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The Discovery of India by Jawaharlal Nehru

The Discovery of IndiaThe Discovery of India by Jawaharlal Nehru

My Rating★★★★★

It is but folly for me to attempt to review a book so close to my heart. But, on my third reading of this book, it is time to finally go beyond the beauty of the prose and the elegance of Nehru’s presentation. It is time to see if the book achieves the objectives it sets out to achieve and judge it thus. I will let my earlier one-line review stand. Here goes…

The following passage reflects the objective of the book.

To know and understand India one has to travel far in time and space, to forget for a while her present condition with all its misery and narrowness and horror, and to have glimpses of what she was and what she did. ‘To know my country’, wrote Rabindranath Tagore, ‘one has to travel to that age, when she realized her soul and thus transcended her physical boundaries, when she revealed her being in a radiant magnanimity which illumined the eastern horizon, making her recognized as their own by those in alien shores who were awakened into a surprise of life; and not now when she has withdrawn herself into a narrow barrier of obscurity, into a miserly pride of exclusiveness, into a poverty of mind that dumbly revolves around itself in an unmeaning repetition of a past that has lost its light and has no message for the pilgrims of the future.’

Does it achieve such a grand objective? It sweeps across Indian history on very able wings and the history unfolds with irresistible drama and with the glow of a golden splendor. India of old comes alive for the reader in all its old grandeur. But this is dazzle. Does the expedition go beyond that and ‘discover’ India? It does and it doesn’t. The India glimmers and fades – reappearing every time Nehru takes an unbiased look back and disappearing every time he turns his gaze eagerly to the present.

The second half of the books quickly descends into a political commentary from being a historical study – and in this transition from history to the present, the ‘discovery’ is left incomplete in the urgency to expostulate on current happenings. This is a minor failure and Nehru is quite aware of it. He has to go back to the vagueness he started with to end his quest:

Nearly five months have gone by since I took to this writing and I have covered a thousand hand-written pages with this jumble of ideas in my mind. For five months I have travelled in the past and peeped into the future and sometimes tried to balance myself on that ‘point of intersection of the timeless with time.’ These month have been full of happenings in the world and the war has advanced rapidly towards a triumphant conclusion, so far as military victories go. […] Because of this business of thinking and trying to give some expression to my thoughts, I have drawn myself away from the piercing-edge of the present and moved along the wider expanses of the past and the future. But there must be an end to this wandering. If there was no other sufficient reason for it, there is a very practical consideration which cannot be ignored. I have almost exhausted the supply of paper that I had managed to secure after considerable difficulty and it is not easy to get more of it. The discovery of India — what have I discovered? It was presumptuous of me to imagine that I could unveil her and find out what she is today and what she was in the long past. […] Yet something has bound them together and binds them still. India is a geographical and economic entity, a cultural unity amidst diversity, a bundle of contradictions held together by strong but invisible threads. Overwhelmed again and again, her spirit was never conquered, and today when she appears to be the plaything of a proud conqueror, she remains unsubdued and unconquered. About her there is the elusive quality of a legend of long ago; some enchantment seems to have held her mind. She is a myth and an idea, a dream and a vision, and yet very real and present and pervasive. There are terrifying glimpses of dark corridors which seem to lead back to primeval night, but also there is the fullness and warmth of the day about her. Shameful and repellent she is occasionally, perverse and obstinate, sometimes even a little hysteric, this lady with a past. But she is very lovable, and none of her children can forget her wherever they go or whatever strange fate befalls them. For she is part of them in her greatness as well as her failings, and they are mirrored in those deep eyes of hers that have seen so much of life’s passion and joy and folly, and looked down into wisdom’s well. Each one of them is drawn to her, though perhaps each has a different reason for that attraction or can point to no reason at all, and each sees some different aspect of her many-sided personality.

While that maybe so, this too is pardonable as even the political statements soar to heights sometimes and is amazing: (more in updates section)

The tragedy of Bengal and the famines of Orissa, Malabar, and other places are the final judgment on British rule in India. The British will certainly leave India, and their Indian Empire will become a memory, but what will they leave when they have to go, what human degradation and accumulated sorrow? Tagore saw this picture as he lay dying three years ago: ‘But what kind of India will they leave behind, what stark misery? When the stream of their centuries’ administration runs dry at last, what a waste of mud and filth they will leave behind them!’

The conclusion is a fitting one (though this passage is not really the conclusion). It was ultimately not about the Discovery of India as India is too diverse and manifold, it was an inquiry into the soul of a generation, a Discovery of their India, of the India then, of that generation, the greatest generation perhaps in our living memory:

My generation has been a troubled one in India and the world. We may carry on for a little while longer, but our day will be over and we shall give place to others, and they will live their lives and carry their burdens to the next stage of the journey. How have we played our part in this brief interlude that draws to a close? I do not know. Others of a later age will judge. By what standards do we measure success or failure? That too I do not know. We can make no complaint that life has treated us harshly, for ours has been a willing choice, and perhaps life has not been so bad to us after all. For only they can sense life who stand often on the verge of it, only they whose lives are not governed by the fear of death. In spite of all the mistakes that we may have made, we have saved ourselves from triviality and an inner shame and cowardice. That, for our individual selves, has been some achievement. ‘Man’s dearest possession is life, and since it is given to him to live but once, he must so live as not to be seared with the shame of a cowardly and trivial past, so live as not to be tortured for years without purpose, so live that dying he can say: “All my life and my strength were given to the first cause of the world — the liberation of mankind.”‘

 

If only we could also figure a path to save ourselves from triviality. If only we too could Discover the moving spirit of our own Generation.

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Posted by on May 1, 2013 in Book Reviews, Books, Thoughts

 

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Philosophy Bites

Philosophy BitesPhilosophy Bites by David Edmonds

My Rating: ★★☆☆☆

This book mostly consists of philosophers raising some interesting questions and then failing miserably to answer them. It really is a hodgepodge of concepts where they stick their feet into every interesting philosophical pond available but hardly spends the time required to really test the waters or to gauge the depths. So while the book was not very valuable from the perspective of finding good answers, it was still a good exercise in framing a lot of new (to me) questions or reframing some old ones, and that is after all the essence of all philosophy. Once we have answers to any question, or have the proper way to ask it, then it crosses over from philosophy to science.

So just for getting one thinking in these wide variety if questions, the book was fascinating and worth the time in reading and probably it is also worthwhile putting down here the major questions and also a few attempted answers.

The first question to be addressed was whether the “yuck” reaction ie whether moral or physical disgust should be a yardstick for policy measures or for any informed judgment. The answer was a unilateral No and I will cover this further in my review here.

Another question to be taken up was on whether Relativity should be the foundation of all morality. This Relativism would be any theory which encapsulates the idea that there are individual differences in morality (for which there may be a cultural explanation) and that there are no absolute truths about any moral judgements that we make. Is it all just a matter of taste? The Relativist would answer that it indeed is, he would say that ‘you’ve got your truth and I’ve got mine’ – end of story. But the trouble is, it’s not the end of the story because we’re each seeking to impose a policy on the other.

To illustrate this take an example where I want people to purge al streets of the menace of street dogs and you want them not to, then just at the level of desire we’ve got a disagreement and you could be expected to act to prevent this dog-culling and I act to promote it. We’ve got policies that are in conflict and we might come to blows, as people do. Suppose you say ‘Dog Culling No!’ and I say ‘Dog Culling Yes!’, and in comes Rosy The Relativist, and she says ‘Hey you two, why don’t you just realize that stray dogs are good for you and bad for him and that’s the end of it?’ The question I want to ask is, ‘How does this help?’ Whatever led you to oppose the culling or wish to tolerate the stray dogs is presumably still there; whatever led me to promote it is still there. The idea that we’re not in conflict just starts to look farcical. And the conflict has not been resolved by Rosy – it hasn’t even been helped.

The question of how to treat animals too is explored. How do we regulate cruelty to them and decide where to draw the moral lines? The answer that Peter Singer puts forth is two fold, any creature that is capable of making plans fo the future should be treated with that respect for its own ambitions and any creature capable of suffering should be given the consideration of alleviating any needless suffering. Singer brings up the example of factory farming where we confine animals in conditions that for their entire lives make them miserable. We have to ask: what do we get out of this? Well, we produce food a little more cheaply. But we are not starving, and we can afford to pay a little more for our food. I don’t think there’s much doubt that that’s not something that can be justified if we give equal consideration to the sufferings of the hens and the pigs.

Then the discussion turns to the question of Human Enhancement for excelling in sports and other competitive fields. the thrust of the argument is that if we enhance human performance artificially sports will lose its meaning, we watch it for the human element, to see people overcoming the odds of their bodies to do impossible things. If they are no longer ‘impossible’ and inconceivable, then why watch them?

The next part was about friendship and I could not make out any real questions in this discussion except a back and forth about how can we justify the morality of giving special treatment to our friends over strangers. Are some friends more equal than others? The answer is that the social morals of treating all the same is about equality but friendship is about individuality.

Is cosmopolitanism really that important and how far should toleration just for the sake of toleration go? Can we allow practices we consider morally depraved just because they are part of the cultural tradition of a community? The only anser seems to be that if these practices are imposed on people who are not in a position to make an informed choice for themselves, children, for instance, you might want to be paternalistic and protect them from it for their own good. Adults making informed choices would be a different case. But ultimately it should be about giving the people in that community the education and the informed choices so that they can rise above the blinding customs and then make a decision for themselves, without having them imposed on them from a Big Brother who knows better.

The question was again picked up in the section about Multiculturalism and how Tolerance should not be the word we should be using. To tolerate something is different from real acceptance of the culture. The problem with ‘tolerance’ is what it sounds like – suffering someone’s existence rather than dealing with them violently.

The tricky nature of epistemic injustice, namely testimonial injustice is also explored. That’s when one person is telling another person something and the hearer, owing to some prejudice, deflates the level of credibility they give to the speaker. A good example that we might relate to to understand this abstract concept is the end of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, where we find the defendant being charged with rape just because none of the white jurors believe the word of a ‘negro’, then the injustice matters deeply, and indeed in that case the consequences prove fatal.

Who can try and define the nature of Infinity? The mathematicians define it thus: if you can pair off a sub-collection of any given collection with the whole collection, that means you’re talking about an infinite collection of objects.

Scientific realism is to believe that everything that science postulates is really here and is real, even if our sense organs can never perceive it. The conclusion seemed to be that we should be skeptics about some areas of science which has a history of producing wildly wrong theories (such as astronomy?) and realistic about the sciences with a better track record (chemistry?). But with such a short history, do we have enough data to really decide?

This was followed by a very abstract discussion on time and how we treat it so differently from spatial measures. I have nothing worthwhile to comment on this really. Then came the section on the nature of the relationship between the mind and the body as Tim Crane tried to explore it. Most of the discussion was centered on Vedantic philosophy and the Upanishads and is much too detailed and in any case the question is more important!

Tim Williamson then tries to explain how to classify Vagueness and boundary conditions. When do you start and stop being a teenager? When does a heap of sand stop being a ‘heap’ if you remove one grain at a time? At what hour, or minute, or second, does one become middle-aged? Basically it is an exploration of the famous Sorites paradoxes.

The discussion from here on centers on Art and how to define and classify them. Apparently, the fine arts as we now know them today, was the invention of one man – a French thinker called the Abbé Batteaux. The real question though is when does any object get classified as Art? If it is beautiful? Beautiful to whom? Is institutionalization inevitable in a field like the Arts?

Alain de Botton makes an appearance to talk about aesthetics and architecture. His main argument is that form and functionality are important but aesthetics is as important since that too one of the fundamental function so architecture. To explain the real function of a building, Botton invokes John Ruskin – it should encompass both sheltering and also what John Ruskin calls ‘speaking’, when he says buildings shouldn’t just shelter us, they should speak to us. They should speak to us of all the things that we think are most important and that we need to be reminded of on a daily basis. So the idea is that buildings should be the repositories of certain values, ideas, suggestions, and that they should reflect these back to us, so as to inspire us. I was strongly reminded of the speech made by Arkady Bogdanov during the meteor shower episode in that fantastic book Red Mars, and this was the only reason I felt that I agreed with Ruskin on this one.

From art we move to wine and about how to truly appreciate it. And then takes a radical shift into the possible motivations for watching a tragedy.

The discussion was about resolving the paradox of Aristotle when he says Tragedy gives pleasure through pain. This paradox of tragedy is dissolved in effect by saying Aristotle was wrong. The tragic poet’s task is not really to generate in the audience a peculiar species of pleasure. What he should have said, and arguably what he really means, is that a tragic poet aims at giving us a certain kind of insight.

From here on, the discussions are about God and Atheism and so all the really bored ones can get off the bus now.

Don Cupitt says that he has given up on the ideas of a pre-existent self, world, and God, quite apart from human belief, human commitment, and human descriptions. God doesn’t exist apart from our faith in him is his belief now. John Cottingham exploring the Meaning of Life itself says that God is not necessary and neither is religion. Spirituality and spiritual practices independent of both can still give us the calm and peace that we seek. Stephen Law then delves in the famous Problem of Evil: If we begin with the thought that God is all-powerful, all-good, and indeed all-knowing, the question, then, is why does evil exist? or why does evil exist in quite the quantities that it does? There are two different problems here. The first is called the logical problem of evil. Some people argue that the existence of God is logically incompatible with the existence of any suffering or evil whatsoever. The other problem of evil is this. If you believe in an all-powerful, all-good God, why is there quite so much suffering and evil in the world? Surely an all-powerful, all-good God would have the ability to produce a world with far less suffering, and, if He’s all-good, then He would surely want the world to contain far less suffering. Why, then, is there quite so much suffering? So, on the evidential problem of evil, it’s the quantity of evil that’s really the issue, whereas on the logical problem it’s the existence of any evil or any suffering at all that’s deemed the problem. The quantity of suffering is evidence that there is no God.

Keith Ward proposes that a return to eastern Idealism might solve the problem of this definition of God. But, then comes A.C. Grayling who says no to all conceptions of God in his first statement but never raises a finger against any idea that the Judaeo-Christian personal God in his talks. But he is surely a Radical Atheist, rejecting the idea that there are gods or supernatural agencies of any kind in the world. It is even a rejection of the idea that there might have been supernatural agencies at some earlier point in the universe’s history, which is the deist position. He calls himself a naturalist, but the only hole I could detect in his argument was if he was confronted with the numerous ideas of God that never ascribes anything ‘supernatural’ to the concept.

The entire book was in an interview format and most of the times the answers are more evasive than conclusive in any way. But since these are supposed to be the leading philosophers in their respective fields, we can at least take heart that they know as little as we do?

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Posted by on March 23, 2012 in Book Reviews, Books, Thoughts

 

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