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  • Repositioning India:Tagore’s Passionate Politics of Love
  • Samir Dayal (bio)

If this is an era of globalization, it is also an age in which resistance to the culturally and economically disadvantageous aspects of a unipolar, Western-oriented globalization seems increasingly urgent. From an Asianist perspective, it is not histrionic or frivolous to ask the question: what is, or will be, left of Asia if globalization processes complete their homogenizing drive and in that limited sense arrive at the "end of history"?1 Further, the acceleration of globalization lends urgency to contemporary projects of interrogating or resisting Eurocentric constructions of Asia, particularly the works of Asians themselves who have conceptualized Asia in other ways. Looking backward, it is instructive to revisit the example of Rabindranath Tagore (1861–1941) as an early, if problematic, example of resistance to the presumed fait accompli of globalization: for Tagore proposed a different [End Page 165] route to social justice and democratic processes to those on offer within presumptively modular forms of Western modernity.

India's first Nobel Laureate in Literature (1913), Tagore was political enough to envision an alternative modernity for India, yet his vision has been marginalized—partly because of its constitutive fragility as the embodiment of a utopic literary sensibility and partly because of the anemic (especially when compared to the muscular nationalism then ascendant) and seemingly sentimental discourse of love in which it was couched. His vision and discourse were premised on a variety of exceptionalism proceeding from the idea that modernity is not everywhere homogeneous or symmetrical, but takes its form from the specific cultural or civilizational matrix in which it is engendered: there is a plurality of ways to imagine humanity's progress into the future. In Tagore's mind, an ethicopolitical principle that might be counterposed to the megalomania at the core of the Western drive for progress was love, precisely because love implied an other-directed principle for thought and action in the world. He proposed a universal humanism in a future in which "those who are gifted with the moral power of love and vision of spiritual unity . . . and the sympathetic insight to place themselves in the position of others, will be the fittest to take their permanent place in the age . . . lying before us, and those who are constantly developing their instinct of fight and intolerance of aliens will be eliminated."2

The contemporary geopolitical situation makes Tagore's vision rather more attractive, and prescient: today's ethnonationalisms in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Rwanda, Chechnya, Darfur, India, and Iraq are, if anything, more dangerous than those to which the poet was responding. Tagore believed that India could occupy a nodal point between the West and the East in a diachronic trajectory, as well as on a synchronic scale. It could inhabit a spatiotemporal mediating node of cultural development—or, at least, that was India's destiny.

Exploring this vision, this essay highlights three crucial aspects of Tagore's philosophical, political, and ethical project. The first is his antinationalism: Tagore believed in a proper and judicious cultural pride as an alternative to chauvinistic nationalism. The second is his program of repositioning India and Asia in a global frame, to promote the idea of India having a special, mediating mission—and the related idea of pan-Asian solidarity. [End Page 166] Tagore proposed that India could be a spiritually potent fulcrum, mediating between Western Enlightenment models of modernity and Eastern ideas of what it meant to be enlightened, and in so doing develop a modern identity into the future, relativizing modernity itself in the Indian context. The third is Tagore's desire to refashion an erotic economy of love, conceptualized not only as a culturally specific idiom but also as a universal humanist allegory of community. This erotic economy was not limited to the register of emotion but open to the ambiguities of gender—and the gendered categories of home and world, private and public. These are, of course, interconnected themes: critiquing nationalism, repositioning India, and reaffirming love as ethical allegory together constitute a program of universal humanism. It is precisely their imbrication that I develop by demonstrating how these interpenetrating elements emerge as the skein or text-ile...


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pp. 165-208
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