Jawaharlal Nehru’s “The Discovery of india” – A Critical Review

India’s first prime minister showed little respect or empathy for the nation’s Hindu majority

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This review critically examines Nehru’s mindset, as revealed in his best-selling book, The Discovery of India (Penguin Classics, 2004). Nehru was educated in the image of India’s British rulers, and, by his own admission, this education left him unconnected with his fellow Indians. He unreservedly accepted the European hypotheses about India’s ancient Civilization. Being an atheist obsessed with secularism and appeasing Islam, he showed little regard or empathy for Hindus, who were survivors of 500 years of physical and emotional torment by Muslim invaders and rulers, followed by 200 years of British control. His Western and pro-Muslim biases taint the entire narrative of an otherwise well-written book with an abundance of interesting facts and accounts of the civilizational history of India.

Jawaharlal Nehru (1889 – 1964) was India’s first Prime Minister, an Independence leader, and a central figure in Indian politics. He was Motilal Nehru’s son, a nationalist statesman in the Indian Independence Movement, and a prominent lawyer. Motilal Nehru saw his son’s future in his capacity to absorb the language and culture of India’s British rulers. Young Jawaharlal was a graduate of Trinity College, Cambridge, and the Inner Temple, where he trained to be a barrister. Upon his return to India, he practiced law at Allahabad High Court but became increasingly involved in national politics. He initially belonged to the left wing of the Indian National Congress Party but later became a Congress President under the mentorship of Mahatma Gandhi. After independence and the bloody partition of India, Nehru became India’s first Prime Minister. He envisioned an India that was a socialist state, secular, democratic, and modern.

Jawaharlal Nehru was an avid reader of history and politics. He wrote The Discovery of India during his imprisonment at the Ahmadnagar Fort for five months, from April to September 1944. “His experience abroad implanted in him a marked capacity for distance and detachment towards his own country,” says Sunil Khilnani, Director of South Asia Studies at Johns Hopkins University. “It also left him, by his own admission, unconnected to the living world of his fellow Indians”, says Khilnani, who wrote that he approached India ‘as an alien critic’ … and looked at her as a friendly Westerner might have done. ‘I was eager and anxious to change her outlook and appearance and give her a garb of modernity.’

Did Nehru’s strong desire to change India’s outlook and appearance bias his views of Indian history and culture? Did his upbringing in the image of India’s British rulers incline him to judge India’s past as well as present with a colonial mindset? Did his obsession with secularism make him diminish and deride India’s sacred Vedic texts? Did the same fixation result in his acceptance of barbarianism and atrocities by Muslim invaders and rulers as nothing extraordinary, just the normal course of history? Did his belief in India as a composite culture, a blend of multiple faiths and traditions, make him forget the foundation on which an open, welcoming, accepting society was built over thousands of years? Could this diverse civilization have been developed on the premise of an Abrahamic religion like Christianity or Islam?

This review aims to critically examine the book’s contents and the author’s psychology. Very early in the book (p. 10), one sees the author’s inner self. “History had little significance for me. I was still less interested in the supernatural or problems of a future life. Science and today’s problems and our present life attracted me far more.” The candid admission of his approach to life presents in clear and concise terms the conflict between Jawaharlal Nehru and his ancestral ancient civilization with its long history, distinct philosophy, and present state of decline.

Chapter 4, Discovery of India, covers the period starting from the Indus Valley Civilization to the Maurya empire. It is worth noting that the author relies almost exclusively on accounts of Western Indologists in determining the chronology of ancient India. More importantly, he accepts the hypotheses/theories put forth by these European scholars without question or challenge. Indian sources are ignored or discounted.

Even the discovery of the Indus Valley Civilization is attributed solely to Sir John Marshall, the first Director-General of the Archaeological Survey of India from 1902 to 1928, who oversaw the excavations at Harappa and Mohenjodaro. Rakhaldas Bandopadhyay, aka R.D. Banerji, the real discoverer of Mohenjodaro, is never mentioned. It is well documented that Marshall prohibited Banerji from publishing his results so that he could claim credit for the same. He was later knighted for his ‘discovery’. On p. 66, he writes, “Yet another quotation from Marshall, the acknowledged authority on the Indus Valley Civilization, who was himself responsible for the excavations.”

Following are some of the direct quotes from Chapter 4.

  • “It is quite possible, and even probable, that their (IVC) culture was an indigenous culture, and its roots and offshoots may be found even in southern India” (p. 68).
  • “The usual date accepted by most scholars today for the hymns of the Rig Veda is 1500 BC”. Max Muller has called it: ‘the first words spoken by the Aryan man’ (p.73).
  • “The Vedas were the outpourings of the Aryans as they streamed into the rich land of India” (p. 73).
  • “Many Hindus look upon the Vedas as revealed scripture. This seems to me to be peculiarly unfortunate, for thus we miss their real significance–the unfolding of the human mind in the earliest stages of thought.”
  • “The Vedas are a jumble of many things: hymns, prayers, ritual for sacrifice, magic, magnificent nature poetry” (p. 75).
  • “A country under foreign domination seeks escape from the present in dreams of a vanished age and finds consolation in visions of past greatness. That is a foolish and dangerous pastime in which many of us indulge. An equally questionable practice for us in India is to imagine that we are still spiritually great though we have come down in the world in other respects” (p.78).
  • “The coming of the Aryans into India raised new problems — racial and political. The conquered race, the Dravidians, had a long background of civilization behind them, but there is little doubt that the Aryans considered themselves vastly superior, and a wide gulf separated the two races. Out of this conflict and interaction of races gradually arose the caste system. Probably caste was neither Aryan nor Dravidian. It was an attempt at social organization of different races, a rationalization …. Thus at a time when it was customary for the conquerors to exterminate or enslave the conquered races, caste enabled a peaceful solution which fitted in with the growing specialization of functions” (p.81-82).
  • Chapter 4 exposes some awfully troubling facts about Nehru’s treatment of Indian (Hindu) history. He accepts the theory depicting Aryans as a race marauding from the northwest and conquering the native Dravidians. He then conflates the Varna/Jati system, aka caste system, with these racial divisions. He accepts 1500 BCE as the date of the Rig Veda as first proposed (arbitrarily) by Max Mueller to fit into the Old Testament chronology/Noah’s flood and later accepted by other Western Indologists without evidence. He rejects the Vedas as a revealed scripture and even denigrates their content. He finally castigates contemporary Indians (Hindus) for foolishly indulging in visions of past greatness.

Nehru’s sources of historical events are Max Mueller, Arthur Macdonell, Keith, and other Western Indologists. He accepts their hypotheses/theories as facts. He asks no questions and presents no challenges. Yet, he indicts Indians (Hindus) for accepting their tradition as history without sufficient examination, as quoted below. “Indians are peculiarly liable to accept tradition as history, uncritically and without sufficient examination. They will have to rid themselves of this loose thinking and easy way of arriving at conclusions” (p. 103-104).

Interestingly, Nehru doesn’t consider Indian sources as authentic. On the other hand, he accepts Western accounts as authoritative without a semblance of critical examination. What he calls generally accepted history is hypotheses and chronology developed by scholars in Germany and England through the prism of Western and Biblical premises.

The coverage of Indian (Hindu/Buddhist) culture in South-East Asia is thorough and historically accurate. Credit is given to Indian thought, philosophy, and art and its political influence from the first to the fourteenth century CE in Ceylon, Burma, Malaya, Java, Sumatra, Borneo, Siam, Cambodia, and Indo-China. There are glowing accounts of the Sri Vijaya empire as well as Kamboja, Champa, Majapahit, and other Hindu/Buddhist rulers. The magnificent temples of Angkor and Borobudur are cited as a testimony to Indian art and culture. Dr. Quaritch Wales is quoted as saying, ‘When the guiding hand of India was removed, her inspiration was not forgotten, but Khmer genius was released to mold from it vast new conceptions of amazing vitality…..It is true that Khmer culture is essentially based on the inspiration of India’ ( p.221).

A Thai student returning home from Tagore’s Santiniketan is quoted as saying, ’I always consider myself exceptionally fortunate in being able to come to this great and ancient land of Aryavarta and pay my humble homage at the feet of grandmother India in whose affectionate arms my mother country was so lovingly brought up and taught to appreciate and love what was sublime and beautiful in culture and religion.’

The author also gives due credit to the development of mathematics in ancient India. He quotes La Place:’It is India that gave us the ingenious method of expressing all numbers by means of ten symbols…; and we shall appreciate the grandeur of this achievement when we remember that it escaped the genius of Archimedes and Apollonius, two of the greatest men produced by antiquity (p. 230).

Aryabhata, Bhaskara I, and Brahmagupta are duly credited for advances in arithmetic, algebra, and astronomy (p. 233). Bhaskara II is remembered for writing three books on astronomy, algebra, and arithmetic, including ‘Lilavati’ ( p. 233). In modern times the author refers to Srinivasa Ramanujam as an extraordinary figure. He laments colonial India’s lack of education and opportunity and wonders how many geniuses might have been deprived of reaching their full potential.

Nehru observes that during the first millennium of the Christian era, the culture developed into a rich civilization flowering in philosophy, literature, drama, art, science, and mathematics. The economy expanded, the Indian horizon widened, and other countries came within its scope (p. 236).

The author observes a progressive decline of Indian Civilization starting in the second millennium. He compares it to the not-so-progressive but sudden collapse of the Roman empire. He states that Rome started weakening internally well before its fall. He attributes India’s gradual decline to the growing rigidity and exclusiveness of its social structures, represented chiefly by the caste system (p. 240).

The inevitable decline due to caste rigidity is not supported by any historical evidence. But it is asserted that the spirit of exclusiveness sapped the creative faculty and developed a small-group and parochial outlook. He goes on and on about blaming the caste system for the ensuing decline – intellectual, philosophical, political, etc. It is a bold hypothesis that doesn’t seem to be grounded in facts. India’s economy actually didn’t shrink as much during the next six hundred years. In 1600 CE, it still produced 25% of the world GDP vs. a paltry 1.9% for Britain in the same period. The political fragmentation and lack of a strong central authority seem to have caused the loss of territory and freedom to foreign invasions beginning in the second millennium CE.

Nehru’s narrative on India’s Islamic conquest and rule is most problematic. It seems to be denying or diluting well-documented atrocities and horror. The havoc unleashed on India by Muslim invaders is rationalized and even celebrated in places. We will take a detailed look at this humiliating and dehumanizing chapter of Indian history and the author’s unfortunate view of it.

The world-renowned historian Will Durant has written in his Story of Civilization that “the Mohammedan conquest of India was probably the bloodiest story in history.” While relying heavily on Western sources, Nehru conveniently disregards this eminent scholar of history in the context of Islam in India.

Nehru on Islam and the prophet: The triumphant career of a people from the deserts of Arabia is most remarkable. “They must have derived their vast energy from the dynamic and revolutionary character of their prophet and his message of human brotherhood” (p. 243).

“The Christianity that was practiced in North Africa was narrow and intolerant, and the contrast between this and the general toleration of the Muslim Arabs, with their message of human brotherhood, was marked” (p. 243).

Talking about contacts between Arabs and India, it is stated that during the reign of Khalifa, Harun-al-Rashid Arabs learned much of Indian mathematics, astronomy, and medicine. Though the Arabs learned much from India, the Indians did not learn much from the Arabs. “The Indians remained aloof, wrapped up in their own conceits” (p. 248).

It is interesting to note that while acknowledging the raids of Mahmud of Ghazni, circa 1000 CE, as bloody and ruthless, the author states that Mahmud was far more a warrior than a man of faith, and like many other conquerors he used and exploited the name of religion for his conquests. While giving Islam a pass in these bloody contests, he continues to malign the Indians (Hindus), quoting Alberuni, a contemporary of Mahmood and a traveler, ‘Indians are haughty, foolishly vain, self-contained, and stolid,’ and they believe, ‘there is no country like theirs, no nation like theirs, …no science like theirs.’ “Probably a correct enough description of the temper of the people” (p. 252).

Next, Nehru describes Shahab-ud-Din Mohammed Ghuri’s defeat by Prithvi Raj Chauhan in Delhi, followed by Ghuri’s triumph over Prithvi Raj a year later and claiming the throne of Delhi in 1192. He then goes on to deride Prithvi Raj, a popular Hindu hero (p. 254). Nehru goes on by pointing out that historians have divided Indian history into three major periods: the ancient Hindu, Muslim, and British periods. He disagrees with this characterization. According to him, the (Muslim) invaders from the north-west became absorbed into India and part of her life. Their dynasties became Indian dynasties, and there was a great deal of racial fusion by intermarriage. A deliberate effort was made, with a few exceptions, not to interfere with the ways and customs of India. They looked to India as their home country and had no other affiliations. “INDIA CONTINUED TO BE AN INDEPENDENT COUNTRY” (p. 254).

“India became their home country. One of their great rulers, Alauddin Khilji, himself married a Hindu lady, and so did his son.” Were these marriages consensual? Were the women not subjected to forced conversions? Were any of the offspring Hindu? Of course not. With the exception of Timur’s sack of Delhi late in the fourteenth century, there is hardly any acknowledgment of major atrocities by the Islamic invaders from Turkey and Afghanistan. Babar, Akbar, and most of the other Mughal emperors are hailed as builders, promoters of art and literature, and agents of a new vigor in the ‘old and tired culture of India’ (p.279).

While Nehru’s accolades of Akbar are boundless, there is a muted criticism of Aurungzeb’s ‘Muslim policies.’ Nehru sees the Mughal period as a great chapter in Indian history. Islam is absolved of any atrocities committed in its name. Due to recorded history, what cannot be denied is blamed on a handful of Turks and their ‘inherent barbarism’.

Let us now examine the historical records of the Muslim period as chronicled by the invaders and rulers themselves.

The Chachnama records the Arab (not Turkish) conquest of Sindh by Muhammed bin Qasim around 710 CE when he defeated Raja Dahir. Qasim presented the head of Dahir and thirty-live daughters of chiefs to Governor Al-Hajjaj, who prostrated before Allah, offered thanksgiving and praise, and then forwarded the spoils to the Khalifa. The Khalifa kept some of the daughters of the chiefs for himself and sold the rest while praising Allah.

After “peace” had been restored to Sindh, the Chachnama records,” Muhammed bin Qasim fixed a tax upon all subjects according to the laws of the Prophet. Those who embraced Islam were exempted from slavery, the tribute, and taxes, and from those who did not change their creed, a tax was extracted according to three grades.” It was announced that “Heathenism is now at an end, the temples are thrown down, the world has received the light of Islam, and mosques are built instead of idol temples.”

It should be noted that before the advent of Islam, Hindu princes fought wars based on time-honored conventions on the rules of engagement. Brahmans and Bhikshus were never molested. Cows were not killed. Temples were not touched. Non-combatants were never killed or captured. The chastity of women was not violated.

Islamic imperialism came with a different code. Pillage and arson of temples, the sacking of towns and villages, and murder, enslavement, and rape of non-combatants were the new order.

Around 1000 CE, Mahmud Ghaznavi’s exploits are described in Tarikh-i-Yamini of Utbi, Mahmud’s secretary, “The blood of the infidels flowed so copiously at Thanesar…The Sultan returned with plunder which is impossible to count. Praise be to Allah for the honor he bestows on Islam and Muslims.” When Mahmud marched to Mathura, according to Utbi, “The Sultan gave orders that all temples be burned with naphtha and fire, and leveled to the ground.” Of course, it was after he seized five gold and 200 silver idols. Mahmud’s sack of Somnath is too well-known to be retold here.

Then came Muhammed Ghuri. After Prithviraj Chauhan had been defeated in 1192, Hasan Nizami writes in Taj-ul-Masir,” While the Sultan remained at Ajmer, he destroyed the idol temples and raised mosques on their foundations.” The following year Varanasi was plundered. Nizami rejoices,” In Benares, which is the center of the country of Hind, one thousand temples were destroyed.” Kamil-ut-Tawarikh of Ibn Asir said, “Slaughter of Hindus at Varanasi was immense; none were spared except women and children.” Women and children were spared so that they could be enslaved and sold all over the Islamic world.

There are repeated references by Nehru to the great University of Nalanda in Bihar, a center of Hindu and Buddhist learning with a capacity to teach 10,000 pupils and a library containing tens of thousands of volumes of Hindu and Buddhist literature and scripture. But no mention of the infamous Bakhtyar Khalji, who sacked the undefended university around 1200 CE and set fire to the library, burned it for three months to its extinction. Badauni records this mayhem vividly in his Muntakhab-ut-Tawarikh. Badauni also describes Ghiyassudin Balban’s expedition across the Ganges in 1254. ”In the territory of Katihar, he put to death every male, even those of eight years of age, and bound the women.”

The rebuilt temple of Somnath was plundered by Alauddin Khilji in 1298. According to Tarikh-i-Wassaf, he sacked Surat and Cambay. Hindus were slaughtered en masse. Kamala Devi, the queen of Gujarat, was captured along with the royal treasury, brought to Delhi, and forced into Alauddin’s harem. As quoted above, Nehru’s version of this event: “One of the great rulers, Alauddin Khilji himself, married a Hindu lady.” What a glowing example of an inter-faith marriage! Wilful distortion of history, selective amnesia, or plain ignorance? One would have expected better of our illustrious founding Prime Minister and author of best-selling books on Indian history.

Firuz Shah Tuglaq, around 1360 CE, destroyed the temple of Jagannath at Puri. According to Sirat-i-Firuz Shahi, written or dictated by him, “Allah, who is the only true God and has no other emanation, endowed the king of Islam with the strength to destroy this ancient shrine…and after its destruction, he ordered the image of Jagannath to be perforated and disgraced.” He then attacked an island off the coast which he turned into “a basin of blood by the massacre of the unbelievers.” Women were pressed into service in the house of every soldier.

The climax came during the invasion of Timur in 1399 CE. In his Tuzk-i-Timuri, he reports,” O Prophet, make war upon the infidels and unbelievers, and treat them severely.” He ordered his soldiers to “kill all the men, to make prisoners of women and children, and to plunder and lay waste all their property.” He then directed “towers to be built on the skulls of those obstinate unbelievers.” About 100,000 captured Hindus then became the “food for the sword” according to Tuzk-i-Timuri. As Timur entered Delhi, the Hindus set fire to their houses and burned their wives and children before rushing into battle and becoming martyrs.

Babur, the founder of the Mughal empire, receives much acclaim from Nehru for his fortitude in adversity, daring against heavy odds, swimming across many rivers, and love of flowers and fruit. In Tuzuk-i-Baburi, never quoted by Nehru, Babur himself provides lurid details of the massacre of infidels. As a true descendant of Timur, he was particularly fond of raising higher and higher towers of Hindu heads after every battle. He loved to sit in his royal tent and watch the spectacle of prisoners brought before him and butchered by his “brave” swordsmen. He destroyed temples wherever he saw them. Remember the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya built on the remains of a Ram temple! The most exalted Jalaluddin Mohammed Akbar, the standard bearer of the great Mughals, starts his reign by stabbing the half-dead Himu with his sword after the second battle of Panipat. According to Akbar-Nama, the ritual was followed by many more “brave warriors” of Islam led by Bairam Khan, who drove their swords into the dead body. In 1568 Akbar ordered a general massacre at Chittor. Abul Fazl records in his Akbar-Nama,” There were 8,000 fighting Rajputs, but there were more than 40,000 peasants who took part in watching and serving. When Sultan Alauddin Khalji took the fort, the peasantry was not put to death. But on this occasion, orders were given for a general massacre since they had shown great zeal and activity.” Akbar thus improved upon Alauddin Khalji’s record of violence.

Jahangir’s torture of Guru Arjun Dev is well documented in his own Turk-i-Jahangiri: “A Hindu named Arjun lived in Govindwal on the bank of river Beas in the garb of a saint. Idiots became his followers. The business had flourished for three or four generations. It had been on my mind to put an end to this Dukan-e-basil (mart of falsehood) or to bring him to the fold of Islam.”

Again, no mention of Guru Arjun’s torture and killing in Nehru’s narrative. Shah Jahan’s atrocities are described in his Badshahnama. An example: ”Udaybhan and Shyam Dava (Bundelas) were offered the alternative of Islam or death. They chose the latter and were sent to hell.” Aurangzeb’s infamous reign and monstrosities are too numerous to count. His Farmans are well documented, and gruesome details are fully recorded in Maasir-i-Alamgiri. Nehru glosses over his hideous, dreadful reign, blaming his ‘Muslim policies’ for the weakening and fall of the Mughal empire and the rise of Hindu nationalism and Maratha power under Shivaji.

To term the Muslim period as Indo-Islamic or Indo-Mughal and the Muslim invaders as merely overzealous Turks or Afghans not interested in spreading the ‘brotherhood of Islam’ but pursuing their own territorial ambitions can’t be farther from the truth. It is the greatest indictment of Nehru’s false premise in an otherwise fair and interesting narrative of what he viewed as India’s past. It is disingenuous and outrageous.

In contrast to the benign treatment of Muslim invasions, rape, and plunder lasting over 500 years, Nehru minces no words in his disparagement of British colonialism. He is articulate and lucid in laying out the enviable state of the Indian economy, indigenous industry, education, and culture before the advent of the English and its dramatic decline over two hundred years of British rule. Prosperous Bengal suffered famine after famine and was the most impoverished part of India by the time of independence. The indigenous industry disappeared while the loot from India financed the industrial revolution in Britain. Goods manufactured in India, such as textiles that were once exported to Britain by the East India Company, were later prohibited entry by legislation and tariffs while the Indian market was opened to British manufacturers. Shipbuilding, paper mills, metal and glass works, and many other crafts declined in India as it fueled the new industries in Britain through the influx of its treasure and expansion of credit. While industry declined, agriculture decayed as well. Unemployment was rampant. India became the agricultural colony of industrial England. In two centuries, a prosperous nation became a victim of chronic starvation, undernourishment, disease, and illiteracy. It is noted that in 1858 the East India Company transferred its domain of India to the British crown for handsome compensation paid by India!

While accurately recounting the scourge of British colonialism, the emerging threat to the unity of the county is alarmingly misunderstood. “The past of India, with all its cultural variety and greatness, was a common heritage of all the Indian people, Hindu, Muslim, Christian, and others, and their ancestors had helped to build it. The fact of subsequent conversion to other faiths did not deprive them of this heritage, just as the Greeks, after their conversion to Christianity, did not lose their pride in the mighty achievements of their ancestors. ….If all the people of India had been converted to Islam or Christianity, her cultural heritage would still have remained to inspire them” (p. 374).

“Pakistan, the proposal to divide India is, of course, no solution for this (Muslim) backwardness and is much more likely to delay the economic progress of Muslims” (p. 385).

Commenting on the creation of the All India Muslim League in 1906 to create a political platform for Muslims and the subsequent introduction of separate electorates for them, he laments,” Of vital significance to India’s future development, it was decided to introduce separate electorates for Muslims. Henceforward, Muslims could only stand for election and be elected by separate Muslim electorates. A political barrier was created around them, isolating them from the rest of India and reversing the unifying and amalgamating process which had been going on for centuries” (p.388).

On the Pakistan movement, he goes on to say, “It may be that some division of India is enforced, with some tenuous bond joining the divided parts. Even if this happens, I am convinced that the basic feeling of unity and world developments will later bring the divided parts nearer to each other and result in a real unity” (p. 591).

Pakistan was delivered by the tenacious leadership of his nemesis Mohammed Ali Jinnah barely three years after this book was written. As for all the people of India, Hindu, Muslim, and Christian, taking pride in their common ancient heritage, look no further than Pakistan, Bangladesh, or the Valley of Kashmir today. The unifying and amalgamating process Nehru romanticized perhaps never existed or did so only as long as Muslims were in power and Hindus were subjugated to their will.

Nehru’s part in the creation of Pakistan may be debatable, but his lead role in framing India’s constitution and ensuing policies as Prime Minister demonstrates a clear lack of sensitivity to Hindu interests and sentiments. He didn’t care because he believed that if all of India converted to Islam or Christianity, it wouldn’t make a difference. He understood socio-economic problems and technological solutions but brushed aside religious fault lines as petty communalism. These pages illustrate the thinking or perhaps naivete behind it.

  1. Jawaharlal Nehru: The Discovery of India, Penguin Books, 2004

Sarvajit Thakur is a technology entrepreneur and mentor based in Silicon Valley. Raised in a family of Vedic/Sanskrit scholars, he is keenly interested in Hindu civilization, knowledge systems, history, and existential threats currently faced by Hindus worldwide.

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