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Gems from Tagore


Addressed to the bigots and xenophobes of his own day, Tagore’s words are applicable to those who wish to forcibly impose their own convictions on the rest of humanity…

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Universal aspirations: Tagore with Albert Einstein.

Readers would have noticed this column’s recent focus on Rabindranath Tagore, itself a product of this columnist’s recent immersion into a forgotten aspect of that great man’s oeuvre. Better known as a poet, novelist, composer and p laywright, Tagore was also a writer of essays, travelogues, and polemics. And, as I have discovered, while his poems and stories and songs may perhaps speak more directly to his fellow Bengalis, in his non-fiction he speaks to, and for, the world.

In this column I have strung together some of my favourite Tagore quotes, with the hope that this will encourage readers to go to the originals, to get from them the same kind of education and pleasure that I have myself obtained. Here, first, is Tagore on the perils of an excessive love of one’s country. As he wrote in a letter to a friend on November 19, 1908.

Refuge in humanity

“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. I took a few steps down that road and stopped: for when I cannot retain my faith in universal man standing over and above my country, when patriotic prejudices overshadow my God, I feel inwardly starved”.

Eight years later, Tagore wrote to his son Rathindranath that he hoped to make his school in Santiniketan “the connecting thread between India and the world”. As he put it, “the days of petty nationalism are numbered — let the first step towards universal union occur in the fields of Bolpur. I want to make that place somewhere beyond the limits of nation and geography — the first flag of victorious universal humanism will be planted there. To rid the world of the suffocating coils of national pride will be the task of my remaining years.”

In the same year, 1916, Tagore offered a withering indictment of European colonialism. Speaking in Japan, he remarked that “the political civilisation which has sprung up from the soil of Europe [and] is overrunning the whole world, like some prolific weed, is based on exclusiveness. It is always watchful to keep at bay the aliens or to exterminate them. It is carnivorous and cannibalistic in its tendencies, it feeds upon the resources of other peoples and tries to swallow their whole future. It is always afraid of other races achieving eminence, naming it as a peril, and tries to thwart all symptoms of greatness outside its own boundaries, forcing down races of men who are weaker, to be eternally fixed in their weakness”.

Unbiased criticism

The nicest thing about Tagore’s criticisms is that they are ecumenical — the self-aggrandising claims of Indian nationalism, European imperialism, and Soviet Communism all come under sharp scrutiny. Thus, in a press conference in Moscow in 1930, he asked his hosts this very tough question: “Are you doing your ideal a service by arousing in the minds of those under your training, anger, class hatred and revengefulness against those not sharing your ideals, against those whom you consider to be your enemies? True, you have to fight against obstacles, you have to overcome ignorance and lack of sympathy, even persistently antagonism. But your mission is not restricted to your own nation or own party, it is for the betterment of humanity according to your light. But does not humanity include those who do not agree with your aim?”

In the same interview, Tagore spoke movingly about the dangers of stifling debate and free thought. As he pointed out, “It would not only be an uninteresting but a sterile world of mechanical regularity if all our opinions were forcibly made alike. If you have a mission which includes all humanity, acknowledge the existence of differences of opinion. Opinions are constantly changed and rechanged only through the free circulation of intellectual forces and moral persuasion. Violence begets violence and blind stupidity. Freedom of mind is needed for the reception of truth; terror hopelessly kills it”.

My first quote was from exactly a hundred years ago; so too is my last. Writing in the journal Prabasi in 1908, Tagore observed that “Whether India is to be yours or mine, whether it is to belong more to the Hindu, or the Moslem, or whether some other race is to assert a greater supremacy than either — that is not the problem with which Providence is exercised. It is not as if, at the bar of the judgement seat of the Almighty, different advocates are engaged in pleading the rival causes of Hindu, Moslem or Westerner, and that the party that wins the decree shall finally plant the standard of permanent possession. It is our vanity which makes us think that it is a battle between contending rights — the only battle is the eternal one between Truth and untruth”.

Relevant still

Addressed to the bigots and xenophobes of his own day, these remarks can be addressed again to those who wish to forcibly impose their own convictions on the rest of humanity, to Al Qaeda and to extremist Hindus, to evangelical Christians and to revolutionary Maoists, to all those who fanatically and violently seek to take permanent possession of the past and future of mankind.

Tagore knew that no nation, culture, ideology or religious tradition had a monopoly of virtue; nor any a monopoly of vice either. All systems of belief were a mixture of good and evil, of truth and untruth. The only way to make one’s nation or culture less false was to broaden it by listening to (and learning from) other nations and cultures.

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