The Man Who Preached Emancipation for All
(A new series of articles, exclusively for Humanity College)
This is the beginning of Rabindranath Tagore week: this year, May 9 is his birthday. I am writing a series of new, original articles on the great poet, philosopher, educationist, and social reformer.
Contrary to his West-imposed image of a “mystic poet from the Orient” who wrote devotional songs and received a Nobel Prize for “Gitanjali,” Tagore was a major social reformer who preached universalism, and actively rejected prejudice, dogmatism, fanatic religion, and ultranationalism.
He also had differences of opinion with Mahatma Gandhi — especially on his vision to free India of the British clutches. Gandhi took the line of appeasement, and his Congress Party took the steam away from revolutionaries who fought the British aggressors for nearly a hundred years before Gandhi came on the Indian science. Tagore also spoke about nonviolence, but did not support Gandhi’s conservative vision. Tagore was truly a symbol of modernity and free thinking.
But Gandhi and Tagore had respect for each other. However, they had differences. The primary difference in my opinion was that Gandhi was a traditionalist, who did not believe in a modern-concept gender equality, economic industrialization, and globalism. Tagore on the other hand was a strong believer of modernity, equal rights, and a border-less, universal human race. These are the principles on which Tagore built his university in Bengal — spending all his Nobel Prize money and personal assets. The university he built was named Vishwa Bharati — literally, the school of the world.
Vishwa Bharati University, located in Shanti Niketan (i.e., abode of peace), West Bengal is still functional. It runs on an exceptional way of teaching. Contrary to the British colonial educational system that indoctrinates students into following orders, teaching and learning methods at Vishwa Bharati are open-air, free-thinking, fair exchange, and non-punitive. In its golden days when Tagore was alive, noted educationists from across the world came on its faculty. They taught philosophy, foreign languages, art, music, science, and various hands-on skills. Tagore also built a satellite school nearby called Sri Niketan, a school that taught agriculture, pottery, textiles and such subjects — to help the local residents make a living.
Other than his world-renowned literature and music, Tagore wrote pioneering books on science and environment, and even ventured into making movies in the early years of films. He was one of most vocal environmentalists. He visited many countries including Soviet Union, and wrote about the major contributions of socialism. But Tagore did not believe in communism.
Especially in today’s pervasive social and political climate of hate, fear, violence, illiteracy and fascism, Tagore can answer our many questions. He actively preached against ultranationalism, religious bigotry, hate and violence, and conservative orthodoxy. Some of his major novels and plays highlight the above.
Rabindranath Tagore was a product of the now-forgotten “Bengal Renaissance” — a major historical phenomenon that took shape under the leadership of social reformer Raja Ram Mohan Roy (1772-1833), brilliant young teacher Henry Louis Vivian Derozio (1809-1831), and Tagore’s father Maharshi Debendra Nath Tagore (1817-1905). This school gave rise to a new generation of Bengalis and Indians who challenged orthodox, ultraconservative Hinduism and Islam, and even created a religio-cultural sect called Brahmoism.