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Mainstream, VOL LIV No 21 New Delhi May 14, 2016

Tagore as a Protagonist of Sustainable Development and Gender Equality

Monday 16 May 2016

by S.N. Sahu

Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore was a many-splendoured personality whose hundred and fiftieth birth anniversary was celebrated across the country a few years back. (And only a week ago we observed his one hundred and fiftyfifth birth anniversary.) He was one of the noblest gifts of Bengal to humanity and the world. To my mind, Gurudev Tagore was one of the earliest champions of sustainable development and gender equality. All such ideas which assumed centrality to his life and work flowed from his cosmic worldview. The causes he took up have now occupied the centre-stage of the development agenda at the national and global levels.

The world recalls his name with reverence for his exceptional accomplishments in diverse fields. He was a Nobel Laureate in Literature and composer of what is popularly acclaimed as Rabindrasangeet. Above all, he had unrivalled reputation as a painter, artist, educationist and worshipper of beauty and aesthetics. His name will forever endure in popular imagination. While understanding his extraordinary talent, it is important to underline his deep insights and thoughts which are of immense significance to address the challenges faced by mankind in the twentyfirst century.

“Robbery of Soil” : A Critique of Modern Civilisation 

The English writings of Gurudev Tagore brought out by the Sahitya Akademi, New Delhi, contain illuminating articles which are of contemporary significance. I marvelled at his far-sighted ideas capturing the gathering crisis generated by modern civilisation. The article he wrote in 1922 on the theme “Robbery of Soil” is one of the finest critiques of modern civilisation. The passion of greed, according to him, became the defining feature of such a civilisation which celebrated the appetite for material possessions and comfort. He regretted that the temptation of an inordinately high level of living, which was once confined only to a small section of the community, became widespread. He predicted that the civilisation, which did not put any restraint on the emulation of self-indulgence, was bound to face fatal consequences and collapse under its own weight of contradictions. It was Mahatma Gandhi who had provided a critique to the modern civilisation through his seminal book, The Hind Swaraj, written in 1909. He wrote it while sailing from London to South Africa after pleading, before the Secretary of Colonies, the case of Indians of South Africa who suffered discrimination at the hands of the British settlers. While Bhagavat Gita is hailed as the sermon on the battlefield and the Bible is called the Sermon on the Mount, the Hind Swaraj is hailed as the sermon on the sea as it was written when Gandhi was undertaking a sea voyage. It exposed the hazards of the materialistic civilisation founded on the multiplication of wants and desires and urged the reader to rediscover the civilisation from the perspective of morality, discipline and restraint.

Mother Earth can Satisfy the healthy Appetite of her Chidren 

We find in the writings of Tagore the same theme of reclaiming civilisation by restoring its values which have been dominated by predatory commercial instincts and profit motives. In the “Robbery of Soil” he used phrases and idioms which are now in currency in the charmed circle of environmentalists. Mankind has painfully understood the limits of growth. It is now accepted worldwide that the human beings are using the resources and energy of the planet beyond its carrying and regenerating capacity. As early as in 1922 Tagore used the same phraseology to depict the reckless exploitation of Mother Earth. He bemoaned that human beings were fast exhausting the store of sustenance of the earth. His articulation that “civilisation today caters for a whole population of gluttons” constituted a severe indictment of the manner in which the incessant materialistic appetite was being satiated losing sight of the time-honoured values of reason and restraint. His words—“this universal greed, which now infects us all, is the cause of every kind of meanness, of cruelty and of lies in politics and commerce and vitiates the whole human atmosphere”—sounds so contemporary for the age of geo-economics in which the volume and value of business bereft of ethics is determining the contours of national and international relations. Sounding the alarm-bells he cautioned that “Mother earth has enough for the healthy appetite of her children and something extra for rare cases of abnormality.” Then he warned: “...she has not nearly sufficient for the sudden growth of a whole world of spoiled and pampered children.”

The financial crisis that originated in the USA in 2008 and almost enveloped the whole world has been attributed to the culture of greed badly affecting the banking and financial sectors. President Barack Obama, while delivering an insightful speech in Kansas on the state of the American economy, candidly admitted that the breathtaking greed of the few and the culture of irresponsibility across the system were at the root of the economic problems of that great country. The lack of an ethical outlook of those who are governing the state apparatus and corporate and business sector has gravely compounded the problem. It is noteworthy that almost nine decades back Tagore had grimly anticipated such challenges which would put at stake the very survival of the human civilisation and jeopardise the economic and political structures.

Material Progress a Matter of Science and not Ethics

The modern economies across the globe are adopting methods to multiply productivity. The management professionals entrusted with the responsibilities to run such economic organi-sations have been trained to maximise profit and cash flow to sustain business operations and expand the frontiers of entrepreneurship. It is now painfully realised that the youth pursuing the management course are not provided opportunities to cultivate the ethical outlook. It is due to the absence of ethics in the syllabus of the management discipline that many business operations have collapsed. In this context one is irresistibly drawn to the analysis of Gurudev Tagore who, as early as in 1922, regretfully wrote that material progress had become a matter of science and not of social ethics. A giant literary figure like Tagore reflecting on social ethics in the context of material progress of the twentieth century testified to his robust and wholesome approach to progress which is now the crying necessity to find solutions to the problem of income inequality and conspicuous consumption of the wealthy people.

In fact the words of Gurudev—that “property and its acquisition break social bonds and drain the life sap of the community” and “the unscrupu-lousness involved plays havoc the world over and generates a force that can coax and coerce peoples to deeds of injustice and of wholesale horror”—are of immense relevance for the twenty- first century world marked by the worldwide quest for more energy and resource of the planet.

Shriek of Advertisement Wastes Life Force

In our own time, we are often bombarded by advertisements which create synthetic demand and grossly distort our perceptions and prefe-rences. Too many of such advertisements in the print and electronic media and worldwide web have become the bane of our age. One is struck by the fact that Gurudev Tagore referred to the phrase “shriek of advertisement” in the backdrop of the unlimited production process of modern civilisation. He lamented that the ever growing number of advertisements had become an inseparable component of the multiplied production process “squandering immense quantity of material and life force”.

Democracy as an Elephant used for the Joy-ride of the Rich

Not only in the context of the rising tide of advertisements that we find Tagore’s ideas critically significant; we also find that his comments about the quality of democracy that the world would get in the face of greed and avarice of the few sound so timely for addressing the challenges confronting us and reforming the democratic and electoral process. He remarked that where the greed of some people or of some groups of society was allowed to grow and even admired and emulated by others, there democracy, as understood in the Western world, would not be truly realised. In such circumstances he maintained that democracy would be used as an elephant for the joy-ride of the clever and rich people. Prophetic words indeed! He was uttering those ideas when the colonial rulers, in response to the demand of our leadership for more representative institutions, were grudgingly and half-heartedly conceding to those demands. Now that electoral democracy has taken deep roots in India, it is important to ask ourselves if our constitutional system is geared to serve the common people or whether it is being manipulated by those who control the levers of power, media and economy. Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore’s hard-hitting comment that the prosperous few in a democracy, anchored on the culture of greed, would manipulate the organs of information and administration sounds so convincing and true in the context of the powerful influence exerted by media barons like Murdoch in Britain on politics and the high political offices of that country.

Similarly, we in India had the unpleasant experience of learning about the impact of some corporate houses in controlling and pressurising the media and administration for allocating some key ministerial portfolios to leaders of select political parties who remained part of the coalition government. Such developments are taking place in the twentyfirst century world. And Tagore had the farsighted vision to anticipate them in the second decade of the twentieth century. With deep sociological insight he could forecast: “In such a society people become intoxicated by the constant stimulation of what they are told is progress, like the man for whom wine has greater attraction than food.” In fact the manner in which our print and electronic media remain aligned to the idea of economic growth validates the ideas of Gurudev Tagore so eloquently expressed nine decades back.

True Happiness Not at all Expensive

One of the worst casualties of the modern civilisation is happiness of the individual and community. The erosion of the human worth in the face of incessant materialistic growth sharply brings down the happiness quotient. Tagore famously wrote that “True happiness is not at all expensive” and “it is fullness of life which makes us happy and not fullness of purse”. It is now increasingly realised that the materialistic progress, quite often measured in terms of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and Gross National Product (GNP), never measures the well-being and welfare of the people. The inadequacy of such indicators to assess the human worth has been realised across the world. That is why a small country like Bhutan adopted a different yardstick to measure its progress. Instead of Gross Domestic Product it has adopted Gross National Happiness since the 1970s.

In the last week of December 2011 the Prime Minister of Bhutan delivered the Professor Hiren Mukherjee Memorial Lecture to the parlia-mentarians of India on the theme “Gross National Happiness”. It was an illuminating lecture. In the twentyfirst century India our parliamentarians were educated about happiness as the basic factor for judging the growth and development of a society. It is instructive to note that Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore had explained about happiness in the 1920s and addressed the festering crisis of unhappiness affecting the human beings in the modern civilisation. He was daring enough to write that “...the poverty problem is not so important. It is the problem of unhappiness that is the great problem.” In emphasising on happiness Tagore was going beyond the issue of economic growth and material progress.

The twentyfirst century world has experienced unprecedented generation of wealth. And yet the twentyfirst century has been described as the century of fear due to terrorism and global warming. How can human beings be happy in the midst of the raging fear of terror attacks and rising temperature of the globe caused due to the establishment of what is called the carbon economy.

Domination of Millionaires Underrates the Values of Ashoka, the Great

The material progress may produce more number of millionaires or billionaires. We read reports in newspapers that on a year-to-year basis India is producing more millionaires and, therefore, the prestige of our country is going up at the international level. Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore had observed that possibly the age marked by the domination of millionaires would underrate the life and work of Emperor Ashoka based on non-violence, ethics and respect for life. In fact one American writer published a book in 2010 entitled To Uphold the World: A Call for Ethics from Ancient India. It is about Emperor Ashoka who could rule his vast empire by renouncing war and violence. Mr Reach then firmly concluded that if Ashoka could administer such a huge empire by following non-violence why should not the twentyfirst century world be governed by the ethical outlook of ancient India? It is refreshing to note that Tagore’s faith on Ashoka’s ethical outlook has been validated by a Western writer of the twentyfirst century who wrote that book after visiting Dhauli, Odisha, where the Kalinga war was fought and won by Ashoka three thousand years ago. The scale and magnitude of violence during the war caused massive loss of life and shocked the Emperor beyond belief. Thereafter he renounced war as an instrument of state policy and propagated the ideal of non-violence through his numerous rock edicts some of which are there in Dhauli.

In responding to the crisis of modern civilisation Tagore understood its “monstrous excess” and underlined its unsustainability. In fact in doing so he represented that generation of leadership of our country who through the spiritual worldview attempted to save not only human life but also the planet earth itself.

The narrative of sustainable development, which has now become predominant, was stressed by Tagore long years back when our own independence was a distant goal. In championing the cause of sustainable development, its protagonists are now emphasising, inter alia, on gender equality and women’s empowerment. Agenda 21 of the Rio Summit, organised by the United Nations in 1992 to promote the cause of sustainable development, underlined the need to remove and eliminate constitutional, legal, administrative, cultural, behavioural, social and economic obstacles to women’s full participation in sustainable development and public life. Equal rights and equal opportunities for women are now seen as indispensable to harmonise our growth and development with nature.

Tagore on Gender Equality

It is highly educative to note that Gurudev Tagore espoused the cause for women’s rights and their empowerment in 1934 in his address to the National Conference on Women. The title of his speech was “Women’s Place in the World”. He indicted human civilisation for having been based primarily on masculine attributes and regretted that women got hardly any space in such a civilisation. Tagore argued that because civilisation became masculine in character, it lost its equilibrium and sanity. He explained that the spiralling violence and war in the world could be due to the masculine nature of civilisation and wanted women to take their place to salvage not only themselves but also civilisation itself. His words—“And at last the time has arrived when woman must step in and impart her life rhythm to this reckless movement of power”—sound like the voice of a feminist of twentyfirst century incessantly striving to restore the rightful place for women in every aspect of life, be it politics, economics or nation-building.

Earlier we discussed Gurudev’s article          “Robbery of the Soil” in which he wrote about the unsustainable modern civilisation robbing the soil of the earth and depleting its life-force. In his piece on “Women’s Place in the World”, he draws a parallel between women’s function and the function of the soil and states that it “not only helps the tree to grow but keeps its growth within the limits of normality”. He wanted women’s participation in every endeavour of collective life to get back the poise and dignity of human civilisation. In fact the way he explained the aggressive nationalism of European countries, which was responsible for the world war and colonial exploitation, flowed from his understanding of the nature and character of masculine civilisation.

When he visited Japan and gave a series of lectures criticising the nationalism of that country, he was described by many Japanese scholars as the prophet of a defeated nation. They argued that since India was ruled by Britain and did not have independence, its Poet Laureate lacked the ability to know and appreciate the meaning of nationalism. Eventually, when Japan was devastated by war and suffered the consequences of nuclear holocaust following the dropping of the atom bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the people of that country painfully realised the futility of pursuing aggressive nationalism. Gurudev Tagore stood vindicated and the pronounce-ments of the so-called prophet of a defeated nation were heard with respect to take forward the cause of peaceful nation-building.

The more modern scholars highlight that if a critical mass of women get opportunities to give shape to the policies of the nations of the world, it would be more peaceful and less aggressive. For instance, Francis Fukuyama in one of his perceptive essays “If Women Ran the World”, published in the Foreign Affairs in 1999, argued that, to a great extent, such a world would be free from conflict, bloodshed and war. At least six decades ago, Tagore had written about it. It shows that he was far ahead of his times and what he wrote about women has now become central to the discourse on gender equality and sustainable development.

His utterance that woman is no less necessary in civilisation than man but possibly more so is of great significance to fundamentally transform the character of the masculine civilisation. Noting that “...in the present stage of history man is asserting his masculine supremacy”, he cautioned that “...he cannot altogether crush woman’s nature into dust...” The movement, launched by women themselves for their rightful place in society, validates the vision of Tagore so brilliantly articulated in the third decade of the twentieth century. He prophetically wrote: “It is not that woman is merely seeking today her freedom of livelihood, struggling against man’s monopoly of business, but man’s monopoly of civilisation.”

It is for restructuring civilisation that our national leadership during the freedom struggle exerted their energy. Gurudev Tagore as one of the extraordinary representatives of that leader-ship has become more relevant for our time than he was when India was under colonial rule.

Dr Vandana Shiva, a leading environ-mentalist, in one of her booklets on forest, referred to the ideas of Tagore who insightfully wrote that the diversity of plant and animal life of the forests became the source of diversities of society. The inference derived from such logic is that with the destruction of forests there would be an end to social diversities. In other words, death to the inherent pluralism of forests would mean death to the pluralism of the nation and society. The alarming destruction of forests across the world would lead to the loss of cultural variety and multiplicity. Such a scenario would cause narrowness of mind and breed the culture of intolerance and violence. The wider social movement for the preservation of forests is a movement not only to safeguard biodiversity but also to protect our cultural diversity. Thus Tagore’s writings in defence of nature constitute a reservoir for enriching our social diversity which is the need of the hour to defend our unity and multiculturalism. This is the social significance of Tagore’s writings when mono-culture is posing a danger to our multicultural fabric.

Twentyfirst Century is the Century of Fear 

One psychologist, David Coleman, characterised different centuries. He described the 17th century as the century of reason; the 18th as the century of enlightenment; 19th as the century of progress and the 20th as the century of anxiety. It is interesting to note that Tagore in his Gitanjali contemplated a situation “Where the Mind is Without Fear”. He was writing that line in the twentieth century which was described as the century of anxiety. As earlier stated, the twentyfirst century is now being described as the century of fear due to the twin problems of terrorism and global warming. In this century of fear it would be a herculean task to keep the mind without fear and hold the head high. And yet it has to be done not only for the sake of the mind but also for the sake of the planet earth. It is in this context that we need to rediscover Tagore and realise the significance of his ideas which are there in between the lines of his numerous essays and writings.

Therefore, apart for revering Tagore as a world renowned poet, painter, composer of music, philosopher and artist, we need to analyse his ideas to address the challenges of the twentyfirst century world. When there is worldwide recognition and renewed interest on Indian culture, it is more significant to dive deep into it and unearth the hidden treasure for the benefit of India and the benefit of the world as a whole. Gurudev Tagore as the finest advocate of our cultural, philosophical, artistic, literary and musical heritage is of everlasting significance.

Let Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore’s ideas illuminate our life and work.

The author was an Officer on Special Duty and the Press Secretary to the former President of India, late K.R. Narayanan, and served as the Director in the Prime Minister’s Office. He is now serving as the Joint Secretary in the Rajya Sabha Secretariat. The views expressed here in this article are personal and have nothing to do with the Rajya Sabha Secretariat.