New Delhi: Rabindranath Tagore was a genius polymath who has inspired generations with his writings, music and art. He may not be known as a philosopher first but his thought-provoking perceptions of the issues of his time have kept him relevant for decades. And that is the reason why the words he spoke in the early twentieth century still seem contemporary and are quoted in all situations.
Tagore lived from 1861 to 1941, and during his lifetime produced numerous works of art, including poems, songs, music, plays, novels and essays, enriching the coming generations with a repository that continues to be researched and treasured.
Tagore lived in India at a time when the country was readying to shed centuries of slavery and become independent. While he was primarily a poet, on various occasions he expressed his views on nationalism in India, which were sometimes found to be unconventional and sometimes ahead of their time. In 1917, a collection of his speeches on nationalism was published. One of them was titled ‘Nationalism in India’. Tagore had delivered the speech during a trip to the United States of America.
On his 161st birth anniversary, here are some excerpts from the essay in which Tagore argued how India’s “real problem” was not political, but social, like in many other nations, and how the problem of race has plagued the country “from the earliest beginnings of history”.
On India’s ‘Race Problem’
“…from the earliest beginnings of history, India has had her own problem constantly before her – it is the race problem. Each nation must be conscious of its mission and we, in India, must realize that we cut a poor figure when we are trying to be political, simply because we have not yet been finally able to accomplish what was set before us by our providence.”
Drawing A Parallel Between India And US
“This problem of race unity which we have been trying to solve for so many years has likewise to be faced by you here in America. Many people in this country ask me what is happening as to the caste distinctions in India. But when this question is asked (to) 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 got 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.”
‘Adjustment Of Races…’
“In spite of our great difficulty…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.”
‘Solving The World Problem’
“What India has been, the whole world is now. The whole world is becoming one country through scientific facility. And the moment is arriving when you also must find a basis of unity which is not political. If India can offer to the world her solution, it will be a contribution to humanity. There is only one history – the history of man. All national histories are merely chapters in the larger one. And we are content in India to suffer for such a great cause.”
The Two Alternatives
“The most important fact of the present age is that all the different races of men have come close together. And again we are confronted with two alternatives. The problem is whether the different groups of peoples shall go on fighting with one another or find out some true basis of reconciliation and mutual help; whether it will be interminable competition or cooperation.”
‘We Have To Prove Our Humanity’
“…those who are gifted with the moral power of love and vision of spiritual unity, who have the least feeling of enmity against aliens, and the sympathetic insight to place themselves in the position of others will be the fittest to take their permanent place in the age that is lying before us, and those who are constantly developing their instinct of fight and intolerance of aliens will be eliminated. For this is the problem before us, and we have to prove our humanity by solving it through the help of our higher nature.”
Who Is Greater? Country Or The Ideals Of Humanity?
“India has never had a real sense of nationalism. Even though from childhood I had been taught that the idolatry of Nation is almost better than reverence for God and humanity, I believe I have outgrown that teaching, and it is my conviction that my countrymen will gain truly their India by fighting against that education which teaches them that a country is greater than the ideals of humanity.”
‘Follow Own Destiny’
“…I believe that it does India no good to compete with Western civilization in its own field. But we shall be more than compensated if, in spite of the insults heaped upon us, we follow our own destiny.”
‘Future Is Waiting For Those Who…’
“We must know for certain that there is a future before us and that future is waiting for those who are rich in moral ideals and not in mere things. And it is the privilege of man to work for fruits that are beyond his immediate reach, and to adjust his life not in slavish conformity to the examples of some present success or even to his own prudent past, limited in its aspiration, but to an infinite future bearing in its heart the ideals of our highest expectations.”
Nationalism A ‘Menace’
“Nationalism is a great menace. It is the particular thing which for years has been at the bottom of India’s troubles. And inasmuch as we have been ruled and dominated by a nation that is strictly political in its attitude, we have tried to develop within ourselves, despite our inheritance from the past, a belief in our eventual political destiny.”
On ‘True Unity’
“India is too vast in its area and too diverse in its races. It is many countries packed in one geographical receptacle… India…being naturally many, yet adventitiously one has all along suffered from the looseness of its diversity and the feebleness of its unity. A true unity is like a round globe, it rolls on, carrying its burden easily; but diversity is a many-cornered thing which has to be dragged and pushed with all force. Be it said to the credit of India that this diversity was not her own creation; she has had to accept it as a fact from the beginning of her history…India tolerated difference of races from the first, and that spirit of toleration has acted all through her history.”
‘United States Of A Social Federation, Whose Common Name Is Hinduism’
“India has all along been trying experiments in evolving a social unity within which all the different peoples could be held together, yet fully enjoying the freedom of maintaining their own differences. The tie has been as loose as possible, yet as close as the circumstances permitted. This has produced something like a United States of a social federation, whose common name is Hinduism.”
What India ‘Failed To Realize’
“India had felt that diversity of races there must be and should be whatever may be its drawback, and you can never coerce nature into your narrow limits of convenience without paying one day very dearly for it. In this India was right; but what she failed to realize was that in human beings differences are not like the physical barriers of mountains, fixed forever – they are fluid with life’s flow, they are changing their courses and their shapes and volume.”
‘The Source Of Danger In Politics’
“Those of us in India who have come under the delusion that mere political freedom will make us free have accepted their lessons from the West as the gospel truth and lost their faith in humanity. We must remember whatever weakness we cherish in our society will become the source of danger in politics.”
The Basis Of Nationalism Is…
“When our nationalists talk about ideals, they forget that the basis of nationalism is wanting. The very people who are upholding these ideals are themselves the most conservative in their social practice.”
Simple In Outer Aspect, Rich In Inner Gain
“Let our life be simple in its outer aspect and rich in its inner gain. Let our civilization take its firm stand upon its basis of social cooperation and not upon that of economic exploitation and conflict…We should actively try to adapt the world powers to guide our history to its own perfect end.”
On ‘Eternal Justice’
“…I will persist in believing that there is such a thing as the harmony of completeness in humanity, where poverty does not take away his riches, where defeat may lead him to victory, death to immortality, and in the compensation of Eternal Justice those who are the last may yet have their insult transmuted into a golden triumph.”