And His India
By Amartya Sen
Voice of Bengal
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
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 the twentieth 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, Ezra 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."
Confluence of Cultures
come from a Hindu familyone 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 songsthe "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
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 produceor had an interest in producinga
"synthesis" of the different religions (as the great Moghul
emperor Akbar tried hard to achieve) as that his outlook was persistently
non-sectarian, and his writingssome two hundred booksshow
the influence of different parts of the Indian cultural background as
well as of the rest of the world. 2
Abode of Peace
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, and he not only conceived
there an imaginative and innovative system of education, 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 admiredand then rejectedin
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 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
Press 3, brought Tagore's ideas and reflections to the fore, which makes
it important to examine what kind of leadership in thought and understanding
he provided in the Indian subcontinent in the first half of this century.
Gandhi and Tagore
Tagore and Mohandas Gandhi were two leading Indian thinkers in the twentieth
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:
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
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.
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
soulas 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? 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, whichas Hegel put ithad
"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.
We can imagine that
Rabindranath's physical appearancehandsome, bearded, dressed in
non-Western clothesmay, to some extent, have encouraged his being
seen as a carrier of exotic wisdom. Yasunari Kawabata, the first Japanese
Nobel Laureate in Literature, treasured memories from his middle-school
days of "this sage-like poet":
His white hair flowed
softly down both sides of his forehead; the tufts of hair under the
temples also were long like two beards, and linking up with the hair
on his cheeks, continued into his beard, so that he gave an impression,
to the boy I was then, of some ancient Oriental wizard.7
That appearance would have been well-suited to the selling of Tagore
in the West as a quintessentially mystical poet, and it could have made
it somewhat easier to pigeonhole him. Commenting on Rabindranath's appearance,
Frances Cornford told William Rothenstein, "I can now imagine a
powerful and gentle Christ, which I never could before." Beatrice
Webb, who did not like Tagore and resented what she took to be his "quite
obvious dislike of all that the Webbs stand for" (there is, in
fact, little evidence that Tagore had given much thought to this subject),
said that he was "beautiful to look at" and that "his
speech has the perfect intonation and slow chant-like moderation of
the dramatic saint." Ezra Pound and W. B. Yeats, among others,
first led the chorus of adoration in the Western appreciation of Tagore,
and then soon moved to neglect and even shrill criticism. The contrast
between Yeats's praise of his work in 1912 ("These lyrics
in their thought a world I have dreamed of all my life long," "the
work of a supreme culture") and his denunciation in 1935 ("Damn
Tagore") arose partly from the inability of Tagore's many-sided
writings to fit into the narrow box in which Yeats wanted to placeand
keephim. Certainly, Tagore did write a huge amount, and published
ceaselessly, even in English (sometimes in indifferent English translation),
but Yeats was also bothered, it is clear, by the difficulty of fitting
Tagore's later writings into the image Yeats had presented to the West.
Tagore, he had said, was the product of "a whole people, a whole
civilization, immeasurably strange to us," and yet "we have
met our own image,
or heard, perhaps for the first time in literature,
our voice as in a dream."8
Yeats did not totally
reject his early admiration (as Ezra Pound and several others did),
and he included some of Tagore's early poems in The Oxford Book of Modern
Verse, which he edited in 1936. Yeats also had some favorable things
to say about Tagore's prose writings. His censure of Tagore's later
poems was reinforced by his dislike of Tagore's own English translations
of his work ("Tagore does not know English, no Indian knows English,"
Yeats explained), unlike the English version of Gitanjali which Yeats
had himself helped to prepare. Poetry is, of course, notoriously difficult
to translate, and anyone who knows Tagore's poems in their original
Bengali cannot feel satisfied with any of the translations (made with
or without Yeats's help). Even the translations of his prose works suffer,
to some extent, from distortion. E.M. Forster noted, in a review of
a translation of one of Tagore's great Bengali novels, The Home and
the World, in 1919: "The theme is so beautiful," but the charms
have "vanished in translation," or perhaps "in an experiment
that has not quite come off."9
Tagore himself played
a somewhat bemused part in the boom and bust of his English reputation.
He accepted the extravagant praise with much surprise as well as pleasure,
and then received denunciations with even greater surprise, and barely
concealed pain. Tagore was sensitive to criticism, and was hurt by even
the most far-fetched accusations, such as the charge that he was getting
credit for the work of Yeats, who had "rewritten" Gitanjali.
(This charge was made by a correspondent for The Times, Sir Valentine
Chirol, whom E.M. Forster once described as "an old Anglo-Indian
reactionary hack.") From time to time Tagore also protested the
crudity of some of his overexcited advocates. He wrote to C.F. Andrews
in 1920: "These people
are like drunkards who are afraid of
their lucid intervals."
God and Others
Yeats was not wrong to see a large religious element in Tagore's writings.
He certainly had interesting and arresting things to say about life
and death. Susan Owen, the mother of Wilfred Owen, wrote to Rabindranath
in 1920, describing her last conversations with her son before he left
for the war which would take his life. Wilfred said goodbye with "those
wonderful words of yoursbeginning at 'When I go from hence, let
this be my parting word.'" When Wilfred's pocket notebook was returned
to his mother, she found "these words written in his dear writingwith
your name beneath."
The idea of a direct,
joyful, and totally fearless relationship with God can be found in many
of Tagore's religious writings, including the poems of Gitanjali. From
India's diverse religious traditions he drew many ideas, both from ancient
texts and from popular poetry. But "the bright pebbly eyes of the
Theosophists" do not stare out of his verses. Despite the archaic
language of the original translation of Gitanjali, which did not, I
believe, help to preserve the simplicity of the original, its elementary
humanity comes through more clearly than any complex and intense spirituality:
Leave this chanting
and singing and telling of beads! Whom dost thou worship in this lonely
dark corner of a temple with doors all shut?
Open thine eyes and see thy God is not before thee!
He is there where the tiller is tilling the hard ground and where the
pathmaker is breaking stones.
He is with them in sun and in shower, and his garment is covered with
An ambiguity about religious experience is central to many of Tagore's
devotional poems, and makes them appeal to readers irrespective of their
beliefs; but excessively detailed interpretation can ruinously strip
away that ambiguity.10 This applies particularly to his many poems which
combine images of human love and those of pious devotion. Tagore writes:
I have no sleep
to-night. Ever and again I open my door and look out on the darkness,
I can see nothing before me. I wonder where lies thy path!
By what dim shore of the ink-black river, by what far edge of the frowning
forest, through what mazy depth of gloom, art thou threading thy course
to come to see me, my friend?
I suppose it could be helpful to be told, as Yeats hastens to explain,
that "the servant or the bride awaiting the master's home-coming
in the empty house" is "among the images of the heart turning
to God." But in Yeats's considerate attempt to make sure that the
reader does not miss the "main point," something of the enigmatic
beauty of the Bengali poem is lost - even what had survived the antiquated
language of the English translation. Tagore certainly had strongly held
religious beliefs (of an unusually nondenominational kind), but he was
interested in a great many other things as well and had many different
things to say about them.
Some of the ideas
he tried to present were directly political, and they figure rather
prominently in his letters and lectures. He had practical, plainly expressed
views about nationalism, war and peace, cross-cultural education, freedom
of the mind, the importance of rational criticism, the need for openness,
and so on. His admirers in the West, however, were tuned to the more
otherworldly themes which had been emphasized by his first Western patrons.
People came to his public lectures in Europe and America, expecting
ruminations on grand, transcendental themes; when they heard instead
his views on the way public leaders should behave, there was some resentment,
particularly (as E.P. Thompson reports) when he delivered political
criticism "at $700 a scold."
For Tagore it was
of the highest importance that people be able to live, and reason, in
freedom. His attitudes toward politics and culture, nationalism and
internationalism, tradition and modernity, can all be seen in the light
of this belief.11 Nothing, perhaps, expresses his values as clearly
as a poem in Gitanjali:
Where the mind is
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 the clear stream of reason
has not lost its way into the
dreary desert sand of dead habit; ...
Into that heaven of freedom,
my Father, let my country awake.
support for nationalist movementsand his opposition to the unfreedom
of alien rulecame from this commitment. So did his reservations
about patriotism, which, he argued, can limit both the freedom to engage
ideas from outside "narrow domestic walls" and the freedom
also to support the causes of people in other countries. Rabindranath's
passion for freedom underlies his firm opposition to unreasoned traditionalism,
which makes one a prisoner of the past (lost, as he put it, in "the
dreary desert sand of dead habit").
the tyranny of the past in his amusing yet deeply serious parable "Kartar
Bhoot" ("The Ghost of the Leader"). As the respected
leader of an imaginary land is about to die, his panic-stricken followers
request him to stay on after his death to instruct them on what to do.
He consents. But his followers find their lives are full of rituals
and constraints on everyday behavior and are not responsive to the world
around them. Ultimately, they request the ghost of the leader to relieve
them of his domination, when he informs them that he exists only in
Tagore's deep aversion
to any commitment to the past that could not be modified by contemporary
reason extended even to the alleged virtue of invariably keeping past
promises. On one occasion when Mahatma Gandhi visited Tagore's school
at Santiniketan, a young woman got him to sign her autograph book. Gandhi
wrote: "Never make a promise in haste. Having once made it fulfill
it at the cost of your life." When he saw this entry, Tagore became
agitated. He wrote in the same book a short poem in Bengali to the effect
that no one can be made "a prisoner forever with a chain of clay."
He went on to conclude in English, possibly so that Gandhi could read
it too, "Fling away your promise if it is found to be wrong."12
Tagore had the greatest
admiration for Mahatma Gandhi as a person and as a political leader,
but he was also highly skeptical of Gandhi's form of nationalism and
his conservative instincts regarding the country's past traditions.
He never criticized Gandhi personally. In the 1938 essay, "Gandhi
the Man," he wrote:
Great as he is as
a politician, as an organizer, as a leader of men, as a moral reformer,
he is greater than all these as a man, because none of these aspects
and activities limits his humanity. They are rather inspired and sustained
And yet there is a deep division between the two men. Tagore was explicit
about his disagreement:
We who often glorify
our tendency to ignore reason, installing in its place blind faith,
valuing it as spiritual, are ever paying for its cost with the obscuration
of our mind and destiny. I blamed Mahatmaji for exploiting this irrational
force of credulity in our people, which might have had a quick result
[in creating] a superstructure, while sapping the foundation. Thus began
my estimate of Mahatmaji, as the guide of our nation, and it is fortunate
for me that it did not end there.
But while it "did not end there," that difference of vision
was a powerful divider. Tagore, for example, remained unconvinced of
the merit of Gandhi's forceful advocacy that everyone should spin at
home with the "charka," the primitive spinning wheel. For
Gandhi this practice was an important part of India's self-realization.
"The spinning-wheel gradually became," as his biographer B.R.
Nanda writes, "the center of rural uplift in the Gandhian scheme
of Indian economics."13 Tagore found the alleged economic rationale
for this scheme quite unrealistic. As Romain Rolland noted, Rabindranath
"never tires of criticizing the charka." In this economic
judgment, Tagore was probably right. Except for the rather small specialized
market for high-quality spun cloth, it is hard to make economic sense
of hand-spinning, even with wheels less primitive than Gandhi's charka.
Hand-spinning as a widespread activity can survive only with the help
of heavy government subsidies.14 However, Gandhi's advocacy of the charka
was not based only on economics. He wanted everyone to spin for "thirty
minutes every day as a sacrifice," seeing this as a way for people
who are better off to identify themselves with the less fortunate. He
was impatient with Tagore's refusal to grasp this point:
The poet lives for
the morrow, and would have us do likewise
. "Why should I,
who have no need to work for food, spin?" may be the question asked.
Because I am eating what does not belong to me. I am living on the spoliation
of my countrymen. Trace the source of every coin that finds its way
into your pocket, and you will realise the truth of what I write. Every
one must spin. Let Tagore spin like the others. Let him burn his foreign
clothes; that is the duty today. God will take care of the morrow.15
If Tagore had missed something in Gandhi's argument, so did Gandhi miss
the point of Tagore's main criticism. It was not only that the charka
made little economic sense, but also, Tagore thought, that it was not
the way to make people reflect on anything: "The charka does not
require anyone to think; one simply turns the wheel of the antiquated
invention endlessly, using the minimum of judgment and stamina."
Tagore and Gandhi's
attitudes toward personal life were also quite different. Gandhi was
keen on the virtues of celibacy, theorized about it, and, after some
years of conjugal life, made a private commitmentpublicly announcedto
refrain from sleeping with his wife. Rabindranath's own attitude on
this subject was very different, but he was gentle about their disagreements:
sexual life as inconsistent with the moral progress of man, and has
a horror of sex as great as that of the author of The Kreutzer Sonata,
but, unlike Tolstoy, he betrays no abhorrence of the sex that tempts
his kind. In fact, his tenderness for women is one of the noblest and
most consistent traits of his character, and he counts among the women
of his country some of his best and truest comrades in the great movement
he is leading.
life was, in many ways, an unhappy one. He married in 1883, lost his
wife in 1902, and never remarried. He sought close companionship, which
he did not always get (perhaps even during his married lifehe
wrote to his wife, Mrinalini: "If you and I could be comrades in
all our work and in all our thoughts it would be splendid, but we cannot
attain all that we desire"). He maintained a warm friendship with,
and a strong Platonic attachment to, the literature-loving wife, Kadambari,
of his elder brother, Jyotirindranath. He dedicated some poems to her
before his marriage, and several books afterward, some after her death
(she committed suicide, for reasons that are not fully understood, at
the age of twenty-five, four months after Rabindranath's wedding). Much
later in life, during his tour of Argentina in 1924-1925, Rabindranath
came to know the talented and beautiful Victoria Ocampo, who later became
the publisher of the literary magazine Sur. They became close friends,
but it appears that Rabindranath deflected the possibility of a passionate
relationship into a confined intellectual one.16 His friend Leonard
Elmhirst, who accompanied Rabindranath on his Argentine tour, wrote:
Besides having a
keen intellectual understanding of his books, she was in love with himbut
instead of being content to build a friendship on the basis of intellect,
she was in a hurry to establish that kind of proprietary right over
him which he absolutely would not brook.
Ocampo and Elmhirst, while remaining friendly, were both quite rude
in what they wrote about each other. Ocampo's book on Tagore (of which
a Bengali translation was made from the Spanish by the distinguished
poet and critic Shankha Ghosh) is primarily concerned with Tagore's
writings but also discusses the pleasures and difficulties of their
relationship, giving quite a different account from Elmhirst's, and
never suggesting any sort of proprietary intentions.
however, makes it clear that she very much wanted to get physically
closer to Rabindranath: "Little by little he [Tagore] partially
tamed the young animal, by turns wild and docile, who did not sleep,
dog-like, on the floor outside his door, simply because it was not done."17
Rabindranath, too, was clearly very much attracted to her. He called
her "Vijaya" (the Sanskrit equivalent of Victoria), dedicated
a book of poems to her, Purabian "evening melody," and
expressed great admiration for her mind ("like a star that was
distant"). In a letter to her he wrote, as if to explain his own
When we were together,
we mostly played with words and tried to laugh away our best opportunities
to see each other clearly ... Whenever there is the least sign of the
nest becoming a jealous rival of the sky [,] my mind, like a migrant
bird, tries to take ... flight to a distant shore.
Five years later, during Tagore's European tour in 1930, he sent her
a cable: "Will you not come and see me." She did. But their
relationship did not seem to go much beyond conversation, and their
somewhat ambiguous correspondence continued over the years. Written
in 1940, a year before his death at eighty, one of the poems in Sesh
Lekha ("Last Writings"), seems to be about her: "How
I wish I could once again find my way to that foreign land where waits
for me the message of love!/
Her language I knew not, but what
her eyes said will forever remain eloquent in its anguish."18 However
indecisive, or confused, or awkward Rabindranath may have been, he certainly
did not share Mahatma Gandhi's censorious views of sex. In fact, when
it came to social policy, he advocated contraception and family planning
while Gandhi preferred abstinence.
Science and the
Gandhi and Tagore
severely clashed over their totally different attitudes toward science.
In January 1934, Bihar was struck by a devastating earthquake, which
killed thousands of people. Gandhi, who was then deeply involved in
the fight against untouchability (the barbaric system inherited from
India's divisive past, in which "lowly people" were kept at
a physical distance), extracted a positive lesson from the tragic event.
"A man like me," Gandhi argued, "cannot but believe this
earthquake is a divine chastisement sent by God for our sins" in
particular the sins of untouchability. "For me there is a vital
connection between the Bihar calamity and the untouchability campaign."
Tagore, who equally
abhorred untouchability and had joined Gandhi in the movements against
it, protested against this interpretation of an event that had caused
suffering and death to so many innocent people, including children and
babies. He also hated the epistemology implicit in seeing an earthquake
as caused by ethical failure. "It is," he wrote, "all
the more unfortunate because this kind of unscientific view of [natural]
phenomena is too readily accepted by a large section of our countrymen."
The two remained
deeply divided over their attitudes toward science. However, while Tagore
believed that modern science was essential to the understanding of physical
phenomena, his views on epistemology were interestingly heterodox. He
did not take the simple "realist" position often associated
with modern science. The report of his conversation with Einstein, published
in The New York Times in 1930, shows how insistent Tagore was on interpreting
truth through observation and reflective concepts. To assert that something
is true or untrue in the absence of anyone to observe or perceive its
truth, or to form a conception of what it is, appeared to Tagore to
be deeply questionable. When Einstein remarked, "If there were
no human beings any more, the Apollo Belvedere no longer would be beautiful?"
Tagore simply replied, "No." Going furtherand into much
more interesting territoryEinstein said, "I agree with regard
to this conception of beauty, but not with regard to truth." Tagore's
response was: "Why not? Truth is realized through men."19
which he never pursued systematically, would seem to be searching for
a line of reasoning that would later be elegantly developed by Hilary
Putnam, who has argued: "Truth depends on conceptual schemes and
it is nonetheless 'real truth.'"20 Tagore himself said little to
explain his convictions, but it is important to take account of his
heterodoxy, not only because his speculations were invariably interesting,
but also because they illustrate how his support for any position, including
his strong interest in science, was accompanied by critical scrutiny.
Tagore was predictably
hostile to communal sectarianism (such as a Hindu orthodoxy that was
antagonistic to Islamic, Christian, or Sikh perspectives). But even
nationalism seemed to him to be suspect. Isaiah Berlin summarizes well
Tagore's complex position on Indian nationalism:
Tagore stood fast
on the narrow causeway, and did not betray his vision of the difficult
truth. He condemned romantic overattachment to the past, what he called
the tying of India to the past "like a sacrificial goat tethered
to a post," and he accused men who displayed it - they seemed to
him reactionary - of not knowing what true political freedom was, pointing
out that it is from English thinkers and English books that the very
notion of political liberty was derived. But against cosmopolitanism
he maintained that the English stood on their own feet, and so must
Indians. In 1917 he once more denounced the danger of leaving
everything to the unalterable will of the Master,' be he brahmin or
The duality Berlin points to is well reflected also in Tagore's attitude
toward cultural diversity. He wanted Indians to learn what is going
on elsewhere, how others lived, what they valued, and so on, while remaining
interested and involved in their own culture and heritage. Indeed, in
his educational writings the need for synthesis is strongly stressed.
It can also be found in his advice to Indian students abroad. In 1907
he wrote to his son-in-law Nagendranath Gangulee, who had gone to America
to study agriculture:
To get on familiar
terms with the local people is a part of your education. To know only
agriculture is not enough; you must know America too. Of course if,
in the process of knowing America, one begins to lose one's identity
and falls into the trap of becoming an Americanised person contemptuous
of everything Indian, it is preferable to stay in a locked room.
Tagore was strongly involved in protest against the Raj on a number
of occasions, most notably in the movement to resist the 1905 British
proposal to split in two the province of Bengal, a plan that was eventually
withdrawn following popular resistance. He was forthright in denouncing
the brutality of British rule in India, never more so than after the
Amritsar massacre of April 13, 1919, when 379 unarmed people at a peaceful
meeting were gunned down by the army, and two thousand more were wounded.
Between April 23 and 26, Rabindranath wrote five agitated letters to
C.F. Andrews, who himself was extremely disturbed, especially after
he was told by a British civil servant in India that thanks to this
show of strength, the "moral prestige" of the Raj had "never
A month after the
massacre, Tagore wrote to the Viceroy of India, asking to be relieved
of the knighthood he had accepted four years earlier:
severity of the punishments inflicted upon the unfortunate people and
the methods of carrying them out, we are convinced, are without parallel
in the history of civilized governments, barring some conspicuous exceptions,
recent and remote. Considering that such treatment has been meted out
to a population, disarmed and resourceless, by a power which has the
most terribly efficient organisation for destruction of human lives,
we must strongly assert that it can claim no political expediency, far
less moral justification.... The universal agony of indignation roused
in the hearts of our people has been ignored by our rulers - possibly
congratulating themselves for imparting what they imagine as salutary
. I for my part want to stand, shorn of all special distinctions,
by the side of those of my countrymen who for their so-called insignificance
are liable to suffer a degradation not fit for human beings.
Both Gandhi and
Nehru expressed their appreciation of the important part Tagore took
in the national struggle. It is fitting that after independence, India
chose a song of Tagore ("Jana Gana Mana Adhinayaka," which
can be roughly translated as "the leader of people's minds")
as its national anthem. Since Bangladesh would later choose another
song of Tagore ("Amar Sonar Bangla") as its national anthem,
he may be the only one ever to have authored the national anthems of
two different countries.
of the British administration of India was consistently strong and grew
more intense over the years. This point is often missed, since he made
a special effort to dissociate his criticism of the Raj from any denigration
of Britishor Westernpeople and culture. Mahatma Gandhi's
well-known quip in reply to a question, asked in England, on what he
thought of Western civilization ("It would be a good idea")
could not have come from Tagore's lips. He would understand the provocations
to which Gandhi was responding - involving cultural conceit as well
as imperial tyranny. D.H. Lawrence supplied a fine example of the former:
"I become more and more surprised to see how far higher, in reality,
our European civilization stands than the East, Indian and Persian,
ever dreamed of
. This fraud of looking up to themthis wretched
worship-of-Tagore attitude is disgusting." But, unlike Gandhi,
Tagore could not, even in jest, be dismissive of Western civilization.
Even in his powerful
indictment of British rule in India in 1941, in a lecture which he gave
on his last birthday, and which was later published as a pamphlet under
the title Crisis in Civilization, he strains hard to maintain the distinction
between opposing Western imperialism and rejecting Western civilization.
While he saw India as having been "smothered under the dead weight
of British administration" (adding "another great and ancient
civilization for whose recent tragic history the British cannot disclaim
responsibility is China"), Tagore recalls what India has gained
from "discussions centred upon Shakespeare's drama and Byron's
poetry and above all
the large-hearted liberalism of nineteenth-century
English politics." The tragedy, as Tagore saw it, came from the
fact that what "was truly best in their own civilization, the upholding
of dignity of human relationships, has no place in the British administration
of this country." "If in its place they have established,
baton in hand, a reign of 'law and order,' or in other words a policeman's
rule, such a mockery of civilization can claim no respect from us."
Critique of Patriotism
against the strongly nationalist form that the independence movement
often took, and this made him refrain from taking a particularly active
part in contemporary politics. He wanted to assert India's right to
be independent without denying the importance of what India could learnfreely
and profitablyfrom abroad. He was afraid that a rejection of the
West in favor of an indigenous Indian tradition was not only limiting
in itself; it could easily turn into hostility to other influences from
abroad, including Christianity, which came to parts of India by the
fourth century; Judaism, which came through Jewish immigration shortly
after the fall of Jerusalem, as did Zoroastrianism through Parsi immigration
later on (mainly in the eighth century), and, of courseand most
importantlyIslam, which has had a very strong presence in India
since the tenth century.
of patriotism is a persistent theme in his writings. As early as 1908,
he put his position succinctly in a letter replying to the criticism
of Abala Bose, the wife of a great Indian scientist, Jagadish Chandra
Bose: "Patriotism cannot be our final spiritual shelter; my refuge
is humanity. I will not buy glass for the price of diamonds, and I will
never allow patriotism to triumph over humanity as long as I live."
His novel Ghare Baire (The Home and the World) has much to say about
this theme. In the novel, Nikhil, who is keen on social reform, including
women's liberation, but cool toward nationalism, gradually loses the
esteem of his spirited wife, Bimala, because of his failure to be enthusiastic
about anti-British agitations, which she sees as a lack of patriotic
commitment. Bimala becomes fascinated with Nikhil's nationalist friend
Sandip, who speaks brilliantly and acts with patriotic militancy, and
she falls in love with him. Nikhil refuses to change his views: "I
am willing to serve my country; but my worship I reserve for Right which
is far greater than my country. To worship my country as a god is to
bring a curse upon it."22
As the story unfolds,
Sandip becomes angry with some of his countrymen for their failure to
join the struggle as readily as he thinks they should ("Some Mohamedan
traders are still obdurate"). He arranges to deal with the recalcitrants
by burning their meager trading stocks and physically attacking them.
Bimala has to acknowledge the connection between Sandip's rousing nationalistic
sentiments and his sectarian - and ultimately violent-actions. The dramatic
events that follow (Nikhil attempts to help the victims, risking his
life) include the end of Bimala's political romance.
This is a difficult
subject, and Satyajit Ray's beautiful film of The Home and the World
brilliantly brings out the novel's tensions, along with the human affections
and disaffections of the story. Not surprisingly, the story has had
many detractors, not just among dedicated nationalists in India. Georg
Lukács found Tagore's novel to be "a petit bourgeois yarn
of the shoddiest kind," "at the intellectual service of the
British police," and "a contemptible caricature of Gandhi."
It would, of course, be absurd to think of Sandip as Gandhi, but the
novel gives a "strong and gentle" warning, as Bertolt Brecht
noted in his diary, of the corruptibility of nationalism, since it is
not even-handed. Hatred of one group can lead to hatred of others, no
matter how far such feeling may be from the minds of large-hearted nationalist
leaders like Mahatma Gandhi.
Criticism of Japan
to nationalism in Japan is particularly telling. As in the case of India,
he saw the need to build the self-confidence of a defeated and humiliated
people, of people left behind by developments elsewhere, as was the
case in Japan before its emergence during the nineteenth century. At
the beginning of one of his lectures in Japan in 1916 ("Nationalism
in Japan"), he observed that "the worst form of bondage is
the bondage of dejection, which keeps men hopelessly chained in loss
of faith in themselves." Tagore shared the admiration for Japan
widespread in Asia for demonstrating the ability of an Asian nation
to rival the West in industrial development and economic progress. He
noted with great satisfaction that Japan had "in giant strides
left centuries of inaction behind, overtaking the present time in its
foremost achievement." For other nations outside the West, he said,
Japan "has broken the spell under which we lay in torpor for ages,
taking it to be the normal condition of certain races living in certain
But then Tagore
went on to criticize the rise of a strong nationalism in Japan, and
its emergence as an imperialist nation. Tagore's outspoken criticisms
did not please Japanese audiences and, as E.P. Thompson wrote, "the
welcome given to him on his first arrival soon cooled."23 Twenty-two
years later, in 1937, during the Japanese war on China, Tagore received
a letter from Rash Behari Bose, an anti-British Indian revolutionary
then living in Japan, who sought Tagore's approval for his efforts there
on behalf of Indian independence, in which he had the support of the
Japanese government. Tagore replied:
Your cable has caused
me many restless hours, for it hurts me very much to have to ignore
your appeal. I wish you had asked for my cooperation in a cause against
which my spirit did not protest. I know, in making this appeal, you
counted on my great regard for the Japanese for I, along with the rest
of Asia, did once admire and look up to Japan and did once fondly hope
that in Japan Asia had at last discovered its challenge to the West,
that Japan's new strength would be consecrated in safeguarding the culture
of the East against alien interests. But Japan has not taken long to
betray that rising hope and repudiate all that seemed significant in
her wonderful, and, to us symbolic, awakening, and has now become itself
a worse menace to the defenceless peoples of the East.
How to view Japan's
position in the Second World War was a divisive issue in India. After
the war, when Japanese political leaders were tried for war crimes,
the sole dissenting voice among the judges came from the Indian judge,
Radhabinod Pal, a distinguished jurist. Pal dissented on various grounds,
among them that no fair trial was possible in view of the asymmetry
of power between the victor and the defeated. Ambivalent feelings in
India toward the Japanese military aggression, given the unacceptable
nature of British imperialism, possibly had a part in predisposing Pal
to consider a perspective different from that of the other judges.
Subhas Chandra Bose (no relation of Rash Behari Bose), a leading nationalist,
made his way to Japan during the war via Italy and Germany after escaping
from a British prison; he helped the Japanese to form units of Indian
soldiers, who had earlier surrendered to the advancing Japanese army,
to fight on the Japanese side as the "Indian National Army."
Rabindranath had formerly entertained great admiration for Subhas Bose
as a dedicated nonsectarian fighter for Indian independence.24 But their
ways would have parted when Bose's political activities took this turn,
although Tagore was dead by the time Bose reached Japan.
Tagore saw Japanese
militarism as illustrating the way nationalism can mislead even a nation
of great achievement and promise. In 1938 Yone Noguchi, the distinguished
poet and friend of Tagore (as well as of Yeats and Pound), wrote to
Tagore, pleading with him to change his mind about Japan. Rabindranath's
reply, written on September 12, 1938, was altogether uncompromising:
It seems to me that
it is futile for either of us to try to convince the other, since your
faith in the infallible right of Japan to bully other Asiatic nations
into line with your Government's policy is not shared by me
me, it is sorrow and shame, not anger, that prompt me to write to you.
I suffer intensely not only because the reports of Chinese suffering
batter against my heart, but because I can no longer point out with
pride the example of a great Japan.
He would have been much happier with the postwar emergence of Japan
as a peaceful power. Then, too, since he was not free of egotism, he
would also have been pleased by the attention paid to his ideas by the
novelist Yasunari Kawabata and others.25
Tagore was not invariably
well-informed about international politics. He allowed himself to be
entertained by Mussolini in a short visit to Italy in May-June 1926,
a visit arranged by Carlo Formichi, professor of Sanskrit at the University
of Rome. When he asked to meet Benedetto Croce, Formichi said, "Impossible!
Impossible!" Mussolini told him that Croce was "not in Rome."
When Tagore said he would go "wherever he is," Mussolini assured
him that Croce's whereabouts were unknown.
as well as warnings from Romain Rolland and other friends, should have
ended Tagore's flirtation with Mussolini more quickly than it did. But
only after he received graphic accounts of the brutality of Italian
fascism from two exiles, Gaetano Salvemini and Gaetano Salvadori, and
learned more of what was happening in Italy, did he publicly denounce
the regime, publishing a letter to the Manchester Guardian in August.
The next month, Popolo d'Italia, the magazine edited by Benito Mussolini's
brother, replied: "Who cares? Italy laughs at Tagore and those
who brought this unctuous and insupportable fellow in our midst."
With his high expectations
of Britain, Tagore continued to be surprised by what he took to be a
lack of official sympathy for international victims of aggression. He
returned to this theme in the lecture he gave on his last birthday,
While Japan was
quietly devouring North China, her act of wanton aggression was ignored
as a minor incident by the veterans of British diplomacy. We have also
witnessed from this distance how actively the British statesmen acquiesced
in the destruction of the Spanish Republic.
But distinguishing between the British government and the British people,
Rabindranath went on to note "with admiration how a band of valiant
Englishmen laid down their lives for Spain."
Tagore's view of
the Soviet Union has been a subject of much discussion. He was widely
read in Russia. In 1917 several Russian translations of Gitanjali (one
edited by Ivan Bunin, later the first Russian Nobel Laureate in Literature)
were available, and by the late 1920s many of the English versions of
his work had been rendered into Russian by several distinguished translators.
Russian versions of his work continued to appear: Boris Pasternak translated
him in the 1950s and 1960s.
When Tagore visited
Russia in 1930, he was much impressed by its development efforts and
by what he saw as a real commitment to eliminate poverty and economic
inequality. But what impressed him most was the expansion of basic education
across the old Russian empire. In Letters from Russia, written in Bengali
and published in 1931, he unfavorably compares the acceptance of widespread
illiteracy in India by the British administration with Russian efforts
to expand education:
In stepping on the
soil of Russia, the first thing that caught my eye was that in education,
at any rate, the peasant and the working classes have made such enormous
progress in these few years that nothing comparable has happened even
to our highest classes in the course of the last hundred and fifty years
The people here are not at all afraid of giving complete education even
to Turcomans of distant Asia; on the contrary, they are utterly in earnest
about it. 26
When parts of the book were translated into English in 1934, the under-secretary
for India stated in Parliament that it was "calculated by distortion
of the facts to bring the British Administration in India into contempt
and disrepute," and the book was then promptly banned. The English
version would not be published until after independence.
The British Indian
administrators were not, however, alone in trying to suppress Tagore's
reflections on Russia. They were joined by Soviet officials. In an interview
with Izvestia in 1930, Tagore sharply criticized the lack of freedom
that he observed in Russia:
I must ask you:
Are you doing your ideal a service by arousing in the minds of those
under your training anger, class-hatred, and revengefulness against
those whom you consider to be your enemies?
Freedom of mind is
needed for the reception of truth; terror hopelessly kills it
For the sake of humanity I hope you may never create a vicious force
of violence, which will go on weaving an interminable chain of violence
. You have tried to destroy many of the other evils
of [the czarist] period. Why not try to destroy this one also?
The interview was not published in Izvestia until 1988nearly sixty
years later.27 Tagore's reaction to the Russia of 1930 arose from two
of his strongest commitments: his uncompromising belief in the importance
of "freedom of mind" (the source of his criticism of the Soviet
Union), and his conviction that the expansion of basic education is
central to social progress (the source of his praise, particularly in
contrast to British-run India). He identified the lack of basic education
as the fundamental cause of many of India's social and economic afflictions:
In my view the imposing
tower of misery which today rests on the heart of India has its sole
foundation in the absence of education. Caste divisions, religious conflicts,
aversion to work, precarious economic conditions - all centre on this
It was on education (and on the reflection, dialogue, and communication
that are associated with it), rather than on, say, spinning "as
a sacrifice" ("the charka does not require anyone to think"),
that the future of India would depend.
Tagore was concerned
not only that there be wider opportunities for education across the
country (especially in rural areas where schools were few), but also
that the schools themselves be more lively and enjoyable. He himself
had dropped out of school early, largely out of boredom, and had never
bothered to earn a diploma. He wrote extensively on how schools should
be made more attractive to boys and girls and thus more productive.
His own co-educational school at Santiniketan had many progressive features.
The emphasis here was on self-motivation rather than on discipline,
and on fostering intellectual curiosity rather than competitive excellence.
Much of Rabindranath's
life was spent in developing the school at Santiniketan. The school
never had much money, since the fees were very low. His lecture honoraria,
"$700 a scold," went to support it, as well as most of his
Nobel Prize money. The school received no support from the government,
but did get help from private citizenseven Mahatma Gandhi raised
money for it.
The dispute with
Mahatma Gandhi on the Bihar earthquake touched on a subject that was
very important to Tagore: the need for education in science as well
as in literature and the humanities. At Santiniketan, there were strong
"local" elements in its emphasis on Indian traditions, including
the classics, and in the use of Bengali rather than English as the language
of instruction. At the same time there were courses on a great variety
of cultures, and study programs devoted to China, Japan, and the Middle
East. Many foreigners came to Santiniketan to study or teach, and the
fusion of studies seemed to work.
I am partial to
seeing Tagore as an educator, having myself been educated at Santiniketan.
The school was unusual in many different ways, such as the oddity that
classes, excepting those requiring a laboratory, were held outdoors
(whenever the weather permitted). No matter what we thought of Rabindranath's
belief that one gains from being in a natural setting while learning
(some of us argued about this theory), we typically found the experience
of outdoor schooling extremely attractive and pleasant. Academically,
our school was not particularly exacting (often we did not have any
examinations at all), and it could not, by the usual academic standards,
compete with some of the better schools in Calcutta. But there was something
remarkable about the ease with which class discussions could move from
Indian traditional literature to contemporary as well as classical Western
thought, and then to the culture of China or Japan or elsewhere. The
school's celebration of variety was also in sharp contrast with the
cultural conservatism and separatism that has tended to grip India from
time to time.
The cultural give and take of Tagore's vision of the contemporary world
has close parallels with the vision of Satyajit Ray, also an alumnus
of Santiniketan who made several films based on Tagore's stories.28
Ray's words about Santiniketan in 1991 would have greatly pleased Rabindranath:
I consider the three
years I spent in Santiniketan as the most fruitful of my life
Santiniketan opened my eyes for the first time to the splendours of
Indian and Far Eastern art. Until then I was completely under the sway
of Western art, music and literature. Santiniketan made me the combined
product of East and West that I am.29
At the fiftieth
anniversary of Indian independence, the reckoning of what India had
or had not achieved in this half century was a subject of considerable
interest: "What has been the story of those first fifty years?"
(as Shashi Tharoor asked in his balanced, informative, and highly readable
account of India: From Midnight to the Millennium).30 If Tagore were
to see the India of today, more than half a century after independence,
nothing perhaps would shock him so much as the continued illiteracy
of the masses. He would see this as a total betrayal of what the nationalist
leaders had promised during the struggle for independencea promise
that had figured even in Nehru's rousing speech on the eve of independence
in August 1947 (on India's "tryst with destiny").
In view of his interest
in childhood education, Tagore would not be consoled by the extraordinary
expansion of university education, in which India sends to its universities
six times as many people per unit of population as does China. Rather,
he would be stunned that, in contrast to East and Southeast Asia, including
China, half the adult population and two thirds of Indian women remain
unable to read or write. Statistically reliable surveys indicate that
even in the late 1980s, nearly half of the rural girls between the ages
of twelve and fourteen did not attend any school for a single day of
This state of affairs
is the result of the continuation of British imperial neglect of mass
education, which has been reinforced by India's traditional elitism,
as well as upper-class-dominated contemporary politics (except in parts
of India such as Kerala, where anti-upper-caste movements have tended
to concentrate on education as a great leveller). Tagore would see illiteracy
and the neglect of education not only as the main source of India's
continued social backwardness, but also as a great constraint that restricts
the possibility and reach of economic development in India (as his writings
on rural development forcefully make clear). Tagore would also have
strongly felt the need for a greater commitmentand a greater sense
of urgencyin removing endemic poverty.
At the same time,
Tagore would undoubtedly find some satisfaction in the survival of democracy
in India, in its relatively free press, and in general from the "freedom
of mind" that post-independence Indian politics has, on the whole,
managed to maintain. He would also be pleased by the fact noted by the
historian E.P. Thompson (whose father Edward Thompson had written one
of the first major biographies of Tagore:32
All the convergent
influences of the world run through this society: Hindu, Moslem, Christian,
secular; Stalinist, liberal, Maoist, democratic socialist, Gandhian.
There is not a thought that is being thought in the West or East that
is not active in some Indian mind.33
Tagore would have been happy also to see that the one governmental attempt
to dispense generally with basic liberties and political and civil rights
in India, in the 1970s, when Prime Minister Indira Gandhi (ironically,
herself a former student at Santiniketan) declared an "emergency,"
was overwhelmingly rejected by the Indian voters, leading to the precipitate
fall of her government.
also see that the changes in policy that have eliminated famine since
independence had much to do with the freedom to be heard in a democratic
India. In Tagore's play Raja O Rani ("The King and the Queen"),
the sympathetic Queen eventually rebels against the callousness of state
policy toward the hungry. She begins by inquiring about the ugly sounds
outside the palace, only to be told that the noise is coming from "the
coarse, clamorous crowd who howl unashamedly for food and disturb the
sweet peace of the palace." The Viceregal office in India could
have taken a similarly callous view of Indian famines, right up to the
easily preventable Bengal famine of 1943, just before independence,
which killed between two and three million people. But a government
in a multi-party democracy, with elections and free newspapers, cannot
any longer dismiss the noise from "the coarse, clamorous crowd."34
Rabindranath would not resent the development of modern industries in
India, or the acceleration of technical progress, since he did not want
India to be shackled to the turning of "the wheel of an antiquated
invention." Tagore was concerned that people not be dominated by
machines, but he was not opposed to making good use of modern technology.
"The mastery over the machine," he wrote in Crisis in Civilization,
"by which the British have consolidated their sovereignty over
their vast empire, has been kept a sealed book, to which due access
has been denied to this helpless country." Rabindranath had a deep
interest in the environment - he was particularly concerned about deforestation
and initiated a "festival of tree-planting" (vriksha-ropana)
as early as 1928. He would want increased private and government commitments
to environmentalism; but he would not derive from this position a general
case against modern industry and technology.
On Cultural Separation
be shocked by the growth of cultural separatism in India, as elsewhere.
The "openness" that he valued so much is certainly under great
strain right now - in many countries. Religious fundamentalism still
has a relatively small following in India; but various factions seem
to be doing their best to increase their numbers. Certainly religious
sectarianism has had much success in some parts of India (particularly
in the west and the north). Tagore would see the expansion of religious
sectarianism as being closely associated with an artificially separatist
view of culture.
He would have strongly
resisted defining India in specifically Hindu terms, rather than as
a "confluence" of many cultures. Even after the partition
of 1947, India is still the third- largest Muslim country in the world,
with more Muslims than in Bangladesh, and nearly as many as in Pakistan.
Only Indonesia has substantially more followers of Islam. Indeed, by
pointing to the immense heterogeneousness of India's cultural background
and its richly diverse history, Tagore had argued that the "idea
of India" itself militated against a culturally separatist view"against
the intense consciousness of the separateness of one's own people from
Tagore would also
oppose the cultural nationalism that has recently been gaining some
ground in India, along with an exaggerated fear of the influence of
the West. He was uncompromising in his belief that human beings could
absorb quite different cultures in constructive ways:
Whatever we understand
and enjoy in human products instantly becomes ours, wherever they might
have their origin. I am proud of my humanity when I can acknowledge
the poets and artists of other countries as my own. Let me feel with
unalloyed gladness that all the great glories of man are mine. Therefore
it hurts me deeply when the cry of rejection rings loud against the
West in my country with the clamour that Western education can only
In this context, it is important to emphasize that Rabindranath was
not short of pride in India's own heritage, and often spoke about it.
He lectured at Oxford, with evident satisfaction, on the importance
of India's religious ideasquoting both from ancient texts and
from popular poetry (such as the verses of the sixteenth-century Muslim
poet Kabir). In 1940, when he was given an honorary doctorate by Oxford
University, in a ceremony arranged at his own educational establishment
in Santiniketan ("In Gangem Defluit Isis," Oxford helpfully
explained), to the predictable "volley of Latin" Tagore responded
"by a volley of Sanskrit," as Marjorie Sykes, a Quaker friend
of Rabindranath, reports. Her cheerful summary of the match, "India
held its own," was not out of line with Tagore's pride in Indian
culture. His welcoming attitude to Western civilization was reinforced
by this confidence: he did not see India's culture as fragile and in
need of "protection" from Western influence.
In India, he wrote,
"circumstances almost compel us to learn English, and this lucky
accident has given us the opportunity of access into the richest of
all poetical literatures of the world." There seems to me much
force in Rabindranath's argument for clearly distinguishing between
the injustice of a serious asymmetry of power (colonialism being a prime
example of this) and the importance nevertheless of appraising Western
culture in an open-minded way, in colonial and postcolonial territories,
in order to see what uses could be made of it.
on open debate on every issue, and distrusted conclusions based on a
mechanical formula, no matter how attractive that formula might seem
in isolation (such as "This was forced on us by our colonial masters
- we must reject it," "This is our traditionwe must
follow it," "We have promised to do thiswe must fulfill
that promise," and so on). The question he persistently asks is
whether we have reason enough to want what is being proposed, taking
everything into account. Important as history is, reasoning has to go
beyond the past. It is in the sovereignty of reasoningfearless
reasoning in freedomthat we can find Rabindranath Tagore's lasting
- - - END - - -
from The New York Review.
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,
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. 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. See Romain Rolland
and Gandhi Correspondence, with a Foreword by Jawaharlal Nehru (New
Delhi: Government of India, 1976), pp.12-13.
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. 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.
7. Yasunari Kawabata,
The Existence and Discovery of Beauty, translated by V.H. Viglielmo
(Tokyo: The Mainichi Newspapers, 1969), pp. 56-57.
8. W.B. Yeats, "Introduction,"
in Rabindranath Tagore, Gitanjali (London: Macmillan, 1913).
9. Tagore himself
vacillated over the years about the merits of his own translations.
He told his friend Sir William Rothenstein, the artist: "I am sure
you remember with what reluctant hesitation I gave up to your hand my
manuscript of Gitanjali, feeling sure that my English was of that amorphous
kind for whose syntax a school-boy could be reprimanded." Theseand
relatedissues are discussed by Nabaneeta Dev Sen, "The 'Foreign
Reincarnation' of Rabindranath Tagore," Journal of Asian Studies,
25 (1966), reprinted, along with other relevant papers, in her Counterpoints:
Essays in Comparative Literature (Calcutta: Prajna, 1985).
10. The importance
of ambiguity and incomplete description in Tagore's poetry provides
some insight into the striking thesis of William Radice (one of the
major English translators of Tagore) that "his blend of poetry
and prose is all the more truthful for being incomplete" ("Introduction"
to his Rabindranath Tagore: Selected Short Stories, Penguin, 1991, p.
11. Satyajit Ray,
the film director, has argued that even in Tagore's paintings, "the
is one of a joyous freedom" (Ray, "Foreword,"
in Andrew Robinson, The Art of Rabindranath Tagore, London: André
12. Reported in
Amita Sen, Anando Sharbokaje (in Bengali) (Calcutta: Tagore Research
Institute, 2nd edition, 1996), p. 132.
13. B.R. Nanda,
Mahatma Gandhi (Oxford University Press, 1958; paperback, 1989), p.
14. The economic
issues are discussed in my Choice of Techniques (Blackwell, 1960), Appendix
15. Mohandas Gandhi,
quoted by Krishna Kripalani, Tagore: A Life (New Delhi: Orient Longman,
1961, 2nd edition, 1971), pp. 171-172.
16. For fuller accounts
of the events, see Dutta and Robinson, Rabindranath Tagore: The Myriad-Minded
Man, Chapter 25, and Ketaki Kushari Dyson, In Your Blossoming Flower-Garden:
Rabindranath Tagore and Victoria Ocampo (New Delhi: Sahitya Akademi,
17. Published in
English translation in Rabindranath Tagore: A Centenary Volume, 1861-1961
(New Delhi: Sahitya Akademi, 1961), with an Introduction by Jawaharlal
18. English translation
from Krishna Kripalani, Tagore: A Life, p. 185.
and Tagore Plumb the Truth," The New York Times Magazine, August
10, 1930; republished in Dutta and Robinson, Selected Letters of Rabindranath
20. Hilary Putnam,
The Many Faces of Realism (Open Court, 1987). On related issues, see
also Thomas Nagel, The View from Nowhere (Oxford University Press, 1986).
21. Isaiah Berlin, "Rabindranath Tagore and the Consciousness of
Nationality," The Sense of Reality: Studies in Ideas and Their
History (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1997), p. 265.
22. Martha Nussbaum
initiates her wide-ranging critique of patriotism (in a debate that
is joined by many others) by quoting this passage from The Home and
the World (in Martha C. Nussbaum et al., For Love of Country, edited
by Joshua Cohen, Beacon Press, 1996, pp. 3-4).
23. E.P. Thompson,
Introduction, to Tagore's Nationalism (London, Macmillan, 1991), p.
24. For a lucid
and informative analysis of the role of Subhas Chandra Bose and his
brother Sarat in Indian politics, see Leonard A. Gordon, Brothers against
the Raj: A Biography of Indian Nationalists Sarat and Subhas Chandra
Bose (Columbia University Press, 1990).
25. Kawabata made
considerable use of Tagore's ideas, and even built on Tagore's thesis
that it "is easier for a stranger to know what it is in [Japan]
which is truly valuable for all mankind" (The Existence and Discovery
of Beauty, pp. 55-58).
26. Tagore, Letters
from Russia, translated from Bengali by Sasadhar Sinha (Calcutta: Visva-Bharati,
1960), p. 108.
27. It was, however,
published in the Manchester Guardian shortly after it was meant to be
published in the Izvestia. On this, see: Dutta and Robinson, Rabindranath
Tagore: The Myriad-Minded Man, p. 297.
28. Satyajit Ray,
Our Films, Their Films (Calcutta: Disha Book/Orient Longman, third edition,
1993). I have tried to discuss these issues in my Satyajit Ray Memorial
Lecture, "Our Culture, Their Culture," The New Republic, April
29. The Guardian,
August 1, 1991.
30. Arcade Publishing,
1997, p. 1.
31. On this and
related issues, see Jean Drèze and Amartya Sen, India: Economic
Development and Social Opportunity (Clarendon Press/Oxford University
Press, 1996), particularly Chapter 6, and also Drèze and Sen,
editors, Indian Development: Selected Regional Perspectives (Clarendon
Press/Oxford University Press, 1996).
32. Edward Thompson,
Rabindranath Tagore: Poet and Dramatist (Oxford University Press, 1926).
33. Quoted in Shashi
Tharoor, India, p. 9.
34. I have tried to discuss the linkage between democracy, political
incentives, and prevention of disasters in Resources, Values and Development
(Harvard University Press, 1984, reprinted 1997), Chapter 19, and in
my presidential address to the American Economic Association, "Rationality
and Social Choice," American Economic Review, 85 (1995).
35. For helpful
discussions I am most grateful to Akeel Bilgrami, Sissela Bok (Harvard
Professor; the daughter of Gunnar Myrdal, recipient of The Bank of Sweden
Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel 1974, and Alva
Myrdal, who was awarded The Nobel Peace Price in 1982), Sugata Bose,
Supratik Bose, Krishna Dutta, Rounaq Jahan, Salim Jahan, Marufi Khan,
Andrew Robinson, Nandana Sen, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, and Shashi