- The Philosophy of Rabindranath Tagore
Discerning the philosophy of a poet is a difficult task. Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941) was a visionary whose music, poetry, dramas, essays, and novels drew inspiration from Western greats and the ancient seers of classical India alike. As a literary figure and thinker he fits as well in the South Asian tradition as he does in the Western and, as such, is one of modernity's first global literati. Kalyan Sen Gupta draws on these sources to piece together a social and spiritual vision of the man in The Philosophy of Rabindranath Tagore, presenting problematic tensions within Tagore's thought and plausible resolutions to these tensions in his writings.
In the opening chapter, Gupta briefly addresses the extent to which Tagore should be considered a philosopher by invoking the notion of darśana from the classical Indian tradition. Explaining that this Sanskrit synonym for philosophy means a "vision of the world," Gupta shows that there is "no doubt" that Tagore offers an original one (p. 8). A brief overview of Tagore's spiritual inspiration reveals a common thread that runs through practically all of his thought. Specifically, Gupta draws attention to four areas that relate to Tagore's spirituality: society and education (chapter 2), politics (chapter 3), the natural world (chapter 4), and the aesthetic expression of the self (chapter 5). This gives the book an internal coherence and touchstone to which Gupta often returns in making transitions from one topic to the next.
The second chapter, an explication of Tagore's social thought, pays particular attention to Muslim-Hindu relations. Tagore's analysis is shown to delve beyond mere religious identities and is applicable to some of today's popular narratives of international conflict, which often ignore socioeconomic factors and tend to oversimplify and miscast conflicts as one-dimensional clashes between faiths or civilizations. Tagore's recognition that the instigating factors of sectarian violence had more to do with poverty and the fear of economic domination than religious differences (p. 22) offers as relevant a lesson to us today as it did in the days of the British raj and eventual partition of India.
Tagore's critique of education and the conservative Hindu movement of his day are also examined in this chapter. Tagore is shown to be highly critical of any blind addiction to purely traditionalistic (and nationalistic) thought, regarding any such inclinations to be ruled by "spurious vanity" (p. 26). He also decried the pursuit of [End Page 147] dry scholarship and rote learning, preferring to view the central aim of education as an experience that gives "one a sense of one's identity as a 'total man"' (p. 29). Gupta draws on similarities between Tagore's ideas and the views of Western thinkers on education such as Friedrich Nietzsche, John Stuart Mill, and Michel Foucault, but as intriguing as these comparisons may sound initially, it is necessary to offer a critique of Gupta's invocation of them here. Specifically, when Gupta references these Western thinkers he often employs their ideas to make a point about Tagore's own thought. In many instances the reader is not given a reference as to where Tagore's thought can be found on the issues that Gupta quotes from Western philosophical literature, making it difficult for the reader to distinguish Tagore's thought from these other thinkers. This is a deeply problematic and recurring problem throughout the text.
Despite these persistent problems, chapter 3 proves more substantial in its presentation of the actual content of Tagore's thought. The problems and limits of nationalism and Tagore's disagreement with Gandhi over the methods of the non-cooperation movement are a main focus. Gupta does a fine job identifying and explaining three major areas of disagreement between Gandhi and Tagore: education, the benefits of home-spinning cloth, and Tagore's grave concern with the non-cooperation movement's reliance on nationalist sentiments. This chapter addresses these differences while maintaining the idea that there was a deep and mutual respect between the...