Tagore, unlike most thinkers, activists and public intellectuals in British India, disapproved of the nationalist ideal. Nationalism, he felt, was an irrational and incendiary ideology, unfit for a globalised, dialogic world based on liberty, equality, peace, and a scientific temper. For this, he was clawed at and much reviled. Freedom fighters, in particular, saw his belief as a traitorous abdication of the independence movement, which had taken as its rallying point an almost deified representation of the motherland, Bharat Mata (Mother India). But what was then the future and is now history would prove him right. Repeatedly.
To everybody ill at ease with the current economic inequity, sociopolitical institutions and narratives of violent othering, I would recommend this speech by a poet (and a colonial subject). His audience, I’m told, was irked by this politely incisive political commentary when what they expected was a delicious taste of exotic Eastern mysticism.
Here are a few extracts from the speech, but if you can make time for it, please read the full text (linked above).
The whole world is becoming one country through scientific facility […] The most important fact of the present age is that all the different races of men have come close together. And again we are confronted with two alternatives: interminable competition or cooperation.
I have no hesitation in saying that those… who have the least feeling of enmity against aliens, and the sympathetic insight to place themselves in the position of others will be the fittest to take their permanent place in the age that is lying before us. The gigantic organizations for hurting others and warding off their blows, for making money by dragging others back, will not help us. On the contrary, by their crushing weight, their enormous cost and their deadening effect upon the living humanity they will seriously impede our freedom.
Sounds familiar? Prophetic, even?
The pride of [Europe’s] traditions has sent its roots deep into her heart. I do not wish to contend that it is unreasonable. But pride in every form breeds blindness.
An excellent maxim for an age which thinks the professing ‘pride’ in perfectly accidental attributes (race, class, complexion, religion of birth) is a panacea for discrimination based on them.
I am not against one nation in particular, but against the general idea of all nations. What is the Nation?
It is the aspect of a whole people as an organized power.
The maintenance of this organization… is mechanical. Yet in this [man] feels all the satisfaction of moral exaltation and therefore becomes supremely dangerous to humanity. He feels relieved of the urging of his conscience when he can transfer his responsibility to this machine.
This insight is particularly valuable in a political environment where laws and the ‘morality’ behind them are openly motivated by financial incentives, or by sectarian ideologies that share roots with such incentives. Public health and women’s reproductive rights in the US, and land acquisition in India springs to mind.
To live a law-abiding life is difficult when democratic institutions that promise us an equitable rule of law are are frequently — and brazenly — readjusted to fit corporate and corporate-influenced vote bank interests.
Beauty is the signature which the Creator stamps upon his works when he is satisfied with them… So far as your commerce lacks the dignity of grace, it is untrue […] Let our civilization take its firm stand upon its basis of social cooperation and not upon that of economic exploitation and conflict.
As long as the genesis [of the spirit of conflict and competition] is the greed of wealth and power it can never come to any other end but a violent death.
An unusual take on economics, certainly. It would perhaps help to realise that Tagore’s idea of beauty here is a philosophical and moral one, and not, for instance, the one produced and perpetrated by gendered and racially prejudiced corporate interest in beauty and personal grooming.
And then, a word to those Calibans who insisted that ‘defeating’ India’s colonial overlords was only possible via appropriating their ideology of violent and repressive nationalist pride. This advice about developing organic ideologies instead of borrowing them, is as applicable today as it was back then:
When we talk of Western Nationality we forget that the nations there do not have that physical repulsion, one for the other, that we have between different castes.
Those of us in India who have come under the delusion that mere political freedom will make us free… must remember whatever weakness we cherish in our society will become the source of danger in politics. […] The narrowness of sympathy which makes it possible for us to impose upon a considerable portion of humanity the galling yoke of inferiority will assert itself in our politics in creating tyranny of injustice.
We must never forget in the present day that those people who have got their political freedom are not necessarily free, they are merely powerful […] In the so-called free countries the majority of the people are not free, they are driven by the minority to a goal which is not even known to them.
To round off, another prophetic comment, given the current state of electoral politics in, for example, Tagore’s host nation, the United States. And yet, he remains hopeful:
From the above you will know that I am not an economist. I am willing to acknowledge that there is a law of demand and supply and an infatuation of man for more things than are good for him. And yet I will persist in believing that there is such a thing as the harmony of completeness in humanity… and in the compensation of Eternal Justice those who are the last may yet have their insult transmuted into a golden triumph.
These extracts leave out Tagore’s very interesting views of the caste system, of racism in the settler colonies of England, and of the United States’ role in the world-order. For those, head to the original 🙂