Thursday, May 29, 2014

Nationalism by Rabindranath Tagore

Title: Nationalism
Author: Rabindranath Tagore
Original Publication Date: 1942
Pages: 143

You have to heartily concede it to Tagore, he is still no less poetic writing this essay on nationalism than if he were writing a poem.

“And yet 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 where in the compensation of Eternal Justice those who are the last may yet have their insult transmuted into a golden triumph. 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 co-operation and not upon that of economic exploitation and conflict.”(92)

And really this is what Nationalism is all about. It is maintaining the morality amidst the inevitable mechanical aspects of progress.

Nationalism is more of an essay than an academic work. This contains Tagore’s ruminations on nationalism from his extensive travels. It is divided into chapters on Nationalism in the West, Nationalism in Japan, Nationalism in India, and fittingly it is ended by a poem originally written in Bengali.

The chapter on Nationalism in the West provides us the framework with which Tagore undertook writing on nationalism. Nationalism is, as he claims, created by the concept of the ‘Nation’, “in the sense of the political and economic union of a people, is that aspect which a whole population assumes when organized for a mechanical purpose.”(12) This working definition does not stray from traditional definitions arrived at in the social sciences. Tagore however points out that the ‘Nation’ has a mechanized and amoral aspect that drains man of spirit and morality. “this strenuous effort after strength and efficiency drains man's energy from his higher nature where he is self-sacrificing and creative. For thereby man's power of sacrifice is diverted from his ultimate object, which is moral, to the maintenance of this organization, which is mechanical. Yet in this he feels all the satisfaction of moral exaltation and therefore becomes supremely dangerous to humanity.”(78) A caveat on Tagore’s term on the use of the West, the West refers exclusively to Europe and does not include the Americas (probably both by reason of his sentiments of freedom and the fact that America has just gotten a foothold on the pedestal of world superpowers at that point).

The chapter on Nationalism in Japan reveals Tagore’s admiration for the Japanese Nation and calls it the nation that the Asian region should emulate (this was published in 1942, written earlier and I would almost give anything to satiate my curiosity on Tagore’s reaction on Japan’s participation in the Second World War).

The chapter on Nationalism in India is more of an examination and admonition. Though what is curious to me is that Tagore initially justifies the establishment of the caste system as a legitimate response to the diversity present in Indian society and bolsters this stand by juxtaposing the Indian response to that of the American response which is of futile deferral and discriminatory avoidance. Though Tagore later on calls for an action that rises above the caste system and stays true to the morality he is espousing in this work.

What is so amazing in reading this is Tagore wrote a postcolonial approach in a time when such methods of intellectual discourse are yet to be conceive decades hence, in a time when future notified scholars like Said and his Orientalism and Spivak and his Subaltern are but suckling babes in conceiving their respective postcolonial theories. This point is clear when Tagore wrote that, “You (addressing Japan) must apply your Eastern mind, your spiritual strength, your love of simplicity, your recognition of social obligation, in order to cut out a new path for this great unwieldy car of progress, shrieking out its loud discords as it runs. You must minimize the immense sacrifice of man's life and freedom that it claims in its every movement.”(43)
This statement further resonates with the scholar and the Filipino in me when, “And yet someone must show the East to the West, and convince the West that the East has her contribution to make to the history of civilization.”(75)

Tagore’s writing is also defined by his unwavering idealism and incomparable desire to pursue morality. This leads to his loving belief that men, are innately good. “Man in his fullness is not powerful, but perfect. Therefore, to turn him into mere power, you have to curtail his soul as much as possible. When we are fully human, we cannot fly at one another's throats; our instincts of social life, our traditions of moral ideals stand in the way.”(30)

Tagore’s aim was noble in writing this, but as I said, this is not an academic treatise on Nationalism. Tagore presents us the danger inherent in modernization, the alienation and mechanization of the human spirit, he provides recourse for the invasion of the imperial capitalistic designs of the West, but does not actually provide for a concrete solution to the inevitable force of modernization.

I fittingly  end this review by quoting the last stanza of his beautiful poem.

“Be not ashamed, my brothers, 
to stand before the proud and the powerful
With your white robe of simpleness.”
“Let your crown be of humility,
your freedom the freedom of the soul.
Build God's throne daily
upon the ample bareness of your poverty
And know that what is huge is not great
and pride is not everlasting.”(97)

Other works by Rabindranath Tagore:
The Gardener (4 Stars)
Gitanjali (4 Stars)

This book forms part of my remarkably extensive reading list on Nobel Prize for Literature Awardees
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