Book Extract: Politics kills and maims, tells lies, spreads misery

Rabindranath Tagore, whose birth anniversary is celebrated today, saw himself as a humanist rather than a nationalist. In a new book, the Canada-based Iranian philosopher dwells on Tagore

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Ramin Jahanbegloo

The question to ask is this: Who is to say who is civilized and who is not? Both Europe and Islam continue to be among the foundational pillars of human civilization. By recognizing this fact both Europe and Islam could engage in dialogue to bring common solutions to issues such as fundamentalism, terrorism, racism and integration and become partners in belief, action and citizenship.

When asked by a reporter what he thought about Western civilization, Mahatma Gandhi famously remarked, ‘I think it would be a good idea.’ He meant humanity has not finished its original civilizing process. Five thousand years of human civilization (since Ancient Sumeria) haven’t produced very much ‘civilization’. We still confront poverty, tyranny and fanaticism behind civilized facades of religion, technology and capitalism.

As for Europe as a ‘civilizing force’, its very emergence owes its existence to other cultures. The idea of intercultural dialogue has been at the heart of European society and culture for centuries. The fading away of this idea of intercultural dialogue in recent times indicates that European history is now perceived by its populace in monocultural terms.

If that is the case, Europe would not be a ‘good idea’ in the Gandhian sense of the word ‘civilization’, by which he meant a culture of diversity. A civilization should be plural in character rather than singular. This plurality is constantly evolving, rendering civilization, like democracy, an unfinished project. We are deluding ourselves if we claim to have arrived at an achieved human civilization.

It was Rabindranath Tagore who offered the first fully dialogical and exotopic analysis of otherness in the tradition of civilizational plurality. The issue of intercultural dialogue occupied Tagore throughout his life. This interest is best indicated by the expression, ‘Unity in Diversity’, which he frequently employed in his essays and addresses.

Throughout his life he consistently opposed uniformity and contrasted it to the ideal of unity. True unity, Tagore believed, was only possible by celebrating diversity through a dialogue among cultures. The pursuit of harmony remained an ideal for Tagore beyond the imperatives of modernity as a way of relating to various cultures and achieving unity in diversity.

One may be tempted to dismiss Tagore as a romantic idealist, one whose spiritual and poetic approaches to the problem of ‘civilization’ seem unrealistic. But that would be wrong. Many of Tagore’s views on nationalism, education and the dialogue of cultures are intellectually valid, and some of his ideas have attracted and influenced contemporary thinkers and writers both in India and abroad.

Tagore’s approach to the question of civilization and otherness was not political. In fact he abhorred politics. He sums up his revulsion to politics in a letter to William Rothenstein on October 6, 1920 where he wrote:

I have nothing to do directly with politics. I am not a nationalist, moderate or immoderate in my political doctrine or inspiration. But politics is not a mere abstraction, it has its personality and it does intrude into my life where I am human. It kills and maims individuals, it tells lies, it uses its sacred sword of justice for the purpose of massacre, it spreads misery broadcast over centuries of exploitation, and I cannot say to myself, ‘Poet, you have nothing to do with these facts, for they belong to politics.’

If Tagore’s philosophy is the outcome of the conflicts and aspirations of modern India, that philosophy is also the moral standard by which he judges progress. Tagore was opposed to modern civilization for its lack of wholeness and its predilection for the material rather than the moral progress of humankind.

He had no illusions about what is called ‘progress’ which has come to be synonymous with the law of necessity rather than the law of truth. For Tagore, real progress was the free expression of human personality in harmony with life. Therefore, the real crisis of modern civilization originated not from the conflict between cultures but from Man and his idea of life as a whole.

According to Tagore, the problem of Man lies to a great extent in his inability to relate to the ideal of wholeness. His stress on the uplifting of human life through ‘freedom from the servitude of the fetish of hugeness’ is related to his deep conviction that there is no inherent contradiction between so-called opposites such as the human and the divine, beauty and truth, social responsibility and individual rights, respect for tradition and openness towards modernity, and finally, love of one’s country and belief in the unity of mankind.

‘To me humanity is rich and large and many-sided,’ he wrote in a letter from New York dated January 1921. The truth of Man was unity or harmony. One may regard Tagore’s faith and optimism in a better future as unrealistic in the light of the current tensions that exist in the world, but it is worth considering the essence of Tagore’s argument on the dialogue of cultures.

Excerpts taken from Ramin Jahanbegloo’s book The Decline of CivilisationWhy We Need to Return to Gandhi and Tagore, with permission from Aleph Book Company. Pages 139; ₹399.

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Published: 09 May 2017, 7:09 PM