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The Tagorean Impulse

Too long ignored, Rabindranath Tagore's writings offer a meaningful alternative in an era of nativist ressentiment

In his autobiography Raga Mala, sitar-virtuoso Ravi Shankar declared that if Rabindranath Tagore “had been born in the West he would now be [as] revered as Shakespeare and Goethe.” Principally a poet, Tagore was also a novelist, a playwright, an essayist, a lyricist, a composer, an artist, and a social reformer. He sparred with Gandhi and meditated on metaphysics with Einstein. Like Goethe, his ideas reverberated beyond Weltliteratur, seeping into politics and social life.

For someone who dialogued with some of the most influential figures of the past century, Tagore curiously failed to generate a lasting impact beyond the Indian subcontinent. It is reasonable to believe that a linguistic parochialism shackled his reputation from being sustained beyond the Bengali-speaking realm. Much was lost in insipid English translations (particularly of his poetry and songs), a handicap Tagore’s promoters in the West, among them W.B. Yeats and Ezra Pound, could not overcome. Furthermore, the Tagore marketed in the occident was that of a spiritual talisman, an oriental wizard replete with a wistful visage uttering mystical platitudes. All too simply classified as a romantic modernist and cosmopolitan, he was an anodyne image of cultural genius—universally recognized as being the first non-European to win the Nobel Prize in 1913, largely on the reputation of his poetry collection Gitanjali.

Tagore refused simplistic binaries of modernity and tradition.

The peculiar eclipse of Tagore in the West after an initial gust of enthusiasm saw his ideas buried from wider and protracted engagement. In rehabilitating his fragments then, there remains much to be gained. The question to ask becomes: How relevant is Tagore in the twenty-first century? Can he instruct us in an age of political fracture, social sadism, and techno-dislocation? 

Born in 1861, Tagore lived and operated during a period of crucial social and political transformation in India, regularly responding to its most intense permutations. Liberal humanist thought, along with the confluence of religious reformist, literary, and nationalist movements active in India during the time, had a profound impact on him. As with all modern nationalisms, the quest for an Indian “self” tethered the search for political sovereignty to a cultural project that attempted to secure the unity and identity of the incipient nation. And like the leading intellectuals of the era—Swami Vivekananda and Gandhi in particular—Tagore sought to create, restore, and give substance to an Indian self in the wake of its traumatic encounter with British colonialism.

Tagore refused simplistic binaries of modernity and tradition. By the start of the twentieth century, the lessons he drew from the Swadeshi movement left him disillusioned, as he witnessed nascent nationalism degenerate into religious communalism and class oppression. For Tagore, “India” was not a geographic expression, but an ideational one. While remaining a devoted nationalist and anti-imperialist, his thinking on the subject of nationalism travelled a journey that eventually came to be anchored by one of universal inclusivity. His writings of this formative period—Gora (1909), Gitanjali (1910), and Ghare Baire (1916)—reflected the shift from a “spiritual East” versus “materialist West” dichotomy to a vista of steadfast internationalism.

Tagore’s nationalism was a freedom from colonial degradation—a liberation of the mind and soul from slavery, rather than a foisting of the narrow parameters of identity that violently negated the Other. His critique of nationalism was expressed most forcefully in a series of lectures delivered in Japan and the United States between 1916-17, labeling it as “one of the most powerful anesthetics that man has invented.” “The Nation,” he cautioned, “with all its paraphernalia of power and prosperity, its flags and pious hymns, its blasphemous prayers in the churches, and the literary mock thunders of its patriotic bragging, cannot hide the fact that the Nation is the greatest evil for the Nation.”

Tagore made a clear distinction between the “nation” and “society.” A nation is “organized for a mechanical purpose” and is equated with the state as a “machinery of commerce and politics turning out neatly compressed bales of humanity which have their use and high market value.” In this we get a sense of Tagore’s strategic use of the term: the nation is a distinctively modern and Western phenomenon, and its “mechanical purpose” comprises an instrumental rationality in its political form.

Society, on the other hand, is a “spontaneous self-expression of man as a social being.” He believed that the trajectory of the human overflows the trajectory of the political. Historian E.P. Thompson saw this most clearly about Tagore when he wrote that “more than any other thinker of his time, Tagore had a clear conception of civil society, as something distinct from and of more personal texture than political or economic structures.”

Tagore’s debates with Gandhi from 1915 until Tagore’s death in 1941 pivoted upon this distinction. In their disagreements, a striking contrast was evident: Tagore the philosophe was committed to a rationalistic transformation of social attitudes, and Gandhi the politician was given to harnessing social biases and popular beliefs for the purpose of nationalist mobilization.

So how is freedom achieved in the Tagorean sense? The essential point here is that social and political action should only be realized in terms of its adherence to universal truth. For this reason, nationalism cannot be a means of liberation for its exclusivism and territorial chauvinism is the very negation of what Tagore claimed to be the moral law: the unity of man.

Intriguingly, Tagore saw world history in rather Hegelian terms, as the steady unfolding of an idea; the distinction being that India was placed center stage in the process of world historical development. The history of India had a special message for Tagore, where its social civilization was founded on “an adjustment of races, to acknowledge real differences between them where these exist, and yet to seek some basis of unity.” It is this “idea of India” that left an indelible impact upon Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, revealed most powerfully in his “Tryst with Destiny” speech upon the eve of India’s independence in 1947, and further echoed by Ramachandra Guha who wrote, “Nehru’s pan-Asianism and his determination to stay ‘non-aligned’ in the Cold War . . . bear the mark of Tagore’s thought.”

Tagore’s ambivalence towards nationalism puts him in the same breath as heavyweight postcolonial thinkers Franz Fanon and Edward Said, who were equally fierce critics of nationalism while simultaneously advocating for the success of national liberation movements. As anti-imperialists, all three made the case for subaltern nationalism; but an anxiety about the oppressions inherent in nationalist mobilization also led to their trenchant critiques. In Third World Protest, Rahul Rao asserts that figures like Tagore, Fanon, and Said attempted to square the circle by viewing nationalism as a transitory stage through which subaltern resistance must pass to reclaim the identity that imperialism had crushed, but which must then subsume itself in postcolonial universality for cultural intercourse between East and West to take place in an egalitarian fashion.

In what only could be considered a delectable twist of ironic nationalism, Tagore did play a central role in the production of South Asian identities, an irony even more flagrant when you consider that two of his songs—“Jana Gana Mana” and “Amar Sonar Bangla”—are the respective national anthems of India and Bangladesh.

In a chapter dedicated to the poet in The Argumentative Indian, Noble-laureate Amartya Sen argues that the Tagorean impulse was one that prioritized human freedom and open-minded reasoning above all else. Tagore likewise believed the transformative role of education as indispensable in the development process of a country. This conviction was embodied in what would later become Visva Bharati University, whose curricula-commitment to porous geographical boundaries imbued its students (which included Sen and the filmmaker Satyajit Ray) with a distinctive cosmopolitan attitude. It became a project that consumed much of Tagore’s time, the sort of didactic experimentation necessary for cultivating the twin kernels of universal knowledge and critical reason.

There has been a propensity to read Tagore’s political thinking through the philosophical discourse of cosmopolitanism.

As a result, there has been a propensity to read Tagore’s political thinking through the philosophical discourse of cosmopolitanism. Along with Sen, Martha Nussbaum and Isaiah Berlin have engaged Tagore through this prism, and they interpret his pluralist ethos as evidence for an eschewing of tradition for a higher plane of morality. Tagorean cosmopolitanism manifests in two forms: as both normative and educational. It is a classical virtue (the “world citizen”) that inoculates the citizen against the scourge of nationalist and ethnocentric particularism, and a pedagogical vision receptive to the creative impulses of the broader world.

But such readings, which were preoccupied with producing a critique of patriotism, miss the mark when directed at Tagore. His cosmopolitanism is not the Kantian variety, where the local is jettisoned in favor of an abstract universal reason. Rather, it is a motivation ultimately grounded in an existential orientation, a way of being in the world.

Two schools of Indian philosophy informed Tagore’s thinking as it applied to the social realm—Vedanta (the non-dualistic and Upanishadic texts) and Buddhism. While divergent, there is canonical agreement on one tenet: that the phenomenal world of everyday cognition is ontologically interconnected. It then stands to follow that Tagore’s social and political insights can be understood as extensions of this fundamental non-atomistic metaphysical orientation. Seen against the horizon of metaphysical interdependence, Tagore’s conception of rationality does not yield a purely postmodern toleration of alterity, but aspires to dissolve instances of Otherness altogether by enriching one’s own tradition through absorption and assimilation. The Other in the Tagorean universe is culturally portable and malleable. The evolution of Hindustani music, a remarkable collaboration between Hindu and Muslim cultures, embodies this spirit.

Of Tagore’s richly constituted cosmopolitanism, Rao’s rejoinder to his misappropriation is fitting:

Tagore’s awareness of the spatially dispersed nature of threats to freedom, exemplified in a deep and simultaneous antipathy towards both the brutal modernism of imperialism and the claustrophobia of authoritarian nationalism, induced him to occupy a space between cosmopolitanism and nationalism.

Tagore implores us to be critical of both home and the world, without offering unthinking fidelity to either.

Today’s political climate is characterized by what Nietzsche called ressentiment—“a whole tremulous realm of subterranean revenge, inexhaustible and insatiable in outbursts.” At least that is Pankaj Mishra’s thesis in Age of Anger, where he grapples with our reactionary moment that is punctuated by an insurgent demagoguery that liberal rationalism can no longer account for.

Electoral fragmentation and rupture of the neoliberal consensus is witnessed by the rise of populism and creeping authoritarianism. Protofascism is rehabilitated on the right around issues of identity, immigration, and autarky. All the while the accumulating dysfunctions of the political center become starker as it adapts to a topography of xenophobic insecurity. The giddy post-Cold War theodicy that told us history had reached the ideological terminus of liberal democracy never seemed more far-fetched. The polarization of politics, and by extension the demos, never seemed so intractable.

Tagore was wedded to the notion that reality is shorn of any coherence and stability.

In an age of uncertainty when the tenuous foundations of democracy are aggravated by techno-capitalism, strongmen promise order while manipulating the cynicism and discontent of distressed masses steadily intoxicated by the tonic of nativism. Demands for assurance yield quick fixes and direct ire upon the weak and marginalized, nurturing a culture of cruelty and opening the door for paternalistic merchants like Jordan Peterson to gain traction.

By mourning for simpler times, political antidotes to the sinister pathologies unleashed by Trump, Brexit, Vladimir Putin, Narendra Modi, and Recep Erdoğan converge around a common theme: the weaponization of nostalgia. It is an impetus that services an irrational demand in the face of chaos, where the present should abolish itself and make way for a return to the past.

Modi’s India is a nightmare Tagore would have anticipated. The sheer persistence of Brahmanical revivalisms at the very heart of what were expected to be structures of modernity—didn’t yield any kind of modernity, precisely due to the extensive compromises made with colonial representations of Indian history and because caste culture could double as a “national culture.” Revivalist politics, Tagore had warned, was only a short step from communal frenzy.

In Ghaire Baire (appearing in English as The Home and the World), a love triangle of two men and a woman, can be read as a cautioning against the lure of nationalist and religious zealotry. Nikhil, a progressive zamindar (landlord), embodies various cosmopolitan tropes, and is focused on long-term social transformation. His friend Sandip meanwhile, represents the claims of nationalism as a staunch advocate of the Swadeshi cause, crafting a register heavily imbibed with Hindu symbolism and myth to mobilize grievances at the expense of the minority. Bimala, Nikhil’s wife, is cast as the personification of Bengal—the terrain upon which the two men’s values come into conflict—and the novel’s arbiter. Early on, Sandip’s rhetorical potency and commitment to delivering the nation from imperial subjugation has a magnetic pull upon Bimala (the eroticization of their relationship evidently a metaphor for the seductiveness of Swadeshi nationalism). While she is increasingly ridden with doubt, the pernicious horizon of Sandip’s political activism becomes apparent as communalism erupts with tragic consequences, leaving Bimala gripped by remorse.

With so much of modern thought embracing certainty, dexterous thinkers like Tagore are wedded to the notion that reality is shorn of any coherence and stability. Armed with an expressive ambiguity and suspicion of abstractions, the path towards ideological inelasticity could be circumvented. Operating as he did during an epoch of confusion and uncertainty, Tagore was part of a generation of thinkers that navigated through a coppice of challenges, arriving not at explicit solutions but with original ideas that were reformulated as the conditions dictated.

Ultimately, Tagore’s approach cuts a middle path between the totalizing closures of modernity and the pluralistic fragments of postmodernity. Indeed, the future may rest upon how well the two divergences are negotiated. These rousing lines from Gitanjali extol that Tagorean invocation:

Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high
Where knowledge is free
Where the world has not been broken up into fragments by narrow domestic walls

To combat the ailments of sectarianism and provincialism, Tagore invokes the ideal of human solidarity to transcend them. It is an unwavering faith that resonates almost a century later, for “what is needed is eagerness of heart for a fruitful communication between different cultures. Anything that prevents this is barbarism.” The plurality of difference, far from ensuring dissonance, raises the prospect of new ways forward. If we are to breach ethnocentric walls and valorize a common humanity, a Tagorean temperament appears as useful as ever: a crepuscular guide for our dark and divisive times.