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Tagore and His India

Rabindranath Tagore, who died in 1941 at the age of eighty, is a towering figure in the millennium-old literature of Bengal. Anyone who becomes familiar with this large and flourishing tradition will be impressed by the power of Tagore’s presence in Bangladesh and in India. His poetry as well as his novels, short stories, and essays are very widely read, and the songs he composed reverberate around the eastern part of India and throughout Bangladesh.

In contrast, in the rest of the world, especially in Europe and America, the excitement that Tagore’s writings created in the early years of this century has largely vanished. The enthusiasm with which his work was once greeted was quite remarkable. Gitanjali, a selection of his poetry for which he was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature in 1913, was published in English translation in London in March of that year and had been reprinted ten times by November, when the award was announced. But he is not much read now in the West, and already by 1937, Graham Greene was able to say: “As for Rabindranath Tagore, I cannot believe that anyone but Mr. Yeats can still take his poems very seriously.”

The contrast between Tagore’s commanding presence in Bengali literature and culture and his near-total eclipse in the rest of the world is perhaps less interesting than the distinction between the view of Tagore as a deeply relevant and many-sided contemporary thinker in Bangladesh and India, and his image in the West as a repetitive and remote spiritualist. Graham Greene had, in fact, gone on to explain that he associated Tagore “with what Chesterton calls ‘the bright pebbly eyes’ of the Theosophists.” Certainly, an air of mysticism played some part in the “selling” of Rabindranath Tagore to the West by Yeats, Pound, and his other early champions. Even Anna Akhmatova, one of Tagore’s few later admirers (who translated his poems into Russian in the mid-1960s), talks of “that mighty flow of poetry which takes its strength from Hinduism as from the Ganges, and is called Rabindranath Tagore.”

Rabindranath did come from a Hindu family—one of the landed gentry who owned estates mostly in what is now Bangladesh. But whatever wisdom there might be in Akhmatova’s invoking of Hinduism and the Ganges, it did not prevent the largely Muslim citizens of Bangladesh from having a deep sense of identity with Tagore and his ideas. Nor did it stop the newly independent Bangladesh from choosing one of Tagore’s songs (“Amar Sonar Bangla,” which means “my golden Bengal”) as its national anthem. This must be very confusing to those who see the contemporary world as a “clash of civilizations”—with “the Muslim civilization,” “the Hindu civilization,” and “the Western civilization,” each forcefully confronting the others.

They would also be confused by Rabindranath Tagore’s own description of his Bengali family as the product of “a confluence of three cultures, Hindu, Mohammedan and British.”1 Rabindranath’s grandfather, Dwarkanath, was well known for his command of Arabic and Persian, and Rabindranath grew up in a family atmosphere in which a deep knowledge of Sanskrit and ancient Hindu texts was combined with an understanding of Islamic traditions as well as Persian literature. It is not so much that Rabindranath tried to produce—or had an interest in producing—a “synthesis” of the different religions (as the great Moghul emperor Akbar tried hard to achieve) as that his outlook was persistently nonsectarian, and his writings—some two hundred books—show the influence of different parts of the Indian cultural background as well as of the rest of the world.2 Most of his work was written at Santiniketan (Abode of Peace), the small town that grew around the school he founded in Bengal in 1901. He not only conceived there an imaginative and innovative system of education—to which I will return—but, through his writings and his influence on students and teachers, he was able to use the school as a base from which he could take a major part in India’s social, political, and cultural movements.

The profoundly original writer whose elegant prose and magical poetry Bengali readers know well is not the sermonizing spiritual guru admired—and then rejected—in London. Tagore was not only an immensely versatile poet; he was also a great short story writer, novelist, playwright, essayist, and composer of songs, as well as a talented painter whose pictures, with their whimsical mixture of representation and abstraction, are only now beginning to receive the acclaim that they have long deserved. His essays, moreover, ranged over literature, politics, culture, social change, religious beliefs, philosophical analysis, international relations, and much else. The coincidence of the fiftieth anniversary of Indian independence with the publication of a selection of Tagore’s letters by Cambridge University Press3 is a good occasion to examine the nature of Tagore’s ideas and reflections, and the kind of leadership in thought and understanding he provided in the subcontinent in the first half of this century.


Gandhi and Tagore

Since Rabindranath Tagore and Mohandas Gandhi were two leading Indian thinkers in this century, many commentators have tried to compare their ideas. On learning of Rabindranath’s death, Jawaharlal Nehru, then incarcerated in a British jail in India, wrote in his prison diary for August 7, 1941:

Gandhi and Tagore. Two types entirely different from each other, and yet both of them typical of India, both in the long line of India’s great men…. It is not so much because of any single virtue but because of the tout ensemble, that I felt that among the world’s great men today Gandhi and Tagore were supreme as human beings. What good fortune for me to have come into close contact with them.

Romain Rolland was fascinated by the contrast between them, and when he completed his book on Gandhi, he wrote to an Indian academic, in March 1923: “I have finished my Gandhi, in which I pay tribute to your two great river-like souls, overflowing with divine spirit, Tagore and Gandhi.” The following month he recorded in his diary an account of some of the differences between Gandhi and Tagore written by Reverend C.F. Andrews, the English clergyman and public activist who was a close friend of both men (and whose important role in Gandhi’s life in South Africa as well as India is well portrayed in Richard Attenborough’s film Gandhi). Andrews described to Rolland a discussion between Tagore and Gandhi, at which he was present, on subjects that divided them:

The first subject of discussion was idols; Gandhi defended them, believing the masses incapable of raising themselves immediately to abstract ideas. Tagore cannot bear to see the people eternally treated as a child. Gandhi quoted the great things achieved in Europe by the flag as an idol; Tagore found it easy to object, but Gandhi held his ground, contrasting European flags bearing eagles, etc., with his own, on which he has put a spinning wheel. The second point of discussion was nationalism, which Gandhi defended. He said that one must go through nationalism to reach internationalism, in the same way that one must go through war to reach peace.4

Tagore greatly admired Gandhi but he had many disagreements with him on a variety of subjects, including nationalism, patriotism, the importance of cultural exchange, the role of rationality and of science, and the nature of economic and social development. These differences, I shall argue, have a clear and consistent pattern, with Tagore pressing for more room for reasoning, and for a less traditionalist view, a greater interest in the rest of the world, and more respect for science and for objectivity generally.

Rabindranath knew that he could not have given India the political leadership that Gandhi provided, and he was never stingy in his praise for what Gandhi did for the nation (it was, in fact, Tagore who popularized the term “Mahatma”—great soul—as a description of Gandhi). And yet each remained deeply critical of many things that the other stood for. That Mahatma Gandhi has received incomparably more attention outside India and also within much of India itself makes it important to understand “Tagore’s side” of the Gandhi-Tagore debates.

In his prison diary, Nehru wrote: “Perhaps it is as well that [Tagore] died now and did not see the many horrors that are likely to descend in increasing measure on the world and on India. He had seen enough and he was infinitely sad and unhappy.” Toward the end of his life, Tagore was indeed becoming discouraged about the state of India, especially as its normal burden of problems, such as hunger and poverty, was being supplemented by politically organized incitement to “communal” violence between Hindus and Muslims. This conflict would lead in 1947, six years after Tagore’s death, to the widespread killing that took place during partition; but there was much gore already during his declining days. In December 1939 he wrote to his friend Leonard Elmhirst, the English philanthropist and social reformer who had worked closely with him on rural reconstruction in India (and who had gone on to found the Dartington Hall Trust in England and a progressive school at Dartington that explicitly invoked Rabindranath’s educational ideals):5

It does not need a defeatist to feel deeply anxious about the future of millions who with all their innate culture and their peaceful traditions are being simultaneously subjected to hunger, disease, exploitations foreign and indigenous, and the seething discontents of communalism.

How would Tagore have viewed the India of today, we may well ask on the fiftieth anniversary of its independence in 1947? Would he see progress there, or wasted opportunity, perhaps even a betrayal of its promise and conviction? And, on a wider subject, how would he react to the spread of cultural separatism in the contemporary world?


East and West

Given the vast range of his creative achievements, perhaps the most astonishing aspect of the image of Tagore in the West is its narrowness; he is recurrently viewed as “the great mystic from the East,” an image with a putative message for the West, which some would welcome, others dislike, and still others find deeply boring. To a great extent this Tagore was the West’s own creation, part of its tradition of message-seeking from the East, particularly from India, which—as Hegel put it—had “existed for millennia in the imagination of the Europeans.”6 Friedrich Schlegel, Schelling, Herder, and Schopenhauer were only a few of the thinkers who followed the same pattern. They theorized, at first, that India was the source of superior wisdom. Schopenhauer at one stage even argued that the New Testament “must somehow be of Indian origin: this is attested by its completely Indian ethics, which transforms morals into asceticism, its pessimism, and its avatar,” in “the person of Christ.” But then they rejected their own theories with great vehemence, sometimes blaming India for not living up to their unfounded expectations.

  1. 1

    Rabindranath Tagore, The Religion of Man (London: Unwin, 1931, 2nd edition, 1961), p. 105. The extensive interactions between Hindu and Muslim parts of Indian culture (in religious beliefs, civic codes, painting, sculpture, literature, music, and astronomy) have been discussed by Kshiti Mohan Sen in Bharate Hindu Mushalmaner Jukto Sadhana (in Bengali) (Calcutta: Visva-Bharati, 1949, extended edition, 1990) and Hinduism (Penguin, 1960).

  2. 2

    Rabindranath’s father Debendranath had in fact joined the reformist religious group, the Brahmo Samaj, which rejected many contemporary Hindu practices as aberrations from the ancient Hindu texts.

  3. 3

    Selected Letters of Rabindranath Tagore, edited by Krishna Dutta and Andrew Robinson (Cambridge University Press, 1997). This essay draws on my Foreword to this collection. For important background material on Rabindranath Tagore and his reception in the West, see also the editors’ Rabindranath Tagore: The Myriad-Minded Man (St. Martin’s Press, 1995), and Rabindranath Tagore: An Anthology (Picador, 1997).

  4. 4

    See Romain Rolland and Gandhi Correspondence, with a Foreword by Jawaharlal Nehru (New Delhi: Government of India, 1976), pp.12-13.

  5. 5

    On Dartington Hall, the school, and the Elmhirsts, see Michael Young, The Elmhirsts of Dartington: The Creation of an Utopian Community (Routledge, 1982).

  6. 6

    I have tried to analyze these “exotic” approaches to India (along with other Western approaches) in “India and the West,” The New Republic, June 7, 1993, and in “Indian Traditions and the Western Imagination,” Daedalus, Spring 1997.

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