Living in Bengal (and that too, in Santiniketan), you go through a cyclical relationship with Tagore. You admire him deeply at first—how could one man accomplish so much? But this admiration soon turns to exasperation—why does everyone talk about him all the time? Are there no other great Bengalis we could honor once in a while? (Of course, there are dozens, from Subhash Chandra Bose to Satyajit Ray to Rokheya Begum) And then, you come across a collection of essays, revisit his home in Santiniketan, or realize that Visva-Bharati was the first coeducational institute in India (went coed decades before my alma mater back in the states!) and your respect and regard for Tagore grows once again.
I have been thinking a lot lately about the project of nationalism and how different leaders approached the task of creating a modern—and moral—India. (Ananya Vajpeyi’s Righteous Republic, is a fantastic read on the subject and delves into how each of the Indian founders were influenced by a historical text that translates into how they envision an independent India) Of course, Tagore is an anomaly in a sense in that during this prolonged fight for independence, he is one of the strongest critics of nationalism and outright rejects the ideology. “Hope I can claim to be duly conscious of the glories of my own country…but such consciousness may never make me forgetful of the earliest message of our seers…unity…,” he wrote. He correctly deduced that the spirit of nationalism would place one’s country over the ideals of humanity.
Tagore actually initially supported the movement for nationalism, wholeheartedly participating in the Swadeshi movement at its time of conception. He later grew disillusioned however, with the lack of intersectionality and the violence involved and decided to turn his energies to a different project: creating an internationally minded university, where India could meet the West. (It is at this university of course, that I live and work)
I had the chance this past week to spend time at Rabindra Bhavan, Santiniketan’s Tagore studies archive and library. There, I read Gora, one of Tagore’s novels that addresses issues such as caste, nationalism, and religious orthodoxy. It is almost alarming at how far-sighted Tagore’s writing is. If you substitute the Brahmo/Hindu conflict within the novel with the current Muslim/Hindu conflict, Tagore’s writing hits a little too close to home. In the conclusion of Gora, the very orthodox Hindu protagonist finds himself freed from the constraints of society upon realizing that he is not a Brahmin, but an adopted Irish boy. He declares, “Today I am really an Indian! In me there is no longer any opposition between Hindu, Mussulman, and Christian. Today every caste is my caste, the food of all is my food!”
One of the central conflicts of Gora is caste consciousness and how caste gets practiced even in an urban setting. Indeed, in a 1909 letter that Tagore wrote to Myron Phelps, he briefly dwells on the caste system and its evils. He believes that the caste system “crushed individual manhood and has accustomed us for centuries not only to submit to every form of domination, but sometimes actually to venerate the power that holds us down.” (Indeed, the caste system breeds complacency and gives immense power to those at the top. Because one’s own past misdeeds are blamed one’s situation, revolution and rebellion are not natural or “dharmic” responses.) His words are not as scathing as Ambedkar’s–but over a decade before Gandhi or anyone else even spoke about the caste system, Tagore too was ruminating on how to move past this institutional system of inequality.
In the Rabindra Bhavan museum, there is a heartbreaking anecdote from World War 1: a young European soldier was drafted to fight despite being opposed to the war. Every night he read Tagore’s Gitanjali and copied out a poem before going to sleep. He later died in the war and his mother wrote a letter of thanks to Tagore, for keeping her son company when he needed strength the most.
I would recommend for us–especially those involved in political life–to turn to Tagore’s words as well. His dream for a more egalitarian, educated, and peaceful world is one that has much resonance, especially considering the state of current affairs.