"Religion", Nehru wrote to Gandhi in 1933, "is not familiar ground for me, and as I have grown older, I have definitely drifted away from it. I have something else in its place, something older than just intellect and reason, which gives me strength and hope. Apart from this indefinable and indefinite urge, which may have just a tinge of religion in it and yet is wholly different from it, I have grown entirely to rely on the workings of the mind. Perhaps they are weak supports to rely upon, but, search as I will", "I can see no better ones".1 What I would like to do this evening is to ask what gave Nehru – a man whose political career spanned a long history of expectation, achievement and disappointment, and took in the highest and lowest points of India’s 20th century history – ‘strength and hope’? What were the ‘workings of the mind’ upon which he grew to rely, on which he rested his faith?
By speaking of Nehru’s faith, my intentions are not purely historical. I wish to recover faith’s primary meaning: trust or confidence, unshakeable belief or conviction – meanings that do not necessarily imply a religious sense. It is crucial to do this, at a moment when our ideas of faith are in danger of becoming unnecessarily restricted. When religion is being held up as a unique source of faith, we need to remind ourselves that there are other firm foundations upon which we can build moral and ethical projects, in both private and public life. If secularism, as we have recently been told, has multiple meanings, so too does faith. In our own recent history, there is perhaps no better practical instance of the effort to find a non-religious bedrock for morality than that of Nehru himself.
Unusually for a politician, Nehru was a man of deeply held moral convictions: he believed in the moral life as sustaining not just private life, but also as necessary for the living of any kind of political life. Yet he never placed his faith in religion. Famously, he wrote in his Autobiography of how what he called "organised religion" filled him "with horror…almost always it seemed to stand for a blind belief and reaction, dogma and bigotry, superstition and exploitation" (p 374). If he was critical of organised religion, he did on the other hand have empathy for the ethical and spiritual dimensions of religion. As Nehru wrote while in Ahmadnagar jail, "Some kind of ethical approach to life has a strong appeal for me" (Discovery of India, p 12), and that ethical approach, and its sources, he discovered in the disciplined exercise of his mind. Reason was not merely an instrument by which to accomplish goals: through reasoning, moral ends and goals were themselves determined, and by reasoning for oneself one took responsibility for one’s commitments and moral beliefs. This, I shall suggest, captures the meaning of Nehru’s faith: reason, and the processes of reasoning, are the greatest resources we have through which to create and sustain our moral imagination. I would like to suggest further that Nehru’s overriding importance for us at this point in our great democratic experiment rests not in his obvious historical significance in India’s national story; rather, it lies in his intellectual and political understanding, in his struggles, not always successful, to try to base public life on a reasoned morality.
It has of late become fashionable to attack reason.In many intellectual circles, reason is portrayed as an ill-effect of the Enlightenment, a banner marking the imperium of western theories and assumptions, an imperium oblivious to cultural differences and diversities.The rise of postmodernism and the expanding claims of contemporary religion are by no means directly connected; but they are also not entirely unlinked. At a time when our universities are being encouraged to produce postgraduates with degrees in astrology, it may seem misplaced to offer a defence of reason. The political landscape today seems to have become the territory of the non-rational: populated by new claims to selfhood – couched in terms of religion, nation, tribe, culture – all ready to use violence to assert their desires. Reason seems somehow disarmed.
In the face of this, we need to find ways to reassert a faith in reason. This will mean first and necessarily having to see reason in a more complex light, not as a smiling rationalism or belief in human perfectibility. "Perfection", Nehru wrote, "is beyond us for it means the end, and we are always journeying, trying to approach something that is ever receding. And in each one of us are many different human beings with their inconsistencies and contradictions, each pulling in a different direction" (Discovery of India, p 496). It is precisely because of this – our human contrariness – that we need a capacity like reason to help find a way out of the dark, both individually and collectively. A faith in reason comes not from a sense of the simplicity of the human mind and its motivating passions, but from a regard for its mysteries.
Nehru’s own understanding of reason was complex and subtle: more so than is recognised either by his advocates or by his critics; and it was forged in circumstances that resonate with our own: in times when reason seemed in retreat, not at the helm – in the 1930s and 1940s, as fascism was ravaging Europe and religious chauvinism was splintering India. Self-proclaimed Nehruvians, who have tried to subsume his thinking under such phrases as ‘the scientific temper’, and equally those who criticise Nehru, for what they have called his ‘rational monism’, both miss what is truly distinctive about Nehru’s thinking. Nehru’s faith in reason did not lead him to an easy belief that history was on the side of reason: he was without the rationalist’s faith that reason’s historical triumph was guaranteed. He saw it, as we ought to, as a fragile intellectual project; and in relation to a life, it represented the attempt to hold within a mind the range of considerations on how to live.
In recent years, figures like Gandhi, Patel, Bose, and Tagore all have benefited from more nuanced interpretations of their life and work. Nehru, on the other hand, has been treated to simplifications that border on caricature – passed off as a mouthpiece for a one-dimensional view of science, and of a vacuous universalism. This actually says more about our own times, our hopes and fears, than it does about the period and man it claims to illuminate: almost as if it is a way of helping us deal with our disappointments and frustrations over what our country might be.
Nehru certainly recognised the instrumental power of reason. In its two most materially powerful forms, as scientific reason (the project of trying to bend the natural world to human purposes), or as social reason (the project of trying to use human institutions – above all, the state – to remake society), reason was a tool for altering the natural and human worlds, for better or ill. Yet this tactical aspect did not exhaust the resources of reason. Reason could be used to sustain raw power, Nehru saw, but it could also be used as a way of creating an ethics, sustaining a moral imagination. He saw too that reason was not a western import – there was a long and refined Indian history of reasoned argument, about ethical life and action. The act of reasoning about history and experience was a way of discovering moral truths: through such testing and questioning, personal identity was shaped, and moral commitments were discovered. To put it differently, moral commitments and beliefs had to be argued for, they had to be held up to the harsh light of history and experience. They could not be taken for granted, accepted simply because laid down in religious edicts or texts, or sanctioned by traditions. It was precisely because morality was accessible to reason that it was possible to bring others over to one’s beliefs – by hearing and acknowledging opposing views, and by offering one’s interlocutors reasons to believe, by convincing them.
Nehru lived through, with varying distance, some of the darkest periods of 20th century history, perhaps of human history: the first and second world wars, the Holocaust, the Atom bomb, the Partition of India. For someone as sensitive as he was to history and the historical past, this inevitably shadowed his sense of what was prospectively humanly possible. Tagore and Gandhi both in later life ended with pessimistic and fatalistic views about the human future. Tagore, in his late essay, ‘The Crisis in Civilisation’, gave elegant vent to his pessimism, while Gandhi’s fatalism was visible in his growing distance, in the last years of his life, from the political sphere and his withdrawal to a realm of private moral experimentation, in order to test and strengthen his faith in god.
Nehru’s destiny was quite other: he was hurled into the ruckus of politics. Put in command of a state, he had to act – during and after Partition – in circumstances where violence and hatred had burst known bounds, and reason fled the scene. What kept him going was a conviction that even in the darkest times, intellectual inquiry – "the workings of the mind" as he had put it – reasoning through the gloom, could not be given up: the true failure of faith, the real moral collapse, would be to give up one’s faith in reason. If it is unusual to consider political leaders from this point of view, it is perhaps because we have become too accustomed to thinking of them simply as professionals pursuing a career – their declared ideology or beliefs may be of interest, but their moral character rarely intrigues us. We have come to assume that a politician is effective to the extent that he or she is single-minded in the pursuit of power, that he should be adept at criticising others, never himself. But anyone who chooses the political life has a moral and intellectual responsibility to be self-critical, to examine coldly their own commitments and choices. That morality might have a place in the political life is perhaps an unhinged thought today, when politics has become a profession rather than a vocation. Yet in the absence of such a perspective, Nehru’s career makes little sense: what makes him interesting as a politician, what sets him apart, is his constant probing of how to combine the moral life with the political life. He was a deeply considered person: by some way the most complex whole-cloth politician that India has ever had.
If Nehru was unusual as a politician in the depth of his moral commitments, it is necessary also to see how he was entirely ordinary, in ways that Gandhi for instance was not. Gandhi was unique: he developed extraordinary qualities of character, intensities of self-denial that seem almost freakish. Nehru was not like that: he was, in an important sense, like any one of us – teeming with human appetites, often bewildered by life’s choices, self-doubting, indecisive, short-tempered, needy, sometimes downcast. Unlike Gandhi, he set himself no superhuman moral feats. But like Gandhi, he possessed a remarkable steadfastness of faith: his own faith. Nehru tried to use, to the utmost, that capacity all of us have: the capacity to reason.
From the late 19th century onwards, all Indian thinkers and political figures faced a fundamental problem. How to discover or devise some coherent, shared norms – values and commitments – that could connect Indians together under modern conditions, that could define a public sphere for Indians?
This wider and deeper theme of our intellectual and political history has too often been subsumed within the story of nationalism – as the search for what could unite Indians in terms of a common identity. Yet, as the question to which nationalism was a response has receded, as we are faced with the fundamental and routine questions of political life lived anywhere and at any time– how can we create and sustain a moral public life? – we need to recover this other history, to reconstruct its shape.
What we find in Tagore, in Gandhi, in Nehru, (as well as in many others: I have chosen to focus on these three because they lend themselves most clearly to the argument I wish to make), in their self-criticisms as well as in their critical debates with one another, is a search for a modern morality. They sought principles and practices through which Indians could engage in the public political life to which they were now, through the presence of a state, necessarily condemned and committed. Tagore, Gandhi, Nehru: each represents an important moment in the making of a tradition of public reason – the creation of an intellectual space which allowed morals and ethics, and the political choices these entailed, to be debated, revised, decided upon. At its best moments, the arguments and ideas generated quite exceeded the bounds of nationalism or nationalist thought: by which I mean that their intellectual ambitions were much greater than those who think merely in terms of a narrow Indian nationalism or identity, however defined. They asked large questions, and demanded ambitious answers. When thinking about moral questions, they did not ask ‘What should an Indian do?’ or: ‘What should a Hindu or a Muslim do?’. Rather, they asked: what should a moral being do, what was it right for any human with moral capacities to do? Yet, alongside this universalist impulse, they were also compelled to keep a vivid sense of the contextual and conjunctural constraints they and their compatriots faced: the presence of a colonial state, as also the grip of tradition, both limited the room for action. But it did not limit the pursuit of more capacious perspectives. Interestingly, and unusually if one looks at contemporary political and ethical thinking (which tends to divide between the supremely abstract and the minutely particular), their thinking characteristically struggled to combine universalist ambitions with a vivid sense of specific contexts in which one had practically to act.
No doubt Tagore, Gandhi and Nehru represent a broad and diverse set of positions, and they frequently disagreed. But together, they are the most notable examples in our history of the effort to invent a modern ethics for Indians and India. Their intellectual energies in part drew upon and were directed towards a common predicament, a commonly felt set of challenges: how, in what form, can a moral and integrated life be lived under modern conditions, where political power is concentrated in the state, but where beliefs are multiple and diverse across the society? What was the relationship between morality and personal identity? How could public norms of morality be agreed upon? Where, to what sources should one turn in order to devise moral forms of public action? What could ensure that the institutions of modern politics – the state – would pursue moral ends by moral means? It is the driving presence of this quest in their thinking which marks out all three as more than merely nationalist thinkers: as men who tried to find the basis for a universalist morality and politics.
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