Valuable Glimpses of the Tagore Legacy

Tan Chung


Uma Das Gupta (ed), The Oxford India Tagore: Selected Writings on Education and Nationalism, 2009, Oxford University Press.


There are macrocosmic and microcosmic aspects of the Tagore legacy. From the macro-perspective, as Jawaharlal Nehru was the main founding father of modern Indian politics, Rabindranath Tagore was that of modern Indian culture. In this sense, Tagore’s greatness cannot be sized up merely through the prism of a historical personality. Any appreciation of India’s cultural achievement is also a recognition of the great Tagore. From the micro-perspective, Tagore was a man of many parts, a speaker who had lectured many hundreds of times in life, a prolific writer generating an ocean of ideas and ideals, noble sentiments, fancies and romantic imagery. Tagore has left his imprints so scattered and spread his impact so far and wide that his image has grown into a gigantic tree. Like all gigantic trees, the image of Tagore has been the target of stormy winds and rains made up of idolatry from one direction and vilification from another, with gusts of rumours and distortions in between.


While no single book can size up both the macro and micro aspects of the Tagore legacy, the book under review authored by a seasoned historian, Prof. Uma Das Gupta, inspires its readership for such a discourse. I see Uma making micro its entry points and macro its end. The book teaches us how to approach the Tagore legacy in the first place, and then gives us valuable glimpses of that legacy. In this sense, it is a unique, penetrating and sophisticated academic work, trying to achieve the impossible yet having achieved it substantially. For those who wish to know or understand Tagore, it is a study-companion at hand. For the general public, it is remarkably absorbing and inspiring reading material.


Americans think a good driver is one who let the car drive itself. Likewise, Uma is a good commentator on historical personality that she would always reveal very little of her own views so that the target person of her book could have a dialogue with the readers without intermediary.  When we read Uma’s book we don’t see the editor, but we see what the editor wants us to see --- as if happily, comfortably and leisurely guided by an invisible tour guide during sightseeing.


History constructs itself hence no historian is supposed to construct, but only to interpret it. In this book, Uma Das Gupta has done both interpretation and construction. She is a historian, but has, in recent years, shown much kung fu in Bengali literature, especially in Tagore literature. I see in this book and its forerunners[1], Uma’s intentions to construct a historical phenomenon --- a kind of Tagore-lore for want of a better expression. She is in the process of constructing a historical figure who made history, and yet has not been fully recognized nor well identified by history. As is described elsewhere, Tagore has been actively worshipped and “raised to the Olympian pedestal” in Bengal on the one hand, and regarded as a carpet-bagger-like Nobel laureate who has evanesced and is “barely more than a name” in most parts of the world.[2] To Uma who always talks gently even when she is annoyed, such a commentary is meaningless, if not misconceived. She is ready to defend Rabindranath Tagore and gain justice for a man whose real image in the mirror of history, nevertheless, should emerge, justify and defend itself, letting all the eulogies and vilifications fall by the wayside.


The book has five chapters respectively under “Autobiographical”, “Founding a New Education”, “East and West in a Scientific Age”, “The Problem of India”, and “A Self-Respecting Nationalism as Our Salvation”. These are like five separate platforms to stage Tagore’s own words and sentiments. They are designed by Uma to view Tagore from five different angles, and thus to obtain a panoramic image of Tagore. 


The first chapter is especially projected to “reflect how his [Tagore’s] thought and action grew out of his family’s non-conventional patriotic influences as also from the ambivalent and politically charged times in which he grew up.” (p. 4) The text included a great number of excerpts from Tagore’s reminiscences in various writings and talks (including his talks in China in 1924). Some data are drawn from Tagore’s autobiography in Bengali, Atmaparichay, rendered into English by Uma. The chapter serves to cover the entire journey of Tagore’s odyssey as characterized by his letter to Romain Rolland to be a permanent “civil war” between personality and creativity, and a constant quest for a harmonizing rhythm. (pp. 80-81).


The second chapter contains lots of new information and insight to unpack what Tagore has thought and done as educator and educationist, and even further as the custodian of the human “treasure of spiritual wisdom”. Tagore’s educational ideas and the “mission of Visva-Bharati” (Tagore’s new educational institution imbued with his universalism) are highlighted in these pages. It is interesting as well as enlightening to read Tagore’s description of the “English education” in India as dried, stale, monotonous tinned food with “only one particular ingredient needful for our vitality”. (p. 160) There is, of course, Tagore’s ideal ashram, “a complete world itself, self-sustaining, independent, rich with ever renewing life, radiating light across space and time, attracting and maintaining round it a planetary system of dependent bodies, imparting life-breath to the complete man”. (p. 160)


The third chapter is easily the most exciting and inspiring part of the book, projecting a sage’s overview of the human civilization of his times. This overview further projects Tagore as the man of all times in search of “the eternal laws of universe”. There is Tagore’s observation and prophecy that the might-is-right Europe has planted its own ruin in deviating from the “supreme method of self-preservation” of judicious dealing with the world of humans rather than “merely with the world of matters”. (p. 176) How true! Tagore also spoke out the true feelings of his fellow Asians in his letter to the great French writer, Roman Rolland, dated October 14, 1919, “It hurts me very deeply when I think that there is hardly a corner in the vast continent of Asia where men have come to feel any real love for Europe.” (p. 191)


The chapter has judiciously highlighted Tagore’s admiration and worry for Japan’s development. Tagore loved Japanese art, admired “the spirit of Japan”, visited Japan many times and had many Japanese friends. Yet, he did not feel comfortable about the way Japan was aping the West, likening it to dressing Japan’s skeleton with Western skin, causing “eternal feuds between the skin and the bones”. Tagore also criticized the Japanese pride for “her foreign acquisition”, calling that pride “humiliation”. (pp.241-2) Tagore had long been worried that Japan had gone astray “by mastering European science”, and that “the poison of imperialism from the West” had entered “Japan’s blood”. (p. 174) In 1938, after Japan had invaded China and resorted to mercilessly killing innocent civilians, Tagore minced no words in condemning Japan --- a country that had been so dear to him --- as shown in his letters to his old Japanese friend, the poet Yone Noguchi. (pp.247-9). Here, I would have liked Tagore’s second letter to Noguchi, dated October, 1938, (or a part of it) to be included in the “Nationalism in Japan” section as well. It was in that letter where Tagore made the most significant observation about Japanese militarism: “I suffer intensely not only because the reports of Chinese suffering batter against my heart, but because I can no longer point out with pride the example of a great Japan.” [3]

The fourth chapter contains excerpts of Tagore’s political opinions from his essays and correspondence that have been put together under the rubric of “the problem of India” without specificity. The narrative makes very interesting reading, revealing how a great thinker looked at his own country that suffered both political subjugation under  British colonialism and at the down-trodden Indian masses being alienated from the educated elite in their own society. It was not just Tagore’s special position of being vastly respected by the Englishmen but also Tagore’s own human magnanimity that was the source of Tagore’s contradictory feelings vis-ŕ-vis the Englishmen. “I have seen many great Englishmen.” said Tagore, “They never hesitate to stand up against wrong whether done by others or by their own countrymen.” (p. 335) At the same time, Tagore also remarked: “We forget that the Englishman is not of us, but over us; and if ever we should reach the Olympian heights where he dwells, only then could we know at what a distance we are and how ridiculously diminutive we look.” (p. 316) Tagore was against opposing the British colonial repressive violence with Indian revolutionary violence. “To light the fire and then complain that it burns is absolutely childish” observed Tagore. (p. 310) Tagore admired Mahatma Gandhi “who upholds the noblest spirit of India, the spirit of Buddha himself”. (p. 309) To Tagore, “It was the great personality of Mahatma Gandhi which inspired this courage, under persecutions frankly brutal and cowardly insidious, into the heart of the dumb multitude of India, suffering for ages from the diffidence of their own human power.” (p. 309)


The fifth chapter, under the caption of “a self-respecting nationalism as our salvation”, further spells out the commonality and difference between the Tagorian and Gandhian approaches to India’s salvation. The chapter is prefaced by the author’s commentary that Tagore’s “position on nationalism” was criticized by “Indian nationalist leadership with the exception of Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru”, that to Tagore, “the history of the growth of freedom is the history of the perfection of human relationship” (p. 339), also that Tagore and Gandhi differed in their methods in achieving the goal of nationalism. Uma purposely chooses to end the chapter, also the book, with the Tagore song, “Jana gana mana adhinayaka” (Victory to Thee, builder of India’s destiny) which was chosen as India’s national anthem by no other persons than Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru. The chapter has another refreshing feature of reproducing the English translation of a Bengali novel of Tagore, Four Chapters which is one of Tagore’s novels charged with nationalist feelings.


As the book is the forum for Tagore’s spoken and written words, Uma worked hard in her archival research at the libraries of the university of Oxford and London, Reading University, Harvard University, in Dartington Hall, the British Museum, the New York Public Library, and, in particular, the Rabindra-Bhavana at Santiniketan which has now become an autonomous institution directly under the custody of the Department of Culture of the Government of India. Years of hard work have wrought in Uma one of the rare walking-encyclopedia on Tagore. In most instances, she has quoted  from Tagore’s English words directly, and, in a few cases, has herself rendered Tagore’s Bengali words into English. Material-selection becomes a matter of delicate skill, and Uma has done an excellent job in presenting the quintessential Tagore.


I would have wished to see as the book's subtitle something like “the greatness of an Indian” or “the noble soul of a mundane man” instead of “Selected Writings on Education and Nationalism”. For, what comes out from the 500-odd pages is neither “education” nor “nationalism”, it is the personification of a brilliant leaf out of Indian history. However, while I am doing it, I see myself ill-equipped to comment on such an excellent book. What I can do is to reflect on how I have been educated by leafing through it from cover to cover.


Before reading the book, I already had visualized Tagore as a lighthouse at a period when entire Asia was just awakening from its traditional slumber. Tagore’s image flew high in the first half of the 20th century. In 1924, Tagore obtained his Chinese name “Zhendan” on his 63rd birthday from Liang Qichao, one of modern China’s earliest eminent scholars on both Sinology and Indology, after telling Liang that he had both the “sun” (rabi) and “thunder” (indra) in his name. On that occasion in a reception in Beijing for Tagore during his visit to China in 1924 Liang said while christening Tagore: “When there is a sudden outburst of thunder across the hazy atmosphere that is the awakening of the universe, the pretty sun that bathes in Japan emerges from the horizon.”[4] This description succinctly summarized the Chinese feeling of the emergent new Asian star in 1913 --- the first non-white non-Western to win a place among the scores of white Western Nobel laureates. The excitement in China about this Tagore mirage-cum-miracle would not die down for many decades, and kindled the hope that the much degraded Yellow Race might also stand up like their brown Indian brethren. Lu Xun, who was modern China’s Bernard Shaw-cum-Maxim Gorky, who never had any kind word for anyone (not excluding himself), said in the 1930s that China was mute, entire Asia was mute, except the voice of Tagore.


China has remembered Tagore’s 1924 visit fondly, and few foreign writers had been so endeared to the Chinese literary circles as Tagore did from the 1920s to the 1950s. Why the Chinese have loved Tagore is not for what he has done to China, but that he is a lovable poet and human being who has loved humanity, who has loved his own land and others’ land dearly. Guo Moruo, another eminent modern Chinese writer and the cultural czar in the Mao Zedong Era, remembered that it was after reading The Crescent Moon in Japan in 1915 that he had walked out of the shadow of depression (even suicidal intentions) in life. Afterwards, Guo Moruo returned to China by boat. On April 3, 1921, as he saw the shore of his much troubled motherland when the boat was about to anchor at Shanghai, he burst out with these sentiments[5]:


O Santiniketan!
    My parent country!
 I lean on the bow gazing afar
    The plain land like the plain sea
  Sampans dancing on the waves,
    People in dreams yet to wake.
  O Santiniketan!
    My parent country!

I have rendered his original words “pinghezhi xiang” (literally “village of peace”) into “Santiniketan” (Tagore’s “abode of peace”) because I am sure that was what he meant. In another poem of Guo Moruo during the same period entitled Chen’an (Good Morning), the poet rhymed “Good morning, Venerable Tagore of Bengal!” and “Good morning, academic friends in the ashram of nature!” which is an unmistakable reference to Santiniketan. [6]


Guo was a staunch Chinese Marxist revolutionary who never met Tagore (who refused to criticize Tagore in 1924 in spite of the strong urging by his leftist comrades, but did not attend the receptions for Tagore either). Yet he had no better poetic sentiments than likening his own chaotic motherland to “Santiniketan”! In the past, Chinese had likened India to “xitian” (the western Heaven) because of the spiritual power of Buddhism. Now, Tagore’s spiritual power made a modern Chinese, as eminent as Guo Moruo, liken China to Tagore’s “abode of peace”. Tagore also owns, posthumously, intellectual property rights of the national anthems of two countries, India and Bangladesh. All this is unrivalled in the annals of history.


While I had all this information and impression, I could not explain why this was so until reading Uma’s book. The reading has crystallized my understanding of the spiritual Tagore --- of seeing Tagore as a man of truth and a sentinel for harmony, of seeing Tagore’s aim of education in making the students return “to the simplicity of perfect truth”,  and to be harmonized with his/her surroundings through the “digression of doubt”. (p. 89) I am particularly moved by these words of Tagore:


India has proved that it has its own mind, which has deeply thought and felt and tried to solve according to its light the problems of existence. The education of India is to enable this mind of India to find out truth, to make this truth its own wherever found, and to give expression to it in such a manner as only it can do.” (p. 147)


In his boyhood, Tagore hated school as “a hideously cruel combination of hospital and jail”[7], and quit it at the age of 13. He told the Chinese teachers in Beijing “When I was thirteen I finished going to school” to escape the “unbearable torture” with a burning desire inside him to jump 15-20 years of his early life to become “a grown-up man” free from the education process that he was experiencing in schools (p. 107). Uma has given Tagore lengthy coverage of his complaints against the lifeless and colourless “education factory” of his times (p. 108). The readers will also likely appreciate many remarks of Tagore that Uma has quoted in the book, such as “children are lovers of the dust, their whole body and mind thirst for sunlight and air as flowers do,” and that childhood ought to have the “freedom from the necessity of specialization into the narrow bounds of social and professional conventionalism”. (p. 91) She has judiciously brought to the reader’s notice Tagore’s “education of sympathy”, and Tagore’s goal of education in making “our life in harmony with all existence”. (p. 90)  I think all the educators of the world, especially those of China and India, have to read Uma’s book and be re-educated by Tagore to avoid the kind of behaviours of treating “the students as the basket into which knowledge is thrown” and misleading them into thinking that the “goal of learning” is to pass exams.[8]


From Uma’s book, we learn that as a Man of Truth, Tagore was, first and foremost, true to India. Jawaharlal Nehru described the difference in the development of modern China and India by one letter “r” --- China’s “revolution” vis-ŕ-vis India’s “evolution”. With or without the letter “r”, both countries were moving in the right direction. In her “Introduction”, Uma makes a similar comparison between Tagore and his more revolutionary contemporaries personified by Mahatma Gandhi and Nehru. Uma writes:


“Gandhi did not misunderstand Tagore. He called Tagore the ‘sentinel’, a soldier against the ‘enemies called Bigotry, Intolerance, Ignorance, Inertia and other members of that brood’. They [Gandhi and Tagore] ?? in one another firmly through their differences, and allowed each other the right to criticism. But in other Nationalist and Revolutionary circles Tagore was accused of being anti-nationalist and capitalist even feudal.” (p. xxxi) “Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru were never in any doubt that Tagore was a pathfinder for India’s future as a free and secular democracy which they valued and adopted. Nehru wrote about him [Tagore] ‘… Here was a man like an ancient rishi of India, deeply versed in our old wisdom and, at the same time, dealing with present day problems and looking at the future. He was essentially Indian and, at the same time, embraced all humanity.’” (pp. xxxii-xxxiii)


Another great revelation of Tagore via Uma’s book is about Tagore’s universalism which has also enhanced my insight into Tagore’s charisma in fellow-Asian minds. Though much of the passion of Tagore’s universal love is reflected in his works of art rather than what Uma’s narrative deals with, she has highlighted Tagore’s universalism diligently and truthfully. Uma has made us share the “joy and the new light” that “Universal humanity has sent us its call today”. (p. 359) Universalism to Tagore is the holy spirit “who is One, who is without distinction of class and colour”. (p. 360)


Uma has lauded Tagore’s life-long efforts in freeing “his country from the lure of territorial nationalism” (p. 163) and reiterated Tagore’s description of nationalism as the “collective Egotism of the whole nation”, the “barrier-god” and “a mania for sacrificing one another”. (p. 199) As Uma informs us, Tagore has written and talked again and again against nationalism with a missionary zeal. For instance:


“Nationalism is the training of a whole people for a narrow ideal; and when it gets hold of their minds it is sure to lead them to moral degeneracy and intellectual blindness. We cannot but hold firm the faith that this Age of Nationalism, of gigantic vanity and selfishness, is only a passing phase in civilization, and those who are making permanent arrangements for accommodating this temporary mood of history will be unable to fit themselves for the coming age, when the true spirit of freedom will have sway.” (p.228)


Thus, through Uma’s book, we see Tagore as a man of the “Age of Nationalism” but living beyond in the realm of universalism and enjoying “the true spirit” of universalism. The concrete evidence is, as Tagore reiterated on many occasions, of his devotion to imparting in “our Educational colony in Santiniketan a spirit of genuine international collaboration” (p. 231) and to make it into “a great meeting place for individuals from all countries where men who believe in spiritual unity can come in touch with their neighbors” (p. 112). Uma has earlier analyzed in another book the true meaning of Tagore’s international university, the Visva-Bharati, in having adapted a Vedic mantra “yatra visvam bhavati ekanidam” (where the whole world meets in one nest) as its goal for fulfillment.[9]


It was this world-in-one nest that had radiated its waves to unite the nascent Marxist Chinese youth, Guo Moruo, with Santiniketan where he had never been. The same radiation also united another Chinese youth, Tan Yun-shan, and made him physically join Visva-Bharati in 1928 at the age of 30. Tan Yun-shan started his long march to Santiniketan in the footsteps of the great 7th century Chinese pilgrim to India, Xuanzang, like a venture of the “white horse venturing into wilderness”. While Xuanzang returned to China and has since been remembered as the migratory bird --- the “great swan”[10], Tan Yun-shan, the modern “white horse venturing into wilderness” became the Chinese bird settling down in Tagore’s “bird-nest world” and never returned to China. I relate this episode with deep sentiments as Tagore has been a symbol to me for 80 years like my own “flesh and blood”[11].


Tagore stands out in the volume under review as a symbol of the golden bridge between the West and East. “I know there is a call for me to work towards the true union of East and West”, said Tagore. (p. 207) Uma does well to show how Tagore personified the honour and dignity of the East while admiring and respecting the West for its contribution to humanism and its advancement in science. Tagore challenged Rudyard Kipling’s widely known concept East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet. Tagore explained, “The great event of the meeting of the East and the West”, said Tagore, “has been desecrated by the spirit of contempt on the one side and a corresponding hatred on the other.” (p.191) Tagore was candid: “We in the East have long been suffering humiliation in the hands of the West. It is enormously difficult for us either to cultivate or express, any love for Western races --- especially as it may have the appearance of snobbishness or prudence”, wrote Tagore. (p. 207) He added that “Once even when being exploited and beaten Asia acknowledged Europe as in every way superior to herself.” (p. 173) Tagore stood high on the spiritual pedestal of history as a moral judge and reminded his arrogant Western friends that the holy Bible had been “absorbing the spirit of the East”. (p. 165) Tagore also made the vivid analogy of likening the Western “modern imperialism” to a python that was “swallowing other live creatures” in the name of unity. (p.197) In one of his talks in China in 1924, Tagore even condemned Western politicians as “smart and superficially critical, worshippers of self, shrewd bargainers in the market of profit and power, efficient in their handling of the ephemeral, who presumed to buy human souls with money and threw them into dust-bins when they had been sucked dry, and who, eventually, driven by suicidal forces of passion, set their neighbours’ houses on fire and were themselves enveloped by the flame.”[12]


Tagore had a penetrating insight into the Asian psyche vis-ŕ-vis the West. Tagore was proud of the East but not uncritical. “We have not seen the great in the West because we have failed to bring out the great that we have in us” (p.161) said Tagore. “It is impossible for Asia today to lower her prestige before Europe, because, of the latter’s prestige nothing remains but military browbeating.” Tagore also commented: “if Asia is not fully awakened then there is no deliverance for Europe as well.” (p. 173)


It was Tagore’s deep commitment, body and soul, to universalism that made him reject nationalism which was characterized by Tagore as the “barrier-god” and “the collective Egotism of the whole nation”. (p. 199) To Tagore, spiritual values were far greater than material. This made him strongly critical of the Western civilization which mutilated “man’s personality” and reduced the human “to a machine”. (p. 202) I should add that the solitary Chinese Padma Bhushan, the late lamented doyen of India studies in China, Prof. Ji Xianlin, had advanced a theory that the world is witnessing the decline of the Western civilizations and the rise of the Eastern civilizations which is controversial among the Chinese academia. And I see Tagore as an important inspiration for Prof. Ji for holding his fort steadfast.


All the above just demonstrates how I have been educated by Uma’s excellent book, The Oxford India Tagore: Selected Writings on Education and Nationalism, which, I am sure, will be widely read in the English-language reading world.






[1] A Difficult Friendship: Letters of Edward Thompson and Rabindranath Tagore (OUP 2003), Rabindranath Tagore: A Biography (OUP 2004), Rabindranath Tagore: My Life in My Words (Penguin 2006).

[2] Krishna Dutta & Andrew Robinson, Rabindranath Tagore: The Myriad-minded Man, 2009, New York: Tauris Parke Paperbacks, p. 1.

[3] Cf. Tan Chung, In the Footsteps of Xuanzang: Tan Yun-shan and India, 1998, New Delhi: Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts, p. 214.


[4] Liang Qichao was poetically expanding the connotations of the two Chinese words “zhen” (shock) and “dan” (dawn) with which he had christened Tagore.

[5] Guo Moruo, Huangpujiang kou (At the mouth of Huangpu River).

[6] Guo Moruo, Chen’an (Good Morning).

[7] Dutta & Robinson, p. 59.

[8] These are the wrong tendencies of Chinese education as pointed out by a Chinese expert. Cf. Tan Chung, “Education in China Through Indian Eyes”, in Sabyasachi Bhattacharya (ed), The Contested Terrain: Perspectives on Education, 1998, New Delhi: Orient Longmans, p. 395.

[9] Uma Das Gupta, Rabindranath Tagore: My Life in My Words, 2006, New Delhi: Penguin Viking, p. 199.

[10] The Chinese government built the Dayanta (Pagoda for the Great Swan) to commemorate the return of Xuanzang in the Tang capital, Chang’an. For thirteen centuries, this Dayanta has been a famous monument there to eternalize Xuanzang’s memory and is today a tourist spot in downtown Xi’an.

[11] Just after my birth in April 1929, I was presented before Tagore at Santiniketan and christened by him as “Asoka” --- a name I have borne at heart all these years, but never printed on my card. Not only that, I strongly feel that it was Tagore who changed the destiny of my father, Tan Yun-shan, in 1927, and it was Tagore who had made my destiny --- Malaya born, brought up in China, and completed my career in India.

[12] Sisir  Kumar Das, p. 94.

Published in Parabaas November 9, 2009.

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