Hollywood actor Martin Sheen’s recent recitation of Rabindranath Tagore’s poem, “Where the Mind is Without Fear,” once again demonstrates the continued universal appeal of the poet’s signature composition. Tagore’s vision of transcending time, place, space and national borders continues to resonate with the dreams and hopes of people around the world. To read Tagore today, it is also necessary to understand the various national and world events of the late 19th and early 20th centuries that critically shaped the language of the poet, incorporating distinctive multiple narratives.
Nineteenth-century Bengal witnessed a series of social, literary, political and cultural interventions in the context of the consolidation of the British Empire and its commitment to forging political, social, legal and literary networks with the Indian masses.
Subrata Mukherjee situates Tagore and his exceptional creative world in the national and international milieu of the modern world of the 20th century. The author skillfully studies Tagore’s essays and letters to understand his political ideas and demonstrates the latter’s unique engagement with his Indian compatriots, settlers, and important modern-day political and literary figures. Tagore’s writings illustrate his compelling views on politics, but he remains primarily a literary figure and not a politician.
Mukherjee strives to understand and penetrate Tagore’s political philosophy on universalism, humanism, and cosmopolitanism, which the poet, to a large extent, inherited from his distinguished family lineage. As Tagore puts it bluntly, “It was as if we were living near the age of pre-Puranic India through our commitment to the Upanishads. Along with that, there was a genuinely deep love of English literature among my elders.
Tagore’s enduring admiration for the Upanishads and Vedic literature coexisted with his appreciation for Western scientific inventions, discoveries, and rationality and together shaped his extraordinary individualistic views, moral stance, and nonconformity. However, Tagore’s work goes beyond religious identity and seeks to reflect humanity, beyond nations and regions, in search of harmony and tranquility.
The book offers insight into Tagore’s political perspective developed through his interaction with prominent figures and ordinary people in India and abroad. There are several contradictory layers in his political vision. Tagore admired Ram Mohan Roy, but differed in his ideological standpoint and despised the Bengali elites for imitating their colonial masters. He disagreed with Bankim Chandra’s “aggressive nationalism”. Although he appreciates Western ideas of scientific advancement, he has made a sharp criticism of imperialism. He attended meetings of the Indian National Congress (INC), but disapproved of its policies and despised its leaders for imitating the West in their language and dress.
While presiding over the session of the Bengal Provincial Congress at Pabna in 1908, he preferred to speak Bengali rather than follow the convention of speaking in English. In 1904-1905, he joined the Swadeshi movement as a member of the INC but withdrew following sectarian riots. Tagore wrote in Bengali, appreciated the local culture, the local language and popular and rural art forms.
The author argues that Tagore has critically approached the issues of education, rural reconstruction and poverty to awaken the creative and constructive energies of Indians. Although he was not a socialist, he realized that the real problem in India was social.
Mukherjee puts Tagore in the spotlight and highlights his debates with Gandhi. The author compares Tagore’s individualistic alternative view with Gandhi’s idea of non-cooperation and the charkha campaign. Tagore argued for the ineffectiveness of the practice of charkha in reaching Swaraj. Gandhi’s political and social strategy upset Tagore; he found it narrow in the face of the refusal to engage directly with the West. He disagreed with Gandhi’s methods of fighting imperial forces, but endorsed his commitment to anti-imperialism. For Tagore, as the author shows, political solutions did not necessarily promise “personal freedom” and “human enrichment”. He challenges the Western concept of nation, sees it as a threat to “higher humanity” by disrupting the “mixing of the individual with the universe”.
Mukherjee emphasizes Tagore’s unconventional idea of nation emphasizing the creative energies of the human spirit which were “guided by the Upanishad doctrine of Satyam, Sivam and Advitam” (truth, goodness and oneness). He rejected national chauvinism and turned to an eclectic worldview reflected in the idea of Visva Bharati, with his Sanskrit motto derived from the Rigveda “Yatra Visvam Bhavati Eka Nidam”, meaning “the world-in-a-nest”. He was dedicated to spiritual and cultural reconciliation between the races, as embodied in his vision from Visva Bharati to Shantiniketan.
Mukherjee, through a careful and sensitive reading of Tagore’s writings, reveals the political and literary narratives heretofore neglected in the shaping of his cultural creativity and his deeply transcendent message of the spiritual unity of humanity. This book, written in lucid language and style, is engaging and informative and provides a chronological account of the poet’s extraordinary journey. It is a scholarly reflection on Tagore’s belief in social cohesion and the universal community articulated in his political ideas.