A remarkable series of letters written in the pleasanter vein of fiction rather than of history, interspersed with intimate personal touches here and there, and giving glimpses of the growth of the world from ages past, down to the days of Napoleon, setting out the results of introspection as much as of study forced by physical inactivity when inside a prison, is this book of Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru which presents history not as a mere piling up of names and events, but as a helpful guide in determining the Time-spirit of days gone by as well as of the present. Though not an ambitious and scholarly survey of world history, the book is eminently helpful in that it keeps to chronology and gives brief but telling surveys of contemporaneous civilizations. It was Lord Acton who said that history should not be written—much less should it be taught—to Greenwich latitudes and longitudes, thereby meaning that the study of history of one particular country or part of the world to the exclusion of all the rest, may lead to a perverse understanding of the very purpose of history. It is no small temptation for an Indian to write history with particular emphasis on Delhi and its many empires though lawfully they may claim a very large place in any world history. Pandit Jawaharlal has however avoided over-emphasis on India though doubtless he has given the East, the home of the most ancient civilizations, its due share in his scheme of the world-narrative without minimizing the importance of those vast expanses of territory outside India and China which have had civilizations later in origin but equally outstanding and have left an ineffaceable record in human progress.
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There is as much said of the glory that was of Hellas or Rome as of India or China. In the ancient civilizations which have passed away like a dream, what is prominently pictured to us is not the mere story of conquest, or battle or the enumeration of dates and places but of the glorious development of art, the sciences and religion which have left indelible traces of their influence on the human life of a later day. Panditji’s survey opens with the reminder that of the empires of Babylonia, Assyria, Chaldia and Egypt not a trace of their civilization exists, but in spite of all changes in dynasties, battles and invasions, destruction and loot, there has been a real continuity of civilization only in India and China. ‘It is interesting and rather wonderful to think of the long continuity of Indian culture and civilization right from the dawn of history through long ages down to us.’ ‘In a sense we in India to-day are the heirs of these thousands of years’ and it is therefore nothing surprising that the ancient history of the East deservedly gets greater notice than that of the West in parallel periods.
What is really stupefying is the vastness of time through which humanity has passed, but only a meagre chronicle is left of that march of events which helps us but little in understanding how the early man succeeded in cutting down vast stretches of forest, built his little village republics and townships, organized crafts and petty trades, turned the waste into arable land and finally set up governments and States primarily for his own protection and also for ensuring the happiness of posterity. While Rome and Greece remained unknown and the West had not emerged from its semi-barbarous condition, India and China enjoyed a high degree of civilization and with their teeming and industrious populations were the envy of the world. The unequalled profundity of the Vedas and Upanishads were the results of the growth of a great culture through thousands of years. Confucius and the Buddha have influenced and are influencing the minds of millions as no one did after them. There is nothing in the world’s history to compare with the supreme compassion of Asoka whose name shines apart like a star ‘amidst the thousands of monarchs that crowd the columns of history and whose memory is cherished by more living men than that of Charlesmagne or Constantine.’ The spread of Buddhism in lands other than that of its origin is one of the splendid romances of history and we can hardly picture to ourselves the almost insuperable difficulties of those days when nothing but the fire of faith that burned within could have helped the missionaries in crossing the seas and securing rich spiritual harvests. Pandit Jawaharlal takes us through all these proud days, though history as taught in our Indian schools and colleges leaves little room for them. Greece and Rome fly past before us in the world’s survey. What is left of ancient Greece, though little is still enduring, the marvellous statuary of Phidias, the great drama of the tragedians, and the inimitable Socratic philosophy, later maturing into the riper wisdom of Plato and Aristotle. Rome too has gone into oblivion leaving to the world’s heritage a few great names like Caesar’s and a notable system of law and jurisprudence.
It is difficult always to write chronologically, but we must, however, feel grateful to Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru for his pointed references to comparative periods of history in East and West. One is often apt to fall into error and form fallacious conclusions if the history of the world were not treated as one unit. Rome in the days of Pliny was still an incipient civilization compared to the East which dazzled the geographer by its precious stones, gold and cloth of gold. Asoka was a far greater monarch and held sway over a greater part of the then known world than did his less famous contemporaries, the Polemics of Egypt or the effeminate successors of Alexander. The South Indian Chola kings of the tenth and eleventh centuries had more colonies in their reckoning than did the petty chiefs of mid-Europe. It is difficult to decide as to who was more civilized, the Spanish brigands who overran Mexico or the Aztec chiefs who were put to the sword, though full of courtesy and gentleness. England, for instance, even in the palmy days of Elizabeth was a comparatively insignificant country and seems only a petty principality beside the grandeur of Vizianagar of Krishnadeva Raya. No doubt, the seadogs of England had begun to raid the world’s waters and showed much of adventure, but the country itself was a narrow island with not even a small empire as Spain or Portugal of that time had, peopled with but a sparse population who had only squalid dwellings, with poor bread for their food and not very decent dress either. Not even the splash of genius in Shakespeare and Spenser can make us overlook the fact that the country had then little advanced either in philosophy which had found a start only in Bacon or even in science and mathematics where the Moors of Spain had excelled centuries earlier. Spain owes an everlasting debt of gratitude to the Moors who lit it up with a rare culture, a debt which could never be recompensed, but later was tragically to be met by a bitter, cruel and unchristian persecution. A refreshing contrast to this is the broad tolerance of Hinduism and Buddhism and the gentleness of the more aggressive Islam which was full of courtesy towards the Christians. It was the Pope who condemned Chemistry and called it a diabolical art. It was under his official patronage that the inquisition started a regular hunt for heretics. Despite all this the middle-ages saw the renaissance which left some of the finest specimens of human skill in the fine arts. The Moguls in India were far more powerful arid wielded more influence than did seven the Bourbons who were the proudest monarchs of Europe and were backed by men of great cunning like Richelieu and Mazarin and men of illustrious military genius like Turenne and Conde.
Coming down to modern times one finds strikingly enough the roles of East and West reversed. India and China are among the conquered and Europe flies its flag everywhere. The militant Turks hide on the. Bosphorus. Capital after Capital in India capitulates. The Chinese coast is nibbled and eaten off. The industrial revolution which transformed the face of the world as nothing else could have done placed the less advanced at the heel of the more prosperous people. Japan held China captive and India was overrun by foreigners. In the process of making life easy and comfortable the industrial revolution has left it so only for the few, making life for the millions a mechanical boredom meaningless of free air, free association and free speech. The age of machinery has meant more hunger and tears, more wars and frightful destruction. The rebellion against over-mechanization has just begun and the jaded world yet awaits its results with interest.
Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru has a variety of interesting observations about the great men of history. Some of them are strikingly original, Alexander is no more than a conceited and cruel general; though he knew not India and the whole of China, still he was vain enough to think that the world lay at his feet and that there was nothing more to conquer. To Mommsen’s idol, Julius Caesar, the Pandit pays scant attention, though Caesar unlike Alexander was a man of genius and left for Rome a highly developed system of administration and law. Asoka is the ideal king and rightly so. The early ideal of tolerance implanted generations earlier by the Hindu faith and nursed by Asoka had made India largely the centre of world culture. The great Khans of China who shook up Europe, Chengiz and his successors, excite the admiration of the Pandit who says, half wondering at his own preferences, ‘Strange is it not that this fierce and cruel and violent feudal chief of a nomadic tribe should fascinate a peaceful, non-violent and mild person like me who am a dweller of cities and hater of everything feudal?’ To the Moslem conquerors of India the Pandia seems a little too generous, if it is not forgotten that Islam in India has many dark chapters to account for, the darkest of them being the sack of Vizianagar which was so rich and beautiful that you would hardly find anywhere another such and was yet ‘seized, pillaged and reduced to ruins amid scenes of savage massacre beggaring description.’ The Pandit lays stress on two points which in his opinion accounts for the extenuation of much of the brute force of Islam in India, the late coming of Islam into India and even then not through the refined Arabs but through the semi-civilized Turks. William of Orange of the Netherlands, one of the first genuine rebels against despotism in the West comes in for his due share of praise. ‘Akbar’, says the author, ‘was the very essence of authoritarianism’ and in him the qualities of a discerning and astute politician and a gallant soldier found a fine blend. Kang-Hi, the Manchu king, a great lover of culture and an earnest Confucian, the compiler of the Chinese dictionary, the first of its kind attempted in the world, is deservedly held up to our admiration as a far greater man and monarch than the much vaunted Louis Quotorze. Clive was no better than a brigand—a correct estimate. To Mirabeau the Pandit is less than just if we remember that Lord Acton himself has assigned for that great French statesman a place free from taint and full of honour in the niche of revolutionary politicians. Napoleon who comes up as the culmination of military generalship in France and with whom the present volume closes is portrayed as a man great in genius but abounding in faults, full of heroism, reckless gallantry and indefatigable valour, yet strangely enough conceited, almost having the touch of the parvenu, the upstart, about him. What a tragic and pathetic fate awaited this great man who was held captive and left to rot in dungeons in St. Helena.
All through the book great men come and go and they appear but as the grains of gold deposited in the vast sandbeds of time. History read with a proper perspective tells us that it is not they who have made history so much as history that has made them. Napoleon and even Caeser knew not that they were mere men of destiny than anything else. The times threw them up and it is again the times that rang the curtain over their illustrious lives. More changes have been wrought in History by, say, the discovery of fire by early man or the coming of gunpowder and the printing press than by all the man-made law of the kings. Pythogoras and Plato, Newton and Liebnitz, Michael Angelo and Leonardo da Vinci, Sankara and Ramanuja, Buddha and Confucius, Voltaire and Rousseau are men of far greater consequence to history than even its tallest generals and statesmen. The French Revolution which started as a protest against the oppression of the Bourbons and finally ended in dispersing thoughts of freedom through the world accounted for far less change than the industrial revolution which followed close on its heels and which was worked by the invention of the spinning, ginning, the steam engine and various other mechanical devices. No doubt the former was more intense and terrific in its immediate results but the latter has silently but surely altered beyond recognition the lives of millions.
Coming down to the last pages of the present book, what does one see—the industrial revolution and the war-government of man. The times when man was not very much the subject of the state but helped largely to shape his own life fast come to an end being replaced by those where Government assumes threatening mastery over human life and the relentless Machine all but overpowers it. No man has enough and all men too have not enough. This may seem paradoxical, nevertheless true. Such is the rapacity of the modern states and individuals. The great War of 1914 laid waste far more property and took far more toll of human blood than did the Napoleonic Wars before them. Looking at vast stretches of history, it is not quite clear whether humanity to-day is after all very civilized or advanced. Even at the commencementof the book the Pandit exclaims ‘there is enough want of cooperation to-day of one country with another If after millions of years of progress we are so backward and imperfect how much longer will it take us to behave as sensible and reasonable men.’ This, however, which is more exclamatory than real ought not to make us pessimistic. Perhaps progress in human life is not all in straight lines but in circles. The human mind often goes to the top of clemency and again declines. We cannot for instance be blind to the enormous gains which the pursuit of modern science has brought us. Added to this is the comfort derived from a proper study of history, which emphasizes this one fact that it is the moral law, which is eternal and in all the mutations through which human life has passed, nothing shines so well as the voice which has, time and again, reminded us about the unchangeability of righteousness. The only hope that sustains and inspires life today is that we are progressing towards the proper ideal and if, history written and recorded can help us to the realization of this hope it would have well served its purpose. Pandit Jawaharlal, though speaking from his solitary prison, has high hopes of the future of humanity and those who will read this volume will await with greater interest and delight its more elaborate successor which promises to take us intimately into our own times already surging with the thought of liberty not for one country but for all.