What is it about the Guinness Book of World Records that makes Indians dizzy with longing and anticipation and sends them on a bizarre journey of self-gratification?   A number of public commentators, among them a New York Times correspondent, appear to have stumbled upon this phenomenon in recent months, but it is something that struck my attention nearly twenty years ago, leading to a longish essay that I first published in the stylish but short-lived journal Suitcase in 1995 and since published in a revised essay in my collection, Of Cricket, Guinness and Gandhi:  Essays on Indian History and Culture (Seagull Books, 2003; paperback edition, Penguin Books, 2005).

India's Rubber Man who, in the caption in the Daily Mail (UK), is described thus:  Vijay Sharma demonstrates his flexibility by winding his arms around his back and wrapping then around his waist in Delhi Read more: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1254391/The-real-life-flexible-friend-Indias-Rubber-Man-makes-Guinness-Book-World-Records.html#ixzz3eJZpUFFI

India’s Rubber Man who, in the caption in the Daily Mail (UK), is described thus: Vijay Sharma demonstrates his flexibility by winding his arms around his back and wrapping then around his waist in Delhi
Read more: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1254391/The-real-life-flexible-friend-Indias-Rubber-Man-makes-Guinness-Book-World-Records.html#ixzz3eJZpUFFI

Last year, apparently at the behest of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, a man who is rather keen on records—witness, for example, the infamous jacket on which his name had been embroidered with gold color thread in stripes, or the construction that is afoot to build the largest statue in the world just outside Baroda, a monument of faith and folly to Sardar Patel, the architect (as the statue seeks to recognize) of Indian “unity”—the UN General Assembly, which Modi addressed in September at the annual conclave of the heads of government, agreed to designate June 21st as International Yoga Day.

The Modi Jacket

The Modi Jacket

And so it was celebrated this June 21st: there is much that is newsworthy about the events that transpired, not the least the fact that yoga, as more than one commentator has noted, may well be India’s most successful and globalized spiritual commodity.  Therein lies the source of an anxiety that success has ironically generated:  even as many Indians or rather Hindus rejoice in the universalization of yoga, some are also alarmed by its commodification, giving little thought to the fact that increasingly globalization and commodification necessarily go hand-in-hand; and indeed there are others, the self-appointed guardians of the faith, such as the relatively young and cocksure acolytes of the faith who staff diasporic organizations of the likes of the Hindu American Foundation, who have strenuously sought to wage a war against those who, stripping yoga of its purported roots in Hindu traditions or what is vaguely described as Indian/Hindu spiritual traditions, have embraced it purely as a system of exercises and meditational techniques.

International Yoga Day, however, was most interesting for something altogether different, namely an attempt in Delhi, spearheaded by Modi himself, to bring laurels to India by having the country set two new records that would merit mention in the Guinness Book of Records.  In the matter of records, at least, Indians recognize a copy or a cheap imitation when they see one, and the truly aspiring Indians who seek what they think is global recognition have never settled for the Indian Book of Records or the Limca Book of Records.  Never mind the fact that some who have sought to blaze a trail of glory by having themselves recognized as the holder of a world record are probably clueless about “Guinness” and might even be teetotalers.  They are certainly knowledgeable enough about the fact that an entry in the Limca Book of Records isn’t going to earn them any cultural capital.  Modi and his ministers were, moreover, resolved that International Yoga Day should be marked by India claiming, in some distinct fashion, ownership and exclusive authorship of the idea of yoga.  (Bikram has only attempted to patent certain asanas or, to be more precise, his particular style of yoga and even the milieu for yoga—the temperature of the room in each and every Bikram yoga studio is set at 40.6 Celsius or 105 Fahrenheit; what the Government of India seeks to do is to patent the very idea of yoga.)  One government official interviewed recently on the subject of India’s preparations for the celebration of International Yoga Day admitted that the “PM [Prime Minister] is insistent that the event makes an impact internationally.”  Another official at the newly created AYUSH [Ayurveda], Yoga and Naturopathy, Unani, Siddha, and Homeopathy] ministry charged with organizing events for the momentous day described his team as “trying very hard to get the record set but the rules of the record are tough.”

On the anointed day the Prime Minister decided to lead the country by example.  The photograph published in the Hindustan Times the following day (reproduced below) captured the event well:  the leader must be part of a collective and yet singular, showing both his affinity with the masses and his ability to guide and inspire them.

Modi leading the faithful at Rajpath on International  Yoga Day.  Photo:  Hindustan Times

Modi leading the faithful at Rajpath on International Yoga Day. Photo: Hindustan Times

Here he is at the head of the masses; strikingly, it is a group of women, the cadres who one is tempted to say form the storm troopers of his movement, who are immediately seated behind him in rows. Much more can be said about this photograph and the interplay of masculinity and a feminized nation; but what is not less striking is that Modi and the thousands who followed him in this orchestrated display are seated on the Rajpath, the Path of Kings, a colonial thoroughfare now appropriated in the service of a rejuvenated and disciplined nation.

Nearly 40,000 women and men—35,985 to be precise, since to deal with records is to give one’s allegiance to precision—followed Modi, thus establishing a new world record for the largest yoga class and eclipsing the old record which was set in November 2005 when 29,973 students attended a yoga class, drawn from 362 schools, at the Vivekananda Kendra at Jiwaji University, Gwalior, in central India.  Shripad Naik, the Minister of AYUSH, declared that “it is a matter of pride for India that we have broken two records in one day”, but Mr. Naik neglected to say that the second Guinness World Record noted (but not yet official recognized) at that day’s yoga event, namely the presence of nationals from 84 countries, did not previously exist.  It is doubtless an interesting and perhaps impressive fact that nationals of seven dozen countries thought it fit to become part of history (to use the common idiom of our times), but no record was broken.  One suspects that this second record is much like the attempt to introduce kabaddi—a contact team sport which, to invoke a very personal definition, is yoga on the run and revolves around strategies of breathing and tagging one’s opponents— at the Olympics games:  since India is generally starved for medals, kabaddi is nearly a fool-proof way of ensuring that India does not appear at the rock bottom of the medals tally, alongside the Ivory Coast, Bhutan, Zambia, and the like.  As the entry on kabaddi on Wikipedia states, “India is the most successful team on the world stage, having won every world cup and Asian Games title so far, in both men’s and women’s categories.”  Kabaddi is, however, only played in South Asian countries and among some of the more enthusiastic diasporic communities from the Indian sub-continent.

We are, of course, still far from understanding what is it that prompts Indians to make a run for the Guinness Book of Records. In my first ruminations on this subject, in the aforementioned article from 1995, I wrote thus:  “A certain anxiety, first generated during the colonial period, and subsequently aggravated by the process of nation-building, over masculinity and the manliness of a people, no less of a nation, must also account to a great degree for the quest among Indians to have their names etched in the Guinness Book. Part of the ethos of manliness consists simply in gaining recognition, in being acknowledged. One long-lasting effect of colonialism has been that the Indian continues to look up to the white European male, who confers recognition upon inferiors, and who has established the standard that the Indian (like other formerly colonized people) must meet. That is the canonical truth, the qanoon of this world.”  However, as I then argued, and would still insist upon today, the matter is considerably more complex, since many of the records established by the Indians—for running backwards over the longest distance, for having the longest fingernails, or for standing for a period of 17 years—are profoundly disturbing to some Indian elites, who would much rather see India recognized for “genuine achievements” rather than be dubbed a nation of freaks, charlatans, and eccentrics.

Ram Singh Chauhan, the man with the longest moustache in the world.   Source:  The Telegraph, UK.  http://www.telegraph.co.uk/men/fashion-and-style/movember/10416984/Movember-2013-famous-moustaches-in-pictures.html

Ram Singh Chauhan, the man with the longest moustache in the world.
Source: The Telegraph, UK. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/men/fashion-and-style/movember/10416984/Movember-2013-famous-moustaches-in-pictures.html

More of India's Rubber Man. Source:  www.dailymail.co.uk

More of India’s Rubber Man.
Source: http://www.dailymail.co.uk

These freakish records furnish, as I have argued, “a counter-hegemonic force to modern orthodoxies about development, production, competition, management, and modernity itself.  Readers keen on pursuing these arguments further are invited to read—with, ideally, a Guinness at hand—my longer piece on Indians and their obsession with the Guinness Book of Records.

The thinking person, Walter Benjamin had occasion to remark, appears to experience crisis at every juncture of her or his life.  How can this not be so if one were to experience the pain of someone else as one’s own?  How can this not be so when, amidst growing stockpiles of food in many countries, millions continue to suffer from malnutrition, and the lengthening shadows of poverty give lie to the pious promises and pompous proclamations by the world’s leaders over the last several decades that humanity is determined to achieve victory in its quest to eradicate poverty?  With war, violence, disease, and the myriad manifestations of racism, sexism, and other forms of discrimination which man’s ingenuity has wrought all around us, how might a person not be experiencing crisis?  One Foundation after another—whether it be named after Bill and Melinda Gates, the Clintons, Ford, Rockefeller, or other tycoons—has claimed to have helped “millions” of people around the world, but the crises appear to be multiplying.

There is, yet, a larger crisis that engulfs us all, even those who are sheltered from the cruel afflictions to which a good portion of humankind is still subject, especially in the global South.  Pope Francis, singularly among “world leaders”, has dared to address the “crisis” that overwhelms all others in his recently released encyclical, Laudato Si’ (“Praise Be to You”), which poignantly sets the tone for a conversation that ought to engage the entire world with its declaration at the outset that the subject of his letter is “the care for our common home”.  Over the last few years, a consensus has slowly been emerging among members of the scientific community that climate change is presently taking place at a rate which is unprecedented in comparison with the natural climate change cycles that have characterized our earth in the course of the last half a million years; moreover, as successive Assessment Reports of the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) have affirmed, global warming is, to an overwhelming degree, the consequence of human activity.  IPCC’s Fourth Assessment Report (2007) suggested that scientists were reasonably certain in their finding that global warming had been produced by the increasing accumulation of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere owing to the massive burning of fossil fuels, the industrialized use of animal stocks, and significant changes in land use.

Source:  Cook, John (2010) Ten Human Indicators on Climate Change - See more at: http://blogs.law.widener.edu/climate/category/us-congress-and-climate-change-ethics/#sthash.lxq2hc8I.dpuf

Source: Cook, John (2010) Ten Human Indicators on Climate Change – See more at: http://blogs.law.widener.edu/climate/category/us-congress-and-climate-change-ethics/#sthash.lxq2hc8I.dpuf

The recently issued Fifth Assessment Report (2013) describes the environmental risks in even more unequivocal language:  “It is extremely likely (95-100%) that human influence has been the dominant cause of the observed warming since the mid-20th century”.  Scientists and increasingly other commentators—various practitioners of the social sciences, journalists, and policy makers—are now inclined to the view that this anthropogenic climate change is of such a magnitude that we might reasonably speak of a new geological epoch, defined by the action of humans, that the atmospheric chemist Paul Crutzen termed the Anthropocene.  Signs of the acute malady—among others, record temperatures in much of the global North, intense heat waves and droughts in Australia, melting glaciers in the Himalayan mountain range, cyclones of increasing ferocity, rising sea levels, massive flooding—began to proliferate over a decade ago and could no longer be ignored.  Speaking just before the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004, the chief scientific adviser to the UK government would be bold enough to hazard the view that climate change poses a greater threat than does terrorism to the ability of humans to “live safely.”

The Pope has, with his eloquently and passionately argued encyclical, justly intervened in a matter which cannot and must not be left only to the jurisdiction of scientists and policy makers.  It is, in the first instance, notable that Francis speaks not so much of ‘global warming’ as of ‘climate change’, though in common usage the two terms are often used interchangeably.  Neither term was part of the global vocabulary until the late 1970s, even if the geochemist Wallace S. Broecker warned, in a 1975 piece entitled “Climate Change:  Are We on the Brink of a Pronounced Global Warming?”, that the complacency about the warming effect of carbon dioxide produced by the burning of chemical fuels was not warranted.   The NASA scientist James E. Hansen is sometimes credited with having made the term ‘global warming’, which is much less encompassing than ‘climate change’, referring as it does only to the increase in the earth’s average surface temperature as a consequence of rising levels of greenhouse gases, acceptable to a wider public with his 1988 testimony before Congress where he asserted that scientists could “ascribe with a high degree of confidence a cause and effect relationship between the greenhouse effect and the observed warming.”  Pope Francis is astute in directing his attention at ‘climate change’, recognizing that the environmental catastrophes which are upon us take myriad forms and have repercussions which extend to the entire question of the future of all species on this earth and the moral implications of present human conduct.  Not only is ‘climate change’ in the ordinarily understood sense of the term a palpable reality, but there has been at work for some time a change in the climate—of thought, feeling, and opinion—that has brought humankind to the brink of ecological, social, and moral devastation.

Beginning, as Francis does, with the claim that “climate change is a global problem with grave implications: environmental, social, economic, political and for the distribution of goods,” it is not surprising, and is indeed heartening, that his letter is attentive to the grave and pervasive inequalities between countries.  “The foreign debt of poor countries has become a way of controlling them, yet this is not the case where ecological debt is concerned,” the encyclical states, and Francis adds that “in different ways, developing countries, where the most important reserves of the biosphere are found, continue to fuel the development of richer countries at the cost of their own present and future.”  Francis recommends that the developed countries “help pay this debt by significantly limiting their consumption of non-renewable energy and by assisting poorer countries to support policies and programmes of sustainable development.”  Not many have dared to suggest that equality cannot be gained only be attempting to raise the standard of living in the countries that comprise the global South; those who are rich, wherever they may be, will surely have to curtain their extraordinary levels of consumption.  (This reprises a debate between Ambedkar and Gandhi in India—but we leave that aside for the present.)  The Pope goes on to offer an indictment of the shallow market-based solutions proffered by the economists—when, one might ask, were the economists not shallow—and suggests with considerable astuteness that “carbon credits” are to rejected as they “may simply become a ploy which permits maintaining the excessive consumption of some countries and sectors.”  It is these remarks which prompted Jeb Bush, a Presidential “hopeful” as they are characterized in the US, to tell his adoring audience somewhere on Main Street in Anytown, America, that “I hope I’m not going to get castigated for saying this by my priest back home, but I don’t get economic policy from my bishops or my cardinal or my pope.”  The enlightened soul that he is, Jeb doubtless gets his economic philosophy from George W., the light on the hill that has been shining on baby brother since he came into this world and blinding him ever since.

Source:  CDC, Atlanta

Source: CDC, Atlanta

Francis rightly rejects the view that the question of climate change must be left only to environmentalists, economists, and policy makers.  As I have argued at some length in a recent article, “Climate Change:  Insights from Hinduism”, in the Journal of the American Academy of Religion (June 2015)—and I shall in the remaining part of this blog be drawing entirely upon my article, which is a contribution to a roundtable discussion on climate change and religion—students of religion must be particularly sensitive to what climate change portends for the future of humankind and all of creation.  In a world beset by extraordinary calamities, it is difficult for most people to turn their attention to something called climate change.  But it is not only those who are devastated by war, sexual violence, grave civil unrest, disease, a deadly virus, or a natural calamity such as an earthquake who see themselves as without the luxury to ruminate over the afflictions engendered by climate change.  Suffering is in the here and now; the privations that are effects of climate change, such as they are understood, happen—or are likely to happen—elsewhere, at a remote distance, and to others.  No doubt some people are aware that melting glaciers and rising temperatures have already wrought havoc, but nevertheless those who issue warnings about the calamitous consequences of climate change are unable to derive much emotional or spiritual purchase from arguments that invoke the future of our children, grandchildren, and generations to come when they speak solely or predominantly in the language of science.

More so than other practitioners of other disciplines and areas of inquiry, students of religion ought to consider the question of climate change their special provenance.  In many respects, religious studies scholars are especially equipped to address the social, cultural, and ethical implications of climate change.  First, the notion of an afterlife, howsoever it may be interpreted, occupies a critical space in every religion:  the religious sensibility is one that insists not only on the imperative of ethical conduct in the present, but also on the persistence of good outcomes of such conduct in the long run.  Religion helps us to think of different registers of temporality and it holds up the future as a mode and space of being that is of at least as much critical importance as the present; similarly, the ecological awareness that proponents of climate change seek to elicit in every person rests in part on the idea that proper custodianship of the earth will yield rich dividends for those who are to follow us.

Secondly, there is another idiom of temporality in which the student of religion, or more particularly of Hinduism, can hope to render understandable an argument about the reality of climate change.  As the scholar of religion, Harold Coward, reminds us, “it took all of human history up to the early 1800s for the earth’s population to reach one billion.  It took 130 years to add the second billion, 30 years to add the third, 15 years to add the fourth, and 12 years to add the fifth.”  A like argument may be advanced apropos of climate change:  the first several decades of the industrial revolution led to greater accumulation of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere than the preceding tens of thousands of years, and it is quite likely that the last two decades—which have seen not only increased levels of consumption in most of the major economies, but exponential growth in China and a substantial increase of the middle class in India, Brazil, and elsewhere—have contributed as much to global warming as the preceding century.  However, what is equally germane is that a phrase such as “all of human history up to the early 1800s” evokes gargantuan periods of time—a notion that is remote to ordinary human experience but rather more readily available to the practitioners of Hinduism, who have long been habituated to the idea of the Yugas, or the four ages—Satya Yuga, spanning 1,728,000 years; Treta Yuga, lasting 1,296,000 years; Dwapara Yuga, spanning 864,000 years; and Kali Yuga, which is half the duration of the Dwapara Yuga and a quarter of the Satya Yuga—through which human history is said to have passed.  The point here is that even if the scientific evidence for climate change is compelling, there is a different sensibility at work in the suggestion that the very idea of climate change also commands us to think of strikingly varying temporalities—both of the eons of time that have passed and the eons of time well into the future.  Hinduism’s mytho-geological conception of time immensely facilitates such leaps of imagination.

Thirdly, whatever the inclination of adherents of each religion to prize their own faith as the correct and wholly distinct path to emancipation, the religious-minded generally recognize that every religion affirms the oneness of humankind.  Arguments that draw attention to the precariousness of human existence, an existence rendered all the more fragile by widespread, devastating, and often unpredictable changes in nature that can be explicitly traced to human activity, are likewise predicated on the idea that climate change provides yet another affirmation of the oneness of existence.  The common maladies that afflict the poor, the marginalized, and the disempowered, mainly in the global South and certain pockets of the affluent North, are after all not our maladies, even if activists, social workers, and idealists choose to alleviate their suffering and occasionally even partake in it as the most meaningful gesture of solidarity.  Yet what does the recognition of climate change entail if not precisely the notion that there are certain forms of suffering that are indivisible, that the problems of one might well be the problems of all?  If religion may be defined as an attempt to teach us how we can share in the suffering of others, can it not be said that awareness of climate change leads to the same outcome?

In a sequel to this piece, I shall take up the question of the insights that Hinduism has to contribute to our understanding of climate change.  Though Pope Francis did not draw upon any Hindu texts, his encyclical displays the same ecumenism that he would like to see characterized in human relations and in the dialogue between nations rich and poor.  He draws, quite expectedly, upon the Bible, the teachings of St. Francis, the insights of  Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople, leader of the Eastern Orthodox Church, and his two most recent papal predecessors, John Paul II and Benedict XVI; but also upon the ninth-century Sufi mystic, Ali al-Khawas, and such international conventions as the Rio Declaration on the Environment and Development (2002).  Home is where one begins from; after the journeying of the last two hundred years, Francis’s letter seeks to ground humans so that they may once again become sensitive to the earth, sky, air, water and the dust to which everything returns.

American newspapers have been abuzz with the news that the President of Sudan, Omar Hasan al-Bashir, in whose name a warrant of arrest has been issued by the International Criminal Court on charges of genocide, was able to flee South Africa with the connivance of its government despite a ruling by the country’s high court that he should have been detained. There is but no question that South Africa, which at the inception of the court was one of its most enthusiastic advocates, has reneged on its international obligations. What is not less pertinent is that the major world powers, for the most part, are not signatories to the convention that led to the establishment of the International Criminal Court, and indeed there is a large and vocal body of opinion in the United States that is vociferously opposed to American participation in the court. The opposition stems, quite predictably, from considerations such as the supposed fact that the US, being the world’s eminent superpower, cannot permit its politicians and officials to be held hostage to an international body, and that the United States holds its own laws to be sovereign over and above any international treaties and covenants. The court, according to its American opponents, may prevent the United States from the open pursuit of its foreign policy, which is another way of saying that the US cannot obviously permit an international body to exercise some restraint upon its war-mongering policy makers.

I do not, however, propose at this juncture to examine the politics of the International Criminal Court. The question that comes to mind, prompted by a news release from Johns Hopkins University some weeks ago, is why—the why here is to be read with its full rhetorical effect, rather than as a query only about the legal limitations of this international body— a warrant for the arrest of Henry Kissinger has never been issued by the court. This former Secretary of State is, to the contrary, still celebrated as a wise policy maker, and his idiotic punditry, which is a rather mild phrase for the ramblings of a criminally deranged man, earns him not merely the approbation but the purses of his admirers. The cormorant crew of harpies that follows every word of Kissinger as if it were the revealed truth includes among its numbers the former Mayor of New York, Michael Bloomberg, who has gifted Johns Hopkins University in excess of US $500 million, much of it to endow dozens of “Bloomberg Professorships”.

Bloomberg’s latest gift to Johns Hopkins, according to a news release from the university in late April, is $20 million for the establishment of a Kissinger Institute at Johns Hopkins’ School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS). The proposed institution’s precise location within Johns Hopkins is of little interest; what is certainly germane is the fact that Bloomberg has sought to honor his “great friend” with a token of his esteem for a man who in numerous parts of the world is rightly recognized as a war criminal. Many others have documented Kissinger’s crimes against humanity, whether in Chile, where the US engineered a coup under his watch, or in Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam, where millions were killed by the mightiest military machine in the world that would in time be humbled and humiliated by a people fighting for their very independence. One is reminded of the verdict given by more than one observer at Nuremberg, namely that had the victors at the end of World War II been the Nazis and the fascists, the likes of Churchill and Curtis LeMay, the US Air Force general who bore responsibility for the fire-bombing of Japanese cities, could justifiably have been tried for war crimes and crimes against humanity. None of these considerations appear to have weighed upon Bloomberg, nor indeed upon the President of Johns Hopkins University, a certain Roger Daniels, who in a message to the wider Johns Hopkins University rejoiced in the gift with the usual anodyne words about “excellence” and facilitating research into conditions that might lead humankind towards “peace”. To place Kissinger and “peace” side by side is rather like putting vomit and nectar together. Mr. Daniels’ announcement moved me to send him this missive on 24 April 2015:

Professor Ronald J. Daniels

President, The Johns Hopkins University

Baltimore, Maryland

Dear Professor Daniels,

I take the liberty of writing to you as a graduate of Johns Hopkins. I earned my BA in 1982 and my MA in the same year (though the latter degree was conferred in 1983), both from the Humanities Center. I later went on to earn my Ph.D. from the University of Chicago and have since 1993 been on the faculty in the history department at UCLA.

I read with great dismay, to put it mildly, of the creation of an institute in the name of Henry Kissinger at the behest of his friend and a major benefactor of Johns Hopkins, Michael Bloomberg. I am aware, as no doubt you are, that there can be conflicting opinions about people who have been influential if controversial figures in the course of history. But, not to mince words, I find it disgraceful that an institution should be established in the name of the former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, who is justifiably viewed by many people around the world as a war criminal. His role in the secret bombing of Cambodia is well known; lesser known is his role in permitting a genocide in what was then East Pakistan, though the recent book [by Gary J. Bass] called The Blood Telegram leaves little doubt about his complicity in this matter. There have been calls for his prosecution in many countries and by several peoples’ tribunals. I will not enumerate the various other sins of the man called Henry Kissinger, rather repugnantly lionized in the United States as a “senior world statesman”.

The action of Johns Hopkins in accepting this gift is shocking and I call upon you to reconsider this decision. I can certainly say that I feel ashamed to be a graduate of Johns Hopkins and will wish to sever all my links to the university henceforth; moreover, I think it is my bounden duty to bring this matter before a wider public and to shame a university that, implicitly, makes light of the sufferings of millions who were the victims of the arrogance and brutal conduct of a man who, on account of American power, cannot be brought to justice. There is a lesson in this about how great universities get corrupted and I hope that you will not lead Johns Hopkins on a course which, though it cannot be understood now by most people, can only lead to its decline.

Best wishes,

Vinay Lal

Needless to say, President Daniels has not honored me with a reply. Like most other American university presidents, Mr Daniels claims to be solicitous of the views of alumni, but like nearly all of his peers he cannot see beyond the money dangling before his eyes. One should not, however, suppose that Johns Hopkins is distinct among American research universities in its unscrupulous conduct or in its susceptibility to blood money; indeed, it may not even be the most profligate offender among the major American universities. This series will, from time to time, document what Bill Readings so exquisitely described as the “university in ruins”.


Vaishnava janato

A recent trip to Porbandar and Rajkot, where Gandhi spent his adolescent years, set me thinking yet once again about his religiosity.  Much like nearly everything else in his life, Gandhi’s religion defies easy description. Though Gandhi viewed himself as a Hindu, he also maintained that a man could describe himself as a Hindu and yet not believe in God. Many of his most determined foes harbored no doubts about Gandhi’s betrayal of the Hindus, but others were equally certain that he contaminated public life in India by his insistent resort to the paraphernalia of Hinduism—its stories, myths, symbols, and much else.  He almost never visited temples and everything in his conduct suggests that he remained indifferent to the temple-going experience; yet no one made as concerted an attempt as he did to open up Hindu temples to Dalits (or, as they were then known, the Untouchables).  Indeed, it is Gandhi’s attempts to open up the temples to Dalits that earned him the wrath of Ambedkar.  But the conundrums do not end here:  Gandhi venerated the Ramacaritmanas, the immensely popular version of the Ramayana penned by the poet-saint Tulsidas in the late fifteenth century, but he also insisted that passages in Tulsidas which were anathema to one’s conscience and reason—such as the one which characterizes drums, the illiterate, animals, the lower castes, and (disobedient) women as fit to be beaten—ought to be summarily rejected. To the end of his life Gandhi persisted in describing himself as a believer in the idea that Hinduism rightly prescribed duties for each of the castes (varnashrama dharma), but he made it known that he would only bless intercaste weddings. Moreover, much to the chagrin of upper-caste Hindu society, Gandhi displayed absolutely no qualms in picking up a broom and sweeping toilets, work that in Hindu society was considered fit only for the “lowest of the low.”  (As an aside, it is unthinkable that the Aam Aadmi Party could have embraced the broom as its symbol had Gandhi not set the precedent.)  He went so far as to declare that he would only want to be reborn as a scavenger (bhangi) whose very presence would be polluting to an upper-caste Hindu. Perhaps nothing underscores his anomalous standing as a Hindu more than two facts: while M.A. Jinnah—his staunchest political foe and eventually the chief instigator of the idea of Pakistan—persisted in viewing Gandhi as the supreme representative of the Hindu community, Gandhi’s assassin—a Brahmin from Pune by the name of Nathuram Godse—partly justified his act with the observation that Gandhi was not Hindu enough.


Unraveling the religious life of Gandhi is thus no trifling matter. Nevertheless, his life—extraordinarily complex in some respects, and equally straightforward from another vantage point—furnishes various windows into his religious thought and practice. The Bhagavad Gita was, to Gandhi, a manual for daily living; and it is in the Gita that we first encounter a description of bhakti yoga, the way to God through devotion. What is often referred to as the ‘bhakti movement’ had swept India from around the ninth to the sixteenth centuries, and in Gandhi’s native Gujarat the most famous exponent of bhakti was doubtless Narasinha Mehta, born into the orthodox caste of Nagar Brahmins around 1414. Much like other bhakta-poets, Narsi (as he is commonly known) was oblivious to caste differences and scarcely moved by bookish learning; and his biographers are agreed that he deeply offended his own community of Brahmins as he would often consort with the lower castes, even singing in the houses of the Untouchables and spending his nights in their homes. Narsi’s fellow Brahmins eventually excommunicated him, but Narsi was no more perturbed on that account: “They say I am impure, and they are right. / I love only those who love Hari [Krishna]. / I see no difference between one Harijana and another.” It is Narsi’s term Harijans, meaning “children of God,” that Gandhi would controversially adopt in the 1920s to designate the Untouchables.


Narasimha Mehta No Choro, Junagadh:  The spot where Narsi and his followers gathered in ecstatic devotion to Krishna.  Photo:  Vinay Lal, December 2014

Narasimha Mehta No Choro, Junagadh: The spot where Narsi and his followers gathered in ecstatic devotion to Krishna. Photo: Vinay Lal, December 2014

Narsi Mehta No Choro:  The spot in Junagadh where Narsi and   his fellow bhaktas gathered in devotion to Krishna.  Photo:  Vinay Lal, December 2014

Narsi Mehta No Choro: The spot in Junagadh where Narsi and his fellow bhaktas gathered in devotion to Krishna. Photo: Vinay Lal, December 2014


Gandhi’s unbound affection for Narsi’s composition Vaishnava janato is as good a way as any to gauge the Mahatma’s religious sensibility. Vaishnavism—which takes its name from the god Vishnu—was an important part of the religious milieu in which Gandhi grew into adolescence, and in the opening chapter of his autobiography Gandhi describes his mother as a saintly woman for whom a visit to the “Vaishnava temple” was “one of her daily routines.” Gandhi was not particularly interested in the sectarian divide between Vaishnavas and Saivites (the followers of Shiva), and he sought to endow the term “Vaishnava” with a more capacious meaning. Narsi’s bhajan, or devotional song, permitted him to enter into the state of being of a true Vaishnava. Narsi sings: Vaishnavajana to tene kahiye, je pira parayi jaane re / par dukha upkaar kare, to ye man abhiman na aane re. Call only him a Vaishnava, says Narsi, who feels another’s pain as his own, who helps others in their sorrow but takes no pride in his good deeds. The rest of the bhajan further adumbrates the qualities of a Vaishnava, who is pure in thought, action, and speech; despising no one, and treating the low and the high alike, the Vaishnava adopts the entire human family as his own and so works for the liberation of everyone. It is from Narsi, and not from the Gita alone, that Gandhi imbibed the values of nonattachment, humility, and the renunciation of avarice. When, as Narsi says, “all pilgrimages sites are embodied within the body of the Vaishnava” (sakal tirtha tena tanma re), we are better positioned to understand why Gandhi did not share the Hindus’ propensity towards pilgrimage sites.


Text of Vaishnava Janato, from a plaque at Birla House, Delhi.  Photo:  Vinay Lal, December 2014

Text of Vaishnava Janato, from a plaque at Birla House, Delhi. Photo: Vinay Lal, December 2014

Vaishnava janato was sung at Gandhi’s daily prayer meetings. As Gandhi commenced his almost 250-mile march to the sea in 1930, writes his biographer Narayan Desai, he was handed his walking stick by his close associate Kaka Kalelkar, and Narayan Khare sang Vaishnava janato. The bhajan remained on the lips of Gandhi and his companions throughout the Dandi March. Widely known as Narsi’s Vaishnavajana to may have been to Gujaratis, it was Gandhi who popularized it through the length and breadth of India. It has been set to music by some of India’s famous instrumentalists, among them Shivkumar Sharma, Amjad Ali Khan, and Hariprasad Chaurasia. M.S. Subbalakshmi’s rendition has done much to give it an iconic status in the country’s staggering musical pharmacopeia, and more recent performances by the likes of Lata Mangeshkar have ensured its popularity. One of the more intriguing testimonies to the afterlife of Narsi’s bhajan is the fact that Sahmat, an activist cultural organization with a distinctly left-secular outlook founded in the 1990s, thought it fit to print a large poster of the bhajan in attractive calligraphy and circulate it widely. We may say that Gandhi attempted to live by the ideals described in Narsi’s devotional song, and he would have seen in the song’s popularity at least some faint signs of what he took to be India’s enduring interest in the spiritual life.


NOTE:  This piece will also appear in a new blog tentatively called “Gandhi Scrapbook” and to be launched shortly.  See

Gandhiscrapbook.blogspot.com.  Pieces on Gandhi will be posted on both this blog and the new blog until such time as the new blog is well established.


 New York’s former mayor, Rudolph W. Giuliani, dubbed by the adoring American media as “America’s mayor” after the events of September 11 cast him in the spotlight and even turned him into a hero in the eyes of many, has long had a habit of attempting to insert himself into the public sphere after his “retirement” and failed attempt to gain America’s presidency.  Giuliani was always known for his machismo rather than his intelligence, and it is not surprising that one of the many sinecures that came his way after he supposedly brought New York back on its feet—first by tackling crime on the city’s mean streets, acting tough with criminals, and then by showing terrorists that New Yorkers could not be cowed into submission by turning their twin towers into burning infernos—was as a consultant to various law enforcement agencies, in and outside the United States, on cultivating “zero tolerance” with respect to crime.  For Giuliani, as for many others who are habituated to the idea that certain human beings should be treated as a lower species, “zero tolerance” is produced not by tackling the social roots of crime—and “crime” is, needless to say, never the actions of Wall Street bankers who plunder the wealth of common people, or the backroom dealings that enable many of the country’s wealthiest people and corporations to evade taxes—but merely by packing the jails.


That Giuliani has always had “zero tolerance” for those who do not meet his exacting standards of patriotism has become amply clear with his latest pronouncement, relayed not surprisingly on Fox News, that President Barack Obama has never expressed love for the United States.   (If a man is known by the company he keeps, it is worth recalling that Fox News, Giuliani’s favorite news channel, in the aftermath of l’affaire Charlie Hebdo described the city of Birmingham as a “Muslim-only” city where non-Muslims could not go at all.  Even David Cameron, scarcely the champion of liberal views or the model of perspicacious reasoning, could not restrain himself from describing Fox News’ anchors as “idiots”.)  “I do not believe, and I know this is a horrible thing to say,” Giuliani told a dinner meeting of business executives, “but I do not believe that the president loves America.  He doesn’t love you.  And he doesn’t love me.  He wasn’t brought up the way you were brought up and I was brought up through love of this country.”  Giuliani has now elaborated his views in an op-ed piece for the Wall Street Journal, but one need not bother oneself excessively with his words of explanation.  Giuliani avers that he did not mean to question Obama’s “motives or the content of his heart”, and that he only sought to convey his feeling that Obama’s words and actions have often had the effect of lowering the morale of Americans.  It is surprising, indeed, that Giuliani concedes that Obama has a heart; some, myself included, have wondered whether the same could be said of Giuliani.  “America’s mayor” claims that he only seeks to open a national conversation on this question, though it sounds very much like a national conversation, which quite animated some Americans, on whether Barack Hussain Obama could really claim to have been born in the United States.



Giuliani challenged the media to furnish examples of Obama’s unqualified love for his country—a challenge that the gallant New York Times found irresistible.  This weighty newspaper, in a piece entitled “Criticism Aside, Obama Has Stated Love for U.S.” (February 23), defends Obama with chapter and verse from his numerous speeches.  When Obama was but a presidential candidate in 2008, he confided to his audience:  “I also know how much I love America.”  At the Democratic National Convention that same year, Obama told the wildly cheering crowd, “I love this country, and so do you, and so does John McCain.”  Moreover, as the New York Times reminds its readers, Obama’s love for his fellow countrymen and women appears not to have diminished a jot even after the first difficult years of his presidency, since in 2011 at a town-hall meeting in Illinois he sought to explain to his audience “why I love this country so much.”  Obama could well be forgiven if, in this love-drenched environment, he might have not quite mustered the will or ability to love Rudolph the red-necked moose.


The question, one that can barely be contemplated in America, is not whether Obama loves his country enough, but whether he loves it too much.  There is a strand of thought associated with the sentiment voiced by Samuel Johnson, “Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel.”  Assuming, however, that most people do love their country, and that Americans are no more exceptional in this respect than any other people, and assuming as well that most people will be inclined to see some measure of patriotism as both desirable and reasonable, let us grant that patriotism may in itself not be an unhealthy sentiment.  Even the most hardened critics of their country are likely to succumb to patriotism, and the recent events surrounding the killings of French cartoonists have amply demonstrated how quickly people are ready to circle the wagons and fall back upon patriotism.  However, the patriotism of Giuliani demands something else, something much more stringent than mere affection for one’s country.  “I don’t hear from him”, complained Giuliani about Obama, “what I heard from Harry Truman, what I heard from Bill Clinton, what I heard from Jimmy Carter, which is these wonderful words about what a great country we are, what an exceptional country we are.”  Lest Giuliani, now a staunch Republican, should be accused of pillorying a Democratic President, he makes it a point to invoke the patriotism of three Democratic presidents.


So, as has happened so often in American history, the affirmation of America’s greatness and its exceptionality itself becomes a necessary condition for being considered a true-blooded American.  That Obama has, sadly, passed Giuliani’s stringent test all too often is not something that would interest much less confound Giuliani, since falsehood and deception are intrinsically part of his being.  Obama has repeatedly and with evident conviction described the United States as “the greatest democratic, economic, and military force for freedom and human dignity the world has ever known”; this piece of pompous and offensive banality is only exceeded by his pronouncement, “I believe in American exceptionalism with every fiber of my being.”  Not unlikely, such of Obama’s defenders who might still cringe at this shameless exhibition of American exceptionalism will almost certainly point out that the latter remarks were uttered at the commencement ceremony of the United States Military Academy and must only be viewed as a tactical attempt by the president to engage the country’s brightest young soldiers.  It is Obama’s predecessors, Bill Clinton and George Bush, who called America the world’s “one dispensable nation”, but it is Obama who has made this phrase his signature line.  “America remains”, so stated Obama in his State of the Union address in 2012, “the one indispensable nation in world affairs”, a sentiment reaffirmed in precisely the same language—“So the United States is and remains the one indispensable nation.  That has been true for the century passed and it will be true for the century to come”—and with almost defiant conviction at the aforementioned US Military Academy commencement ceremony.

Rosie the Riveter, WW II

Rosie the Riveter, WW II


Let us not merely console ourselves with the thought that hubris has brought down many countries and empires and that the United States will not be spared by history either.  The calamitous consequences of American exceptionalism will have to be borne by others.  We may also bemoan the fact that the illusory difference between Democrats and Republicans has been the bedrock of what passes for politics in the United States.  Both these trajectories of thought must be pursued at greater length by those keen on seeding the grounds for a much richer conception of politics and ecumenical futures.  In the meantime, however, it is worth asking whether there may be yet other modes besides pity, contempt, and condescension with which to question the scandalous patriotism of public figures or contemplate the vexed question of love for one’s country.  In closing, I am reminded of these hauntingly moving lines by the twelfth-century Saxon writer on mystical theology, Hugo of St. Victor:  “It is, therefore, a source of great virtue for the practiced mind to learn, bit by bit, first to change about invisible and transitory things, so that afterwards it may be able to leave them behind altogether.  The man who finds his homeland sweet is still a tender beginner; he to whom every soil is as his native one is already strong; but he is perfect to whom the entire world is as a foreign land.  The tender soul has fixed his love on one spot in the world; the strong man has extended his love to all places; the perfect man has extinguished his.”




A local election in India is not likely to garner world attention, but the outcome of the recently concluded Legislative Assembly elections in Delhi, a sprawling city of more than twenty million people, portends much for the future of democracy—not merely in India, but all over the world.  The Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), founded a little over two years ago by a rather nondescript former revenue service officer, has secured 67 of 70 seats in the State Assembly.  These results, confounding the expectations of pollsters and the party’s most optimistic supporters, would have been astounding at any time but are now all the more remarkable in view of the fact that AAP, which speaks for the “common man”, had been written off after the national elections last May which brought the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to power with a clear indeed compelling majority.  Moreover, Arvind Kejriwal, who has now taken the oath of office as Delhi’s Chief Minister, was widely viewed as having irreparably imperiled his political career when he resigned from the same position after a mere 49 days in office in February 2014.

Pollsters, Predictions . . . and Results

Pollsters, Predictions . . . and Results

The extraordinary electoral triumph of AAP can certainly be read in various registers.  Some people are likely to view the mandate for AAP as the electorate’s expression of strong disapproval of the BJP’s tolerance, if not instigation, of Hindu extremism.  The ideologues of Hindu nationalism have been enjoying an unchecked run of privileges since the BJP came to power, running down minorities, glorifying the assassin of Mahatma Gandhi, and putting considerable resources into “reconverting” Muslims, Christians, and others to Hinduism.  Gandhi, however venerated he may be in the rest of the world, is despised by many of these Hindu ideologues as an effeminate and wooly-minded Hindu who was soft on Islam.  (The shared dislike for Gandhi among the Hindutvavadis and those who pride themselves on their staunchly progressive credentials—measured these days by, more than anything else, a declaration of supreme and often unqualified admiration for Ambedkar—is another interesting story about the complicity of the right and the left, but one that will have to be told another time.)  The Hindu extremists profess, however, to have much concern for the Muslims, and euphemistically describe their efforts to bring Muslims back into the Hindu fold as a homecoming (ghar wapsi), a form of return to the mother’s bosom.  Though one can see why the AAP victory might be interpreted as an affirmation of the secular values of the republic, there is little evidence to substantiate this view.

AAP’s electoral victory, and in particular Kejriwal’s personal triumph, is also being projected as yet another round in the eternal conflict of David and Goliath.  Many commentators are viewing the electoral outcome as a crushing defeat for Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the immensely popular—and to some charismatic—leader of the BJP who campaigned for his party candidates and vilified Kejriwal as a “Naxal”, the term used to designate political activists who are inspired by Maoism and are committed to the use of violence to overthrow the bourgeois state.  In last year’s national elections, Modi gained considerable mileage among the voters when the ruling Congress party’s elites scoffed at his humble origins as a chaiwallah (tea-seller).  Kejriwal has shown that he is just as adept at this game:  he describes himself as a simple man and dresses humbly.  Indeed, if Modi is inclined towards high ethnic fashion, Kejriwal has similarly shown a flair for a different kind of sartorial politics.  The “muffler man” makes appearances in public with a scarf wrapped around his head, so signifying his solidarity with working class people.

The Mufflerman:  More Illusions about a "World Class City"?

The Mufflerman: More Illusions about a “World Class City”?

There are, of course, more substantive ways in which the tussle in Delhi between AAP and BJP might be cast as a battle between David and Goliath.  It is now almost easy to forget that the quest for power in Delhi originated as a three-way contest, and that AAP’s victory eviscerated the Congress, the ruling party in India and Delhi alike for decades.  The BJP is also an established political party:  in its present shape its history goes back to the early 1980s, though earlier incarnations of the party have been around since 1951.  The BJP could draw upon a gigantic electoral machinery, millions of supporters and volunteers, and immense financial resources.  And yet it was humbled, indeed decimated, by a political party which has barely gotten off the ground.  Contrary to the widely held view that elections cannot be waged and won without insanely large sums of money, AAP has unequivocally shown that, at least in India, elections are not necessarily the preserve of those who are wealthy, well-connected, or the scions of political families.

There is much else that is tremendously exciting about AAP’s sweeping victory in the Delhi Legislative Assembly elections, but the critical question is whether there might be some lessons in this triumph for those interested in democracy’s prospects globally.  We have been living, since the end of the Cold War, in the age of what might be called new democracy movements.  The ‘Arab Spring’ was celebrated the world over.  However, the embers of hope have been extinguished in most places.  The revolutionaries of Tahrir Square languish in jails, when they have not been killed outright; in Syria, meanwhile, the uprising against Bashar al-Assad has produced the world’s greatest refugee crisis in decades.  But these revolts were at the outset tarnished by violence, and there is some justification for saying that what begins in violence will end in violence.  India’s masses may be poorly educated, often illiterate, and generally not too well-informed about political processes.  Yet it is indubitably the case that they have repeatedly and insistently shown their wisdom at the voting booth and expressed a clear preference for the ballot over the bullet.  Whatever democracy’s failings in India, and they are very considerable, when we consider the shocking inability of the state in nearly seven decades after independence to provide the majority of Indians with minimal guarantees of livelihood, well-being, and security, disempowered communities of various hues are beginning to understand that violence must be eschewed and that the ballot has given them new prospects for advancement.  Delhi’s mainly poor citizens have shown yet again that there is nothing like the ballot box to check the arrogance of power. The rest of the world should take heart from India’s continuing experiments in democracy.

Five decades after his death, Jawaharlal Nehru still generates passions among Indians who are animated by questions over the country’s future.  Writing from my perch in Los Angeles, I do not, for example, see anything remotely resembling the buzz about Nehru in American discussions about John F. Kennedy, another immensely charismatic leader of a democracy who was assassinated just months before Nehru passed away in 1964.  We could say, of course, that Nehru was a titan among men, and that unlike Kennedy, who occupied the American presidency for less than three years, Nehru held sway as independent India’s first Prime Minister for seventeen years.  If Amartya Sen is to be believed, it is the argumentative Indian in every Indian that keeps Nehru visible to the Indian public, loathed and perhaps admired in equal measure.

To a great many of his detractors, Nehru is easily pigeonholed as a somewhat effete, Oxbridge-educated quasi-dreamer whose indecisiveness, socialist leanings, and moral highhandedness cost India its place in the pantheon of world powers. The principal elements of this narrative are too well known to require more than the briefest mention.  His disposition towards centralized state planning is said to have kept India back for decades before the country, in the parlance of the free market cheerleaders, ‘opened’ itself up to the world:  thus the infamous ‘Hindu rate of growth’.  Even his defenders are constrained to admit that India’s record on various social fronts under Nehru is appalling, and one might summon the exceedingly slow advancement in improving literacy as a prominent instance of misplaced priorities, though it must also be said that India’s record in the 25 years since neo-liberalization policies were introduced has if anything been worse.

Nehru’s political failings are described by his critics as even greater.   How often have we not heard that he faltered badly in turning the Kashmir dispute over to the United Nations?  We have been incessantly reminded that his naive trust in the Chinese, embodied in the slogan ‘Hindi chini bhai bhai’ [Indians and Chinese are brothers], was repaid back with China’s invasion of India.  These criticisms are most often accompanied with jejune ramblings about how India would have long ago taken the world by storm had not fate unkindly intervened to remove India’s ‘Iron Man’, Sardar Patel, from the scene and thereby leave Nehru without a peer to question his dictatorial and yet highly confused exercise of authority.  (I wonder if it was the karma of nationalist Hindus that left them bereft of their leader, but we may leave that aside for the moment.)   Nehru’s defenders, on the other hand, appear to think that all they have to do is merely summon the fact that India has persisted as a democracy, a distinct achievement when we consider what has transpired in other countries that gained their independence from colonial powers.  His admirers naturally admit his record in this respect is far being unblemished:  Nehru agreed to the dismissal of the elected communist government of Kerala in 1959, and the take-over of Goa by the Indian government in December 1961, even if it was inspired by his distaste for the remnants of colonial rule in India, dent a huge hole in his reputation as an upholder of the rule of law.  Nevertheless, the singularity of Nehru’s achievement in making India abide by democratic norms has been all too often stressed by his defenders.

Newspaper headlines on the Chinese invasion of India

Newspaper headlines on the Chinese invasion of India


Chinese Premier, Chou En-lai (left), with Nehru and an interpreter (right)

Chinese Premier, Chou En-lai (left), with Nehru and an interpreter (right)

What, then, are we to make of Nehru?  Looking back at the twentieth century, there can be no doubt that in the aftermath of the conclusion of World War II, and in the period extending to the glorious defeat of the mightiest military force assembled in the world by the (as more than one European social theorist would say) puny and rice-eating Vietnamese, decolonization was the greatest political force in the world.  Most Western, and especially American, historians have not seen it this way, obsessed as they are with the Cold War. The Cold War impinged on decolonization as well, since the Soviet Union, itself a totalitarian regime without an iota of capacity for tolerating dissent, was keen on being seen as a champion of the struggles of third world peoples against their imperial oppressors.  The United States, on its part, consistently came down on the wrong side of nearly every anti-colonial struggle, either choosing to remain on the sidelines or, more often, supporting the most reactionary elements.  What must be said unequivocally about Nehru is that he played a critical role in supporting anti-colonial and decolonization movements throughout the world.  India’s support of the African National Congress under Nehru is perhaps only the most well-known instance of his principled support of resistance movements, but similar testimony has been furnished by other political leaders such as Julius Nyerere and Jomo Kenyatta.  His friendship with Paul Robeson, an African American artist of extraordinary gifts who was hounded by the country’s political elites, is unfathomable except on the premise that both shared a profound aspiration for the freedom of all colored peoples.

Nasser of Egypt (left), Nehru (2nd from the right), and an aide to Nasser, ushering in the Burmese New Year at Bandung, Indonesia, 1955.

Colonel Gamal A. Nasser of Egypt (left), Burmese Prime Minister U Nu (2nd from left), Nehru (2nd from the right), and an aide to Nasser, Major Salah Salem, ushering in the Burmese New Year in traditional costume at Bandung, Indonesia, Aapril 1955.

Nehru Discovers an American to Admire:  an article in the Chicago Tribune, 25 November 1958, about the growing friendship of Robeson and Nehru

Nehru Discovers an American to Admire: an article in the Chicago Tribune, 25 November 1958 (bottom left corner), about the growing friendship of Robeson and Nehru


We have heard in recent years that Nehru nurtured not just democracy but diversity.  We might inquire what precisely that means:  India is nothing if not ‘diverse’, but how exactly is it that one nurtures diversity?  Does diversity increase if one nurtures it?  Those who are intolerant of minorities can justifiably be seen as not promoting ‘diversity’, but does the institution of multicultural policies, as in the United States, where the forces of homogenization are immense, lead to diversity?  Diversity’s advocates barely understand that today’s dictators are all required to undergo diversity appreciation courses.  One should say, rather, of Nehru that he was inspiringly ecumenical, but more than just a person of astonishingly wide reading and the proverbially insatiable curiosity of the polymath.  It is doubtful that a more ecumenical history of the world has ever been written than is contained in his Glimpses of World History (1934), a large collection of letters written by Nehru to his daughter Indira.  Letter 112 is almost apologetic about having given over more time and space to India than to other countries; and Letter 44 advises Indira that “we have the whole world to consider, and if a small part of it, even though it may be the part where we live, took up much of our time, we would never get on with the rest.”  Such ecumenism is not merely charming—it is a reminder of a cosmopolitanism that is still foreign to most people.  We have not yet begun to take the measure of the man known as Jawaharlal Nehru.

(Originally published as “The Measure of a Man” in the Sunday Times of India, 9 November 2014.)


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