The philosophical grounding of anti-nationalism (Excerpt)

In the development of Tagore‟s argument, we see a distinction between the internal and the external. Where humanity is living, it is guided by „inner ideals‟.38 Tagore then uses an interesting analogy, suggesting that „the idea of the nation is the professionalism of the people‟. Professionalism is „the region where men specialise their knowledge and organise their power, where they mercilessly elbow each other in their struggle‟. Such professionalism must not be allowed „to assume complete mastery over the personal man, making him narrow and hard, exclusively intent on the pursuit of success at the cost of his faith in ideals‟.39 It is precisely this kind of competitiveness that Tagore sees as being inherent in the modern idea of the nation. The organisational and disciplinary capacity of the modern nation is intimately bound up with the state, and Tagore‟s position was one in which the entire world of politics and bureaucracy is rejected in favour of a „spontaneous‟ life-world based on the „social regulation of differences on the one hand, and the spiritual recognition of unity on the other‟.40 But where does this Tagorean position come from?
As Kalyan Sen Gupta notes in his The Philosophy of Rabindranath Tagore, „while he [Tagore] was … receptive to ideas associated with the Bauls and Sufis of Bengal, as well as to Hindu Vaishnavism and to Buddhism, it was always to the Upanishadic endeavour to relate everything to a single ultimate reality that he remained most faithful‟.41 The Upanishads are concerned, amongst other things, with the nature of the „ultimate reality‟ that stands behind the world of everyday experience. Ultimate reality consists of a supreme power which is both immanent in the universe and also responsible for sustaining and regulating it. Given the name Brahman, it represents a universal „world soul‟, which Tagore himself referred to as the Infinite Personality. From this springs an obvious moral imperative: „if each of us belongs to the universal soul, if the same infinite is equally present in all of us, then we ourselves are at bottom identical or one with each other … [and] recognition of this paves the way to openness to others, and generates in us love and concern for our fellow beings‟.42 This means that, for Tagore, „our basic commitment to the good of others is grounded in an intellectual, philosophical understanding of the nature of reality‟.43
Perhaps the key distinction to be drawn between Tagore‟s position and the classical position developed in the Upanishads is one between epistemology and phenomenology. For the Upanishadic thinkers, the ultimate monistic reality that gave rise to a conception of human „oneness‟ was a matter of metaphysical inference. Whilst one can certainly establish a reading of Tagore‟s position which is similar to this Upanishadic perspective, what is more significant is that, for Tagore, such „oneness‟ that represents an „Infinite Self‟ or „Infinite Personality‟ is to be experienced, not merely deduced. It is not a matter of rational argument. Instead, „reality in all its manifestations reveals itself in the emotional and imaginative background of our mind. We know it not because we can think of it, but because we directly feel it‟.44
This „emotional background‟ is part of an alternative theory of human nature that is central to Tagore‟s philosophy and, logically, his anti-nationalism. It is based on the (ultimately speculative) insight that the ontology of love is more central and insistent to the human condition than that of antagonism. This insistent aspect of our being is what Tagore called the „personal man‟, man in an unalienated condition. „It is the personal man‟, Tagore claimed, „who is conscious of truth, beauty and goodness‟, and „it is almost a truism to say that the fundamental light of this world of personality is Love‟.45 But Tagore should not be judged as a thinker whose conception of love was merely aesthetic or abstract. In an important and extended letter to C. F. Andrews, written in 1918, shortly after he returned to Shantiniketan from his tour of the United States, Tagore explained his ideal of love as realised in the social world:
We must keep in mind that love of persons and love of ideas can be terribly egoistic and that love can therefore lead to bondage instead of setting us free. It is constant sacrifice and service, which alone can loosen the shackles. We must not merely enjoy our love (whether personal or ideal) by contemplating its beauty and truth, but giving expression to it in our life‟s work.46
The idea that life, the Real, exists in obstinate antagonism to the Ideal suggests the importance of maya – the world of illusions – for Tagore‟s philosophy, and gives us a sense of why he has been referred to as maya yogi.47 The path towards truth is not a straightforward one. Man as man is far from perfect, and life itself presents myriad obstacles, but the ultimate truth of love and the compulsion towards unity is, for Tagore, a primary force. As he expressed it in poetic form:

Let the veil of „I‟ fall apart
And the pure light of consciousness
Break through the mists
Revealing the everlasting face of truth.48
The sense of oneness – in marked contradistinction, we might say, to the modernist idea of alienation – is in fact a pressing aspect of our everyday being. One important source of inspiration for this Tagorean position was the supposedly unalienated existence of the Shantal tribespeople who lived close to Tagore‟s ashram in Shantiniketan. In a letter to Andrews, Tagore wrote: „look at the aboriginal Shantal women around our ashram. In them, the ideal of physical life finds its perfect development, only because they are ever active in giving it expression in work‟.49 Tagore sees the individual life as an always incomplete endeavour: a human being „is aware that he is not imperfect but incomplete. He knows that in himself some meaning has yet to be realised‟.50 As Sen Gupta puts it, „[i]t is in the conviction, founded in direct experience, that a person is not a discrete, isolated being and may only realise his or her true nature through identification with the whole universe, that the essence of Tagore‟s spirituality resides‟.51 The realisation of this unity becomes part of the work of human existence, indeed, for Tagore it becomes its overriding purpose, and constitutes a kind of „frontierism of the self‟, ever pushing the boundary of the individual outwards.52

This leads to what Sen Gupta calls the „leitmotif of the location of a person … [being] outside the narrow confines of a self or ego‟.53 For Tagore, this movement beyond the self has both an aesthetic and a soteriological aspect. It is by stepping outside of ourselves that we can be „saved‟ from ourselves. „I strive‟, Tagore once explained to one of his most famous students, „for a rare salvation‟, which is „the salvation of oneself from one‟s own self‟.54 It is also in doing so that we realise the aesthetic, harmonious nature of the whole.

Tagore put it thus:

[i]n the night, we stumble over things and become acutely conscious of their individual separateness, but the day reveals the greater unity which embraces them. And the man whose inner vision is bathed in an illumination of his consciousness … no longer awkwardly stumbles over individual facts of separateness in the human world, accepting them as final; he realises that peace is in the inner harmony which dwells in truth, and not in any outer adjustments.55
This movement beyond the self is also, for Tagore, the essence of man. This essence lies in the so-called „surplus‟ that man experiences in his creative, spiritual self, which takes him beyond the individualistic and pragmatic concerns of biological necessity, and can be experienced and manifested „in many spheres of human life – in our fellowship with other persons, in artistic endeavour, in religion, and in our harmony with the natural world‟.56 Tagore‟s theory of human nature is grounded in man as a creative being, in which „our imagination makes us intensely conscious of a life we must live which transcends the individual life and contradicts the biological meaning of the instinct of self-preservation‟.57 This creativity is not something which can be isolated, but must be shared to be realised. This has significant implications for his approach to the idea of freedom. Freedom is not a negative quality, not concerned with independence, but rather inter-dependence:
One may imagine that an individual who succeeds in disassociating himself from his fellows attains real freedom, inasmuch as all ties of relationship implied obligation to others. But we know that … it is true that in the human world only a perfect arrangement of interdependence gives rise to freedom. The most individualistic of human beings who own no responsibility are the savages who failed to attain their fullness of manifestation … only those maintain freedom … you have the power to cultivate mutual understanding and cooperation. The history of the growth of freedom is the history of the perfection of human relationship.58
What the above discussion suggests is that Tagore‟s discussion of „nation‟ draws a clear distinction between the nation as a nation-state on the one hand – with its fetishisation of territory and boundaries, its machine-like bureaucracy and its politics, which narrow the sphere of human life and encourage inter-national competitiveness and intra-national homogenisation – and society on the other.

Moreover, this insistence that the nation-state is hostile to the true „social man‟ is a position that can be derived from Tagore‟s readings of the Upanishads and his own phenomenology of the every day. Whether one agrees with Tagore‟s critique of the nation, it is, I suggest, systematically linked to central elements of Tagore‟s philosophy that owe nothing of any substance to external or derivative intellectual or philosophical trends. Tagore‟s ideas of the alienation engendered by the politics of the state versus the unalienated life-world; his juxtaposition of state and politics with society and religion; his critique of the utilitarian basis of modern nationalism; and his insistence that love forms the basis of human nature could all be shown to have affinities with, variously: Marxism, anarchism, Romanticism and Christian theology. But the important fact is that for Tagore, none of his ideas were in fact derived from these sources. If affinities could be established, all the better, Tagore might say, for it merely confirmed his belief in „universal truth‟. But Tagorean anti-nationalism was almost exclusively borne out of Indian philosophical and theological traditions, and out of autochthonous historical experience.


Source: Rabindranath Tagore and Nationalism: An Interpretation by Michael Collins

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