Fountainhead of wisdom
Although it is difficult to fathom the depth of Rabindranath Tagoreís prophetic vision, his sound ecological wisdom is as relevant to our times as it has been in the past, writes Mina Surjit Singh

Portrait of a young Rabindranath Tagore
Portrait of a young Rabindranath Tagore

The years between 1913, the year Gitanjali won for Rabindranath Tagore the Nobel Prize for Literature, through George Orwellís negative utopia in 1984, and Roland Emmerichís 2009 cinematic representation of the big-bang end of the world in his film 2012, are still fresh in our national and global psyche. A history which has been one of hitherto unparalleled technological development and progress in all areas of knowledge, it has also witnessed an accelerated journey of violence and degradation of our natural rhythms and ecosystems. Culminating in the recent global catastrophe galvanised by the massive upheaval in Japan, which can best be understood as natureís revenge against manís pompous assumptions, Rabindranath Tagoreís utopian dream of a world "where the mind is without fear and the head held high", seems to have been blown away by a twister, a la The Wizard of Oz.

With our fragile ecosystems teetering dangerously on the edge of collapse, his legacy of 150 years seems to have been turned on its head like a great uprooted tree with its roots up in the air. And yet, although any endeavour to fathom the breadth and profundity of his prophetic vision could be daunting and, at best tentative, his sound ecological wisdom is as relevant to our times as it was in its historical specificity.

In the movie Paa, which I hadnít seen till very recently, what caught my immediate attention was the fact that the first prize in a school competition for childrenís vision of India was given, significantly, to a child who had painted the globe white. And that triggered off a whole string of associations that took me back to a visit to Visvabharati a couple of years ago, where I was pleasantly surprised by the sheer vibrancy and vitality with which Tagoreís cultural and literary legacy had been meticulously chronicled over the years by those who had declared themselves sole and rightful claimants to the poet as well his inheritance.

Apart from the artistís reverently preserved and showcased abode, museums, and places where the consummate artist held forth his ardent peripatetic sermons and discussions with the likes of Mahatma Gandhi, Nehru and the young Indira Gandhi, the visitor was truly overwhelmed by every pore of Santiniketan breathing Tagore memorabilia. Not very much is known outside of Bengal about Gurudev, as he is respectfully addressed, except perhaps in academic and literary circles ó a situation that is sadly and ironically enough, dichotomous with the syncretistic dream of a man who hoped to give shape to his vision of a world undivided by narrow territorial and sectarian divisions.

The Memorandum of Associations of Visvabharati, too, described its objectives as the bringing together of scholars and thinkers from across the globe, "free from all antagonisms of race, nationality, creed or cast", for the realisation of "a common fellowship of study." Yet, Tagoreís privileged Bengali Brahmin status and Western leanings have often been the subject of censure by biopic critical opinion that fails to recognise the cannibalistic dangers inherent in cultural insulation. Tagoreís dream of universal man was grounded as much in Emersonís theory of natural correspondences as it was in ancient Indian texts. His broad spiritualism was forged as much by his reading of American transcendentalism, as it was by the fundamental mystical assumptions of ancient Hindu Vedantic thought.

Tagore challenged the extreme individualism and the "slavocracy" of nature postulated by enlightenment certainties about organic and inorganic processes that subverted manís traditional theological veneration of nature, even while warning of environmental threats emanating from governmental, industrial, commercial and neo-colonial forces. His concerted endeavour was to draw attention not only to the gradual de-linking of man from his natural environs in an unequal, hierarchical and colonial relationship but also to re-create an awareness of his harmonious relationship with the universe.

He believed that we could break loose of our capitalistic and existential anxieties only through a rejection of all forms of imperialism, which apart from colonising minds, always brought with it deforestation and the consuming of natural resources, destroyed local biodiversities and diminished both, the oppressor and the oppressed.

Since culture was closely linked to agriculture and nature, Tagore disdained classificatory systems that separated parts from the wholes they comprised. His ecological wisdom, which prefigures most of our modern-day environmental concerns, marks a fundamental shift in human consciousness by proposing natureís grandeur and manís insignificance. The more we discover the synergetic exchange of chemicals and energy between cellular structures in our environment, the more readily do we acknowledge human complicity in post-industrial ecosystem predicated on pollution and waste.

ó The writer is Emeritus Fellow
at the Department of English
and Cultural Studies, Panjab University, Chandigarh