In troubled times, walk with the poet

As militant nationalists create an environment of fear and violence, Tagore reminds us of the possibility of exploring India as a civilisation — not merely as a nation.

Written by Avijit Pathak | Updated: May 9, 2018 12:05:23 am
In troubled times, walk with the poet It is the time when as reckless consumers we have forgotten what Tagore was reminding us of: ‘The ultimate truth in man is not in his intellect or his possessions; it is in his illumination of mind.’(Illustration: CR Sasikumar)

By unrighteousness man prospers, gains what seems desirable, defeats enemies, but perishes at the root
Rabindranath Tagore

In this violent world that worships the prosaic instrumental rationality, it is not easy to invoke a poet and rethink what we seem to have taken for granted — militant nationalism, a culture of narcissism and assertive religious identity. Yet, Tagore remains irresistible, and on his birth anniversary, I feel tempted to recall his poetic vision and hear what is seldom heard these days — the language of an ethically enriched/sublime civilisation.

The poet, with his oceanic canvas, gave us illuminating insights. In his songs and poems, we could see the traces of the Upanishadic longing for the Infinite. His short stories enchant as well as shatter the world — the Peddler from Kabul with his unconditional love and memories becomes our intimate companion, and when an ordinary woman as an estranged wife writes a letter to her husband and rediscovers her lost self with pain and a simultaneous longing for freedom, our taken-for-granted world begins to crumble. Anandamayee in Tagore’s epoch making novel, Gora, emerges as an embodiment of a civilisation that embraces all differences with the grace of maternity; and Nandini, in yet another poetic novel, Red Oleanders, reveals the power of femininity capable of resisting the hyper-masculine demonic power. The lyrical tales of Amit and Labannya in The Last Poem made his “modernist” critiques humble. The modern tapovan that he established at Santiniketan expressed his willingness to strive for the “universal” man perpetually elevating himself through aesthetics and science, abundance of nature and integrity of social engagement. His appeal was tremendous; Gandhi, despite occasional differences, could not escape him; and Einstein’s conversation with him continues to charm us as a wonderful philosophic document.

However, as I find myself in these troubled times, I rediscover Crisis in Civilisation —the lecture the poet delivered in 1941. He saw the “spectre of barbarity” striding over Europe; he could feel the devastating consequences of “the spirit of violence dormant in the psychology of the West”. With a sense of history and sociology, we could understand why Tagore was disillusioned and refused to believe that “the springs of a true civilisation would issue out of the heart of Europe”. It was because of the violence implicit in the European project of modernity, its cult of narcissistic nationalism and its technological domination. “Perhaps the new dawn,” as he hoped, “will come from the East where the sun rises”. But then, with the “pragmatism” of the “nation-making” we forgot the poet’s wisdom, and today in this post-Gandhi/post-Nehru era of global capitalism and religious nationalism, the ruling forces seem determined to make the same mistake that nationalist/militaristic/totalitarian Europe did when Tagore was delivering the speech.

See how these days the ruling forces constantly remind us that we have to be true “nationalists”; we must learn to erect a wall, identify the “enemies” of the nation, and if necessary with reckless violence protect its “glory”. Tagore could see that violence is implicit in the “idolatry of the Nation” because, as he wrote in an essay on nationalism, “man’s power of sacrifice is diverted from his ultimate object, which is moral, to the maintenance of this organisation which is mechanical”. Indeed, the cult of nationalism can prove to be a “great menace” because it often encourages the “extermination of the aliens”. At a time when militant nationalists create a toxic environment of fear and violence, Tagore whispers in our ears, and reminds us of the possibility of exploring India as a civilisation (not a nation that “coerces nature into its narrow limits of convenience”) potentially capable of acknowledging and living with its splendid differences and diversities, yet striving for some basis of “spiritual unity” as its saints like “Nanak, Kabir and Chaitanya” demonstrated. Unlike the neurotically insecure children of “Bharat Mata,” Tagore gave us a life-affirming ideal to strive for: “The power of love and clarity of vision to comprehend the whole world of men and not merely the fractional groups of nationality”.

No wonder, The Poet’s Religion — yet another illuminating essay — inspires us to see beyond the “rigid framework of sectarian creeds”, and realise that “man is not a living catalogue of endless wants”, and his salvation lies in his quest for “an ideal of perfection, a sense of unity and harmony with surroundings”. I am aware that I am referring to Tagore’s religiosity at a time when the self-proclaimed protectors of religion have reduced it to a doctrine of identity politics, a loud ideology of militancy, division and hatred. This is also the time when as reckless consumers we have forgotten what Tagore was reminding us of: “The ultimate truth in man is not in his intellect or his possessions; it is in his illumination of mind”. Yet, in the age of darkness we should invoke the poet, and tell ourselves that all that goes on in the name of religion — temple/mosque politics, lynching and sexual violence — has nothing to do with true religiosity, man’s “surplus,” which means “the full realisation of the divine in humanity”. Yes, militant nationalism and its politicised religion fragment our consciousness, and make it difficult for us to realise, to use the language of John Keats, a thing of beauty as a joy forever. This is precisely the reason we ought to walk with Tagore, and internalise that “peace is true and not conflict, love is true and not hatred, and Truth is the One, not the disjointed multitude”.

The writer is professor of sociology at JNU, New Delhi

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