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Bijoy Mukherjee : Rabindranath and Indian History

Image courtesy - A Japanese Catalogue of Tagore's Paintings, 1985

Rabindranath and the Question of Indian History

Bharatbarsher Itihas (The History of India), is really the beginning of Rabindranath’s journey towards Internationalism. Under influence of his elder brother Dwijendranath, he gradually took to the view that history of India is history of harmonizing different tendencies among its races. This view firmed up in Bharatbarsher Itihaser Dhara where he sought to excavate India’s history from the Puranas. As usual this article also contains discourses on historiography to justify his interpretation. This was translated by Jadunath Sarkar as My Interpretation of Indian History. Jadunath interpreted it as an attempt at political history of India while Dwijendranath too thought that it was a new attempt at writing Indian History and raised some empirical questions. But Rabindranath was actually interested in cultural history of India and he would return to this theme again and again, especially in his Nationalism (1916-17). He was interested to demonstrate that India did not have a political history but a cultural ideal. He argued that the political history of the West is actually a history of nation states and therefore history of greed, aggression, and therefore, must be self defeating. So we must fall back on the cultural history of India – which is actually unfolding of universal humanity. In order to validate this contention he utilised his thesis of Swadeshi Samaj and his thesis of Universal Man. For swadeshi samaj is a community of individuals in harmony and for Rabindranath that is the foundation of civilization. On the other hand phenomenologically, Man, is harmony. Hence history, society and the concept of Man, all fall in place to give us one harmonized universe.

Hindutva and Indianness

The first step of this project was taken in “Bharat Barsher Itihas”. But this presupposes another line of work we find in two articles, “Coat or Chapkan”, “Hindur Oikya” (Hindu Unity) both published in 1898 in the Bengali Journal, Bharati. It was actually a rejoinder to an article published in The Spectator. At this point he was still under the spell of Nationalism and there was a conflation of Hindutva with Indianness. The first of these two above mentioned articles, actually a rejoinder, we find his resistance to a European dress code but more importantly we also find assertion of an Indian Identity as distinct from that of the West. He was ready to accept the Muslims as unalienable part of the Indian Community but not the European. But interestingly he argued that the dress habits – in the form of chapkan is not only part of Muslim culture (hegemony) but includes a Hindu’s independence as well. And then he asserts “As our Indian Music belongs to Hindus as well as Muslims, it contains contributions from the connoisseurs of both Hindu and Muslim community; as in the Muslim ruled states both Hindus and Muslims used to enjoy their won social unity”

Later we find an argument – essentially depending on joint contribution of Hindus and Muslims in Art, literature, industry and to almost every field of Indian culture – to demonstrate that Muslims were as much Indian as the Hindus and the Muslims were also residents of India. Still he wasn’t sure of the existence of one India. For, at the end, we find Rabindranth arguing that if we succeed in creating a race, then that could never be done excluding the Muslims. He hopes that this should be possible. Hindus and Muslims may not unite in religion but nevertheless may meet to form a united community.

Clearly here Rabindranath was on the defensive – hoping that some day a jati, and by jati here he means more a nation called ‘Indian’ would emerge. At the same time he was pleading for multiculturalism. This belief in multiculturalism did not allow the idea of Hindutva to collapse into that of a nation. But he still was not sure about what this Hindutva actually is. The second article almost opens with this question: “Is Hindutva a jati”?

Surely, Rabindranath is actually responding to Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay’s question. In Bharat-Kalanka (The Shame of India) [First published in 1887, in Bibidha-Prabandha], Bankim Chandra argued that in India does not have one jati. In the beginning there was indeed one jati -- the Aryan but the Aryans got dispersed in to various regions and lost their cohesiveness. We then had different regions, different languages, different kingdoms and even different religions – that is after the advent of Buddhism. Finally there came the Muslims and hence we have a collection constituting of Hindus and Muslims. So can we think of establishing one race?

Rabindranath’s thinking about nation, and Indian identity began as a boy of 18, way back in 1878 in an article Bangalir Asha or Noirashya (Hope and Doubt for Bengal), published in Bharati. He was then a thorough materialist with a patriotic feeling while taking India as a nation delineated geographically. The thesis is well-known and runs as follows. Surplus wealth is the foundation of a civilization. This surplus was created on the basis of agricultural production. For that we need fertile land which we had in plenty. Because of this, Aryans came and settled in India, Italy and Greece. When man achieves freedom from the minimum necessities of life they engage themselves in acquisition of knowledge and other intellectual pursuits. Same was the case with India – Aryans while living in Tapovana, created poetry, language and grammer, and also invested in science.

We no longer have that India but since our land remains as fertile as it was in the ancient times we might as well expect that we shall again rise and become the best nation of the world. But there is a difference. Now there is a possibility of absorbing the knowledge of the West and through synthesis, create a world free of misery in which men will live with their unconstrained dignity.

These were the outburst of and young man full of patriotism. But the more he thought about he saw the complexities involved. For a few years we see him attacking and often deploring loathsome aspects of Hindu behavior, their rites and practices, their .complacency, parochialism, dishonesty in interpreting the traditional rules of the society along with abject surrender to the British as a superior race. By 1983 he came to realize that there is an inherent paradox in this line of thinking. For the geographical area called India is not habitat of a homogeneous people. Is it proper to have an idea of India depending solely on Hindu ideals or achievements?

He just raised these questions in an article Jijnasa o Uttor (Questions and Answers) published in Bharati. The article opens with the question: What are the marks of being a jati? What are the qualities if possessed by a collection of people, then they are entitled to be called a jati? If majority of the inhabitants of a geographically given land belongs to a jati only then we can call it a nation? Hence we can define a nation only when we can define a jati.

Then come the problems: If Jati is identified with the religion then any Christian will be British. On the other hand if we look at the derivation of the word “jati”, then it simply means similarity in origin. So jati is an ambiguous word and it cannot be identified with the Nation.
He also observes that ancient Hindus did not name their own race they only named other races. The word “Arya” used to be used only to make this distinction with the non-aryans There is another use – like Brahman, Shudra etc. But even this is not conclusive. For these are actually varnas and not nations.

This characterisation creates an impasse (dilemma). Rabindranth will have to demonstrate the possibility of a nation without being a nation state. For, if the nation is identified with jati then we reach an impossibility as there is no way to reconcile all the dissimilar fragments into one whole and if a jati is identified with a nation then the minimum requirement, that of being a whole cannot be satisfied – the old part/whole problem! So he comes to the problem of conceiving a jati without being a nation state. If we believe in such a possibility, as Rabindranath indeed did, then we’ll have to spell out how. Rabindranath sought to solve the problem of ‘non-nation’ by distinguishing ‘nation’ from a jati which will now be founded on Community and this will be asserted again and again in his lectures on Nationalism.

Rabindranath would later discover a model for such a jati in the village community. Immediately however his problem is to argue for the possibility. Again he uses a metaphor – that of a big building - to argue for the diversity of culture arising out of cohabitation of different races. He observed that the resultant tension and consequent violence against the alien race – initially has been a feature of the Aryans also – can be seen in the stories of Ramayana and Mahabharata. He is of the opinion that the Aryans tried their best to keep themselves away from the non-Aryans in their daily life, their rites and even in their pursuits of science and knowledge in general. This tendency is taken as a kind of antagonistic tendency diagnosed to be at the root of the exclusivist tendency prevalent among the Hindus.

However, he observes, this antagonistic attitude could not be continued for long. Gradually, this antagonism died down giving rise to a feeling of reconciliation and cohabitation. In the process non-Aryan habits, their rites, even their gods entered the Aryan culture and enriched that. He even diagnoses the weakness of Hindu society (community) to this antagonism and subsequent mixing of cultural traits almost in the manner Bankim Chandra did.

We need not be over-sensitive about this characterisation of the Aryan and non-Aryan cultures. The motivation behind this assertion is the unqualified condemnation of the state of the society at that time. Rabindranath would later, in Bharat Barsher Itihasher Dhara, come back to the characterisation of the non-Aryans as the equal contributors of the great culture that was India. The above assertion, read in the context of colonial criticism, was trying to find out the cause of the ills that plague the society in India whose manifestation he found in loathsome idolatry, despicable practice of Sati – which his idol Rammohun fought against and got banned saving thousands of Brahmin widows – and the repugnant practice of child marriage along with tremendous deprivation of the Hindu widows, to say the least. Still it should be remembered that he wasn’t after glorifying the Aryans, his intention was just to argue that even if the Aryans were great, all we have now is the mixed race and if there is any reason to hope for, then that lies in the discovery of Bharat Barsha.

Rabindranath argues that there is a strong suggestion that this can be done. For our history teaches us there is a strong current of unity in spite of many differences. We shall have to strengthen that current and strive to harmonize the disparate tendencies. The hope lies in this rather ad hoc and unargued maxim: “In the face of grief and calamity precipitated by some external agency, the community, even divided, would rise up to engage itself in new synthesis”. This maxim he’ll use again and again in his historiography of India but it would be transcendentally deduced from India’s Itihaser Dhara as the principle of harmony. So, he asserts, that what is stable among this apparent history of antagonism is this tendency to harmony and surely, someday that will win over the disparities.

That he is still under the spell of nationalism can be clearly seen from this passage. But he did not know what India, the Nation or the Jati, to be proud of. This can be seen from the ultimate paragraph but what we cannot fail to notice is complete absence of either Nation or the Jati. He maintains, on the one hand we have our geographical identity on the other (as a consequence) there is this question of independence – both are essential. While following the Europeans would be useless, to follow the orthodox Hinduism would be suicidal.

This emphasis on indigeneous identity is very characteristic of his thought in this phase. This could be taken as a primitive form of patriotism but really not so. It is still a source of pride of a colonized but cannot be interpreted as full scale patriotism as he is yet to find out his India the non-Nation. The other writings on Samaj, written long back amply demonstrate this. This programme of Discovering India therefore requires identifying those traits which are great but essentially our own. Rabindranath therefore takes up the details analysis of History in Bharat Barsher Itihash. But that would prove to be insufficient so later he engaged in the historiography in Bharat Barsher Itihasher Dhara.

Bharatavarsher Itihasher Dhara

In Bharatavarsher Itihasher Dhara, written in 1911 and read out to a selected audience at Overton Hall, Calcutta he mainly depended on the stories told in the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. On first reading, one gets the impression that these two epics were taken by Rabindranath to be social history of India and two main contending tendencies were represented in the epics as Brahmins and Kshatriyas.

Here Rabindranath begins with another principle. Whenever different races or individual communities come to reside side by side there must be a kind of “mechanical” adjustment between them. But, in order that a stable system should develop both the communities must “submit themselves to the principle of life and become organ for the vital function”. He claims

The History of India has been the history of struggle between constructive spirit of the machine which seeks the cadence of order and conformity in social organisation, and the creative spirit of man, which seeks freedom and love for its self expression.

The idea is to see if the spirit of man is still living in India and also if the system can be vitalized. In Rabindranath’s interpretation the Brahmins and Kshatriyas did not represent two different races. There was, at every stage, some definite attempt at reconciliation. Some characters/personalities, like Rama or Krishna were there to facilitate this reconciliation. Because of this, and not for their individual heroics, they were recognized as avatars. This spirit of reconciliation would be taken as harmony the essence of Indian culture later in Nationalism. After delineating the method of reading Indian History, Rabindranath now intends to go further to interpret the History of Mankind. There follows a series of observations regarding the problems posed by the history of mankind, the basic intentionbeing the development of an argument, among others, for the destiny of each distinct civilization.

But here, the motivation is not to discuss the misfortune of one race fighting with the other. The real aim is to unearth a picture of India’s history. Tagore therefore looks at the history of India as that of a collection of races which has come in close contact. This feature comes with its misfortune in the form of racial discrimination, consequent isolation from the other races, crippling the mind and narrowing their lives. Tagore observes, “for centuries new experiments have been made and adjustments carried out.” No doubt, it was a tremendous task and gave rise to problems which needed “true realization of the unity of Man”. He is also convinced that the objective of the Rishis in the Upanishadic times was “to set at naught all differences of man by the overflow of our consciousness of God”. This, for Tagore, is the true history of India – not what has happened to some kings and kingdoms. “Our history is that of our social life and attainment of spiritual ideals.”

A few paragraphs later we find Rabindranath’s description of his image of India which lived peacefully in its villages, through its self-governance and simple laws:

An India of no nations and whose one ambition has been to know this world as of soul, to live here in the meek spirit of adoration, in the glad consciousness of an eternal and personal relationship with it.

But what about devastations caused by external aggressors? True, Tagore acknowledges, in the past there were devastations caused by external aggressions but they “passed over her head like clouds, now tinged with purple gorgeousness, now black with thunder”, but traces of all these were soon forgotten.

The picture in his well-known poem, now accepted as India’s national anthem, is here rehearsed once more. For even in the case of Mughal and Pathan invasions, Indian society had to go through tremendous strain. But at the end, they stayed back, indigenized. The history produced its problems but they were solved in a comprehensive manner not by driving the intruders out but accepting them as fellow Indians. The people of India loved and hated, also fought for them and against them, shared their language and “guided the destiny of the Empire” in which the people had an active share. This is the resolution – inclusivity of the social fabric – in spite of extreme strain, that is paraded again and again.

English aggression as aggression of the Nation

For Tagore however, unlike the Moghul and the Pathan invasion, the English aggression and domination drove its tentacles of machinery deep down into the soil. To drive home the danger involved in the process, he explains further: “This time we had to deal, not with kings, not with human races, but with a nation – we, who are no nation ourselves”.

Till now however we have no definition of “Nation”. When he talks about India he talks in terms of “race”, but while talking about West, he talks about nations. So what was this concept of Nation that Tagore has in mind? His answer was: “A nation, in the sense of the political and economic union of people, is that aspect which a whole population assumes when organized for a mechanical purpose”.

But he was anxious to distinguish a “Nation” form a “Society”: “Society as such has no ulterior purpose”. It is a spontaneous self-expression of man, an end in itself and a natural regulation of human relationship which allows natural co-operation to develop ideals of life. In this connection, Rabindranath acknowledges that a society also has a political side but that is only for self-preservation in contradistinction to self-expression. It has its place in a society “but restricted to professionals”. But with perfection of the organisation this becomes the center of power and it begins to grow to bring wealth. Then it crosses it boundary with amazing rapidity – with greed of material prosperity it generates mutual jealousy and comes to resent others powers. Finally it captures the central place in the society. As consequence of this growing professionalism and mechanical organization, Tagore reminds us again and again, that man continuously turns the wheel of power, “producing wealth for himself or for the sake of universal officialdom” and in the process forgets the living bond with reality and loses the meaning of life.

Tagore warns us about the human cost involved. As the machine grows, man becomes just a part of the machine and “personal man is eliminated to a phantom, everything becomes a revolution of policy carried out by the human parts of the machine, with no twinge of pity or moral responsibility”. Consequently competition replaces co-operation – psychology of man and women changes to that of primitive fighting element. Power has become too abstract. For Tagore, “power is a scientific product made in the political laboratory of the Nation”. He has no doubt that the incessant fight between capital and labour would come to “final reconciliation” through a catastrophe or a spiritual rebirth.

This time it is the British Nation, the abstract entity that is the aggressor and all these come as consequence. But Indians are no abstractions and so they must suffer the degradation. What should we do then? One standard and respectable answer is to resort to violence to drive the Nation away. And here Rabindranath takes the most controversial step. He does not favour a revolution but, instead, advocates the need for Swadeshi Samaj. That the Birtish Nation could come and conquer us, he argues, is not their fault but ours and so just trying to drive them would not help.

This is not the first time we see Rabindranath taking up the question of the Nation. He devoted at least two articles in 1901 and developed his treatise on social philosophy as Swadeshi Samaj in 1902. The first article “What is Nation” is an exposition of Renan’s views on formation of “Nation”. The contention is that there is no unambiguous way to characterize “Nation”. One of the main contentions is that there were no concepts of nation in the ancient civilizations like Egypt or China. Rome went close to forming a Nation but that did not ultimately materialize. Instead it disintegrated under attack from the barbarians. The fragments were ultimately converted into nations like France Germany etc. One way to understand “nation” is to take it as a state united because of the power of the crown. But that characterization would not work in the case of England, Ireland and Scotland. Neither existence of a crown can be taken as the characteristic as that would exclude Nations like US. It cannot be defined by the language nor can it be defined as a race. It cannot be defined in terms of its religion alone as there are many nations with multiple religious beliefs among its subjects. Finally, in Renan’s opinion, geographical boundary also cannot serve as a criterion for defining a nation as that would say little about the people living in it.

The only possibility is to define a nation as product of two components an abstract entity resulting out of contract between its subjects and a living past contributing memory of the ancestors and the willingness to protect the wealth left behind by them. However Rabindranath was well aware that this could not be a rather passive process a conscious attempt must precede a lasting solution which is universal as well as human. He declares that in his address “Nationalism in the West”:

I have not come here, however, to discuss the question as it affects my own country, but as it affects the features of all humanity. It is not a question of the British government, but the Government by the Nation – the Nation which is the organized self interest of a whole people, where it is least human and least spiritual. Our only intimate experience of the Nation is with the British Nation, and as far as the government by the Nation goes, there are reasons to believe that it is one of the best.

He argued that we have to consider that the West is necessary to the East:

We are complementary to each other because of our different outlooks upon life which have given us different aspects of truth. Therefore if it is true that the spirit of the West has come upon our fields in the guise of a storm it is nevertheless scattering living seeds that are immortal. And when in India we become able to assimilate in our lives what is permanent in western civilization we shall be in position to bring about reconciliation of these two great worlds. Then will come to an end the one-sided dominance which is galling. What is more, we have to recognize that the history of India does not belong to a particular race but to a process of creation to which various races of the world contributed – the Dravidians and the Aryans, the Ancient Greeks, the Mohamedans of the West and those of central Asia. Now at last has come the turn of the English to become true to this history and bring to it the tribute of their life, and we neither have the right nor the power to exclude this people from the building of the destiny of India. Therefore what I say the Nation has more to do with the history of Man than especially with that of India.

It is then Rabindranath’s project to show that there could indeed be a system for the Human Race founded on a notion of Community as consistent with the History of Man which would give him the concept of Man as Angel of Surplus. All other categories, Harmony, Creativity and Ananda will be founded on this notion of Man while pushing the History of Man to the limit of Universal History. That would require working out metaphysics of man and the world which he tried in Sadhana but was fully expounded, much later, in his Religion of Man.

Works Cited

Chattopadhyaya, Bankimchandra. “Bharat Kalanka” (The Shame of India) in Bibidha Prabandha. Kolkata: Sahitya Samsad, 1959, p. 209.
Tagore, Rabindranath. “Asha o Nairashya” (Hope and Despair) in Rabindra Rachanavali, Vol. 30. Kolkara: Visva-Bharati, 1966. This volume was published as addendum to the Rachanavali in 1998, pp. 95-100.
---------- “Jignasa o Uttar”, Rachanavali, Vol. 30, pp. 149-151
---------- “Coat o Chapkan” (Coat and Chapkan), Rachanavali, Vol. 12, pp. 223-229.
---------- “Bharatbarsher Itihas” (The History of India), Rachanavali, Vol. 4, pp. 377-387.
---------- “Bharatbarsher Itihasher Dhara”, Rachanavali Vol. 18, pp. 423-451. This essay was translated by Jadunath Sarkar. Titled, “My Interpretation of Indian History”. This essay was published in Modern Review, August-September 1913.
---------- Nationalism. New Delhi, Rupa, 2005.


Focus – "Reading Across Time": Tagore Today

  Amrit Sen : Editorial

Lead Article
  Udaya Narayana Singh : Redrawing the Boundaries

Critical Essays

  Nation, History, Cultural Exchange
    Avijit Banerjee : Tagore’s Visit to China
    Bijoy Mukherjee : Rabindranath and Indian History
    Biswanath Banerjee : Tagore and Acharya PC Ray
    Sagarika Chakraborty : Tagore the Diplomat
    Soumitra Roy : Tagore’s Ghare Baire

  Responses to Caste and Gender
    Dhriti Ray Dalai/ Panchanan Dalai : Tagore’s ‘Chandalika’
    Dipankar Roy : Women in Tagore’s ‘Domestic Novels’
    Sanjukta Dasgupta : “Streer Patra” - A Feminist Text?
    Swati Ganguly : Gender, Sexuality and Conjugality in Samapti

  Translation and Reception
    Anindya Sen : Tagore’s Self-Translations
    Jayati Gupta : Whose Gitanjali is it Anyway?
    Sushobhan Adhikary : Cartoons on Tagore
    Usha Kishore : The Auto-translations of Rabindranath

  Rural Reconstruction and Ecopoetic
    Bipasha Raha : Experiments with Village Welfare
    Debotosh Sinha : Tagore and Rural Reconstruction
    Falguni Piyush Desai : Floriography in Tagore’s Poetry
    Marie Josephine Aruna : ‘Letters’ and Ecopoetics

  Aesthetics, Paintings and Dance Dramas
    Aju Mukhopadhyay : The Poet of Sublime Love
    Raghupathi K V : Aesthetics of Tagore and Sri Aurobindo
    Sudeshna Majumdar : Paintings of Tagore
    Sutapa Chaudhuri : Dance Dramas of Tagore

  Tagore and the Short Story
    Dominic K V : Tagore’s Short Stories
    Mausumi Sen Bhattacharjee : ‘The Hunger of Stones’

  Tagore and Visva-Bharati
    Anindita Chongdar : Anecdotes of Santiniketan
    Debmalya Das : The Visva-Bharati Quarterly
    Subodh Gopal Nandi : The Visva-Bharati Library

Creative Responses

    Sanjukta Dasgupta : Remembering Rabindranath

    Frank Joussen : Tagore and Walt Whitman
    Nuggehalli Pankaja : The Voice of Tagore
    Sanjukta Dasgupta : To Rabindranath
    Shambhobi Ghosh : Yet

  Ahmed A H S : Birthday and other poems
  Anup Maharatna : From ‘The Last Writings’
  Ashoka Sen : Africa
  Barnali Saha : The Vacation (Fiction)
  Naina Dey : Chance Meeting
  Parantap Chakraborty : The Son of Man
  Suranjima Saha : Preamble to a Journey
  Swapna Dutta : The Editor

  Amrit Sen:Behind the Veil & Tagore and Modernity
  Kumaran S : Pathos in the Short Stories of Tagore

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