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Relevance of Tagore’s global vision

Abhik Roy |

In recent times, it has become quite common among scholars to write about global education that will prepare students about cultural diversity. I contend that the Western liberal education&’s push for a global perspective is not a new concept. In fact, Rabindranath Tagore was a precursor. He was not only a forerunner in envisioning a globalized world community but also lived his entire life as a veritable citizen of the world. In his day, Tagore was a pioneer for successfully founding Viswa-Bharati, a university that was truly international in its philosophy, goals and curriculum in Santiniketan in 1921. It was Tagore&’s global vision that helped establish Cheena Bhavana in 1937, the only one of its kind in India at that time, where renowned international scholars worked.

The development and cultivation of Tagore&’s appreciation of other cultures began at a young age when he was exposed to world literature. His family encouraged thought-provoking and stimulating discussions on the great intellectuals of the West while many of the Continental writers’ works were read in the original language. Growing up in a family that respected divergent perspectives on intellectual and creative matters helped shape Tagore&’s view that the primary role of literature was to foster intercultural understanding among people.

It is little wonder that Tagore turned out to be undogmatic in his views, innately curious about cultures and quintessentially cosmopolitan to be able to embrace the best of both East and West. Tagore was interested in establishing close partnerships between the East and West grounded on equality, mutuality and respect. On the prospect of the two becoming close partners, he shared with his friend: “nothing would give (him) greater happiness than to see the people of the West and East march in common crusade all that robs the human spirit of its significance” (quoted in K. Dutta, 1997, p. 197).

Tagore was known for his wanderlust. Between 1878 and 1932, Tagore traveled to more than thirty countries on five continents. The following poem, “Land,” aptly captures his spirit as a citizen of the world:

At every land my home is there,

Which I am out to conquer.

At every land there are my kith and kin,

To reckon whom, keen I have been (translated by R. Dasgupta).

It was Tagore&’s humanism coupled with his cosmopolitanism that enabled him to form empathic relationships with citizens of other nations. He wrote: “I have been fortunate in coming into close touch with individual men and women of the Western countries, and have felt with them their sorrows and shared their aspirations…” (East and West, p. 45). Although Tagore was fascinated with his travels and savored his intimate interactions with people, he never forgot his commitment to fight against nationalism and colonization. He was severely critical of Britain and Europe for colonizing weaker nations and for launching wars that resulted in death, destruction and suffering for many. Despite his admiration for Japanese culture and history, Tagore was unflinching in his criticism of Japan&’s militarism and its atrocities against the Chinese.

Tagore had a profound appreciation of the pluralistic nature of our universe with its rich diversity of people and culture. He believed that the ultimate purpose of life lay in establishing a sense of “oneness” with others based on love: “the object of this Oneness in us [is] to realize its infinity by perfect union of love with others” (The Poet&’s Religion, p. 4).

Tagore was a staunch believer in a dialogical world where people from different cultures would engage in communication marked by respect, reciprocity, empathy, and generosity. He was strongly opposed to the modernist conception of the nation-state and regarded it as a menace to “the ideal of universal harmony” or “to the perfection of relationships” (U. Dasgupta, 2013). For Tagore, nationalism was an “organization of trade and commerce” (Nationalism, p. 7) that brought a “harvest of wealth” (Nationalism, p. 5) for a few; it was inimical to the development of the “moral man, the complete man” and, instead, it produced “the political and commercial man, the man of limited purpose” (Nationalism, p. 9).

In both Tagore&’s The Home and the World and Four Chapters, he forcefully showed how exploitation, violence and killing become ritualistic acts when conscience, sense of reason and justice are sacrificed and nationalism is put on a pedestal for blind worship. It was his strong opposition to nationalism that prompted several Western intellectuals to criticize Tagore with great venom and ferocity. Some of these critics viewed Tagore&’s position on nationalism as being hopelessly romantic and even illogical. These critics failed to appreciate the deep creative and spiritual impulse in Tagore that led him to think beyond the linear ways and binary oppositions that many Westerners are accustomed to.

In keeping with his global spirit, Tagore was not only vehemently opposed to nationalism but he was also equally vocal in his criticism of communalism, casteism and religious sectarianism in India. Tagore&’s writings consistently emphasized racial and religious harmony. For example, in the following beautiful hymn, Bharat Tirtha (The Indian Pilgrimage), he exhorted Indians to unify by overcoming differences of race, religion, and class:

Come Aryans, come non-Aryans, Hindus and Mussalmans—

Come today, Englishmen, come Christians!

Come Brahmin, cleansing your mind

Join hands with all—

Come downtrodden, let the burden

Of every insult be forever dispelled.

Make haste and come to Mother coronation, the vessel auspicious

Is yet to be filled

With sacred water sanctified by the touch of all

By the shore of the sea of Bharat&’s great humanity!

He believed India could achieve this kind of unity in diversity only through proper education of the people, elimination of poverty and cultivation of freedom of ideas and imagination.

Tagore&’s world was plura-listic, holistic and transcendent, breaking the boundaries of nation/state that would allow individuals to effectively balance the supernatural person, the universal human spirit and one&’s own individual aspects. He believed that the ultimate destiny for humans lay in the creation of a global community by enlightened individuals from all cultures who would help engender love, peace and harmony among individuals and nations. Tagore used the metaphor of a rose to describe the process of forming an enlightened global community:

The purpose of a rose lies in the unfolding of its petals to convey its distinctiveness. Similarly, the rose of humanity becomes perfect only when the diverse races and nations have evolved their distinctive qualities and are all attached to the stem of humanity by the bond of love (translated by M.A. Quayum).

Although pecuniary interests mostly drive globalization, which Tagore vehemently opposed, we also witness increased partnerships between the East and West in the intellectual, creative and spiritual spheres that he espoused. While some may find Tagore&’s ideas of a globalized world community idealistic and unattainable, no one can deny the fact that we live in a world where we frequently encounter people from other cultures – something that Tagore had written about a long time ago. In order to meet the challenges of globalization, colleges and universities all over the world are now offering programmes that are international in scope, which Tagore&’s Viswa Bharati has been offering students since its inception in 1921. We even find the American philosopher, Martha Nussbaum, utilizing Tagore&’s ideas of global education to promote humanities in higher education in America, which would prepare students to appreciate multiculturalism.

It is indeed ironic that some European contemporaries of Tagore were scathing in their critique of his position on nationalism, while in recent times eminent scholars such as Benedict Anderson, Noam Chomsky, Ernest Gellner and Tom Nairn, among others, share Tagore&’s view that nationalism is irrational, violent and engenders racism. Tagore painted an ominous picture of modern nationalism that would embroil nations in war and carnage, death and destruction. He wrote:

The last sun of the century sets amidst the blood-red clouds of the West and the whirlwind of hatred. The naked passion of self-love of Nations, in its drunken delirium of greed, is dancing to the clash of steel and the howling verses of vengeance (Nationalism, p. 80).

As Tagore had correctly predicted, we are now witnessing what the post-colonial critic, Arif Dirlik, has labeled as “native chauvinism,” which is spreading violence all over the world. It is with profound dismay that many of us also observe how this kind of nationalism serves as an opiate for people who have abandoned their sense of morality and justice and are ready to kill and die for its cause. Sadly, we also witness that communalism, casteism, and nativism are rearing their ugly heads in India today. It is in such challenging times that we may want to wake up from our moral slumber and embrace Tagore&’s magnificent idea of a unified global community that is founded on peace, harmony, solidary and justice while opposing belligerent nationalism, which is spreading like cancer all over the world, threatening the moral, spiritual and humanistic foundations of our existence.

The writer is professor of communication studies, Loyola Marymount University, Los Angeles and can be reached at [email protected]