Tue, 23 May 2000

Tagore's hoped for the triumph of humanism and reason

NEW DELHI: Rabindranath Tagore's perception of the dual role, one positive, the spirit of the West and the other negative, the nation of the West is the starting point of his analysis of Western nationalism.

He paid glowing tributes to the achievements of the West in the fields of literature and art which he described as titanic in its uniting power ... sweeping the height and the depth of the universe.

He also mentioned Europe's triumph of science and presence of outstanding individuals fighting for the cause of humanity.

However, behind this beneficence also lay the maleficent aspect. Tagore attributed this contradiction to the evil of the nation-state.

The nation, which represented the organized self-interest of a whole people, is also the least human and least spiritual. It is the biggest evil in the contemporary world. It builds a "civilization of power" which makes it exclusive, vain and proud. One form of its manifestation is the colonization and exploitation of people.

In this context Tagore cited the example of Japan which had secured the benefits of Western civilization to the maximum possible extent without being dominated by the West. He considered the nation to be nothing else than an "organization of politics and commerce."

By its emphasis on success it becomes a machine stifling the harmony of social life. It forgets the end of goodness, which is the aim of man. Not only did Tagore denounce nationalism, he was also critical of abstract cosmopolitanism. He rejected the philosophy of a balance of terror on the premise that man's world is to be moral.

Tagore saw very clearly two clear-cut alternatives: to continue to fight amongst one another or to locate the "true basis of reconciliation and mutual help". This strong denunciation of nationalism was surely hastened by the World War I though there is strong evidence of the spirit of universalism in earlier works as well.

In What is a Nation? in which he analyzed the views of Renan (1823-1892) Tagore categorically declared that imperialism was the logical culmination of nationalism. In the early years of the 20th century he noted the triumph of nationalism and lost faith in European liberalism.

He also realized the dangers of narrow religious beliefs and aggressive nationalism and offered universalism as an effective substitute. This became evident in his tribute to Swami Vivekananda.

He wrote, "Vivekananda took his stand in the middle with the East on his right, the West on his left. His message was not to be bound in the latter-day narrowness by ignoring her history, the advent of the West. His genius was for assimilation, for harmony, for creation."

This new vision that Tagore discovered is reflected in many of his later writings including Gitanjali.

Tagore wrote of the European dominance of Asia and Africa while dissecting the causes of World War I.

He pointed to Germany's late entry in the scramble for colonies and its belief that the world consisted of two categories of people, ruler and ruled. He aptly remarked that Europeans were comfortable with this philosophy outside Europe, but within Europe they debunked it.

What Germany did at that time was not purely German in origin. Its origins lay in the history of European civilization. He also prophesied that World War I would not be the last one. Another war was inevitable.

Subsequent history proved Tagore right.

The immediate reception of Tagore's criticisms of nationalism was mixed. The American press was hostile. The Detroit Journal warned the people against "such sickly saccharine mental poison with which Tagore would corrupt the minds of the youth of our great United States". Within India some of Tagore's contemporaries took exception to his remarks.

For instance, some members of the Ghadr Party mistook his criticism "as betrayal of Indian nationalist aspirations". They thought Tagore who was knighted by the British a year ago, was a British agent and was sent to the United States to discredit India.

In Japan, initially he received great ovation as poet-seer from the land of the Buddha. But when in his lectures he warned them against imitating the lust for power of the Western civilization as well as its worship of the nation state he was virulently criticized.

When he cautioned Japan to follow only the humane values of the West his popularity declined. However a small section of the Japanese intelligentsia became aware of the significance of Tagore's plank.

After the war it came to be known that typed copies of Tagore's Nationalism were distributed amongst soldiers on the Western front. There were speculations that this was the work of the European pacifists.

A British soldier, Max Plomann, admitted after the war that he left the army forever in 1917 after reading Tagore's work. Romain Rolland in a letter dated Aug. 26, 1919 expressed views that were similar to the ideas of Tagore. Many Europeans became acquainted with Tagore's work.

What emerged in Tagore was a quest of a poet for human perfection and completeness and not merely a pragmatic analysis of a particular problem or a situation. His expression was an eloquent appeal of his faith in man and the spirit by which all of humankind could think of realizing freedom, breaking all barriers which people have built amongst themselves.

These barriers were artificial and undesirable; they were stumbling blocks in the way of achieving the ultimate aim of a world free of care. Through Tagore the positive side of the Indian tradition of assimilation unfolded itself and he himself became a poet of politics, a symbol of faith in human reason.

It was for this reason that Will Durant remarked that the personality of Tagore itself was enough reason for India's independence. If Gandhiji innovated and popularized the notion of ethical values in politics and society, then Tagore could rightfully claim to be the founder of a humanitarian approach to the study of humanity.

Tagore characterized the modern age as the European age because of its leadership in innovation, science and technology and emphasis on reason.

But he was equally conscious of its weaknesses namely arrogance of power, exploitative and dominating nature and desire for supremacy. The time and context of Tagore's formulations has drastically changed but his concerns, namely non-acceptance of Europe-centricism is reflected in the process of globalization of today.

One of Tagore's severest criticism was the inability of European civilization to transmit its basic civilisational traits to others. This remains as valid today, as it was when Tagore wrote.

The mechanism of globalization is a new device to perpetuate the spirit of domination and exploitation of the older imperial times rather than make an attempt to create a new partnership among nations and its people based on equality and shared prosperity.

It is because of the perpetuation of an outmoded and shortsighted policy of the advanced countries that the philosophy of universal brotherhood has been relegated to a secondary status.

Tagore bitterly complained that we took the strength of the West but not its liberating power. The process of globalization continues with this blemish of colonialism about which Tagore wrote and until this is rectified the West will continue to be held as suspect by the majority of people in the world. If peace and order is to be realized the humanistic side of the West is to come to the forefront.

This will be possible only if the West sheds its narrow nationalistic concerns. Tagore clearly saw this linkage. He hoped for the triumph of humanism, reason and science with the West showing the way.

What remained unrealizable during his lifetime can be realized now. We have to realize that for the peaceful evolution of the global village there is a need for a universal minimum in defining the good and the desirable and mitigating the division between the privileged and the underprivileged.

-- The Statesman/Asia News Network