Rabindranath Tagore: A man for a new Asian future

Apr 2, 2024
Tagore visiting the Forbidden City in Beijing in May 1924.

Archishman Raju is a scientist based in Bengaluru, India. He is associated with the Gandhi Global Family and the Inter civilisational Dialogue Project who are commemorating 100 years of Tagore’s trip to China in several cities in India.

Relations between India and China are deeply troubled today. Many analysts predict that these relations will become worse in the coming years and see no future where these two Asian powers will come together in cooperation. Nevertheless, most Asians and much of the world would prefer to see a harmonious relationship between these two powers. One way of turning things around is to reflect on the times when these two countries were engaged in the struggle to establish modern states and to take seriously a major thinker of that period, Rabindranath Tagore, who envisioned such a harmony. April 2024 provides an opportunity to celebrate the hundredth anniversary of Rabindranath Tagore’s visit to China and study his vision. Tagore visited during a period when India was under colonial rule and China was in the midst of its ‘century of humiliation’. At a time of great suffering, his visit was a symbol of the commonality of their situation and their attempt to establish new bonds.

Indeed, Tagore’s visit to China marked a historic turn in India-China relations. He visited China at a time when Chinese society was in intense flux and debating the place of Western thought. Chen Duxiu, one of the founders of the Communist Party of China (who later turned against the party), had welcomed “M r. Science” and “Mr. Democracy” and attacked old customs and traditions including Confucianism.In his lectures in China, Tagore argued against associating modernity with an uncritical acceptance of the West and said, “The revelation of spirit in man is truly modern: I am on its side, for I am modern.”

His point of view was appreciated and he was effusively welcomed by several Chinese intellectuals, including Liang Qichao, who compared his visit with those of ancient travellers between India and China. In his introduction to Tagore, Liang spoke of how India and China had extensive contact in the past – most prominently through Buddhism – which was interrupted by colonial expansion. Western colonialism had not just interrupted positive civilisational exchange; it had created the conditions for mutual suspicion and misunderstanding. Liang saw Tagore’s visit as reigniting the contact between two ancient civilisations in modern times.

Tagore influenced the relations between the two countries in many ways. Modern Chinese literature was deeply influenced by Tagore. The poet Bing Xin wrote in her moving tribute to Tagore that when she first discovered him, “I was so elated as if I had found a hidden orchid while strolling along a mountain path.” There were several Indian visitors to China and Chinese visitors to India after his visit. Indeed, India-China relations could be said to have reached a crescendo in 1954 with the signing of the Panchsheel agreement, which created a new paradigm for international relations. The subsequent sad break in relations needs no repetition.

It should be noted, however, that the popularity of Tagore in China has only increased. He is widely known and is taught in Chinese school texts. In some ways, his ideas have more relevance at this time when both India and China are re-examining the importance of their ancient heritage. I would like to highlight three aspects of Rabindranath Tagore’s thought that deserve the attention of the world today.

The first is his critique of Western modernity. Tagore believed that in Western modernity, moral progress had not kept pace with scientific progress. He was a critic of Western nationalism, which he considered an abstract and limiting ideal driven by profit-making that had led to unnatural growth. He also critiqued the excessive materialism of the West. He believed that society should benefit from the gains of applied science, but that these must not overwhelm human relations. Today, as China and India have both made immense material progress, much debate and discussion is being carried out regarding the shape that Chinese and Indian modernity is going to take. Both countries are seeking clarity on how their modern social organisation differs from that of the West, and on its relationship to their ancient civilisational heritage. Scholars of China, for example, have noted the distinct state organisation in China, referring to it as a civilisational state. Tagore emphasised that one must search for civilisational heritage in folk forms, in the ways and beings of ordinary people rather than in the culture of the elite.

The second is the doctrine of Universal Man. Tagore was immensely concerned with the place of the human being in society and directly confronted the complex problem of human experience in modern society. He believed that individuals would only find their self-expression in seeking to spiritually expand and unite with all of humanity. He thus sought an organic unity of humanity. This unity would be driven, in his view, by love. Individuals should strive to be “world-workers” who reject both rootless cosmopolitanism and narrow provincialism. Tagore further argued that Western nationalism was producing a limited sort of human being, and instead, there was a need to create what he called the complete moral man. He particularly emphasised the importance of education in developing human personality.

The third aspect is Pan-Asia and Asian Unity. Tagore argued that it would be Asia that would show a new dawn to the world. Pan-Asia as an idea is often associated with Japanese thinkers, but Tagore was a critic of Japanese imperialism. He did not view Asia as a racial or geographical category but rather as a historical and political one. A synthesis of different cultures in Asia would develop in her “a confident sense of mental freedom, her own view of truth.” Otherwise, Tagore said Asia “will allow her priceless inheritance to crumble into dust, and, trying to replace it clumsily with feeble imitations of the West, make herself superfluous, cheap and ludicrous.”

What possibly could unite such a large landmass with such a huge variety of peoples and cultures? As the American scholar W.E.B Du Bois wrote “coloured people vary vastly in physique, history and cultural experience. The one thing that unites them today in the world’s thought is their poverty, ignorance and disease, which renders them all, in different degrees, unresisting victims of modern capitalistic exploitation.” Pan-Asia was an idea shaped by the resistance to Western domination over the world. Du Bois, who was a founder of the Pan-African movement and an admirer of both the Indian Freedom Struggle and the Chinese revolution, expanded the Pan-Asia concept further to Pan Africa-Pan Asia.

Tagore argued that the time has come to “prepare the grand field for coordination of all the cultures of the world, where each will give to and take from the other; where each will have to be studied through the growth of its stages in history. This adjustment of knowledge through comparative study, this progress of intellectual cooperation, is to be the keynote of the coming age.” He felt that Asia must first seek to synthesise and understand its own heritage so it could properly assimilate the contribution from the rest of the world.

As is evident to anyone who is paying attention, we are reaching the end of the era dominated by the West. China and India will likely be the two largest economies in the world by 2050. The relationship between them and their cooperation will shape not only their own population but the future of humanity itself. Unfortunately, there is currently a pitiful amount of contact between the two nations. Both China and India have far more contact with the West than they have with each other.

This is why it is important not only to commemorate 100 years of Rabindranath Tagore’s visit to China but also to take up his unfinished project of seeking a synthesis of Asian thought. This requires, first of all, that Asian countries know and understand each other. The image of China in India and vice versa is mostly shaped by Western narratives. Discussions tend to focus on realpolitik and narrow concerns. A small group of scholars certainly do have contact, but many of them are based in the West and their works have limited reach in broader society. Far wider contact is needed. It would be apt to set up Tagore centres for cultural understanding and civilisational dialogue. Tagore’s own vision of the importance of his visit was summarised in his statement: “I shall consider myself fortunate if, through this visit, China comes nearer to India and India to China,—for no political or commercial purpose, but for disinterested human love and for nothing else.”

Given the growing misunderstanding between China and India today, the two societies must consider commemorating the 100th year of Tagore’s visit to China. It would remind both societies that for most of human history, India and China have lived in peace with each other. A study of his thought will provide us with a modern vision for how they can continue this longstanding tradition.


Republished from Asia Research Institute, National University of Singapore, March 22, 2024

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