A University Grants Commission Approved Journal
(under UGC-CARE, Arts & Humanities Citation Index)
ISSN 2582-2241




Rabindranath Tagore was perhaps the world’s most eloquent critic of nationalism in his time. Disillusioned by the authoritarian and military power of the West, he argued for a new vision of freedom that he thought could be attained by means of cooperation and intermingling of the minds of the East and the West with a spirit of intellectual detachment. It was this ideal of looking beyond narrow domestic walls by means of such cooperation that went into the making of his Santiniketan school and his Visva-Bharati international university. He hoped that the holistic values imparted to the students of Santiniketan would help build a new Indian personality who would be free from the conflict of communities and capable of appreciating the many currents of the Indian cultural tradition as well as the Liberal tradition of the West. His idea was that such a personality would belong neither to the East nor to the West, but be a reconciler of both. His fundamental premise for his school and university was to overcome the question of East or West where Truth was concerned. The other fundamental premise was that access to the world’s fountain of knowledge was essential. That had been restricted due to imperial rule. The Santiniketan education was conceived to break out of that isolation and connect with the gateways of the world’s learning. He wrote, “India has been cut off from the world’s scholarship, treated only to trifles in the name of education and relegated to a perennial primary school. We now want freedom from this spiritual and intellectual humiliation.”

From the time when Man became truly conscious of his own self he also became conscious of a mysterious spirit of unity which found its manifestation through him in his society.
-- Tagore, ‘Man’s Nature,’ The Religion of Man, 1930.

He [Tagore] forced the people in some measure out of their narrow grooves of thought and made them think of broader issues affecting humanity.
-- Jawaharlal Nehru, The Discovery of India, 1946.  

ONE OF THE BEST KNOWN QUOTATIONS FROM RABINDRANATH Tagore (1861-1941) comes from his life’s last essay, Crisis in Civilisation, written shortly before he died. In despair over the ongoing Second World War, he wrote:

I look back on the stretch of past years and see the crumbling ruins of a proud civilisation lying heaped as garbage out of history! And yet I shall not commit the grievous sin of losing faith in Man, accepting his present defeat as final. I shall look forward to a turning in history after the cataclysm is over and the atmosphere rendered clean with the spirit of service and sacrifice.[1]

Reflecting on these words, we can well ask if Tagore’s “turning in history” has ever taken place. Whoever has studied his far-reaching and radical views on how Man should live in the Modern Age would realise that it has not taken place. In the present essay, I propose to examine something of those far-reaching and radical views. 

Perhaps no one was more vocal than Rabindranath Tagore in arguing against nationalism when it goes against one’s humanity. To him nationalist ideologies were synonymous with social exclusion, entrenched hierarchies, and violence, irrespective of whether they served imperialist aggression or liberation movements. His most eloquent critique of the ‘cult’ of the nation came with the publication of his collection of three essays titled Nationalism (1917). The three essays were on “Nationalism in India,” “Nationalism in Japan,” and “Nationalism in the West.”[2] In these essays, he explicitly argued that imperialism and nationalism were two faces of the same monster. In a recent Introduction to a reprint edition of those essays, the historian E.P. Thompson writes, “[Tagore’s] Nationalism is a prescient, even prophetic, work whose foresight has been confirmed by sufficient evidence—two world wars, the nuclear arms race, environmental disasters, technologies too clever to be controlled.”[3]

Tagore was writing at a point in world developments when there were vast advances in communication technology. This led him to hope for a future when the ‘nation state’ would die a natural death and human beings would be reborn in the freedom of their individuality. In this anticipation he stressed the need to understand local problems from a global perspective and seek solutions in worldwide cooperation. He was convinced that cooperation was more sensible than conflict and that all humans should work together to protect their common values and advance their common interests. Spelling out some of these ideas, he wrote to his son from Japan in 1916, “The age of narrow chauvinism is coming to an end for the sake of the future ... The new idea is one of coordination and cooperation of the cultures of the world.”[4]

The essays he wrote contained his radical views as did his speeches during his travels around the globe ever since his award of the Nobel Prize in 1913. At the same time, he also launched his practical endeavour to construct a new and alternative educational centre at Santiniketan situated in rural Bengal about a hundred miles from Calcutta.  Started in 1901 as a residential school with urban and rural pupils, it grew to become an international university in 1921. Named Visva-Bharati, meaning ‘world learning,’ its motto was yatra viswam bhabate eka nidam: ‘where the whole world finds its nest.’[5] He referred to the institution as his “life’s work.”[6] He was acutely aware that the moment was arriving when India must find a basis of unity that was not merely political.[7]   

During the years 1916-1921, Tagore travelled widely with his message of international cooperation. These lectures were received warmly by large audiences. Europe was in turmoil, its old ideals were shattered, and it was desperately looking for enlightenment. In a letter to his friend C.F. Andrews on December 17, 1921, he wrote:

When I left you I was labouring under the delusion that my mission was to build an Indian University in which Indian cultures would be represented in all their variety. But when I came to the continental Europe and fully realised that I had been accepted by the Western people as one of themselves I realised that my mission was the mission of the present age. It was to make the meeting of the East and West fruitful in truth.[8]    

His Santiniketan institution became the field for implementing his ideas. There he began to experiment with an education for cultural understanding at two levels, between the country’s alienated urban and rural populations and between India and the West. He described the school at Santiniketan as “An indigenous attempt in adapting modern methods of education in a truly Indian cultural environment.”[9] Deeply disappointed with the existing colonial system of education, which in his view produced parrots instead of independently thinking and feeling individuals, he set up an alternative education system that would relate to the life of the people and the cultural environment of India with an outlook for cooperation with the wider world. But in India then the mood was of Non-cooperation. Mahatma Gandhi had launched his political movement to withhold Indian cooperation from everything British, including schools. Tagore was in Europe at the time and wrote in somewhat despaired tone to Andrews who was in charge of the Santiniketan school, “What irony of fate is this that I should be preaching cooperation of cultures on this side of the sea just at the moment when the doctrine of non-cooperation is preached on the other side?”[10]

On his return the poet and the Mahatma met but could not agree. Tagore withdrew to Santiniketan in the midst of an unprecedented political unrest and excitement. He wrote how “extremely distasteful” it was for him to differ from Mahatma Gandhi for whom he felt the greatest respect.[11] But he was firmly committed to a cooperation of cultures between the East and the West.  He argued that even though he did not believe in the “material civilisation of the West,” the “Age” had come when “we” must prepare the “grand field” for the “coordination” of the “cultures of the world,” where each will give and take from the other and not shut each other out. At such a centre, he added, “our gaze” will no longer be “timid and dazed” when turned towards the West, and our heads will be “erect” and “safe from insult.”[12]      

Keeping Santiniketan away from Non-cooperation, Tagore held that Indian freedom must come by other means, by building Indian self-confidence and self-respect. Gandhi did not misunderstand Tagore, as he respected the poet and referred to him as the country’s “sentinel” who was fighting against the “enemies called Bigotry, Intolerance, Ignorance, Inertia and other members of that brood.”[13] They believed in one another firmly and allowed each other the right to criticism. On December 22, 1921 Visva-Bharati was inaugurated as a public institution. Tagore’s ideal was reflected in the university’s constitution: “To study the mind of man in its realisation of different aspects of truth from diverse points of view” was the institution’s long-range objective, and the more immediate ones were:

To bring together, as a step towards the above object, the various scattered cultures of the East, the fittest place for such endeavour being India, the heart of Asia, into which have flowed the Vedic, Buddhist, Semitic, Zoroastrian, and other cultural currents originating in different parts of the Orient, from Judea to Japan; to bring to a realisation the fundamental unity of the tendencies of different civilisations of Asia, thereby enabling the East to gain a full consciousness of its own spiritual purpose, the obscuration of which has been the chief obstacle in the way of a true cooperation of East and West, the great achievements of these being mutually complementary and alike necessary for universal culture in its completeness.[14]   

Tagore argued that mere political freedom would not unite our people when there was so obvious an alienation among us as people. He was increasingly worried that city and village were becoming divided identities in Indian society. The upwardly mobile newly English-educated Indian intelligentsia were moving to the cities. They were the rising middle class of lawyers, physicians, teachers and office clerks. The villages were being left behind in a rut. That was why his new education was designed to first understand this weakness and then endeavour to bridge the gap and to work for village reorganisation as an essential part of a new education in building self-reliance and human dignity. The new education was to combine local or traditional knowledge with modern scientific one, a combination from which both sections of Indian society could learn and make progress.

Village reconstruction was started with one or two villages in the area surrounding the Santiniketan institution. Tagore was not apologetic about the small scale of his work. He knew he could not singlehandedly take responsibility for the entire country. Visva-Bharati’s “mission of rural construction,” he wrote, was to “retard” the process of “racial suicide.”[15] Working with the villages was also the way to spread “national consciousness,” he wrote. National unity could become a reality only when the masses get a gut feeling about it and only if the educated classes and the masses unite in a common programme of work.[16]  Such was the “sacrifice” needed, he wrote, to make the country “our own.”[17] He criticised the Indian National Congress for their dependence on our alien government to do the work that had to be done “by us” for the country that was “our own.”

Tagore forcefully stated that the “great gift of freedom” could never come to a country via charity. “We must win it before we can own it.” Indians must prove our “moral superiority” to the people “who rule” us merely by their “right of conquest.” The need of the day was for cooperation, cooperation among ourselves as a nation and cooperation with the world, he emphasised. Our country is crying out “to her own children” for cooperation in the “removal of obstacles in our social life which has been hampering us in our self-realisation for centuries.”[18] His impassioned question was: How can we talk of freedom for ourselves when we have denied it to our own people by suppressing their manhood for centuries? That is why he did not see sense in applying the political and historical experience of “another country” to resolve our situation. Any attempt to do so was bound to prove futile, he wrote. He put his faith instead in a “civilisational” meeting of the races that could perhaps help our journey towards the “Unity of Man.”[19]

 Tagore’s educational work and his own position on nationalism were rooted in his original vision of India’s history. He made a most interesting distinction between nation with a small ‘n’ to mean society, and Nation with a capital ‘N’ to mean a nation-state by which he meant the “Nation of the West.” Historically he perceived his country to have been a social civilisation founded on a “continual social adjustment” and a unity that affirmed its “diversity.” He acknowledged that no political solution had ever been found for his country’s “race problem” because the races had been divided by rigid “boundary walls.”[20] He explained how racial differences in Indian life, and the conflict of communities, existed from the Vedic to the Buddhist Age and from the Buddhist to the Puranic Age. There had been no solution to the problem though there had been creative attempts at unity from time to time during the past centuries. Politics had no role in that history. Social and religious affairs became political only with the coming of colonial rule that led to “other” differences. Here too he argued forcefully that colonial rule, or foreign rule, did not change the fundamentals of India’s old history. All that happened was that our history became a little more complex with the addition of yet another knot to the differences already existing in it.

Tagore’s other essential idea for a “turning in history” emerged from what he expected of a university. He expected a university to offer its participants an opportunity for the pursuit of truth, by sharing humanity’s common intellectual and artistic heritage. His idea was founded on the premise that the work of the artists, the scientists, and the philosophers, even those of the saints, in all parts of the world, was for the benefit of all mankind and not merely for some particular race to which they belonged as individuals. In this context he wrote, “Whatever we understand and enjoy in human products instantly become ours, wherever they might have their origin. I am proud of my humanity when I can acknowledge the poets and artists of other countries as my own.”[21] That was the “world change” he was advocating. Deep down, he believed that the modern age was all about that change.

He kept the model of his university simple. During 1920-21, he travelled to Europe and America for fourteen months to introduce Visva-Bharati with his message of international cooperation. Wherever he went, he invited men and women who liked his idea of international cooperation to Santiniketan—artists, craftsmen, musicians, scholars, economists and agricultural scientists from Britain, Europe, America, China, Japan, Persia, and of course from within India. There were periods in the 1920s and 1930s when Santiniketan hosted many a renowned Indologist, scholar, painter, agricultural scientist and medical expert from west and east. Tan Chameli Ramachandran, who is a practicing artist in Delhi today, belongs for instance to that history. She was born in Santiniketan, hence her name Chameli from a flower that grows beautifully and profusely in Santiniketan. Her father was the Chinese scholar Tan Yun-shan who came to Santiniketan in 1927 from Malaya where Tagore met him and invited him to Visva-Bharati.[22] He helped Tagore to set up Chinese Studies at Visva-Bharati, the Cheena-Bhavana, modern India’s first ever centre for the study of Chinese history and culture. Jawaharlal Nehru inaugurated it in 1937.[23] Tan Yun shan continued to live in Santiniketan for the rest of his life. Many such connections abide, but mostly, and sadly, as forgotten little histories.

My concluding submission is that the roots of Tagore’s “faith in Man” and his unfailing optimism even in the face of a declining European civilisation, a civilisation “in ruins,” as we read in the opening quotation, lay in his seeing the individual, the universal, and the world, as a unity. He categorically wrote that only those with the “vision of spiritual unity” would find a “permanent place” in the modern age, whereas those with any “intolerance of aliens” would be “eliminated.”[24] He made it his goal to bring the West on terms of equality to the India of his imagination—which for him had to be an India of multiple cultures, an India where the impoverished village is given education and dignity of life, an India building its strength and self-respect by uniting castes and communities under an enlightened leadership. He insisted that the only way his humiliated people could become respected equals among the world’s fellow races was by creative and constructive work in breaking down sectarian barriers and segregation. He wrote:

The messengers of truth have ever joined their hands across centuries, across the seas, across historical barriers, and they help to form the great continent of human brotherhood. Education in all its different forms and channels has its ultimate purpose in the evolving of a luminous sphere of [the] human mind from the nebula that has been rushing round ages to find in itself an eternal centre of unity. We individuals, however small we may be, and whatever corner of the world we may belong to, have the claim upon us to add to the light of the consciousness that comprehends all humanity. And for this cause I ask your cooperation, not merely because cooperation gives us strength in our work but because cooperation itself is the best aspect of the truth we represent, and it is an end and not merely the means.[25]

  Uma Das Gupta is a historian and Tagore biographer with a B.A. (History Hons) and an M.A. degree in Modern History from Presidency College, Calcutta University, and a PhD from the University of Oxford on late nineteenth-century British Indian History. She taught at Jadavpur University and Visva-Bharati University, Santiniketan, and was Research Professor of Social Sciences, Indian Statistical Institute, from where she retired in 2004, among other important positions. Among her extensive list of publications are A Difficult Friendship: Letters of Edward Thompson and Rabindranath Tagore, 1913-1940 (Oxford University Press, 2003); and Friendships of ‘Largeness and Freedom’: Andrews, Tagore and Gandhi: An epistolary account, 1912-1940 (Oxford University Press, 2018).


[1] Rabindranath Tagore, “Crisis in Civilisation,” in The English Writings of Rabindranath Tagore, ed. Sisir Kumar Das, Vol. 3 (New Delhi: Sahitya Akademi, 1996), 726. [Hereafter, English Writings].

[2] Rabindranath Tagore, Nationalism (London: Macmillan, 1917). [Hereafter, Nationalism].

[3] E.P. Thompson, introduction to Nationalism, Reprint (London: Macmillan, 1991), 8.

[4] Tagore to Rathindranath Tagore, October 11 and October 28, 1916, Bengali Letters, File: Rathindranath Tagore, Rabindra-Bhavana Archives, Visva-Bharati, Santiniketan. [Hereafter, R.B.A.] English translation by Uma Das Gupta.

[5] Uma Das Gupta, Rabindranath Tagore: A Biography (Oxford  University Press, 2004), ix.; also Uma Das Gupta, Santiniketan and Sriniketan, A Historical Introduction (Santiniketan: Visva-Bharati Quarterly Booklet, 1977).  

[6] Rabindranath Tagore to the Viceroy Lord Erwin, February 28, 1930, Papers of Leonard Knight Elmhirst, LKE India, LKE/IN/25, Folder A, Visva-Bharati Correspondence, The Dartington Hall Trust Archive, UK.

[7] Rabindranath Tagore Manuscript Collection, Ms. Accession no. 314, ‘National Unity,’ 1917, [R.B.A.].

[8] Tagore to C.F. Andrews, December 17, 1921, English Letters, File: C.F. Andrews, R.B.A. 

[9] Rabindranath Tagore, subtitle used on his pamphlet titled Visva-Bharati, 1929.

[10] Tagore to C.F. Andrews, July 13, 1921, English Letters, File: C.F. Andrews, R.B.A. 

[11] Rabindranath Tagore, The Centre of Indian Culture, Reprint (Calcutta: Visva-Bharati, 1988), 31.

[12] Rabindranath Tagore, “The Cult of the Charka,” in English Writings, Vol. III, 547.

[13] Mahatma Gandhi, ‘The Great Sentinel,’ in The Mahatma and the Poet, Letters and Debates between Gandhi and Tagore 1915-41, ed. S. Bhattacharya (New Delhi: National Book Trust, 1997), 26, 87-88.

[14] Memorandum of Association Statutes and Regulation, Visva-Bharati Bulletin, no.5 (1925).

[15] Rabindranath Tagore, Visva-Bharati, Essays in Bengali (Calcutta: Visva-Bharati, 1961), 9-10. English translations by Uma Das Gupta.

[16] Rabindranath Tagore, The Centre of Indian Culture, Reprint, (Calcutta: Visva-Bharati, 1988), 31.

[17] Rabindranath Tagore, “Presidential Address,” Bengal Provincial Conference, Pabna, East Bengal, 1908, Towards Universal Man, Reprint (London: Asia Publishing House, 1967), 126-27.

[18] Rabindranath Tagore, “Saphalatar Sadupay,” (Honest way to Success), Rabindra Rachanabali (Complete Works of Rabindranath Tagore), Vol. III, (Calcutta: Visva-Bharati, 1975), 570-71. [Hereafter, RR]. Also, Rabindranath Tagore, “Swadeshi Samaj,” (Our State and Society), RR, Vol. III, 526-52; and Rabindranath Tagore, “Ingraj o Bharatbasi,” (Englishmen and Indians), RR, Vol. X, 379-403. English translations by Uma Das Gupta.

[19] Rabindranath Tagore, “The Voice of Humanity,” in English Writings, Vol. III, 523. Also see, Rabindranath Tagore, A Vision of India’s History, Reprint (Calcutta: Visva-Bharati, 1962), 31-32.

[20] Nationalism, 4-6; Also, Uma Das Gupta, “The Poet on the Past,” in Rabindranath Tagore in Perspective (Calcutta: Visva-Bharati, 1989), 175-80.

[21] Tagore to C.F. Andrews, March 13, 1921, English Letters, File: C.F. Andrews, R.B.A.

[22] Huang I-Shu, “Sino-Indian Fraternity between Tagore and Tan Yun-shan,” in Tagore and China, eds., Tan Chung et al., (New Delhi: Sage, 2011), 140. [Hereafter, Tagore and China].

[23] Uma Das Gupta, “Sino-Indian Studies at Visva-Bharati Univerity; Story of Cheena-Bhavana, 1921-37,” in Tagore and China, 66. 

[24] Rabindranath wrote several essays on India’s history in Bengali where these thoughts have been stated and elucidated. These are available in his collection titled Itihas.

[25] Rabindranath Tagore, ‘Ideals of Education,’ in English Writings, Vol. III, 612-613.