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The relevance of Tagore today

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A future of rich cultural diversity, acceptance of each other’s culture, can be greatly helped by going back to the genius and creativity of Rabindranath Tagore, writes Lawrence Surendra.

Today 5 May 2011 is the 150th birth anniversary of Rabindranath Tagore. He is perhaps amongst one of our greatest philosophers and whom we can look to as someone who is very relevant even today in the times we live in. We can look to Tagore for intellectual, philosophical and spiritual nourishment, and reading him, we perhaps need no guru in this age of modern day jet setting gurus.

Hope from the past

In remembering Tagore, we also remember and celebrate the past of the Indian Renaissance. The Indian Renaissance that Raja Ram Mohan Roy and Tagore’s father, Debendranath Tagore, heralded and worked for, a period of intellectual and cultural creativity when India was under colonial rule and her genius was being suppressed. When you think of the leaders of the stature of that period, truly a period of Indian Renaissance, it also gives us hope especially in the times we live in

…..Remembering and going back to the contributions of great persons of our past like Rabindranath Tagore should motivate us in the tasks of nation building and above all to have hope and sustain hope especially in the young with regard to the future of this country and the varied civilisational strands it represents.

It is not the general state of politics, the corruption, the cynicism with which politicians misuse institutions of governance that we see everyday that creates fertile conditions for breeding of cynicism but the fact that at the heart of all this is the great inequality that characterises Indian society today. Well-off people like us can carry on with this cynicism and even see it as kind of snob value in social conversations and pride ourselves with our attitude of being “above it all”. The poor and the dispossessed perhaps we feel have a right to hopelessness, as we have a right to cynicism. But we all know that for the poor and dispossessed there is little choice.

No to cultural chauvinism

Worse than the cynicism, is how immune people have become to violence, cruelty and total lack of civility to others even young children. It is not as if becoming immune is some form of self-defence or protective attitude but actually an extreme form of selfishness and a deep failure of humanity and compassion in society as a whole. It is extreme forms of cultural chauvinism especially arising out of a lack of confidence in our own individual cultures…that is at the root of the attempts to create hatred and division in our society.

Tagore anticipated this chauvinist core of culture especially when placed in the context of nation, identity and inter-community relations. He boldly criticised this chauvinism. His prodigious intellectual output tried to defeat this exclusivity at different levels. He worked on a philosophical basis of Creative Unity, the latter being one of his very important contributions to understanding and resolving the human predicament. Tagore anticipated this in his critique of religion and the militancy of identity that parts of the Freedom Movement exhibited.

No running from politics

Tagore was always a philosopher, poet, artist and a creative individual who was prodigious in his creative output as a writer and later in his older years when he started painting. But he did not keep himself aloof from politics; he was a stern critic of those who misused politics for narrow ends of religious and cultural identity.

Rabindranath Tagore was clear that he himself would not steer away from politics. When his good friend Rothenstein advised him to keep away from politics, in a letter to Rothenstein, Tagore wrote:

I have nothing to do directly with politics. I am not a Nationalist, moderate or immoderate in my political aspirations. But politics is not a mere abstraction. It has its personality and it does intrude into my life when I am human. It kills and maims individuals, it tells lies, it uses its sacred sword of justice for the purpose of massacre, it spreads misery broadcast over centuries of exploitation and I cannot say to myself, ‘Poet, you have nothing to do with these facts for they belong to politics’. This politics assumes its fullest diabolical aspect when I find all its hideous acts of injustice find moral support from a whole nation only because it wants to enjoy in comfort and safety the golden fruits reaped from abject degradation of human races.

These words of Tagore should also dispel the mystic image of Tagore so assiduously cultivated and perpetrated so widely especially to younger generations. The image that he was a poet, some kind of mystic philosopher who had no relevance to the issues we are grappling with. As a matter of fact he should be celebrated as India’s great philosopher for the youth who can be an inexhaustible intellectual resource in constantly nourishing our youth with hope in this country and its future.

Co-existence: a folk-religious worldview

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The Tagore scholar, Sisir Kumar Das, writes in his Introduction to the Sahitya Academy’s Collection of Tagore’s English writings:

it is necessary to remember that the prophet image which fitted Tagore so nicely was essentially a western construction – Tagore’s own contribution to it notwithstanding – which did not care in the least to differentiate him from stereotypes. The most important thing that went totally unnoticed was Tagore’s foregrounding of folk religion. His translations of Kabir and Jnanadas Bagheli had deeper connections with his understanding of religion, which received no less support from the Bauls, the subalterns of Indian religious history, as it did from the sophisticated Upanisadic texts, which sustained the Brahmo ideology.

Tagore was the first English-educated Indian to appropriate the Baul texts into his worldview. He did not consider the Baul thought either as contradictory to the Upanisadic doctrines or as a self-sufficient alternative to them. But he valourised its heretic character, its rejection of all institutional religions. This recognition of a folk world-view resistant to canonical texts and institutions provided a fuller picture of religious plurality, the coexistence of religious sects, distinctive by social stratification – brahmanical and non-brahmanical, elite and folk – as well.

Today’s culture of the inhuman

Today when religion has become the major cause and active proponent of violence on human beings, Tagore’s view on religion gains tremendous relevance in helping people get away from the shackles of religion and the ‘culture of the inhuman’ it propagates. Referring to the Baul singers and their deep spirituality, he wrote:

…from wandering village singers…who have no images, temples, scriptures or ceremonials, who declare in their songs the divinity of man, and express for him an intense feeling of love. Coming from men who are unsophisticated, living a simple life in obscurity, it gives us a clue to the inner meaning of all religions. For it suggests these religions are never about a God of Cosmic force but rather about the God of a human personality.

The Inhuman today, as it expresses itself in the most horrible forms of terror and indiscriminate killings of innocents, women and children where no rules of combat nor rules of warfare apply, is a result of a form of resurgence of primitive tribalism as a response to the modern world and modernity. It is also a symptom of the kind of globalised world we live in, where compassion and empathy are outlawed and empire, hegemony and domination becomes the rule of the day. Progress in the way it presents itself threatens those who feel that their identity and memory is being taken away. They respond with a ‘culture of the inhuman’ and barbarity bordering on the pre-human.

It is extremely interesting and we cannot but refer to the philosophical genius of Tagore, when in the context of the anti-colonial struggle, he anticipated this kind of antagonism developing between West and East, between the past and the future, the here and now and the future, between what he saw as ‘The Home and the World’, ‘the nation’ and ‘others’. These fights, debates and struggles can be seen between the three of his protagonists, Nikhilesh, Bimala and Sandip in Ghare Baire in ‘The Home and The World’, as his great novel is known in English. This is a novel that those who have not read would be thrilled to read even today and which I urge you to do.

Misuse of religion and culture

In Ghare Baire, Tagore placed in great sharp focus the issues of nationalism, patriotism, communalism and the misuses of religion and culture. Above all, through Nikhilesh he puts forward the view that we are all part of a great humanity bound by the bond of love. A sentiment that he put forth in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech:

I do not think that it is the spirit of India to reject anything, reject any race, reject any culture. The spirit of India has always proclaimed the ideal of unity…. Now, when in the present time of political unrest the children of the same great India cry for rejection of the West I feel hurt…. We must discover the most profound unity, the spiritual unity between the different races. We must go deeper down to the spirit of man and find out the great bond of unity, which is to be found in all human races…. Man is not to fight with other human races, other human individuals, but his work is to bring about reconciliation and Peace and restore the bonds of friendship and love.

There is of course the wonderful movie of Ghare Baire made by Satyajit Ray which also merits viewing. Bertolt Brecht referred to his novel Ghare Baire as ‘strong and gentle’ and is relevant, read even today. Matter of fact read today we will see how many of the lines there have such a contemporary ring to it. In the face of the disgusting greed and the love for money and riches that we see especially among our politicians and those who govern us today, read these lines of Amulya, in the novel:

the greatest weapon in the hands of the rulers of this world is the lure of lucre. If they welcome poverty, it won’t be just sacrifice, it’ll be suicidal.

Culture and the search for unity

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Tagore’s entire life – his prolific writings in English and Bengali; one can say he was particular about being bilingual – was in his search for Unity, what he referred to as Creative Unity. The seminal contribution of Tagore in dealing with Culture, not as dissonance and violence but as Unity is the innate connection he sees to Nature. Tagore’s genius was in not only keeping all these associations but also searching for the Unity in these associations. That is why though in my opinion he never directly wrote about Culture, he linked it so much to Nature and invoked what he called ‘The Religion of the Forests’ wherein he writes:

This ideal of perfection preached by the forest-dwellers of ancient India runs through the heart of our classical literature and still dominates our mind. The legends related in our epics cluster under the forest shade bearing all through their narrative the message of the forest-dwellers. Our two greatest classical dramas find their background in scenes of the forest hermitage, which are permeated by the association of these sages.

The history of the Northmen of Europe is resonant with the music of the sea. That sea is not merely topographical in its significance, but represents certain ideals of life which still guide the history and inspire the creations of that race. In the sea, nature presented herself to those men in her aspect of a danger, a barrier which seemed to be at constant war with the land and its children. The sea was the challenge of untamed nature to the indomitable human soul. And man did not flinch; he fought and won, and the spirit of fight continued in him. This fight he still maintains; it is the fight against disease and poverty, tyranny of matter and of man.

This refers to a people who live by the sea, and ride on it as on a wild, champing horse, catching it by its mane and making it render service from shore to shore. They find delight in turning by force the antagonism of circumstances into obedience. Truth appears to them in her aspect of dualism, the perpetual conflict of good and evil, which has no reconciliation, which can only end in victory or defeat.

But in the level tracts of Northern India men found no barrier between their lives and the grand life that permeates the universe. The forest entered into a close living relationship with their work and leisure, with their daily necessities and contemplations. They could not think of other surroundings as separate or inimical. So the view of the truth, which these men found, did not make manifest the difference, but rather the unity of all things. They uttered their faith in these words: All that is vibrates with life, having come out from life.

When we know this world as alien to us, then its mechanical aspect takes prominence in our mind; and then we set up our machines and our methods to deal with it and make as much profit as our knowledge of its mechanism allows us to do. This view of things does not play us false, for the machine has its place in this world. And not only this material universe, but human beings also, may be used as machines and made to yield powerful results. This aspect of truth cannot be ignored; it has to be known and mastered. Europe has done so and has reaped a rich harvest.

The view of this world which India has taken is summed up in one compound Sanskrit word, Sachid[=a]nanda. The meaning is that Reality, which is essentially one, has three phases. The first is Sat; it is the simple fact that things are, the fact which relates us to all things through the relationship of common existence. The second is Chit; it is the fact that we know, which relates us to all things through the relationship of knowledge. The third is Ananda: it is the fact that we enjoy, which unites us with all things through the relationship of love.

Philosopher for all

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These insights of Rabindranath Tagore are very profound, unique in giving us an understanding of who we are, what is the road to our future that we can take if we wish to take that road. I recommend you read carefully Tagore’s Religion of the Forests. Man, whether it be western man or non-western man, has grappled with Man’s alienation from Nature. Western and Christian origin myths dealt with it in the banishing of man from Paradise.

In general, organised religion resolved this alienation of man from nature by setting up a God who represented man and nature and which was a central part of Tagore’s criticism of organised religion. Tagore showed the way forward and out of organised religion, through his writings where he showed how to reconnect to our innate humanity and as part of nature. It is in that sense Tagore is a philosopher for all humanity, for all times and for all cultures.

Remembering Tagore and his contributions and going back to Tagore’s writings should help us root ourselves in nature and not in culture alone and understanding that, in a way, culture comes from our natural contexts and roots. In the diversity of nature is the diversity of our cultures be it food, dress or language as an embodiment of knowledge.

It is that diversity that Rabindranath Tagore in his other classic novel, I would say a great Brahmo novel, Gora, so powerfully deals with – diversity of religion, practices, customs but in the end a celebration of humanity. What works against nature, against human beings, is possessive individualism, a non-acceptance of the other and the insecurity with diversity instead of a celebration of it.

In the introduction to her translation of Gora, the Tagore scholar and pre-eminent translator of Tagore, Radha Chakravarty says:

In the novel’s quest for a non-sectarian, tolerant humanism lies a clue to its relevance in our present day world.

…. A future that our children, their children and grandchildren can inherit, a future of peace and inter-communal living, a future of co-existence with nature and other human beings, a future of rich cultural diversity, acceptance of each other’s culture can be greatly helped by going back to the genius and creativity of Rabindranath Tagore….

Lawrence Surendra is a chemical engineer and environmental economist based in Chennai. He tries in his scholarly work and his social engagements to revive Tagore’s vision of Asia. An Asia that can live in harmony with Nature and with one another in human solidarity.

This piece was first presented over All-India Radio on 7 May 2011, the 150th anniversary of Tagore’s birth.

The views expressed in Aliran's media statements and the NGO statements we have endorsed reflect Aliran's official stand. Views and opinions expressed in other pieces published here do not necessarily reflect Aliran's official position.

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26 Jul 2020 12.32pm

I relished your article. A small and humble suggestion: Quoting will be more effective if the sources are mentioned alongside.

Balrama Krishnan
Balrama Krishnan
15 Feb 2012 9.55pm

I enjoyed your exposition of Tagore.
Am interested to hear any comments you may want to make on Herman Dalys explanation of Steady State Economics.

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