Jawaharlal Smoking Nehru and Dharma A Case of Cultural Unease
Nehru and Dharma: A Case of Cultural Unease

Nehru the child never quite acquired a proper cultural awareness. Hence, he never seemed to have had any real cultural yearnings either. Definitely not of the kind which nationalist minded young Indians commonly had in the colonial period.

Indians, as a Rule, are a Reserved People

We Indians love to talk, don’t we? I think, if there is anything we like more than a cliffhanger of a cricket match, preferably involving India, it is a good conversation. We talk everywhere, at tea stalls, in market places, aboard buses and trains, with friends, acquaintances and complete strangers. We are a nation of ardent conversationalists. Curiously, however, Jawaharlal Nehru, the first Prime Minister of India, failed to notice this most obvious quality of his countrymen and women. At a point in The Discovery of India (henceforth only Discovery) – a hefty tome he authored seeking to understand the past and present of his country[1] – Nehru makes the astonishing claim that “Indians, as a rule, are a reserved people.”[2] Believe me, when I stumbled upon this remark, I re-read it to be sure that it is not meant to be ironical. I assure the reader that it is not. Being Nehru and Indian often made for an odd combination, as is evidenced by his writings and occasional public pronouncements. In many ways, Nehru suffered from a major cultural disconnect from India. This is most aptly demonstrated by his attitude towards Dharma – by which I mean the Sacred as experienced, and the Divine as conceptualized, by most Indians – it was a case of cultural unease.

A Personal God Seemed Odd, Vedanta Frightened

Having been educated in Harrow and Cambridge, Nehru wielded the English language elegantly and was capable of lovely sentimental flourishes in it. He could, and did indeed, employ them when writing about India. In the Discovery Nehru writes that his response to India was “often an emotional one”[3] and that he found in her people “something, difficult to define…”[4] In view of the fact that he found the people of his country reserved, the latter remark sounds (unwittingly) confessional. He was not quite connected to the Indian people as their psychology, partly or largely, appears to have been incomprehensible to him. In his own words, he found it difficult to “enter into the spirit and ways of thinking” of his countrymen.[5] At some level Nehru displays an awareness of why it was so. He knew, to begin with, that his and their minds frame the past, and engage with it, differently. His own mind, he writes at a point in the Discovery, was “full of pictures from recorded history and more-or-less ascertained fact”, while the images in the mind of an Indian peasant were “drawn from myth and tradition and epic heroes and heroines, and only very little from history.”[6] In other words, we might say, what the Indian peasant bore in his mind was itihasa. Being a repository of ethical and spiritual values (encoded in narratives), itihasa is a basis of Dharma. It makes the past a living, experienceable presence in the present; even today, for vast numbers of Indians. ‘History’, if understood as a mass of facts that may have no legitimate segue into the present, is never what itihasa is. Hence, anyone who speaks with reference to ‘history’ alone, as Nehru appears to have done, will never fully comprehend the Indian mind. Nehru did not.

The Discovery, thus, furnishes a lot of evidence that the ways in which the Indian mind experienced and conceptualized the Sacred and the Divine made little sense to Nehru. He seems not have understood bhakti, since he found “any idea of a personal God…very odd.” On the other hand Vedanta tended to “frighten” Nehru with its “vague, formless incursions into infinity.”[7] In fact, Nehru termed Hinduism itself “vague, amorphous…all things to all men.”[8]Dharma, as practiced by most Indians, seemed random and lacking in a coherent form to him. This could be because, Nehru’s intellectual outlook, if not entirely materialistic, was definitely influenced by materialism. We have him writing that a study of Marx and Lenin “produced a powerful effect” on his mind and helped him “see history and current affairs in a new light” so that the “long chain of history and social development appeared to have some meaning, some sequence…”[9] Now, the Marxist understanding of history is fundamentally materialistic – the ‘meaning’ and ‘sequence’ that it attributes to history is that it is a succession of ‘modes of production’, each sustaining certain configurations of classes. Did Nehru learn, upon reading Marx and Lenin, to view history and social development in such a fashion? If he did, he must also have been tinged by the Marxist prejudice against religion. It is an inevitable consequence of the fundamentally materialistic character of Marxism. Religion, in the Marxist view, is liable to be seen as a tool in the hands of the dominant class, used to further its worldly interests. Marx saw the Church of England as an ally of a “dissipated, degenerating and pleasure seeking aristocracy.”[10] This alliance might have existed since, as Lenin believed, “religion and the churches were a means of keeping the masses humble and submissive”[11] so that the exploiting classes remained in power unchallenged. Further, Marxism, being a western philosophy, understands religion only in the Judeo-Christian sense, as a set of dogmas that suppress human reason. For example, Frederick Engels, Karl Marx’s intellectual partner, dismissed Christianity as “this religion of nonsense.”[12] There is evidence that Nehru’s estimation of religion bordered on the Marxist. In his autobiography, Nehru observes that religion is linked to “exploitation” and the “preservation of vested interests.”[13] In the Discovery, on the other hand, he writes that religion is “closely associated with superstitious practices and dogmatic beliefs” which are about “uncritical credulousness, a reliance on the supernatural.”[14] This outlook, along with the fact that (ironically) Dharma does not even confirm to the Judeo-Christian description of religion, it is non-dogmatic and does not derive from a single, ‘authoritative’ sacred text, must have made Nehru indifferent towards, and uncomprehending of, the dominant piety of the land.

Marxist materialism is perhaps not the only reason that Dharma made little sense to Nehru. The Discovery suggests that he had scant acquaintance with, or understanding of, its textual heritage. To begin with, Nehru “hesitated to read books of religion” since “the totalitarian claims made on their behalf” did not appeal to him.[15] He seems to have preemptively assumed that the Dharmic texts will be the purveyors of dogma like the Judeo-Christian ones. Nevertheless, Nehru did try to read the Gita and the Upanishads, but “did not understand the inner significance of much”[16] that he read. Indeed, he appears to have undertaken the exercise very casually. Nehru “made no real effort to understand mysterious passages” and “passed by those which had no real significance”[17] for him. (On what basis did he determine which passages are of significance to him and which not?) However, despite the fact that his familiarity with the Dharmic textual corpus was very superficial, we find him confidently making a rather negative assessment of the philosophy of the Upanishads. He calls it ‘individualistic’ and in his eyes this philosophy did damage to Indian society. This ‘philosophical individualism’ made its bearers “attach little importance to the social aspect of man, of man’s duty to society…” This is since, Nehru believed, they had no “conception of, society as a whole” as their philosophy made them feel no sense of solidarity with it.[18] These are brave things indeed to say for someone who did not understand the “inner significance” of some of the profoundest philosophical texts that humankind has produced and, while reading them, had also “passed by” portions of them.

Actually, Nehru appears to have had little empathy for Dharma. He even found the architecture of the temples “decadent” and “over elaborate” while admiring the “simplicity and nobility” of the Mughal buildings of Agra and Delhi.[19] He amply displayed this lack of empathy while serving as the Prime Minister of independent India, when the Somnath temple was rebuilt. He had a fall out with the then President of the Indian Republic, Dr. Rajendra Prasad, around the time. Prasad had keenly wanted the Somnath’s restoration and sought to attend its dedication ceremony. Nehru, however, disapproved of both the reconstruction of the Somnath and the President of the Republic wanting to attend its inauguration. On 2 March 1951, Nehru wrote the following to Prasad –

“I confess that I do not like the idea of your associating with a spectacular opening of the Somnath temple. This…unfortunately has a number of implications. Personally, I thought that this was no time to lay stress on large-scale building operations at Somnath…However, this has been done. I feel that it would be better if you did not preside over this function (italics mine).”[20]

Why Nehru was so upset and what ‘implications’ was he alluding to? In a letter he wrote on 2 May 1951 to all Chief Ministers of India, he referred to the “coming ceremonies” at Somnath and the fact that some of his “colleagues are even associated with it in their individual capacities.” He urged the Chief Ministers to remember that the Government of India “must not do anything which comes in the way of … [the] State being secular.”[21] The insinuation seems to be that a member of the Government, or the President of the Republic, could not participate in a Dharmic ceremony even in private capacity. That could, Nehru thought, erode the secular character of the Indian state.

However, we find that Nehru could, and did, address non-Hindu religious concerns with empathy, even alacrity. Nor did he mind leveraging the state machinery to assuage them, without fearing that he might be endangering secularism. We have, for example, this letter written by Nehru to Kazi Ahmad Husain, a Rajya Sabha MP, on 30 November 1959. Husain had earlier written to Nehru demanding that arrangements be made for ships with Hajis to set sail from Calcutta. Nehru, in a tone that sounds somewhat solicitous, assured Khan that he will inquire if this can be done. He also added that if “some such arrangement can be made” in the future, a Haj Committee too will be formed in Calcutta.[22] Again, on 9 February 1960, A.M. Tariq, a Congress MP from Srinagar, asked Nehru in the Lok Sabha whether the Government of India could build a musafirkhana in Saudi Arabia for Indians performing the Haj. Nehru, in his reply, told Mr. Tariq that, though this could not be done, the Government of India was managing hospitals and doctors in Saudi Arabia for the Indian pilgrims.[23] Apparently, M.K. Kidwai, Indian ambassador to Saudi Arabia, was actively involved in aiding Indian Hajis. We infer this from a letter written by Nehru to Mir Mushtaq Ali, a member of the Praja Socialist Party. Nehru proudly informed Ali that the pilgrims returning from Saudi Arabia had spoken very highly of “Kidwai and how he has helped them.”[24] By the way, the trustees of the Somnath temple too had sought the assistance of an Indian embassy, the one in Beijing, China. They had written to it seeking help in procuring the waters of the Hoang Ho, Yangtze and Pearl rivers of China. The trustees’ intention seems to have been to use them in some rite connected to the reconstruction work. When Nehru learnt of this, he reacted with some real displeasure. He wrote to K.M. Munshi, a well known Gujarati writer and educationist, on 17 April 1951, that the letter written by the trustees has “rather upset” him and is “most embarrassing” for the image of India abroad.[25]

How Does One Account for Nehru?

How does one make sense of Nehru’s psychology, and the unease inscribed in it towards Dharma?  Well, to begin with, there was his childhood, spent in a household that was becoming, under his father Motilal Nehru, “more and more westernized.”[26] Even his education was, at a point, left to a westerner, a part Irish and part French or Belgian, resident tutor called F.T. Brooks. He “took charge” of Nehru when he was eleven.[27] Nehru seems not to have known an Indian language with any measure of competence. He confesses that, though a pandit had been assigned the task of teaching him Hindi and Sanskrit, he managed to impart him, after “many years’ effort”, “extraordinarily little.”[28] In fact, to the extent that I am familiar with the Nehruvian oeuvre, the three books written by him and many volumes of his Selected Works (containing his speeches and letters), there is nothing in them to indicate that he read anything in an Indian language – not as far as I can remember while writing these lines. Nehru, to put it honestly, appears to have had little knowledge of Indian literature. He, for example, in a message to the Madras Hindi Sahitya Sammelan (sent on 6 July 1937) had confidently asserted that “our [Indian] literature at present is very backward” and the books being published in India “are not of a high standard.”[29] This is a stunningly arrogant and ignorant remark when one takes into account the fact that Rabindranath Tagore was still alive and writing exquisitely beautiful poems and song lyrics, while Subramania Bharati had died just a decade and a half ago (in 1921) after a phenomenal literary career. You can’t expect one who does not know, or read in, an Indian language to have imbibed the Indian psychological and emotional frame very well – something so very essential to experience Dharma. Naturally, Nehru reacted to Dharma with incomprehension.

As a matter of fact, when growing up, Nehru’s actual contact with Dharma was quite feeble as well. Piety in the Nehru household, it seems, was confined to the women’s quarters. Hence, Nehru, in his early childhood, had “very hazy notions” of religion and it seemed to him “to be a woman’s affair.” Curiously, this was despite him being told stories from the Ramayana and the Mahabharata by his mother and aunt. His father and older cousins dealt with religion “humorously and refused to take it seriously.” [30] Later, Nehru had a fleeting and shallow contact with Indian spirituality (or some version of it) through westerners. Nehru’s tutor, Mr. Brooks, was an enthusiastic theosophist. He had weekly meetings with fellow theosophists in his rooms. These a young Nehru attended and “gradually imbibed theosophical phraseology and ideas.”[31] He was sufficiently enthused by theosophy to join the Theosophical Society at age thirteen. Soon, however, Nehru lost touch with theosophy as Mr. Brooks quit. After he was shipped off to England to attend school, theosophy left Nehru completely.[32]

So, it seems, Nehru the child never quite acquired a proper cultural awareness. Hence, he never seemed to have had any real cultural yearnings either. Definitely not of the kind which nationalist minded young Indians commonly had in the colonial period. Take Subhas Chandra Bose, for instance. He writes about having “a vague feeling of unhappiness, of maladaptation” in the missionary school in which he was put by his father at age five. Subhas longed to “join an Indian school” where “he would feel more at home.”[33] When a little older, Subhas also did something of which we find no evidence in the Nehruvian corpus – his books, letters and speeches – he explored and experienced spirituality. In his mid-teens, Subhas discovered the works of Swami Vivekananda and was “thrilled to the marrow of … [his] bones.”[34] He writes about his “religious impulse” beginning to “grow in intensity” as he approached the end of his school career.[35] Finally, in 1914, when he was a seventeen year old student in Presidency College, Kolkata, Subhas “quietly left on a pilgrimage” that lasted two months with a friend.[36] Nehru never displayed these cultural and spiritual impulses in his formative years. In his own admission, at age twenty-one, he was leading a “soft and pointless existence” in England aping the “prosperous but somewhat empty-headed Englishman who is called a ‘man about town’.”[37] No doubt, in later life, he found India a “strange and bewildering land.”[38]

Lest the reader is thinking that I am being unduly harsh on Nehru, let me emphasize that his cultural disconnect with India and Dharma was noticed in his own lifetime. There is, for example, this delightful little sketch of Nehru provided (in bits and fragments) by Nirad C. Chaudhuri in his book Thy Hand, Great Anarch. Chaudhuri had had the opportunity of observing Nehru while serving as private secretary to Sarat Bose, the elder brother of Subhas Chandra Bose. Being as involved in the freedom movement as his sibling, Sarat Bose was frequently visited by the nationalist leadership. Nehru, thus, called on him on a number of occasions. The impression that Chaudhuri formed of Nehru was that he was “completely out of touch with Indian life.” He did not know Hindi well (we know this already) and “had no knowledge, direct or secondhand, of Hinduism, and besides was not sympathetic to it (italics mine).” Thus, writes Chaudhari, Nehru “had no direct access to the Indian mind and…had a strong antipathy to traditional Hindu ideas and habits (italics mine).” [39] Elsewhere, Chaudhuri adds that “Nehru was both ignorant of Hindu traditions and hostile to them.”[40] What was the cause of this “antipathy” and “hostility”? Chaudhuri seems to suggest that it was an ‘Islamicate’[41] socio-cultural orientation – “as far as he [Nehru] was anything Indian he was more a Muslim than a Hindu.” “His social affiliations,” writes Chaudhuri, “were with the Muslim upper class in his province (U.P.) and his ways were also like theirs.” Nehru, thus, “had no understanding whatever of even the highest forms of contemporary Hinduism as preached in Bengal and Maharashtra, and very little sympathy, if any at all, for it.”[42] Perhaps that is why Nehru had displayed such solicitude for the Hajis and insensitivity towards the requirement of the Somnath trustees.

How had Nehru come to acquire the socio-cultural leaning that he, as Chaudhari testifies, displayed? It perhaps came to him naturally since the Nehrus had once been in service of the Mughals and had, consequently, acquired ‘Islamicate’ ways. Nehru’s grandfather, Ganga Dhar Nehru, for example, was the Kotwal (a sort of police chief) of Delhi during the reign of Bahadur Shah Zafar “for some time before the great revolt of 1857.”[43] Ganga Dhar appears to have culturally ‘Mughaled’ himself very thoroughly. In a “little painting” that the Nehru household had of Ganga Dhar, he was depicted wearing “the Mughal court dress with a curved sword in his hand” and could “well be taken for a Mughal nobleman…”[44] As about Motilal Nehru, his early education was purely in Arabic and Persian, following which he was instructed in the English medium at Muir College, Allahabad.[45] As far as cultural paradigms are concerned, the male Nehrus appear to have transitioned straight from the ‘Islamicate’ to the western. Naturally, thus, Dharmic piety was restricted to the women’s part of the Nehru household.

Does the reader feel that, though Nehru has been dead for more than fifty years, the cultural unease he displayed towards Dharma is still alive and animate in our media and academia? I definitely feel so. This is since Indian media and academia are still dominated by liberals of the Nehruvian cast – the psychological and intellectual bent that they mimic (consciously or otherwise) is Nehru’s. They, as a result, scoff at Dharma but celebrate the ‘Islamicate’ – from the kababs of Old Delhi to a dastangoi performance – they take delight in it all.


[1]The Discovery of India, Jawaharlal Nehru Memorial Fund and Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2003 (Twenty-third Impression), p.68.

[2]Ibid., p.282.

[3]Ibid., p.52.

[4]Ibid., p.57.

[5] An Autobiography, Jawaharlal Nehru Memorial Fund and Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 1996, (Tenth Impression), p.374.

[6]Ibid., p.67.

[7]Ibid., p.28.

[8]Ibid., p.75.

[9]Ibid., p.29.

[10]‘Anti-Church Movement – Demonstration in Hyde Park’ in Marx Engels on Religion, People’s Publishing House and Lok Vangmaya Griha, New Delhi, 2012 (First Edition), p.111.

[11]Leszek Kolakowski, Main Currents in Marxism. The Founders. The Golden Age. The Breakdown, W.W. Norton and Company, 2005, p.723.

[12] ‘Bruno Bauer and Early Christianity’ in Marx Engels on Religion, p.170.

[13]An Autobiography, p.374.

[14]Ibid., p.26.

[15]The Discovery of India, p.77.


[17]The Discovery of India, p.78.

[18]Ibid., p.95.

[19]Ibid., p.265.

[20]Selected Works of Jawaharlal Nehru. Second Series. Volume Sixteen. Part I (1 March 1951-30 June 1951), S. Gopal (General Editor), Jawaharlal Nehru Memorial Fund, Distributed by OUP, New Delhi, 1994, p.270.

[21]Ibid., p.559.

[22]Selected Works of Jawaharlal Nehru, Second Series, Volume Fifty Four (1-30 November 1959), Madhavan K. Palat (ed.), Jawaharlal Nehru Memorial Fund, Distributed by OUP, 2014, p.332.

[23]Selected Works of Jawaharlal Nehru, Second Series, Volume Fifty seven (26 January – 28 February 1960), Madhavan K. Palat (ed.), Jawaharlal Nehru Memorial Fund, Distributed by OUP, 2014, p.178.

[24]Ibid., p.176.

[25]Selected Works of Jawaharlal Nehru. Second Series. Volume Sixteen. Part I, p.605.

[26]An Autobiography, p.5.

[27]Ibid., p.14.

[28] Ibid.

[29]Selected Works of Jawaharlal Nehru, Volume Eight, S. Gopal (General Editor), Jawaharlal Nehru Memorial Fund and Orient Longman, New Delhi, 1976, p.827.

[30] An Autobiography, p.8.

[31] Ibid., p.15.

[32] Ibid., p.16.

[33] Netaji: Collected Works. Volume I, An Indian Pilgrim. An Unfinished Autobiography, Sisir Kumar Bose and Sugata Bose (eds.), OUP, New Delhi, 1997, p.26.

[34] Ibid., p.37.

[35] Ibid., p.46.

[36] Ibid., p.68.

[37] An Autobiography, p.25.

[38] Ibid., p.374.

[39] Autobiography of an Unknown India. Part II. Thy Hand, Great Anarch. India 1921-1952, Jaico Publishing House, Mumbai, 2009 (Second Impression), p.32.

[40] Ibid., p.451.

[41] I have borrowed this expression from Marshall G. S. Hodgson. He is the author of a three volume political and cultural history of Islam called The Venture of Islam.

[42] Thy Hand, Great Anarch, p.807.

[43] An Autobiography, p.2.

[44] Ibid.

[45] Judith M. Brown, Nehru. A Political Life, OUP, New Delhi, 2003, p.31.

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The author is Assistant Professor of History at O P Jindal Global University