Racial problem, “true unity” to “eternal justice” – what Rabindranath Tagore said in 1917 about nationalism in India

New Delhi: Rabindranath Tagore was a genius polymath who inspired generations with his writings, music and art. He may not be known first as a philosopher, but his thought-provoking insights into the issues of his time kept him relevant for decades. And that is why the words he spoke at the beginning of the 20th century still seem contemporary and are quoted in all situations.

Tagore lived from 1861 to 1941 and during his lifetime produced many works of art, including poems, songs, music, plays, novels and essays, enriching future generations with a repository that continues to be sought after and treasured.

Tagore lived in India at a time when the country was about to shake off centuries of slavery and become independent. While primarily a poet, he repeatedly voiced his views on nationalism in India, sometimes deemed unconventional and sometimes ahead of their time. In 1917, a collection of his speeches on nationalism was published. One of them was called “Nationalism in India”. Tagore had delivered the speech during a trip to the United States of America.

On the occasion of his 161st birthday, here are some excerpts from the essay in which Tagore explained that India’s “real problem” was not political, but social, like in many other countries, and how the problem of race has afflicted the country “from the beginning of history”.

On the “racial problem” of India

“…since the beginning of history, India has constantly had its own problem before it – that is the problem of race. Every nation must be aware of its mission and we in India must realize that we look bad when we try to be political, simply because we have not yet been able to finally accomplish what our providence has proposed to us.”

Draw a parallel between India and the United States

“This problem of racial unity that we have been trying to solve for so many years must also be faced by you here in America. Many people in this country ask me what is going on with regard to caste distinctions in India But when I’m asked that question, it’s usually in a smug tone. And I’m tempted to ask the same question of our American detractors with a slight modification: “What did you do with the Red Indian? and of the Negro? For you have not overcome your caste attitude towards them. You have used violent methods to keep yourselves apart from other races, but until you have resolved the matter here in America, you have no right to interrogate India.

‘Adjusting races…’

“Despite our great difficulties…India has done something. She has tried to make an adjustment of the races, to recognize the real differences between them where they exist, while seeking a basis of unity. This basis is coming of our saints, like Nanak, Kabir, Chaitanya and others, preaching one God to all the races of India.

“Solving the World Problem”

“What India was, the whole world is now. The whole world is becoming one country through scientific facilities. And the time is coming when you too must find a basis of unity that is not political. If India can offer the world its solution, it will be a contribution to humanity. There is only one story – the story of man. All national histories are but chapters of the And we in India are happy to suffer for such a great cause.

The two alternatives

“The most important fact of the present time is that all the different races of men have come together. And again we are faced with two alternatives. The problem is whether the different groups of peoples will continue to fight against each other or will find a real basis for reconciliation and mutual aid; whether it will be endless competition or cooperation.

“We must prove our humanity”

“…those who are endowed with the moral power of love and the vision of spiritual unity, who have the slightest feeling of enmity against extraterrestrials, and the sympathetic insight to put themselves in the place of others will be those most fit to take their permanent place in the age before us, and those who constantly develop their fighting instinct and intolerance towards extraterrestrials will be eliminated, for that is the problem before us, and we must prove our humanity by solving it with the help of our higher nature.

Who is the biggest ? Country or the ideals of humanity?

“India has never had a real sense of nationalism. Even though since childhood I had been taught that the idolatry of the Nation is almost better than the respect of God and humanity, I believe that I have exceeded this teaching, and it is my conviction that my compatriots will truly win their India by fighting against this education which teaches them that a country is greater than the ideals of humanity.

“Follow Your Own Destiny”

“…I believe it is of no use to India to compete with Western civilization in its own domain. But we will be more than rewarded if, despite the insults to which we are subjected, we follow our own destiny.

“The future awaits those who…”

“We must know with certainty that there is a future ahead of us and that the future awaits those who are rich in moral ideals and not in mere things. And it is the privilege of man to work for fruits which are beyond his immediate reach, and to adapt his life not in slavish conformity to examples of some present success or even to his own cautious past, limited in its aspirations, but to an infinite future bearing in its heart the ideals of our higher expectations.

Nationalism a “threat”

“Nationalism is a big threat. This is the particular thing that for years has been at the bottom of India’s problems. And insofar as we have been ruled and dominated by a nation strictly political in its attitude, we have tried to develop in ourselves, despite our heritage from the past, the belief in our eventual political destiny.

On ‘True Unity’

“India is too vast in its area and too diverse in its races. There are many countries crammed into a single geographical receptacle… India… being naturally multiple, but accidentally we have always suffered from the relaxation of its diversity and the weakness of its unity. A true unity is like a round globe, it rolls, easily carrying its burden; but diversity is a multi-faceted thing that needs to be dragged and pushed with all your might. Let it be said to India’s credit that this diversity was not her own creation; she had to accept it as a fact from the beginning of her history… India has tolerated the difference of races from the beginning, and this spirit of tolerance has acted throughout her history.

“United States of a Social Federation, whose common name is Hinduism”

“India has always tried experiments to develop a social unity in which all the different peoples could be held together, while enjoying full freedom to maintain their own differences. The tie has been as loose as possible, but tight as circumstances permitted. It produced something like the United States of a social federation, the common name of which is Hinduism.

What India “failed to achieve”

“India had felt that racial diversity should and should be there no matter how inconvenient, and you can never constrain nature within your narrow confines of convenience without one day paying dearly for it. In this, India was right; but what she didn’t realize was that in human beings, differences are not like the physical barriers of mountains, fixed forever – they are fluid with the flow of life, they change course , shapes and volume.

“The Source of Danger in Politics”

“Those of us in India who have fallen into the illusion that mere political freedom will set us free have accepted their lessons from the West as the truth of the gospel and have lost their faith in humanity. We must remember that any weakness we cherish in our society will become the source of danger in politics.

The basis of nationalism is…

“When our nationalists speak of ideals, they forget that the basis of nationalism is lacking. The very people who uphold these ideals are themselves the most conservative in their social practice.

Simple in outer appearance, rich in inner gain

“Let our life be simple in its outward aspect and rich in its inner gain. Let our civilization take a firm stand on its basis of social cooperation and not 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 plenitude in mankind, where poverty does not take away his riches, where defeat may lead him to victory, death to immortality, and in compensation for eternal justice those who are last may yet see their insult transmuted into golden triumph.

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