Monday, 6 April 2015

Mukta-Dhaaraa: The Ecological Vision of Rabindranath Tagore

This is the full text of the public lecture I gave at Nehru Memorial Museum and Library this afternoon. I was not able to cover almost half of what I had prepared because of a confusion about how much time I was meant to speak!


The Ecological Vision of Rabindranath

(Work in progress: Not to be quoted without permission)

Nehru Memorial Museum and Library

Public Lecture

April 6, 2015

Aseem Shrivastava

(Independent writer and ecological economist)

“When we are threatened with loss of self-respect; when our mind is overwhelmed with the idea that there can be only one type of civilisation worth the name, and that a foreign one; when our one conscious desire is to strive with all our might, by begging, borrowing or stealing, towards some ideal of perfection which can only be related to us, as a mask to a face, or a wig to a head, - then our only hope lies in discovering some profound creative desire persistent in the heart of our race, in the subconscious mind of our people. For, in the long run, it is our sub-conscious nature which wins, and it is the deeper unseen current of the mind which secretly cuts its own path and reaches its own goal, - not the conscious waves on the surface, which clamorously make themselves obvious and vigorously storm at the present time…the environment, in which we see the past of India, is the forest, the memory of which permeates our classical literature and still haunts our minds…the memory of these sacred forests is the one great inheritance which India ever cherishes through all her political vicissitudes and economic disturbances.”
- Rabindranath Tagore,  The Message of the Forest (1919)

What might Rabindranath have to say about a culture that is psychologically and cognitively more colonised today than it ever was in the days of actual colonialism, when he was alive? What would he have to say to an India where every new generation born loses its innocence so much earlier than every previous one did, when America is no longer just a country or a continent, but the name of a whole way of life, a blight across the earth, imported passively, all in one piece, as it were, into his beloved country too, where there are now more Americans, living with an “aspirational” enthusiasm which would shame even those who have inspired it?

When one reflects upon the ecological catastrophe which is rapidly overtaking India and the world today, one can scarcely overlook these central questions of contemporary culture that besiege us now, when all the elements - air, water, earth and fire (if you think of climate change) - are being so rapidly, so severely poisoned, with a confidence and bravado only vainglory can dare.

It would appear from this edge of late modernity that Francis Bacon’s sixteenth century vision of “the conquest of nature” has borne handsome fruit half a millennium later - except (when one puts together the accelerating evidence of climate change and a whole host of ecological perils) that the elements themselves are now in concerted rebellion against humanity’s project of the domination of the natural world. It is worth recalling the depth and subtlety of the Baconian vision, notable for its inadvertent acceptance of the corruptibility of human nature, especially if one is to note the persistent deployment of the greatest knowledge in the arts and the sciences in the service of human ambition. “It will not be amiss”, Bacon writes in his profoundly influential work Instauratio Magna:

“to distinguish the three kinds and as it were grades of ambition in mankind. The first is of those who desire to extend their own power in their native country; which kind is vulgar and degenerate. The second is of those who labour to extend the power of their country and its dominion among men. This certainly has more dignity, though not less covetousness. But if a man endeavour to establish and extend the power and dominion of the human race itself over the universe, his ambition (if ambition it can be called) is without doubt both a more wholesome thing and more noble than the other two. Now the empire of man over things depends wholly on the arts and sciences. For we cannot
command nature except by obeying her." (Emphasis added).

Times couldn’t have been more different and Bacon knew, perhaps better than most living scientists today, how much subtler than human thought nature itself could be. What he might share with many living scientists is the belief that the point of physics was to “command nature”. He wrote:

“…in Physics, where the point is not to master an adversary in argument, but to command nature in operation, truth slips wholly out of our hands, because the subtlety of nature is so much greater than the subtlety of words…”

The far-flung, long-range consequences of such a vision of the attempted conquest of nature are all around us now. We cannot escape them no matter how hard we try. Thus, when one contemplates the horizon of hopes for possible futures, one has to begin with an unflinching reconsideration of the place of humanity in the scheme of things, of the human enterprise in the lap of the imperilled earth, in this increasingly lonely corner of the cosmos.

On this inescapable journey, Rabindranath, like Gandhi, is our contemporary and guide. He offers a clear vision of the whole, something occluded by the vision of “the conquest of nature”.

What is ‘vision’?

The word ‘vision’ is used very loosely these days. It can refer to everything from someone with a sharp eye in theatre or the arts to someone with business ambition. The term ‘vision’ has been used very precisely in this essay. It draws on the sense given to it by the great economist Joseph Schumpeter. He pointed out that ”analytic effort is of necessity preceded by a preanalytic cognitive act that supplies the raw material for the analytic effort…this preanalytic cognitive act will be called Vision.” (Emphasis added).

The act of seeing precedes the act of thinking or speaking. Thus, it becomes very difficult to think or speak of things one does not first notice. In this sense cognition is primary, cogitation secondary. Any analysis we do obviously builds on things which we have first noticed. If one fails to notice certain things first one cannot possibly analyse them later either.

Some examples will help in rendering the usage of this key word clear. Where one pair of eyes notice a tree, another pair notices timber, where one sees a cow, another sees beef, where one sees a great mountain peak, another sees coal and iron and the fortunes they could bring. “None can desire what he has not perceived”, as William Blake put it.

Likewise, if a mind is predisposed to conquest, it will first notice things that, in its view, can be conquered. If a mind is merely looking, without any predisposition whatsoever - and it is possible for the mind to merely look! - it will notice a lot more than what the conquering mind will see. Moreover, it will see the same things that the conquering mind sees, but with a very different disposition towards them. It is thus that one person becomes a one-eyed conqueror, another a clear-sighted visionary. To the extent that seeing is affected by one’s disposition it may be possible to realise that ethics shapes our knowledge of reality.

The forgotten prophet

Why listen to Rabindranath? Why listen to him today? Prophets demand patience, else they would not be prophets. If what they say is very obvious at the time the words are uttered, they would be heeded in a timely manner and the prophetic quality of their words would vanish. But at the time of the pronouncements, the evidence may be too scanty for the denial of the prophecy to be difficult. True to human tragedy, time alone redeems the fears and forewarnings of prophets. And even then, they can serve as guides only insofar as their ideas are ultimately accorded due respect and place in the everyday public life of human society.

This is as true of Rabindranath as it is of Gandhi. In a time when the world has greater need of their ideas than ever before, both languish today amidst an abundance of unjust national neglect, even as their statues are unveiled in unsuspected places around the world. In fact, Gandhi has far greater currency in some other parts of the world than in India.

What is also true of both Gandhi and Rabindranath is that they are among the few Indian thinkers of the last century whose visions were at once indigenous and universal. They were both deeply rooted in India. While Gandhi spent a significant part of his life abroad, Rabindranath dropped out of middle school and never lived abroad, only visiting other countries, especially in the latter half of his life. However, unlike many of their contemporaries in India’s freedom struggle, both Gandhi and Tagore always thought of humanity (instead of just India) first, and of the earth as one. In this sense, they were both patriotic and internationalist at once and saw no contradiction between the two things. Both have much to say not just to India but to the modern world itself, and while they were both born to modernity and made their peace with it in different ways, they were profoundly critical of it in ways more similar than different, a point which has been bypassed by many commentators keen, in their critical enthusiasm, to emphasise their differences and intellectual or political quarrels.

In what sense was Rabindranath a prophet? Looking at the embattled world around him during the First World War, he perceived and drew repeated attention to the perils of nationalism - while never diminishing the importance of India’s struggle for freedom not just from British rule but from slavishly mimicking the ways of the West, an apprehension he shared with Gandhi, and the validity of which time has increasingly revealed.

What is less well-known is that Rabindranath was also at one with Gandhi in foreseeing the ecological catastrophes that industrial modernity was fated to precipitate.

We will return to both these themes when he consider Rabindranath as an ecological thinker. First, as befits a poet-philosopher, we must dwell a while on some relevant aspects of his philosophical vision and perspective.

A pilgrim of wholeness

In contemporary discourse and everyday speech “ecological” concerns are synonymous with “environmental” ones. It is widely held that an ecological world-view is the same as an environmental one. “The environment” is a mere afterthought to human society, itself now, increasingly, an appendage to the economy. Nothing is more common today than the idea that the goals of “development” need to be “balanced” with the protection of the “environment”. From ministers and policy-makers to economists and journalists, this is how the issue is framed. It is as though nothing need change fundamentally about the way we live and think and relate to each other and the natural world (both outside and within us) for us to find “solutions” to environmental problems. Merely some minor, compensatory adjustments to our lifestyles and patterns of consumption will suffice. So it is believed.

A hurried, impatient “solutionism” has come to take the place of considered thought and careful reflection. However, if one finds the patience to think rigorously about the gap between an environmental and an ecological perspective, the differences are many and stark.

Consider some aspects of an environmental perspective. In an environmental perspective things are viewed in a mechanical, fragmented, compartmentalised fashion. So, for example, bauxite in the mountain is one thing and the water it incidentally stores, which sustains the tree-cover and the farmers’ fields in the valley below another. Secondly, it views not merely nature, but increasingly human beings (our minds and body-parts) too, as a resource, as a commodity to be exploited and consumed, not merely used for purposes of sustenance. (Notice, for instance, the ease with which we have come to speak of “human resources”, “resource people”, or the preposition we use so often while referring to people, the same as the one we use for objects - “that”, all of them suggesting a fundamental ethical blunder of cognitive objectification).

Thirdly, as said before, an environmental perspective also presumes that minor peripheral adjustments in the economy and the system of production are all that is need to set things right. Fourthly, it is so often, so readily, assumed that everything in nature is replaceable. The hacking down of a rainforest can be balanced by “compensatory afforestation”. Rivers diverted from their course can be made to yield an equivalent or greater supply of water elsewhere. And so on. Fifth, the uprooting of cultures and communities is not given much importance in a developmental-environmental vision, as the present land acquisition bill shows. Yes, people are “displaced”, in some Archimedean sense, but they will be “compensated”. The enormous socio-ecological violence of state policies is inconsistent with a properly ecological vision respectful of life. An ecological vision, as the term is used here, has no room for “endangered species” or museumized cultures.

Sixth, an environmental vision feigns innocence when it comes to the power wielded by modern systems of organised technical knowledge. It takes an unjustly and foolishly disdainful attitude to the everyday practical knowledge by which so many rural communities still live. Finally, an environmental vision has no sensitivity towards a civilisational view of the natural world, something that was key to Tagore’s understanding, especially when it comes to the place of the forest in Indian tradition, tapovan. It views everything from the perspective of the Indian state, whose glory is its highest aim, the technocrat-expert being the agent who is empowered to fashion the natural environment to national goals.

In contrast to all this, an ecological vision is holistic. It views things in an integrated manner, as part of living organisms and habitats. It maintains the dignity of human beings, no less than that of the earth and its creatures, by refusing to objectify them in some rudely utilitarian fashion. It retains a civilisational view of knowledge, technology, and the natural world, not willing to surrender to the ambitious materialist goals of the nation-state.

Also, importantly, as used in this essay, the term ‘ecological vision’ extends to an inclusion of the ecology of human nature. This is important if one is to grasp the contemporary significance of Tagore’s outlook. As a writer, and a student of human nature, he had a sharp grasp of the workings of the human mind. So in his way of understanding things, for example, if certain human drives and passions, such as greed, remain unregulated and one fails to alchemise or transcend them, they will wreak predictable havoc, not merely on the individual and those vulnerable to him, but also on the natural world.

An “environmental” perspective would be deeply misleading and unjust if one is to grasp and make sense of Rabindranath’s vision.

It is impossible to speak of Rabindranath’s ecological vision without speaking of his vision as such. The converse is equally true. In what sense is his vision inevitably ecological? As a thinker and a human being Rabindranath seeks wholeness. The longing for wholeness is so critical that it recurs throughout his writings over a long lifetime. In The Message of the Forest (1919), for instance, he writes:

By concentrating our pride or desire upon a limited field, the field of the animal life, we seek to exaggerate a portion at the expense of the whole, the wholeness which is in man’s life of the spirit. From this results evil. That is why renunciation becomes necessary, - not to lead to destitution, but to restoration, to win back the All.

He is convinced that humanity’s redemption lies in rediscovering the happiness that wholeness alone can yield.

His vision of life and the universe belong to an integrated cosmology. Not only this, his understanding of the place of humanity on earth can never see it as divorced from the natural world within and around it. In this sense, his ontology and epistemology are poles apart from the hegemonic world-view of industrial modernity which is premised on a prior separation of humanity from nature, as though such a thing were even possible. While it is true that there are a number of modern thinkers from the West - from Nietzsche and Heidegger to Gregory Bateson and Ivan Illich - who challenge the dominant modern world-view premised on the separation of humanity from nature, it would be a grave error to deny their dissidence within their own culture. In the vision that has conquered the imagination of the contemporary industrial world, especially in the ruthlessly competitive global era, such thinking has virtually no place and is made to fight tooth and nail for survival and recognition in contemporary Western and modern culture.

The unity of creation

The other enduring, complementary idea in the work of Rabindranath is the unity of creation. We find him drawing this wisdom from an ancient Sanskrit verse:

“Forms are many, forms are different, each of them having its limits. But if this were absolute, if all forms remained obstinately separate, then there would be a fearful loneliness of multitude. But the varied forms, in their very separateness, must carry something which indicates the paradox of their ultimate unity, otherwise there would be no creation.”

The thread tying all creation together may not always be visible to human senses. But that does not imply that no such thing exists. Unity, harmony and proportion alone lend meaning to existence.

“Any attempt to overcome the law of proportion altogether and to assert absolute separateness is rebellion”, he concludes. Ever mindful of the underlying, unifying harmony of things, he objects to human events which violate it, obscuring our access to peace:

“…when some storm of feeling sweeps across the country, art is under a disadvantage. In such an atmosphere the boisterous passion breaks through the cordon of harmony and thrusts itself forward as the subject, which with its bulk and pressure dethrones the unity of creation.”

The same loss of unity and harmony occurs when, in our daily lives, we get lost in the limited realm of our self-interest:

“In everyday life our personality moves in a narrow circle of immediate self-interest. And therefore our feelings and events, within that short range, become prominent subjects for ourselves. In their vehement self-assertion they ignore their unity with the All.”

Indian religious consciousness, Tagore argues, emphasises the continuity between the human and the divine and the individual’s responsibility in seeking the Godhead at the fount of all creation:

“Over and over again it tries to assert, not only that God is for each of us, but also that God is in each of us. These people have no special incarnations in their simple theology, because they know that God is special to each individual. They say that to be born a man is the greatest privilege that can fall to a creature in all the world. They assert that gods in Paradise envy human beings. Why? Because God's will, in giving his love, finds its completeness in man 'swill returning that love. Therefore Humanity is a necessary factor in the perfecting of the divine truth. The Infinite, for its self-expression, comes down into the manifoldness of the Finite; and the Finite, for its self-realization, must rise into the unity of the Infinite. Then only is the Cycle of Truth complete.”

Human freedom and the liberation of nature

Tagore’s overriding concern is freedom. But freedom to him is not what it means to most people today! It is leagues away from the notion of freedom which has been embraced in the democratic institutions of the modern world, which virtually isolate an individual from the community in order to ‘free’ him. In practice, his life is sundered in two, his public life is managed by the state and his private life by the corporation. Of freedom in modern conditions, Tagore writes to his friend Andrews in a letter in 1921:

“The idea of freedom which prevails in modern civilisation is superficial and materialistic. Our revolution in India will be a true one when its forces are directed against this crude idea of liberty.”

For Rabindranath, freedom is only attainable in the context of a human community living in the midst of a liberated natural world. If he could see what is happening to our world today, he would be horrified to see the teeming feed-lots, animal factories and monocultural ranches. That would be a recipe for certain slavery: obvious slavery for the animals and plants at the mercy of machines; and a thinly disguised slavery for the humans engaged in the everyday management of the system, their moral stature truncated by the regimented industrialisation of their lives.

What is Rabindranath’s vision of liberated nature, mukta-dhaaraa? We get an early clue from a passage in his autobiography :

“We [the children] were not allowed to go beyond the boundaries of our home. We were not free to circulate even in some parts of the household itself. Which is why I used to look out at the world of nature from behind shutters. There was something there called the outside. It was an infinite extension beyond my reach. And yet its sights, sounds and smells would slip in here and there through chinks in the doors and windows and suddenly touch me. It was as if it were sending out so many signals through the gaps between the bars to engage me in a game. It was the one that was free, while I myself was fettered. There was nothing that could bring us together, which is all the more why the attraction was so strongly felt.” (Emphasis added).

An even more striking illustration of Tagore’s vision of liberated nature is the 1922 play Mukta-Dhaaraa (loosely translatable as “Liberated Stream”). Its central character is a prince who wishes to liberate a (mountain)-stream from a dam his father and his technical experts (led by the proud royal engineer Bibhuti) are building across it (denying in the process, water to communities living downstream, in the Shivtarai). It is an uncannily premonitory metaphor for the times we live in, when struggles and movements against river dam projects across India have become so legion that they are often not even reported by the metropolitan media, even as they cause endless mayhem in the lives of rural communities.

Abhijit, the Crown Prince and tragic hero in Rabindranath’s play, is deeply upset to find that the waters of Mukta-Dharaaa (a fictional stream inspired by Pagla-Jhora - ‘Mad Steam’ - in Darjeeling that Rabindranath had actually seen and loved) are being impounded for the purpose of building a dam. He tries to explain to his brother Sanjay why he must leave the palace:

“Every man has the mystery of his inner life somewhere written in the outer world. The secret of my own life has its symbol in that waterfall of Mukta-Dhaaraa. When I saw its movements shackled I received a shock at the very root of my being; I discovered that this throne of Uttarakut is an embankment built across my own life’s current. And I have come out into the road to set free its course.”

Sanjay wants to accompany his brother on his journey to defend the stream. But, true to Rabindranath’s character, which entailed an unflinching commitment to human freedom, he makes Abhijit say to Sanjay that “if you follow me, I shall only obscure…your own true path.” Though Sanjay is hurt, he respectfully accepts Abhijit’s decision to go on a path he alone must walk. When Abhijit points out that “the pursuit of the hard is for paying the price of the sweet”, Sanjay reminds him that “the other day, you were surprised to find a white lotus before your seat, where you have your prayer.” “Can you ignore”, he asks “the divine gift which lies hidden in the heart of that little incident?” Abhijit responds that it is

“for the sake of that very love, which is in this world, I cannot tolerate this hideousness. It kills the music of the earth, and laughs its sinister laughter, displaying its rows of steel teeth in the sky. Because I love the paradise of the gods, I am ready to fight the Titans who menace it.”

What Rabindranath thinks of powerful systems of technical knowledge and the personnel that are deployed in the domination of nature and the human communities who live in intimacy with it is revealed at a point in the drama when the citizens of Shivtarai are having a conversation with each other. The first one has this to say about the “men of Uttarakut”, led by the King’s engineer Bibhuti: “They are born to drudgery. They spend their lives in going from market to market, and from one landing-place to another.” The second one chimes in: “They have no culture worth speaking of. The books that they have are worth nothing.” The first one agrees: “Nothing at all. Haven’t you noticed the letters in them like white ants creeping across the page. The second citizen is confirmed in his views: “Well-said! White ants indeed! Their culture gnaws everything to pieces.” Finally, a third citizen delivers the people’s verdict on the way of life of the men of Uttarakut who “heap up earth mounds. They kill life with their arms and destroy mind with their books.”

Does one need a clearer denunciation of knowledge in the service of power?

We get further clues to Rabindranath’s intertwined vision of a liberated nature and a free humanity when we read his letters from the villages of Bengal. He writes with a mystical flavour of the joy that pervades all creation:

“It is not vanity that prompts all my words. Whatever I truly think, truly feel, truly absorb, will eventually and naturally find true expression. A power inside me is constantly working towards that end. This power is not mine alone; it permeates the universe. It lies beyond the control of the individual and acts according to its own nature. To surrender ourselves to it is our greatest joy. Not only does it give us creativity, it endows us with sensitivity and the capacity to love; it endlessly renews and refreshes our feelings. When my little daughter delights me, I am in communion with this mysterious loveliness at the core of things, and my affections pour forth like worship. I believe that all delight is worship of the same kind but we perform it unconsciously. When we love we get a sudden revelation of the power that is available to us; a momentary perception of joy that has always sustained the world. It it were otherwise, love would be meaningless.

“The external world is pervaded by gravitational attraction that governs the movement of large and small alike. The inner world is pervaded by joy. It enables us to see beauty and to feel love, and it gives us strength to act. This idea is baffling to us only because we catch no more than glimpses of the whole. The explanation as to why such joy exists in man and Nature is the ancient one: ‘For of joy are born all created things.’”

The passage is only too reminiscent of Spinoza’s famed adage “joy is perfection”. Again, it is wholeness that the poet seeks. His gift lies in an unmediated knowledge of the secret of love and creation that lies buried in the heart of humanity. Humanity, he claims can never be free unless and until it regains access to this inner realm of joy which is the abode of all love and creativity. And if this experience is available to humanity, he suggests, it ceases to be cruel and unjust to the non-human natural world. It is crucial to recognise that in this experience alone lies both the liberation of nature and the freedom of humanity.

Rabindranath’s sentient pantheism and its philosophical consequences

Whether one looks at his poems and plays, or his stories and essays, Rabindranath’s writing is all too sensitive to the divine liveliness of nature. Humanity is incomplete without the living participation of nature. Natural forces have a continuous presence in the human drama, inextricably bound up with it. There is no separation between humanity and nature, ethically, ontologically, or epistemologically. He himself writes of this as a feature of Indian cultures:

“In the drama of other countries, where the human characters drown our attention in the vortex of their passions, Nature occasionally peeps in, but she is almost always a trespasser…But in all our dramas…Nature stands in her own right, proving that she  has her great function, to impart the peace of the eternal to the human passions and to mitigate their violent agitations which often come from the instability of spiritual lameness.”

For Rabindranath there could be no lasting peace in the human realm unless and until we could draw upon the reserves of eternity hidden in the bosom of nature. He draws extensive lessons from Tapovan, the ancient Indian idea of the forest hermitage:

“…the ideal hermitage of ancient India was…to establish a harmony between all our energies and the eternal reality. That is why the relations of Indian humanity with beast and bird and tree had attained an intimacy which may seem strange to people of other lands…the emotional quality peculiar to the forest-retreat is peace, the peace which is the emotional counterpart of perfection…the peace which pervaded India’s forests, where man was not separate from, and had no quarrel with the rest of his surroundings.”

It was the ancient forest sanctuary that taught us pantheism:

“…the wisdom, which grew up in the quiet of the forest shade, came out of the realisation of this Greater-than-all in the heart of the all.”

This pantheism can show us the way out of the physicalism which has often crippled humanity, especially in the modern age. It leads to the “salutation of worship to the all-pervading divinity in the fire, water, plants, in all creation…” Rabindranath’s “reverence goes out to the man” for whom

“the grimy touch of habit has not been able to tarnish the ever-lasting mystery which is in fire and earth, water and food; he has overcome, by the sensitiveness of his soul, the gross materialism, - the spirit of contempt, of the average man, which impels the latter to look upon water as mere liquid water.”

Rabindranath was brought up non-vegetarian, something he had severe pangs about and struggled to change in older years. What he writes from a Bengal village in 1894 could serve as a pointer to the greatness of the ancient idea of Vasudhaiva Kutambakam (all creation is one family) and merits a long hearing:

“Yesterday I was sitting at the window of the boat when something caught my attention. An unfamiliar bird was struggling across the river to the opposite bank, pursued by a great commotion. Eventually I saw it was a hen; it must have escaped imminent death in the galley-boat, jumped overboard and tried to swim across. It had almost made the bank when a grim reaper grabbed it by the neck and brought it back to the boat. I called Phatik and told him I would take no meat that night.

“…I really must break the meat-eating habit. Only because we do not think about its injustice and cruelty can we continue to swallow flesh. There are many misfortunes in the world of which man is the author that are not clear-cut cases of right or wrong, deriving as they do from custom, culture and tradition - but cruelty is not one of them. It is a fundamental sin, and admits of no argument or nice distinctions, and if our feelings were not numb, our eyes and hearts not deliberately closed, we would hear the call for a ban on cruelty plainly. Instead, we gaily, even joyfully, commit cruelty; in fact, those who do not are dubbed cranks.

“How peculiar and artificial is our apprehension of sin and virtue. I feel that the highest commandment of all is that of sympathy for all sentient beings. Love is the foundation of all religion. The other day I read in one of the English papers that 50,000 pounds of animal carcasses had been sent to some army station in Africa, but as the meat had gone bad on the way, the consignment was returned and finally was auctioned off for a few pounds at Portsmouth. What a shocking waste! What callous disregard for life! And when we invite guests to dine how many lives are sacrificed in our dishes, and yet how few of these dishes are fully consumed!

“So long as we are unconscious of partaking in cruelty we do not sin. But if, when our pity is aroused, we throttle it simply to remain part of the carnivorous pack, we insult all that is highest in us. I have decided to try a vegetarian diet.” (Emphasis added).

The theme of human cruelty to animals nags Tagore’s conscience to such a degree that the thought reappears in his reflections some months later and he writes:

“I caught sight of a small dead bird floating in the current yesterday. It is not heard to guess the history of its death. Its nest must have been in a mango tree at the edge of the village. In the evening it returned there, snuggled up to its companions, soft and warm, and topped wearily off to sleep. During the night, all of a sudden the mighty Padma turned slightly in her bed and knocked the earth away beneath the roots of the mango tree. Nestless, the bird awoke for a moment, and then fell asleep again forever.

“Here in the mofussil the presence of vast, inexplicable, all-devouring natural forces persuades me that man and Nature are barely distinguishable. Only in the towns are human beings so totally dominant that the happiness and misery of all other creatures is callously discounted.

“In Europe, too, man’s complicated regime reduces animals to beasts. Indians at least are familiar with the idea of rebirth of a man as an animal and vice versa, and so our shastras have not banished pity for all sentient creatures as being a sentimental exaggeration.

“My almost palpable intimacy with Nature in the mofussil awakens the Indian in me. The sight of that bird, with its down-covered breast so recently throbbing with life and joy, cannot leave me coldly indifferent.”

Rabindranath’s unique genius for a virtually sacred sympathy for all that lives is in evidence in these recorded experiences. The important point to note here is the depth of his ethical experience of the natural world. A simple, everyday observation prompts a deep reflection on the banality of human cruelty to animals. His sentient compassion is awakened by the sight of a dead bird. Moreover, in each case he is prompted to relate his experience, both of his own feelings and the outer experience which provoked them, to traditions of thought and feeling in the part of the world he is born to.

It is critical to Tagore’s poetic vision that the natural world is experienced ethically, with all the love and creativity such an organic relationship evokes. It is very important to notice the vast difference between his ontology and ethics, on the one hand, and that of most philosophers within the modern Western canon. For the latter, the distinction between ‘the way things are’ (ontology) and ‘the way they ought to be’ (ethics) is very clear and large.

Not so for Tagore, whose writings are prompted by a unity with nature that constitutes the very ground of his ethical experience of it. He offers us a deeper vantage-point for the experience and knowledge of life. He learns whatever he knows in the act of loving what meets his senses. His epistemology - the way things are known - is an unmediated, direct one, as would befit a poet’s calling. It involves no lab experiments and technical seminars. If present, love and freedom suffice for knowledge to take shape and form. If not, darkness is a virtual inevitability for human cognition - no matter that it conceals itself behind a mask of technical perfection and mathematical exactitude.

“The mailed fist of earth-hunger”

Rabindranath never thought in terms of the idea of the nation. As he once wrote to his friend Andrews, “there is no word for ‘nation’ in our language. He always thought in terms of Humanity and was deeply sensitive to the relations between different peoples of the earth. His frequent expressions of anguish at industrial modernity are prompted by a realisation of the sheer scale of injustices and imbalances between peoples that it has precipitated. In his 1924 essay Robbery of the Soil (sometimes also rendered as City and Village), he writes:

“Civilization has turned into a vast catering establishment; it maintains constant feasts for a whole population of gluttons. The intemperance which could have been tolerated in a few has spread to the multitude. The resulting universal greed is the cause of the meanness, cruelty and lies in politics and commerce that vitiate the whole human atmosphere. A civilization with an unnatural appetite must feed on numberless victims, and these are being sought in the parts of the world where human flesh is cheap. The happiness of entire peoples in Asia and Africa is being sacrificed to provide fastidious fashion with an endless train of respectable rubbish.”

In The Message of the Forest (1919), Rabindranath draws attention to the plays of Kalidasa. In his view, they evoke the perennial tension that lies “between the life that loses itself in the sands of the self and the life that seeks its sea of eternity.”

He reminds the reader of Shakuntala:

“The living beauty, whose representative in this drama is Shakuntala, is not aggressively strong like the callous destructiveness of lust, but, through its frailness, it is sublimely great. And it is the poet’s pleading which still rings in our ears against the ugly greed of commercialism in the modern age, against its mailed-fist of earth hunger, against the lust of the strong, which is grossly intent upon killing the Beautiful and piercing the heart of the Good to the quick. Once again sounds the warning of the forest, at the conclusion of the first act, when the king is engaged in fateful dalliance with the hermit girl: “O Tapaswis, hasten to rescue the living spirit of the sacred forest, for Dushyanta, the lord of the earth, whose pleasure is in hunting, is come.” It is a warning of India’s past, and that warning still continues against the reckless carnival of the present time, celebrated by the lords of the earth, whose pleasure is in hunting to death with their ruthless machines all that is beautiful with the delicacy of life.”

In a statement all too reminiscent of Gandhi, Rabindranath writes:

“Mother earth has enough for the healthy appetite of her children and something extra for rare cases of abnormality. But she has not nearly sufficient for the growth of a whole world of spoiled and pampered children.”

Tagore is only too aware that greed and its collaborative passions are not inventions of the modern era. And yet, something has changed at a profound level when it comes to the place of greed in the scale of human values:

“I do not for a moment mean to imply that in any particular period of history men were free from the disturbance of their lower passions. Selfishness ever had its share in government and trade. Yet there was a struggle to maintain a balance of forces in society; and our passions cherished no delusions about their own rank and value. They contrived no clever devices to hoodwink our moral nature. For in those days our intellect was not tempted to put its weight into the balance on the side of over-greed.

“But in recent centuries a devastating change has come over our mentality with regard to the acquisition of money. Whereas in former ages men treated it with condescension, even with disrespect, now they bend their knees to it. That it should be allowed a sufficiently large place in society, there can be no question; but it becomes an outrage when it occupies those seats which are specially reserved for the immortals, by bribing us, tampering with our moral pride, recruiting the best strength of society in a traitor's campaign against human ideals, thus disguising, with the help of pomp and pageantry, its true insignificance. Such a state of things has come to pass because, with the help of science, the possibilities of profit have suddenly become immoderate. The whole of the human world, throughout its length and breadth, has felt the gravitational pull of a giant planet of greed, with concentric rings of innumerable satellites, causing in our society a marked deviation from the moral orbit. In former times the intellectual and spiritual powers of this earth upheld their dignity of independence and were not giddily rocked on the tides of the money market. But, as in the last fatal stages of disease, this fatal influence of money has got into our brain and affected our heart. Like a usurper, it has occupied the throne of high social ideals, using every means, by menace and threat, to seize upon the right, and, tempted by opportunity, presuming to judge it. It has not only science for its ally, but other forces also that have some semblance of religion, such as nation-worship and the idealizing of organized selfishness. Its methods are far-reaching and sure. Like the claws of a tiger's paw, they are softly sheathed. Its massacres are invisible, because they are fundamental, attacking the very roots of life. Its plunder is ruthless behind a scientific system of screens, which have the formal appearance of being open and responsible to inquiries. By whitewashing its stains it keeps its respectability unblemished. It makes a liberal use of falsehood in diplomacy, only feeling embarrassed when its evidence is disclosed by others of the trade. An unscrupulous system of propaganda paves the way for widespread misrepresentation. It works up the crowd psychology through regulated hypnotic doses at repeated intervals, administered in bottles with moral labels upon them of soothing colours. In fact, man has been able to make his pursuit of power easier to-day by his art of mitigating the obstructive forces that come from the higher region of his humanity. With his cult of power and his idolatry of money he has, in a great measure, reverted to his primitive barbarism, a barbarism whose path is lit up by the lurid light of intellect. For barbarism is the simplicity of a superficial life. It may be bewildering in its surface adornments and complexities, but it lacks the ideal to impart to it the depth of moral responsibility.”

There is such a thing as too much wealth. Deeply attractive at first, inescapably addictive in the end, too much of a good thing turns into a bad thing. Tagore was only too mindful of the possibility. He held that many of the distortions of the modern world were a direct result of the temptation to exceed the bounds of moderation in the accumulation of wealth made possible through the concentrated application of science and technology to facilitate human prosperity.

“In the modern age the machine has not only multiplied working capacity but also the hunger for gain and the scale of profit. That is why there is disharmony between the interest of the individual and the community, leading ultimately to conflict. Greed severs the relations between town and village. The town has become a drain on the village because it has ceased to make its contribution to the village. The artificial lights of the town are ablaze—lights that have no connection with sun, moon or star—but the humble lamps of the village are dead. The siren of the factory lures men away from the peaceful refuge of their community. And man is fast reverting to his primeval forest instincts. The individualism of those days has come back to life, but with a new, gigantic stature.”

The contemporary blight is serious because it has destroyed all semblance of simplicity and has affected the entire length and breadth of human civilisation because of the sheer force of technology:

“When life is simple, wealth does not become too exclusive. Individual property then readily admits its duties to the people. But with the rise in living standards property changes its aspect. It shuts the gates of hospitality, which is the best means of social intercommunication. It displays itself in extravagance. It begets rigid class divisions. In short, it becomes anti-social. With material progress, property has become intensely individualistic: the method of gaining it has become a matter of science and not of social ethics. It breaks social bonds; it drains away the sap of the community. Its unscrupulousness plays havoc.

“The forest-fire feeds upon the living wood from which it springs, till it is completely exhausted along with the fuel. When a passion, like greed, breaks loose from the barrier of social control, it acts in the same way and feed upon the life of society; and the result is annihilation. It has ever been the object of the spiritual training of man to fight those passions that are anti-social and keep them chained.

“There are insects in our fields which, in spite of their depredations, leave a surplus for the tillers of the soil, and it does not pay to try to exterminate them. But when some pest that has an enormous power of self-multiplication attacks our crop, it has to be dealt with as a calamity. In human society, in normal circumstances, there are a number of causes that make for wastage, yet we can afford to ignore them. However, the blight that has fallen today on our social life and its resources is disastrous, because it is not restricted to limited regions. It is an epidemic of voracity that has infected the total area of civilization.”

Town and country: Tagore’s unorthodox view on an enduring debate

In a long series of writings that stretch across the second half of his life, Rabindranath is keen to draw attention to the ecological follies of the modern age. One of the things that concern him most is the imbalanced relationship between town and country, so central to our time. At one pole of the debate, Gandhi castigated the destructiveness of urban life and argued for Graam Swaraaj, village republics. At the other extreme, Dr. Ambedkar argued strongly in favour of urbanisation since villages had become havens for caste oppression.

Tagore’s takes neither of the extreme positions, suggesting that the relationship between town and country is too organic to be sundered. It has to be renegotiated with greater ecological and cultural intelligence. It is not a marriage where divorce is an option.

It is in the poorly read essay, Robbery of the Soil, where he articulates in unalloyed terms his deep apprehensions about the predatory relationship between the city and the village in the modern world (especially in India) and the urgency of renegotiating it afresh and invigorating it with a mature ecological ethics.

“The consequence of such a material and moral drain is made evident when one studies the condition manifested in the grossness of our cities and the physical and mental anaemia of the villages almost everywhere in the world. For cities inevitably have become important. The city represents energy and materials concentrated for the satisfaction of an exaggerated appetite, and this concentration is considered to be a symptom of civilisation. The devouring process of such an abnormality cannot be carried on unless certain parts of the social body conspire and organise to feed upon the whole. This is suicidal; but before a gradual degeneracy ends in death, the disproportionate enlargement of the particular portion looks formidably great. It conceals the starved pallor of the entire body. The illusion of wealth becomes evident because certain portions grow large on the robbery of the whole.”

With ecological prescience, he writes:

“We all claim the right to be extravagant in our enjoyment to the extent that we can afford it. We feel ashamed if we are not able to spend as much on individual gratification as our rich neighbour. The tyranny of respectability leads us to ruin.

“There is a continual stress on the idea of convenience and comfort. The actual results fall short of the energy spent because of the wastage involved. The shrieking advertisements, which constantly accompany the increase in production, mean an enormous waste of material and life force.”

The imbalance between the city and the village, Tagore claims, ultimately leads to the ruin of both, in addition to nullifying the claim to democracy and imperilling civilisation itself:

“A living relationship, in a physical or social body, depends upon sympathetic collaboration and helpfulness between the various individual organs and members. When a perfect balance of interchange begins to operate, a consciousness of unity develops that is no longer easy to obstruct. The resulting health or wealth are both secondary to this sense of unity which is the ultimate end and aim, and a creation in its own right. Whenever some sectarian ambition for power establishes a dominating position in life’s republic, the sense of unity, which can only be generated and maintained by a perfect rhythm of reciprocity between the parts is bound to be disturbed.

“What in the West is called democracy can never be true in a society where greed grows uncontrolled and is encouraged, even admired, by the people. In such an atmosphere a constant struggle goes on among individuals to capture public organizations for their personal ends. Democracy is then like an elephant whose one purpose in life is to give joyrides to the clever and the rich.

“Under such conditions the organs through which public opinion is formed together with the machinery of administration are all openly or secretly manipulated by the prosperous few. They have been compared of old, to the camel, which can never pass through a needle‟s eye—the gate that leads to the kingdom of ideals. Such a society is callous and cruel to those who preach their faith in spiritual freedom. In such a society people are intoxicated by the constant stimulation of what they call progress, a progress which they are willing to buy at the cost of civilization itself, like the man for whom wine is more attractive than food.”

Rabindranath reminds us of the commonsensical fact that rural life is lived ecologically closer to the natural world:

“Villages are like women. In their keeping is the cradle of the race. They are nearer to nature than towns, and in closer touch with the fountain of life. They possess a natural power of healing. It is the function of the village, like that of women, to provide people with their elemental needs, with food and joy, with the simple poetry of life and with those ceremonies of beauty which the village spontaneously produces and in which she finds delight. But when constant strain is put upon her, when her resources are excessively exploited, she becomes dull and uncreative. From her time- honoured position of the wedded wife, she descends to that of a maid-servant. The city, in its intense egotism and pride, remains unconscious of the hurt it inflicts on the very source of its life, health and joy.”

However, does all this mean that things have to be like this, that cities must necessarily be predatory?

“We can imagine what Delhi and Agra must have been in the time to which they belonged. They manifested the creative and human aspect of a great empire. Even in their decay these cities retain the glory of man. But modern cities merely offer opportunities, not ideals.”

Cities are necessary to human civilisation:

“Cities there must be in man’s civilization, just as in higher organisms there must be organized centres of life, such as the brain, heart, or stomach. These never overwhelm the living wholeness of the body; on the contrary, by a perfect federation of their functions, they maintain its richness. But a tumor in which the blood is congested is the enemy of the whole body upon which it feeds as it swells. Our modern cities, in the same way, feed upon the social organism that runs through the villages. They appropriate the life stuff of the community and slough off a huge amount of dead matter, while making a lurid counterfeit of prosperity.”

Tagore adds:

“Cities have their function of maintaining wealth and knowledge in concentrated form. They should do so not for their own sake alone; they should be centres of irrigation; they should gather in order to distribute; they should not magnify themselves, but should enrich the entire commonwealth. They should be like lamp-posts, and the light they shed must transcend their own limits.

“Such a relationship of mutual benefit between the city and the village can function only so long as the spirit of co-operation and self-sacrifice is a living ideal in society. When some temptation defeats this ideal, when selfish passion gains ascendency, a gulf is formed and goes on widening. City and village then stand as exploiter and victim.”

Rabindranath is quite happy to remain poor if that is the only way to remain civilised and just. He is unafraid of being perceived as underdeveloped:

“Thus, unlike a living heart, these cities imprison and kill the blood and create poison centres. When together only for some material purpose, they form an aggregation but not a congregation, so that there is moral decay. This is the result of true civilization being substituted by what the West calls Progress. I am not against progress but if, for its sake, civilization is ready to sell its soul, I would rather remain in a primitive state.

“Goethe‟s Germany was considered poor by Bismarck‟s Germany. The standard of civilization, illumined by the mind of Plato, or by the life of Asoka, is perhaps scorned by the proud children of modern times. But are those who lived then, to be pitied by the adolescents of the modern age, who have more of the printing press, but less of the mind?”

Tagore is clear as to what the fundamental cause of unhappiness in human society is:

“Society suffers from a profound feeling of unhappiness, not so much when it is in material poverty as when its members are deprived of a large part of their humanity.”

For those who refuse to heed the warnings signs in the sky, Rabindranath offers a parable:

“I often like to imagine that the moon, being smaller in size than the earth, produced life on her soil earlier than the earth. Once, the moon too had her festivals of colour, music, movement; her storehouse was perpetually filled with food. Then, on the moon, a race was born that began greedily to devour its surroundings. It produced beings who had an excess of animal spirit coupled with intellect but lacked the imagination to realise that the mere process of addition does not create fulfilment; that acquisition because of its largeness does not produce happiness; that movement does not constitute progress merely because of its speed; that progress can have meaning only in relation to some ideal of perfection. Their plunder soon outstripped nature‟s power of recuperation. Their profit- makers created wants that were unnatural. They dug deep into the stored capital of nature and ruthlessly exploited her resources. When they had exhausted the limited supply, they fought among themselves for the lion‟s share. In their scramble they laughed at moral codes and took it to be a sign of racial superiority to be ruthless in the satisfaction of their desires. They exhausted the water supply, cut down the trees and reduced the surface of the planet into a desert riddled with pits. They made its interior a rifled pocket, emptied of its valuables. Like a fruit whose pulp has been completely eaten by insects which it sheltered, the moon at last became a lifeless shell, a universal grave for the voracious creatures who had consumed the world in which they had been born.

“My imaginary selenites behave exactly in the way that human beings are today behaving on this earth…

“Man has been digging holes into the very foundations, not only of his livelihood, but also of his life; he is feeding upon his own body. The reckless wastage is best seen in the villages, where the light of life is being dimmed, the joy of existence dulled, the threads of social communion snapped. It should be our mission to restore the circulation of life‟s blood into these maltreated limbs of society; to bring to the villages health and knowledge; wealth of space in which to live; wealth of time in which to work, rest and enjoy; respect which will give them dignity; sympathy which will make them realise their kinship with the world of men, and not merely their subservient position.”

Finally, Rabindranath serves a reminder as to what brings happiness to human lives:

“Most of us who try to deal with the problem of poverty think only of a more intensive effort of production. We forget that it brings about a greater exhaustion of materials as well as of humanity. It gives to the few excessive opportunities for profit at the cost of the many. It is food which nourishes, not money; it is fullness of life which makes one happy, not fullness of purse. Multiplying material wealth alone intensifies the inequality between those who have and those who have not, and it inflicts so deep a wound on the social system that the whole body eventually bleeds to death.”

Concluding reflections

In 1921, soon after The Great War, Rabindranath asks his dear friend Andrews in a letter if it is not possible for India to “rise above her limitations and offer the great ideal to the world that will work towards harmony and cooperation between the different peoples of the earth?”

Virtually echoing Gandhi in Hind Swaraj, Tagore answers himself:

“Men of feeble faith will say that India requires to be strong and rich before she can raise her voice for the sake of the whole world. But I refuse to believe it. That the measure of man’s greatness is in his material resources is a gigantic illusion casting its shadow over the present-day world - it is an insult to man. It lies in the power of the materially weak to save the world from this illusion; and India, in spite of her penury and humiliation, can afford to come to the rescue of humanity.”

As mentioned earlier, Rabindranath’s counsel was that India must strive to fight for a freedom which would challenge the “crude” idea of liberty that modernity had come to cherish. A generation before India’s Partition, he wrote that “erecting barricades of fierce separateness”, in the name of the nation, was becoming a hindrance to the emergence of a spiritual humanity, which has always been India’s traditional faith:

“India has ever nourished faith in the truth of the spiritual man, for whose realisation she has made in the past innumerable experiments, sacrifices and penances…she has never ceased in her attempt to find it, even though at the tremendous cost of losing material success…I feel that the true India is an idea, and not a mere geographical fact. I have come into touch with this idea in faraway places…Our object is the revelation of the light of this infinite personality of man. This is not to be achieved in single individuals, but in one grand harmony of all human races. The darkness of egoism which will have to be destroyed is the egoism of the nation. The idea of India is against the intense consciousness of the separateness of one’s people from others…what has caused the mischief is the fact that for a long time we have been out of touch with our own culture and therefore Western culture has not found its true perspective in our life…The time will come when the West will find the leisure to realise that she has a home of hers in the East where her food is and her rest.” (Emphasis added).

Rabindranath warned against the perils of imitation on a civilizational scale:

“Man’s history is organic, and deep-seated life-forces work towards its growth. It is hopeless to cater to some clamorous demand of the moment by endeavouring to fashion the history of one people on the model of another, however flourishing the latter may be. A small foot may be the sign of aristocratic descent, but the Chinese woman’s artificial attempt has only resulted in cramped feet. For India to force herself along European lines of growth would not make her Europe, but only a distorted India.

“That is why we must be careful today to try to find out the principles by means of which India will be able for certain to realize herself. That principle is neither commercialism, nor nationalism. It is universalism.”

To the very end, Rabindranath upheld the mutual significance of the East and the West to each other. While accepting many of the positive effects of the modern influence in India, he believed deeply that the West had to retreat from its path of conquest in order to recover the vitality of its culture. And he believed that India, along with the rest of Asia, had a definite role to play in offering the light that the West was in need of - if only it could rediscover and remain true to the best in its own philosophical and spiritual traditions. In ecological terms, India could be a pioneer if it did so.

In his deep-seated anxiety and pessimism about industrial modernity, foreseeing well in advance of the ecological cataclysms it has brought us, Rabindranath is our contemporary. In his far-reaching insight into the imperative for India to revive its villages if her civilisation is to recover and be renewed after centuries of depredation, he is at one with Gandhi. Like him, he is our prophet and guide. Instead of mummifying them into saints, Indian elites had better wake up to their warnings before it is much too late.


  1. Wonderful reflections! Rabindranath shows that one needs only a sensitive heart and an open mind which is ready to read the lessons of life, in order to make surprisingly accurate prophecies.Thank you, Probal.

  2. Wonderful reflections! Rabindranath shows that one needs only a sensitive heart and an open mind which is ready to read the lessons of life, in order to make surprisingly accurate prophecies.Thank you, Probal.