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Mainstream, VOL LVI No 22 New Delhi May 19, 2018

Indian Tradition — as Tagore Realised

Sunday 20 May 2018

Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore’s 157th birth anniversary fell last week, on May 9, 2018. The following article is being published as a tribute to his memory now that India is under attack from the Hindutvavadis in power.

by Jayanta Kumar Ghosal

A few days ago a political leader who claims to be a Hindutva preacher and ardent follower of the Indian tradition declared that there was no need of following Rabindranath Tagore, as he did not know Indian tradition properly. But the question arises—‘Is that political leader right?’ Here also comes the very pertinent issue of Tagore’s realisation or understanding of Indian tradition.

Indian history of the 19th century and the first quarter of the 20th century witnessed the integration and synthesis of tradition and modernity and a great social upheaval due to this. The process was initiated by Raja Rammohan Roy and going through various stresses, strains, clashes and conflicts found its complete expression in Rabindranath Tagore who was successful in creating a national ideology.

Nationality on the one hand carries the nation forward to new material and spiritual conquests which derive from forward looking, external, absorbing lessons throughout the world and on the other looks backwards and tries to explore its past history inspired by a sense of greatness of the past. The formulators of our national ideology of the 19th century tried to integrate and synthesise these two aspects through various ways. They tried to create various forms of our national ideology and lines which were often found to be contradictory to and even challenged each other. But when viewed in totality and from different angles the whole atmosphere gives an observer an emotional impetus which helps the nation to choose its path to proceed.

When Tagore was sixteen he showed his interest in India’s past which was not very distant, at twentyfive he developed his interest in various phases of Indian history and world history. When he attained the age of fortyfive a strong historical consciousness developed in him and this helped him in interpreting Indian history and culture. During his thirties and forties a number of essays on socio-political, religious and cultural issues as well as polemical discourses came out of his pen, deeply informed and inspired by his vision and interpretation of Indian history and culture.

Not only in the form of essays, a series of narrative poems and short dramas in verse were composed, based on the Indian epics and legends and history of the Rajputs, Marhattas and Sikhs. A humble reader of Tagore’s creations finds complete maturity and his affiliation to and identification with Indian culture when Tagore was fifty years old. At least in two of his major essays on Indian history and on the interpretation of Indian history, he firmly concludes that despite occasional clashes and conflicts and militant and aggressive pre-occupations, Indian history and culture always symbolised the integration and synthesis of different conflicting and contradictory forces striving for unity and harmony through all the differences and divergences directing many avenues of life towards one common goal without destroying the individuality and emphasising upon binding many together.

It was Tagore who rightly observed that many conflicting and contradictory forces were working in the ethnological composition of our people, in our society, religion, politics and economics. And, above all, such conflicts and contradictions were striving to achieve unity, integration and synthesis through the ages. He firmly believed that Indian history and culture were not state-centric but centred around the society. ‘Swadeshi Samaj’, a self-governing social community was his objective and not the ‘Swadeshi Rashtra’ which by and large meant a political sovereign state. So he focussed upon the problems of social cohesion and co-operation, social integrity and social self-reliance.

Anything working towards disintegration, disharmony and disunity, to him, was evil and inhuman and he strongly condemned such forces. So evils like casteism, sectarianism, bigotary and narrowness, parochialism and chauvinism, greed and misuse of power and privilege were to him basically inhuman, anti-social as they lead to the disintegration of Indian society. He thus opined that by being aggressive and militant in aim, purpose and action no people can be great. Mere accumu-lation of material wealth and political or military power cannot make human beings strong. History says that India preferred to follow the path of peace, unity and harmony defying aggressive militarism; these, according to Tagore, were the fundamental laws of nature and of human society through the ages. Simultaneously from Indian tradition Tagore learnt that none can achieve greatness by isolating himself from society. One can find fulfilment as much by cultivating one’s own soil as building up its strength by contacts and co-operation with the aims, processes and patterns of life and activity of other people of society.

Tagore once said: “India has a spirit of tradition of her own, which has survived through all political upheavals. This spirit and tradition do not obey the mandates of the holy books and are little influenced by scholars. In fact neither has been incorporated in any theological or social code and their roots are deep in the heart of hearts of the masses themselves, from the begining they have set themselves against restrictions and dogmas and their prophets came from the commonest of the common people.”

The tradition of India, as Tagore rightly observed, is rooted among the common, toiling masses whose life-style is based on co-existence and constant mutual interdependence, it was basically universal, humanist and profound having made this country a land of diverse national and cultural components, each with special features but altogether these have engendered a great homogeneity through the ages. This is what Tagore spoke all through his life.

The author is a social activist associated with the literacy movement.

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