Today is Jawaharlal Nehru’s death anniversary and what better way to remember him than talk about the accusations levelled against him after his death.

One of the major crimes he is said to have committed was rob Indians of their sense of the sacred. His critics say he created a void in the individual and collective life of his countrymen by producing a sense of guilt about their religiosity. It is a different matter that religiosity is often confused with the sacred. We are told that one of the misfortunes that befell India with the demise of Mohandas Gandhi was the loss of sacredness. With an irreligious Nehru firmly in control of the destiny of India, it was a long, harsh white night of secularism that kept us in a state of perpetual wakefulness. Communalism, in this telling, is a disorder arising out of this unnatural state of secularism forced upon us by Nehru.

At the same time and by the same critics, Nehru is accused of not being Indian enough, of being western in outlook and attitude, an intruder of sorts. Here, too, he is contrasted with Gandhi, who is said to be authentically Indian. It is as if merely being Indian endows people with a sense of the sacred – or as if the West lacks it completely. Even if we do not engage with this superficiality, it is necessary to remember that many sources of Gandh’s philosophy were western and his idea of service was particularly informed by his encounter with Christianity. Gandhi’s creativity had a lot to do with his openness to the experiences of other religions. In this, he resembled Ram Krishna Paramhansa, who was so confident he went to other religions without even being conscious of his own.

Writing about Paramhansa, Nehru pointed out that those who often scoffed at this man of no learning soon “bowed their heads before this man of God and ceased to scoff and ‘remained to pray’”. Once in Paramhansa’s company, Nehru noted, many gave up their other vocations. Swami Vivekanand, of course, was the greatest among them.

Nehru called himself, not so modestly, “a man of earth” but insisted that “even a man of earth can admire and perhaps be influenced by a man of God”. The working of the mind of a “man of God” cannot be judged by ordinary people, it can only be understood intuitively. His own relationship with Gandhi had an element of irrationality, for in many crucial matters they had fundamental differences.

What connected Nehru and Gandhi was their common faith in the intelligence of the common masses of India. Gandhi forced the Congress to open its doors to the unlettered peasant masses and Nehru had his political training in the villages of Uttar Pradesh. He told journalist RK Karanjia in an interview that the masses “have a certain quality and character, a basic cultural tradition which makes them function”.

Rustic wisdom

Nehru’s admiration for the wisdom of the peasant masses was real. He wrote, “It was extraordinary to notice how the peasantry were full of this old culture and tradition. In course of conversation, they would refer to some old story or quote a line from Tulsi Das. There is something in an old culture after all, which gives poise and distinction to life.”

Writing to Indira Gandhi, his daughter, about his visit to Mathura, he narrated a conversation between some Congressmen and a peasant.

“Early one morning, some of our party went to a neighbouring well for a bath…They use a big leather bucket called a mot. When the first bucket came up our people wanted to start bathing. But the peasant asked them to wait as the first lot of water was dedicated to Kanhaiyaji (what a sweet name this is). He said that he liked pouring out the first five motfulls to Kanhaiyaji and other favourite divinities, but in any event the first should not even be touched. Our people told them that they were certainly not going to interfere with this old custom. They were Congressmen and between the Congress and the peasants there was sumati. Yes, said the peasant, and immediately quoted a famous line from Tulsi Das, ‘jahan sumati tahan sampati nana’ – where there is goodwill and cooperation, there is an abundance and variety of wealth.”

What drew Nehru close to the Indian peasantry was this spiritual wisdom combined with a firm earthiness. Nehru formed his concept of the sacred based on his interaction with the masses and, of course, the chief peasant Mahatma Gandhi, about whom he wrote:

“He is the quintessence of the conscious and unconscious will of those millions…A man of keenest intellect, of fine feeling and good taste, wide vision; very human, and yet essentially the ascetic who has suppressed his passions and emotions, sublimated them and directed them in spiritual channels.”

“Gandhiji’s conception of democracy is definitely a metaphysical one. It has nothing to with numbers or majority or representation in the ordinary sense. It is based on service and sacrifice, and it uses moral pressure.”

Gandhi was a puzzle to the British and to people like him too, Nehru wrote, adding:

“But India still seems to understand, or at least appreciate, the prophetic-religious type of man, talking of sin and salvation and non-violence. Indian mythology is full of stories of great ascetics, who by the rigour of their sacrifices and self-imposed penance, built up a ‘mountain of merit’ which threatened the dominion of some of the lesser gods and upset the established order. These myths have often come to my mind when I have watched the amazing energy and inner power of Gandhiji, coming out of some inexhaustible reservoir.”

No ordinary alliance

People have found it difficult to understand this unlikely alliance. Maybe alliance is too mundane a word to describe the bonding between Nehru and Gandhi as it was, to use Nehru’s words, certainly not of the “world’s ordinary coinage”. It was political but much more a spiritual connect.

One can say that by accepting Gandhi’s leadership and deciding to follow him despite their differences, Nehru was only obeying his instincts that even his scientific reasoning could not fathom. He was aware of the limits of rationality and was sceptical of the claims of scientific truth. For him, it was important to transcend one’s limits, go beyond one’s self. It was not for nothing that after Gandhi, it was Buddha who influenced him the most.

Nehru was ambivalent towards Buddha. Is he passive and pessimistic? Is his path an escape from the struggles of life? But when he watched him as shaped by loving hands “in carven stone and marble and bronze,” he seemed to “symbolise the whole spirit of Indian thought”.

“Seated on lotus flower, calm and impassive, above passion and desire, beyond the storm and strife of this world, so far away he seems out of reach, unattainable. Yet again, we look and behind those still, unmoving features there is passion and an emotion, strange and powerful than the passions and emotions we have known.”

Nehru was fascinated by Buddha, Gandhi and Paramhansa as they are capable of going beyond themselves and their age. Anthony Parel is right to observe that when Nehru dreamt of an integrated human being, what he was suggesting was that “the yearning that drives humanity forward is the yearning for transcendence coupled with the natural desire for material well-being – not the drive for violence and class struggle”.

Nehruvians may quarrel with Parel’s use of the “dharma and moksha” frame for Nehru, but they will agree his vision traversed more than material attainments. Nehru thought highly of his people: that they were capable of transcending their temporal self. One can only hope he is not proved wrong by them.

Apoorvanand is a professor of Hindi at the University of Delhi.