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Mainstream, VOL XLIX, No 48, November 19, 2011

Pandit Nehru and his View of History

Monday 21 November 2011


Pandit Nehru not only created history but also studied it in the analytical-comprehensive mode. His intellectualism had much to owe to his study of history. He viewed history as a tool to understand the secrets of human civilisation and its growth. He developed this tool as a basic platform which could yield answers to many of the unanswered questions of human existence. He studied history in a wider context. “He believed in the study of history as an effective means of revealing why we became the way we are’’1 and used history “as justification for human perfectibility and the more positive side of the modernisation process”.2

In due course of time his historical mindset developed a distinct theory of history. Nehru viewed history as a never-ending series of human actions, in which the seeds of future are embedded. He defined history not as a dead, fossilised, standstill phenomenon. It possessed the capacity to help us discover everything which was hidden and to predict its future course of action. For “Nehru, history was a living process, a continuum linked to the present, and influencing the future, partly determining it.”3 It is this livingness that has always allowed interaction of different forms of social forces in different ages to produce certain events in the historical development of civilisation.

History plays a major role in moulding our thoughts and action. History of every age has a certain positivity if it is studied in a compre-hensive way. Pandit Nehru studied history not only in terms of battles, wars, victories and defeats. He took another route as well where social, philosophical, economic and cultural aspects of different times were given equal prominence. His attitude was that the knowledge of history should be used to propose certain actions and theoretical postulates.

This intellectual orientation led him to concentrate on the great forces of all times and their application in the modern age. The policies of nonalignment and mixed economy owe their birth to Buddha’s theory of the middle path. It is true to state that “another longstanding influence on Nehru was the Buddhist thought because it encouraged the development of rationality away from the self-interest and towards the cultivation of moral life”.4 This influence continued throughout his life. His policy of tolerance and thoughts about disarmament in global politics are indebted to Buddha’s teachings.

NEHRU’S comprehensive view led him to integrate Indian history with world history. “Nehru often attempted to view the Indian past in the context of the world at large.”5 “For Nehru, adopting the idea of universal progress in the very interest of the Indian agency and directing the idea of history against a hierarchical world order, the connection to history was not a question of periphery and centre. History was a universal phenomenon including East and West alike and distinguishing only progressive and retarding factors in all societies.’’6

He never looked upon it as a segregated, exclusive unfolding of events. His assessment of Indian history this way led to the comparative study of history.

Nehru’s thoughts about historical under-standing and its theoretical postulates can be deduced from some of his well-known books. These include Discovery of India, Glimpses of World History and An Autobiography. One explicit generalisation which emerges from their reading is that Nehru did not study history only in the fashion of facts. He in fact interpreted the events in the background of the Indian ethos and universal values. Historiography has always been an admirable field of study. Nehru was a true history writer in the sense that he always analysed the events and provided satisfactory explanations. He has accepted that in his early years, he “wrote cyrenaicism and the like and of various ideas that influenced me then. But it would be wrong to imagine that I thought clearly on these subjects then or even that I thought it necessary to try to be clear and definite about them.”7 But this immaturity about history writing took a definite shape and proved a source of relaxation. When he went to prison in later years, he took up history as an important source of satisfaction by interpreting the historical events. “Sometimes I would be weary of too much reading, and then I would take to writing. My historical series of letters to my daughter kept me occupied right through my two-year term, and they helped me very greatly to keep mentally fit.’’8 His reliance on history was highly interpretative than mere mentioning of facts in a constituent structure.

In this respect he opens the school of Indian historiography; “this obviously was a departure from the German school of historiography which was still fashionable in those days. The business of history, it was believed, was not to interpret or establish linkages but to put facts which would speak for themselves. That was not the way Nehru saw the history.”9

Historiography and analysis of history usually require a particular ideological approach. In many cases in India, Marxism has greatly influenced a wide section of intellectuals. Historians are no exception. Marxism attracted Pandit Nehru too. “The theory and philosophy of Marxism lightened up many a dark corner of my mind. History came to have a new meaning for me. The Marxist interpretation threw a flood of light on it, and it became an unfolding drama with some order and purpose, howsoever unconscious, behind it, and the great world crisis and slump seemed to justify the Marxist analysis.”10

The foregoing acceptance suggests that he took up the Marxist model to interpret history. In fact he found other factors also important in understanding history. In his opinion, “man does not live by politics alone, not indeed, wholly by economics”.11. And the other elements of human existence as the “lesson of tolerance and peaceful coexistence and cooperation which India has believed through the ages (are also important). In the old ages we talked of religion and philosophy; now we talk more of the economic and social system.”12

His approach therefore was more compre-hensive than the Marxist analysis of history. He took notice of other factors including social, religious, cultural and human quest for domi-nation and peace in the analysis of history.


1. David Kopf, “A look at Nehru’s World History—from the Dark Side of Modernity”, paper presented at the Comonwealth Institute, November 7, 1989.
2. Ibid.
3. Satish Chandra, Historiography, Religion, and State in Medieval India, Har-Anand Publications, 1996.
4. Robbie Shilliam, International Relations and Non-Western Thought: Imperialism, Colonialism, and Investigations of Global Modernity, Taylor & Francis, 2010.
5. B.G. Gokhale, “Nehru and History”, History and Theory, Vol. 17, No. 3, October, 1978.
6. Eckhardt Fuchs, Benedikt Stuchtey, Across Cultural Borders: Historiography in Global Perspective, Rowman & Littlefield, 2002
7. Jawaharlal Nehru: An Autobiography, John Lane, The Bodley Head, London, August 1936.
8. Ibid.
9. Satish Chandra, Historiography, Religion, and State in Medieval India, Har-Anand Publications, 1996.
10. Jawaharlal Nehru: An Autobiography, John Lane, The Bodley Head, London, August 1936.
11. Speech of Pandit Nehru at the UNESCO Conference, New Delhi, November 5, 1956.
12. Speech of Pandit Nehru at a civic reception to Mr Bulganin and Mr Khruschev, Calcutta, November 30, 1955.

Dr Vivek Kumar Srivastava is the Vice-Chairman, CSSP, Kanpur. He can be contacted at: vpy1000@ yahoo.co.in

The old idea of writing a history of any one country has become progressively out of date. It is impossible today to think of the history of a country isolated from the rest of the world. The world is getting integrated. We have really to consider history today in a world perspective.

What is the basic philosophy of history? I try to think of history as a process that leads man to higher and better stages of progress. Then I find to my surprise that those higher stages have been represented by great men in the long past. Having been fascinated by the scientific and technological civilisation which has been built in Europe and in America, I gradually come to a stage when it seems to me to have stopped. I begin seeking for something deeper than merely the physical aspect of civilisation. I find that my mind is more interested in what Plato or the Buddha said, which has a timelessness about it. So I wonder if our present-day history having fulfilled its destiny in so far as science and technology are concerned, is at all moving on to a higher plane of human existence. I do not presume that the average historian will be able to answer such a question unless he himself becomes a great seer who can pierce the veil of the future. But he can help in putting things in proper perspective.

[The lnaugural Address at the Asian History Congress, New Delhi, December 9, 1961]

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