– Dipendu Chakrabarti
‘Ambivalence’ is the word that aptly describes Tagore’s attitude to America. His American experience was frustrating as well as fulfilling. He visited America five times (1912-13, 1916-17, 1920-21, 1929-30) and his response to America changed from disapproval to adulation. On his first visit, Tagore wrote to Rothenstein: ‘America, like an unripe fruit, has not got its flavor yet. It has a sharp and acrid taste.’ Though he visited America for his medical treatment and his son’s agricultural studies, he had his own way of judging the American society. He lost his patience with the materialistic way of life that the Americans showed off. What he dreamt of was an America that would play a pivotal role in involving all the nations of the world to usher in a new international social order. For this reason he warned the Americans against the perils of nationalism which infected Japan, an Eastern country that betrayed its spiritual heritage by imitating the West. Tagore equated materialism, or for that matter, industrialism with nationalism, which aimed at territorial expansion and as a consequence the war of nations became inevitable, as was evident in the First World War.
When Tagore first visited America, the nationalism there had no reason to be as aggressive as Japanese nationalism. But the materialism that made affluence a motto of social life in America displeased him. In a letter he wrote: “The men and women are feeding themselves with extra dishes and laughing extra loud. But there is not the least touch of the eternal in the heart of their merriment, no luminous serenity of joy, no depth of devotion… These Western people have made their money but killed their poetry of life.” (Tagore, “Letters to a Friend”, quoted by Stephen Hay in “Rabindranath Tagore in America”) It seems that Tagore who presented himself as an ambassador of the spiritual India, suppressed the fact that the zamindars in Bengal displayed the same heartless exhibition of affluence in celebrating the Durga Puja, where the officials of the British rulers were given a red-carpet reception. A romantic idealist, Tagore had his own vision of India which was mainly spiritual, and it did not take into account the extravagance of the native landlords who ruthlessly exploited the peasants. He did not condemn the feudalistic system in India that made the poor villagers poorer, but criticized the capitalistic development in America. Was it because Tagore was brought up in a family that never appreciated the commercial ventures of his grandfather, Dwarakanath Tagore? It is interesting to note that Tagore’s bias for the British nationalism was not changed by his critique of Western nationalism. That is why he commented: “Our only intimate experience of the Nation is with the British Nation, and as far as the Government by the Nation goes there are reasons to believe that it is one of the best.”
No wonder that Tagore would be suspected by the Godar Party in America as a British spy and at the same time the British Government would suspect him of collaborating with the Indian revolutionaries. This dual image of Tagore was inevitable because of his own ambivalent attitude to both the British colonialism and the Indian anti-colonial movement. He was critical about both, but at the same time he praised the British rule in India (he considered the British colonial rule as the most tolerant and liberal among its European counterparts) and extended hospitality to some Indian freedom fighters. He acknowledged India’s debt to the West, particularly England, for introducing the project of enlightenment in our country, and wrote novels like Home and the World where the negative features of Indian nationalism were highlighted and the colonial misrule was played down. But his pro-British attitude was shaken after the massacre of Jalianwalabagh which provoked him to renounce his knighthood. After this unexpected response of Tagore, the British rulers became increasingly suspicious about Tagore’s role in Indian politics. What is interesting is that Tagore on his several tours of America lectured on nationalism and many other topics, but he never criticized before his American audience the betrayal of trust he had reposed in the British Government. Tagore’s spiritualism, unlike Vivekananda’s, had a political context, and he invited America to participate in the process of synthesizing Western nationalism and Eastern spiritualism. Tagore failed where Vivekananda succeeded, because Vivekananda had no political axe to grind. Tagore took upon himself the missionary task of teaching the Americans how to utilize the spiritual resources of India, how to blend America’s materialism with India’s spiritualism. The American press, however, had a mixed reaction to Tagore’s moral exhortation. His warnings against the rise of nationalism in America provoked the Minneapolis Journal to retort: “Nationalism is today the greatest actual fact in the world… We in America… are compelled to cultivate an intense nationalism. Woe to us if we do not… India has no nationalism, and she is conquered.” What the Journal implied was that America won her independence by waging a war with Britain and the motivating force behind this was nationalism. India was conquered by the British colonial force, because there was no nationalism in India. But when Tagore was talking of nationalism as an evil, he witnessed its destructive power in his own country, too. What Tagore failed to remember was that there was a basic difference between America and India as British colony, and a section of the American press made the same mistake.
Tagore’s equation between materialism and nationalism was also something that did not go down well with the American audience. But it should be pointed out that Tagore was not against science and technology, and that is why he sent his son to America for studying modern agricultural farming. What he really wanted was a collaboration between Western modernity and Indian spiritualism. Unlike Gandhi, Tagore was in favour of modern technology but he did not support the kind of Western industrialism that celebrated the triumph of machine over man. He criticized the dehumanizing effect of industrialism that led to the erosion of the personality of the individual and glorified the Organization that made inevitable the conflict between nation-states. Tagore looked to India for a rejoinder to the arrogance of Western nation-states, and here he conceived a new notion of ‘no-nation’. One can easily challenge this kind of political theory. In fact, Tagore in his lectures on nationalism said so much that is still relevant, but we must remember that he was neither a historian nor a political thinker. As a result, there were so many gaps in his lectures which he overlooked, because his mission was primarily to provide a panacea for the conflicts generated by nationalism in the West. Internationalism was what he could prescribe for the world torn by nationalistic aspirations. He lost his faith in European nations during the First World War, and America appeared to him as a saviour of human civilization. His earlier criticism of the American nationalism changed to a vindication of the positive role that America could play in the world affairs. He believed that “This America is a wonder worker. Something new, something unique is going on here in the process of humanity… Here is to be solved the problem of the human race, national, political, religious. Here will come the nationality of man.”(Los Angeles Times, September 19, 1916, quoted by Stephen N Hay, “Rabindranath Tagore in America”) It is interesting to note that Tagore, who condemned the nationalism of the Western nation states could conceive the nationality of man, which, by cutting across all national boundaries, projected the supremacy of essential humanity. Tagore was quite right in assigning a role to America that Japan should have adopted as a representative of Asia. It was because of America’s neutral position vis-à-vis the European national conflicts that made Tagore envision an America that would carry forward the flag of internationalism.
As an idealist, Tagore wanted an exchange between Western materialism and Indian spiritualism. Maybe, he could not specify the ways in which this synthesis could be possible. But that does not diminish the value of his visionary outlook in a world that pursued a self-destructive project.
Tagore’s lectures on nationalism in America underscored the importance of an international bond that only America could translate into reality. That is why he dedicated his Gitanjali to the President of America, Woodrow Wilson. But Tagore’s vision of America as a saviour of human civilization would be shattered by the use of the atom bomb by America to destroy Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Tagore did not live to witness this massacre by a country which he envisioned as a savior of human civilization. He admired the socialistic reconstruction in Soviet Russia (though he was critical about the conformism that was detrimental to the development of individual personality). But he had high hopes for America that would play the role of a benevolent mediator in a world ridden by nationalistic conflicts. Maybe Tagore believed that America’s historical situation, geographical position and foreign policy eminently qualified her to lead the campaign for internationalism. With hindsight we can justify Tagore’s vision of America, for he himself went to America to raise funds for his school at Santiniketan, which would be later named Visva-Bharati, probably conceived as the headquarters of the international culture and knowledge. Though he was rather frustrated at the rich people’s indifference in America towards his academic experiment in international brotherhood, he soon overcame his personal sense of frustration and quite impersonally envisaged an America that would not only end the conflicts between the nation states of Europe and Japan, but also lead the peacemaking mission throughout the world. There is no denying the fact that America did quite a lot in this field that marked her off from other Western states. But this internationalist image of America, as Tagore dreamt of, petered out after the Second World War, when Tagore died and was spared the total disillusionment with a country that boasted of its non-involvement in the First World War.
Today, Tagore’s internationalism has no takers. In his own country, his Visva-Bharati, despite its commitment to world-culture, has shrunk in stature and lost most of its motivating force. Had he lived now he would have been shocked to witness the devaluation of his idea of internationalism, at home and abroad. The America of his vision now leads the Western agenda of globalization, an economic project that has subjugated the essential man to the commercial surveillance. Man has now become only a consumer in the free market, and his own freedom is lost in the free flow of capital. Nobody now talks of internationalism and if by chance this term is used, it invariably means global economic activities. The America Tagore dreamt of as a propagator of internationalism became increasingly involved in the process of expanding its dominance all over the world. Initially, America used military force in the Vietnam War against which a world-wide protest war organized by the students, intellectuals and artists. But to-day America has adopted a dual policy – to destroy the military base of the terrorists and provoke the people of the Middle East to revolt against the tyrannical rulers. This is an invidious project of retaining American control in the Middle East using the mask of America’s pro-democratic role. The hidden agenda of economic interest is now fully exposed. Today’s America is much more interested in wiping out Muslim fundamentalism than convening a Parliament of Religions where Vivekananda spoke for the Indian message to the world. At the same time America is leading the campaign for economic and cultural globalization, that has a strategy of globalization where the global meets the local, but in actual fact, it is a new kind of imperialism that ensures the dominance of the West over the rest of the world. In such a context, Tagore’s lectures on nationalism in America and his utopian vision of America as a saviour of the world civilization seem to be a lost cause. But another writer who also won the Nobel Prize in 2005, Harold Pinter, castigated America for expansionist policy in his Nobel speech and it shows that Tagore’s internationalism has not failed, it is America that has failed to do justice to the Statue of Liberty.
Tagore, Rabindranath. Nationalism. MacMillan and Co. Limited, London, 1950.
Hay, Stephen N. “Rabindranath Tagore in America.” American Quarterly. No. 3 , Autumn,1962.
“Rabindranath in America.” JUSAS Newsletter. Vol XIV, No. 3.