Rabindranath Tagore: His Ideas and Values
March 13, 2018
Dr. Shashi Tharoor
I am delighted to join you here in the beautiful town of Bethlehem, at the invitation of Moravian College, who have very generously given me the distinguished honor of delivering the inaugural Rabindranath Tagore lecture dedicated to the ideas and values of this great man and what they mean for us in today’s world.
At the start, let me congratulate the organisers for taking the effort to initiate such a lecture series, which so many better-known institutions have failed to do. The fact that I am speaking on this topic here in America, is, I would like to add, perhaps all the more appropriate, since it is the land in which Tagore spent the most amount of time after India and Britain. He first visited this country in 1912, while accompanying his son Rathindranath, who was at the time pursuing his education in agricultural studies in Urbana. The following year he won the Nobel Prize for Literature, and became a much sought-after international literary celebrity – so much so that during his second visit in 1916, Tagore wrote to his close friend, the English painter William Rothenstein, complaining of his rising popularity in America and the effect it had on his own privacy:‘American people have an unhealthy appetite for sugar candy and for lectures –on any subject and from anybody’. Well, having said that, I hope Tagore was right about the American appetite for lectures, especially if I have to compensate for the absence of sugar candy in this room!
Rabindranath Tagore was physically a striking figure. He came across to many as an archetypal mystic, an ascetic dressed in white robes, with a flowing beard and air of grave wisdom, the very image of a sage from the East, who confirmed the cliché of India as a land of exotic mysticism and ancient spiritual wisdom. Or as The Guardian’s Ian Jack put it, an embodiment of how the West wanted to see the East. Those who looked beyond his appearance and read his work knew that there was far more to Tagore than met the eye.
One of the things about Rabindranath Tagore that never fails to bewilder educated Indians is the extent to which his reputation has plummeted in the West even as it has grown into immortality in India. When the Nobel Prize-winning polymath Amartya Sen published his brilliant book The Argumentative Indian, few if any Western reviewers paid attention to his essay in it about Tagore. And yet, while the book was rightly lauded for Sen’s superb marshalling of arguments for the existence of the liberal tradition in India, this masterly essay was a much-needed effort to reclaim Tagore’s international reputation. The reason it was necessary is, of course, that whereas Tagore’s greatness seems self-evident to most Indians (and all Bengalis, a 250 million strong group), Tagore is now unjustly misjudged in the West as a mediocre mystic poet, rather than as the remarkable rationalist and humanist genius Sen convincingly depicts.
The fact is, though, that it is genuinely difficult to explain to foreigners the scale of Rabindranath Tagore’s accomplishments. Some have made glib comparisons to Shakespeare and Goethe, but neither man, despite his undoubted greatness, excelled in as many fields as the Gurudev, nor dominated his culture to the extent that Tagore did his. Think of it: he was not merely an extraordinary poet, the only Indian to win the Nobel Prize for Literature (in 1913, for his Gitanjali, profoundly moving verses written in Bengali in 1910, after he had lost his father, wife, second daughter and youngest son).
He was also a prose-writer and essayist of the first rank, whose articles, books and monographs commanded a wide readership around the world. As a philosopher, he was perhaps the first to develop a synthesis of Eastern and Western approaches, and he developed political ideas of great depth and humanity (of which more later). He was a great, if uneven, novelist and short-story writer who produced several masterpieces that continue to be read a century and a half after his birth; his ‘Kabuliwallah’ is among the few short stories most Indians remember from their childhood. He was also a playwright of rare distinction: “The Post Office”, for instance, was one of the most popular plays in the world before the Second World War.
But, added to all that, were his other remarkable talents. He was a painter of high quality and perceptiveness, an artist with a poet’s eye. He was a composer of over 2,000 immortal songs, of which he authored both the lyrics and the tunes, and through which he essentially founded his own discipline of Indian music, known as “Rabindra Sangeet”. He is the only person to have created the national anthems of two different countries (India’s “Jana Gana Mana” and Bangladesh’s “Amar Sonar Bangla”), though both nations were born after his own death; and he inspired the composer of Sri Lanka’s anthem as well, who translated Tagore’s lyrics and set them to Tagore’s music in a tribute to his mentor.
As if this were not enough, he was an educator of great vision and courage, founding Vishwa Bharati University at Santiniketan (The Abode of Peace) to offer an authentically Indian experience of higher education, following systems and approaches of his own devising. It educated the likes of Satyajit Ray and Indira Gandhi (not to mention offering a cradle to Amartya Sen, whose first name, with its evocations of immortality, was given by Tagore — probably the only instance of one Nobel laureate baptising another!)
If all this were not more than extraordinary — representing a level of achievement so towering that it is difficult to imagine an individual in any other culture who comes close — there is also the remarkable fact of Tagore’s huge worldwide impact in his own time, which even today’s Indians may have difficulty imagining. Tagore was a global giant before the era of globalisation. When he was to speak at New York’s 4,000-seat Carnegie Hall in 1930 (itself a rare enough honour, since the hall is usually reserved for concerts, not orations), more than 20,000 people were turned away from the sold-out event, creating a mass of humanity on the streets outside that blocked traffic for miles. No living writer on the planet had ever had something comparable happen, and what’s more, Tagore was handsomely paid for his speeches. One American critic, not without a tinge of jealousy, wrote acerbically that the Indian “scolds Americans at $700 per scold”. (By today’s standards that would be more like $17,000 per scold in current dollars, and perhaps $70,000 in purchasing power terms.)
Tagore himself was modestly dismissive of his fame and the attention it got him. “The perfect whirlwind of public excitement it [the Nobel prize] has given rise to is frightful,” he wrote to his friend William Rothenstein in 1913. “It is almost as bad as tying a tin can to a dog’s tail, making it impossible for him to move without creating noise and collecting crowds all along.” Eight years later he confided to Edward Thompson: “What an immense amount of unreality there is in literary reputation, and I am longing – even while appreciating it like a buffalo the luxury of a mud bath – to come out of it as a sanyasi, [a Hindu sage], naked and aloof.”
Like all fine writers, he had a rare gift of phrase. His description of the Taj Mahal as “a teardrop on the cheek of time” can scarcely be bettered, and which poet would not want to have authored his line, “Who can strain the blue from the sky?” His descriptions of nature are startlingly original, and thought-provoking in their imagery. “The rose,” he wrote, “is a great deal more than a blushing apology for the thorn.” Dawn is “the departing night’s kiss on the closed eyes of morning”. A picture is “a memory of light treasured by the shadow”.
Sometimes the metaphor is explicitly metaphysical: “In the mountain, stillness surges up to explore its own height; in the lake, movement stands still to contemplate its own death.” He lent to spirituality a literary succinctness few others could master: “Life is given to us, we earn it by giving it.” Or the poignant “And because I love this life, I know I shall love death as well.” His stories and letters overflow with literary gems each bearing an insight thoroughly steeped in Indian tradition. “While God waits for his temple to be built of love, man brings stones.” Or “He who does good comes to the temple gate, he who loves reaches the shrine.” And “Darkness travels towards light, but blindness towards death.”
This was also true of his more social reflections. “Nowadays men have acquired what God did not choose to give them,” he wrote in a short story. Or, as he turned fifty: “Elders have become cheap to modern children, too readily accessible; and so have all objects of desire.” And throughout, his awareness of the divinely-created cosmos: “The world is an ever-changing foam that floats on the surface of a sea of silence.” Or “Man has in him the silence of the sea, the noise of the earth, and the music of the air.”
WB Yeats, in his famous introduction to Gitanjali, quoted an anonymous Bengali doctor as saying that “We have other poets, but none that are his equal; we call this the epoch of Rabindranath. No poet seems to me as famous in Europe as he is among us. He is as great in music as in poetry, and his songs are sung from the west of India into Burma wherever Bengali is spoken. He was already famous at nineteen when he wrote his first novel; and plays when he was but little older, are still played in Calcutta. I so much admire the completeness of his life; when he was very young he wrote much of natural objects, he would sit all day in his garden; from his twenty-fifth year or so to his thirty-fifth perhaps, when he had a great sorrow, he wrote the most beautiful love poetry in our language…. After that his art grew deeper, it became religious and philosophical; all the inspiration of mankind are in his hymns. He is the first among our saints who has not refused to live, but has spoken out of Life itself, and that is why we give him our love.” (Tagore returned the compliment in elegant terms, writing of Yeats: “Like a cut diamond that needs the light of the sky to show itself, the human soul on its own cannot express its essence, and remains dark. Only when it reflects the light from something greater than itself, does it come into its own.”)
Yeats himself went on to observe: “These lyrics—which are in the original, my Indians tell me, full of subtlety of rhythm, of untranslatable delicacies of colour, of metrical invention—display in their thought a world I have dreamed of all my live long. The work of a supreme culture, they yet appear as much the growth of the common soil as the grass and the rushes. A tradition, where poetry and religion are the same thing, has passed through the centuries, gathering from learned and unlearned metaphor and emotion, and carried back again to the multitude the thought of the scholar and of the noble.” For Yeats their Indian spiritual content was their principal value: “we fight and make money and fill our heads with politics—all dull things in the doing—while Mr. Tagore, like the Indian civilization itself, has been content to discover the soul and surrender himself to its spontaneity.” Again, Tagore himself would have disowned such grand claims: “Since it is impracticable to be uncivilized, I had better try to be thoroughly civil,” he wrote in 1892 to his niece Indira.
But admittedly, none of these distinctions, each rarer than the other, necessarily offer an adequate explanation for the second question that must naturally be on your minds: why should Tagore matter today? Yes, there was a time when Tagore was a global phenomenon, whose aura and impact was felt in places like Iran (where he was warmly received and celebrated by the Shah), South America (where he would go on to influence a young Pablo Neruda, the Argentine writer Victoria Ocampo and the Brazilian poet Cecilia Mereiles), China, Japan, Vietnam, Germany, Poland and many more — at a point in history where networks between these countries were at a nascent stageand the idea of globalization buried in the fiery sarcophagus of the first World War. Yes, there was a time where Tagore’s reputation and international image were so greatly recognised that you even had a rather bizarre situation where dictators like Mussolini and Stalin vied with each other to have him visit their countries in the hope of securing a symbolic endorsement, from his presence, of their egregious regimes. But that was a considerable while ago– a moment in history that shouldn’t necessarily hold itself to special relevance for us in the 21st century. It is also true that Tagore was not always welcomed by Asian modernists in his own time. On a visit to Shanghai in 1924, his messagethat modern civilization, built upon the cult of money and power, was inherently destructive, and needed to be tempered by the spiritual wisdom of the East, while Western ideas of modernity should be regarded with skepticism, led to him being heckled and booed by Chinese audiences. The Communist poet Qu Quibai wrote, “Thank you, Mr. Tagore, but we have already had too many Confuciuses and Menciuses in China.”
And yet, history has a way of repeating itself and unless we learn from the past, the future remains unclear and challenging. As I have often said myself, in another context, if you don’t know where you are coming from, then how can you appreciate where you are going?
Let us take a step back and look back at the world in which Tagore made such an impact in the 1920s & 1930s — a period universally recognised for being one of the darkest points in human history, which ultimately concluded in the monstrosities of the second World War and the horrors of the Holocaust and Hiroshima. Across Europe, the far right and its populist promises to restore the historic glory and grandeur of their respective countries was finding unprecedented acceptance in society. Winston Churchill, for instance, now hailed in the West as a standard-bearer of democracy and freedom, was throughout the 1920s and early 1930s an open admirer of Mussolini, saying in the 1920s that the Italian Fascist movement had “rendered a service to the whole world”. He made it clear that he had been prepared to do much the same in Britain as Mussolini had in Italy, had it had been necessary. Churchill travelled to Rome in 1927 to express his admiration for Il Duce two years after the murder of Matteotti, when the character of the Fascist regime was well established. ‘I could not help being charmed, like so many other people have been, by Signor Mussolini’s gentle and simple bearing and by his calm detached poise in spite of so many burdens and dangers. Secondly, anyone could see that he thought of nothing but the lasting good, as he understands it, of the Italian people,’ Churchill declared in Rome. ‘If I had been an Italian I am sure that I should have been wholeheartedly with you from the start to finish in your triumphant struggle.’ (The Times, 21st January, 1927.)As for democracy, Churchill was a late convert to the cause. As late as 1931 he declared: ““The Indian Congress and other elements in this agitation represent neither the numbers, the strength nor the virtue of the Indian people. They merely represent those Indians who have acquired a veneer of Western civilisation, and have read all those books about democracy which Europe is now beginning increasingly to discard.” Democracy was an idea that Europeans like Churchill were happy to discard in the heyday of Fascism. When circumstances plunged him into being the standard-bearer of democracy and freedom, he embraced the public relations opportunity. But remember that Fascism had a much broader appeal in those days than is commonly realized.
Protectionism was at an all time high with countries looking inwards as they moved to recover from the structural changes forced upon them by the first World War. Here in America, the Great Depression had set in, leaving 34 million Americans with no income of their own and across the Western world, a nativist xenophobia had set in, based on an intrinsic distrust and organised hatred of anyone who was deemed an outsider.
Fast forward to 2018 and the parallels between the two periods are grim and offers a sobering reminder of the dangers of our times.Populist leaders or strongmen have resurfaced with aplomb, in Russia, China, Turkey, Philippines, across parts of Europe and of course, in India and here in America. The supra-national institutions of global governance of the post-Bretton Woods era, the United Nations, the European Union, the IMF and others, are facing internal crises of their own, brought about by the continual reluctance to accommodate structural reforms within them to reflect a changing world that has moved a long way since the bi-polar Cold War order. Xenophobia and anti-Semitism are back in parts of the world that one would have thought would never entertain such ideas again. Protectionism (at least partially) has made a re-entry into global politics and worryingly, anyone who is an immigrant, a Muslim, or worse, a Muslim immigrant, is now looked at in parts of the world as a national security threat. As the British journalist Jonathan Freedland described the comparisons between the 1930s and the present: “For historians of the period, the 1930s are always worthy of study because the decade proves that systems – including democratic republics – which had seemed solid and robust can collapse. That fate is possible, even in advanced, sophisticated societies. The warning never gets old.”
Let us consider, for example,the widely discussed recent paper by the Harvard scholar Yascha Mounk and his colleague Roberto Stefan Foa, who argue that the health of liberal democracies across the world is failing, and that former ‘consolidated democracies’ around the globe confront imminent degeneration. Drawing on data from the World Value Surveys (1995-2015), they show that there has been a considerable dilution of support for democracy and growing impatience with the democratic process, especially among the so-called ‘millennial’ generations (those born after the 1980s), and that we can no longer assume that once a country upholds democratic institutions for a steady period of time, fosters strong civil society traditions, and attains a degree of wealth, the future of democracy is secure in its hands. It is, we are told, a fallacy, and we must always guard against complacency.
Democracy is being challenged even as we face a worldwide backlash against globalization and cosmopolitanism. An ugly byproduct of this is the rise of mandatory patriotism and, at its heart, conformity as the new badge of allegiance.The global rise of officially mandated nationalism is a surprising phenomenon of our times. The century began with globalization seeming unstoppable, national boundaries appearing ever-more permeable and states surrendering more and more of their sovereignty to organizations like the European Union, to regional and global trade pacts refereed by the World Trade Organization and to international legal institutions like the International Criminal Court. Few could have foreseen such an abrupt reversal of this trend midway through the second decade of the century.
The global backlash against the forces that have defined the first decade and a half of the 21st century has taken on a nativist hue everywhere. In Europe and America, this has involved racist hostility to immigrants and minorities (whether ethnically or religious defined). Since such negative messaging requires a positive counterpart, nationalism has filled the breach, as a majoritarian narrative has sought to subsume each country’s diverse political tendencies into an artificial mandated unity masquerading as authentically rooted patriotism.
To illustrate the point, a little over a year ago, we were all taken aback when America decided to elect Donald Trump to its highest office,seduced by the proposition that Trump would ‘Make America Great Again’ ( for many voters, the issue was also code for ‘Make America White Again’). In less than a year into his first year in office, the President and his army of Trumpists have declared war on anybody who defiles the American flag, a symbol of nationalism, with Trump himself suggesting extensive punitive damages for such an offence (in a land where the flag can form a garment to cover just about any part of your body).Similarly, the ‘take the knee’ movement, started by African-American football player Colin Kaepernick kneeling during the national anthem right before a game, in protest against what he felt was systemic and continued discrimination against the African-American community in the US, has been denounced as an insult to the nation.While several of his colleagues (including from other sports) were quick to show him solidarity and support, Kaepernick himself can no longer get a game to play his sport. In India we have leaders of the ruling party similarly denouncing those who refuse to declaim “Bharat Mata ki Jai” as anti-national. Democracy matters much less, it seems, than such litmus tests of nationalism.
Globalization had promised a world of dissolving differences and ever-expanding freedoms that would embrace and include everyone. Instead, today’s reactive nationalism heightens differences, emphasizes singular virtues associated with a politically defined people and seeks to instil loyalty and commitment to the state and its emblems. At the level of voluntarily flaunting the national flag, the national anthem, the lapel pin and reverence for the military’s sacrifices, I have no problem with this. But when these symbols are used to promote a sense of obligatory duty rather than affection for the idea of the nation, and compliance with the prevailing governmental narrative rather than freedom for each citizen to interpret national loyalty in her own way, then I do have a problem. Thus “respect” for the anthem and the flag becomes a code for obedience to the state and the ruling party. To put it plainly, conformity has now become the new badge of allegiance.
These are troubling and potentially dangerous developments. The idea of the nation as an inclusive community of all citizens, one that allows each individual to shelter under the constitutional carapace to pursue his or her own ideas of happiness, free from the stipulations of others, is being tossed aside in the name of a higher patriotic duty to an officially sanctioned version of nationalism. This is reminiscent of the same slippery slope down which Italy and Germany slid into fascism and Nazism in the 1920s and 1930s. Such fears may be exaggerated in today’s democracies, with modern means of communication and thriving free media. But complacency is no longer an option.
Tagore foresaw and predicted the dangers of this narrow-minded nationalism and was perhaps one of the greatest critics of a phenomenon that he once described as ‘cruel epidemic of evil that is sweeping over the human world of the present age, eating into its moral vitality’. It is safe to assume that Tagore’s principled opposition to nationalism came from a perspective tempered by the experiences of the First World War and the nationalistic fervour that had gripped much of Europe and led to violence of a magnitude the world had never seen before. In a three-part essay that forms his magisterial work, ‘Nationalism’, Tagore, writing at a time when war was raging across Europe in 1917, offered a prescient warning of the dangers of nationalism and the nation state: “When this organization of politics and commerce, whose other name is the Nation, becomes all powerful at the cost of the harmony of the higher social life, then it is an evil day for humanity. When a father becomes a gambler and his obligations to his family take the secondary place in his mind, then he is no longer a man, but an automaton led by the power of greed. Then he can do things which, in his normal state of mind, he would be ashamed to do. It is the same thing with society. When it allows itself to be turned into a perfect organization of power, then there are few crimes which it is unable to perpetrate.”
Ultimately, to Tagore, the moral imperative of humanity far outweighed the political and commercial impetus that came together to form the core of nationalism as he saw it. To him, nationalism was a distraction from the real problems of humanity, which he felt were social. To him, nationalistic fervour hadcome to a stage where“the moral man, the complete man, is more and more giving way, almost without knowing it, to make room for the political and the commercial man, the man of the limited purpose. This, aided by the wonderful progress in science, is assuming gigantic proportion and power, causing the upset of man’s moral balance, obscuring his human side under the shadow of soul-less organization.”
As was often the case with Tagore, he captures this warning best and most beautifully in his poem ‘The Sunset of the Century’, which he wrote on the last day of the 19th century:
The last sun of the century sets amidst the blood-red clouds of the West and the whirlwind of hatred.
The naked passion of self-love of Nations, in its drunken delirium of greed, is
dancing to the clash of steel and the howling verses of vengeance.
The hungry self of the Nation shall burst in a violence of fury from its own shameless feeding.
For it has made the world its food,
The crimson glow of light on the horizon is not the light of thy dawn of peace,
It is the glimmer of the funeral pyre burning to ashes the vast flesh, – the self-love of the Nation, – dead under its own excess.
Thy morning waits behind the patient dark of the East,
Meek and silent.
It is almost as if he was thinking of today’s world when he wrote this poem with his clarion call to beware the dangers of jingoism and chauvinism cloaked under the garb of the love of one’s nation. But this is not to say Tagore wasn’t a patriot: he would eventually return his knighthood to the British in protest of the massacre of peaceful Indian protestors at Jallianwalla Bagh by General Dyer, an act that would lead Indians to regard Tagore as a great hero of the national struggle. Tagore wrote that he could not retain such an honour in the incongruous context of national humiliation. At the same time, in a letter to CF Andrews in 1920, Tagore would admit, “It is not that I do not feel anger in my heart for injustice and insult heaped upon my motherland. But this anger of mine should be turned into the fire of love for lighting the lamp of worship to be dedicated through my country to my God. It would be an insult to humanity, if I use the sacred energy of my moral indignation for the purpose of spreading a blind passion all over my country.”Patriot, yes. But a nationalist he was not.
So Tagore did not really believe in nationalism but in the values of the human spirit, transcending all national boundaries. “My religion,” he told Albert Einstein, “is in the reconciliation of the superpersonal man, the universal human spirit, in my own individual being.” He had little patience for parochial forms of thinking: “Our mind has faculties which are universal,” he declared, “but its habits are insular.” In Nationalism, he expressed the view that “There is only one history – the history of man. All national histories are merely chapters in the larger one.” National pride does not feature in his thought, only the immutable goals of knowledge, learning, and the pursuit of truth.
WHERE the mind is without fear and the head is held high;
Where knowledge is free;
Where the world has not been broken up into fragments
By narrow domestic walls;
Where words come out from the depth of truth;
Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection;
Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way
Into the dreary desert sand of dead habit;
Where the mind is led forward by thee
Into ever-widening thought and action;
Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake.
Typically, Tagore’s is an inspirational poem that could serve as the anthem for any nation seeking freedom – while giving no indulgence whatsoever to jingoism or chauvinism. For the chauvinist glee with which I, as an Indian writer, am celebrating Rabindranath Tagore, would not particularly have appealed to him. He dreamt of freedom for India, but it was not merely freedom from foreign rule that he sought for his countrymen. It was in a place “where the mind is without fear and the head is held high; where knowledge is free” and “where the mind is led forward … into ever-widening thought and action” that Tagore hoped his India would awake to freedom.
Indeed his idea of freedom was far more profoundly individual than national. “Freedom of movement is not the only vital liberty,” he said in 1916, “freedom of work is still more important. Nor is subjugation the greatest bondage, narrowness of opportunity is the worst cage of all.” One of his poems perfectly captures the paradox of the nature of personal freedom in an enslaved land:
The tame bird was in a cage, the free bird was in the forest;
They met when the time came; it was a decree of fate.
The free bird cries, “O my love, let us fly to the wood.”
The caged bird whispers, “Come hither, let us both live in the cage.”
Says the free bird, “Among bars, where is the room to spread one’s wings?”
“Alas,” cries the caged bird, “I should not know where to sit perched in the sky.”
His was a voice of freedom; but it was more important to him that every individual be free to pursue his destiny. “Give me the strength never to … bend my knees before insolent might,” he prayed in Gitanjali. As a result he was an iconoclast, dissenting not only from Empire but even from the political orthodoxies of his own country’s struggle for Independence.
Perhaps, in this context, his disagreements with Mahatma Gandhi are not so surprising. He objected to the Mahatma’s non-co-operation movement on what one might term philosophical grounds. He considered it “political asceticism,” and asceticism was not something of which he approved. “‘No’ in its passive moral form is asceticism and in its active moral form is violence,” he argued in a letter to the Mahatma’s British associate C.F. Andrews. Nor did he have much patience for the Mahatma’s method of fasting unto death. “Fasting, which has no direct action upon the conduct of misdoers,” he wrote to Gandhiji in 1933, “and which may abruptly terminate one’s power further to serve those who need help… is all the more unacceptable for any individual who has the responsibility to represent humanity.” Gandhi was not convinced, but their exchanges are amongst the most stimulating intellectual pleasures of the freedom movement.
At the same time, Tagore was not exactly an internationalist in the classic sense beloved of U.N. aficionados like myself. He died before the United Nations was created, but he did not think highly of its forerunner organisation, the League of Nations. Tagore wrote of the League that it was well conceived in theory but not in practice, because it was an institution in which the world was represented by national Governments and nationalist political leaders. “It is,” he wrote, “like organising a band of robbers into a police department.” There is no reason to believe he would have felt any differently about today’s U.N., which is also an organisation of States rather than peoples.
When he won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1913, his acceptance speech, read out at the grand official banquet by the British Charge d’Affaires in Norway, consisted of one sentence: “I beg to convey to the Swedish Academy my grateful appreciation of the breadth of understanding which has brought the distant near, and has made a stranger a brother.”
But Tagore did propagate something much more powerful than internationalism — as defined in the sense of global governance, or even ‘globalisation’ as is understood and attacked today. What Tagore promoted was a moral synthesis between the West and the East, at a time when it seemed that the world was falling apart at its seams. This,at a time when the West, with its imperial ambitions and colonial legacy, was looked at with much resentment in the East, and for Tagore to try and establish a moral commonality between the two was no simple task.
But Tagore was quick to point out that even within the West, a distinction must be drawn between the ‘spirit’ of the West and the ‘nation’ of the West. To him, the ‘spirit’ represented the moral convictions of the Western society, what he categorised as its best contributions to humanity — from internationalism, to the idea of rights-based democracy, to a focus on education and social development and so on. These were universal values that would go a long way to furthering the overall development of humanity. In stark contrast to this was the ‘Nation’ of the west– a structure that was motivated by greed and self-interest, which used the tools of imperialism and colonialism to promote its malicious interests in heartless fashion and enslave other peoples. Speaking on the Indian experience under the British, Tagore pointed out that “This desire for a common bond of comradeship among the different races of India has been the work of the spirit of the West, not that of the Nation of the West. Wherever in Asia the people have received the true lesson of the West it is in spite of the Western Nation”.
As I have already observed, with his long beard and his flowing white robe, Rabindranath Tagore epitomised for many the archetype of the Indian sage, the precursor of so many godmen and gurus who have followed his footsteps to the West. There is little doubt that his magisterial mind and his authoritative presence did a great deal to inspire admiration across the world, and to spark a revival of interest in Hinduism and in the teachings of Hindu spirituality. Tagore’s Hinduism had little to do with the Hindu-ness sought to be promoted by today’s Hindutva brigades; it was a faith free of the restrictive dogma of holy writ, untrammelled in its yearning for the divine, and universalist in its conception and its appeal. This is what made his ideas so attractive to non-Indians. He had a great respect for Christianity, which he saw as emerging in many ways from Asia: “I think it has been the good fortune of the West,” he wrote, “to have the opportunity of absorbing the spirit of the East through the medium of the Bible.”
In his famous Discovery of India, India’s first Prime Minister Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru fittingly acknowledged Tagore’s contributions, noting that ‘More than any other Indian, he [Tagore] has helped to bring into harmony the ideals of the East and West, and broadened the bases of Indian nationalism. He has been India’s internationalist par excellence, believing and working for international co-operation, taking India’s message to other countries and bringing their messages to his own people’. As the historian Ramchandra Guha points out, when Nehru became Prime Minister in 1947, the influence of Tagore was quite strong in the direction Nehru chose to take the country towards.Tagore’s ideas of a synthesis between ‘tradition and modernity’, between the West and India, was a guiding philosophy for Nehru as well, as evident in his efforts to keep India non-aligned during the Cold War era and to promote pan-Asianism amongst India and its neighbours.Tagore was unusual in stretching his imagination to Africa, the title of one of his lesser-known poems, in which mystical imagery is married to a denunciation of colonialism:
Alas, O Veiled One
Underneath the obscurity of your dark facade lay unknown your human identity
Degraded by the collective gaze of derision.
And then they arrived, manacles in hand
Claws sharper by far than any on your wolves;
They arrived, human rustlers and traffickers all
By vanity and arrogance blinded, sightless by far
Than your darkest, sun-less forests.
If Tagore the man of sophisticated political, educational and spiritual ideas has dominated this lecture, it would be wrong to omit the other Tagore, the author of some of the finest love poems and songs ever written in Bengali. My personal favourite is one I read to my late wife upon our engagement, and I will embarrass myself by repeating it here, for it is too good to omit:
I seem to have loved you in numberless forms, numberless times,
In life after life, in age after age forever.
My spell-bound heart has made and re-made the necklace of songs
That you take as a gift, wear round your neck in your many forms
In life after life, in age after age forever.
Whenever I hear old chronicles of love, its age-old pain,
Its ancient tale of being apart or together,
As I stare on and on into the past, in the end you emerge
Clad in the light of a star piercing the darkness of time:
You become an image of what is remembered forever.
You and I have floated here on the stream that brings from the fount
At the heart of time, love of one for another.
We have played alongside millions of lovers, shared in the same
Shy sweetness of meeting, the same distressful tears of farewell —
Old love, but in shapes that renew and renew forever.
Today it is heaped at your feet, it has found its end in you,
The love of all man’s days both past and forever:
Universal joy, universal sorrow, universal life,
The memories of all loves merging with this one love of ours —
And the songs of every poet past and forever.
When the great British poet Wilfred Owen (author of the greatest anti-war poem in the English language, “Dulce et Decorum Est”) was to return to the front to give his life in the futile First World War, he recited Tagore’s “Parting Words” to his mother as his last goodbye. When he was so tragically and pointlessly killed, Owen’s mother found Tagore’s poem copied out in her son’s hand in his diary:
When I go from hence
let this be my parting word,
that what I have seen is unsurpassable.
I have tasted of the hidden honey of this lotus
that expands on the ocean of light,
and thus am I blessed
—let this be my parting word.
In this playhouse of infinite forms
I have had my play
and here have I caught sight of him that is formless.
My whole body and my limbs
have thrilled with his touch who is beyond touch;
and if the end comes here, let it come
––let this be my parting word.
And yet this magnificent wielder of words spoke modestly of the value of poetry. “Words are barren, dismal and uninspiring by themselves,” he said in a 1922 lecture, “but when they are bound together by some bond of rhythm they attain their significance as a reality which can be described as creative.”
The universality of Tagore’s thoughts and ideas seem to me beyond cavil, and his fears for the direction of the modern world as prescient then, and as applicable today, as when he first expressed them. With his typical generosity, Tagore said of the artist William Rothenstein, “He had the vision to see truth and the heart to love it.” The same was true of himself. Rabindranath Tagore would have won immortality in any of his chosen fields; instead he remains immortal in all of them.