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  • Writer's pictureShruti Jain

Nationalism and Patriotism: A Dialogue of Ideologies in Rabindranath Tagore’s Writings

Books by Rabindranath Tagore; Gora; Nationalism; Letters from a young poet
Books by Rabindranath Tagore

This was originally published on the Karwaan Heritage blog.

Renowned for his diverse talents that transcended various fields, Rabindranath Tagore was a Bengali polymath — a gift that never stopped giving — a poet, a writer, a painter, a social reformer, a philosopher, and everything in between. Immersing oneself in Tagore's writings is akin to delving deep into an ocean of ideas that opens up new paths and horizons previously unknown to the reader.

Rabindranath Tagore
Rabindranath Tagore

One of the standout ideas from Tagore is his grasp of the nuances between nationalism and patriotism. His essays on these topics showcase his intellectual prowess and his prose reflects a deep contemplation on the subject. It's evident that Tagore grappled with these concepts in his own reality and tried to make sense of them.

Tagore on Nationalism:

Rabindranath Tagore was vocal about his stance on Nationalism, and in 1917, he compiled three noteworthy essays on the subject in a book titled 'Nationalism.' The essays, namely 'Nationalism in India,' 'Nationalism in the West,' and 'Nationalism in Japan,' shed light on Tagore's views on Nationalism from different cultural perspectives.

Tagore saw a nation, in terms of its political and economic organization, as a population unified for a mechanical purpose. However, he argued that nationalism's true essence lies not in its political strategy but in its broader humanistic concerns. As a proponent of humanistic values, he criticized the militaristic and imperialistic tendencies that nationalism often breeds. Moreover, he provided a sharp critique of those who prioritize the 'national carnivals of materialism' over the 'laws of moral health,' highlighting the need for a balance between nationalistic pride and ethical values.

According to Sabyasachi Bhattacharya, Tagore's thoughts on nationalism were constantly evolving, and it would be unfair to assume that there was homogeneity in his views. In his essay 'Antinomies of Nationalism and Rabindranath Tagore,' Bhattacharya notes that the meaning of nationalism underwent significant changes between 1800-1940, which is evident in Tagore's writings. During the period of 1890s-1906, Tagore's views were in line with his fellow nationalists, as he actively participated in the Swadeshi movement against the partitioning of Bengal. It was during this time that he wrote his novel 'Ghaire Baire [The Home and the World],' which stands out for its remarkable portrayal not only of the social realities but also of the philosophy of its subjects.

Reflecting on the characters of 'Ghaire Baire':

Movie Poster: Adaptation of Tagore's Ghaire Baire by Satyajit Ray
Movie Poster: Adaptation of Tagore's Ghaire Baire by Satyajit Ray

The novel, set during the Swadeshi Movement after the partition of Bengal, explores the overwhelming force of nationalism through its three main characters — Nikhil, Bimala, and Sandip — and their inner struggles amidst the social and political changes of colonial modernity. Sandip personifies the abstract and evil nature of nationalism, using his oratory skills to manipulate others to surrender to passion and emotions rather than knowledge and freedom. Nikhil, on the other hand, embodies humanism, freedom, and truth, while Bimala represents the elite Bengali women who struggled to balance familial duties with their newly found patriotism.

The story showcases the consequences of Sandip's nationalist fervor, which ultimately leads to disillusionment and reveals the shallowness of his character. Nikhil, however, remains a steadfast advocate for truth and refuses to replace his conscience with the newly created myths of nationalism.

Through the characters' experiences, Tagore emphasizes the need to love one's country truthfully while uplifting the oppressed. By the end of the story, readers empathize with Nikhil's patriotism and Bimala's grief, highlighting the complexities of nationalism and the importance of critical thinking in its discourse.

The Dialogue of ideologies in 'Gora':

In 1910, Rabindranath Tagore wrote 'Gora,' a work of fiction that explores the contemporary issues of nationalism and patriotism in India, following the Swadeshi Movement. The novel features passionate characters from different backgrounds, including age, gender, race, religion, and caste, providing a compelling account of relationships in the late 19th century, not only between natives and the British but also between the Hindus and the Brahmo Samaj.

'Gora' by Rabindranath Tagore
'Gora' by Rabindranath Tagore

The protagonist, Gora, initially develops himself as a conformist who equates patriotism with Hindu pride. In contrast, Binoy, a Hindu Brahmin, struggles between his friendship with Gora and abstract principles defining 'humanity' for him. Tagore introduces the character of Paresh Babu, a member of the Brahmo Samaj, and his educated daughters, especially Lolita and Sucharita, who converse with Binoy and Gora on their ideas about nation and nationalism.

Tagore twists the story of Gora's birth, revealing at the end that he was born to Irish parents who died during the Mutiny of 1857 and was taken up by Anandmoyi, who gave up all traditional, orthodox 'restrictions' of society, once she accepted Gora as her son. This revelation changes Gora's perspective of looking at the 'goddess' he was searching for in the land.

Although some critics may criticize the twist, 'Gora' is significant for giving equal political and social space to women who were emerging out of the pardah system in the late 19th and early 20th century. Prominent female characters such as Anandmoyi, Barodasundari, Lolita, and Sucharita play a large role in transforming the opinions of Gora and Binoy through active conversation with them.

Through 'Gora,' Tagore challenges the nationalism enthused by conservative Hindu intelligentsia and offers insights into his transforming vision from nationalism to patriotism. The novel is a dialogue between liberalism, conservatism/revivalism, and reformism, aspiring to pay their obeisance to the nation through their respective ideologies. Tagore places the titular hero amidst this dialogue and gives a detailed account of his transformation journey from orthodoxy to tolerance, drawing a contrast between 'particularistic' Hindu nationalism and 'universalistic' patriotism. With Gora as a fictional character, Tagore explores the true meaning of patriotism that came with the unification of the country by eliminating categories and divisions.

Rabindranath Tagore on Nationalism and Patriotism:

Ashis Nandy, an anti-modernist ideologue, highlights Tagore's nuanced understanding of nationalism and patriotism in his essay titled 'Nationalism, Genuine and Spurious.' Nandy notes a fundamental difference between nationalism and patriotism, with the former being an ideology that creates an "ego-defensive" personality and fosters dislike for outsiders, while the latter is a non-specific sentiment centered on territoriality and cultural plurality that humans share with other species. Tagore believed in territoriality, but he associated it with various vernacular concepts tied to the idea of home. Nation states and the ideology of nationalism were built on the ruins of this 'home,' rendering the idea of nations as "artificial concoctions." Thus, Nandy asserts that Tagore was a patriot, not a nationalist.

Rabindranath Tagore
Rabindranath Tagore

Tagore's views on nationalism evolved significantly after the First World War, as he began to see the flaws in aggressive nationalism and the caste-based inequalities and communalism that existed in Indian society. He believed in the power of humanism, which transcends boundaries and prioritizes humanity over any other form of identity. However, he also recognized that the problem of discrimination in India was internal and called it the "race problem." Tagore suggested that the solution to this problem lies in abandoning the rigid caste system and embracing modernity in the present socio-historic context.

“To him [Tagore], nationalism was invariably a project of power and self-aggrandisement, of exclusion and incipient imperialism: whereas patriotism or the love of the country is a project of care and nurture, of love for people, land, and for the earth itself...Unless patriotism also accepts the freedom to love in all kinds of relationship – so the novel argues – patriotism is not enough.” - Tanika Sarkar


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