Tagore in America

By P.K.Balachandran

Colombo, May 30:

The renowned Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore had warned that nationalisms based on power and pride and devoid of higher values like social harmony, will destroy societies instead of building them.

Tagore expressed his thoughts on “nationalism” in a series of lectures delivered in 1916 and 1917 in the United States and Japan. These were encapsulated in an essay he wrote in 1917.  

To Tagore, nationalism, as generally touted, is an expression of power and pride devoid of higher moral values such as social harmony, progressive social development and the unity of mankind, all attributes of spirituality as he conceived it.

The essay is essentially a comparison of nationalism in the US, Europe and India at that time, but its contents are relevant to present-day India and other countries in South Asia, where nationalism, as defined by those in power, has become a source of tension in society threatening to rip it into pieces.     

Today’s South Asia has the formal structures of democracy, and elections are held regularly. But these institutions have been brazenly subverted to serve partisan interests with a cynical disdain for morality. An increasing number of South Asians wonder if democracy is on its last legs in their countries.

Social Harmony

Tagore warns that in the absence of mutual understanding and a moral purpose based on a desire for social harmony, societies are bound to crumble. Social harmony should necessarily be an ingredient of nationalism. Nationalism has to be constructive, not destructive, he submits.  

“Each individual has his self-love. Therefore, his brute instinct leads him to fight with others in the sole pursuit of his self-interest. But man has also his higher instincts of sympathy and mutual help. The people who are lacking in this higher moral power and who therefore cannot combine in fellowship with one another must perish or live in a state of degradation. Only those peoples have survived and achieved civilization who have this spirit of cooperation strong in them,” Tagore says.

Further: “The most important fact of the present age is that all the different races of men have come close together. And again we are confronted with two alternatives. The problem is whether the different groups of peoples shall go on fighting with one another or find out some true basis of reconciliation and mutual help; whether it will be interminable competition or cooperation.”

He then goes on to say: “I have no hesitation in saying that those who are gifted with the moral power of love and vision of spiritual unity, who have the least feeling of enmity against aliens, and the sympathetic insight to place themselves in the position of others will be the fittest to take their permanent place in the age that is lying before us, and those who are constantly developing their instinct of fight and intolerance of aliens will be eliminated.”

Dangers of Pride

Tagore contends that pride in any form, including national pride, leads to blindness at the end.

“Like all artificial stimulants its first effect is a heightening of consciousness and then with the increasing dose it muddles it and brings in exultation that is misleading.”

Talking specifically about India, Tagore says: “It is my conviction that my countrymen will gain truly their India by fighting against that education which teaches them that a country is greater than the ideals of humanity.”

Thus, Tagore places humanism on the highest pedestal, above nationalism.

He warns against the consequences of borrowing ideas of nationalism from Europe. Nationalism should suit a country’s own cultural and historical moorings, and these differ from country to country.

Concept of Nation

On the concept of the nation as such, Tagore holds a radically different view, associating the “nation” with power and the assertion of power over those with less power. Nationalism would thus drain the people of their higher nature or higher values, he warns.

“I am not against one nation in particular, but against the general idea of all nations. What is the Nation? It is the aspect of a whole people as an organized power. This organization incessantly keeps up the insistence of the population on becoming strong and efficient.”

“But this strenuous effort after strength and efficiency drains man’s energy from his higher nature where he is self-sacrificing and creative. Man’s power of sacrifice is diverted from his ultimate object, which is moral, to the maintenance of this organization, which is mechanical.” 

“Yet in this man feels all the satisfaction of moral exaltation and therefore becomes supremely dangerous to humanity. He feels relieved of the urging of his conscience when he can transfer his responsibility to this machine which is the creation of his intellect and not of his complete moral personality.”

Perpetuation of Slavery

Tagore says that this situation perpetuates slavery in a large portion of the world with the comfortable feeling of pride of having done its duty.

As a consequence, “men who are naturally just can be cruelly unjust both in their act and their thought, accompanied by a feeling that they are helping the world in receiving its deserts. Men who are honest can blindly go on robbing others of their human rights for self-aggrandizement, all the while abusing the deprived for not deserving better treatment.”

Tagore dubs such nationalism “a great menace”.

Constructive Work

For Tagore, nationalism is doing constructive work. But the mission or project undertaken should be based on the felt needs of the people and also rooted in the problems and ethos of the society concerned.  

Since the essay was written when India was under the British, he asked the question: “What would we do if, for any reason, England was driven away?” If no meaningful and constructive work is done, Indians will simply be victims for other nations. The same social weaknesses will prevail, he says.  

Scourge of Caste

Tagore urges Indians to remove those social customs and ideals which have generated a want of self-respect and a complete dependence on those above – a state of affairs which has been brought about entirely by the domination in India of the caste system, and also “the blind and lazy habit of relying upon the authority of traditions that are incongruous anachronisms in the present age.” 

Tagore says that caste became a problem because it was transformed from a convenient system of social organization based on a division of labour, into a system of rigid social cleavages, hierarchically arranged, and based entirely on the accident of birth.   

“What India had failed to realize was that in human beings, differences are not like the physical barriers of mountains, fixed forever—they are fluid with life’s flow, they are changing their courses and their shapes and volume. Therefore, in her caste regulations, India recognized differences, but not the mutability which is the law of life. In trying to avoid collisions she set up boundaries of immovable walls, thus giving to her numerous races the negative benefit of peace and order but not the positive opportunity of expansion and movement.”   

“Therefore, life departed from India’s social system and in its place she is worshipping with all ceremony the magnificent cage of countless compartments that she has manufactured.”

Competition and Conflict

Such a situation breeds competition and conflict.

“In the absence of social harmony and reconciliation, the spirit of conflict and competition is allowed the full freedom of its reckless career. Society can never come to any other end but a violent death,” Tagore warns.

His observations and warnings about economic materialism apply equally to political aggrandisement.  Society and polity should be expressions of moral and spiritual aspirations of man which belong to his higher and not to his basest nature, he submits.

“In the so-called free countries, the majority of the people are not free, they are driven by the minority to a goal which is not even known to them. This becomes possible only because people do not acknowledge moral and spiritual freedom as their object. They create huge eddies with their passions and they feel dizzily inebriated with the mere velocity of their whirling movement, taking that to be freedom. But the doom which is waiting to overtake them is as certain as death.”

Man’s emancipation, Tagore says, is in the spiritual life and not in the pursuit of wealth or power for their own sake through unprincipled nationalism.



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