Rabindranath Tagore and His Contemporary Relevance

Uma Das Gupta
Anandarup Ray


I. Introduction



Vast changes have occurred in the world in the seventy years since Tagore’s death in 1941. Many of these changes have been profound in their impact. On the positive side, there has been an unimaginable rise in incomes in Asia, particularly in China and India. Economic growth has been fast and sustained also in the West, accompanied by a surge in foreign trade after the adoption of GATT and WTO treaties. Western Europe reconstructed rapidly after the Second World War, and has now become a peaceful, borderless, and prosperous union. The world as a whole has become a ‘flat earth’ due to technological advances in communications and transport. On the negative side, hundreds of millions still live in extreme poverty in Africa and in pockets of Asia and Latin America. Economic growth has hardly reached them, and their development indicators of literacy, life expectancy and child mortality remain very low. Disparities among nations, and within nations, continue to be great. The spread of democracy and human rights have been uneven. Environmental degradation, climate change, and international terrorism have emerged as major concerns.


The current economic recession and financial crises around the world, and the continuing problems of religious polarization, militarism and hostilities, have led the leading countries to review the architecture of the world order. We may be at the threshold of a new world order which will govern the next hundred years. It may be appropriate at this time to look back at some of the Modern Greats of the past century and re-examine their messages of wisdom for their relevance today.


This paper will attempt to do so with Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941) who was a leading spokesman for compassionate humanism and culture in India and the world. Tagore lived in the age of science, as we also do. He was proud of the age of science as we also are. But we cannot say our lives are universally more secure or healthy in these times of advanced science and technology than that of our ancestors in the preceding age. That leads us to ask why this insecurity, why all this terror, why our so-called modern society has led to progressively less harmony between the individual and the society. Even while Tagore greatly appreciated the benefits of science, and made use of science for rural reform which we shall discuss below, he understood that it is not enough by itself, and that our hopes and aspirations must be founded on a universalist and democratic framework. That brings us to his thoughts on humanism, education and culture, nationalism and internationalism, and their great relevance today.   



II. Humanism, nationalism, internationalism


“All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards each other in a spirit of brotherhood.” Article 1, Universal Declaration of Human Rights, United Nations, 1948.




Long before the League of Nations and the United Nations, Tagore was an internationalist who critiqued the narrowly defined concepts of nationalism and patriotism. He wanted all human beings to be treated equally regardless of the country or nation to which they belonged. He also did not want barriers between people even within the same nation—the barriers of caste, race, and religion.


Tagore lived and worked during a period of crucial social and political transformation in India. He responded to its intense moments in memorable words. A product of the nineteenth century, he was profoundly influenced by its liberal humanistic thought and its hope and optimism. He contributed substantially to the making of a modern India. By his own admission his formative influences were from a confluence of three movements which were active in the India of his time: the protestant religious movement of Rammohan Roy (1772-1833), the literary movement of Bankim Chandra Chatterjee (1838-94), and the national movement. ‘It [the national movement] was not fully political but it began to give voice to the mind of our people trying to assert their own personality’, he wrote. The ‘national movement’ revived the Indian pride in its past achievement in philosophy and religion, art and architecture, music and poetry. Pride in his own cultural traditions did not however blind Tagore to the moral and social degradation of his country which he directly experienced. Even in his eulogies of India he was remarkably free from the rhetoric of patriotism. He responded to European literature with a keen mind and great enthusiasm. The first forty years of his life was conspicuous by his fond attraction for the Romantic and the Victorian poets, and Shakespeare, matched equally by his passionate love for Sanskrit literature in general and for the classical Sanskrit writer Kalidasa in particular. This catholicity of taste slowly evolved into his deep and pervasive sense of the ‘universal’ in thought and culture.


Like all the leading intellectuals of his time, Swami Vivekananda (1863-1902)    and Mahatma Gandhi (1869-1948) in particular, Tagore also was obliged to address the question of the relation between India and the West. Like his compatriots he began by believing in an essential dichotomy between the two cultures and, for a certain period of time, he talked of a spiritual East and the materialistic West. But there was an evolution in his understanding when he discovered for himself a spirituality in Western civilisation too. He located this spirituality in the West’s dynamism and experimentation and its continuous pursuit of truth. Equally, he observed and critiqued the West’s arrogant display of power but believed that it clashed with her ‘inner ideal’. This criticism led to his controversial lectures on Nationalism in 1916 where he argued that the West’s tremendous success in science and technology had led to dehumanization and an increasing greed for power.


Despite such scathing criticisms Tagore remained a pioneer of the intellectual union of East and West. There again he put his faith in people and not in governments. He believed that despite the West’s ruthless politics, there was no absence of martyrs in the West who sacrificed their lives for the wrongs done by their governments.  That is how he sought to turn our minds towards the ideal of the spiritual unity of man. He wrote, ‘In India what is needed more than anything else is the broad mind which, only because it is conscious of its own vigorous individuality, is not afraid of accepting truth from all sources’.


It is not uncommon for a person to believe in the equality of all men, and yet to regard his or her own country in an exclusionist sense. However, Tagore’s strong faith in man led him to an inclusive approach. He was able to shake off all shackles of traditional Hinduism, and arrive at a non-parochial and inclusive concept of India. This was in a sense a rediscovery of the concept first presented by Rammohan Roy in 1823, but Tagore established it, rooted it in Indian history, and propagated it throughout the country. The history of India had a special message for Tagore. He saw it not so much as a synthesis, as is generally said, but as a ‘mixture of ideas’ and an ‘interpenetration of opposites’. To him it was not the history of Aryans and non-Aryans, not the history of Hindus, nor a history of Hindus and Muslims taken together. He did not see the coming of the British as an accidental intrusion. His essays written during 1898 and 1904 convey an intuitive sense of history. He distanced himself as much from the colonialist historiography as he did from a Hindu nationalist view of the past. His country’s social civilization, he wrote, was founded on ‘an adjustment of races, to acknowledge real differences between them, and yet to seek some basis of unity …’ His inclusive nationalism and non-parochial interpretation of India’s history became a powerful agent of ideas for the freedom movement that Gandhi and Nehru led between the two world wars.


The idea of India expressed so eloquently by Nehru in 1947, was quite in conformity with Tagore’s idea of India, which the Indian nation has cherished ever since. To quote from Nehru’s famous speech on August 14, 1947:


“…what shall be our endeavour? To bring freedom and opportunity to the common man, to the peasants and workers of India; to fight and end poverty and ignorance and disease; to build up a prosperous, democratic and progressive nation, and to create social, economic and political institutions which will ensure justice and fullness of life to every man and woman……………….All of us, to whatever religion we may belong, are equally the children of India with equal rights, privileges and obligations. We cannot encourage communalism or narrow-mindedness, for no nation can be great whose people are narrow in thought or in action.”   


Several factors contributed to Tagore’s inclusive approach, which was so strongly championed by Nehru. First, his father was a leading reformer of the Hindu society and religion, adopting the monotheistic Vedic variant introduced by Rammohan Roy at the beginning of the nineteenth century. Thus Tagore grew up in a household in which the spirit of scrutiny, creativity, and reforms dominated. Second, his exposure beginning in 1892, to the great poverty and indignities suffered by the Muslim peasantry in his family’s agricultural estates, as well as his friendship with Christians like Sister Nivedita (1867-1911), Brahmabandhab Upadhyaya (1861-1907), Rewachand (1868-1945), also some years later Charles Andrews (1871-1940) and William Pearson (1881-1923), convinced him that they rightfully belong to the same brotherhood of man. He wrote, ‘On us today is thrown the responsibility of building up a greater India in which Hindu and Muslim and Christian will find their place’. This reasoning found expression in his well-known poem in 1911, beginning with the lines,


                                          He mor chitta, punya tirthe jagore dhire

                                          ei bharater maha-manaber sagoro-tire.

                          ‘On the sacred shores of the ocean of humanity of this India,

                                                       Awaken, my heart!’



Tagore’s song ‘jana gana mana adhinayaka’ (1911) invoking the same goal of a larger humanity was chosen as our national anthem by Gandhi and Nehru, and remains a symbol of modern India’s legacy of universal humanity. The Constitution of India upholds that legacy.





III.             Education



“To accept the truth of our own age it will be necessary to establish a new education on the basis, not of nationalism, but of a wider relationship of humanity”.


Rabindranath Tagore,  Visva-Bharati, 1919, pp. 9-10. (Translated by UDG).                                        



When first formulating his ideas for a new Indian education, Tagore was clearly responding to the ‘cultural dislocation’ of a colonised country. His mind was filled with what he wrote in his essay Tapoban in 1909 (in English translation ‘The Message of the Forest’, 1919):  ‘The forest, unlike the desert or rock or sea, is living; it gives shelter and nourishment to life. In such surroundings the ancient forest-dwellers of India realised the spirit of harmony with the universe and emphasized in their minds the monistic aspects of truth. They sought the realisation of their soul through union with all’. He wrote poetically of how ‘the voice in the Vedic tongue’ guided him to the idea of a Brahmacharya Ashram or a hermitage when starting his school in Santiniketan.


But he was soon to decide that a Brahmacharya Ashram was not his notion of a new and modern education. He valued some of its features such as following a life of simplicity for the students and teachers of the school alike. He also greatly valued the need for a forest, or a tapoban- like place, which, in his plan for the Santiniketan school, was to be a quiet rural environment surrounded by nature and away from the confines of a city. He knew that was the closest he could get to establishing an intimate community of teachers and students as in the hermitages of the past. But his ideal school had to be much more than that, especially with regard to opening up the students’ minds to a relationship with the world. Almost as soon as the Brahmacharya Ashram began to function he spoke out his disapproval of the institution in the following words, ‘I have no desire to magically resurrect some ancient dead thing. It is not my business to bring back the past. I want to work for something which though implicit is yet strongly current, that which is not dead and which is natural to India. The projects we start fail because we blindly try to get along without acknowledging it ... to say that it is possible to resurrect India’s past but not possible to integrate another country’s historical time with India’s, and to attempt to implement this, is vain and leads to destruction, not to new life’.



He opened up his Santiniketan school to those who believed in East and West alike, in peace and goodwill, without distinction of caste and creed and away from nationalist politics. Tagore was a strong critic of the British Empire but he did not want that to get in the way of his mission to break out of the isolation that colonial rule and militant nationalism imposed. He argued that the lessons of the First World War proved that ‘tomorrow’s history’ must begin with a chapter on ‘internationalism’ and that education must be in harmony with the times. In his 1919 essay A Centre of Indian Culture, he raised the crucial question of what must be the religious teaching given at such a centre? He pointed out how ‘India’ or ‘national’ tended to be identified with ‘Hindu’ which he argued was limited to only one historical aspect of India. He deplored the fact that India was divided by religious and social barriers and asked, ‘Can there be no wide meeting place where all sects may gather together and forget their differences’? This fundamental question became even more urgent with the bitter lessons of the First World War when he began to proceed gradually to transform Santiniketan into a world university to which scholars from the East and West would be invited to meet and study each other’s cultures. He named this university ‘Visva-Bharati’ and chose an excerpt from a Vedic text as its motto when inaugurating the institution in 1921:


                   Yatra visvam bhavati ekanidam

     ‘where the whole world forms its one single nest’ 


In the midst of an unprecedented political unrest and excitement, and against the whole force of the popular sentiment for the Non-cooperation Movement, he stated his views with passion in two essays, ‘Satyer Abahan’(1921, The Call of Truth) and ‘Sikshar Milan’ (1921, The Union of Cultures). Those essays stated his goal of bringing the West on terms of equality to the India of his aspiration --- which for him had to be an India of multiple cultures, an India where the impoverished village is given education and dignity of life, an India building its strength and nationhood by uniting castes and communities under an enlightened leadership. He recognized that the colonial education system was out of touch with Indian life. This was why he pressed for an education to first understand this weakness, and then endeavour to bridge the gap by working for village reorganization as an essential part of a ‘new’ education based on self-reliance and human dignity. He wanted this education to combine local or indigenous knowledge with modern scientific know-how from which both sections of Indian society could learn and make progress. Visva-Bharati’s ‘mission of rural construction’, he wrote, was to ‘retard’ the process of ‘racial suicide’. He held firmly that organizing the villages would be the right way to spread ‘national consciousness’. He argued that ‘national unity’ could become a reality only when the masses get a gut feeling about it, and that could happen if the educated classes and the masses unite in a common programme of work. Such was the ‘sacrifice’ needed, he wrote, to make the country ‘our own’. He criticized the Indian National Congress for looking to our alien government to do the work that had to be done ‘by us’ for the country that was ‘our own’.


He knew squarely we were faced with two stupendous problems: first, the poverty of our intellectual life and, second, the poverty of our material life. The Santiniketan-Sriniketan institution or Visva-Bharati – a world university in rural Bengal – became his life-long activity to build a centre of cultures which would not only be a centre of intellectual life in India but also a centre of her economic life. He wrote, ‘Our education should be in full touch with our complete life, economic, intellectual, aesthetic, social, and spiritual; and our educational institutions should be the very heart of our society. It must cultivate land, breed cattle, weave cloth, and produce the necessities of life, calling science to its aid, and uniting teachers and students in productive activities on cooperative principles whose motive force is not the greed of profit’. At the start this programme was limited to three villages in the south-west of Santiniketan where his school for urban boys and girls was established in 1901. With the problems of over three hundred million people staring him at the face, Tagore could only have hoped that his efforts would touch the hearts of his village neighbours at Santiniketan and would help them reassert themselves in a bolder social order. ‘I alone cannot take responsibility for the whole of India’, he wrote. ‘But even if two or three villages can be freed from the shackles of helplessness and ignorance, an ideal for the whole of India would be established. These two or three villages must be liberated fully; all must have education; there must be joy in these villages with songs and readings as in the past’.


These ideas of a new education were founded upon an urge and an instinct to create a new type of humanity whose scientific-technological progress and economic development would grow through dialogue and respect for values. That was the persistent basis of Tagore’s debate on India and the world in his powerful and spirited writings on education, culture, science, nationalism, internationalism. These give meaning to his stand against colonialism, discrimination and dehumanization. They give coherence to his faith in the relationship between human beings and their environment.  All of his arguments were drawn directly from his life experience of the social and natural environment in which he lived a hundred fifty years ago, and we still do today. His 1919 essay City and Village says it all.





IV. National Policy, Society and Values



“Nehru’s pan-Asianism and his determination to stay ‘non-aligned’ in the Cold War

…………bear the mark of Tagore’s thought.”


Ramachandra Guha, The Hindu, November 23, 2008




India’s history after Independence is a complex story with far-reaching ramifications across all aspects of its society. But the two most prominent features of its personality in the early years were its foreign policy and its approach to economic development.


Nehru’s famous foreign policy of ‘non-alignment’ sought to avoid taking sides in the Cold War. This gave India freedom to choose, and to reason things out before making commitments on the basis of short-term expediency alone. India had also hoped to bring about greater harmony and moderation in world affairs, and to project an image that suited the reemergence of a compassionate and wise civilization. This was very much in line with Tagore’s philosophy and understanding of history. If Nehru or Krishna Menon sounded too high-minded at times, it was an echo of what Tagore’s audiences must have felt during his lectures on nationalism in USA and Japan in 1916.  


India’s approach to economic development began with planning. At its simplest, planning is simply a tool for understanding the possibilities and prospects of the economy. It was seen as a useful way of organizing statistics on the economy, about which the new leaders had little organized knowledge. But the government also adopted a highly interventionist policy, characterised by extensive controls at all levels (this regime of controls became popularly known as the "Control Raj"). Along with that, the government adopted an ‘inward-looking’ or insular policy behind high tariff barriers and quotas. It was only after 1991, that India started to moderate or reverse these policies


The extensive controls and state ownership that accompanied insular policies, especially during the 1960s and 1970s, would certainly have been deplored by Tagore. They would not have appealed to his sense of freedom nor survived his penchant for reasoning. This is apparent from his observations on the Soviet Union in 1930, although he did appreciate Soviet achievements in the field of education. A market-oriented outlook, in contrast to the "Control Raj", is also expected from a man of his background. Since the early days of his ancestor Nilmoni (d.1793), the fortunes of the Tagores were linked to trade-related businesses with the British. Tagore’s grandfather, Dwarkanath Tagore (1794-1846), was a hugely successful entrepreneur and the first independent merchant of the British Raj.


As an internationalist, Tagore surely would have preferred open trade policies. For example, he always opposed boycotts of foreign goods whenever such proposals came up, whether from Gandhi or from others. He would have also opposed barriers to cultural integration. He would have welcomed globalization among different cultures and languages, and he would have been wary of protecting national cultures by excluding foreign cultures.


Gandhi’s advocacy of the household spinning wheel, or Charka, did not make sense to him at all, as he felt it would not be economic. This was later confirmed to be so by Amartya Sen in his Ph.D. thesis. Once again, Tagore’s position revealed his instinctive distrust of ad hoc exhortations for political gain.


Because of that instinct and because of his strong feelings about secularism, he also would have been concerned about the ad hoc introduction of parochial personal laws which vitiate the Indian Constitution. He would have questioned the Directives on special treatments for Scheduled Castes and Other Backward Classes, which enhance discrimination among Hindus, and also among Hindus and non-Hindus. These policies were meant to be short-term expedients, but they have become permanent anomalies in Indian political and social life.


Tagore was an early environmentalist with a strong sense of aesthetics, who adored wide-open spaces and the riverine areas of Bengal. He disliked smoke-stacked industry and other ugly and noisy aspects of urban life. He felt that mechanization and assembly-line production would strip away freedom and dignity from human beings; this was the theme of his powerful play, Rakta Karabi (1923). 


Throughout his life he was a passionate champion of women’s rights and empowerment, like Rammohan Roy and Iswar Chandra Vidyasagar (1820-91) before him. The first story he ever wrote, Bhikharini, was all about the misfortunes and abuses that a mother and her daughter had to suffer. He was only 16 at the time when he wrote this. His school in Santiniketan was coeducational, which was a major break from accepted social norms. And the characters of women protagonists he developed in one novel after another were an early expression of the empowerment of women we see in our national life today.

The poverty that Tagore encountered in the country-side in Bengal in late nineteenth century could not have been less dire than the poverty of the serfs in Czarist Russia, which had so moved Chekov and Tolstoy. His approach to dealing with poverty was through the spread of basic education with the goal of self-reliance, the application of science and technology to agriculture, the provision of cooperative credit, and the setting up of cottage industries. Most important of all in Tagore’s scheme of things was to establish a relationship with the village based on a genuine attempt to understand its problems, whether in every instance successful or not. Some important results were obtained from the Sriniketan experiment. Health work in the villages reduced the number of deaths from epidemic over a period of time. Rotation of crops helped the growth of agricultural productivity. A large number of villagers obtained employment in the industries department, albeit assisted by the requirements of the Second World War. The long term effect of the Sriniketan enterprise was seen in the full flowering of the rural development strategies in post-independent India through the government’s Block Development Schemes, its Community Project and its Cottage Industries movement.        


The things that would have most disappointed Tagore about the developments after Independence are first, the failure to provide basic education and health care to the underprivileged. Tagore would have accepted the lead of the government in this area, as in China, Vietnam and other countries which have rapidly reached high literacy levels. The elimination of social backwardness and poverty would have been very high on his agenda were he alive today. The second area which would have disturbed him greatly would have been the rise of sectarianism and the politics behind animosities toward, and occasional hostilities against, religious minorities. Thirdly, he would not have endorsed modes of political dissent which bypass the Constitution and lead to anarchy.  Methods of opposition which may arguably have been acceptable under the colonial rule of Britain would not have been acceptable to him under the democratic framework after Independence.


Like Tagore we also live in the age of science and internationalism. Today we call it globalization, and our education is still similar to Western-style colonialist education. Given how troubled our world is becoming, there is a growing awareness of the need to reconcile the values of ‘universal’ and ‘diversity’, a conviction that Tagore pioneered not only in thought but also in his life of action. There was not a great deal he or any one individual could do to bring change to an unequal and unjust world. But he was never indifferent to the need, and he tried hard to make a difference with whatever constructive work was possible for him. We can try to make that his legacy in our individual lives.





Select Bibliography


Primary sources:


Rabindranath Tagore, Nationalism (London: Macmillan, 1917)


_______,My Reminiscence (London: Macmillan, 1917).

_______, The Home and the World (New York: Macmillan, 1919).


­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­_______, ‘The Message of the Forest’, The Modern Review, vol. xxv, no.5, May 1919. 


_______,Glimpses of Bengal (London: Macmillan, 1921).


_______, ‘On Constructive Work—A Letter’, The Modern Review, Calcutta, March 1921.


_______,Gora (London: Macmillan, 1924).


_______,Red Oleanders (London: Macmillan, 1925).


_______, Talks in China, Calcutta: Visva-Bharati, 1925.

_______,An Eastern University, Santiniketan: Visva-Bharati, 1927.

________,The Growth of Visva-Bharati 1901-1921, Santiniketan: Visva-Bharati, 1928.

________,City and Village, Santiniketan:Visva-Bharati, 1928.

________,Sriniketan The Institute of Rural Reconstruction, Santiniketan: Visva-Bharati, 1928.

_______,The Religion of Man (London: Macmillan,1931).


_______,Mahatmaji and the Depressed Humanity, Calcutta: Visva-Bharati, 1932.

_______,Crisis in Civilisation (Calcutta: Visva-Bharati,1941).


_______, Santiniketan Brahmacharyasram, in Bengali, Calcutta: Visva-Bharati, 1958.

_______,  Personality, Reprint, London: Macmillan, 1959.

_______, Letters from Russia, Calcutta: Visva-Bharati, 1960.

_______, Towards Universal Man, Bombay: Asia, 1961.

________,  A Vision of India’s History, Calcutta: Visva-Bharati, 1962.

________, Palli-Prakriti, in Bengali, Calcutta: Visva-Bharati, 1962.

________, Asram-er rup o bikash, in Bengali (Calcutta: Visva-Bharati University,1967).

_______,   Visva-Bharati, in Bengali (Calcutta: Visva-Bharati University,1989).


________, Siksha, in Bengali, Revised edition, Calcutta: Visva-Bharati, 1990.

Tagore, Rathindranath, On the Edges of Time (Calcutta: Visva-Bharati University, 1958).





Other sources:


Berlin, Isaiah, ‘Rabindranath Tagore and the Consciousness of Nationality’, The Sense of Reality: Studies in Ideas and their History, ed., Henry Hardy (London, 1996).

Bhattacharya, S., ed., The Mahatma and the Poet: Letters and Debates between Gandhi and Tagore1915-1941 (New Delhi: National Book Trust,1997).


Chatterjee, Partha , Nationalist Thought and the Colonial World (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1996).

Das, Sisir Kumar, ed.,  The English Writings of Rabindranath Tagore, volume II, Plays-Stories-Essays (New Delhi: Sahitya Akademi, 1996).


_______,  The English Writings of Rabindranath Tagore,

volume III, A Miscellany (New Delhi: Sahitya Akademi, 1996).


Das Gupta, Uma, Santiniketan and Sriniketan: A Historical Introduction, a Visva-Bharati Quarterly Booklet, (Santiniketan: Visva-Bharati University, 1977).


_______, ‘Rabindranath Tagore on Rural Reconstruction: The Sriniketan Experiment, 1921-41’, The Indian Historical Review, New Delhi, 1977, IV, no.2.


_______, Rabindranath Tagore: A Biography (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2004)


_______, ed., The Oxford India Tagore: Selected Writings on Education and Nationalism (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2009)


Datta, Krishna and Andrew Robinson, eds., Selected Letters of Rabindranath Tagore (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997).


Lipner, Julius , Brahmabandhab Upadhyaya: The Life and Thought of a Revolutionary (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1999).


Nandy, Ashis, The Illegitimacy of Nationalism:Rabindranath Tagore and the Politics of Self (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1994).


O’Connell, Kathleen M., Rabindranath Tagore: Poet As Educator (Calcutta: Visva-Bharati, 2002).

Ray, Anandarup, ‘Rediscovering Santiniketan’, A Common Concern: Rediscovering Tagore’s Visva-Bharati, ed., Tan Lee  (Kolkata:Thema,2006).

Sen, Amartya, ‘Tagore and his India’, New York Review of Books, June,1997

Published in Parabaas August 7, 2009.

Illustrated by Nilanjana Basu

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