‘Society and State’

Rabindranath Tagore, ‘Society and State’, in Towards Universal Man (London: Asia Publishing House, 1961), pp. 49-66.

Society and State

In our country the king waged wars, defended his territory and dispensed justice, but society attended to all else, from the supply of water to the supply of knowledge. This was done with such great competence that the repeated floods of new sovereignty through the centuries could neither destroy our spiritual life and reduce us to brutes, nor break up our society and turn us into destitutes.

There was no end to warfare between kings; but in the clearings of our bamboo groves and in the shade of our mango orchards temples and rest-houses were built, tanks excavated; the village schoolmaster taught his simple arithmetic; readings from the scriptures never ceased, the Ramayana was chanted in altar-sheds, and village meeting- places echoed to the melody of hymns to Krishna. Our rural society never depended on external help, nor was its richness of structure ever impaired by aggression from outside.

That, today, we should have to deplore the scarcity of water in our country, is of comparatively minor import. The main cause of that scarcity is our real regret—the fact that society has lost interest in itself and all its attention is directed outwards.

When a river flowing by a village changes its ancient course, the water supply and the crops, health and commerce get wrecked. Gardens turn into wilderness ; the ruins [49] of a past prosperity shelter the banyan and the peepul in the crevices of their crumbling foundations, and become a haunt for the owl and the bat.

The flow of the human mind is not of less importance than that of a river. This current of the mind had always worked to maintain the good health and happiness of the cool-shaded villages of Bengal; but now the mind of Bengal is distracted. That is why her temples are falling to ruins for lack of men to repair them; her tanks are insanitary for lack of men to clear the slime; the mansions of the rich are shorn of joyous festivity and stand deserted. Now it is the government which must provide drinking water and good health; and even for the gift of education we must kneel humbly at the portals of the authorities. The tree which once made its own flowers bloom now raises its withered limbs in an appeal to heaven for help. Even if that prayer is answered, what will such make-believe blossoms avail?

What in English concepts is known as the State was called in our country Sarkar or Government. This Government existed. in ancient India in the form of kingly power, but there is a difference between the present English State and our ancient kingly power. England relegates to State care all the welfare services in the country; India did that only to a very limited extent.

Not that the king did not have to support and reward those who gave the people free education, both secular and religious—but he did so only in part. The real responsibility lay on the householder. If the king withheld his grants or if all of a sudden there was anarchy, the secular and religious education of society could not be seriously interrupted. It was not as though the king did not have tanks dug but he did hardly more than any other wealthy [50] member of society. The reservoirs of the country did not run dry if the king alone was negligent.

In England the people are free to enjoy their comforts and pleasures and pursue their own interests; they are not burdened with communal duties, since such cares rest with the State. In India it was the king who was comparatively free and the people were tied to social obligations whether the king went to war or a-hunting, whether he was true to his duties or passed his time simply in pursuit of pleasure, he was morally responsible for his own actions, but the people had never depended on him for their communal welfare. On the contrary, social duties were specifically assigned to the members of society.

Consequently, what we understand by the word dharma permeated the whole social fabric. Every man had to acquire the discipline of self-control; every man had to accept the sanctified code of obligations.

The vital strength in different civilizations is variously embodied. The heart of a country lies wherever the people’s welfare is centred. A blow aimed at that point is fatal for the whole country. In England the overthrow of the State might mean peril for the nation—that is why politics there is such a serious affair. In our country there would be danger only when the social body, samaj, became crippled. That is why we never cared to do our utmost for political liberty, while we have protected social liberty in every way. England relies on the State for everything, from the relief of the destitute to the religious education of the public; whereas our country depends on the people’s sense of duty. Therefore, England has to exist by keeping the State alive while we exist by preserving our social consciousness.

Naturally, England is always engaged in keeping the [51] State wakeful and active. And we, having read in English schools, have come to the conclusion that it is the main duty of the general public to prick the government into attentiveness in all circumstances. We have somehow lost sight of the fact that we cannot cure our own ills by applying poultices on another person’s body.

An argument may arise at this point—whether it is better for public duties to lie in the body public, or to be vested in a particular organ named the Government. I wish to stress the fact that such a discussion would suit a debating club but would be useless to us at present. We have to understand that the British State is unshakably founded on the goodwill of the people and it has evolved by a natural process. We cannot attain that condition by argument alone; and however excellent, it happens anyway to be beyond our reach today.

The government in our country has no relationship with our society and no place in the social organization, so that, whatever we may seek from it must be bought at the expense of a certain freedom. Society must make itself ineffective with regard to the duties it relegates to the government. This is not natural to us. We have accepted the bonds of subjection under many races and many kings, but our society has always carried out its own duties, never permitting anyone from outside to intervene in its affairs, great or small. So, when Majesty was banished from the land, Social Grace yet remained.

Today, of our own accord, we are ready to hand over to the government, one by one, the duties which had belonged to society. Many new communities appeared in our samaj in course of time and made special rules and conventions for themselves, while remaining within the Hindu fold; Hindu society never found fault with them. [52] But everything is now tied down to the rigidity of the Englishmen’s law and any departure whatever is compelled to declare itself non-Hindu. The innermost core of our samaj, which we have guarded through the ages with the deepest concern, is exposed at last to outside aggression and the result is confusion. That is where the danger lies, and not in the scarcity of water supply.


In the years gone by, men who were held in great esteem at the court of the king and whose counsel was sought by the ruler did not find that satisfaction enough. It was the approbation of their own samaj that they valued more. Humbly they waited at the cottage doors of their nameless villages for that reward which even Delhi, the imperial capital, could not give. A tribute from the masses of the people meant more than the highest title bestowed by the king.

Since we no longer care for that kind of honour, our enterprises have ceased to be directed towards our countrymen. Blessings and alms from the ruler are now indispensable. To remove the want of water it is the ruler who must provide the urge. We have signed off our spirit in bondage to the British, even as we have bargained away our good taste in English shops.

I feel I may be misunderstood. I do not mean that each one of us must cling to his native soil, that there is no need to stir outside the village in order to win knowledge, honour and riches. We cannot but be grateful to the forces which draw the people of Bengal abroad, awakening their hidden capacities and broadening their minds by the extension of their field of work. The time, however, has [53] come to remind our people that the natural relation between home and abroad must not be upset. One must go abroad to earn and come back with the savings. Though one’s faculties may be engaged abroad, the heart must be centred at home. What we learn abroad we must apply at home. But then, we have simply reversed the positions of home and abroad, of kinsman and stranger.

The Provincial Conference is a good example of the resulting anomaly in our affairs. This Conference assembles in order to give a message to the country, but the language it uses is foreign. We seem to be concerned only with the English-educated. We have set up an impregnable barrier between the masses and ourselves.

Think how we must proceed if the Conference is to make a strong impression on the country. Instead of a meeting in the English way, we shall have a huge fair in the Indian way. A grand festival of folk-plays and songs will draw people from all over the land, prizes to be awarded to the best singers, dramatic groups and orators. The country’s agricultural products will be exhibited and rules of hygiene graphically explained with the aid of such things as lantern slides. Above all, whatever we have to say on questions of national interest will be discussed in simple Bengali by the highborn and the humble alike.

The great masses of our people live in villages. When the village wants to feel the throb of the greater life of the outside world, the fair is the best way.

Through these fairs we shall have the outside world in our homes. In the midst of such festivities the village must forget its narrow conservatism, for these will be occasions to give and to receive. As in the rainy season tanks fill with water from heaven, so the fair is to be the [54] time when the village heart fills with thoughts of the great world.

These fairs are most natural to our country. When our people are called to a formal meeting, they come burdened with doubt and suspicion and do not readily open their hearts. But those who assemble at a fair come with hearts already open. Plough and hoe left behind, they are on holiday. That is the time to sit by the people; then is the opportunity to reach towards the soul of the country.

All over Bengal fairs are held at different times of the year. We must make a list of these fairs and get to know our countrymen through that open door.

If the educated classes make it their business to give the fairs in their own localities a new life and objective, if through those fairs they bring together the Hindu and the Muslim, and avoiding empty politics, ascertain the real needs of the people—schools, roads, water reservoirs, pasture-land and the like—then the country will indeed be filled with new stirrings.

Expense will be no worry for a band of workers who go round the districts of Bengal and organize songs, kathak (mythological stories) recitals, and exhibition of lantern slides. Paying the landlord a small part of the collections they can make their venture financially rewarding. The balance of profits, applied to national service, will build strong ties of friendship between these workers and the people. There is no limit to the service that may be rendered in this way. For it has to be remembered that our people have immemorially enjoyed literature and absorbed religion through the medium of festivities.

Of late our landlords have moved off to cities, for one reason or another. On the occasion of the marriage of their [55] sons and daughters, the festivities usually mean music, theatricals and other entertainments for their rich city friends, while the poor tenants’ share is simply the payment of extra impositions. The poor provide the sweetmeats for the feast but may not taste a morsel. So the villages of Bengal get drained of joy; and that literary culture which used to be a special feature of all such occasions and refreshed the minds of man, woman and child alike, moves away beyond the reach of the masses. If our proposed series of fairs succeed in taking back to the village house-door a flow of literature and of joy, then the heart of this fruitful land will cease to turn barren by slow stages.

Reservoirs which once gave us drinking water and good health are now polluted, and not only do they cause water shortage but spread disease and death. Likewise, most of the fairs still held in our country have ceased to be a medium of popular education and are cess-pools of corruption. Failing to avert this foul decay we cover ourselves with guilt and shame.


To establish a personal relationship between man and man has been India’s constant endeavour. One has to retain contact even with distant relatives; filial ties are not loosened even when children come of age; and our ties of kinship include neighbours and many others in the village irrespective of caste or circumstance. There are relationships with teacher and priest, guest and mendicant, landlord and tenant—not ties prescribed by the scriptures, but those of the heart. Someone is as a father, others as sons, some are as brothers and others friends. The moment [56] we come into contact with a person, we strike up a relationship with him. So we do not slip into the habit of looking on man as a machine, or as a tool for the furtherance of some interest. There may be a bad as well as a good side to this; anyhow, it has been the way of our country; more, it has been the way of the East.

Such is our nature. We accept relationships of utility only after we have sanctified them by a kinship of the heart. That is why we must also accept extra responsibilities. The ties of necessity are limited, they begin and end at the office. If master and servant have no other relationship, their contact ends with the exaction of tasks and the payment of wages; but as soon as we acknowledge a human bond, our obligation extends to personal joys and sorrows—the marriage of a servant’s son or daughter as also funeral rites.

Here is a more modern instance. I was present at the Provincial Conference in Rajshahi and Dacca. That we regard these conferences as serious business goes without saying, but what surprised me was that the ritual of hospitality was more conspicuous than the zeal for work. It was like a bridal party; the demands for food and entertainment, comforts and pleasure were so excessive that they must have severely taxed our hosts.

There would have been nothing wrong if they had said, “You have come here to serve your country and not to oblige us. Why should we have to provide so much good food and soft drinks and accommodation and conveyance?” But it is not in our nature to take such a stand on the plea of stark duty. We like to invest even duties with a personal relationship. And so, at the conference, we were less impressed by the business done than by the hospitality received. Those conferences, with their westernized [57] exterior, could not cut away the Indian heart. So also with our National Congress. That aspect in the Congress which is truly national—its hospitality—has always been active, even though its work ends with a three-day annual session and it gives no sign of life for the rest of the year.

It is obvious that even in the midst of serious work Indians cannot be without human warmth. That explains the close relationship, throughout the country, between kinsman and stranger, high and low, householder and guest. That is why no outsider had ever to be concerned with the upkeep of the village school and guest-house, temple and tank, or the care of the helpless blind and sick.

It is natural for a country to centre all its interest at points where it derives the greatest benefit. We deplore the fact that the wealth of the land is being diverted abroad through various channels; but if the soul of the land is also diverted, if every beneficent contact with our country passes into the hands of the alien ruler and nothing is left to us, will it be less regrettable than the passage of our wealth abroad?


Many enterprisers in the first outburst of enthusiasm make many flowers blossom forth, but in the end most of these do not bear fruit. That is due mainly to the absence of esprit de corps. A loose sense of responsibility slips off our shoulders and is lost.

Our society can no longer continue in this manner, since the forces from outside seeking to overwhelm it are united and powerful. They have taken possession of everything, [58] from our schools to our daily markets, and have made their undivided rule conspicuous in both concrete and abstract forms. If the community is to protect itself, it must take its stand on united strength. The best way would be to invest a strong personality with leadership and rally round him as our representative; to submit to his rule would mean no loss of self-respect, for he would be a symbol of freedom itself.

Such a leader of society may sometimes be good, sometimes evil, but if society is alive and alert, no leader can do any permanent harm. On the other hand, the initiation of such a leader is a practical way to keep society alert. If society recognizes its unity as symbolized in a particular person, it will become undefeatable.

Every member of society must put aside a small voluntary contribution for his country as a matter of daily habit. In addition, there could be contributions for this nationalist society on festive occasions, such as marriage, by way of a toll. If such dues are collected in the right way, there will be no dearth of funds.

In India voluntary contributions have founded rich monasteries and temples. Should it not then be possible for society to be maintained likewise, especially when, by its good works, it would be entitled to the gifts of the grateful?

So far I have had only Bengal in view. If we in Bengal succeed in selecting a leader of the samaj and making our social liberty bright and permanent, then the rest of India will follow. And if every Indian province finds within itself a distinctive unity, then it will be easy for each to co-operate with the rest. The rule of unity, once established, grows in extent but unity is not the heaping together of a mass of separate entities. [59]


A few words on the subject will make it clear how imperative it is that we should concentrate and realize all our inherent powers at one point, and form a system by which they may thence be deployed. Either for convenience or for some other reason the Government want to partition Bengal and we fear that such a step will weaken the province. We have made enough lamentation in protest, but if we fail, will everything come to an end? Will there be no means left to remedy the evils likely to arise as a result of partition?

It is better that germs of disease should not enter the body, but if they do, will there be no power left in the body to check the disease and restore good health? If we can establish that authority in a firm and distinct manner in our society, then no external power will ever succeed in devitalizing Bengal. Its duty will be to heal every wound, strengthen the bonds of unity, and animate the unconscious.

Today a foreign king distributes titles among us as a reward for good deeds, but we shall truly be glorified only if we receive the benediction of our own countrymen. Unless we vest society with the power to give rewards, we shall deny ourselves a special satisfaction. In our country disputes arise between Hindus and Muslims at the slightest provocation; unless some element in society is given the authority to settle such disputes, regulate conflicting interests and establish peace and goodwill, society will be weakened by disruptions, more and more.

Do not distrust your own strength; know for certain that the great hour has come. Know for certain that a unifying power has always worked in India. Even in the [60] most adverse circumstance India has always worked her way out; that is why India still survives. I believe in this India. Even today, at this very moment, this India is slowly and surely building up a wonderful consistency between her ancient traditions and the modern times. Let each of us do his share consciously; let not mutinous feelings or sheer stupidity make us unco-operative at every turn.

The conflict between Hindu society and the outer world is not something new. As soon as the Aryans entered India, they became involved in a bitter struggle with the aboriginal inhabitants. In this conflict the Aryans were the victors, but the aborigines were not exterminated, like those in Australia or America. They were not banished from the Aryan colonies; in spite of vast differences in custom and culture, they were assigned a definite place in the social hierarchy. Aryan society became richly variegated on their account.

Later, again, this society was called upon to shake off its conservatism. India in the Buddhist age was in intimate contact with many foreign peoples who were attracted by the new religion. The powers of unity are stronger than those of conflict; in the moment of unity all are at one. That is what happened in the Buddhist age. In that Asia-wide flood of religious feeling, the customs, traditions and institutions of many nations flowed into India, and there was none to stay them.

But even in the midst of this vast chaos, India’s genius tor synthesis did not forsake her. Once more India put together whatever was her own and whatever came from guests, and started to reconstruct her society. So it became richer than of old.

Everywhere over this wide assortment she put the seal [61] of her own unity. Today many people ask: “Where is this so-called unity in the self-contradictory, schismatic Hindu society and religion?” That is a difficult question. It is just as difficult to discover the centre of a vast circle, but there is always a centre. It is easy to realize the roundness of a small sphere ; but to those who regard the spherical earth in sections, it appears flat. In the same way since Hindu society has embodied inconsistent varieties within itself, its bond of union is hidden deep in its structure. It is hard to point out that unity, but we can feel its definite presence clearly in the midst of apparent discrepancies.

Later, India had to face Muslim invasions. A process of reconciliation with the external, warring elements began almost immediately. Between Muslim and Hindu a common ground was being extended where the boundary lines between the two communities grew fainter and fainter. The followers of Nanak and Kabir and the lower order of Vaisnavas are cases in point.

Our educated classes keep no track of the thousand breakdowns and building up of customs and religious observances among the common people. Had they done so, they would have noticed that even today this secret but active process of adjustment and accommodation has not ceased to work.

Finally, in recent years, yet another powerful religion with its own beliefs, customs, traditions and educational methods has come to India. So, all the four great com- munities of the world, under the aegis of the four great religions, Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim and Christian, are here together. It is as though Providence has opened a vast laboratory on Indian soil for the purpose of a massive social fusion. [62]

Here I must admit that the confusions and upheavals which characterized the Buddhist age left behind them, in the succeeding Hindu society, a residue of fear. An attitude of deep suspicion towards innovation and change began to prevail. Under such conditions of constant panic, society can make no progress, and it fails to resist challenges from outside. A community which exhausts all its strength in self-defence cannot attain easy mobility. Certain dynamic qualities must be retained along with the static, or else society would be entrapped in its own conservatism and be doomed to a living death.

Post-Buddhist Hindu society built a barrier of prohibitory measures in order to shield itself from external influences and preserve whatever of its own was still left, and India’s place of glory was lost to her in consequence.


At one time India had a place on top of the world; there was no limit to her spiritual daring in the fields of religion, philosophy and science and her forces spread far, annexing new domains. The Preceptor’s seat which India had thus won is now lost; now she must stand as a disciple. The reason is that fear has entered into her soul.

Panic made us forbid voyaging on the high seas—whether of water or of knowledge. We belonged to the universe but relegated ourselves to the parish. The timid feminine forces of society which hoard and protect have foiled our manly adventure. Even in the field of knowledge we are convention-bound, emasculated. Whatever intellectual commerce India had opened, a commerce which grew from day to day and enriched the world, is now enclosed [63] in jewel caskets in ladies’ chambers. It may be secure enough there, but then it will never increase; and whatever is lost is lost indeed.

We have lost the status of teacher. Kingship was never our country’s greatest wealth; it never occupied the people’s hearts and its absence is not fatal. In the authority of Brahminism, of learning, dharma and asceticism, the true soul of the country was enthroned. Since mere ritual replaced asceticism, since the Brahmin whose duty it was to enrich society with his austerities gave up his assigned role and descended to the gateway of society to take up the watchman’s post, we stopped contributing to the world and have even distorted and rendered useless whatever had been our own.

This we must know that every nation is part of humanity and each must answer the question: “What have you to give to man, what new ways have you discovered for his happiness?” As soon as a nation loses the vital strength for such discovery, it becomes a deadweight, like a paralyzed limb on the body of the universal man. Merely to exist is no glory.

India has never coveted new territory or scrambled for the spoils of trade. China, Japan and Tibet, who are today so anxious to close their doors and windows against the advances of Europe, cordially welcomed India into their homes as a spiritual guide.

India has never sent out her forces for plunder and pillage, but only to carry messages of peace and goodwill. The glory she won was the fruit of asceticism and that is greater than the majesty of kingship.

Stripped of that glory, we huddled in our corner with our petty belongings—and then the British had to come. At their onslaught the defensive barrier we had so carefully [64] erected around our cringing, fugitive community gave way at many points, and through the gaps the outside world we had dreaded and kept at bay came hurtling in. And who will thrust it back? As our walls crumbled we discovered two things: we realized what wonderful powers we had once possessed; and having lost them how miserably weak we had become.

And today we understand also that to hide oneself at a distance is not self-preservation. The truest way of protecting oneself is to rouse one’s inherent powers. Britain is bound to hold our souls in subjection until we forsake our inertness. To sit in a corner and bewail our losses will bear no fruit. To imitate the British and try to save ourselves by adopting a disguise is mere self-deception. We can never be real Englishmen, and we can never trick them by turning into imitation Englishmen.

The only way to stop this cheapening of our intelligence, feelings and tastes is to become our true selves, consciously, actively and with our full strength.

The forces that lie locked within us must find release under the stress of foreign onslaught, for today the world stands sorely in need of the priceless gifts which the ancient rishis of India earned by their self-discipline. Providence will not let those gifts go to waste. That is why, in the fulness of time, He has roused us by this agony of suffering.


The inmost creed of India is to find the one in the many, unity in diversity. India does not admit difference to be conflict, nor does she espy an enemy in every stranger. So she repels none, destroys none, and strives to find a place [65] for all in a vast social order. She acknowledges every path and recognizes greatness wherever she finds it.

Since India has this genius for unification, we do not have to fear imaginary enemies. We may look forward to our own expansion as the final result of each new struggle. Hindu and Buddhist, Muslim and Christian shall not die fighting on Indian soil; here they will find harmony. That harmony will not be non-Hindu; on the contrary, it will be peculiarly Hinduistic. And however cosmopolitan the several limbs may be, the heart will still be the heart of India.

Let us bear in mind this providential injunction, and our purpose will be steadfast, our shame will be absolved and we shall discover India’s true and deathless strength. We must remember that we shall not always have to receive the learning of Europe as mere students. Saraswati, India’s Goddess of Knowledge, will make every art and science bloom for us like a hundred-petalled lotus.


Wealth is the burden of bigness,
welfare the fullness of being.

Rabindranath Tagore