On Rabindranath Tagore's 'Nationalism'
Rabindranath Tagore was born in Calcutta, West Bengal on the seventh of May in the year 1861. Unlike most of the nineteenth and early twentieth century Bengalis, Rabindranath’s family had quite benefited from the imperialistic British East India Company and had obtained a considerably large business interest and property. Rabindranath Tagore’s grandfather, Dwarkanath Tagore and father, Debendranath Tagore, both were religious men and supporters of the Brahma Samaj Movement started by Dwarkanath Tagore’s contemporary, Rammohan Roy as a religious reform movement in 1828. Later, in 1863, to spread the religious reform movement Dwarkanath Tagore established ‘Shantiniketan’, a meditation centre and guest house. Although the Tagore family was a staunch follower of Hinduism and loyal to the Indian culture, they funded a lot of studies in medicine and science in the West and also encouraged Western education. This is an important fact to keep in mind as Rabindranath Tagore’s beliefs and ideas were shaped by this and his work on nationalism also gives a hint of the balance he tried to maintain between tradition and experiment.
By 1857, the Indian people witnessed the growing power of the British East India Company and the establishment of the colonial school system with English as the medium of education and where children were brought up in an ‘English way’. An establishment of this sort resulted in the downfall of traditional Sanskrit and Islamic schools.
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Rabindranath Tagore was sent to a number of English-speaking schools, however, he did not wish to be taught in a foreign language and preferred his mother-tongue, Bengali. Rabindranath Tagore disengaged from formal schooling at the age of fourteen and was thereafter home-schooled. He was taught wrestling, music and drawing from experts in those fields. When he was twelve, his father took him to Shantiniketan and introduced him to studies such as astronomy and scriptures that formed the basis of his reformed religion. The vast exposure which Rabindranath Tagore was given at such an early age reflects in his works on education which later entwined with his work on nationalism.
It is extremely important to understand Rabindranath Tagore’s ideas on education to make sense of his ideas on nationalism. Rabindranath Tagore’s belief was that a nation would not move in a progressive way unless and until the education system in that country was improved. He considered poor education to be the root of all of India’s problems. He disliked the colonial education system as he reasoned that the only purpose it served was to produce office clerks for the British offices.
Rabindranath Tagore’s ‘Nationalism’ is a work of intricacies and a collection of his viewpoints on numerous subjects which in the end he connects to accommodate into his bigger idea: Indian nationalism.
A critique of Rabindranath Tagore’s Nationalism
The dictionary definition of the word ‘nationalism’ is “identification with one’s own nation and support for its interests, especially to the exclusion or detriment of the interests of other nations.”
However, English being a European language, the definition has been coined by British nationals who perceived this word quite differently from Indian scholars such as Lokmanya Tilak and Rabindranath Tagore. As a sense of unity already existed in the European world, the definition came to have quite an aggressive tone; “especially to the detriment of interests of the other nations”. For example, Noam Chomsky, the famous author of “Who Rules the World?” and political activist once said, “Nationalism has a way of oppressing others” and Charles de Gaulle, the former
French president compared patriotism and nationalism by saying, “Patriotism is when
love of your own people comes first; nationalism, when hate for people other than
your own comes first.”
Lokmanya Tilak, like Rabindranath Tagore believed in unity of a nation, but not to the
detriment of the other nations. However, unlike Rabindranath Tagore, Lokmanya
Tilak focused more on India’s political issues than the social ones.
Rabindranath Tagore has clearly stated in his book that he does “not believe in an
exclusive political interest”. Many people might go on to assume what he is saying is
that political nationalism is a parlous form of nationalism when India is concerned.
However, this analysis of the above statement can hold as false, simply because some
people might not take notice of the word “exclusive” which Rabindranath Tagore has
used. The true meaning of the above statement is that he does not believe that
nationalism should be entirely based on political interest, especially in India as “our
real problem in India is not political; it is social”, in Rabindranath Tagore’s own
words. What does he mean by that? He simply means that for political nationalism to
flourish a nation must have some requirements, and one of them is racial and cultural
unity. Rabindranath Tagore explains that the only reason why politics in the West
have dominated Western ideals is because they have a racial unity, that is, almost all
the people of the West are of the same race and highly similar cultures, which means
that their view of the world which they live in are almost the same.
India is one of the few countries in the world that suffers from the “problem” of racial
and cultural diversity. The diversity in India is so vast that the people do not hold the
same views as the others. Rabindranath Tagore says that political nationalism will not
flourish in India due to the vast racial and cultural diversity which this land possesses.
With such a wide variety of viewpoints amongst the people, politics would never
dominate the Indian ideals and if in any case it is forced onto the people, the country
For many centuries now we have tried to solve our problem of racial and cultural
diversity. And Rabindranath Tagore’s belief is that the best solution which has been
proposed is by the Indian saints like Nanak, Chaitanya, Kabir and others who have
always preached one God to all races. The ideas of all these saints, infact, go against
the thought of secularism by how it is defined in India today; that this land is open to
In the early history of humans, this problem of racial and cultural diversity was almost
never seen due to our limited knowledge of the geography of the world and the limited
facilities of communication. It was easier for men and women to mature a sense of
unity amongst the people in that particular area. They had to unite to fight off a strong
invading army. They had to have a sense of nationalism to fight off the marauders.
Rabindranath Tagore elucidates that today the world is divided on racial and cultural
basis. The question is: do we choose competition or cooperation? His opinion is that
the people “who are gifted with the moral power of love and vision of spiritual unity,
who have the least feeling of enmity” against the invaders, and those who understand
others are fit to take on the world which we are faced with and will “take their
permanent place” in it, as for those who show their intolerant and aggressive element;
they will be eliminated.
Rabindranath Tagore believes that nationalism is not only the love for your country,
but for humanity and the earth, in his own words; “there is only one history- the
history of man. All national histories are merely chapters in the larger one”. The world
is uniting and becoming one through scientific facility, science becoming the religion
of the world. Rabindranath Tagore says that if India manages to pass on its solution
which was given by the saints, “it will be a contribution to humanity”. Rabindranath
Tagore’s definition of nationalism, which he goes on to explain later in the book is
when a human being combines with other human beings and serves the common
interest of all. In short, unity of a nation ensures the unity of humankind.
Tagore, Rabindranath, Nationalism. London: Macmillan and Co., LTD. 1917.
Collins, Michael, Rabindranath Tagore and Nationalism: An Interpretation. Heidelberg Papers in South Asian and Comparative Politics. No. 42. October 2008. Retrieved from www.academia.edu.
Jha, Narmadeshwar, Rabindranath Tagore. PROSPECTS: the quarterly review of education (Paris, UNESCO: International Bureau of Education), vol. XXIV, no. 3/4, 1994, p. 603–19. 1999 Retrieved from UNESCO:International Bureau of Education.
Gnanaeshwari, Dr. G, Balagangadhar Tilak and His Philosophy of Nationalism. Imperial Journal of Interdisciplinary Research (IJIR) Vol-3, Issue-1, 2017 ISSN: 2454-1362. 2017. Retrieved from www.onlinejournal.in.
Featured image credits: Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
© Anurag Inamdar, 2019