Tagone Speaks online section B7

Copyright © Christine Marsh 2016

7: Conclusion

Tagore once observed that the ‘introduction and conclusion of a book have a similarity of features’ in that they state the truth of the book in simple terms, whereas the body of the book ‘grows complex’ and ‘breaks itself into pieces to find itself back in a fuller unity of realization’.[1] The present book has become particularly complex because the aim has been to hear Tagore speak through a set of published lecture texts by bringing in their context and background in order to discover what may have been his motives and feelings at the time. Without the additional material, Tagore’s words lack colour, and can come across as quaint and stilted. For example, in a passage about a paradox Tagore finds in science, he writes: ‘Those who pursue the knowledge of finite for its own sake cannot find truth. For it is a dead wall obstructing the beyond.’[2] The additional material also enhances the relevance of Tagore’s words to the challenges we face in the present century. It would be wrong to infer that recognising Tagore as politically engaged and an activist in his own country means putting less emphasis on the religious content of his addresses in the West. The effect is rather to show how the ‘Religion of Man’ Tagore advocated would lead to life-enhancing ‘Realisation in Action’.[3]

This conclusion cannot be simple as in Tagore’s neat formula because it needs to include a further stage beyond drawing together the findings of the earlier chapters. There was an implication in those chapters that Tagore was articulating timeless truths, addressed to a wider audience and readership than those attending his lectures or buying copies of the books when they were first published. I did not go so far as to suggest how those ideas might be relevant to present day readers; that stage has to be accommodated in this concluding chapter.

Uma Das Gupta described Tagore as ‘a poet who was an indefatigable man of action’, her short biography of Tagore being a ‘sketch’ of the ‘lesser known aspects’ of his life, his ‘work as an educator and rural reformer’.[4] Although my own interest has also been in the action more than in the poetry, I have always been aware that Tagore thought of himself as ‘poet’ first, and the fact that he thought like a poet turns out to be key to understanding the hitherto unexplored potential of Tagore’s ideas and methods.

The way to achieve ‘a fuller unity of realization’ in this conclusion is to revisit two themes which have come up over the course of the chapters. The first theme is Tagore’s reception and reputation, the second is his vision of unity.[5]

Tagore’s Reception and Reputation

The historian E.P. Thompson, son of Tagore’s literary biographer Edward J. Thompson, wrote a defence of his father’s efforts to revive Tagore’s ‘bubble reputation’, which formed in 1912 but had burst by 1920.[6] This episode is part of a saga which has gone on for a century. What is concerning is that even today, and despite efforts to generate interest in Tagore around the time of his 150th birth anniversary in 2011, his reputation is polarised, between the Bengali view of him as a major cultural icon, and his being for others either quite unknown or associated with comforting spiritual messages. If, as I believe, Tagore’s vision could prove valuable in the situation we face today, both worship and ignorance are barriers. A considerable cast of players has been involved in influencing and discussing Tagore’s reputation. Those mentioned in this book include W.B. Yeats, Edward and E.P. Thompson, and William Radice. There is an intriguing possibility that the polarised reputation is due in part to a misunderstanding, which I explore in this concluding chapter by bringing in a theory of cognition devised by the computer scientist, David Gelernter, in his book The Muse in the Machine.[7]

In his Introduction to Gitanjali, W.B. Yeats associates Tagore with a unified reception in his own country:

If the civilization of Bengal remains unbroken, if that common mind which—as one divines—runs through all, is not, as with us, broken into a dozen minds that know nothing of each other, something even of what is most subtle in these verses will have come, in a few generations, to the beggar on the roads.[8]

Yeats seems to be yearning for a country where the poet, the seer and the bard are universally admired and revered, not judged by arbiters of taste and opinion. Yeats built his impression that Bengal was such a country from the words of ‘a distinguished Bengali doctor of medicine’, who was a great admirer of Rabindranath’s literature and music. Near the end of the first section of his Introduction, in which he related his discussion with the devotee, Yeats wrote:

I thought of the abundance, of the simplicity of the poems, and said, ‘In your country is there much propagandist writing, much criticism? We have to do so much, especially in my own country, that our minds gradually cease to be creative, and yet we cannot help it. If our life was not a continual warfare, we would not have taste, we would not know what is good, we would not find hearers and readers. Four-fifths of our energy is spent in the quarrel with bad taste, whether in our own minds or in the minds of others.[9]

There was of course critical warfare in Bengal, and Tagore himself engaged in the fray. He published more than one hundred critical essays and at least eight books devoted to literary criticism and theory.[10] He was also a target. In his 1921 ‘Life and Work’ of Tagore, Edward Thompson reported how the poet was subjected to criticism in his own country, by pandits, the guardians of India’s literary heritage, who declared his use of colloquial Bengali to be ‘shockingly bad’.[11] Thompson’s short study was published some years after Yeats had recovered from his dream and was dismissive of Tagore’s later works.[12] Thompson attempted to correct the way ‘the poet is misunderstood in the West—is underpraised, by some overpraised, is wrongly praised’.[13] Having read the book, Tagore wrote to its author: ‘I am sure that you have tried to be fair in your estimate of my works’,[14] but when Thompson published his longer critical appraisal in 1926, Tagore was ‘outraged, infuriated’ and shaken, and he wrote a pseudonymous review accusing Thompson of displaying ‘self-importance, arrogance and insolence’.[15] Judging from the reviews which appeared in the British Press, both of Thompson’s books were welcomed and appreciated by western readers.[16]

In her biography of Thompson, Mary Lago mentions that Tagore’s biographers decided that the controversy surrounding Thompson’s longer study is ‘too complex’ for them to discuss.[17] There is a great deal of material available on the subject, from Thompson himself,[18] from his son the historian E.P. Thompson,[19] from Lago, from Uma Das Gupta,[20] and from Harish Travedi’s Introduction to the final edition of the book.[21] We also know that William Radice blamed Thompson for damaging Tagore’s reputation, and hoped to succeed where Thompson had failed, and then he retracted – if only partially – following E.P Thompson’s defence of his father in Alien Homage:

I fully accept that my comments on Thompson were insensitive in tone and in part inaccurate. At the same time, I continue to feel that Thompson’s book misses its target, and that the legacy of his work is problematic.[22]

In my view, the legacy of Radice’s work is problematic too, due to the opinion he has often expressed that Tagore’s poetry matters more than his ideas and his practical projects in education and rural reconstruction.[23] Thompson’s view was not very different. The original Poet and Dramatist of 1926 includes a chapter entitled ‘Today’ (‘After the War’ in the 1948 edition) with an account of the opening of Visva-Bharati in December 1921, including extracts from the aims of the university. The first part of this document is quite well known and begins: ‘To study the mind of man in its realisation of different aspects of truth from diverse points of view’. Then Thompson quotes a passage related to the university’s practical aspirations:

The University will purchase or sell, construct, maintain, found, initiate, organise or assist and generally deal in or with, all or any description of the following: Buildings and building materials; foodstuffs, raw or manufactured; printing, publishing, type-founding, book-binding; books, manuscripts, libraries; pictures, statues, inscriptions and objects of artistic or antiquarian interest; musical instruments and accessories; textile machinery and products, brick, tiles, pottery and chinaware; mills, foundries and workshops for working in metal, wood, or other materials; co-operative stores, dairies and creameries; banks and all forms of association dealing in credit.[24]

The aims of Visva-Bharati are formal summaries of the aspirations Tagore set out in ‘An Eastern University’ in Creative Unity.[25] Thompson removed the practical passage for the 1948 edition of his book,[26] but in 1926 he went on to say ‘I think that dairies and creameries; banks and all forms of association dealing in credit’” etc. will have to be left on one side’ for the sake of the ‘effort of the noblest vision’ of ‘providing Asiatic, and especially Indian culture, with a centre in which it can find itself and speak thence on equal terms with the culture of every other land, independently of both Government and priestly influences’.[27] We see from Thompson’s 1921 book that he had little sympathy for the ‘rayats’ who ‘were picturesque and patient enough’ and ‘won the poet’s abiding respect and love’ but who ‘also cadged considerably’ and told Tagore ‘interminable and foolish stories’ with the result that the ‘zemindari work at Shileida’ wasted the poet’s time.[28] It seems that Thompson’s view was similar to Radice’s, that Tagore’s poetry matters more than his ideas and projects.[29]

Turning to a consideration of the poetry, I am unable to judge how Thompson and Radice compare as translators of Tagore’s Bengali poems into English, partly because their books are differently organised and referenced. Little besides the following fragment of their respective translations of one poem is available for comparison:


Today the sky is dark, with pouring rain:
A dire wind sweeps: beneath its dreadful flail,
With lifted hands the forests sob and wail:
The lightning rips the clouds, it peeps and peers,
Hurling through empty space its crooked spears
Of sharp-edged laughter.
In my closed dim room
I read the Meghdut; on the cloudrack’s spume
My mind, in freedom wandering far from home,
Is flying from land to land.[30]
Today is a dark day, the rain is incessant,
The wind ferocious – treetops rise
Like arms at its attack; their swishing is a cry.
Lightning darts through the clouds, ripping them,
Dotting the sky with sharp, crooked smiles.
In a gloomy closed room I sit alone
And read the Meghaduta. My mind leaves the room,
Travels on a free-moving clod, flies far and wide.[31]


My own inexpert preference is for Thompson’s version (on the left), but I have appreciated and been deeply moved by many of the poems in Radice’s selection. I understand, however, that Radice’s hope of learning from Thompson’s mistakes, and not offending Tagore’s Bengali devotees, has been frustrated. Radice has been subjected to scornful criticism to such an extent that he has suffered bouts of severe depression.[32] I mentioned above that I would suggest how it is possible that the disputes over Tagore’s reception and reputation are due in part to a misunderstanding, and I explore this now by bringing in a theory of cognition which Tagore could not have anticipated because it was conceived by an expert in computer science.

The Cognition Spectrum

Tagore might have had an interesting discussion with David Gelernter (born 1955), professor of computer science at Yale, if their lifetimes had overlapped. Tagore would have been intrigued by Gelernter’s ideas about how children and poets think: at the ‘low-focus’ end of the ‘cognitive spectrum’, and about the role of emotions in human thought, as discussed in his book The Muse in the Machine.[33] A reviewer sums up the theory as follows:

Human thought, asserts Gelernter, exists along a continuum, spanning from high-focus thinking – in-depth analytical problem solving – to low-focus thoughts, consisting of the daydreams and hallucinations that occur when one’s mind is wandering. Artificial intelligence research has historically focused on the logical, goal-driven thoughts at the high-end of the spectrum. Gelernter argues that, if the goal truly is to create a computer that can solve problems in a way similar to that of the human mind, then study of unfocused, emotional, low-end thinking must be incorporated into artificial intelligence research, for it is as central to human cognition as logic.

Gelernter compares his thought spectrum to the types of thinking that people do daily. High-focused thought is employed when someone is alert and focusing on a problem. Low-focus thinking takes over when we are tired or falling asleep and appear to have no control over the pattern our thoughts take. It is at the latter point that we are at our most creative. Gelernter defends his assertion in a gripping passage (p. 24-26) where he cites the ideas of romantic poets on the role of emotion in human thought. He draws further analogies between his thought spectrum and human cognitive development. Children are more creative than analytical, but develop logical problem-solving skills as they grow to adulthood. (p. 13) His third, and most debatable, analogy likens the intellectual development of mankind as a journey from the dream-like thinking apparent in some passages of the Bible, what Gelernter calls, ‘prelogical antiquity’ (p.15) to the logical thought valued today.[34]

The reviewer’s use of Gelernter’s terminology seems biased in favour of ‘high-focus’ cognition for the way grown-ups think in rational, reasonable ways, over ‘low-focus’ for the way the thoughts of dreamers, children and poets are connected through memories of their emotional experiences. In my reading of the book I found Gelernter especially intrigued by how ‘low-focus’ thought operates. He admits that his theory is speculative, and would require a great deal of work ‘merely to make the argument [...] rigorous and complete, much less unavoidable’.[35] I will only go so far as to suggest that the idea of the cognitive spectrum feels right, and could explain a mystery about how people respond to poetry.

It is well known that for all his life Tagore was very fascinated by childhood, his own in particular, with his boyhood experiences the foundation of his ideas on the best way to teach young children: outdoors, in touch with nature, free to move about, climb trees, explore, do gardening and crafts, sing, dance and playact. Most crucially, children need to be taught in their birth language. With Gelernter’s theory in mind, this could be because people are more creative in the language they knew from birth because it was through their feelings that they learned the meanings of and connections between words. One consequence of this is that people of whatever age will be moved by poetry written in their birth language, but will tend to be more analytical and critical reading or hearing poetry written in a second language, however proficient they may be in that language.

I have heard firsthand from admirers of Tagore whose first language is Bengali how superior his poems are in the original.[36] Bengali critics have often disparaged the work of English translators from Bengali to English, such as Thompson and Radice, and seen their failure as due to Tagore’s poetry being untranslatable; a notion which was attached to his reputation from Gitanjali onwards. And yet the work of those translators is much appreciated and enjoyed by readers whose first language is English. Applying Gelernter’s theory, we can see that this may be because the Bengali critics are fluent in grown-up English, not a child’s English-from-birth. They never had that particular experience of learning language for the first time in English – even if they learnt English as soon as they went to school aged five, and their use of English seems impeccable. So the ‘affective cognition’ which Gelernter suggests predominates in poets’ thought processes, and which makes their poetry affecting, will leave the Bengali critics cold. They will simply not ‘get’ the English versions, and will judge the translators accordingly. An entirely innocent understanding on their part, and the translators will feel unjustly and unreasonably attacked.

The implications of poetry being appreciated differently according to a reader’s birth language are potentially wide-ranging and contentious, and a speculative theory by Gelernter the computer scientist is not going to be sufficient to lay to rest a century of controversy over the reception of Tagore’s poetry in Bengali and in English. However, Gelernter’s theory is useful if taken more generally, as we take Tagore’s ideas forward from his lifetime to the present day.

Affective Cognition

An important part of affective cognition is the process whereby knowledge is acquired through sympathetic encouragement from a parent or teacher. Most of us learn this way in early childhood, but Tagore believed it should continue through life. The effect of such a learning process is that discrete concrete memories accumulate in the mind and are connected according to patterns of similarity in the emotions felt at the time, ideally joyful ones, hence Tagore’s references to joy being his test of truth. In conceptual or rational cognition, concrete memories become merged on the basis of similarity, losing their emotional charge. Gelernter saw affect links in memory as the source of vivid imaginings, creative insights and metaphoric thought, by dreamers, children and poets.[37]

The subject of Tagore’s thought processes has been a theme throughout this contextual study of the English essays, and I cited Gelernter’s book in a footnote to a discussion of how Tagore wrote poetically even in his prose, and mentioned the work of experts in cognition from different disciplines.[38] Many passages in the essays and the situations they reflect, and Tagore’s known priorities and interests, can be linked in some way to the main aspects of affective cognition: to childhood experiences and teaching, to poetic expression, to the power of emotions, and to the interpretation of ancient writings.[39] Sadhana derives from Tagore’s talks to the boys in his school, and includes passages from the Upanisads. The important of feelings is brought out in the essays in Personality and elsewhere. Tagore’s insistence that he was not a scholar can be understood as a reflection of Tagore continuing to think like a child all his life, because he had managed to avoid the drilling and punishment which forces children to master formal concepts and mechanical thought processes. To think like a child means giving the emotions their natural function, as indicators of relationship, as signals of approval and encouragement, as the way society is bound together, as ‘religion’ in the original sense of that word.

We come now to the second theme in this conclusion: Tagore’s ‘vision of unity’. Central to this vision was his belief that to achieve unity locally and globally, we need to replace the examination factories we call schools with the kind of education he devoted his life to. He began by resisting the schooling imposed on him as a child, then in 1901 he founded the little school at Santiniketan, which grew to have some hundreds of pupils and then became a university, and the larger and more complex it grew the more compromises over Tagore’s aims and ideals were made. Clearly, a new form of education will not succeed unless the grown-ups, parents and teachers, share the ideals.

Tagore’s Vision of Unity though Education

It is often assumed that Tagore’s mission was to bring eastern spirituality to address western materialism. A more useful formula might be to bring eastern humanism to address western systematising. Tagore’s criticism of the West was directed at its particular kind of divisiveness, separating ideas and people but reconnecting them with systems of thought or of organisation and control. Similarly, western science divides nature by means of radical forms of analysis, but ‘never succeeds in exactly putting the pieces together again’.[40] Concern over education today is a good place to start for exploring how Tagore’s mission is relevant to current concerns. Bashabi Fraser’s article ‘This Great Meeting of World Humanity: Tagore on Education’ summarises the potential scope of Tagore’s holistic vision for education:

Tagore poured his creative energies to realise the ideal institution that would encapsulate the cultural heritage of Indian educational traditions while adopting Western scientific thought to enable India to move into the modern age and become a beacon of hope for its people.[41]

Fraser adds a note at this point referring to a letter from Arthur Geddes to his father which shows how the educational experiment included practical training: ‘They’re gradually taking charge of special jobs – dairy, tannery, weaving, scouting, and each has his garden-plot, and most have chickens’.[42]

Thompson’s recommendation that the practical aspects should be ‘left on one side’ for the sake of ‘providing Asiatic, and especially Indian culture, with a centre in which it can find itself’ was not followed. And yet in Arthur Geddes’ letter, just before the passage Fraser refers to, he expresses a note of concern: ‘It is a pity these two places – Santiniketan and Sriniketan in Surul Khoti are so far apart, but it can’t be helped, and on the whole there is some unity and good feeling between the two’.[43] That was in 1923 when hopes were still high for the ‘centre of culture’ not only being ‘the centre of the intellectual life of India, but the centre of her economic life also’ and for it to ‘co-operate with the villages round it’.[44]

In Thompson’s account of the opening of Visva-bharati he mentions the pledge that ‘[t]here will be no examinations; no degrees will be conferred’, but we know that this condition did not last. Students and their parents demanded that qualifications towards gainful employment in clerical jobs and professions be part of any proper educational establishment. Das Gupta wrote that Tagore’s school for boys ‘functioned beautifully’, but his university ‘destroy[ed] some of the founder’s basic hopes’ because it was obliged to ‘compromise with the country’s educational system’.[45] Tagore reacted by placing his hopes in the more holistic and practical education being set up in Sriniketan. Tagore wrote to Elmhirst:

You know my heart is with Surul. I feel that it has life in it—it does not deal with abstractions, but has its roots deep in the heart of living reality. You may be absolutely certain that it will be able to weather all storms and spread its branches wide.[46]

Das Gupta describes the education system at Sriniketan as follows:

At Sriniketan itself there were three different educational institutions; the Shiksha-Shatra (1924) for village boys, the Loka-Siksha Samshad (1936) for householders, the Siksha-Charcha Bhavana (1937) for village school teachers. Besides, there was the diploma course in rural reconstruction for college boys at the Institute of Rural Reconstruction. The learning of handicrafts was compulsory in each of these institutions and at the Silpa-Bhavana (l922). The Loka-Siksha Samshad did commendable work in the field of adult literacy. The Siksha-Satra met the need of having a separate school for village boys, who were expected to go back and enrich the life of the village, because the students of the Santiniketan school came mostly from urban homes. Moreover, the students at Santiniketan had to pass examinations whereas the Siksha-Satra boys were not troubled with these cerebral preoccupations. Their curriculum involved reading, writing and arithmetic for an hour and their sums and writing were focused on their daily experience. The rest of the time was spent in gardening, going on excursions, studying nature, collecting wild flowers and medical herbs, weaving, sewing, carpentry, painting, cooking and housecraft, and lessons in keeping good health.[47]

This holistic system was the achievement of many people working at Sriniketan and Santiniketan, all inspired by Tagore’s vision. It is this kind of programme which could free the next generation of children, and their parents and teachers, from setting their sights on office jobs in the city.

Looking ahead to the current situation, we can see that office work no longer offers a secure career. Ha-Joon Chang points out in his guide to economics that historically machines have wiped out whole professions: ‘weavers, smiths, wheelwrights and so on’.[48] Division of labour on the industrial production line reduces work to simple repetitive actions, which are being progressively automated. Since the 1960s, with the development of computerised information systems, whole swathes of clerical and middle management jobs have gradually been replaced by software.[49] Chang includes a chapter on ‘Work’ which he says is a neglected subject in economics, other than as a source (or lack) of income. Interestingly, he observes of ‘child labour’ that ‘[w]hen children work in adult jobs, their mental and physical developments are arrested’ and they ‘may not fulfil their potential to the full’.[50] Tagore would have argued that training children in the skills needed for adult jobs is similarly damaging. It is like taking a rough cloth and scouring part of their personalities and creative potential from their brains.

Bengali sociologist and economist, Sasadhar Sinha, in his book Social Thinking of Rabindranath Tagore, suggests that Tagore’s ideal of human unity ‘could only come when the present possibilities of compromise and reform had been completely exhausted’, and that this would involve ‘the disappearance of one’s own familiar world’.[51] Sinha was writing in the 1960s, and fifty years later the national and inter-national ‘machinery of commerce and politics’ which Tagore condemned still survives, but for how much longer? There are indications that these systems may be running out of time.[52] Tagore regarded the ‘modern age’ as a phase during which humanity took a wrong turning, led by the West but dragging Asia after it.[53] In his last public address ‘Crisis in Civilization’, Tagore indicated that he foresaw a ‘new chapter in history after the cataclysm is over and the atmosphere rendered clean with the spirit of service and sacrifice’.[54]

Tagore’s Vision of Unity between East and West

In this book I have related the story of how and why Rabindranath Tagore journeyed to the West between 1912 and 1931, and delivered the lectures published in his five books of English essays. Knowing the story and his motivations helps to bring out the meaning of the texts Tagore left us as a record of his mission and message. It was Tagore’s intention to reach out to the West at that time, as the biographical approach I have adopted makes clear. The five books provide a foundation for further studies into Tagore’s understanding of human potential, the dangers presented by ‘progress’ in the modern age, and the local community alternative which he tried to put into practice.

In the course of this study, I discovered that some of the English essays have counterparts amongst the essays Tagore delivered in India. In particular, the counterpart to ‘An Eastern University’ in Creative Unity is ‘The Centre of Indian Culture’ in Towards Universal Man. In those two essays ‘Tagore was communicating different things to his urban audiences in India and in the West, and then taking both in the same direction – towards the village’.[55] Another corresponding pair of essays is ‘Nationalism in the West’ in Nationalism and ‘Society and State’ in Towards Universal Man. Tagore’s message is the same as in Creative Unity, except that the direction ‘towards the village’ is detailed and explicit in ‘Society and State’, but referred to in general terms in ‘Nationalism in the West’ as ‘society’, which Tagore describes as a ‘natural regulation of human relationships, so that men can develop ideals of life in cooperation with one another’.[56] One can conclude that, just as Tagore urged his compatriots to work for a future for India based on networks of self-reliant villages, rather than an urban industrial ‘nation’ or ‘state’, so he advocated – albeit tentatively – a similar direction for the world.

In addition to pairings linked to Tagore’s political solution, one finds essays on his understanding of the origin of creativity, relationships and moral responsibility, which he saw as deriving from the ‘surplus’ capacity of mankind compared with other animals. This links to Tagore’s ideas about anthropology and the causes of differences between peoples – which are again repeated in different essays, including those Tagore wrote originally in Bengali, for addresses or for publication. Essays in different books of English essays can also be compared with this subject in mind, in particular ‘The Relation of the Individual to the Universe’ in Sadhana shares ideas and themes with ‘Man’s Universe’ in The Religion of Man.

One can see from certain of Tagore’s essays originating in India, and from studies such as those by Das Gupta,[57] that his prolonged involvement with village people on the family estates, and also with students and adults from urban backgrounds, qualifies him as an experienced physical anthropologist. Knowing this about Tagore, we can read the English essays as showing us that through his sympathy and his values he developed what I have called a ‘deep anthropology’, a sense of what mankind ought to be, as well as what we are.

There are, of course, essays in the five books on themes which are taken to be religious, due to Tagore’s many references to the Upanisads. But once one is alert to Tagore’s political solution and to his values, one can see that his religion is part of his ‘deep anthropology’. As Tagore writes in an appendix to Radhakrishnan’s translation of the Upanisads, the ancient writings are based ‘not upon theological reasoning, but on experience of spiritual life’. [58] Tagore writes about this in his preface to Sadhana:

For western scholars the great religious scriptures of India seem to possess merely a retrospective and archaeological interest; but to us they are of living importance, and we cannot help thinking that they lose their significance when exhibited in labelled cases—mummied specimens of human thought and aspiration, preserved for all time in the wrappings of erudition. The meaning of the living words that come out of the experiences of great hearts can never be exhausted by any one system of logical interpretation. They have to be endlessly explained by the commentaries of individual lives, and they gain an added mystery in each new revelation.[59]

In the English essays, Tagore returns time and again to how mankind evolved by the same path as other species, but then emerged from the world of nature into the world of humanity, through a ‘second birth’ made possible by our surplus mental capacity or ‘abundance’. Tagore writes of how ‘the surplus in man’ means he is free to be responsible, cooperative and creative, but can also revert to the savage animal’s fight for survival.[60] Tagore saw the coercive and competitive government and commerce of the modern age as such a relapse, and he sought to raise a new generation with some of the old ways, but taking advantage of beneficial aspects of scientific approaches and the latest technology.

We have seen that Tagore was unable in his lifetime to persuade people at home or abroad that he was offering a viable alternative to the decadent individualism, communalism and identity politics of the modern world.[61] That he did have a viable alternative is recognised by some, in the context of nationalism in former East Bengal and East Pakistan, now Bangladesh, where some can see that:

Tagore had an alternative understanding of Indian civilisation and history that inspired him to think beyond nationalist discourse. His complex understanding of religion, the self, freedom, creativity and the ‘mechanical’ features of state should be taken into consideration if we want to grasp his vision of Indian society and explore why he gave society primacy over the state. [... A]n appreciation of Tagore’s philosophical vision of the grand harmony of all human races may enable us to recognise his passion for social commitment and his desire not to see the world fragmented by nationalist states built through violence.[62]

For most people in the English speaking world, Tagore is either quite unknown or a remote historic figure. And yet, as Tagore said, ‘in the present age, with its facility of communication, geographical barriers have almost lost their reality’.[63] We can bring the ‘long ago and far away’ Tagore near to us if we focus on the performance artist, rather than the dead and ‘untranslatable’ Bengali poet, and listen again to what he had to say.

The Performance Artist

In his keynote address on ‘Rabindranath Tagore: the next 50 years’ to the conference in Edinburgh in May 2012, William Radice suggested that the key to Tagore’s future lies in performance. Radice was referring mainly to Tagore’s obviously performable works: his songs, plays and dance dramas, and he said that studies of Tagore should be inseparable from actual performance, and through performance ‘the prophet and thinker is not dead’.[64]

The English essays were originally lectures: lively performances by a gifted speaker, which still come across best when read aloud. During the reading of his paper on ‘Tagore’s Religion of Man’, Mulk Raj Anand recited two pages of Tagore’s essay ‘Man’s Universe’, in effect saying to his audience: ‘Just listen to this!’[65] One can tell from his comments on the book that Anand had studied The Religion of Man closely. Before reading his paper, Anand delivered his inaugural address to the 1986 seminar in Shimla, with the title ‘Rabindranath Tagore in Retrospect’.[66] He was probably the only person present who had actually met Tagore, and he began by describing one of his visits to Santiniketan in 1938, and finding the poet ‘in a sombre mood’ due to ‘Hindu-Moslem quarrels’ which were threatening to disrupt a united India. As a parting gift, Tagore gave Anand a copy of The Religion of Man, which he treasured until his small library was destroyed in the London bombing.[67] One can imagine that Anand would have found another copy as soon as he could, and read it again and again, perhaps out loud, because he obviously discovered that Tagore’s English essays are deeply meaningful prose poetry.

In Martin Kämpchen’s book on Tagore and Germany, there is a superb description by Moriz Winternitz of Tagore being ‘a most extraordinary actor’.[68] Winternitz saw Tagore in performance at the Madan Theatre in Calcutta on 25 February 1923, in ‘a spring play’ which is ‘really a cycle of spring songs’. He described the antics of the sixty-two year old Poet as follows:

He jumped about with the others like an adolescent, and at the end, after the King had cast away his crown and the Poet his cap, all those on the stage danced around in a wild whirl. Finally when the Poet seized by the arm the Finance Minister, portrayed by one of our European teachers, and danced around with him, thus symbolising the union of “East and West”, the ideal of Visva-Bharati, a thunderous storm of applause burst forth from the audience.[69]

Winternitz pointed out that Tagore came on stage only in his own plays and only if the performance served to generate money for a charitable purpose, especially for his school in Santiniketan. Winternitz also remarked that in this gorgeous but also serene piece of theatre there was ‘still no lack of those subtle, serious and deep thoughts we are used to receiving from the Poet’. The framework for the play is a dialogue between King and Poet, and Winternitz illustrates the serious point of the play as follows:

At the very beginning, the King relates that he had fled the Council and the country because the treasury was empty and the ministers of various portfolios continued to pester him. The Poet said: “That is quite all right.” The King (astonished): “Why?” The Poet: “If the King disappears from time to time, the people will get used to governing themselves.” The King: “What do you mean by that?” The Poet: “When the King’s treasury is empty, the people will find their own means, and that is the deliverance of the people.”[70]

We see Tagore’s politics here, as we have seen it in his performances on the lecture platform. In effect Tagore advocates anarchism without terrorism, or communism without the dictatorship of the proletariat.[71]

The Fuller Unity of Realization

I began this chapter with Tagore’s remark about a conclusion finding itself back in a ‘fuller unity of realization’. Having studied Tagore’s five books in turn, my feeling is that the ‘fuller unity of realization’ from the entire collection is connected to what Tagore terms the ‘divine principle of unity’, which is also a ‘dualism of relationship’. Tagore explains the apparent paradox in ‘Man’s Universe’ in The Religion of Man:

The divine principle of unity has ever been that of an inner inter-relationship. This is revealed in some of its earliest stages in the evolution of multicellular life on this planet. The most perfect inward expression has been attained by man in his own body. But what is most important of all is the fact that man has also attained its realization in a more subtle body outside his physical system. He misses himself when isolated; he finds his own larger and truer self in his wide human relationship. His multicellular body is born and it dies; his multi-personal humanity is immortal. In this ideal of unity he realizes the eternal in his life and the boundless in his love.[72]

One can understand the idea of the integrity of a human body being an example of the internal relationships connecting any multicellular life form together. It may seem that ‘a more subtle body’ outside the ‘physical system’ is a reference to the disembodied soul or spirit. But what could Tagore mean by saying that someone ‘misses himself when isolated’? As this passage is taken from The Religion of Man, we can link it to Tagore’s final words to Einstein:

My religion is in the reconciliation of the Super-personal Man, the Universal human spirit in my own individual being. This has been the subject of my Hibbert Lectures, which I have called “The Religion of Man”.[73]

Tagore began that conversation by denying Einstein’s supposition that he believed in a transcendent deity, ‘isolated from the world’. Tagore refers to the ‘infinite personality of Man [which] comprehends the Universe’ and asserts that there ‘cannot be anything that cannot be subsumed by the human personality, and this proves that the truth of the Universe is human truth.’ He uses a scientific illustration:

Matter is composed of protons and electrons, with gaps between them; but matter may seem to be solid. Similarly humanity is composed of individuals, yet they have their inter-connection of human relationship, which gives living solidarity to man’s world. The entire universe is linked up with us in a similar manner, it is a human universe.[74]

We have seen through the chapters how Tagore sometimes challenged ‘Science’ on its claims to exclusive truths, and on other occasions drew on his interest in the sciences to illustrate religious and philosophical points. Of particular interest is how Tagore referred to evolution and what I have called ‘deep anthropology’ to express his insights and concerns. In ‘The Second Birth’ in Personality Tagore draws a parallel between the experience of relationship for a tree, and then for ourselves. First the tree:

We see a tree. It is separate from its surroundings by the fact of its individual life. All its struggle is to keep this separateness of its creative individuality distinct from everything else in the universe. Its life is based upon a dualism,—on one side this individuality of the tree, and on the other the universe.

But if it were a dualism of hostility and mutual exclusion, then the tree would have no chance to maintain its existence. The whole league of giant forces would pull it to pieces. It is a dualism of relationship. The more perfect the harmony with its world of the sun and the soil and the seasons, the more perfect the tree becomes in its individuality. It is an evil for it when this inter-relation is checked. Therefore life, on its negative side, has to maintain separateness from all else, while, on its positive side, it maintains unity with the universe. In this unity is its fulfilment.[75]

Tagore follows the evolutionary path from plants (the tree) to animals, then to ourselves. For us, inter-relationship and unity has another stage, ‘a deeper hue’, and Tagore takes his readers surprisingly easily into what elsewhere seems such a difficult, mystical idea:

The consciousness of relationship dawned in us with our physical existence, where there was separation and meeting between our individual life and the universal world of things; it took a deeper hue in our mental life, where there was a separation and continual reunion between our individual mind and the universal world of reason; it widened where there was a separation and combination between the individual will and the universal world of human personalities; it came to its ultimate meaning where there was the separation and harmony between the individual One in us and the universal One in infinity.[76]

I said in my introduction that I hoped to show that ‘the forty-two essays published in the five books, from Sadhana in 1922 to The Religion of Man in 1931, are the most important of all Tagore’s writings’, on the basis of their relevance to the challenges we face in the world today, and their reflection of what was most important to Tagore himself, his ‘life’s work’.[77]

It was only with the publication of Nationalism that the public became aware of the Poet-Seer’s criticisms of the modern age, and one reviewer complained that Tagore ‘indicates evils and dangers in the present system’, but cannot say what he ‘would like to substitute for the present regime’.[78] When I referred to this review earlier I indicated that ‘Tagore does in fact bring out in the book what his alternative would be. In practical terms, it is the “constructive work of social cooperation”, which is a theme throughout’.[79] I drew out the significance of this theme in Nationalism by pointing out the parallels with Tagore’s essays such as ‘Society and State’ and ‘City and Village’, and connections with his work on ‘constructive swadeshi’.

I mentioned earlier that Sasadhar Sinha, Bengali sociologist and economist, suggests that Tagore’s ideal of human unity ‘could only come when the present possibilities of compromise and reform had been completely exhausted’.[80] There are signs that the world of today is changing, mainly below the political parapet, with activists preferring to sideline the powerful governmental and economic systems rather than confront them, and to cherry pick what is advantageous from new technologies. As Tagore knew, good change has to be gradual, and change is bubbling up at a local community level around the world.

Tagorean World Change Today

Nearing the end of this study of Tagore’s books of English essays, touching on how his ideas for world change resonate with relocalisation today, takes me back to the beginning of my interest in his work and ideas. I first heard the name Rabindranath Tagore from Majorie Sykes, a teacher at Santiniketan in the last years of Tagore’s life. Marjorie has been mentioned several time in this study, for her biographies of Tagore and of Charlie Andrews. I met Marjorie in 1989 at the home of my friend Margaret Glover who was painting her portrait. Some time later we met again at Friends House in London. Marjorie shared with me her irritation at a speaker who had referred to Gandhi saying: ‘The world has enough for everyone’s need, not for everyone’s greed’. ‘That wasn’t Gandhi, it was Rabindranath Tagore!’ she declared, and told me that he was a deep ecologist, and she wrote the following quotation in my copy of her book about Gandhi:[81]

Mother Earth has enough for
the real needs of all her
children … but she has not
nearly enough for a whole
generation of greedy children
who know no limit to their
Rabindranath Tagore
“City and Village”

I found the text of ‘City and Village’ in a copy of Towards Universal Man, and read this essay and others with interest, but I gave little further thought to Rabindranath Tagore for ten years. Then I heard that name again when working as a volunteer at the Dartington Trust Archive. The papers on Tagore’s and Elmhirst’s rural reconstruction projects interested me because I could see how their work resembled permaculture, an approach to designing how to meet people’s needs in a sustainable and cooperative way, as far as possible using local resources. Coincidentally, I first heard of permaculture and attended a permaculture design course 25 years ago, around the same time that I met Marjorie Sykes and heard of Rabindranath Tagore. I have been keenly interested and involved in the Permaculture Movement ever since, helping to launch Permaculture Magazine and serving as a trustee of the Permaculture Association in Britain.[82]

About ten years ago, Rob Hopkins, a permaculture teacher, established the first Transition Town in Totnes, as a response to climate change and peak oil, attributing its ready acceptance in the area to the rural reconstruction project Elmhirst established in nearby Dartington. Since then thousands of Transition Initiatives have been launched around Britain and abroad, in over forty countries.[83]

I see the Permaculture and Transition Movements as recent manifestations of Tagorean world change, which is friendly, joyful, imaginative and highly diverse, fulfilling Tagore’s faith in an ideal of that Paradise which is ‘the ultimate reality towards which all things are moving’ and which ‘is to be seen in the sunlight, and the green of the earth, in the flowing streams, in the beauty of spring time, and the repose of a winter morning’.[84]

Tagore wrote in the final paragraph of his ‘Presidential Address’ in 1908:

We of today shall be gone tomorrow. Who will then remember our petty jealousies, quarrels and disputes? But our deeds with their endless sequence of cause and effect will under God’s mysterious guidance accumulate from generation to generation and give substance and form to the emergence of a progressive nation. In the midst of our poverty and squalor, let us dream of that bright and cloudless day when our grandsons may be able to say with pride: “All this is ours, all this we have built up. We have made these fields fertile, these waters clear and this atmosphere pure. All this knowledge we have spread abroad and from our hearts cast out fear. [...] All our land is filled with our life and glad with our songs. Wherever we cast our eyes, we see at work our ideals and our efforts and the earth aquiver with the unwearied tread of pilgrims journeying along numberless paths towards the Promised Land.”[85]


[1] Chapter 2, # 17. Personality, pp. 112-13.

[2] Personality, p. 56. This is just one example taken out of context, but the problem is a real one, even when Tagore’s admirers quote longer passages to illustrate points.

[3] ‘Realisation in Action’ is the title one of the essays in Sadhana, pp. 117-34. Tagore explains in his Preface that this was ‘Karma-yoga’ in Bengali, which means achieving unity through useful work for society, in association with others.

[4] Das Gupta, Biography, blurb and p. ix..

[5] There are over 200 occurrences of the word ‘unity’ in the 42 essays.

[6] E.P. Thompson, ‘The Bubble Reputation’, in Alien Homage, pp. 29-38 (p. 30).

[7] Chapter 2 # 30, n. 152.

[8] Yeats, Introduction, in Gitanjali, p. xiv.

[9] Yeats, p. xii.

[10] Sisir Kumar Das, Introduction, in Selected Writings on Literature and Language, p. 1.

[11] Thompson, 1921, p. 33. Tagore defends the use of colloquial Bengali rather than the formal style in ‘About Language’, published in 1917. (Selected Writings on Literature and Language, pp. 346-57, Notes, p. 410.)

[12] Quotation from Yeats’s reply of 27 April 1024 to letter from Thompson E.J. Thompson, Alien Homage, pp. 49, 65 n.48.

[13] Thompson, 1921, p. ix.

[14] Letter, Tagore to Thompson, 20 September 1921, in Das Gupta, Difficult Friendship, p. 132.

[15] Harish Trivedi, Introduction, in Tagore: Poet and Dramatist, a1-a39 (p. a14).

[16] Imagining Tagore, pp. 351-7, 446-56.

[17] India’s Prisoner: A Biography of Edward John Thompson, 1886-1946 (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2001), p. 222. Dutta and Robinson, Myriad-Minded Man, p. 277.

[18] Thompson was a prolific writer: his biographer lists 46 books and articles by him in her bibliography (Lago. pp. 365-7.) and also a prolific correspondent. A collection of the Thompson Papers, held by his son, were transferred to the Bodleian Library in 1992.

[19] E.P. Thompson, Introduction, in Nationalism (1991) and Alien Homage: Edward Thompson and Rabindranath Tagore (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1998 [1993]).

[20] Uma Das Gupta, A Difficult Friendship: Letters of Edward Thompson and Rabindranath Tagore 1913-1940 (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2003)

[21] Harish Travedi, Introduction, in Edward Thompson, Rabindranath Tagore: Poet and Dramatist (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991), pp. a1-a39 (pp. a12-a29).

[22] Radice, ‘Preface to the 1994 Reprint’, in Rabindranath Tagore: Selected Poems (London: Penguin, 1994), pp. 7-11 (p. 9).

[23] It is interesting that in his Notes to Selected Poems Radice draws on Tagore’s ideas, as expressed in the books of English essays.

[24] Edward Thompson, Rabindranath Tagore: Poet and Dramatist (London: Oxford University Press, 1926), pp. 279-80.

[25] ‘An Eastern University’, in Creative Unity, pp. 167-203. Chapter 5, # 100-2.

[26] Thompson (1948, reprinted with new introduction in 1991), p. 266.

[27] Thompson (1926), p. 290.

[28] Thompson (1921), p. 31.

[29] According to E.P. Thompson, his father’s view was that Tagore’s ‘central claim to greatness lay as a song-writer, in his genius as a short story writer, and in some aspects of his social thought’. (E.P. Thompson, Alien Homage, pp. 24, 31.) E.J. Thompson was very aware of Tagore as a poet and a man of ‘many-sided activity’. (EJT (1921), p. 29.)

[30] Thompson (1948/1991), 67.

[31] Radice, p. 51.

[32] Personal communication from a mutual friend and colleague, who suggested that the life-threatening accident Radice suffered in 1913 may have been due to his inattention when depressed.

[33] David Gelernter, The Muse in the Machine: Computerizing the Poetry of Human Thought (New York: Free, 1994)

[34] This summary is taken from a review of the book by Caitlin Kelly, University of Texas, in November 1996.

[35] Gelernter, p. 190.

[36] Amalendu Biswas wrote in the Editorial of the Tagore Centre’s 2011 commemorative volume that ‘those whose mother tongue is not Bengali or whose comprehension of Bengali language is not as proficient as that of a Bengali speaker will miss out on some of Tagore’s extraordinary power’. (Timeless Mind, p. xx.) The volume was intended to revive Tagore’s reputation amongst English readers, and telling them the poet’s genius is out of their reach is surely unhelpful.

[37] Gelernter, pp. 13-4.

[38] In particular Antonio Damasio, neuroscientist, Merlin Donald, psychologist, and David Rothenberg, philosopher.

[39] ‘Tagore’s method of writing’, in Chapter 2, # 30 n 152.

[40] Chapter 3, # 50. ‘The synoptic view gives something which analysis loses and synthesis alone cannot be certain to recover or restore’. (Merz, p. 48.)

[41] Bashabi Fraser, ‘This Great Meeting of World Humanity: Tagore on Education’, in Timeless Mind, pp. 118-25 (p. 120).

[42] Fraser, p. 124, n. 17.

[43] Geddes Tagore Letters, p. 97.

[44] Chapter 4 # 83. See Arthur Geddes, ‘Rural Reconstruction’ in Modern Review, November 1923, pp. 537-40.

[45] Uma Das Gupta, Santiniketan and Sriniketan: A Historical Introduction, A Visva-Bharati Quarterly Booklet (Santiniketan: Visva-Bharati University, 1977), pp. 54-5. Appendix 3.

[46] Chapter 5, # 117. Tagore, letter to Elmhirst, 13 November 1922, in Elmhirst, ‘The Foundation of Sriniketan’, in ‘Rabindranath Tagore, Pioneer in Education: Essays and Exchanges between Rabindranath Tagore and Leonard Elmhirst (London: John Murray, 1961), pp. 18-43 (p. 33).

[47] Das Gupta, pp. 370-1.

[48] Ha-Joon Chang, Economics: The User’s Guide (London: Pelican, 2014), p. 244.

[49] It is significant that Gelernter’s interest was in Artificial Intelligence, in how to ‘create a computer that can solve problems in a way similar to that of the human mind’, and that AI research has ‘historically focused on the logical, goal-driven thoughts at the high-end of the spectrum’. This means that it is easier to replace jobs requiring mechanical thought processes with computer systems, as has happened since the 1960s.

[50] Chang, p. 350.

[51] Sasadhar Sinha, ‘The Ideal of Human Unity’, in Social Thinking of Rabindranath Tagore (London: Asia Publishing House, 1962), pp. 43-53 (p. 53).

[52] Recent works suggesting that the capitalist system began to fail in the 1970s include Richard Wolff’s Capitalism Hits The Fan: The Global Economic Meltdown and What to Do About It (Northampton, MA, 2013) and Wolfgang Streeck’s Buying Time: The Delayed Crisis of Democratic Capitalism (London: Verso, 2014). In ‘End of the Nation’ (New Scientist, 6 September 2014. 30-7.) Debora MacKenzie surveys the evidence that the globalisation of neoliberal economics is reducing the power of nation states.

[53] Chapter 2, # 19.

[54] ‘Crisis in Civilization’, in The Essential Tagore, ed. by Fakrul Alam and Radha Chakravarty (Cambridge, MA: Belhnap of Harvard University Press, 2011), pp. 209-16 (p. 215-6).

[55] Chapter 5, # 102.

[56] ‘Nationalism in the West’, p. 9.

[57] I refer especially to: Uma Das Gupta, Santiniketan and Sriniketan: A Historical Introduction, A Visva-Bharati Quarterly Booklet (Santiniketan: Visva-Bharati University, 1977) and ‘Rabindranath Tagore on Rural Reconstruction: The Sriniketan Programme, 1921-41’, Indian Historical Review, 4 (1978), 354-78.

Das Gupta has concentrated on Tagore’s work in and around Santiniketan. For the full picture on his work in East Bengal (now Bangladesh), we have the impressive account by Ahmad Rafique, ‘Tagore’s Thoughts on Village Development and Rural Reconstruction’, in Contemporarising Tagore and the World, pp. 375-93. There is also the brilliant description by Arthur Geddes of the progress made at Sriniketan in the first 18 months. (Modern Review, November 1923, pp. 537-40.)

[58] Tagore, Appendix A, in Upanisads, ed. by Radhakrishnan pp. 939-944 (p. 940).

[59] Preface, in Sadhana, p. viii.

[60] Tagore, ‘The Surplus in Man’, in The Religion of Man, pp. 51-64. In this essay, Tagore writes of the freedom of bipedalism as well as the diversity of cultures and beliefs arising from our mental flexibility.

[61] Regenia Gagnier, ‘Decadent Individualism’, in Individualism, Decadence and Globalization: On the Relationaship of Part to Whole, 1850-1920 (Basingstoke, Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010), pp. 9-11.

[62] Mohammad Sajjadur Rahman, ‘Bangladesh: State, Nation and Tagore’, in Contemporarising Tagore and the World, pp. 143-54 (pp. 143-4).

[63] Tagore, ‘An Eastern University’, in Creative Unity, pp. 167-203 (p. 171). Nowadays the ‘facility of communication’ includes the internet, and we have the collection of Tagore’s works on the ‘Bichitra Tagore Online Variorum’ (<bichitra.jdvu.ac.in/index.php>.

[64] William Radice, ‘Rabindranath Tagore: the next 50 years’, Keynote address 4 May 2012, to international conference: ‘Tagore: The Global Impact of a Writer in the Community’ at Edinburgh Napier University on 4, 5 and 6 May 2012.

[65] Anand, ‘Tagore’s Religion of Man: An Essay on Rabindranath Tagore’s Humanism’, pp. 87-8.

[66] Anand, ‘Inaugural Address: Rabindranath Tagore in Retrospect’, in Tagore and the Challenges of Today, pp. 4-11.

[67] Anand, pp. 4-5.

[68] Martin Kämpchen, ‘Moriz Winternitz on “Rabindranath Tagore as Actor and Dancer”’, in Rabindranath Tagore and Germany: A Documentation (Calcutta: Max Mueller Bhavan, 1991), pp. 85-8.

[69] Winternitz, p. 87.

[70] Winternitz, p. 87.

[71] Tagore’s non-violent anarchism was discussed in Chapter 5 # pp. 107-10, and his ‘proletarian sympathies’ in Chapter 6. # 130-2.

[72] ‘Man’s Universe’, p.15.

[73] The Religion of Man, p. 225.

[74] The Religion of Man, p. 222.

[75] ‘Second Birth’, pp. 77-8.

[76] ‘Second Birth’, p. 84.

[77] Chapter 1, # 10-11.

[78] ‘The Protest of a Seer: [Review] Nationalism. by Sir Rabindranath Tagore’, in The Times Literary Supplement, 13 September 1917, Imagining Tagore, pp. 289-91 (p. 291).

[79] Chapter 4, # 78, citing Nationalism, p. 8.

[80] Sinha, ‘The Ideal of Human Unity’, in Social Thinking of Rabindranath Tagore, pp. 43-53 (p. 53).

[81] Jehangir P. Patel and Marjorie Sykes, Gandhi: His Gift of the Fight (Rasulia, Hoshangabad: Friends Rural Centre, 1987).

[82] Permaculture Magazine (www.permaculture.co.uk ); The Permaculture Association Britain (www.permaculture.org.uk )

[84] Tagore, ‘Paradise’, in Pearson, Shantiniketan, pp. 101-4 (p. 102).

[85] ‘Presidential Address’ (1908), in Towards Universal Man, pp. 101-28 (pp. 127-8).