Nationalism by Rabindranath Tagore – Professional Book Review




Rabindranath Tagore, the first Asian to be awarded the Nobel Prize (Literature), left in his wake a literary legacy encompassing an exceedingly diverse array of themes, the epitome of which are his critical essays. Nationalism was published in 1917 after a lecture tour abroad discussing contrasting themes and genres. The idea of nationalism was contemplated upon, the inner functioning of a nation state discussed and the effects of it deplored and denounced, opting instead for a more critical and humane approach befitting man (broadly) and arguing for a greater institution of understanding across cultures and divides.


Nationalism, by Rabindranath Tagore, a celebrated (in this context) literary and thinker, remains a testament to the perhaps modern lament of man towards varying degrees of perceived historic economic misfortunes that, if anything, still linger at the root of society; critiquing the emphatic response of indigenous (Indian) and other similar societies towards their economic and social demise, the text offers insight into nationalism itself while cautiously negotiating the dangers of imitating success from other far-off societies. The excerpt, while celebrating ideals exported from other political and social systems also warns against excesses, citing the rise and blossom of Japan as a stalwart in modern civilization; a torchbearer for the rest of Asia to follow.


Following a central narrative that places Japan as the frontrunner of civilization in Asia, Tagore provides insight on the fundamental problems of adopting wholly the ideals learnt from far-off societies that are perceived to be enjoying continuously the fruits of progress, sustenance and prosperity, concluding instead that socio-economic systems must be indigenous, guided by the spiritual foundations of mankind and promoted by the ethnic plurality and diversity of the people.


 ‘We forgot that in Asia great kingdoms were founded,..’
The author remarks that there is nothing inherent in the soil or climate of Asia that inhibits the creative process or enlightenment as the foundations to humanity, religion and philosophy exist ever potently within this region, dismissing certain ethnocentric elements that sometimes claim genetics as a cause for economic or ideological slump; that life has its deep periods of inactivity, rest. Tagore, however, is also quick to cite this period of inactivity only as an important phase in long-term nourishment and development of societies and ‘nations’ of a people.


‘The lamp of ancient Greece is extinct in the land where it was first lighted, the power of Rome lies dead and buried under the ruins of its vast empire.’
Highlighting the rise of western socio-economic philosophies, Tagore points out that even these systems may not have adequately been tested for error; or that at least the process has more or less remained to be steadily uncertain. At times placing great economic value in ideals while disregarding them in times of ‘mechanic’ activity: mechanic activity that serves to enrich the established while subsequently disenfranchising vast populations into ruin.


‘But a full-grown tree has no definite movement of that kind, its progress is the inward progress of life. It lives, with its aspiration towards light tingling in its leaves and creeping in its silent sap.’
Pondering the question of subjective indigenous progress, Tagore hits at the diversity of the East noting that it is not a slab of concrete without an inherent life; that life expands in all directions and grows, uninterrupted, and at its own pace.


‘..Europe, and from thence she will have her rebirth time after time.’
Tagore may be strident in his calling out of Europe as a vast mechanic entity that churns out the fortunes of a few and the misfortunes of many, in the interest of economy and ‘sustenance’. The latter being a mere fortification, codification and the legitimizing of exploitation on its own scale and the promotion, or indeed, the creation of ultra-nationalist ideals that threaten the Global balances of power. Tagore however, also appraises Europe as a mighty producer of intellect and inspiration, and firmly holds that Europe as long as it possesses and continues to respect insight, intellect, humanity and wisdom, it will always find itself reincarnating after vast periods of disdain or disorderliness or failed conquest.


‘But now we are over-taken by the outside world, our seclusion is lost forever. Yet this we must not regret,..’
There exists or existed, a fundamental lack of access to life outside our ‘bubbles’ of inactivity, Eastern seclusion where most of our reality finds itself confined and in stark opposition to any outward or outside philosophies of life, of politics and economics. Tagore provides an insight into how globalization of commodities, at the very least, has overtaken our predisposition of laying in seclusion, holding on to our fortified habits that fall contrary to collective progress. This clinging on to failed ideals and practises, it is fairly easy to note, is one of the causes of ‘Eastern’ downfall.

Tagore, however, also heralds this new era as an opportunity to take on the World’s responsibilities and problems and identify them as our own; that India and the East needs to step up to align itself with the global momentum in all disciplines.


‘Your race has shown that genius, not by acquirements, but by creations; not by display of things, but by manifestation of its own inner being’
Tagore cannot help but bring an ethnic element by highlighting genetics. Attesting to the fact that whereas tools and resources to promote and sustain progress and prosperity are at hand to all civilizations on this planet, it is the soul, the humanity and subtlety of the fabric that enshrines Japanese political, economic and most importantly, social foundations that guide what would otherwise grow wildly and without a certain orderliness; suggesting that the Japanese have mastered the art of evolving at a pace that satisfies not only their pockets and land but also their heart and soul.


From the many lessons and morals to be taken out of this text, selective adoption of contemporary values that have driven the economic and social successes of western states is the one that is a central theme; Tagore believes Japan to have ‘blossomed’ perfectly like a Lotus embracing the new air while retaining its essence at the core. Tagore argues that Japan does not imitate the success of the Western machine, it manufactures its own while adhering and giving respect unto to its diverse and magnificent culture.
‘..and she is glad to close her shops to greet the seasons in her orchards and gardens and corn-fields.’


Tagore presents the idea of a Nation as an opiate, blinding the masses to the dangers it poses; the argument is presented to both the western and the eastern audience. As a whole, Tagore’s language remains ever pleasant and definitive, wherein clarity of opinion is potent in thought and structure which sometimes may make up for lack of scientific or logical soundness. The ideas presented leave one with a stricken look towards nationalist ideals adopted uncritically; especially the colonies he perceives as the heart of Asia.