Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941) 1909
When perspectives clash, we do well to keep three dimensions in mind: affirming our common humanity, trying to understand our differences, and cherishing the unique personality of every individual. To disparage the notion of a common humanity (since it is so differently conceived from one culture to another) and to overlook the unique individual (since individuals are more typical than they suspect), and to consider people only in terms such as gender or race or class is to produce a new kind of sexism or racism or classism. The three dimensions of identity—humanity, group memberships, and unique personality—enrich each other. What it means to be human includes gender, race, class, etc., and personal uniqueness. What it means to be a man or a woman includes being human and unique. What it means to be an individual is a certain way of being a human, with all the variables we share. To appreciate persons in such a balanced way need not hobble critique. A call for humane discourse is not a bland plea to welcome any perspective whatsoever as the equal of every other. Challenge is one of the forms of genuinely human engagement; if it proceeds from righteous indignation, that is to be distinguished from implicitly murderous anger. Critique at its best is an exercise of respect.
Openness to both sides in a longstanding tension is evident in “A Vision of India’s History” by Nobel Prize-winning Bengali poet, educator, and man of letters, Rabindranath Tagore. Tagore portrays two poles of leadership in India: (1) the conservative Brahmins, with their metaphysical genius, upholding the foundations of the society, and (2) the liberal Kshatrias, with their warmth of love generating waves of brotherhood that transcend caste boundaries. Tagore is lucid about the distortions to which each of these groups is liable, but his point is that each has its role to play in history. His idea of history as an ongoing, cyclic process alternating between the forces of conservative preservation and the dynamism of liberal expansion does not raise the questions of which liberties should today be regarded as basic and what rights are to be sought in a progressive and sequenced agenda for the future. But Tagore’s desire for the liberation of India from submission to English people, language, and culture was matched by his campaign for cooperation between East and West. His nationalism expressed itself in devotion to lifting India to its mission as a bearer of universal truth, purity, and beauty, as can be seen in his best known poem.
Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high;
Where knowledge is free;
Where the world has not been broken up into fragments by narrow domestic walls;
Where words come out from the depth of truth;
Where tireless striving stretches its arms toward perfection;
Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way into the dreary desert sand of dead habit;
Where the mind is led forward by thee into ever-widening thought and action–
Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake.
Tagore’s clear awareness of ideals led him in 1915 to write to an English friend these words of encouragement at a time when Europe’s optimism about progress was being smashed by World War I. “Will Europe never understand the genesis of the present war, and realize that the true cause lies in her own growing skepticism toward her own ideals—those ideals that have helped her to be great? She seems to have exhausted the oil that once lighted her lamp. Now she is feeling a distrust against the oil itself, as if it were not at all necessary for her light.” Tagore, though not an historian, shows that insights into history can come from outside the profession.