Tagore’s Prophecy

Tagore said that where greed of some people is allowed to grow and is even emulated by others, there, democracy would be used as an elephant for the joy ride of the clever and rich people
S N Sahu Rourkela 

I was overwhelmed with joy on getting the invitation from the organisers of the Nikhil Bharat Bango Sahitya Sammelan which is being organized in Rourkela. It is a high honour to participate in this important literary event which is discussing the many splendoured personality of Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore whose 150th and 15th birth centenary is being celebrated across the country. He was one of the noblest gifts of Bengal to the humanity and world. To my mind Gurudev Tagore was one of the earliest champions of sustainable development and gender equality. All such ideas which assumed centrality to his life and work   flowed from his cosmic worldview.  The causes he took up have now occupied the centre stage of development agenda at the national and global level. 

The world recalls his name with reverence for his exceptional accomplishments in diverse fields. He was a Nobel laureate in literature and composer of what is popularly acclaimed as Rabindra Sangeet. Above all he had unrivalled reputation  as a painter, artist, educationist and  worshipper of beauty and aesthetics. His name will forever endure in popular imagination.  While understanding his extraordinary talent it is important to underline his deep insights and ideas which are of immense significance to address the challenges faced by mankind in twenty first century.   

I have absolutely no credentials to speak on Tagore in this august forum where I find very distinguished people from different parts of our country. Being Bengalis they have had access to the original writings of Gururdev and, therefore, had the opportunity to savour the essence of Tagore’s worldview. While serving late President of India Shri K.R.Narayanan I got the precious opportunity to read the English writings of Gurudev Tagore brought out by the Sahitya Academy, New Delhi. I marveled at his far sighted ideas capturing the gathering crisis generated by modern civilization. The article he wrote in 1922 on the theme Robbery of Soil is one of the finest critiques of modern civilization. The passion of greed, according to him, became the defining feature of such civilization which celebrated the appetite for material possessions and comfort. He regretted that the temptation of an inordinately high level of living which was once confined only to a small section of the community became widespread. He forecasted   that the civilization which did not put any restraint on the emulation of self indulgence was bound to face fatal consequences and collapse by its own weight and contradictions. 

It was Mahatma Gandhi who had provided a critique to the modern civilization through his seminal book, ‘The Hind Swaraj’ written in 1909. He wrote it while sailing from London to South Africa after pleading, before the Secretary of Colonies, the case of Indians of South Africa who suffered discrimination in the hands of British settlers. While Bhagvat Gita is hailed as the sermon on the battle field and Bible is called as the sermon on the mount, the Hind Swaraj is hailed as the sermon on the sea as it was written when Gandhi was undertaking sea voyage. It exposed the hazards of materialistic civilization founded on the multiplication of wants and desires and urged the reader to rediscover civilization from the perspective of morality, discipline and restraint. 

We find in the writings of Tagore the same theme of reclaiming civilization by restoring its values which have been dominated by predatory commercial instincts and profit motives. In “The Robbery of Soil” he used phrases and idioms which are now in currency in the charmed circle of environmentalists. Mankind has painfully understood the limits of growth. It is now accepted worldwide that the human beings are using the resources and energy of the planet beyond its carrying and regenerating capacity. As early as 1922 Tagore used the same phraseology to depict the reckless exploitation of the mother earth. He bemoaned that human beings were far exhausting the store of sustenance of the earth. His articulations that “Civilization today caters for a whole population of gluttons” constituted  severe indictment of the manner in which incessant materialistic appetite was being satiated losing sight of time honoured values of reason and restraint. His words “This universal greed, which now infects us all, is the cause of every kind of meanness, of cruelty and of lies in politics and commerce and vitiates the whole human atmosphere” sounds so contemporary for the age of geo-economics in which the volume and value of business bereft of ethics is determining the contour of national and international relations.  Sounding alarm bells he cautioned that “Mother earth has enough for the healthy appetite of her children and something extra for rare cases of abnormality”. Then he warned that “…she has not nearly sufficient for the sudden growth of a whole world of spoiled and pampered children”. 

The financial crisis that originated in the USA in 2008 and almost enveloped the whole world has been attributed to the culture of greed badly affecting the banking and financial sector. Recently President Barack Obama while delivering an insightful speech in Kansas on the state of American economy candidly admitted that the breathtaking greed of the few and the culture of irresponsibility across the system was at the root of the economic problem of that great country. The lack of ethical outlook of those who are governing the State apparatus and corporate and business sector has gravely compounded the problem. It is noteworthy that almost nine decades back Tagore had grimly anticipated such challenges which would put at stake the very survival of human civilization and jeopardize the economic and political structures. 

The modern economies across the globe are adopting methods to multiply productivity. The management professionals entrusted with the responsibilities to run such economic organizations have been trained to maximize profit and cash flow to sustain business operations and expand the frontiers of entrepreneurship. It is now painfully realized that the youth pursuing management course are not provided opportunities to cultivate ethical outlook. It is due to absence of ethics in the syllabus of the management discipline that many business operations have collapsed. It is in this context that one is irresistibly drawn to the analysis of Gurudev Tagore who as early as 1922 regretfully wrote that material progress had become a matter of science and not of social ethics. A giant literary figure like Tagore reflecting on social ethics in the context of material progress of the twentieth century testified to his robust and wholesome approach to progress which is now the crying necessity to find solutions to the problem of income inequality and conspicuous consumption of the wealthy people. In fact words of Gurudev that   “Property and its acquisition break social bonds and drain the life sap of the community” and “The unscrupulousness involved plays havoc the world over and generates a force that can coax and coerce peoples to deeds of injustice  and of wholesale horror” are of intense relevance for the twenty first century world marked by worldwide quest for more energy and  resource of the planet. 

It was Mahatma Gandhi who had provided a critique to the modern civilization through his seminal book, ‘The Hind Swaraj’ written in 1909

In our own time we often are bombarded by advertisements which create synthetic demand and grossly distort our perception and preferences. Too many such advertisements in print and electronic medium and world wide web have become the bane of our age. One is struck by the fact that Gurudev Tagore referred to the phrase “shriek of advertisement” in the backdrop of unlimited production process of modern civilization. He lamented that ever growing number of advertisements had become inseparable component of multiplied production process “squandering immense quantity of material and life force”. 

Not only in the context of rising tide of advertisement that we find Tagore’s ideas critically significant; we also find that his comments about the quality of democracy that the world would get in the face of greed and avarice of the few sounds so timely for addressing the challenges confronting us and reforming the democratic and electoral process. He remarked that where greed of some people or of some groups of society was allowed to grow and even admired and emulated by others, there democracy, as understood in the western world, would not be truly realized. In such circumstances he maintained that democracy would be used as an elephant for the joy ride of the clever and rich people. Prophetic words indeed! He was uttering those ideas when the colonial rulers in response to the demand of our leadership for more representative institutions were grudgingly and half heartedly conceding to those demands. Now that electoral democracy has taken deep roots in India it is important to ask ourselves if our constitutional system is geared to serve the common people or it is being manipulated by those who control the levers of power, media and economy.  Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore’s hard hitting comment that the prosperous few in a democracy anchored on culture of greed would manipulate organs of information and administration sounds so convincing and true in the context of the powerful influence   exerted by media barons like Murdoch in Britain on politics and high political offices of that country. Similarly, we in India had the unpleasant experience of learning about the impact of some corporate houses in controlling and pressurizing media and administration for allocating some key ministerial portfolios to   leaders of select political parties who remained part of the coalition Government. Such developments are taking place in twenty first century world. And Tagore had the farsighted vision to anticipate them in the second decade of the twentieth century. With deep sociological insights he could forecast that “In such a society people become intoxicated by the constant stimulation of what they are told is progress, like the man for whom wine has greater attraction than food”. In fact the manner in which our print and electronic media remain aligned to the idea of economic growth validate the ideas of Gurudev Tagore so eloquently expressed nine decades back.         

One of the worst casualties of the modern civilization is happiness of individual and community. The erosion of human worth in the face of incessant materialistic growth sharply brings down the happiness quotient. Tagore famously wrote that “True happiness is not at all expensive” and “It is fullness of life which makes us happy and not fullness of purse”. It is now increasingly realized that the materialistic progress quite often measured in terms of Gross Domestic Product(GDP) and Gross National Product(GNP) never measure well being and welfare of people. The inadequacy of such indicators to assess human worth has been realized across the world. That is why a small country like Bhutan adopted a different yardstick to measure its progress. Instead of Gross Domestic Product it has adopted Gross National Happiness since 1970s. In the last week of December 2011 the Prime Minister of Bhutan delivered the Professor Hiren Mukherjee Memorial Lecture to the parliamentarians of India on the theme “Gross National Happiness”. It was an illuminating lecture. In twenty first century India our parliamentarians were educated about happiness as the basic factor for judging the growth and development of a society. It is instructive to note that Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore had explained about happiness in the 1920s and addressed the festering crisis of unhappiness affecting the human beings of modern civilization.  He was daring enough to write that “…the poverty problem is not so important. It is the problem of unhappiness that is the great problem.” In emphasizing on happiness Tagore was going beyond the issue of economic growth and material progress. 

The twenty first century world has experienced unprecedented generation of wealth. And yet the twenty first century has been described as the century of fear due to terrorism and global warming. How can human beings be happy in the midst of raging fear of terror attacks and rising temperature of the globe caused due to the establishment of what is called carbon economy. 

The material progress may produce more number of millionaires or billionaires. We read reports in newspapers that on a year to year basis India is producing more millionaires and, therefore, the prestige of our country is going up at the international level. Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore had observed that possibly the age marked by the domination of millionaires would underrate the life and work of Emperor Ashoka based on non-violence, ethics and respect for life. In fact one American writer published a book in 2010 entitled “To Uphold the World: A Call for Ethics from Ancient India”. It is   about Emperor Ashoka who could rule his vast empire by renouncing war and violence. Mr.Reach then firmly concluded that  if Ashoka could administer such a huge empire by following non-violence why should not the twenty first century world be governed by the ethical outlook of ancient India? It is refreshing to note that Tagore’s faith on the Ashoka’s ethical outlook has been validated by a western writer of twenty first century who wrote that book after visiting Dhauli, Odisha, where   Kalinga war was fought and won by Ashoka  three thousand years back . The scale and magnitude of violence during the war  caused massive loss of life and shocked the Emperor  beyond belief. Thereafter he renounced war as an instrument of State policy and  propagated the  ideal of non-violence  through his numerous rock edicts some of which are there in Dhauli.

Recently President Barack Obama while delivering an insightful speech in Kansas on the state of American economy candidly admitted that the breathtaking greed of the few and the culture of irresponsibility across the system was at the root of the economic problem of that great country

 

In responding to the crisis of modern civilization Tagore understood its  “monstrous excess” and underlined its unsustainability.  In fact in doing so he represented that generation of leadership of our country who through the spiritual worldview attempted to save not only human life but also the planet earth itself. 

The narrative of sustainable development which has now become predominant was stressed by Tagore long years back when our own independence was a distant goal. In championing the cause of sustainable development its protagonists are now emphasizing inter alia on gender equality and women’s empowerment. Agenda 21 of the Rio summit organized by the United Nations in 1992 to promote the cause of sustainable development underlined the need to remove  and eliminate constitutional, legal, administrative, cultural, behavioural, social and economic obstacles to women’s full participation in sustainable development and public life. Equal rights and equal opportunities for women are now seen as indispensable to harmonize our growth and development with nature. 

It is highly educative to note that Gurudev Tagore espoused the cause for women’s rights and their empowerment in 1934 in his address to the National Conference on Women. The caption of his speech was “Women’s Place in the World”. He indicted human civilization for having been based primarily on masculine attributes and regretted that women got hardly any space in such a civilization. Tagore argued that because civilization became masculine in character it lost its equilibrium and sanity.   He explained that the spiraling violence and war in the world could be due to masculine nature of civilization and wanted women to take their place to salvage not only themselves but also the civilization itself. His words that “And at last the time has arrived when woman must step in and impart her life rhythm to this reckless movement of power” sounds like voice of a feminist of twenty first century incessantly striving to restore the rightful place for women in every aspect of life, be it politics, economics or nation building. 

Earlier we discussed Gurudev’s article “The Robbery of the Soil” in which he wrote about the unsustainable modern civilization robbing the soil of the earth and depleting its life force. In his piece on “Women’s Place in the World” he draws parallel between women’s function with the function of the soil and stated that it “not only helps the tree to grow but keeps its growth within the limits of normality”.  He wanted women’s participation in every endeavour of collective life  to get back the poise and dignity of  human civilization. In fact the way he explained the aggressive nationalism of European countries which was responsible for the world war and colonial exploitation flowed from his understanding of the nature and character of masculine civilization. When he visited Japan and gave a series of lectures criticizing the nationalism of that country, he was described by many Japanese scholars as the prophet of a defeated nation. They argued that since India was ruled by Britain and did not have independence, its poet laureate lacked ability to know and appreciate the meaning of  nationalism. Eventually, when Japan was devastated by war and suffered the consequences of nuclear holocaust following the dropping of atomic bomb in Hiroshima and Nagasaki the people of that country painfully realized the futility of pursuing aggressive nationalism. Gurudev Tagore stood vindicated and the pronouncements of the so called prophet of the defeated nation were heard with respect to take forward the cause of peaceful nation building. 

The unscrupulousness involved plays havoc the world over and generates a force that can coax and coerce peoples to deeds of injustice  and of wholesale horror

The more modern scholars highlight that if a critical mass of women get opportunities to give shape to the policies of the nations of the world it would be more peaceful and less aggressive. For instance Francis Fukuyama in one of his perceptive essays “If Women Ran the World” published in the Foreign Affairs in 1999 argued that, to a great extent, such a world would be free from conflict, bloodshed and war . At least six decades back, Tagore had written about it. It shows that he was far ahead of his times and what he wrote about women has now become central to the discourse on gender equality and sustainable development. 

His utterances that woman is not less necessary in civilization than man but possibly more so are of  great significance to fundamentally transform the character of  masculine civilization. Noting that “…in the present stage of history man is asserting his masculine supremacy’ he cautioned that “…he cannot altogether crush woman’s nature into dust…” The movement launched by women themselves for their rightful place in society validates the vision of Tagore so brilliantly articulated in the third decade of the twentieth century. He prophetically wrote that “It is not that woman is merely seeking today her freedom of livelihood, struggling against man’s monopoly of business, but man’s monopoly of civilization”. 

It is for restructuring civilization that our national leadership during freedom struggle exerted their energy. Gurudev Tagore as one of the extraordinary representatives of that leadership has become more relevant for our time than he was when India was under colonial rule. 

Dr.Vandana Shiva, a leading environmentalist,  in one of her booklets on forest referred to the ideas of Tagore who insightfully wrote that the diversity of plant and animal life of the forests became the source of diversities of society. The inference derived from such logic is that with the destruction of forests there would be end of social diversities. In other words death to inherent pluralism of forests would mean death to the pluralism of nation and society. The alarming destruction of forests across the world would lead to loss of cultural variety and multiplicity. Such a scenario would cause narrowness of mind and breed the culture of intolerance and violence. The wider social movement for the preservation of forests is a movement not only to safeguard biodiversity but also to protect our cultural diversity. Thus Tagore’s writings in defence of nature constitute a reservoir for enriching our social diversity which is the need of the hour to defend our unity and multiculturalism. This is the social significance of Tagore’s writings when monoculture is posing danger to our multicultural fabric. 

One psychologist Mr. David Coleman characterized centuries. He described 17th century as the century of reason; 18th as the century of enlightenment; 19th as the century of progress and 20th as the century of anxiety. It is interesting to note that Tagore in his Gitanjali  contemplated a situation “Where the Mind is Without Fear”. He was writing that line in twentieth century which was described as the century of anxiety. As earlier stated twenty first century is now being described as the century of fear due to the twin problems of terrorism and global warming. In this century of fear it would be a herculean task to keep the mind without fear and hold the head high. And yet it has to be done not only for the sake of mind but also for the sake of the planet earth. It is in this context that we need to rediscover Tagore and realize the significance of his ideas which are there in between lines of his numerous essays and writings. Therefore, apart for revering Tagore as a world renowned poet, painter, composer of music, philosopher and artist we need to analyze his ideas to address the challenges of twenty first century world. When there is world-wide recognition and renewed interest    on Indian culture, it is more significant to dive deep into it and unearth the hidden treasure for the benefit of India and the benefit of the world as a whole. Gurudev Tagore as the finest advocate of our cultural, philosophical, artistic, literary and musical heritage is of ever lasting significance. 

I run out of words to express my gratefulness to the organizers for having chosen my name for this important vent. I thank each one of you from the bottom of my heart for the honours done to me. Let Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore’s ideas illuminate our life and work. 

Thank you. 

The writer is Joint Secretary, Rajya Sabha Secretariat, Parliament of India, New Delhi.

Text of the lecture delivered at the Nikhil Bharat Bango Sahitya Sammelan organized in Rourkela, Orissa, on December 25, 2011