Saurabh Sinha
Tagore and Different Shades of Nationalism
This article originally appeared in centreright.in. CRI content has now been subsumed in swarajyamag.com. The views expressed here are personal and do not necessarily reflect those of the editors of swarajyamag.com

In 2000, NDA Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee, during a visit to Srinagar, came up with the imaginative and bold promise that the Centre would resolve the Kashmir issue, “insaniyat ke dairey mein,” or within the ambit of humanity. It was an important and attractive departure from New Delhi’s previous position that the issue had to be resolved within the framework of the Indian Constitution.

It raised some eyebrows because it marked a change in the usual stance but it was greeted by thunderous applause by the Kashmiris. I don’t think that Vajpayee was talking of creating a separate country but then what exactly did he meant , how he looked to accommodate the aspirations of Kashmiri people within Indian nation?

Similarly when in an interview Narendra Modi announced that he is a Hindu and he is a nationalist and therefore we can safely call him as a Hindu nationalist, the announcement was covered in the main headlines of all the newspapers. While media’s obsession with Modi was understood what these incidents did were to challenge our normal understanding of the concept of nation and nationalism .

It took us out of our comfort zone and forced us to think what exactly is nationalism and gave us a chance to look back into history and ponder upon the concept of nation and nationalism. How old are these concepts and what the different sides to this are.


As per Wikipedia “The term nationalism was coined by Johann Gottfried Herder (nationalisms) during the late 1770s.Precisely where and when nationalism emerged is difficult to determine, but its development is closely related to that of the modern state and the push for popular sovereignty that surfaced with the French Revolution and the American Revolution in the late 18th century and culminated with the ethnic/national revolutions of Europe, for instance the Greek War of Independence”


Again if we look into Wikipedia for the meaning of nation we get the following definition “The term nation is a complex concept that has a variety of definitions. Factors such as time and location affect how people have to come to view the term. There are two widely accepted explanations of a nation, as stated above. To some nation refers to a shared cultural experience, such as the Nation of Islam; a religious organization that holds no physical borders yet shares a common bond because of shared beliefs. Inter-wound in those beliefs is also recognition of a similar homeland: Africa.

Some refer to one’s nationality as their race or ethnicity; this often categorizes people of similar skin colour into the same nation that others do not perceived to exist. Conversely, nation can be viewed as a legal state with internationally recognized borders. Neither definition is incorrect, that is why it is so complex. Each definition is valid and the definitions change over time. While the conventional definition is a people who share a common territory and government irrespective of their ethnic make-up, it is not the only explanation”

But where does India fits in any of these definitions of nation or nationalism, a country where we have different races, people with different religions, different cultures and caste. We can obvious not be a nation of just legal boundaries. This therefore requires that we here in India devise our own definition of nation and nationalism and try to find out the threads which can bind people from different religions, races, castes and colour together. Any definition that we come up with will always have to be keep reinventing with changes that time will force but may be if we get our fundamentals right it could be used for a very long time.

Indian Nationalism as viewed by Tagore

When the concept of nationalism as we know today was shaping up in late 18-19th century there were different opinions on what should be the way for Indian nationalism. Would Indian nationalism be the way we see nation and nationalism in west or does India with its different way will have a more Indian version of this nationalism.

To this concept there were galaxy of leaders and thinkers who have made their contribution and I would like to touch most of these ideas as we progress on this read but to start with I will take with the idea of nationalism from Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore. His ideas on nationalism were one of the most radical. He was one of India’s greatest philosophers and thinker of his time, Tagore’s work on nationalism divided in 3 essays outlined his idea of nationalism.

As Uma Dasgupta in her introduction to Tagore’s selected writings on education and nationalism points out that “Tagore education work and his own nationalism were rooted in an original vision of India’s history amounting to deviation from both colonist historiography and the nationalist ideology of that times…his reasoning was based on his historical understanding of his country’s formation as a social civilization founded on a continual social adjustment.” He totally rejected nationalism as understood in the western sense.

In his essay on nationalism in west he defined nationalism as a combination of politics and commerce whose end goal is to achieve success. “A nation, in the sense of the political and economic union of a people, is that aspect which a whole population assumes when organized for a mechanical purpose”. His prophecies that to survive as a nation man has to give up moral in his own words he said “That history has come to a stage when the moral man , the complete man is more and more giving way , almost without knowing it, to make room for the political and the commercial man, the man of the limited purpose.

This aided by wonderful progress in science, is assuming gigantic proportion power, causing he upset of man’s moral balance, obscuring this human side under the shadow of soul less organization”

While it takes some moment to realize that indeed what Tagore said was critical but indeed the times when he said that nations were indeed based on these very ideas?

Britain was at its imperialistic best at that time and the pride that men of that nation carried them with could have hardly been morally acceptable under the normal situation. Even today those ideas remain relevant as we see how way each nation follows its interest without a thought about the humanity, and this then makes us think back has humanity become a causality of nationalism.

The thought of Gurudev forces us to think in a direction that is so unusual for us whose mind has been trained enough to think in one way. During 19th century when nationalism actually took the shape that we know today the world was pretty different, while we take proud that at that time while Europe was one race without any colour and India was an amalgam of races each finding its own way to get to the ultimate truth, however today as we see ourselves we see the west is changing and they have opened up to more people and different races from different part of the world are earning their livelihoods there.

While in past our influence spread beyond mere boundaries of the nation’s today west is also increasingly becoming borderless though within their own area of comfort. Therefore the conventional definitions that we looked above in coming decades may not find resonance even in west.

In his writing on nationalism for Japan and the same equally relevant for India Tagore said ‘you cannot with a light heart accept the modern civilization with all its tendencies, methods and structures, and dream that they are inevitable. You must apply your eastern mind, your spiritual strength, your love of simplicity, your recognition of social obligation, in order to cut out a new path for this great unwieldy car of progress, shrieking out its loud discords as it runs”

The urgency with which Tagore push whole of Asia to find out their own definition of nation and nationalism was based on the fact that here in Asia and especially in India the problems with nationalism were never the same as that in Europe especially at his time. While Europe was mostly one religion and one race we had a plenty of both of them.

In his own words Tagore specifies the difference of problem between Europe and India “We have to remember that in Europe, where peoples had their racial unity from the beginning, and where natural resources were insufficient for the inhabitants, the civilization has naturally taken the character of political and commercial aggressiveness. For on the one hand they had no internal complications, and on the other they had to deal with neighbours who were strong and rapacious.

To have perfect combination among themselves and a watchful attitude of animosity against others was taken as the solution of their problems. In former days they organized and plundered, in the present age the same spirit continues – and they organize and exploit the whole world.

But from the earliest beginnings of history, India has had her own problem constantly before her – it is the race problem. Each nation must be conscious of its mission and we, in India, must realize that we cut a poor figure when we are trying to be political, simply because we have not yet been finally able to accomplish what was set before us by our providence.”

While some of thinkers of that age like Aurobindo tried to find out a common origin to most different races in India considering that people following different religions have mostly been converts from Hinduism and appealed for a racial unity, Tagore accepted the diversity of Indian races and tried to look how did India worked with multiple races over thousands of years.

While a lot of other leaders like Swami Vivekananda, Aurobindo, Tilak openly suggested that for India Hinduism was at the core of nationalism, it is surprising to see Tagore who takes a different path and yet there are striking similarities in what he sees a solution for India and Indian Nationalism.

“Once again I draw your attention to the difficulties India has had to encounter and her struggle to overcome them. Her problem was the problem of the world in miniature. India is too vast in its area and too diverse in its races. It is many countries packed in one geographical receptacle. It is just the opposite of what Europe truly is, namely one country made into many.

Thus Europe in its culture and growth has had the advantage of the strength of the many, as well as the strength of the one. India, on the contrary, being naturally many, yet adventitiously one have all along suffered from the looseness of its diversity and the feebleness of its unity. A true unity is like a round globe, it rolls on, carrying its burden easily; but diversity is a many-cornered thing which has to be dragged and pushed with all force.

Be it said to the credit of India that this diversity was not her own creation; she has had to accept it as a fact from the beginning of her history. In America and Australia, Europe has simplified her problem by almost exterminating the original population. Even in the present age this spirit of extermination is making itself manifest, by inhospitably shutting out aliens, through those who themselves were aliens in the lands they now occupy. But India tolerated difference of races from the first, and that spirit of toleration has acted all through her history.

Her caste system is the outcome of this spirit of toleration. For India has all along been trying experiments in evolving a social unity within which all the different peoples could be held together, yet fully enjoying the freedom of maintaining their own differences. The tie has been as loose as possible, yet as close as the circumstances permitted. This has produced something like a United States of a social federation, whose common name is Hinduism.

India had felt that diversity of races there must be and should be whatever may be its drawback and you can never coerce nature into your narrow limits of convenience without paying one day very dearly for it. In this India was right; but what she failed to realize was that in human beings differences are not like the physical barriers of mountains, fixed forever – they are fluid with life’s flow, they are changing their courses and their shapes and volume.

Therefore in her caste regulations India recognized differences, but not the mutability which is the law of life. In trying to avoid collisions she set up boundaries of immovable walls, thus giving to her numerous races the negative benefit of peace and order but not the positive opportunity of expansion and movement.

She accepted nature where it produces diversity, but ignored it where it uses that diversity for its world-game of infinite permutations and combinations. She treated life in all truth where it is manifold, but insulted it where it is ever moving. Therefore Life departed from her social system and in its place she is worshipping with all ceremony the magnificent cage of countless compartments that she has manufactured.

The same thing happened where she tried to ward off the collisions of trade interests. She associated different trades and professions with different castes. It had the effect of allaying for good the interminable jealousy and hatred of competition – the competition which breeds cruelty and makes the atmosphere thick with lies and deception. In this also India laid all her emphasis upon the law of heredity, ignoring the law of mutation, and thus gradually reduced arts into crafts and genius into skill.”

We see how Tagore looks into past to come up with a solution and he sees some merits in the caste system which was designed to let people from different races co-exist and earn their livelihood from trade and commerce however later that system became so rigid that it became a bigger enemy of the nation.

Today we can see the barriers of caste crumbling down and India regaining the flexibility that was lost during the last millennia, we need to remember that now we need to build back something original and suited to Indian context. A copy paste job from west will have the effect of jumping from one evil to another. We have to therefore find out what is the common thread that can hold all of us together.

From the time of Tagore the west has now become more multi-racial and multi-cultural society, and may be now the west also needs to search for answers that we have been trying for long. But while the situation has changed from past the solutions that both may seek may be very different.

West has built upon nations with values of equality, liberty and rule of law something that we are also trying to do but then that the west in pursue to build the concept of nation has gone so far that it has removed all any space for any soul, that the west has openly taught us that nation, and the govt should be away from religion. But religion if that mean nurturing every soul , if religion means nurturing the moral of man and if religion does not mean an inclination to a particular practice of a race and their beliefs then should we not look to nurture religion in our the conscious of the nation.

In this context it is interesting to hear what India’s former PM Atal Bihari Vajpayee had to say on the European concept of “secularism” .He considered European concept of “secularism” inappropriate for his interpretation of Indian culture, He describes the Indian secular as follows:

“Mahatma Gandhi describes the correct attitude towards religion as ‘Sarva Dharma Sambhava’, equal respect to all religions. The concept of ‘Sarva Dharma Sambhava’ is somewhat different from European secularism, which is independent of religion … We may say that the Indian concept of secularism is that of Sarva Dharma Sambhava … Sarva Dharma Sambhava is not against any religion. It treats all religions with equal respect. And, therefore, it can be said that the Indian concept of secularism is more positive”.

It is probably around these concepts that he must have thought to accommodate the aspirations of people from Kashmir to Punjab to Kanyakumari. Every time we start to look for a solution to Indian challenge in an Indian way we stumble upon Hinduism and It is probably this thread of progressive Hinduism which believes in welfare for all, free from shackles of castes yet having a consciousness and soul of her own built upon the modern values of west can become a base for now and for some foreseeable future for all of us to hold together.

When you read Tagore you flow with his thoughts, he makes you feel what lies beneath the layers and layers of constant abrasion that we have learnt so willingly and have come to accept as the ultimate truth, his concept of nation is so different and yet so beautiful is his way to describe his thoughts that you don’t have a choice but to think and look back if what you think was indeed the right way to see through things.

He does not force you to admire upon his idea by the sheer force of arguments or by manufacturing of half-truths in history, by persistent misrepresentation of other races and culture of unfavourable sentiments towards them, He accepts the greatness of all civilizations and the beauty of all, that what they have contributed to mankind but then he touch upon you with the very vital of mankind which man has started forgetting is his moral values.

And when he touch upon that he tears apart any shred of doubts that you may have allowed to rest your souls in , or when he tells you how you have allowed your mind to vitiate our soul, that the western concept of saying business is business , war is war , politics is politics is morally so wrong. So relevant his words seems to be in current context , and when he declares with all his moral authority that man’s business has to be more than mere business, and so has to be his politics and war all the dead that had stuck to your thoughts seems to give way to the fresh and original in man.