Between The Lines

Rabindranath Tagore


In his essay  “Why Read the Classics?” Italo Calvino offered several reasons one of which rendered a work classic because it had not stopped telling us what it wanted to. A classic then has not exhausted all it has to say. In this sense the Mahabharata or Shakespeare’s plays renew themselves constantly for every age and space which brings us to another definition of classic that Calvino offers: a classic is a work that relegates the noise of the present to a background hum which at the same time the classics cannot do without.

The implications of such definitional standards are to be found in the idea of a classic that is both transcendental and immanent; it cuts across time and space and yet needs both to assert its validity as a classic. An epic like the Mahabharata or a play like Hamlet or Eliot’s Four Quartets can be freed from their context and contemporized so as to render afresh their reading and meaning.

Tagore’s essays on nationalism like Gandhi’s “Hind Swaraj” are classics because they can be stripped from their historical settings, their immediacy and contextualized by the times we live in; they can turn the present into a background noise, a noise that nevertheless validates their meaning and the reasons for appropriating them once again from the margins of oblivion.

We say this because the present contains potent elements of the past; they are not relics but features that find sustenance in ways that Tagore had bemoaned and that the votaries of teleological “Progress” had comforted us would vanish—in a global village, driven by global capital, nationalism and its parochial adherents would have no place. But Nationalism and its dangers that Tagore points out in this essay is stronger than ever; not just in India but across the world; the past is in the present.

For what is nationalism? Or as Tagore asked: What is the Nation? His answer: “It is the aspect of the whole people as an organized power.” For him “nationalism is a great menace. It is the particular thing which for years has been at the bottom of India’s troubles.” Henry Adams (1838-1918) an American historian and descended from two Presidents once described politics as “…the systematic organization of hatreds.” Tagore would have agreed perhaps substituting nationalism for politics.

That is what he meant anyway when he termed Nation (and by implication its discourse on nationalism)  “dangerous to humanity” because it relieves the subject of “the urging of his conscience when he can transfer his responsibility to this machine which is the creation of his intellect and not of his complete moral personality.”

Implicit in this remarkably prescient observation is the recognition of the loss of autonomy and more dangerously of agency; that turns the subject into a passive endorser of State-machinations for the perpetuation of its own power and its organization of hatreds; but the loss of autonomy and moral agency also turns the subject into a complicit participant in the perpetuation of hatreds through appeals to its basest instincts. Stripped of the moral armor the subject is defenseless and does not know it. That is perhaps why the National Register of Citizens passes muster in the middle classes; you can see heads nodding in approval of the actions of a state ‘protecting’ our identity.

Complicity in the perpetuation of hatreds for perceived enemies passes off as nationalism among those robbed of a moral core and stripped of autonomy. So “honest men” Tagore observes “blindly go on robbing others of their human rights for self-aggrandizement, all the while abusing the deprived for not deserving better treatment”

The dog-whistles of bigotry and ethnic cleansing echo in the heads of hollow men.    


But the past is also in the future and the future is upon us. Tagore denounces the “idolatry of nation” that unleashes violence on humanity but he also links that idolatry with the worship of materialism, of “an endless feast of grossness” and technology. Tagore’s critique of nationalism and its constitutive elements was, like Gandhi’s in Hind Swaraj, epistemic. And that is why it transcends the limits of the immediate moment of its context; Tagore may have watched with horror the build up to the Great War and what technology and the machine age was doing in the killing fields of Europe but his denunciation of nationalism, materialism and the “impulse of competition whose end is the gain of wealth for individuals” was civilizational. The individual in such circumstances  “is like the geometrical line; it is length without depth” That individual will never gain “the ideal of completeness in its thinness of isolation.”

“National carnivals of materialism”. This memorable phrase constitutes Tagore\s episteme on western civilization and its malcontents. In his words you can find the faint glimmer of the discourse that would develop into Herbert Marcuse’s One Dimensional Man; the current concern with the way technology is reshaping our lives rupturing it from our moral selves and from nature. The future was in the past and is upon us for who can deny that as we surrender our privacy to the State and digital oligarchs, as Aadhaar dictates our entitlements we have become victims of and cogs in “huge organizations of slavery.”


The present was contained in the past that foretold  a possible future. When Tagore deplored the attempts by the educated Indian “to absorb some lessons from history contrary to the lessons of our ancestors”, when he chided the Japanese for trying to get “powerful through adopting Western methods “ he wasn’t being nativist or revanchist. He was fearful that “the borrowed weapons of civilization” would remain once eastern societies had exhausted their inheritance.

His was not an outright rejection of the west. Like Gandhi, Tagore too saw the West as a set of multiverse possibilities from which Indians could and should cherry-pick. Like Gandhi he rejected “national carnivals of materialism” but he was open to “lessons which impart or train our minds for intellectual pursuits.” He wished Indians to pause  before being seduced by the fireworks of western civilization that “dazzle us by their force and movement.” And offering the future in his time, he warned, “[t]hey laugh not only at our modest household lamps but also at the eternal stars.”

Tagore’s metaphors work to crystallizes the central problematic of the west while simultaneously mirroring our present predicaments. Living by the “borrowed weapons” of another civilization, we have created “huge organizations of slavery in the disguise of freedom.” He recognised the delusion that was being perpetrated. “The general opinion of the majority of the present day nationalists is that we have come to final completeness in our social and spiritual ideals.” But as he warned, political freedom has been built on “the quick sands of social slavery.”

An ephemeral political freedom, a nationalism that strips us of agency autonomy and moral accountability, the weak and the suppressed trapped    in an organization of hatreds…was Tagore not describing our present and hinting at a possible future?


“Nationalism in India” is not just a critique of what was clearly shaping out to be  a dismal future for Indians; it also offers up possible futures. Reminiscent of the visions of B.R. Ambedkar who stressed the need for democratic values based on the “social and moral conscience o society.” Tagore point to freedom based on the “social and political regeneration of India” that can help us recover the “ideals of humanity.”

Tagore ‘s vision of “moral and spiritual freedom” assumes the restoration of autonomy from the organized power of nationalism and agency; both are required for the journey towards a moral regeneration in which the Indian can discover what he called “disinterested love.” Not self-serving, love but a love for living creatures that is both intense and detached from contingent purpose and expectations.

Only then can we break the “social habit of mind which impels us to make the life of our fellow-beings a burden to them where they differ from us even in such a thing as their choice of food…”


Nationalism in India” is not a manifesto in the sense that The Communist Manifesto” was a call to action with a strategic vision for what was considered an inevitable future. Tagore’s visions are guides to a cognitive and praxiological leap into possible futures and a redeemable past. And both are in our own time and space carving out an uneasily but dialectically defiant relationship with the organization of state power.

In these “countries” agency and self-empowerment restore harmony with nature, shared commitments to ancient traditions that respect and deify life wherever it may take root, as forms of push-back against vengeful “carnivals of materialism” and endless cycles of greed. In Mendha-Lekha in Maharashtra, the Gonds have rejected the “economy of violence” and restored “the community of beings”.

In the sacred groves across the country and many parts of the world indigenous communities are fighting capitalism’s monetization of forests. The Asuras and Dalits of West Bengal organize to reclaim their language their traditions, their lives. In Bali, Indonesia, the Subak system of water management for its paddy fields that developed in the 9th  century is an alternative future to the “greed of gain.”

In these spaces–where the return to tradition forms a revolutionary act, where agency and autonomy are cherished as universal rights, where disinterested love permits “beauty and its twin brother, Truth” to shape the community of beings—in these haloed lands Tagore’s spirit (like Gandhi’s and Ambedkar’s) finds a home. The Beacon.


Rabindranath Tagore


ndia has never had a real sense of nationalism. Even though from childhood I had been taught that the idolatry of Nation is almost better than reverence for God and humanity, I believe I have outgrown that teaching, and it is my conviction that my countrymen will gain truly their India by fighting against that education which teaches them that a country is greater than the ideals of humanity.

The educated Indian at present is trying to absorb some lessons from history contrary to the lessons of our ancestors. The East, in fact, is attempting to take unto itself a history which is not the outcome of its own living. Japan, for example, thinks she is getting powerful through adopting Western methods, but, after she has exhausted her inheritance, only the borrowed weapons of civilization will remain to her. She will not have developed herself from within.

Europe has her past. Europe’s strength therefore lies in her history. We, in India, must make up our minds that we cannot borrow other people’s history, and that if we stifle our own, we are committing suicide. When you borrow things that do not belong to your life, they only serve to crush your life.

And therefore I believe that it does India no good to compete with Western civilization in its own field. But we shall be more than compensated if, in spite of the insults heaped upon us, we follow our own destiny.

There are lessons which impart information or train our minds for intellectual pursuits. These are simple and can be acquired and used with advantage. But there are others which affect our deeper nature and change our direction of life. Before we accept them and pay their value by selling our own inheritance, we must pause and think deeply. In man’s history there come ages of fireworks which dazzle us by their force and movement. They laugh not only at our modest household lamps but also at the eternal stars. But let us not for that provocation be precipitate in our desire to dismiss our lamps. Let us patiently bear our present insult and realize that these fireworks have splendour but not permanence, because of the extreme explosiveness which is the cause of their power, and also of their exhaustion. They are spending a fatal quantity of energy and substance compared to their gain and production.
Anyhow our ideals have been evolved through our own history and even if we wished we could only make poor fireworks of them, because their materials are different from yours, as is also their moral purpose. If we cherish the desire of paying our all for buying a political nationality it will be as absurd as if Switzerland had staked her existence in her ambition to build up a navy powerful enough to compete with that of England. The mistake that we make is in thinking that man’s channel of greatness is only one – the one which has made itself painfully evident for the time being by its depth of insolence.


I am not against one nation in particular, but against the general idea of all nations. What is the Nation?

It is the aspect of a whole people as an organized power. This organization incessantly keeps up the insistence of the population on becoming strong and efficient. But this strenuous effort after strength and efficiency drains man’s energy from his higher nature where he is self-sacrificing and creative.

For thereby man’s power of sacrifice is diverted from his ultimate object, which is moral, to the maintenance of this organization, which is mechanical. Yet in this he feels all the satisfaction of moral exaltation and therefore becomes supremely dangerous to humanity. He feels relieved of the urging of his conscience when he can transfer his responsibility to this machine which is the creation of his intellect and not of his complete moral personality. By this device the people which loves freedom perpetuates slavery in a large portion of the world with the comfortable feeling of pride of having done its duty; men who are naturally just can be cruelly unjust both in their act and their thought, accompanied by a feeling that they are helping the world in receiving its deserts; men who are honest can blindly go on robbing others of their human rights for self-aggrandizement, all the while abusing the deprived for not deserving better treatment.

We have seen in our everyday life even small organizations of business and profession produce callousness of feeling in men who are not naturally bad, and we can well imagine what a moral havoc it is causing in a world where whole peoples are furiously organizing themselves for gaining wealth and power.


Nationalism is a great menace. It is the particular thing which for years has been at the bottom of India’s troubles. And inasmuch as we have been ruled and dominated by a nation that is strictly political in its attitude, we have tried to develop within ourselves, despite our inheritance from the past, a belief in our eventual political destiny.


Not only in your relation with aliens but also with the different sections of your own society you have not brought harmony of reconciliation. The spirit of conflict and competition is allowed the full freedom of its reckless career. And because its genesis is the greed of wealth and power it can never come to any other end but a violent death. In India the production of commodities was brought under the law of social adjustments. Its basis was cooperation having for its object the perfect satisfaction of social needs.

But in the West it is guided by the impulse of competition whose end is the gain of wealth for individuals. But the individual is like the geometrical line; it is length without breadth. It has not got the depth to be able to hold anything permanently. Therefore its greed or gain can never come to finality. In its lengthening process of growth it can cross other lines and cause entanglements, but will ever go on missing the ideal of completeness in its thinness of isolation.

In all our physical appetites we recognize a limit. We know that to exceed that limit is to exceed the limit of health. But has this lust for wealth and power no bounds beyond which is death’s dominion? In these national carnivals of materialism are not the Western peoples spending most of their vital energy in merely producing things and neglecting the creation of ideals? And can a civilization ignore the law of moral health and go on in its endless process of inflation by gorging upon material things?

Man in his social ideals naturally tries to regulate his appetites, subordinating them to the higher purpose of his nature. But in the economic world our appetites follow no other restrictions but those of supply and demand which can be artificially fostered, affording individuals opportunities for indulgence in an endless feast of grossness. In India our social instincts imposed restrictions upon our appetites, – maybe it went to the extreme of repression, – but in the West, the spirit of the economic organization having no moral purpose goads the people into the perpetual pursuit of wealth; – but has this no wholesome limit?

The ideals that strive to take form in social institutions have two objects. One is to regulate our passions and appetites for harmonious development of man, and the other is to help him in cultivating disinterested love for his fellow-creatures. Therefore society is the expression of moral and spiritual aspirations of man which belong to his higher nature.

Our food is creative, it builds our body; but not so wine, which stimulates. Our social ideals create the human world, but when our mind is diverted from them to greed of power then in that state of intoxication we live in a world of abnormality where our strength is not health and our liberty is not freedom. Therefore political freedom does not give us freedom when our mind is not free. An automobile does not create freedom of movement, because it is a mere machine. When I myself am free I can use the automobile for the purpose of my freedom.

We must never forget in the present day that those people who have got their political freedom are not necessarily free, they are merely powerful. The passions which are unbridled in them are creating huge organizations of slavery in the disguise of freedom. Those who have made the gain of money their highest end are unconsciously selling their life and soul to rich persons or to the combinations that represent money. Those who are enamoured of their political power and gloat over their extension of dominion over foreign races gradually surrender their own freedom and humanity to the organizations necessary for holding other peoples in slavery.

In the so-called free countries the majority of the people are not free, they are driven by the minority to a goal which is not even known to them. This becomes possible only because people do not acknowledge moral and spiritual freedom as their object. They create huge eddies with their passions and they feel dizzily inebriated with the mere velocity of their whirling movement, taking that to be freedom. But the doom which is waiting to overtake them is as certain as death – for man’s truth is moral truth and his emancipation is in the spiritual life.

The general opinion of the majority of the present day nationalists in India is that we have come to a final completeness in our social and spiritual ideals, the task of the constructive work of society having been done several thousand years before we were born, and that now we are free to employ all our activities in the political direction. We never dream of blaming our social inadequacy as the origin of our present helplessness, for we have accepted as the creed of our nationalism that this social system has been perfected for all time to come by our ancestors who had the superhuman vision of all eternity, and supernatural power for making infinite provision for future ages. Therefore for all our miseries and shortcomings we hold responsible the historical surprises that burst upon us from outside. This is the reason why we think that our one task is to build a political miracle of freedom upon the quicksand of social slavery. In fact we want to dam up the true course of our own historical stream and only borrow power from the sources of other peoples’ history.

Those of us in India who have come under the delusion that mere political freedom will make us free have accepted their lessons from the West as the gospel truth and lost their faith in humanity. We must remember whatever weakness we cherish in our society will become the source of danger in politics. The same inertia which leads us to our idolatry of dead forms in social institutions will create in our politics prison houses with immovable walls. The narrowness of sympathy which makes it possible for us to impose upon a considerable portion of humanity the galling yoke of inferiority will assert itself in our politics in creating tyranny of injustice.


When our nationalists talk about ideals, they forget that the basis of nationalism is wanting. The very people who are upholding these ideals are themselves the most conservative in their social practice. Nationalists say, for example, look at Switzerland, where, in spite of race differences, the peoples have solidified into a nation. Yet, remember that in Switzerland the races can mingle, they can intermarry, because they are of the same blood. In India there is no common birthright. And when we talk of Western Nationality we forget that the nations there do not have that physical repulsion, one for the other, that we have between different castes. Have we an instance in the whole world where a people who are not allowed to mingle their blood shed their blood for one another except by coercion or for mercenary purposes? And can we ever hope that these moral barriers against our race amalgamation will not stand in the way of our political unity?

Then again we must give full recognition to this fact that our social restrictions are still tyrannical, so much so as to make men cowards. If a man tells me he has heterodox ideas, but that he cannot follow them because he would be socially ostracized, I excuse him for having to live a life of untruth, in order to live at all. The social habit of mind which impels us to make the life of our fellow-beings a burden to them where they differ from us even in such a thing as their choice of food is sure to persist in our political organization and result in creating engines of coercion to crush every rational difference which, is the sign of life. And tyranny will only add to the inevitable lies and hypocrisy in our political life. Is the mere name of freedom so valuable that we should be willing to sacrifice for its sake our moral freedom?


India, therefore has very little outlet for her industrial originality. I personally do not believe in the unwieldy organizations of the present day. The very fact that they are ugly shows that they are in discordance with the whole creation. The vast powers of nature do not reveal their truth in hideousness, but in beauty. Beauty is the signature which the Creator stamps upon his works when he is satisfied with them. All our products that insolently ignore the laws of perfection and are unashamed in their display of ungainliness bear the perpetual weight of God’s displeasure. So far as your commerce lacks the dignity of grace it is untrue. Beauty and her twin brother Truth require leisure, and self-control for their growth. But the greed of gain has no time or limit to its capaciousness. Its one object is to produce and consume.

It has neither pity for beautiful nature, nor for living human beings. It is ruthlessly ready without a moment’s hesitation to crush beauty and life out of them, molding them into money. It is this ugly vulgarity of commerce which brought upon it the censure of contempt in our earlier days when men had leisure to have an unclouded vision of perfection in humanity. Men in those times were rightly ashamed of the instinct of mere money-making. But in this scientific age money, by its very abnormal bulk, has won its throne. And when from its eminence of piled-up things it insults the higher instincts of man, banishing beauty and noble sentiments from its surroundings, we submit. For we in our meanness have accepted bribes from its hands and our imagination has grovelled in the dust before its immensity of flesh.

But its unwieldiness itself and its endless complexities are its true signs of failure. The swimmer who is an expert does not exhibit his muscular force by violent movements, but exhibits some power which is invisible and which shows itself in perfect grace and resourcefulness. The true distinction of man from animals is in his power and worth which are inner and invisible. But the present-day commercial civilization of man is not only taking too much time and space but killing time and space. Its movements are violent its noise is discordantly loud. It is carrying its own damnation because it is trampling into distortion the humanity upon which it stands. It is strenuously turning out money at the cost of happiness. Man is reducing himself to his minimum, in order to be able to make amplest room for his organizations. He is deriding his human sentiments into shame because they are apt to stand in the way of his machines.


This commercialism with its barbarity of ugly decorations is a terrible menace to all humanity. Because it is setting up the ideal of power over that of perfection. It is making the cult of self-seeking exult in its naked shamelessness. Our nerves are more delicate than our muscles. Things that are the most precious in us are helpless as babes when we take away from them the careful protection which they claim from us for their very preciousness. Therefore when the callous rudeness of power runs amuck in the broad-way of humanity it scares away by its grossness the ideals which we have cherished with the martyrdom of centuries.


From the above you will know that I am not an economist. I am willing to acknowledge that there is a law of demand and supply and an infatuation of man for more things than are good for him. And yet I will persist in believing that there is such a thing as the harmony of completeness in humanity, where poverty does not take away his riches, where defeat may lead him to victory, death to immortality, and in the compensation of Eternal Justice those who are the last may yet have their insult transmuted into a golden triumph.

Excerpted from “Nationalism in India”. Courtesy: http://tagoreweb.in 
Italo Calvino: Why Read The Classics. Mariner Books. 2014

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