By: Ramin Jahanbegloo
It is a great honor and a privilege for me to come here and to deliver this lecture on “Nehru and Dialogue of Cultures”. Nehru’s has long been an honored name around the globe and especially among the peace-lovers and critical cosmopolitans. Maybe this is the reason why in assessing Nehru as a man of dialogue, it may truly be claimed that his experience with human culture has been an integral part of world history. As a matter of fact, for the past three generations, in India and elsewhere, Nehru has symbolized a figure of peace and intellectual tolerance, two inner qualities which he possessed and guided his life. As Martin Luther King said correctly about Nehru: “ In all struggles of mankind to rise to a true state of civilization, the towering figure of Nehru sits unseen but felt at all council levels.” There are few individuals in each century of human life who affect the lives of nations. Such a one was Jawaharlal Nehru. Much work has been done on Nehru, the politician, and exhaustive surveys of his international interventions have been taken up. Scholars have written a great number of biographies of Nehru, but very little attempt has been made to understand and evaluate him as a man of culture and as an “animateur” of intercultural dialogue. If it is unusual to consider Nehru in this way, it is perhaps because we have become too accustomed to thinking of him as a political leader simply pursuing the career of a politician. But Nehru was certainly more than a simple political careerist. Martin Luther King called him “ A Great Mediator”, because more than any other one person in his time he influenced the East and the West. The truth is that the humanist in Nehru constantly watched over his politics, especially in the task of interpreting world affairs he frequently attempted to divest himself of the kind that said: “Politics is above ethics.” Nehru’s internationalism and his moral regard for human dignity with his great concern for world peace and his conviction that co-existence and tolerance were essential conditions for the survival of human civilization were logical outcomes of his struggle for Indian freedom. In this, Nehru was delivering deeply into the roots of Indian culture the message of the eternity of Truth formulated in the Vedic saying: “ Truth is one, but wise men describe it in different ways.” The tolerance of those with whom one disagreed and this readiness to keep up the dialogue with other cultures with the ultimate object of bringing peace was no doubt a part of the Indian view of life that Nehru knew well and he brought to the subject of Indian democracy. It was the search for truth that he cherished, a kind of spiritual temper which he wished to inculcate to the Indian people. For him, philosophy, science and even politics were manners of searching for truth with all its broad meanings and multiple aspects. Truth was for Nehru an intermingling of moral faith and reason. That is to say, Nehru’s ideals were not only rationalist and scientific, but also ethical and spiritual.
As the leader of his country in the fateful years after Independence, he promoted and communicated ideals and imperatives of peace and human dignity to people of all walks of life and all degree of education in India and around the world. He deeply felt that democracy was more than just a political view or a simple economic solution to the problems of mankind. For him, democracy was more of a spirit than anything else; a spirit of caring for others and sharing with them. He once told a journalist: “ I would say that democracy is not only political, not only economic, but something of the mind, as everything is ultimately something of the mind…. It involves a certain tolerance of others and even others’ opinions when they differ from yours. It involves a certain inquisitive search for truth- and for, let us say the right thing.”
Pandit Nehru was well aware of the fact that democracy was no gift of heaven which was presented to men as a final product, for he had many experiences of political struggles which had ended in authoritarian frameworks. For him, there would be no idea of democracy without the passion for peace. And peace, as he once told J.F. Kennedy, is “something which all our logic and minds drive us to as essential for our growth.” But for Nehru there could be no growth in violence. For him, violence, even in a good cause, defeated the good. On this he followed Mahatma Gandhi, who believed that the means in achieving an objective were as important as the ends which is achieved. But Nehru was also concerned with the idea of “evil” in politics. “It is my belief that evil has to be opposed and must not be willingly tolerated ”, he affirmed once in 1955, “but evil cannot be opposed by a greater evil, nor can violence or hatred be overcome by greater violence or hatred be overcome by greater hatred.” In other words, Nehru as a pathfinder and a nation builder always knew the number of fantastic difficulties and formidable challenges that were present on India’s way to freedom, but he also had a conviction that India cannot solve her problems in isolation from other cultures and nations of the world. Even before the advent of Independence, he was pleading that the Indian question was a part of a larger movement and necessarily integrated in the concept of one world community. That is why he was convinced that “the peace of one country cannot be assured, unless there is peace every where also.”
It takes a closer look to recognize in most of Nehru’s writings an equal concern for the cultural growth of the individual, the moral progress of a nation and the ongoing process of the world history. The accounts of world politics are acutely interrelated with touches of personal feelings. This quality of fusing the particular with the universal comes out clearly in Nehru’s famous trilogy: An Autobiography, The Discovery of India and Glimpses of World History. In all these three books, we have as much a discovery of Nehru as a discovery of India and the world. That is to say, Nehru sees no contradiction at all between the cultural and political growth of the individual and the experience of world’s history. In other words, Nehru’s experience of history and politics turns into a fascinating world of experience that is Nehru himself. Reading these three books one can understand Nehru’s interest and preoccupation with culture and politics. Nehru wrote and spoke extensively on many different subjects and his interest in culture was that of one among many others. And as a Renaissance man, he differed from Gandhi, Azad and Patel on account of his wide knowledge of the Western world and his deep interest in the history of human civilization. He depicted the history of peoples and ideas rather than that of emperors and kings. As a historian of ideas, he was really interested in major philosophical and political currents that influenced the world rather than the private lives of those who characterized the rise and fall of dynasties. It is true that even if Nehru did not profess himself as a writer or as a philosopher, he did achieve through his writings and speeches something akin to a philosophical text. What he so vividly described in one of his speeches at the Constituent assembly in December 1946 as the “transition from the old to the new, something of that magic which one sees when night turns into day”, underlines profoundly the gradual formation and development of ideas and the birth of a new epoch. Thus Nehru’s speeches, essays, books and occasional reflections exhibit clearly different dimensions of his deep belief in the moral progress of humanity.
In the manner of Kant, Nehru linked the moral goals of humanity with the moral goals of individuals. For Nehru, “the amazing spirit of man” in spite of crises and disasters, progresses always upwards. Culture, therefore, is for Nehru the key to human moral development. It is the medium through which one generation passes on its collective experience and practice to another generation. In the same way, immaturity of cultures and civilizations would give way to moral weakness of mankind and from this the mutual disposition to injustice and war, shall be born. Nehru’s conception of moral progress of humanity and its historical development through the perfection of culture allowed him to presume an interdependence between the individual and the universal and thereby a strong connection between a national welfare and a global peace. The Nehru reader can find there an optimistic view of human future which places the spiritual perfection of the individual and the necessity of cultural dialogue at the center of moral progress of humanity. A short extract from Nehru’s address at the University of California on October 3, 1949 illustrates well his optimistic view about the future of human culture: “The past crowds upon me, the past of Asia, of Europe, and of America and standing on the razors edge of the present, I try to peep into the future.”
Nehru’s optimistic appraisal of humanity’s moral progress assumes a much greater importance than the role of scientific progress. He observed: “ It must be said of the whole world that man’s mental and moral growth has not kept pace with this technical and scientific advance, and this is a very dangerous thing, because science and technology are weapons of tremendous power…” As one can see, Nehru’s scientific temper and his belief in the advancement of science and technology did not prevent him from being critical to the idea of infallibility of science. For Nehru, it was not given to any philosophical idea or political doctrine to solve all human problems for all times. First among others, he considered himself as liable to error. He was, he said, no more than a “humble seeker after truth and as one who had continually struggled to find the way, (and) not always with success.” Certainly a fortunate mixture of paradoxes had helped him to mould his destiny. The cultural background, which contributed to making Nehru as a mediator between the East and the West, cannot be dissociated from his dialogical and argumentative action as a path maker among cultures. Commenting on Nehru’s Autobiography, Rabindranath Tagore wrote: “ Through all its details there runs a deep current of humanity which overpasses the tangles of facts and leads us to the person who is greater than his deeds and truer than his surroundings.” There is, in fact, a “deep current of humanity” in Nehru which emerges in his vision of India and the world.
It goes without saying that Nehru lived by his ideas and his vision provided basis to his political life as an Indian statesman. Ethical approach to life had “a strong appeal” for him as he wrote in prison at Ahmadnagar Fort in 1945. That ethical approach, he discovered in the life of the mind. “After all”, affirms Nehru, “it is the human mind that has produced everything that we see around us and feel around us. All of our proud civilization is a product of the human mind, and yet, strangely enough, one begins to feel that the function of the mind becomes less and less important in the modern world.”
Nehru, therefore, was a man whose thought and action were coordinated. But he knew how to modify his action as he imbibed new ideas. He was self-questioning and in many ways was convinced that ideas had a catalytical role to play in establishing a moral and just world order ensuring peace and cooperation all over the globe. Culture made him think, and what he thought he translated into a work of culture. He regarded life as a Bildung, a self-educating process through which he had the possibility to progress morally and spiritually. This is how one should understand Nehru’s idea of “culture”. In a speech at the opening ceremony of the Fuel Research Institute on April 22, 1930, he declared: “Culture is the widening of the mind and the spirit.” In other words, Nehru related culture to the creative activity of man. Therefore, “culture” to him, was not a state which depended necessarily upon the material conditions of life. He understood “culture” as a mental and spiritual dynamic which gave birth to the understanding of others. As he pointed out in his book Glimpses of World History, the two characteristics of culture and civilization were self-restraint and consideration for others. In a speech at the Indian Council of Cultural Relations in New Delhi on April 9, 1950 he elaborated this idea by saying: “ The cultured mind, rooted in itself, should have its doors and windows open. It should have the capacity to understand others’ view point fully even though it cannot always agree with it.” It appears clearly that for Nehru “culture” implies a state of awareness of the human situation and is accompanied by an optimistic view on the ultimate triumph of the human spirit over the human misery.
Intertwining the synthetic spirit of the Indian heritage with the ideals of the Enlightenment which he borrowed from the West, Nehru develops a humanistic sensibility in his approach to the past and the present, which brings him to the conclusion that history is, in fact, the story of “man’s growth from barbarism to civilization”. By taking this view into consideration, one could say that Nehru’s three major writings are not just books of history, but also vast canvas of man’s adventure as an epic. That is to say, Glimpses of World History, The Discovery of India and Nehru’s Autobiography present a faithful picture of cultures and civilizations in an epical genre such as Homer’s Odyssey, having Nehru himself as a hero, who joins different cultures and different ages of history in his restless spirit for freedom and justice. It took Ulysses ten years to reach Ithaca and it took Nehru 25 years to become the first Prime Minister of Independent India. “History is not a magic show”, writes Nehru in Glimpses on World History, “ but there is plenty of magic in it for those who have eyes to see.” It is the magic of life and history that Nehru presented in his writings. A magic which teaches us “the possibility of an infinite advance of man.” We can see clearly how the humanist in Nehru tried to pluck from times of despair the seeds of the future hope. Nehru’s voyage of cultural exploration and historical investigation through ages and civilizations in the general pattern of a vast epic takes also shape in his Autobiography where the past appears as a pretext to write about the present. Nehru described his Autobiography as his “book of life” and underlined the fact that he “began the task in a mood of self-questioning” and added that his “attempt was to trace, as far as he could, his own mental development.” But here once again, as in The Discovery of India and the Glimpses of World History, other cultures and civilizations appear as backgrounds for the projection of Nehru’s own life. In the preface to the 1962 edition of his Autobiography, Nehru goes back to this point and affirms: “ Essentially an autobiography is a personal document and therefore it reflects personal views and reactions. But the person who wrote it became merged, to a large extent, in the larger movement and therefore represents, in a large measure, the feelings of many others.” In other words, Nehru described the story of his life as a quest for self-knowledge and self-realization, but he was too well aware of the fact that a tireless explorer of life cannot develop a sense of life in the solitude of the confinement without experiencing a sense of human solidarity. This is where the sense of freedom and justice in Nehru collides with the epic of the awakening of India. Like the Shakespearean hero, Hamlet, Nehru expressed his innermost feelings and uncovered his moods to his contemporaries, but at the end of the story he found a release from his intense inner conflict by emerging as a hero of Indian civilization on the vast stage of international affairs. And to bring the rejuvenation of India, Nehru found a suitable fusion between the old spiritual values of his culture and the new scientific values of the modern age. This time the old and the new, the internal and the external, the spiritual and the scientific were reconciled. In order to nurture the present, Nehru established a dialogue between the past and the future. “The present and the future inevitably grow out of the past and bear its stamp.” wrote Nehru in The Discovery of India, “to forget this is to build without foundation and to cut off the roots of national growth.”
Nehru, thus, foresaw no future for the Indian national consciousness, unless the vital element of the past was acknowledged and retained. “Our lives are encumbered with the dead wood of the past”, declared Nehru, “all that is dead and has saved its purpose has to go. But this does not mean a break with, or forgetting of, the vital and life-giving in the past.” What Nehru described as the “life-giving” element of the past is the cultural dynamic as a principle of continuous growth. While appreciating the value of the everlasting Indian cultural heritage, Nehru emphasized the need to broaden the basis of culture in the contexts of the needs of modern life. “True culture”, affirmed Nehru, “drives its inspiration from every corner of the world but it is home-grown and has to be based on the wide mass of the people… The day of a narrow culture confined to a narrow fastidious group is past.” Nehru, therefore, reconciled tradition and modernity. He joined the East and the West. He took the spirit of the Gita and united it with his readings of the European Enlightenment. Yet, Nehru’s sense of belonging to India and his European intellectual background created in his mind a medley of the East and the West which were expressed as “ a feeling of spiritual loneliness”. “I am a stranger and alien in the West. I cannot be of it”, confessed Nehru in The Discovery of India, “but in my own country also, sometimes, I have an exile’s feeling.” Nehru was an intellectual, split between two cultures and two world visions and yet he was not culturally schizophrenic. On the contrary, he was very much conscious of his multicultural background and he used it as an asset in his attempt to engage a dialogue between India and the rest of the world. Analyzing himself, Nehru wrote: “ I have become a queer mixture of the East and the West, out of place, everywhere, at home nowhere.” Yet, his emphasis on the principle of the co-existence of cultures took root in his continuous effort to find a compromise among different world outlooks and while doing this Nehru rejected strongly all close-ended dogmatic views. “Today”, said he, “ there is no reason why rival ideological and economic and social theories should not grow up and learn to live and let live.”
Among all approaches to life, Nehru did not rule out religion, which to a certain extent had penetrated his ethical approach to life and man. However, he remained very critical of what he considered as “organized religion” and of its negative effect on the consciousness of the masses. He denounced superstition and fanaticism and this is what he disliked in religion. “Religion as I saw it practiced and accepted even by thinking minds, said he, “ whether it was Hinduism or Islam or Buddhism or Christianity, did not attract me. It seemed to be closely associated with superstitious practices and dogmatic beliefs and behind it by a method of approach to life’s problems, which are not certainly that of science.” Of course, Nehru knew well that “religion had supplied some deeply felt inner need of human nature, and that the vast majority of people all over the world could not do without some form of religious belief.” Understanding religion, for Nehru, was a way to discover the past, which helped him to appreciate better the special characteristics of the Indian culture and other civilizations. This is the reason why, at the first Maulana Azad Lecture in 1958, he underlined the positive value in the religious heritage of India by making the following affirmation: “ I have often wondered that if our race forgot the Buddha, the Upanishads and the great epics, what then will it be like? It would be uprooted and would lose the basic characteristics which have clung to it and given it distinction throughout these long ages. India would cease to be India.” As these words of Nehru show us clearly, he saw the solution to the problems of communalism and fundamentalism in an enlightened and honest dialogue with the cultures of the past.
What is important for Nehru in both religion and science is the spirit of constant pursuit of truth. Leaning on this point of view, Nehru unequivocally denounces all communalist attitudes as forms of false unity among the people and as an absence of dialogue. According to him, communalism is due to religious intolerance which disintegrates the unity of diversity in the name of a single creed. So proclaimed Nehru in one of his speeches: “ In India, the first essential is the maintenance of the unity of the country…A unity of the mind and the heart, which precludes narrow urges that make for disunity and which breaks down the barriers raised in the name of religion.” In saying this, Pandit Nehru encapsulated the challenges which faced India and all other traditional societies in their continuing quest for freedom and democracy. For Nehru, democracy was not just about ballots and votes, but also about participation and deliberation. He considered democracy as a “government of dialogue”, and in doing this he knew well that democracy is not a quintessentially a Western idea which is alien to the Eastern world. He, therefore, remained to his idea of dialogue, without allowing politics to prevail upon his spiritual world. As a matter of fact, in many respects, Nehru was not a typical politician. He was more of an intellectual who entered politics by force of destiny. He also did not pretend to be a philosopher, even if measured his actions and those of the others by a philosophical approach. “We may not be philosophers”, says Nehru, “ but without some kind of philosophical approach, we would have no yardstick to measure things by.” These words of Nehru show clearly his essential preoccupation with what he variously called “the crisis of the spirit” or “the crisis of Man” or “the collapse of the human conscience”. Many would find it strange that though Nehru followed Gandhi in politics and accepted his political leadership, he felt closer to Tagore in his philosophical outlook. Inaugurating the Tagore Centenary Celebrations on January 1, 1961, Nehru mentioned his philosophical proximity to Tagore. “ My mind was more in tune with Tagore”, said he, “ though my actions were conditioned by Gandhiji.” In other words, his tendency towards a worldview which his intellectual contact with the Western culture had promoted, was further accelerated by the influence that Tagore exercised on him. As with Tagore, Nehru was deeply interested in the question of the intercultural dialogue and worried about the cultural crisis of India in which the old and the new struggled for supremacy. Regarding this matter, he made an important intervention at Sangor University by proclaiming: “ Nothing is more advantageous than a rich heritage but nothing is more dangerous than to sit back and live on that heritage. A nation cannot prosper if it merely imitates its ancestors. What builds a nation is creative, inventive and vital activity.” Nehru believed that only a “creative mind” could solve the crisis of the human spirit. The truth is that Nehru, in believing in India and in its culture, was bound to believe in humanity at large. This made him understand the limits of change and how to bring about change in India. But he also knew quite well that he could not import European or American modes of living and methods of political leadership to India. To take an example, although he was deeply impressed by the experience of Soviet Union when he visited that country for the first time in 1927, he had the political wisdom and the intellectual honesty to distinguish between he could see and admire there and what he could apply in India. He said: “ I have the greatest admiration for many of the achievements of the Soviet Union. But it is said, and rightly, that there is suppression of individual freedom there…”
It would also be incorrect to say that Nehru’s political views were developed mainly in the nationalist tradition of India. In reality, his political views went far beyond a simple nationalistic outlook. And this helped him to retain his critical attitude to nationalism whose dogma had no effect on his political philosophy. Nehru considered nationalism as a selfish view, because from his point of view nationalism considered civilizations as unitary creations. But for Nehru, civilizations had emerged from the interconnections with each other. Therefore the history of one society necessarily required knowing the history of other societies. This is the reason why, Nehru believed in creating a synthetic civilization, rather than simply unifying the good elements of the East and the West. His main concern like Kant was the “perpetual peace” and he advocated democratic intervention for protection of values such as co-existence and solidarity.
More than being a nationalist, Nehru was a secular democrat, who regarded democracy as a practical realization of the doctrine of national sovereignty. In Nehru’s words, democracy was “an attempt at the solution of problems by peaceful methods.” As a protagonist of dialogue among cultures, Nehru thought that the primary condition for the success of democracy was peace and that “war puts an end to the very values that democracy cherishes.” In his view, India’s foreign policy ought to achieve peace and harmony through a permanent dialogue with other nations. From the 1920s onwards Nehru viewed the modern world as one integrated entity, with all its regions closely linked with one another. Nehru was convinced that the day of nationalist narrow-mindedness was rapidly passing and the world was becoming one cultural unit. Therefore, for him, the East and the West were the children of the same mother, humanity. That is why he thought that in the sphere of culture, dialogue among nations, was not only necessary, but also vital for the sake of human solidarity. While respecting the multiplicity of cultures, he affirmed the universality of wisdom. In this universal wisdom, he saw a response to the historical violence, whether on a national or international level. In other words, Nehru considered the idea of dialogue among cultures not just as an aim in foreign policy making, but also an indispensable condition for managing and solving political and communal tensions in the Third World countries. “Does culture mean some inner growth of the person? Of course, it must. Does it mean the capacity to understand the other person? I suppose so. Does it mean the capacity to understand the other person? I suppose so. Does it mean the capacity to make yourself understood by another person? I suppose so. It means all that. A person who cannot understand another’s viewpoint, is to that extent limited in mind and culture because nobody, barring maybe some very extraordinary human beings, can presume to have the fullest knowledge and wisdom; the other party or the other group may also have some inkling of knowledge or wisdom or truth and if we shut our minds to that, then we not only deprive ourselves of it, but we cultivate an attitude of mind which I would beg to say is opposed to that of a cultured man, because the cultured mind, having roots in itself, should have its doors and windows open, imbibing other things. It should have the capacity to understand the other’s viewpoint fully even though it cannot agree with it always.”
As we can see, Nehru’s hopes for a stable peace among nations were not based on political considerations alone, but also on a cultural awareness and openness. Cultural dialogue, if it had a unique value, was to open the minds and the hearts to the outside world. That is the reason why, Nehru believed that India could not remain a silent witness to events of the world but must range itself as an active dialogical partner within the cultural debates of the world. “We cannot seek peace in the language of war or of threats”, Nehru warned the world in a BBC broadcast in 1951. His desire to create a “temper of peace” in order to avoid the fear out of which war and violence might rise was beautifully exemplified by his efforts in elaborating a policy of friendship with other countries. In this he considered Indian nationalism in its highest cultural manifestation to coincide with the strategy of non-alignment or “independent” policy, which in Nehru’s mind was more than a simple ad hoc response to the Cold War. In Nehru’s eyes, non-alignment was a dialogical policy which went beyond the politics of great camps, because it was an essential means to combat the entire system of traditional world politics. In other words, for Nehru in the process of dialogue among nations the moral concerns prevailed over a wide spectrum of ideological and strategic considerations. No doubt, Nehru’s main aim was to protest against the old methods of power politics in international relations, which had proved incapable of maintaining peace in the past and would do so in the future if allowed to operate. Nehru, therefore, firmly linked his non-aligned policy to the maintenance of a positive policy of dialogue among nations in order to bring a greater human solidarity. He remained convinced that in a plural world, where peace and dialogue could become the main mottos of international relations, the message of nonviolence, which had reflected the voice of wise men over the ages, was essential. Nehru, thus, reinterpreted Gandhi’s notion of moral dialogue between antagonists and extracted from it the concept of a third force in world affairs.
When in 1960, he addressed the United Nations General Assembly for the last time he had the honesty and the modesty to proclaim that he was “no man of wisdom”. Yet few years before he had made a wise advice to humanity by saying: “Greatness comes from vision, the tolerance of the spirit, compassion and an even temper which is not ruffled by ill fortune or good fortune. It is not through hatred and violence or internal discord that we make real progress. As in the world today, so also in our country, the philosophy of force can longer pay and our progress must be based on peaceful cooperation and tolerance of each other.” It was surely Nehru’s determination to respect human values and to promote world peace that placed him and the ancient civilization of India in their rightful place in the world affairs. Without any fear of exaggeration it could be asserted that not many politicians in the past centuries have been at the same time exponents of a universal culture as Jawaharlal Nehru was. Verily, Nehru communicated well the aspirations of the people of India to the outside world, but he interpreted vice versa to them the ideals and principles of other nations. It is remarkable that Nehru, in spite of his mainly being a statesman, did not fall into the temptation of finding political solutions to the problems of the world. He was more a man of questionings than that of ready-made answers. He did not pretend to be a prophet embodying an absolute truth but simply to promise an open dialogue. It was no coincidence that these verses of Robert Frost, written in his own hand, were kept to his bedside table at Teen Murti:
The words are lovely dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.
Truly, Nehru was a man of promises. In that he preserved his distinctness from others, but also his solidarity with them. His love for human beings and his belief in individual freedom constituted the essence of his noble personality. All his life Nehru remained faithful to this paradox and for the same reason he never abandoned the idea of dialogue and responsibility. As he said in a speech in the Constituent Assembly on August 14, 1947: “ The future is not one of ease or resting but of incessant striving so that we may fulfill the pledges we have so often taken and the one we shall take today.” Nehru’s vision was a world made better through peaceful co-existence and perpetual dialogue among cultures. I believe that the philosophical ideas and political approach of Jawaharlal Nehru-his legacy-can continue to make a distinctive contribution to this vision. The mission of the new generation of peacekeepers in our world is to carry forward this legacy in new ways and to new frontiers.