Besides being a world-acclaimed poet, Rabindranath Tagore was also a philosopher, litterateur, educationist, visionary, secularist among religious divisions and a social reformer in pre-independence India. He is the composer of our National Anthem that marks its centenary this year. Mahatma Gandhi used to call Tagore “Gurudev” and said of him: “In common with thousands of his countrymen I owe much to Tagore, who by his poetic genius and singular purity of life has raised India in the estimation of the world.” A Renaissance figure, breathtaking in vigor, volume and variety, Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore was also a champion of the One World idea. Time and again, he stood up against petty nationalism and other short-sighted practices that often cloud clear thinking, raise walls of separation and create irreconcilable differences. He was the first from the East to win the Nobel Prize but his life-long contributions truly surpass any award or glory that was conferred on him. Rabindranath Tagore is by no means only for the so-called elite and academic.
Rabindranath Tagore was neither a political nor a religious leader. Nevertheless, he is a breathing presence in India; Indians, regardless of our ethnic difference, take great pride that he is one of our own. Tagore lived all his life in India but, first and foremost, he was a member of the human race, a citizen of the world in the truest sense of the word. He never hesitated to experiment with new ideas, indigenous or alien. Tagore believed in “delivering tangibles” over “delivering messages.” He created an academic institution, Santiniketan, that truly does not have any boundary wall in keeping with the words of his much celebrated poem “where the world has not been broken up into fragments by narrow domestic walls.”
We all are aware that the world is getting smaller with the advent of science and technology. It is equally obvious that the lures of petty nationalism and short-term gains are gaining strength. Rabindranath Tagore lived through the agonies and destruction of the First World War and witnessed the unfolding of the second one. He spoke and wrote profusely against nationalism after the First World War. As the seeds of the Second World War were planted by Nazi Germany’s occupation of Poland, his health was then failing but he stood up and wrote one of his most cited essays “Crisis in Civilization.” His reaction was then no different as it was when he relinquished Knighthood twenty years prior to that after the Jalianwalabagh massacre where innocent people in Punjab were inhumanly killed for trivial reasons by a seemingly sadistic British army general. There was no remorse, no regret as if these lives did not matter. The underlying message is very explicit: the wealthy and powerful often fail to treat less fortunate fellow human beings with dignity and respect. Tagore was neither an idealist nor a puritan; he knew that there will always be disparity amongst members of the human race. But Human Dignity must always be honored everywhere. This is the infallible mantra to attain stability, be it for an individual society or the entire planet. And there cannot be any exception to this rule. Time and again, he warned those in power, even in his own society, as emphasized in his much acclaimed poem “Insulted”:
When you dismiss from your throne in bulling style
You carelessly throw your own power in exile.
Ground under heel
with those you must reel
in the dust, there is no other way but to feel the blame,
The insult you endure shall be the same.
(translation by J.Winter)