Every year on the 25th day of the Bengali month Boishakh or the 7th of May, depending on which calendar one is referring to, pretty much all of Bengali society comes together to celebrate the birth of Gurudev. This was the day in 1861 when the visionary Rabindranath Thakur, or as spineless, Hindi news anchors would say, Tagore was born.
It is quite customary for the Bengali elite and intellectual class to sing songs and recite poems composed by him on this day. This is the day when Bengali society offers obeisance to the poet that Tagore was. But is it all that Tagore was? What do we Bengalis remember him as? A poet, a story-teller, a composer, that’s it? Or is there more to him? While we revere his literary and artistic work, how often do we acknowledge him as a social and political thinker? To assume that Tagore was apolitical would be a travesty. To turn down the Knighthood conferred on him was in itself an act of political disobedience. However, if you do the same thing today, you might end up being labelled as a part of the ‘Award Wapsi Gang’. But, not to forget that one could argue that brown oppressor is more acceptable than the white one, or at least that would be the insinuation.
One of the icons from the pantheon of the Bengal Renaissance, Tagore’s ideas stretched far beyond his artistic work. He was a visionary, way ahead of his times. At a time when even Mahatma Gandhi was all about nationalism, Tagore could foresee the perils of it. Although Tagore has multiple political essays to his credit, for this piece, I am referring only to the essay titled ‘Nationalism’. Maybe we’ll explore more of his political thoughts in future, but I guess, ‘Nationalism’ is the most fitting keeping in mind the mood of the nation. To add some context, Tagore was touring Japan and America during the First World War. In course of his travels, he delivered a series of lectures which were later published as ‘Nationalism’ in 1917. This essay explores nationalism in the context of India, Japan and the West.
In the essay, Tagore presents a nuanced critique of the idea called nationalism. Below are some excerpts from the original text. Since it’s a philosophical essay and not necessarily a questionnaire, so to add precise context to every bit cited below isn’t possible, still I’ve tried. However, I’d insist that the reader pick up the book for themselves and read. Why take my word for it? I wouldn’t want to be accused of quoting without context, so the reader should feel free to go through the contents themselves. The essay is available for free on the internet anyway. The language quoted might feel a little dated and even complicated, but that’s just how it is. I for once thought of simplifying it for the reader but then I chose not to, as it could lead to unintended misrepresentation of his ideas.
The Complexity of Indian society
“She (India) has made grave errors in setting up the boundary walls too rigidly between races, in perpetuating in her classifications the results of inferiority; often she has crippled her children's minds and narrowed their lives in order to fit them into her social forms; but for centuries new experiments have been made and adjustments carried out. Her mission has been like that of a hostess who has to provide proper accommodation for numerous guests, whose habits and requirements are different from one another. This gives rise to infinite complexities whose solution depends not merely upon tactfulness but upon sympathy and true realization of the unity of man.”
The Perils of the Nation becoming All-Powerful
“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.”
Insecurities of Sedition
“In this reign of the nation, the governed are pursued by suspicions; and these are the suspicions of a tremendous mass of organized brain and muscle. Punishments are meted out, which leave a trail of miseries across a large bleeding tract of the human heart…”
The Racial Diversity of India
“What is more, we have to recognize that the history of India does not belong to one particular race but to a process of creation to which various races of the world contributed—the Dravidians and the Aryans, the ancient Greeks and the Persians, the Mohammedans of the West and those of central Asia.”
The Disease of Nationalism
“This history has come to a stage when 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 process, 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. We have felt its iron grip at the root of our life, and for the sake of humanity we must stand up and give warning to all, that this nationalism is a cruel epidemic of evil that is sweeping over the human world of the present age, and eating into its moral vitality.”
“But we know that when we walk barefooted upon ground strewn with gravel, our feet come gradually to adjust themselves to the caprices of the inhospitable earth; while if the tiniest particle of gravel finds its lodgment inside our shoes we can never forget and forgive its intrusion. And these shoes are the government by the Nation — it is tight, it regulates our steps with a closed-up system, within which our feet have only the slightest liberty to make their own adjustments. Therefore, when you produce your statistics to compare the number of gravels which our feet had to encounter in former days with the paucity in the present régime, they hardly touch the real points. It is not a question of the number of outside obstacles but the comparative powerlessness of the individual to cope with them. This narrowness of freedom is an evil which is more radical, not because of its quantity but because of its nature.”
The Delusion of Freedom.
“...but you who live under the delusion that you are free, are every day sacrificing your freedom and humanity to this fetich of nationalism, living in the dense poisonous atmosphere of world-wide suspicion and greed and panic.”
Dehumanization by Discipline
“Man in his fullness is not powerful, but perfect. Therefore, to turn him into mere power, you have to curtail his soul as much as possible. When we are fully human, we cannot fly at one another's throats; our instincts of social life, our traditions of moral ideals stand in the way. If you want me to take to butchering human beings, you must break up that wholeness of my humanity through some discipline which makes my will dead, my thoughts numb, my movements automatic, and then from the dissolution of the complex personal man will come out that abstraction, that destructive force, which has no relation to human truth, and therefore can be easily brutal or mechanical…”
A Drug called Nationalism
“And the idea of the Nation is one of the most powerful anæsthetics that man has invented. Under the influence of its fumes the whole people can carry out its systematic programme of the most virulent self-seeking without being in the least aware of its moral perversion,—in fact feeling dangerously resentful if it is pointed out.”
A Nationalist Narrative for Hostility
“...the whole people is being taught from boyhood to foster hatreds and ambitions by all kinds of means—by the manufacture of half-truths and untruths in history, by persistent misrepresentation of other races and the culture of unfavourable sentiments towards them, by setting up memorials of events, very often false, which for the sake of humanity should be speedily forgotten, thus continually brewing evil menace towards neighbours and nations other than their own. This is poisoning the very fountainhead of humanity. It is discrediting the ideals, which were born of the lives of men who were our greatest and best. It is holding up gigantic selfishness as the one universal religion for all nations of the world. We can take anything else from the hands of science, but not this elixir of moral death. Never think for a moment that the hurts you inflict upon other races will not infect you, or that the enmities you sow around your homes will be a wall of protection to you for all time to come. To imbue the minds of a whole people with an abnormal vanity of its own superiority, to teach it to take pride in its moral callousness and ill-begotten wealth, to perpetuate humiliation of defeated nations by exhibiting trophies won from war, and using these in schools in order to breed in children's minds contempt for others, is imitating the West where she has a festering sore, whose swelling is a swelling of disease eating into its vitality.”
The Cult of Patriotism
“And nations who sedulously cultivate moral blindness as the cult of patriotism will end their existence in a sudden and violent death.”
The Only History
“There is only one history—the history of man. All national histories are merely chapters in the larger one.”
“India has never had a real sense of nationalism. Even though from childhood I had been taught that idolatry of the Nation is almost better than reverence for God and humanity, I believe I have outgrown that teaching, and it is my conviction that my countrymen will truly gain their India by fighting against the education which teaches them that a country is greater than the ideals of humanity.”
Tagore’s unconditional disdain for Nationalism
“I am not against one nation in particular, but against the general idea of all nations.”
Many Nations in One
“Her (India’s) problem was the problem of the world in miniature. India is too vast in its area and too diverse in its races. It is many countries packed in one geographical receptacle. It is just the opposite of what Europe truly is, namely, one country made into many.”
A Romance of the Past
“The general opinion of the majority of the present-day nationalists in India is that we have come to a final completeness in our social and spiritual ideals, the task of the constructive work of society having been done several thousand years before we were born, and that now we are free to employ all our activities in the political direction. We never dream of blaming our social inadequacy as the origin of our present helplessness, for we have accepted as the creed of our nationalism that this social system has been perfected for all time to come by our ancestors, who had the superhuman vision of all eternity and supernatural power for making infinite provision for future ages. Therefore, for all our miseries and shortcomings, we hold responsible the historical surprises that burst upon us from outside. This is the reason why we think that our one task is to build a political miracle of freedom upon the quicksand of social slavery. In fact we want to dam up the true course of our own historical stream, and only borrow power from the sources of other peoples' history. Those of us in India who have come under the delusion that mere political freedom will make us free have accepted their lessons from the West as the gospel truth and lost their faith in humanity. We must remember whatever weakness we cherish in our society will become the source of danger in politics. The same inertia which leads us to our idolatry of dead forms in social institutions will create in our politics prison-houses with immovable walls. The narrowness of sympathy which makes it possible for us to impose upon a considerable portion of humanity the galling yoke of inferiority will assert itself in our politics in creating the tyranny of injustice.”
Caste and Nationalism
“When our nationalists talk about ideals they forget that the basis of nationalism is wanting. The very people who are upholding these ideals are themselves the most conservative in their social practice. Nationalists say, for example, look at Switzerland where, in spite of race differences, the peoples have solidified into a nation. Yet, remember that in Switzerland the races can mingle, they can intermarry, because they are of the same blood. In India there is no common birthright. And when we talk of Western Nationality we forget that the nations there do not have that physical repulsion, one for the other, that we have between different castes. Have we an instance in the whole world where a people who are not allowed to mingle their blood shed their blood for one another except by coercion or for mercenary purposes? And can we ever hope that these moral barriers against our race amalgamation will not stand in the way of our political unity? Then again we must give full recognition to this fact that our social restrictions are still tyrannical, so much so as to make men cowards. If a man tells me he has heterodox ideas, but that he cannot follow them because he would be socially ostracized, I excuse him for having to live a life of untruth, in order to live at all. The social habit of mind which impels us to make the life of our fellow-beings a burden to them where they differ from us even in such a thing as their choice of food, is sure to persist in our political organization and result in creating engines of coercion to crush every rational difference which is the sign of life.”
These are only a few extracts. The entire essay offers a lot more to unpack and absorb. If one does read the whole essay, or even just the excerpts quoted, there might be parts one could disagree with, and that’s fine, because that’s the nature of discourse. I, for one, can vouch for the fact that people like Tagore wouldn’t take offence at counter-opinions.
It would mean decay and devastation for a society shaped on the ideals of people like Tagore to live in oblivion of what they represented. It is indeed the greatest irony that for a man who was such a stark critic of nationalism, two of his compositions have now been, if I may use the word, reduced to unquestionable symbols of nationalism in not just one, but two nations - India and Bangladesh. In fact, there are numerous incidents where people who didn’t stand for the national anthem in India were roughed up, by the public itself. There are also strict judicial orders in India for people to stand up for the anthem before a movie begins in the theatres. Is this disrespect to the great man? Is this misappropriation? Think. In fact, disrespecting national symbols is just as dangerous as blasphemy these days.
Maybe we have all forgotten the essence of the Bengal Renaissance. Maybe a phase in human existence that caused such revolutionary social churning in Bengali society has been reduced to just another chapter in history textbooks. Maybe we all fell short somewhere, for a sizable part of Tagore's cultural descendants today subscribe to an exclusive form of religious nationalism. Maybe we just made an icon out of Tagore, for worship and vanity, instead of imbibing his ideas into generations that followed, to inspire enough minds to think differently. Maybe it did happen in small bubbles but it wasn’t as widespread to bring about another epoch. Growing up, I’ve witnessed countless celebrations of Tagore’s art and legacy, but hardly have I ever seen a room full of people discussing, dissecting and debating his ideas. Had it not been for the sharp right turn that this nation took only a few years back, I wouldn’t have even stumbled upon this essay of his. It wouldn’t be incorrect to assume that the average Bengali youth, just like me, doesn’t even know that such work exists.
Maybe instead of parroting his songs on his birthday every year, Bengalis must actually delve into the mind of the man and build on his ideas. And given the amount of work he has left behind, it shouldn’t be so difficult to at least start. Bengalis of the world, reclaim Tagore from the intellectual and academic bubbles! This piece right here is an attempt to democratize his ideas, and then there’s the internet as well. So, look beyond the music, and read between the lines.
Views are personal.