rule seems to have been that near relatives of members were disqualified from office. How excellent if this could be enforced now in all our councils and assemblies and municipalities!
| Contrast Islam and Christianity in the “Middle Ages”
One thing more and I shall finish this letter. The Arabs, especially at the beginning of their awakening, were full of enthusiasm for their faith. Yet they were a tolerant people and there are numerous instances of this toleration in religion. In Jerusalem the Khalifa Omar made a point of it. In Spain there was a large Christian population which had the fullest liberty of conscience. In India the Arabs never ruled except in Sindh, but there were frequent contacts, and the relations were friendly. Indeed, the most noticeable thing about this period of history is the contrast between the toleration of the Muslim Arab and the intolerance of the Christian in Europe.
Of the Purdah, Nehru claims that the early Arab expansion, which was fueled by Mohammad’s sermons, didn’t exclude women in their social and political life. It seems that the idea of Purdah was a late addition to the religious tenets of Islam, caused by assimilation of such practices in places that the Arab conquered, especially the Eastern Roman Empire centered in Constantinople and the Sassanid empire in Persia.
In fact the original teachings of Mohammad were diluted as the Arabian world became a rich empire. Still, it is quite amazing that a bunch nomadic people with hardly any expertise could run through the old empires and set up their own. Of course, Chengiz was still to come.
The Arabian empire had a brief sniff of conquering Europe. They came up to Constantinople from the east, and also ran through the Mediterranean coast of North Africa and the whole of Spain. They briefly held southern France, but were driven out in the battle of Tours. It would have changed the face of European history if they persevered and connected the two ends of their empire. As a matter of fact that became impossible only a short while later as the infighting among the leadership of the Caliphate broke apart the empire politically, as the western parts of Spain and the like remained with the Ommeyade Arabs, and the eastern part went to the Assadites. The Assadites shifted their gaze eastward instead, shifted their capital to Baghdad, and we got the tales of Arabian Nights.
| Arabian science
The Abbaside period is especially interesting for us because of the new interest in science which it started. Science, as you know, is a very big thing in the modern world, and we owe a great deal to it. Science does not simply sit down and pray for things to happen, but seeks to find out why things happen. It experiments and tries again and again, and sometimes fails and sometimes succeeds—and so bit by bit it adds to human knowledge. This modern world of ours is very different from the ancient world or the Middle Ages. This great difference is largely due to science, for the modern world has been made by science.
Among the ancients we do not find the scientific method in Egypt or China or India. We find just a bit of it in old Greece. In Rome again it was absent. But the Arabs had this scientific spirit of inquiry, and so they may be considered the fathers of modern science. In some subjects, like medicine and mathematics, they learnt much from India. Indian scholars and mathematicians came in large numbers to Baghdad. Many Arab students went to Takshashila in North India, which was still a great university, specializing in medicine. Sanskrit books on medical and other subjects were especially translated into Arabic. Many things—for example, paper-making—the Arabs learnt from China. But on the basis of the knowledge gained from others they made their own researches and made several important discoveries. They made the first telescope and the mariner’s compass. In medicine, Arab physicians and surgeons were famous all over Europe.
| Early Islamic influence in India
Islam came to the north with Mahmud. The south was not touched by Islamic conquest for a long time to come, and even Bengal was free from it for nearly 200 years more. In the north we find Chittor, which was to be so famous in after-history for its reckless gallantry, becoming a rallying-point for Rajput clans. But surely and inexorably the tide of Muslim conquest spread, and no amount of individual courage could stop it. There can be no doubt that the old Indo-Aryan India was on the decline.
Being unable to check the foreigner and the conqueror, Indo-Aryan culture adopted a defensive attitude. It retired into a shell in its endeavours to protect itself. It made its caste system, which till then had an element of flexibility in it, more rigid and fixed. It reduced the freedom of its womenfolk. Even the village panchayats underwent a slow change for the worse. And yet even as it declined before a more vigorous people, it sought to influence them and mould them to its own ways. And such was its power of absorption and assimilation that it succeeded in a measure in bringing about the cultural conquest of its conquerors.
You must remember that the contest was not between the Indo-Aryan civilization and the highly civilized Arab. The contest was between civilized but decadent India and the semi-civilized and occasionally nomadic people from Central Asia who had themselves recently been converted to Islam. Unhappily, India connected Islam with this lack of civilization and with the horrors of Mahmud’s raids, and bitterness grew.