Rabindranath Tagore: Balancing the Local and the Universal

Tagore (1861-1941) was the Renaissance man of modern India – the bridge from an Indian culture dominated on the one hand by a traditionalism that had long ceased to be creative and on the other by English colonial practice whose reforms were self-interested.  He was known world wide as a poet having received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1913.  His aim was to combine a renewal of local thought, in particular that of his native Bengal, with an appreciation of the cultures of the world. The motto of the educational center he founded, Visva-Bharati, was “Where the world makes its home in a single nest.” He hoped to be able to create such a synthesis at the local level and in 1922 created a rural reconstruction program combining education and agricultural reform at Santiniketan. 

Tagore was concerned with the enlightenment of Bengal whose culture was painfully starting a revival; he was concerned with the national – the wider issue of the independence of India and what role a multicultural India would play in the world.  He was also concerned with a universal consciousness, of the relation between the human and the divine, a relationship which concerns all – everywhere.

As he wrote “I was born in 1861. It was a great period in our history of Bengal.  Just about that time the currents of three movements had met in the life of our country.”  One current was religious – the Brahmo Samaj – founded by Raja Rammohan Roy (1774-1833) in which his family was active. Brahmo Samaj’s humanistic aim was to reopen the channel of spiritual life which, for Tagore, had been obstructed for many years by the sands and the debris of creeds, caste and external practices. For Tagore, to be human is to try to go beyond oneself, to join with a greater sphere of life in sacrifice, love, and friendship.  Tagore wrote “Men must find and feel and represent in all their creative works, man the eternal, the creator…For reality is the truth of man, who belongs to all times.  Man is eager that his feeling for what is real to him must never die; it must find an imperishable form.”

Thus Tagore was interested in all the religious currents in Bengal, devotional Hinduism, the popular and mystic currents of Islam as expressed by the Bauls whose poetry he transformed into songs.  He was also interested in the Christian currents present in Bengal with the English, especially those Protestant currents which combined social reform with faith.  As he wrote concerning the influence of Christianity on Mahatma Gandhi, “As before, the genius of India has taken from her aggressors the most spiritually significant principle of their culture and fashioned of it a new message of hope for mankind.  There is in Christianity the great doctrine that God became man in order to save humanity by taking the burden of its sin and suffering on Himself.  That the starving must be fed, the ragged clad, has been emphasized by Christianity as no other religion has done…And to our great good fortune, Gandhi was able to receive this teaching of Christ in a living way.  It was fortunate that he had not to learn of Christianity through professional experts, but should have found in Tolstoy a teacher who realized the value of non-violence through the multifarious experience of his own life struggles.  For it was this great gift from Europe that our country had all along been awaiting.”

The second current was literary.  It was an effort by Tagore and other poets and writers such as Bankim Chandra Chatterji (1838-1894) to awaken the Bengali language from its stereotyped style and limitations of language.  His was an effort to bring the ordinary speech of Bengal into poetic form.  He had had intimate contact with village life in Bengal early in his life as his family had estates with many villages.  Later in 1922 he created a center for rural development and reform “Sriniketan” along side an innovative school “Santiniketan” started in 1901.

He turned his observations of Bengali life into songs, over 2000 songs, each change of season, each aspect of Bengal landscape, every sorrow and joy found a place in his songs which became Bengali “folk music”.

The third current was national.  As Tagore wrote “The national was not fully political, but it began to give voice to the mind of the people, trying to assert their own personality.  It was a voice of indignation at the humiliation constantly heaped upon us by people.”  Tagore was the first to make popular the term of ‘Mahatma’ for Gandhi.  “So disintegrated and demoralized were our people that many wondered if India could ever rise again by the genius of her own people, until there came on the scene a truly great soul, a great leader of men, in line with the tradition of the greatest sages of old – Mahatma Gandhi.  Today no one need despair of the future of the country, for the unconquerable spirit that creates has already been released.  Mahatma Gandhi has shown us a way which, if we follow, shall not only save ourselves but may also help other peoples to save themselves.”

For Tagore, the national was always linked to the universal as reflected in excepts from one of his best known poems:

“Where the mind is without fear,

And the head is held high.

Where the world has not been broken up

Into fragments by narrow domestic walls,

Where the clear stream of reason has not yet

lost its way into the dreary desert sand of dead habit,

Into that heaven of freedom, let my country awake.”


Rene Wadlow is the Representative to the United Nations, Geneva of the Association of World Citizens and the editor of the journal of world politics: www.transnational-perspectives.org