Rabindranath Tagore in 1908: ‘I will never allow patriotism to triumph over humanity as long as I live’

The creator of the national anthem and his views on nationalism, “freedom of mind” and opinions “forcibly made alike”.

Written by Aniruddha Ghosal | Updated: December 2, 2016 12:40 pm
national anthem, supreme court, national anthem in movies, national anthem before movies, movies national anthem supreme court national anthem, india news Rabindranath Tagore (Illustration: Subrata Dhar)

In 1908, Rabindranath Tagore wrote a letter to his friend, A M Bose, and said, “Patriotism can’t be our final spiritual shelter. I will not buy glass for the price of diamonds and I will never allow patriotism to triumph over humanity as long as I live.” Three years after he wrote this letter — part of Selected Letters of Rabindranath Tagore, published by Cambridge University Press in 1997 — his composition, Jana Gana Mana, was sung for the first time at the Calcutta session of the Congress. Now, 105 years later, as a Supreme Court bench of Justices Dipak Misra and Amitava Roy makes it mandatory for movie halls to play Jana Gana Mana and for people present to stand up as part of their “sacred obligation” to the national anthem, Tagore’s composition has come to symbolise nationalism — something the Nobel laureate was not only critical of, but had famously described as “carnivorous and cannibalistic”.

Recently, Trinamool Congress MP Sugata Bose said in Parliament, “I sometimes fear that those who are defining nationalism so narrowly will end up one day describing Rabindranath Tagore as anti-national if they read some of the sentences in his book on nationalism.”

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Throughout his life, Tagore remained deeply critical of nationalism, a position that pitted him against Mahatma Gandhi. Tagore argued that when love for one’s country gives way to worship, or becomes a “sacred obligation”, then disaster is the inevitable outcome. “I am willing to serve my country; but my worship I reserve for Right which is far greater than country. To worship my country as a god is to bring curse upon it,” Tagore wrote in his 1916 novel, The Home and the World. The words were spoken by Nikhil, one of the two protagonists in the novel, who many thought to be Tagore’s alter-ego.

Further, Tagore argued that disagreement and different notions were of utmost importance. Writing from the Soviet Union in 1937, Tagore reacted positively to the Soviet Experiment, particularly their attempts at eradicating lack of education, but warned of any attempt to curb “freedom of mind”. He wrote, “It would be an uninteresting but a sterile world of mechanical regularity if all our opinions were forcibly made alike… Opinions are constantly changed and rechanged only through free circulation of intellectual forces and persuasion. Violence begets violence and blind stupidity. Freedom of mind is needed for the reception of truth; terror hopelessly kills it.”

From 1877-1917, Tagore’s stance on Swadeshi and the anti-Partition movement of Bengal were one with the political climate. But from 1921, as fractures in society — communal and caste — became apparent, Tagore confessed, “I took a few steps down the road, and then stopped.”

Though Tagore and Mahatma Gandhi shared a philosophical affinity and mutual respect, their disagreement on nationalism would culminate in debates that continue to be relevant. Tagore had warned Gandhi that there remained a thin line that divided nationalism and xenophobia. Tagore and Gandhi had met in July 1921 at his home in Calcutta, where the two had a long and argumentative conversation about what Tagore described as the “bondage of nationalism”.

In the then influential Calcutta journal, Modern Review, Tagore wrote about an international desire to “achieve the unity of man by destroying the bondage of nationalism in order to achieve the unity of man”.

India, he argued, didn’t have a “real sense” of nationalism and noted that “even though from childhood I had been taught that the idolatry of Nation is almost better than reverence for God and humanity, I believe I have outgrown that teaching, and it is my conviction that my countrymen will gain truly their India by fighting against that education which teaches them that a country is greater than the ideals of humanity.”

Tagore’s dismay for the fervent nationalism that had gripped India was further shaped by the first World War in 1914. Speaking at Japan after the war, he warned that “the political civilization” that was overrunning the world was “based on exclusiveness” and it is “always watchful to keep at bay the aliens or to exterminate them. It is carnivorous and cannibalistic in its tendencies, it feeds upon the resources of other peoples and tries to swallow their whole future. It is always afraid of other races achieving eminence, naming it as a peril, and tries to thwart all symptoms of greatness outside its own boundaries, forcing down races of men who are weaker, to be eternally fixed in their weakness.”

Then again, writing in 1933, when Adolf Hitler had been appointed chancellor of Germany and was rapidly achieving full dictatorial power, Tagore wrote in an essay, The Changing Age, later compiled into the book, Towards Universal Man: “Germany, in which the light of Europe’s Culture was at its brightest, has torn up all civilized values — with what ease has an unspeakable devilry overtaken the entire country.”

Even in his lifetime, Tagore’s criticism of nationalism didn’t make him a popular figure. Gandhi had famously commented, on being criticised by Tagore, that “the poet lives in a magnificent world of his own creation — his world of ideas”.

The poet, though, was hardly unaware of the criticism that his ideas opened him up to. Writing to his friend C F Andrews in 1921, from New York, speaking critically of the non-cooperation movement led by Gandhi in India, he admitted to being “afraid” that he would “be rejected by my own people when I go back to India. My solitary cell is awaiting me in my Motherland. In their present state of mind, my countrymen will have no patience with me, who believe God to be higher than my own country”.

He added, “I know such spiritual faith may not lead us to political success; but I say to myself as India had ever said, ‘Even then – what?’.” The letter was published by S Ganesan in 1924 as part of Tagore’s Letters from Abroad and was quoted by historian Ramchandra Guha in his 2009 introduction to Tagore’s Nationalism.

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  1. S
    Sharad Sheth
    Jan 29, 2017 at 4:37 pm
    Great coverage! Many thanks and best wishes for even richer news!
    Reply
    1. A
      Altaf Hussain
      Jan 27, 2017 at 10:53 am
      Must read
      Reply
      1. A
        abhay
        Jan 26, 2017 at 12:52 pm
        congress session in 1911 not in 1997
        Reply
        1. %
          %e0%b4%b8%e0%b4%be%e0%b4%82%e0%b4%b8%e0%b5%8d%e0%b
          Jan 31, 2017 at 3:28 pm
          ഞാന്‍ ജീവിച്ചിരിക്കുന്നിടത്തോളം കാലം രാജ്യസ്നേഹം കൊണ്ട് മനുഷ്യസ്നേഹത്തെ കീഴടക്കാന്‍ അനുവദിക്കില്ല - രവീന്ദ്രനാഥ ടാഗോര്‍
          Reply
          1. V
            Vasant S
            Jan 28, 2017 at 2:15 pm
            Must read for Judiciary.
            Reply
            1. J
              Jay Smith
              Dec 4, 2016 at 11:10 am
              At the end of the day Tagore was a great Poet. When I arrive at a foreign airport they do not check my humanitarian credentials they ask me for a proof of my nationality. The world is one humanity but divided into o nation states.
              Reply
              1. J
                Jay Smith
                Dec 4, 2016 at 11:14 am
                I am sure you cheer Pappu Pokemon cartoons in your spare time. You obviously are too blind to see what Modi is doing.
                Reply
                1. J
                  Jay Smith
                  Dec 4, 2016 at 11:08 am
                  While most of your points make sense . Jan Gan man is a symbol of a nation, like a flag. Why do you have a problem with that. we need these symbols of patriotism. It's for these small symbols that people all over the world and today at our borders give their lives. The day you rename yourself shashi Akram I will accept your contentions of culture versus nationalism. A nation is more that social services a government provides .
                  Reply
                  1. H
                    Harsh
                    Dec 2, 2016 at 5:26 am
                    I can't believe what people here have commented! It's a pity. We have become cannibalists and carnivores in the garb of patriotism.
                    Reply
                    1. F
                      farzi kumar
                      Dec 2, 2016 at 12:55 pm
                      Aryan dravid theory is found to be false by latest dna and gene researches and even liberal historians consider it to be british ploy of "divide and rule".And may be jana gana poet used this term in his poem praising George 5th to score some points so that when he travels in uk he may get some form of benefits. #KaalaAngrej
                      Reply
                      1. F
                        farzi kumar
                        Dec 2, 2016 at 12:35 pm
                        Atleast have evolved enough to quote true facts from history unlike some uneducated neanderthal like you who does not have even one fact to counter the comment.
                        Reply
                        1. F
                          farzi kumar
                          Dec 2, 2016 at 12:55 pm
                          Lungi
                          Reply
                          1. F
                            farzi kumar
                            Dec 2, 2016 at 6:53 pm
                            Men created clothes. god created us without clothes so clothes are not gods will from tomorrow onwards start..... Along with your family. lt;br/gt;#AthiestRocks
                            Reply
                            1. F
                              farzi kumar
                              Dec 2, 2016 at 5:09 am
                              Yes it seems little odd for sc enforcing this law. lt;br/gt;But reason it is needed is few years ago a muslim couple in mumbai refused to stand just to troll the other guys in a multiplex. lt;br/gt;So in name of freedom you cant do whatever one please
                              Reply
                              1. F
                                farzi kumar
                                Dec 2, 2016 at 4:58 am
                                i seriously doubt tagore even knew what patriotism was he wrote "jan gana man adhinayak..." for and to please british crown when it visited india in 1911 lt;br/gt;For his act he was shamed by hiji. So atleast we know what tagore means from humanity for him humanity means praising and singing for oppresors.
                                Reply
                                1. M
                                  MyTake
                                  Dec 3, 2016 at 10:57 pm
                                  Mafia using Tagore's word and Tagore using his word are totally different things!lt;br/gt;Use only the word that fits in your mouth!
                                  Reply
                                  1. R
                                    Rushikesh dharmadhikari
                                    Dec 2, 2016 at 6:41 am
                                    Ravindranathjis views on patriotism are absolutely correct,but idealistic and not pragmatic in contemporary India,because of antinational activities and increasing terrorist activities we should inculcate patriotism from school,do compulsory national anthem in colleges and working places everyday,every time we should have the feeling that we are surviving because of our army,and I think judiciary realized this feeling and they did compulsory anthem in talkies,i don't seem nothing wrong in it,and I appreciate this decision.
                                    Reply
                                    1. A
                                      Ajit Hota
                                      Dec 3, 2016 at 3:43 am
                                      How to settle the thint layer of division between two concepts of .......
                                      Reply
                                      1. A
                                        Ankita Mohnot
                                        Dec 2, 2016 at 8:13 am
                                        Worth read !!!
                                        Reply
                                        1. A
                                          Atheist
                                          Dec 3, 2016 at 5:49 pm
                                          Most leftist dont even understand what he's trying to say.lt;br/gt;Just like parrots keep repeating it.
                                          Reply
                                          1. D
                                            Dash
                                            Dec 2, 2016 at 7:08 am
                                            Tagore was a slave of the British. He called Queen Victoria God. Today, Bengal is wasted partly because of these educated men who worshipped foreigner Xtians. Surendranath Banerjea too did the same.
                                            Reply
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