Remembered as the composer of our National Anthem, Rabindranath Tagore was a philosopher, a poet, author, musician, painter and an activist for social change in colonial India. The first Asian to be awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature for ‘Gitanjali’, he spread the Indian ideology globally through his works and music.
For generations, historians and literature enthusiasts have analysed the works of Rabindranath Tagore. In his works, you can see a progression in his own thinking, over the span of decades, you see his thoughts and ideals fluidly change shape. As he gathered more information and insight into the world, his understanding of issues matured. The plays and short stories he wrote, tell us that he was an astute observer and critique of the social and political issues around him.
We have shared a few of Tagore’s rare insight into the issues of humanism, casteism and feminism. His thoughts offer much food for thought and compels us to look inward for solutions to our social problems. He always maintained that India is a unique ecosystem and what has succeeded in the West would surely fail in India, if not remoulded to account for our diversity in our society.
“Tagore had definite political speculations which are rich, multicoloured, systematised, and unconventional, and they call for serious attention in the perspective of world thought. He has made constructive contributions to our political thought.”Sachin Sen
Tagore and Humanism
A strong advocate of human rights, Tagore dearly held and repeatedly iterated in his poems, essays and stories that humanity was above all else. In his later life, and around the partition of Bengal into East Bengal and West Bengal, Tagore urged the Hindus and Muslims of Bengal to remain a united front. He hosted several events calling for the inclusion of Muslim brothers and neighbours to partake in the Durgapujo festival and the rakhi-bandhan festival.
At a time, when communal tensions were rife in Bengal and people took up arms without regard for human lives, hell-bent on causing injury to those they have grown up with, because the seeds of distrust between the religions had started to bear fruit, Tagore encouraged humanity to prevail.
Also a champion for education of the masses, he was convinced that reform in education would help India flourish under her ‘society’ thinking as opposed to the sense of ‘governance’, which were ideals of the West. With that thought, he started the Visva Bharati University at Shantiniketan.
“When organised national selfishness, racial antipathy and commercial self-seeking begin to display their ugly deformities in all their nakedness, then comes the time for man to know that his salvation is not in political organisations and extended trade relations, not in any mechanical rearrangement of social systems, but in a deeper transformation of life, in the liberation of consciousness in love, in the realisation of God in man.”
Tagore and Casteism
A product of his upbringing, Tagore subscribed to the caste system in his early life. He hailed from the ‘Brahmin’ caste in India, however, his varna‘Pirali’ were themselves considered to be polluted because of their social interactions with Muslims. Tagore, in his youth, was also heavily influenced by the teachings of Bal Gangadhar Tilak, a contemporary and a Brahmin leader who advocated the acceptance and implementation of the caste system pan India.
It is evident from his writings that he often struggled to find a compromise between his Hindu beliefs and upbringing, and his philosophy of humanism being the paramount ‘dharma’. Although in later life, Tagore would come to despise the system and question the practice of untouchability.
“Her caste system is the outcome of this spirit of toleration. For India has all along been trying experiments in evolving a social unity within which all the different peoples could be held together, yet fully enjoying the freedom of maintaining their own differences. The tie has been as loose as possible, yet as close as the circumstances permitted Therefore in her caste regulations India recognized differences, but not the mutability which is the law of life. In trying to avoid collisions she set up boundaries of immovable walls, thus giving to her numerous races the negative benefit of peace and order but not the positive opportunity of expansion and movement. She accepted nature where it produces diversity, but ignored it where it uses that diversity for its world-game of infinite permutations and combinations. She treated life in all truth where it is manifold, but insulted it where it is ever moving. Therefore Life departed from her social system and in its place she is worshipping with all ceremony the magnificent cage of countless compartments that she has manufactured.”‘Nationalism in India’ – Essay by Rabindranath Tagore
Tagore and Feminism
In his several works, he often wrote about women who broke the shackles and unspoken rules of our society. He strongly believed in fighting for women’s upliftment and often wrote about women characters who were sensual and had substantial thoughts. Focusing largely on emancipation, his writing campaigned for women’s liberation, equality, freedom, justice, power and dignity and rights. He has written of strong female characters who have questioned and opposed the social ills of the time, widow remarriage, caste system and religious hypocrisy, just ask Bimala, Binodini or Giribala.
“Many of the laws and social regulations guiding the relationships of man and woman are relics of a barbaric age, when the brutal pride of an exclusive possession had its dominance in human relations, such as those of parents and children, husbands and wives, masters and servants, teachers and disciples. The vulgarity of it still persists in the social bond between the sexes because of the economic helplessness of woman. Nothing makes us so stupidly mean as the sense of superiority which the power of the purse confers upon us.”‘Woman and Home’ – Essay by Rabindranath Tagore
The issues observed and highlighted by Tagore in his works even in the early 1900s, remain relevant to our Indian society today. Tagore, as a teacher, always encouraged curiosity. He instructed people to question everything they are told about caste, creed, race, religion and to balance issues on the scale of humanity. Let our parting thoughts from Tagore, to you, be:
“Let my heart be awakened gently in the sacred pilgrimage.
Let it be awakened on the shore of the sea-like great soul of India.
Standing on this shore I stretch my hands and salute the human god.
No one knows by whose call different forms of human life converged into this ocean
In an irresistible flow;
The Aryans and the non-Aryans,
The Dravidian and the Chinese,
The Saks and the Huns,
The Pathans and Mughals merged with one body here.”