The Nationalist Discourses of Acharya Prafulla Chandra Ray and Rabindranath Tagore: A Comparative Study
The late nineteenth and early twentieth century Bengal had witnessed the advent of a new intellectual and cultural reawakening, which is widely known as the Bengal Renaissance. Through its adaptation of the Enlightenment discourse of science and rationality, the Bengal Renaissance had played a significant role in the independence of India and its progress towards a modern civilization, and simultaneously created a corresponding interest in the revival of India’s cultural and philosophical past as well as in assimilating the Western creative and intellectual tradition. Among the many thinkers and intellectuals who made their notable contributions in this new literary, scientific and cultural renaissance, Acharya Prafulla Chandra Ray (1861-1944) and Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941) are the most important to be mentioned, who sought to give India a new distinct and cognitive identity. In making a critical analysis of the different discourses of nationalism, advocated by Ray and Tagore, this article will attempt to explore the different concepts of the postcolonial nation, as envisaged by these two visionary thinkers of modern India.
Being well acquainted with the modern enlightened culture of the West and being exposed to the liberal ‘Brahmo Samaj’, both Ray and Tagore got deeply inspired by the progressive rationalist spirit of Rammohun Roy, his philosophy of universalism and monotheism and his advocation for a syncretic Indian culture through a congenial relation between the East and the West. Projecting Rammohun as an ideal of the pioneer in accepting the positive values that the West had to offer, they both held him up as the foremost of the socio-cultural, educational and religious reformer that India had ever produced;1 as Tagore rightly reflected:
Rammohun was the only person in his time, in the whole world of man, to realize completely the significance of the modern age. He knew that the ideal of human civilization does not lie in the isolation of independence, but in the brotherhood of interdependence of individuals as well as of nations in all spheres of thought and activity…His attempt was to establish our peoples on the full consciousness of their own cultural personality, to make them comprehend the reality of all that was unique and indestructible in their civilization, and simultaneously to make them approach other civilizations in the spirit of sympathetic cooperation.2
Thus in both Ray and Tagore we could find a cross-cultural mentality, a cosmopolitan outlook, who depicted the West not as an enemy to the East, or its binary opposite, but rather what Tagore said, a ‘necessary to the East’, who are ‘complementary to each other.’3 Acknowledging the remarkable scientific and technological progress of the West, they realized the importance to emulate the Western advancement of learning for the progress of modern India and sought to create a progressive, hybrid Indian culture through a perfect synthesis between the East and the West, as Ray remarked:
Not in isolation, rigid and exclusive, but in active intercourse with the modern progressive world does our own progress lie. We cannot ignore the fact of the impact of the West upon the East; it will not do ostrich-like to shut our eyes to the fact that for the past few centuries Europe has been progressive while Asia has been stagnant. And there is no humiliation in seeking for truth wherever it may be found. Truth has no boundaries, it is international.4
Though belonging to two different fields, one a savant of Indian Chemistry and the other a literary genius, both Ray and Tagore did commonly share a critical objective gaze to approach the West. Being acutely sensitive to the detrimental effects of British colonialism in India, they however did not hesitate to acknowledge the beneficial aspects of the English colonial rule, through which India could come into contact with the progressive modern civilization of the West. In making a thorough scrutiny of the steady social and cultural degradation of contemporary India and especially Bengal, they could realize the fact that India’s problem was not political, rather sociological. They used the Western discourse of science and rationality not only to challenge the colonial ideology, but also to criticize the various irrational indigenous social practices, which specifically included the class and caste prejudices, petty communal feuds, the custom of untouchability, dowry system, child marriage, the widow burning custom and all, that impeded the progress of India’s social and cultural growth, as Ray lamented:
Now, thanks to the cumulative effect of centuries of social inequalities and oppression, of the degradation of the condition of women and of large sections of the people, and the walls of differences raised between man and man by custom and tradition, India now lies at the feet of nations---powerless and helpless.5
According to Tagore, India was more threatened by its ‘internal dissention’, social barriers, superstitions and unhealthy traditional customs than a foreign rule--- ‘we must win our country, not from some foreigner, but from our own inertia, our own indifference’.6 To him, ‘to gain one’s own country means to realize one’s own soul more fully expanded within it’7, and for this he epitomized the pursuit of science as a revealer of the oneness of the world and man’s oneness with it, which could bring humanity closer, transcending geographical barriers.8 An almost similar view had also been shared by Ray, to whom, rationalism is the very fountain of a nation’s life, and he contended that the downfall of the Bengali nation had commenced from the time when this fountain had dried up and with it, originality and the very spirit of enquiry got disappeared.9 For Ray, Science was never an end in itself; it was to be integrated with developing a public use of reason, which must be pursued by the blending of the simplicity of the East and the vigour of the West. He also suggested that in order to survive, a nation must alter its manners and social customs according to the exigencies of times,10 and for a better future of India there should always be a harmonious commingling of the new and the old, a fusion of the West and the East.11 In this context, Ray categorized the Elizabethan age in England as marked by ‘free thinking….emancipated their minds from the shackles of age-long prejudice and superstition…strong individualistic and keen rationalistic spirit’.12 Hence in projecting Shakespearean England as an utopia of rationality, Ray was perhaps trying to foreground the necessity of a similar intellectual climate in Bengal, as well as in India, dominated by the scientific empirical mode.
But however, despite their ungrudging admiration for the progressive Western civilization and their ardent support for Western education and learning, both Ray and Tagore had nevertheless criticized the selfish, harsh and cruel exigencies of British colonial policy which was discriminatory towards the Indians. Critiquing the Western belligerency, its singular passion for power and wealth, its egoism and blind contempt for the East, Tagore harshly stated:
I speak bitterly of Western civilization when I am conscious that it is betraying its trust and thwarting its own purpose. The West must not make herself a curse to the world by using her power for her own selfish needs…she must not make her materialism to be the final thing, but must realize that she is doing a service in freeing the spiritual being from the tyranny of matter.13
In making a critique of the tyrannical British rule in India, Ray questioned the ‘inestimable boon theory’, circulated by the English colonizers, and instead categorized the British colonial policy as distinctly marked by brute force, blind selfishness, bitter arrogance and superciliousness. This British misrule, according to Ray, had led to an utter degradation of the socio-political and economic conditions of contemporary India. In his letter to the students of the University of Edinburgh, Ray remarked:
The lamentable condition of India at present is due to England’s culpable neglect of, and gross apathy to, the affairs of that empire. England has hitherto failed---grievously failed—in the discharge of her sacred duties to India.14
But here, it must be pointed out that, this anti-colonial nationalist sentiment could be found to be much stronger and stringent in Ray than that in Tagore, as the latter was more receptive to the West, who, like Rammohun, believed in ‘the spirit of self-manifestation of the unique in the light of the universal’.15 For Ray, on the other hand, science and swaraj were closely related to each other; to him, science was a site of colonial contestation and nation building. In a letter to the wife of C. R. Das, in December 1921, Ray wrote:
I can assure you, however, dear sister, that in serving my favourite science I have only one idea in my mind, namely, that through her I should serve my country. Our aspirations are the same. God knows, I have no other object in my life.16
Having written Hindu Chemistry to challenge the hegemonic claims of Western civilization over science, Ray, as an ardent nationalist, was nevertheless acutely conscious of the ruthless economic exploitation of the British colonizers in India that consequently resulted a severe financial crisis during the colonial period. Ray’s concept of the postcolonial nation was fundamentally laid in the economic liberation or swaraj. Unlike Tagore, Ray strongly supported Mahatma Gandhi’s non-cooperative ideals, for he could realize the fact that, it is through the formation of national industries and the promotion of rural self-sufficiency, that one could resist the imperial economy, as in the height of the non-cooperation movement, Ray declared---‘Science can afford to wait but Swaraj cannot’.17 In 1892, in collaboration with Dr Amulya Charan Bose and Chandrabhusan Bhaduri, Ray formed Bengal Chemical and Pharmaceutical Works Ltd., the company that culminated into the pioneer of chemical industry in India. Besides Bengal Chemical, Ray was also associated with a large number of indigenous industrial and business companies which according to him would not only lead to India’s economic independence, but could also eradicate poverty and unemployment. In order to resist the economic hegemony of the British, Ray’s writings on food habits too advocated a return to indigenous nourishing and dietary practices, like--- ‘Chira’, ‘Muri’, ‘Khoi’ instead of the new Western diets, like--- Biscuit and Tea.
In spite of being a scientist and an ardent advocate of modern science himself, Ray readily espoused and propagated Gandhi’s philosophy of ‘Charkha’ (the spinning wheel) and was a devoted supporter of his promotion of ‘Khadi’, which according to him could lead to the alienation of poverty by providing the Indian farmers with a secondary source of income. His aim was thus to ‘supplement the scanty income of the dwellers in the villages by the introduction and encouragement of a subsidiary occupation’, 18 and according to him, ‘spinning and weaving are the two parts of the one cottage industry which admits of universal application in India’.19 Ray was acutely aware of the ruthless destruction of the local domestic and cottage industries during the colonial regime through the circulation of the expensive British cotton fabrics in the Indian market. Hence, he recurrently emphasized the economic viability of ‘Charkha’ within his nationalist enterprise, and depicted it a mode of resisting the economic hegemony of the West. Thus for Ray, the moral or ethical relevance of the ‘Charkha’, as advocated by Mahatma Gandhi, was overshadowed by its economic possibilities, as he confessed:
Being an industrialist on a humble scale, at first I scoffed at the very idea of this primitive, uncouth instrument competing with machinery. But mature deliberation soon convinced me of the efficacy of spinning in every rural household during the odd hours of unemployment. It is the only subsidiary occupation possible to the teeming millions of India, who live from hand to mouth and are often on the verge of starvation. The Charkha has very aptly been called ‘the poor man’s insurance against famine’.20
Now, this nationalist discourse of Ray, and his projection of ‘Charkha’ as a vital instrument of swaraj, sharply contradict with the nationalist ideas of Rabindranath Tagore, as according to the latter, ‘the foundation of swaraj cannot be based on any external conformity, but only on the internal union of hearts’.21 Tagore had always been an avid advocate of inter-civilizational alliance and had always dreamt of a symbiosis of the East and the West. Despite the West’s contemptuous attitude towards the East, Tagore did never lose his hope for a union of these two cultures, through which a deep association among nations could be achieved, as he spoke:
And yet even though the West may think she is, I am not for thrusting off Western civilization and becoming segregated in our independence. Let us have a deep association. If Providence wants England to be the channel of that communication, of that deeper association, I am willing to accept it with all humility. I have great faith in human nature, and I think the West will find its true mission.22
Tagore actually had a deep suspicion regarding the political mass movements and the nationalist struggle of contemporary India, and he strongly abhorred the very idea of “nationalism”, which according to him is nothing but a source of greed, selfishness, power, war, hatred, mutual suspicion and divisiveness. In his poem, The Sunset of the Century, Tagore launched into a fierce diatribe against nationalism and depicted it as an ‘organization of politics and commerce’23 that could only breed exclusivism and dogmatism and herald war, carnage, death and destruction:
The last sun of the century sets amidst the blood-red clouds of the West and the
whirlwind of hatred.
The naked passion of the self-love of Nations, in its drunken delirium of greed, is
dancing to the clash of steel and howling verses of vengeance.
The hungry self of the Nation shall burst in a violence of fury from
its shameless feeding
For it has made the world its food.
And licking it, crunching it and swallowing it in big morsels,
It swells and swells
Till in the midst of its unholy feast descends the sudden shaft of heaven
piercing its heart of grossness.24
Tagore specifically had an acute distrust in the very idea of a postcolonial Indian nation that predicated itself on rejecting British administration and culture. He saw nationalism as a discourse alien to India and artificial in the Indian context. In this respect he strongly opposed Mahatma Gandhi’s non-cooperation movement, as according to the former, it could only generate an exclusivist, monolithic and unipolar ideology, and would fail to draw its inspiration from a larger vision of humanity.25 Instead Tagore had always imagined of a commonwealth of nations which would be based on a sense of sympathy, generosity, mutuality, universality and reciprocal recognitions. This principle of love, sympathy and universal fellowship could be found embodied in Tagore’s establishment of Visva-Bharati at Santiniketan which has become the symbol of a plural global space, a place of mutual love and tolerance, based on equality.
Unlike Gandhi and Ray, Tagore did not conceive of the ‘Charkha’ as a potential tool of swaraj or a source of economic liberation, that could resist exploitation and foster a sense of oneness. Rather he argued that, ‘swaraj is not concerned with our apparel only--- it cannot be established on cheap clothing; its foundation is in the mind, which, with its diverse powers and its confidence in those powers, goes on all the time creating swaraj for itself.’26 Tagore also expressed his doubts on the economic viability of ‘Charkha’, advocated by Ray:
The question of using or refusing cloth of a particular manufacture belongs mainly to economic science. The discussion of the matter by our countrymen should have been in the language of economics…But far from this, we take the course of confirming ourselves in it by relying on the magical formula that foreign cloth is ‘impure’. Thus economics is bundled out and a fictitious moral dictum dragged into its place.27
Rabindranath’s argument actually hinged on the assumption that the ‘Charkha’ was imbued with a value that largely remained symbolic without true co-operation among the people of India. According to him, the very act of spinning the ‘Charkha’ could never bring co-operation among people, but would rather produce isolation, a mechanical blindness and ignorance, that would kill the mind of a man, his rational, intellectual and creative faculty---the true means of attaining swaraj---‘by doing the same thing day after day mechanical skill may be acquired; but the mind like a mill-turning bullock will be kept going round and round a narrow range of habit’.28 Hence, Tagore’s fundamental complaint was that, ‘by the promulgation of this confusion between swaraj and charkha, the mind of the country is being distracted from swaraj’29
Now, this critique of swaraj had however thrust Rabindranath to enter into a serious controversy with Gandhi and Ray, who responded to Tagore’s vision as impractical and utopian. Indirectly referring to Tagore, Brajendranath Seal and others, Prafulla Chandra, in his autobiography, had critiqued the poet as leading the people away from the true path of swaraj:
My speeches and writings on ‘Khaddar’ during the last seven and eight years, if put together, would fill a big volume. Yet it is necessary to harp on the subject because of the callous indifference of a section of our intelligentsia who would do nothing, create nothing, but simply live as parasites, and indulge in cheap sneers and gibes from their snug and comfortable easy chairs in the towns.30
Tagore also swiftly responded to Ray’s comment, in his essay, “The Cult of the Charkha”, in the Modern Review, in September, 1925, saying:
Acharya Prafulla Chandra Ray has marked me with his censure in printer’s ink, for that I have been unable to display enthusiasm in the turning of the ‘charkha’.31
Being a modern thinker, Tagore’s rational mind could realize the potential of technology to ease the problems of the broader world population; and therefore retorting Ray’s attack, he argued that, instead of worshipping ‘Charkha’, it would have been far more important for India to keep pace with the progress of modern science rather than being insulated from the rest of the world:
If the cultivation of science by Europe has any moral significance, it is in its rescue of man from outrage by nature, not its use of man as a machine but its use of the machine to harness the forces of nature in man’s service. One thing is certain, that the all-embracing poverty which has overwhelmed our country cannot be removed by working with our hands to the neglect of science.32
Hence in analyzing the nationalist discourses of Ray and Tagore, it becomes clear that, while for Ray, the formation of the modern Indian nation would be essentially economic, for Tagore, it would predominantly lay in the cultural synthesis between East and the West. Much as he was a disciple of Gandhi, Ray retained the latter’s asceticism, but urged for the generation of national wealth through industrial entrepreneurship, as swaraj for him meant a nation free from British imperialism and economic hegemony. On the other hand, true swaraj, for Tagore, could only be achieved through the true bonding of Indians, which for him, laid in the village co-operation, that would seek economic reorganization and would simultaneously erase mutual distrust and antagonisms. Tagore’s syncretic and rational mind realized that, with the beginning of a global industrial economy, passive resistance to European products was utopian. Rather he pleaded for a massive thrust towards the co-operative principle which only could establish an essential moral oneness:
Therefore I feel that the true India is an ide a and not a mere geographical fact… India will be victorious when this idea wins victory--- the idea of ‘Purusham mahantam aditya-varnam tamasah parastat’, the Infinite Personality whose light reveals itself through the obstruction of darkness…This Infinite Personality of man is not to be achieved in single individuals, but in one grand harmony of all human races…Therefore my one prayer is: let India stand for the cooperation of all peoples of the world. The spirit of rejection finds its support in the consciousness of separateness, the spirit of acceptance in the consciousness of unity.33
But here, it must be pointed out that, despite all their differences of opinions and their many debates and disputes, both Rabindranath and Prafulla Chandra had always shared a relation of mutual love and friendship and had ever had a deep admiration for each other and a high respect for each other’s opinions. On the other hand, in spite of their different discourses of nationalism and their different ideas of a postcolonial nation, there could still be found a distinct commonality in their outlook, as both of them imagined the future of India as a modern progressive nation, which would be free from all racial, religious and communal antagonisms, and which would only be governed by a rational, scientific and intellectual spirit, as Ray rightly stated:
India must wake up, shake off her degradation, put life and heart into every class of her people, elevate her women and depressed classes and remove the galling restrictions of caste and all social inequalities. When this is done she will enter into a new era of her life and then, like Prometheus unbound, she will be recognized as a great power in the world and will have an unique place in the comity of nations.34
Notes and References
1. Prafulla Chandra Ray, India Before and After the Mutiny (1885). Kolkata: Acharya
Prafulla Chandra Sammilanee, rpt, 1991, p. 83.
2. For a more detailed account, see Rabindranath Tagore’s essay, “Rammohun Roy”
(1933), in The English Writings of Rabindranath Tagore, ed. Sisir Kumar Das. New
Delhi: Sahitya Akademi, 1966, Vol. III: 667-669, p. 668. Henceforth referred to as
3. Rabindranath Tagore, “Nationalism in the West”, in EWRT, Vol. II: 419-435, p. 423.
4. P. C. Ray, Three Convocation Addresses of Acharya Prafulla Chandra Ray. Kolkata:
Acharya Prafulla Chandra Sammilanee, 1989, p. 44.
5. P. C. Ray, “Social Reform in India”, in Essays and Discourses. Madras: G. A. Nateson
& Co., 1918, p. 234. Henceforth referred to as ED.
6. Rabindranath Tagore, “The Call of Truth”, in The Mahatma and the Poet: Letters and
Debates between Gandhi and Tagore 1915-1941, ed. Sabyasachi Bhattacharya. New
Delhi: National Book Trust, 1997: 68-87, p. 71. Henceforth referred to as MP.
7. Ibid., p. 71.
8. EWRT, Vol. II, pp. 324 & 435.
9. ED, p. 183.
10. ED, p. 184.
11. ED, p. 211.
12. P. C. Ray, The Shakespearean Puzzle-Endeavours After its Solution, ed. Pinak Pani
Dutta. Kolkata: Acharya Prafulla Chandra Sammilanee, 2003, p. 7.
13. Rabindranath Tagore, “Nationalism in India”, in Lectures and Addresses, ed.
Anthony X Soares. London: Macmillan, 1970, p. 107.
14. Prafulla Chandra Ray, India Before and After the Mutiny (1885). op. cit., p. I.
15. EWRT, Vol. III, p. 668.
16. P. C. Ray, Life and Experiences of a Bengali Chemist. Kolkata: Chuckervertty,
Chatterjee & Co., 1932, Vol. I, p. 233.
17. Ibid., p. 228.
18. Ibid., p. 375.
19. Ibid., p. 375.
20. Ibid., p. 361.
21. Rabindranath Tagore, “The Cult of the Charkha”, in MP: 99-112, p. 106.
22. Rabindranath Tagore, “Nationalism in India”, in Lectures and Addresses. op. cit.,
23. Rabindranath Tagore, Nationalism (1916). London: Macmillan, 1976, p. 7.
24. EWRT, Vol. II, p. 466.
25. “Tagore to Rolland”, cited in Kalyan Kumar Sarkar, “Rolland, Gandhi and Tagore”,
in Gandhi Centenary Volume, ed. Kalidas Bhattacharya et. al. Santiniketan: Visva-
Bharati, 1969: 120-143, p. 123.
26. MP, p. 82.
27. Ibid., p. 83.
28. MP, p. 103.
29. Rabindranath Tagore, “Striving for Swaraj”, in MP: 113-121, p. 118.
30. P. C. Ray, Life and Experiences of a Bengali Chemist. op. cit., p. 375.
31. MP, p. 99.
32. Ibid., p. 104.
33. MP, p. 61.
34. P. C. Ray, “Social Reform in India”, in ED. op. cit., p. 235.