Tagorean Veganism

If you search online with the question ‘Was Tagore vegetarian?’ you get a resounding affirmative, with supportive quotes. One of these is an anecdote he related in 1921 about an escaped chicken struggling in the river, and out of sympathy for the creature he told the cook he would not have any meat for dinner, which does suggest he normally ate meat. Then he added: ‘I really must give up animal food. We manage to swallow flesh only because we do not think of the cruel and sinful thing we do’.[1] In 1901 Tagore established a small school at his Santiniketan ashram, based on the ideals of a traditional forest school, so the lifestyle was simple and the diet vegetarian. Tagore’s son, one of the first pupils, remarked on ‘the vegetarian meals comparable to jail diet in their dull monotony’.[2] Tagore expected teachers to share the same austere life as their pupils, and as he was a teacher and preacher there himself, he would surely have been vegetarian too. On one of his foreign tours in 1930 Tagore shared a meal with Quakers and they were surprised that he was not vegetarian as ‘he seemed to partake with relish of our cold tongue’.[3] Despite the ‘relish’, he may have eaten what he was served out of courtesy. Tagore had an anecdote he shared often about the hospitality of rural people contrasting with the urban tendency to make a charge even for water, so he would surely have accepted whatever food his hosts gave him.[4]

It would seem that Tagore’s choice of diet related to people rather than to planet: to compassion towards animals, religious strictures, and courtesy and consideration for others. His vegetarian diet would have included dairy products, since cows were customary and vital to Indian farming. As part of his endeavours to revive Indian village life, Tagore oversaw forest clearance for new fields, although he did also plant trees at his ashram, making that a sacred duty. He employed Leonard Elmhirst, the American trained agricultural economist, to launch the Department of Rural Reconstruction at the Visva-Bharati University. Elmhirst brought in machinery such as tractors and motor vehicles, and new breeds and crops, methods which he developed further at his own experiment in rural reconstruction at Dartington in Devon UK. Elmhirst would probably not have been vegetarian, and the methods he introduced on the Dartington estate such as removing hedgerows to bring in bigger machinery, innovating industrial chicken units and artificial insemination of cows, planting stands of conifers for a future timber crop, are frowned upon by those involved in the Dartington estate today. In the 1920s and 1930s, neither Tagore nor Elmhirst foresaw the acceleration of mechanisation in agriculture which followed the Second World War. Elmhirst saw those changes but in positive terms, as means to improve food production, alleviate famine, and bring social justice.[5]

If we look at what has happened since Tagore’s and Elmhirst’s lifetimes, we are confronted with the need for a change of emphasis: planet before people – and that shift in priorities is right even when people’s interests are seen as more important than those of other species. Looking back at the graph showing the effect of container adoption on world trade over 1948-1990 (see https://tagoreanworld.wordpress.com/2018/11/01/more-on-tagore-and-the-gunny-bags/ ), the soaring upward sweep also indicates the devastating increase in exploitation of what we selfishly term ‘natural resources’. Ironically, the two dips in the trajectory in the mid-70s and early 80s: the 1973 oil crisis and 1980s recession, were seen as damaging to the economy, the resumption of the upward sweep as back to business as usual.

I have long blamed the environmental pressure groups for the time it has taken for the public in general to wake up to what our heedless consumption has done. What Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth and others did was to steer all attention onto the future threat of climate change and away from the uses that fossil fuels were put to, in particular big agricultural machinery and agrochemicals, but also mining, building and transportation. Vested interests of course responded to the future threat warnings by denial and then claims that technological fixes would be forthcoming. It is only now, only in 2018, that the horrors are being realised: the Anthropocene, the Sixth Mass Extinction, Plastics Waste and Atmospheric Pollution – not forgetting that Climate Change is upon us. It is too late for policy, for national and international agreements. The only – and best – hope is what I’m calling Tagorean Veganism.

The idea behind Tagorean Veganism is very simple. It is ‘Tagorean’ because it is about relocalisation: one village, neighbourhood, or even one home garden at a time. The ‘ism’ in ‘Veganism’ indicates that there is a principle involved. Being vegan has become quite popular lately as a lifestyle choice, for the health benefits, perhaps with an element of concern to eat less meat to reduce impact on the land from growing fodder crops, and avoid cruelty to livestock. Veganism in the sense I am using it is about growing perennial plant foods as locally as possible and cooking them at home for delicious meals. Tagorean vegans would shun vegan ready meals and imitation meat or dairy foodstuffs because they are part of the system which is ruining the planet. It is important to recognise that Tagorean Veganism is not only about what to avoid, it also has a constructive element in that it needs local infrastructure to be built, which is a complex process requiring considerable time and effort, and also considerable funds, unless one belongs to an intentional community where people expect to exchange materials and skills with each other – but that is another story.


[1] Rabindranath Tagore, Glimpses of Bengal (London: Macmillan 1945 [1921]), pp. 122-3.

[2] Rathindranath Tagore, ‘Early Days at Santiniketan’, in On the Edges of Time (Calcutta: Orient Longmans, 1958), pp. 48-54 (p. 53.).

[3] ‘Rabindranath Tagore at Woodbrooke’, The Friend 6 June 1930, in Kalyan Kundu, Sakti Bhattacharya and Kalyan Sircar, eds., Imagining Tagore: Rabindranath and the British Press (1912-1941) (Calcutta: Shishu Sahitya Samsad, 2000), pp. 488-9 (p. 489).

[4] This is one version: ‘Once there was an occasion for me to motor down to Calcutta from a place a hundred miles away. Something wrong with the mechanism made it necessary for us to have a repeated supply of water almost every half-hour. At the first village where we were compelled to stop, we asked the help of a man to find water for us. It proved quite a task for him, but when we offered him his reward, poor though he was, he refused to accept it In fifteen other villages the same thing happened. In a hot country, where travellers constantly need water and where the water supply grows scanty in summer, the villagers consider it their duty to offer water to those who need it. They could easily make a business out of it, following the inexorable law of demand and supply. But the ideal which they consider to be their dharma has become one with their life. They do not claim any personal merit for possessing it.’ (Tagore, ‘Man’s Nature’, in The Religion of Man: Being the Hibbert Lectures for 1930 (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1931), pp. 143-55 (p. 149).) There are other versions where Tagore makes the rural/urban contrast more explicit.

[5] J.R. Currie, ‘Leonard Knight Elmhirst’, in Roger N. Dixey, ed., International Explorations of Agricultural Economics: A Tribute to the Inspiration of Leonard Knight Elmhirst (Ames, Iowa: Iowa State UP, 1964), pp. 3-8.

Posted in environment, land, permaculture, Rabindranath Tagore, rural reconstruction, social reform, Transition movement | Leave a comment