By Ashok Bhargava
VANCOUVER: Bengal is known for two main things throughout the world. They are Bengal Tiger and poet Rabindranath Tagore who was the first Indian to win the Nobel Prize (in literature) in 1913.
Tagore’s writings have enchanted, inspired, and enlightened the Hindus, Muslims, Christians, Buddhists, Jains and Sikhs. His poetry transcends the boundaries of culture, religion, time and place to speak to all people.
From ancient times, Bengal has always been a meeting place of confluence of many cultures and Tagore was a true son of soil to explore the genius and timeliness of Bengal.
He came from a Hindu family, one of the landed gentry who owned estates mostly in what is now Bangladesh. His grandfather, Dwarkanath, was well known for his command of Arabic and Persian, and Rabindranath grew up in a family atmosphere in which a deep knowledge of Sanskrit and ancient Hindu texts was combined with an understanding of Islamic traditions as well as Persian literature.
Tagore is deeply revered by the largely Muslim citizens of Bangladesh and they have a deep sense of identity with Tagore and his ideas just as much as Hindus do. In fact, soon after independence in 1971, Bangladesh chose one of Tagore’s songs – `Amar Sonar Bangla’ which means `my golden Bengal’ – as its national anthem just as India had done in 1947 by opting for `Jana Gana Mana…’ as its national anthem.
Tagore must be an enigma to those who see the modern world as a place of “clash of civilizations” where Christians, Muslims and Hindus forcefully confronting one another for supremacy. They would also be confused by Rabindranath Tagore’s own description of his Bengali family as the product of “a confluence of three cultures: Hindu, Muslim, and British”.
Tagore cannot be confined or defined by the narrow boundaries of nationalism. His greatness lies in acceptance, recognition and respect of each and every culture of the world. He believed in openness and mutual acceptance as an approach to bring together the distinct cultures of the world to a point of convergence. For him, that magnificent point of convergence lies beyond the cultural boundaries raised by ethnicities and religions.
He had no interest in promoting or producing a synthesis such as a cultural melting pot or a mosaic as promoted in the US and Canada. He practised and encouraged a comprehensive philosophy of inclusiveness where all differences are respected and people come together as humans. His writings of over 200 books persistently show an indisputable influence of numerous cultures of South Asia as well as of the rest of the world.
Tagore was aware of the overlapping complexities of culture, ethnicity, orthodoxy and rigidity of social composition of his time. He spoke against cultural segregation, social rituals and dogma based on religious fundamentalism in the contemporary world and wrote:
Leave this chanting and singing and telling of beads, whom dost thou worship in this lonely dark corner of a temple with doors all shut?
Open thine eyes and see thy God is not before thee
He is there where the tiller is tilling the hard ground and
where the path maker is breaking stones.
He is with them in sun and in shower, and his garment is covered with dust.
Tagore, who came to Vancouver in 1929, said it is crucial to promote cross-cultural education, freedom of the mind, the importance of rational criticism, the need for openness, and so on. For him it was of the highest importance that people be able to live freely and to reason in freedom. His attitude towards politics and culture, nationalism and internationalism, tradition and modernity, can be seen in the light of this beliefs. He expresses his values as clearly as possible in Gitanjali:
Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high;
Where knowledge is free;
Where the world has not been broken up into fragments by narrow domestic walls;
Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way into the dreary desert sand of dead habit;
Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake.
He believed that human beings could absorb and internalize different cultures easily. He said, “Whatever we can understand and enjoy instantly becomes ours, wherever they might have their origin. I am proud of my humanity when I can acknowledge the poets and artists of other countries as my own. Let me feel with unalloyed gladness that all the great glories of man are mine.”
It is in the sovereignty of reasoning – fearless reasoning in freedom – that Tagore believed and promoted.
Tagore was a worshipper of universal humanism. He viewed human relationships from the perspective of the ever living values of love, trust and hope and not in terms of dominance, violence and hatred.
Tagore argues that the home is inextricably linked to the world, and warns against the dangers of narrow nationalism that aims to divorce the two.
It is amazing that the modern ideas of “globalized world and hybrid societies” that gained popularity in the last thirty years, Tagore spoke about them almost a century ago.
Tagore’s essays on politics, philosophy, and culture that elaborate his position on nationalism and internationalism need to be explored further to make this world a better place to live.
(Ashok Bhargava is a Vancouver-based poet. He is also president of Writers International Network Canada or WIN Canada)