Tagore’s Nationalism: An Ethereal Vision for a Unified Humanity 

Shivani Badgaiyan

Jun 24, 2024, 11:48 AM | Updated 11:48 AM IST

Rabindranath Tagore (Image courtesy Wikipedia)
Rabindranath Tagore (Image courtesy Wikipedia)

The ideation of the philosophy of nationalism consists of various dispositions and manifestations. When we gaze upon Rabindranath Tagore’s nuanced perspective on nationalism, he describes it to be a product of modern science and technological advancements and contextualises that idea in the backdrop of the rise of nationalistic aspirations in India and certain other countries of Europe in the twentieth century. His ideas have been perceived as unconventional as his intellectual deliberations on nationalism lie in broad humanistic concern rather than a constrained political strategy. As this year marked Rabindranath Tagore’s 163rd birth anniversary, this article highlights his viewpoints and the symbolic significance of his perception of nationalism. 

Rabindranath Tagore has conceptualised nationalism through demarcation of a nation and a society. He explained the transition of society into a political organisation when power begins to grow along with wealth and material prosperity. According to him, a nation is a “political and economic union of people” as compared to a society which has no ulterior motive and “an end in itself”. According to his philosophy and understanding, the history of the Indian civilization has been of “continual social adjustment”, away from fights for political supremacy and organised power used for the purpose of defence and aggression. The Indian civilization being centuries old, has been trying to live peacefully, devoid of politics and divisions with the sole ambition of recognising the world as a single soul with people living with an eternal and personal relationship with it, and the West just bursted in. 

Tagore opined that the idea of nationalism was the embodiment of western ideas of capitalism and mechanisation, as he argued that the Western influence was counter to the Indian spiritual ideals and different from what India had to accomplish. He pointed out the significance of the Indian society as a natural regulation of human relationships to develop ideals of life in cooperation with one another. He tried to put forward the meaning of the humanist conception of nationalism away from mechanistic and commercial purposes. 

The machinery of commerce and politics in the West had turned humans into “mechanistic tools, bound in iron hoops” and “labelled towards compressed bales”. Tagore has pointed out that Indians have been witnesses to the true meaning of the value nations hold for humanity. The ruling foreign invaders were always treated as human races, with their own religion and customs, and not as a collective nation. But in the case of the West, Indians had to deal with a nation in the situation of not being a nation themselves. 

Referring to the anarchists and their perception of power, he defined power as “scientific product in the laboratory of the nation through dissolution of personal humanity.” The power of the nation is at the cost of harmony of higher social life, which is in turn an evil for humanity. A very specific note by Tagore in his essays on Nationalism explains the true meaning of nation that “the Nation has more to do with the history of Man than specially with that of India.” He specifies that the transition of a moral man to a political man when he makes room for “gigantic proportion of power” upsets man’s moral balance and obscures his “human side under the shadow of soulless organisation”. 

Tagore did not believe in exclusive political interest when he said, “Our real problem in India is not political. It is social. This is a condition not only prevailing in India, but among all nations”. He criticised the fact that the political arena of the West has dominated its ideals and India has been trying to imitate it in order to move towards the same materialist approach and the civilization has taken on the character of “political and commercial aggressiveness”. 

He specified that in earlier times, there were geographical limits of each country and people could manage to have a sense of unity within their area of segregation and it was their moral spirit of cooperation which was the true basis for their greatness as it also fostered art, science and religion. He was against the system of education that taught the idea of nationalism and nation greater than the idea of humanity. 

He signified the role of education in India which has been submissive in nature with respect to the western countries. His opinion is reflected in his lines, “We have seen in these countries how the people are encouraged and trained and given every facility to fit themselves for the great movements of commerce and industry spreading over the world, while in India the only assistance we get is merely to be jeered at by the Nation for lagging behind.” A very strong criticism of the Western civilization is also mentioned in the following line, “this civilization is the civilization of power, therefore it is exclusive; it is naturally unwilling to open its sources of power to those whom it has selected for its purposes of exploitation”. 

He opined of the fact that the narrowness of moral freedom is an evil and much more radical not because of its quantity but because of its nature as he stated the paradox that, “while the spirit of the West marches under its banner of freedom, the Nation of the West forges its iron chains of organisation which are the most relentless and unbreakable that have ever been manufactured in the whole history of man”. Describing the nature of man, he has expressed that man is not powerful but perfect, therefore, to gain power, he has to curtail his soul as much as possible because when fully human, the instincts of social life and humanistic ideals stand in the way for harming others. 

He referred to Japan as a Nation which stood upon the higher ideals of humanity and never followed the West or garnered for its acceptance and also never gloated about the feebleness of its neighbours and worked following its own humanitarian ideals as the religion of the country. He stated that a country has to develop from within, because as the inheritance is exhausted, weapons of western civilization will only remain to procure or inherit. Comparing with the European nations, which have their history and strong past to be influenced with, he urged that India could not borrow from other people’s history when having its own civilization to follow.  

Throughout his writings on nationalism, Tagore held a broader vision of world unity and cooperation that would transcend political boundaries and material pursuits. His perception of nationalism relied on the Indian philosophy of ‘Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam’. In a world grappling with the challenges of globalisation and cultural conflicts, his thoughts provide a compelling framework for rethinking the nature of nationalism in a manner which could align with universal human values. 

Research Fellow, India Foundation 

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