Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941) was a renowned poet, novelist, and playwright widely acclaimed for his prolific literature in Bengali and English. His remarkable writings earned him the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1913 for his collection of prose poems called Gitanjali. In addition to his literary achievements, Tagore was a prominent educator who founded Visva Bharati University at Shantiniketan. This esteemed university is renowned for its internationalism and excellence in the arts and is now considered one of the leading universities in India.
In the following essay, Tagore reflects on the concept of nationalism and its relationship with culture. He argues that true nationalism should not be based on narrow and exclusive definitions of identity but should embrace diversity and celebrate the commonalities that unite humanity.
The People are living beings. They have their distinct personalities. But nations are organisations of power, and therefore their inner aspects and outward expressions are everywhere monotonously the same. Their differences are merely differences in the degree of efficiency.
In the modern world, the fight is going on between the living spirit of the people and the methods of nation-organizing. It is like the struggle that began in Central Asia between cultivated areas of man’s habitation and the continually encroaching desert sands till the human region of life and beauty was choked out of existence. When the spread of higher ideals of humanity is not held to be important, the hardening method of national efficiency gains a certain strength; and for some limited period of time, at least, it proudly asserts itself as the fittest to survive. But it is the survival of that part of man which is the least living. And this is the reason why dead monotony is a sign of the spread of the Nation. The modern towns, which present the physiognomy due to this dominance of the Nation, are everywhere the same, from San Francisco to London, from London to Tokyo. They show no faces but merely masks.
The People, being living personalities, must have their self-expression, and this leads to their distinctive creations. These creations are literature, art, social symbols and ceremonials. They are like different dishes at one common feast. They add richness to our enjoyment and understanding of truth. They are making the world of man fertile of life and variedly beautiful.
But the nations do not create, they merely produce and destroy. Organisations for production are necessary. Even organisations for destruction may be so. But when actuated by greed and hatred, they crowd away into a corner the living man who creates, then the harmony is lost, and the people’s history runs at a break-neck speed towards some fatal catastrophe.
Humanity, where it is living, is guided by inner ideals; but where it is a dead organisation, it becomes impervious to them. Its building process is only an external process, and in its response to the moral guidance it has to pass through obstacles that are gross and non-plastic.
Man as a person has his individuality, which is the field where his spirit has its freedom to express itself and to grow. The professional man carries a rigid crust around him which has very little variation and hardly any elasticity. This professionalism is the region where men specialise their knowledge and organise their power, mercilessly elbowing each other in their struggle to come to the front. Professionalism is necessary, without doubt; but it must not be allowed to exceed its healthy limits, to assume complete mastery over the personal man, making him narrow and hard, exclusively intent upon the pursuit of success at the cost of his faith in ideals.
In ancient India, professions were kept within limits by social regulation. They were considered primarily as social necessities and in second place as the means of livelihood for individuals. Thus man, being free from the constant urging of unbounded competition, could have the leisure to cultivate his nature in its completeness.
The Cult of the Nation is the professionalism of the people. This cult is becoming their greatest danger because it is bringing them enormous success, making them impatient of the claims of higher ideals. The greater the amount of success, the stronger the conflicts of interest and jealousy and hatred which are aroused in men’s minds, thereby making it more and more necessary for other peoples, who are still living, to stiffen into nations. With the growth of nationalism, man has become the greatest menace to man. Therefore the continual presence of panic goads that very nationalism into ever-increasing menace.
Crowd psychology is a blind force. Like steam and other physical forces, it can be utilised for creating a tremendous amount of power. And therefore rulers of men, who, out of greed and fear, are bent upon turning their peoples into machines of power, try to train this crowd psychology for their special purposes. They hold it to be their duty to foster in the popular mind universal panic, unreasoning pride in their own race, and hatred of others. Newspapers, school books, and even religious services are made use of for this object; and those who have the courage to express their disapprobation of this blind and impious cult are either punished in the law courts or are socially ostracised. The individual thinks, even when he feels; but the same individual, when he feels with the crowd, does not reason at all. His moral sense becomes blurred. This suppression of higher humanity in crowd minds is productive of enormous strength. For the crowd mind is essentially primitive; its forces are elemental. Therefore the Nation is forever watching to take advantage of this enormous power of darkness.
The people’s instinct of self-preservation has been made dominant at particular times of crisis. Then, for the time being, the consciousness of its solidarity becomes aggressively wide awake. But in the Nation, this hyperconsciousness is kept alive for all time by artificial means. A man has to act the part of a policeman when he finds his house invaded by burglars. But if that remains his normal condition, then his consciousness of his household becomes acute and over-wrought, making him fly at every stranger passing near his house. This intensity of self-consciousness is nothing of which a man should feel proud; certainly, it is not healthful. In like manner, incessant self-consciousness in a nation is highly injurious for the people. It serves its immediate purpose but at the cost of the eternal in man.
When a whole body of men train themselves for a particular narrow purpose, it becomes a common interest with them to keep up that purpose and preach absolute loyalty to it. Nationalism is the training of a whole people for a narrow ideal; when it gets hold of their minds, it is sure to lead them to moral degeneracy and intellectual blindness. We cannot but hold firm the faith that this Age of Nationalism, of gigantic vanity and selfishness, is only a passing phase in civilisation, and those who are making permanent arrangements for accommodating this temporary mood of history will be unable to fit themselves for the coming age when the true spirit of freedom will have sway.
With the unchecked growth of Nationalism, the moral foundation of man’s civilisation is unconsciously undergoing a change. The idea of the social man is unselfishness, but the idea of the Nation, like that of the professional man, is selfishness. This is why selfishness in the individual is condemned, while in the nation, it is extolled, which leads to hopeless moral blindness, confusing the religion of the people with the religion of the nation. Therefore, to take an example, we find men more and more convinced of the superior claims of Christianity merely because Christian nations are in possession of the greater part of the world. It is like supporting a robber’s religion by quoting the amount of his stolen property. Nations celebrate their successful massacre of men in their churches. They forget that Thugs also ascribed their success in manslaughter to the favour of their goddess. But in the case of the latter, their goddess frankly represented the principle of destruction. It was the criminal tribe’s own murderous instinct deified—the instinct, not of one individual, but of the whole community, and therefore held sacred. In the same manner, in modern churches, selfishness, hatred and vanity in their collective aspect of national instincts do not scruple to share the homage paid to God.
Of course, the pursuit of self-interest need not be wholly selfish; it can even be in harmony with the interest of all. Therefore, ideally speaking, nationalism, which stands for the expression of the collective self-interest of a people, need not be ashamed of itself if it maintains its true limitations. But what we see in practice is that every nation which has prospered has done so through its career of aggressive selfishness, either in commercial adventures or in foreign possessions, or in both. And this material prosperity not only feeds continually the selfish instincts of the people but impresses men’s minds with the lesson that, for a nation, selfishness is a necessity and, therefore, a virtue. It is the emphasis laid in Europe upon the idea of the Nation’s constant increase of power, which is becoming the greatest danger to man, both in its direct activity and its power of infection.
We must admit that evils there are in human nature, in spite of our faith in moral laws and our training in self-control. But they carry on their foreheads their own brand of infamy, their very success adding to their monstrosity. All through man’s history, there will be some who suffer and others who cause suffering. The conquest of evil will never be a fully accomplished fact but a continuous process like the process of burning in a flame.
In former ages, when some particular people became turbulent and tried to rob others of their human rights, they sometimes achieved success and sometimes failed. And it amounted to nothing more than that. But when this idea of the Nation, which has met with universal acceptance in the present day, tries to pass off the cult of collective selfishness as a moral duty, simply because that selfishness is gigantic in stature, it not only commits depredation but attacks the very vitals of humanity. It unconsciously generates in people’s minds an attitude of defiance against the moral law. For men are taught by repeated devices the lesson that the Nation is greater than the people, while yet it scatters to the winds the moral law that the people have held sacred.
It has been said that a disease becomes most acutely critical when the brain is affected. For it is the brain that is constantly directing the siege against all disease forces. The spirit of national selfishness is that brain disease of a people which shows itself in red eyes and clenched fists, in the violence of talk and movements, all the while shattering its natural restorative powers. But the power of self-sacrifice, together with the moral faculty of sympathy and cooperation, is the guiding spirit of social vitality. Its function is to maintain a beneficent relation of harmony with its surroundings. But when it begins to ignore the moral law which is universal and uses it only within the bounds of its own narrow sphere, then its strength becomes like the strength of madness, which ends in self-destruction.
What is worse, this aberration of a people, decked with the showy title of ‘patriotism’, proudly walks abroad, passing itself off as a highly moral influence. Thus it has spread its inflammatory contagion all over the world, proclaiming its fever flush to be the best sign of health. It is causing in the hearts of people, naturally inoffensive, a feeling of envy at not having their temperature as high as that of their delirious neighbours and not being able to cause as much mischief but merely having to suffer from it.
I have often been asked by my Western friends how to cope with this evil, which has attained such sinister strength and vast dimensions. In fact, I have often been blamed for merely giving a warning and offering no alternative. When we suffer as a result of a particular system, we believe that some other system would bring us better luck. We are apt to forget that all systems produce evil sooner or later when the psychology which is at the root of them is wrong. The system which is national today may assume the shape of the international tomorrow; but so long as men have not forsaken their idolatry of primitive instincts and collective passions, the new system will only become a new instrument of suffering. And because we are trained to confound efficient systems with moral goodness itself, every ruined system makes us more and more distrustful of moral law.
Therefore I do not put my faith in any new institution but in the individuals all over the world who think clearly, feel noble, and act rightly, thus becoming the channels of moral truth. Our moral ideals do not work with chisels and hammers. Like trees, they spread their roots in the soil and their branches in the sky without consulting any architect for their plans.
Edited by Anikendra Sen, Devangshu Dutta and Nilanjana Roy, introduced by Ramachandra Guha. Patriots, Poets and Prisoners: Selections from Ramananda Chatterjee’s The Modern Review, 1907-1947. HarperCollins Publishers India.
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