Rabindranath Tagore and the West

By Hridesh Kedia.

Rabindranath Tagore, the Bard of Bengal, is one of the greatest poets of the modern age. Tagore’s was the authentic voice of India’s civilization, as “clear and true and unaffected as the utterances of the Upanishads three thousand years ago, its wisdom unobscured by the dust of centuries”. His songs carry an invocation to the inexorable moral law which governs all life, and are known and sung by millions of people across the Indian subcontinent to this day.  It has been said of his poetry, “each change of season, every aspect of his country’s rich landscape, every undulation of the human heart in joy or in sorrow has found voice in some song of his.” When Tagore was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1913, he became the first person from the East to receive such recognition from the West. He said in his Nobel acceptance speech, “It is the East in me which has given to the West.” 

While Tagore is remembered today for the spiritual depth and beauty of his songs, he is also often seen as a saintly figure detached from worldly affairs, who admired the ideals of Western civilization. However, Tagore’s engagement with the West, which dominated the world of his time, evolved significantly over the course of his life—from him being deeply impressed by the ideals of Western civilization in his early days, to his complete loss of faith in the West towards the end of his life.

Today, the West, though diminished in economic and military might, continues to play a dominant role in world affairs. Having systematically distorted history to portray itself as the apex of civilization through the ages and justify its prosperity built on the exploitation of Africa and Asia, the West today continues to promote itself as the torchbearer of the ideals of freedom and democracy. Today, the youth of India often find themselves overwhelmed by the contradictions they see around them, which have been engendered in no small part by years of colonial repression. Inundated by the propaganda of the West, they often end up buying into its self-serving historical narrative. Demoralized by the resulting loss of history, and lured by the prospect of material gain, they aspire to belong to the West. Today, as we grapple with these contradictions, it is important to study Tagore’s engagement with the West, to understand how a man with his depth of insight saw the West in his time.

Tagore, a poet of the East

Rabindranath Tagore was born in 1861, in the midst of a reform movement for Hinduism called Brahmo Samaj, based on the teachings of the Upanishads, one of whose leaders was Rabindranath’s own father, Debendranath Tagore. At the same time in Bengal, there was afoot, a literary movement seeking to revive her literature from under the dead weight of rigid orthodoxy. There also arose at the time, a national movement which challenged the prevailing attitude of the West of dismissing India’s artistic contributions to the world as inferior oriental works of creation, and sought to reinstill pride in the art traditions of India. Brought up in an atmosphere of the confluence of these revolutionary movements, in all of which members of his family played an active role, Rabindranath Tagore imbibed the revolutionary spirit at an early age and became well aware of the challenges facing Indian society at the time.

Early in his boyhood, on a four month long trip to the Himalayas, Rabindranath Tagore was taught verses from the Upanishads by his father, in addition to lessons in Sanskrit, English and Astronomy. Just before he reached his teens, Tagore began to study the old Vaishnava poems of Bengal, thus acquainting himself with the poetry and thought of ancient and medieval India in his early youth.

However, like many educated Indians of his time, he was still deeply impressed by the large-hearted liberalism of nineteenth century English politics, and had great admiration for English literature—the drama of Shakespeare, and the poetry of Byron.

Tagore’s evolving view of the West

Rabindranath Tagore achieved sudden world prominence when he received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1913. He traveled widely, to Japan, the United States, and Europe, and gradually began to mount a profound critique of Western civilization. He exhorted Japan, then a rising power in Asia, to not accept Western civilization as the inevitable way of progress. In his 1917 essay “Nationalism in Japan”, he wrote of western civilization,

“We have seen this great stream of civilization choking itself from debris carried by its innumerable channels. We have seen that with all its vaunted love of humanity it has proved itself the greatest menace to Man, far worse than the sudden outbursts of nomadic barbarism from which men suffered in the early ages of history. We have seen that, in spite of its boasted love of freedom, it has produced worse forms of slavery than ever were current in earlier societies, — slavery whose chains are unbreakable, either because they are unseen, or because they assume the names and appearance of freedom.”

In response to the tendency of the West to point to India’s caste distinctions and avoid confronting the color caste that lay at the root of its civilization, he said to an American audience in 1917,

“Many people in this country ask me what is happening as to the caste distinctions in India. But when this question is asked me, it is usually done with a superior air. And I feel tempted to put the same question to our American critics with a slight modification, ‘What have you done with the Red Indian and the Negro?’ For you have not gotten over your attitude of caste toward them. You have used violent methods to keep aloof from other races, but until you have solved the question here in America, you have no right to question India.”

Challenging the belief that the caste distinctions in Indian society had remained static over the centuries, he said,

“In spite of our great difficulty, however, India has done something. She has tried to make an adjustment of races, to acknowledge the real differences between them where these exist, and yet seek for some basis of unity. This basis has come through our saints, like Nanak, Kabir, Chaitanya and others, preaching one God to all races of India.”

In 1919, shocked by the brutality of the British in the massacre of Amritsar, Tagore renounced his knighthood. In a letter to the Viceroy of India, he wrote,

“The time has come when badges of honour make our shame glaring in their incongruous context of humiliation, and I for my part, wish 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 degradation not fit for human beings.”

At this point in his life, while Tagore opposed British rule and clearly saw the defects of Western civilization, he still admired the scientific achievements of the West and saw them as a sign of her devotion to truth. He saw it as his life’s mission to bring together the gifts of the East and the West, saying in his Nobel acceptance speech in 1921,

“But I will only say that I am thankful to God that he has given me this great opportunity, that I have been an instrument to bring together, to unite the hearts of the East and the West. And I must to the end of my life carry on that mission.”

It was with this mission in mind, that he had started the Visva-Bharati University to which he donated his entire Nobel prize money. For the motto of Visva-Bharati University, Tagore had selected an ancient Sanskrit verse, “Yatra visvam bhavatieka nidam” which meant, ‘Where the whole world meets in a single nest’.

Tagore saw his life’s mission of uniting the East and the West as a part of India’s mission in the world. In his Nobel acceptance speech, he said, “India is there to unite all human races.” He saw India with its spiritual heritage as being particularly well-equipped for this mission, and went on to say,

”We have inherited the immortal works of our ancestors, those great writers who proclaimed the religion of unity and sympathy, and say: ‘He who sees all beings as himself, who realizes all beings as himself, knows Truth’. That has once again to be realized, not only by the children of the East but also by the children of the West.”

It was his mission of uniting the East and West that led him to oppose the Non-Cooperation movement being led by Gandhi at the time, which he saw as being in essence, a rejection of the West. He wrote to Gandhi, “What irony of fate is this that I should be preaching cooperation of cultures between East and West on this side of the sea just at the moment when the doctrine of non-cooperation is preached on the other side?” Criticizing the movement for being based on the negative ideal of rejection, he wrote, “R, in support of the present movement has often said to me that passion for rejection is a stronger power in the beginning than the acceptance of an ideal. Though I know it to be a fact, I cannot take it as a truth.” Opposing the spirit of rejection of the movement, he wrote, “Therefore my one prayer is: let India stand for the cooperation of all peoples of the world. The spirit of rejection finds its support in the consciousness of separateness, the spirit of acceptance in the consciousness of unity.

Gandhi noted that Tagore’s concerns reflected an ignorance of the context of the movement, and explained why a rejection of the West was necessary. He wrote, “The present struggle is being waged against compulsory cooperation, against one-sided combination, against the armed imposition of modern methods of exploitation, masquerading under the name of civilisation.” Gandhi saw a rejection of Western civilization as the only path towards a true realisation of Tagore’s positive ideal of unity. He emphasized, “Non-cooperation is intended to pave the way to real, honorable and voluntary cooperation based on mutual respect and trust.” Responding to Tagore’s fundamental criticism of the negative ideal of rejection, Gandhi wrote, “In my humble opinion, rejection is as much an ideal as the acceptance of a thing. It is as necessary to reject untruth as it is to accept truth.”

Tagore’s stance against western civilization and imperialism became stronger towards the end of his life. He supported Gandhi and the Indian freedom struggle, along with the anti-imperialist struggles in Asia and Africa, till the end of his life. 

In 1938, when the Japanese poet Yone Noguchi tried to enlist Tagore’s support for Japan’s war on China by calling it a war of ‘Asia for Asia’, Tagore wrote back saying, “The doctrine of ‘Asia for Asia’ which you enunciate in your letter, as an instrument of political blackmail, has all the virtues of the lesser Europe which I repudiate and nothing of the larger humanity that makes us one across the barriers of political labels and divisions.” He reminded Noguchi of the moral responsibility of artists and intellectuals, and wished the Japanese people, “not success, but remorse”.

In 1941, noted British feminist and member of Parliament Eleanor Rathbone wrote an open letter to Indians, calling upon them to render service to the British war effort, scandalised at their ingratitude towards the British despite having received English education, and law and order from British rule, and having “drunk deeply at the wells of English thought”. Tagore was deeply pained by Miss Rathbone’s letter, realising that she represented the mentality of the average ‘well-intentioned’ Britisher. Since Jawaharlal Nehru along with other freedom fighters had been imprisoned, he felt compelled to write a response from his sick-bed. In a strongly worded reply, Tagore observed that while the Soviet Union had within fifteen years of its administration educated 98 percent of its children, the British administration had in over two centuries educated about one percent of India’s population. He wrote,

“It is not so much because the British are foreigners that they are unwelcome to us and have found no place in our hearts, as because, while pretending to be trustees of our welfare, they have betrayed the great trust and have sacrificed the happiness of millions in India to bloat the pockets of few capitalists at home.”

Towards the end of his life, Tagore completely lost his faith in the West and hoped that a new civilization which would realise the unity of Man, would arise from the East. In the essay ‘Crisis in Civilization’, written on his last birthday, he wrote, “I had at one time believed that the springs of civilization would issue out of the heart of Europe. But today when I am about to quit the world that faith has gone bankrupt altogether.” He went on to say,

“And yet I shall not commit the grievous sin of losing faith in Man. I would rather look forward to the opening of a new chapter in his history after the cataclysm is over and the atmosphere rendered clean with the spirit of service and sacrifice. Perhaps that dawn will come from this horizon, from the East where the sun rises.”

A rejection of the West today

Tagore’s initial opposition to a rejection of the West arose from seeing a rejection of the West as being in conflict with his life’s mission of realising the unity of Man. It was his faith in the spirit of the West going back to his early impressions of the liberalism of nineteenth century English politics, and his belief that the scientific progress of the West was because of her spiritual devotion to truth, that made Tagore reluctant to reject the West. However, towards the end of his life, in ‘Crisis of Civilization’, he wrote, “The spirit of violence which perhaps lay dormant in the psychology of the West, has at last roused itself and desecrates the spirit of Man”. He eventually recognized that the modern civilization of the West had been based on violence, on a desecration of the humanity of Africa and Asia, going back to the transatlantic slave trade. He eventually saw the necessity of rejecting the West for realizing his positive ideal of unity.

Today, it is a spiritual slavery, born out of a desire for material comfort, and higher socioeconomic status that makes us, the youth of India, aspire to belong to the West. We find ourselves engaged in a race for individualistic success, starting from a young age. We have an immense fear of falling behind in this race and losing our place in the socioeconomic ladder, because we increasingly see our worth as human beings as being tied to our socioeconomic status. This is a fundamental shift in values, which is inextricably linked to the historical foundation of the modern civilization of the West — the transatlantic slave trade. In the eloquent words of the great intellectual and freedom fighter Dr. W.E.B. Du Bois in ‘The World and Africa’,

“The slave trade; that modern change from regarding wealth as being for the benefit of human beings, to that of regarding human beings as wealth. This utter reversal of attitude which marked the day of a new barter in human flesh did not die with the slave, but persists and dominates the thought of Europe today and during the fatal era when Europe by force ruled mankind.”

As in Tagore’s time, it is once again important to realize that a rejection of the West is a necessary step for realizing the unity of Man. In the words of the Bard of Bengal, 

But let us stand firm and suffer
 with strength for the True,
 for the Good, for the Eternal in man,
 for thy Kingdom which is in the union of hearts, 
for the freedom which is of the Soul.

Further Reading

  • K. Kripalani, Rabindranath Tagore: A Biography
  • The English Writings of Rabindranath Tagore, Volume 3, A Miscellany, edited by Sisir K. Das
  • The Complete Works of Rabindranath Tagore
  • R. Tagore, Nationalism
  • R. Tagore, Talks in China

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