The Once and Future Village: From Tagore’s Rural Reconstruction to Transition Towns

The Once and Future Village: From Tagore’s Rural Reconstruction to Transition Towns

Christine Marsh©

(Contemporarising Tagore and the World, ed. by Imtiaz Ahmed, Muchkund Dubey & Veena Sikri (Dhaka: University Press, 2013))

‘He is there where the tiller is tilling the hard ground and where the path-maker is breaking stones. He is with them in sun and in shower, and his garment is covered with dust. Put off thy holy mantle and even like him come down on the dusty soil! (Gitanjali, 1912)[1]

‘Mother Earth has enough for the real needs of all her children … but she has not nearly enough for a whole generation of greedy children who know no limit to their desires.’

‘City and Village’, 1928[2]

Everyone who discovers Rabindranath Tagore has a story to tell. Twenty years ago the author of this paper was told by Marjorie Sykes, who had worked with both Tagore and Gandhi, that it was not Gandhi who originated the well-known saying: ‘The Earth has enough for everyone’s need but not for anyone’s greed.’ It was Rabindranath Tagore who said that, she insisted, and wrote his words about Mother Earth and her children in my copy of her book on Gandhi. Rabindranath was a deep ecologist, she added, knowing my interests. I found a copy of ‘City and Village’ in a collection of Tagore’s essays,[3] – but then forgot about him. Many years later, when I was a volunteer working on the Elmhirst Papers at the Dartington Hall Trust Archive, the name Rabindranath Tagore came to my attention again, and I learned of Leonard Elmhirst’s work in India for Tagore on rural reconstruction. Finally, while studying Literature with the Open University, I encountered Gitanjali, which is most Westerners’ first (and often only) experience of Tagore’s writing, while studying W.B. Yeats, whose blood was stirred by this collection of ‘song offerings’.[4] And I have to confess, that the Tagore who wrote ‘City and Village’ appealed to me then far more than the Indian mystic, of whom the Latvian scholar, Viktors Ivbulis, recently wrote:

‘He seems to have brought to the West something missing there: the belief in ideals and high morality, and something like an historic optimism, the lack of which was felt even before World War I. After the carnage was over, people were eager to learn genuine internationalism and cooperation, and Tagore’s spiritual idealism, his religion free from dogmas and priesthood, was also well received.’[5]

After Gitanjali, Tagore was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. The celebrity he enjoyed for a few years provided Tagore with opportunities to speak to the western world through his lectures, subsequently published as collections of essays: Sadhana (1913), Nationalism (1917), Personality (1917), Creative Unity (1922) and The Religion of Man (1931). The ‘English essays’ are not the only works which Tagore wrote in, or rendered into, English,[6] and translations abound from his vast literary and non-literary oeuvre in his native language of Bengali. But these five books are important because they represent what Tagore was able to communicate to the West at that time, not to protest about India’s treatment by the British Empire, but out of concern for the direction in which western nations were taking their own people.

In the English essays, Tagore wrote about bringing the East and the West together, adding to that polemical criticisms of nationalism as a dehumanizing apparatus of power and greed. This paper argues that another reading is possible, and that in the essays Tagore articulates an alternative direction for world change, which has the potential to bring about a major ‘transition’, defined as a revolutionary change from one mode of production to another, and the consequent transformation of society as a whole.[7] The essays, read in sequence as published,[8] do not describe such a transition, and Tagore’s alternative was not received or understood in his lifetime. Hence it is necessary to pick out passages containing the elements which make up Tagore’s positive alternative and reassemble them.

The analysis which follows is organised into three themes: reconnection with nature and deep ecology; transition and relocalisation; and spiritual unity and personalistic monism. These themes reflect current initiatives for desirable world change which a new focus on Tagore could encourage. Parallels are drawn between Tagore’s programme for rural reconstruction and the idea of transition adopted in the ‘Transition Initiative’, which began with ‘Transition Town Totnes’ in 2005-06,[9] and is spreading widely in Britain and in other countries.[10] Transition in scholarship considered here is a theory of class put forward in Re/Presenting Class: Essays in Postmodern Marxism by J. K. Gibson-Graham and others.[11] Their approach draws on studies of overdetermination and transition in works by Louis Althusser and Étienne Balibar.[12] My work on the English essays has followed from a study I undertook of Tagore’s prose fiction in translation, for my master’s dissertation, which was a political reading also focused on Tagore’s advocacy of a transition to a re-localised, cooperative, society in close touch with the land.[13]

Reconnection with Nature: Deep Ecology

‘Deep ecology arises from the personal intuition that one’s self is part of the world’s environmental wholeness. This awareness may be constructed upon scientific foundations but it is more commonly thought a spiritual concept.’ (Martin Haigh, 2006)[14]

The Norwegian professor of philosophy, Arne Naess coined the term ‘deep ecology’ in 1973 to encourage questioning of man-nature dualism.[15] Since then the mass of literature on the theoretical and popular versions of deep ecology,[16] and the political platform built to support the movement, have brought in other dualisms: between deep ecology as opposed to anthropocentrism, and deep ecology as superior to shallow ecology or environmentalism. But some see deep ecology as a spiritual concept, and in this sense we can see Tagore as a deep ecologist:

‘Have I not known the sunshine to grow brighter and the moonlight deeper in its tenderness when my heart was filled with a sudden access of love assuring me that this world is one with my soul? When I have sung the coming of the clouds, the pattering of rains has found its pathos in my songs. From the dawn of our history the poets and artists have been infusing the colours and music of their soul into the structure of existence. And from this I have known certainly that the earth and the sky are woven with the fibres of man’s mind, which is the universal mind at the same time.’[17]

Naess was only eighteen, in 1930, when he discovered Spinoza’s monism: the idea that there is only one substance which one can call ‘God’ or ‘Nature’, and also Gandhi’s idea of ‘self-realisation’, for whom it meant ‘to lose oneself in continuous and continuing service of all life’.[18] Despite theological arguments about the precise meaning of advaita, or non-dualism,[19] it has been argued that Tagore was a monist, and positively engaged with the material world.[20] Self-realisation, variously expressed, is a theme running through Tagore’s English essays, but with less suggestion of self-sacrifice, as in this example:

‘The will, which is free, must seek for the realization of its harmony other wills which are also free, and in this is the significance of spiritual life. The infinite centre of personality, which radiates its joy by giving itself out in freedom, must create other centres of freedom to unite with it in harmony. Beauty is the harmony realized in things which are bound by law. Love is the harmony realized in wills which are free.’[21]

Tagore alone could have provided Naess and his followers with philosophical and theological inspiration, and a direction for holistic world change, but Gandhi was internationally known for his principled stance and leadership, whereas Tagore was, by that time, less of a public figure. The difference between these two great men of India is significant for the direction the deep ecology movement took.

Gandhi and Tagore were close friends who supported each other through challenging times,[22] but they were very different people. In The Discovery of India, Nehru compares and contrasts ‘the two outstanding and dominating figures of India’, saying they represent two different traditions. Tagore ‘the aristocratic artist, turned democrat with proletarian sympathies’, embodied the cultural tradition of ‘accepting life in the fullness thereof and going through it with song and dance’. Gandhi, ‘a man of the people’, represented the other tradition of ‘renunciation and asceticism’.[23]

In the basic principles of deep ecology, which have scarcely changed over the thirty years of the movement, there are points which seem to reflect the Gandhian tradition: ‘3. Humans have no right to reduce this richness and diversity [of life forms] except to satisfy vital needs.’ and ‘4. The flourishing of human life and cultures is compatible with a substantial decrease in the human population. The flourishing of nonhuman life requires such a decrease.’[24] The tone of the entire set is towards renunciation and asceticism. This attitude has led deep ecologists to have a stronger commitment towards addressing ecological threats than that shown by environmentalists concerned mainly about human welfare, but the tendency of the movement towards being judgemental, exclusive and prescriptive has lessened its impact. While Tagore condemned greed, this was from his critique of dehumanising systems, with no suggestion that humans should restrict themselves to meeting only vital needs.

We can see in Tagore’s essay ‘The Cult of the Charka’ how the richness of his concept of self-realisation contrasts with Gandhi’s asceticism. Tagore warns against ‘the ominous process of being levelled down into sameness’, including binding people to caste-based functions, so that despite ‘this age of self-assertion’ they expect to be told what to do and willingly submit to ‘some guru’s injunction’. He argues that Swaraj, or independence, would not benefit the people of India unless ‘that most lively sprightly thing called Mind’ is allowed to rebel against uniformity of attitudes and machine-like employment. He advocates the co-operative principle which, applied by innumerable methods, gets rid of poverty and ‘communes with our spirit’. Thereby ‘the goddess of plenty herself’ would come bringing food and much else, in ‘an essential moral oneness’.[25]

In another work, Tagore relates how in the past India had accommodated ‘a succession of aggressors’, but that the British were ‘a new impersonal empire, where the rulers were over us but not among us, who owned our land but could never belong to it’.[26] Tagore describes the traditional India which was wantonly disrupted:

‘The geographical entity, that is India, appears from the earliest times to have roused in its people the desire to realise the unity comprised within its natural boundaries. In the Mahabharata we find the bringing together of its traditional memories scattered over different times and places; and, in the institution of systematic pilgrimages to the various sacred places dotted over its entire expanse, we discern the process of capturing a complete picture of its physical features within the net of a common devotion.’[27]

Tagore’s vision of self-realisation involved reviving the multiplicity of local communities within India’s geographical boundaries, and for India to combine with the unity in diversity of Asia and lead the West towards the self-realisation of the world.

We are seeing a new surge of interest in Tagore, which may indicate that his time has come again. If so, the focus of attention should include Tagore’s rural reconstruction experiments, his version of a social initiative which, in Gandhi’s case, was called the ‘economics of Khadi’.[28] Gandhi’s model reflects the tradition Nehru saw him as representing, that of ‘renunciation and asceticism’. To be true to the tradition Tagore represented, his rural society would be much richer, more diverse: ‘accepting life in the fullness thereof and going through it with song and dance’.[29]

Revival of Village Systems: Relocalisation

‘England, it is true, in causing a social revolution in Hindustan, was actuated only by the vilest interests, and was stupid in her manner of enforcing them. But that is not the question. The question is, can mankind fulfil its destiny without a fundamental revolution in the social state of Asia? If not, whatever may have been the crimes of England she was the unconscious tool of history in bringing about that revolution.’ (Karl Marx, ‘The British Rule in India’)[30]

‘Enclosure, indeed, was the culmination of a long secular process by which men’s customary relations to the agrarian means of production were undermined. It was of profound social consequence because it illuminates, both backwards and forwards, the destruction of the traditional elements in English peasant society.’ (E.P. Thompson, ‘The Field Labourers’)[31]

The intention of this section is to relate Tagore’s philosophy and practice to new waves of rural reconstruction, or ‘relocalisation’, initiated in England and spreading worldwide. I begin with the historical background, including an example of a project in England directly inspired by Tagore’s experiments. This is followed by an examination of Tagore’s essay ‘An Eastern University’ to show how he sought to bring the peoples of the world together to avert the ‘world-wide spiritual disaster’ brought about by the ‘political and commercial adventures’ of the West. Tagore’s ideas were radical and practically based, so it should not be surprising that they are compatible with the work of postmodern Marxist scholars who are studying new developments in locally based economies. The discussion then comes full circle back to changes taking place in Britain, to Transition Towns and their connection with Tagore.

Arguably, the Indian village system and the English village community were both victims of the British Industrial Revolution and the British Empire. The 1793 Permanent Settlement Act and the 1801 General Enclosure Act formally replaced traditional common ownership of land with private ownership, and few members of the top castes or classes (or political philosophers) saw any harm in that. Tagore was no revolutionary, and accepted the necessity of private property,[32] at the same time regarding his rural reconstruction projects as his ‘life’s work’.[33]

‘If we could free even one village from the shackles of helplessness and ignorance, an ideal for the whole of India would be established. That is what occurred to me then and that is what I still think. Let a few villages be rebuilt in this way, and I shall say they are my India. That is the way to discover the true India.’[34]

In English Earth, a history of farming in England, Marjorie Hessell Tiltman includes an enthusiastic description of Dartington Hall Trust in South Devon, brainchild of Leonard Elmhirst, inspired by his work with Tagore at Sriniketan. Tiltman tells how Elmhirst established the Trust as a research institution and self-contained village, based on a new form of ownership of the land, buildings, equipment and stock. Tiltman considered that ‘[t]he implications of such a scheme are political, economic, and social, and to prove its fundamental soundness and workability many, many years would—or will—be needed.’ She sums up Dartington as ‘an attempt to strike at the very root of agricultural decay by a return to the self-contained rural community, where handicrafts flourish and the younger members do not find life so dull that they are anxious to escape to the towns.’[35]

British Government historical statistics help us understand the context within which the Dartington project operated. There had been a tremendous decline in agricultural workers since official statistics were first published in 1884, reflecting increases in mechanisation. Overall yields may have increased, presumably through the use of agrochemicals, but farm income has seen booms and slumps and an overall decline. Public expenditure on agriculture has been erratic, crop acreages and livestock numbers have fluctuated, and one graph shows a steep decline since 1950 indicating the sad loss of orchards. The statistics indicate how agriculture has changed in response to events over the last one hundred years: the two world wars, the depression of the 1930s, the post-war boom and entry into the European Community, and the dramatic fall in prices and farm incomes in the late 1990s.[36]

The Dartington experiment was designed to respond to the fall in rural job prospects, which was already evident in the 1920s, by establishing rural industries, expanding education and reviving local culture. It achieved great things for some years but, one by one, its enterprises succumbed to competition, its progressive school closed, and recently the Dartington Arts College was moved away. The buildings and land remained: the Great Hall which the Elmhirsts had restored, the little cinema, the gardens designed by Dorothy Elmhirst, and farming on the Trust land went the way of all farming. Today Dartington Hall is a conference centre and a tourist destination, and the Trust is a charity with aims concerning ‘the arts, sustainability and social justice’.[37] Those struggling to keep what remains of Dartington economically viable since the founder’s death in 1972, have lost sight of the ‘inspiration’ for Elmhirst’s ambitious experiment: his rural reconstruction work in Bengal, which was part of Tagore’s international university, founded in 1921.[38]

The final essay in Creative Unity entitled ‘An Eastern University’ sets out Tagore’s programme for world change and reflects the principles of relocalisation, whereby changes in the world are achieved by efforts put in at the local level.

‘Our centre of culture should not only be the centre of the intellectual life of India, but the centre of her economic life also. It must co-operate with the villages round it, cultivate land, breed cattle, spin cloths, press oil from oil-seeds; it must produce all the necessaries, devising the best means, using the best materials, and calling science to its aid. Its very existence should depend upon the success of its industrial activities carried out on the co-operative principle, which will unite the teachers and students and villagers of the neighbourhood in a living and active bond of necessity. This will give us also a practical industrial training, whose motive force is not the greed of profit.’[39]

Tagore’s aspirations for his self-reliant university employing the best materials, and taking advantage of modern science and technology, is in marked contrast with Gandhi’s project of resisting industrialism by restoring the ancient cottage industry of handspinning.[40] A case study in Re/Presenting Class by Anjan Chakrabarti and Stephen Cullenburg, looks at ‘Development and Class Transition in India’, post-Independence, and begin by contrasting Gandhi’s ‘economics of Khadi’ with Nehru’s project of catching up with the West. They go on to write of the hopes of the Marxian subaltern studies school that capitalism could accommodate precapitalist elements of society, in particular a continuation of village-based agriculture, leading to a transition to ‘a socialism of communities’.[41] The authors’ analysis continues with an innovative ‘Disaggregated Class Analysis’, which re-examines the social arrangements for appropriation of surplus labour and includes independent and communal producers who access the wage and non-wage output of their labour on their own account. They suggest that these class sets could co-exist with capitalist appropriation of surplus labour to give rise to a heterogeneous class structure. [42] Chakrabarti and Cullenburg go on to use their framework to interpret the transition resulting from the liberalization policies introduced by the Indian government in 1991. As one might expect the result has been to bring about what the authors regard as a crisis in the agricultural sector, increasing concentration of capital in that sector, alongside growing rural unemployment and rural and urban poverty.[43]

In England from Tudor times onwards, the village community was progressively destroyed by the enclosure movements,[44] and the dispossessed cultivators and artisans ‘liberated’ from the rural economy became the urban proletariat which enabled capitalism and the Industrial Revolution to take over so comprehensively and so rapidly here.[45] There are still British villages, small settlements in the countryside, but they have lost their rural role. Some have become pleasant dormitories for commuters supplied by big supermarkets, others are ghostly relics of the feudal or big-industrial eras. In this country, a town and its hinterland has more potential for relocalisation, as is shown by Transition Town Totnes, the first transition experiment.[46] Dartington Hall is near Totnes, and the town absorbed some of the ethos of Elmhirst’s rural reconstruction project, inspired by his work with Tagore.

The Transition Initiative is aiming at ‘a heterogeneous class structure’, with a mixed economy, where new forms of communal and small-scale local production, designed to meet some local needs, especially for food, co-exist with conventional businesses and services run by large capitalist enterprises or government agencies.[47] The geographical unit of any transition initiative will be as varied as its local ecology and the challenges and opportunities provided by the social, political and economic starting point. Such a transition goes against the supposed ‘universalizing tendency of capital’ identified by Marx, which is subjected to challenge by the postmodern Marxist scholars in their studies in India:

‘Unlike orthodox Marxism where the progressive evolutionary order of society must be maintained, in the micro-approach to transition, capitalist class structures can, for example, be transformed into feudal or independent class structures. From this perspective, such cases of transition would not be understood as historical aberrations, but rather as possible outcomes of society’s multi-faceted and uneven development processes. […] What is lost in this approach to transition is the eschatological, diachronic, and systematic ordering of societies according to a dominant notion of “progress”’.[48]

In his study of ‘history and power in colonial India’, Ranajit Guha describes the period of nationalist agitation in India as the ‘rivalries of two bourgeoisies’, which nevertheless shared the belief in the ‘universalizing tendency of capital’. When Guha examines Marx’s analysis of the historical unreliability of that tendency, he picks out the contrast Marx made between the revolutions in 1789 in France and in 1848 in Germany, where French success was due to the fact that the bourgeoisie ‘never left its allies, the peasants, in the lurch’, whereas the German bourgeoisie betrayed theirs.[49] The Indian urban middle class absentee landlords, established by the British through the Permanent Settlement Act of 1793, in effect betrayed and exploited their peasants, hence the ruin of the village communities which Tagore endeavoured to rectify. We can see from Guha’s analysis why the Marxian subaltern studies project, of which he was a leading participant, hoped for a transition to ‘a socialism of communities’ from a capitalist stage which accommodated the village economies.

Anisur Rahman of the Action Research Movement provides an impressive account of Tagore’s ‘experiments of self-reliant village development’ on the family estates in the 1890s:

‘He advocated, in writing and through his speeches, the formation of one or more village communities (pallishamaj) to take charge of co-operative-based collective self-development. Among other tasks, the co-operatives were to take charge of literacy for all; development of local industries; community health care and recreation; safe drinking water; model farming; collective paddy stores; domestic industry-based work for women; campaigns against drinking of liquor; developing fellow-feeling and solidarity among the villagers; and the collection of demographic, economic and social statistics for every village. The experiment with self-reliant village development was initiated in three places – Shilaidaha, Kaligram and Sriniketan.’[50]

Rahman goes on to describe in similarly impressive detail the rural reconstruction initiatives carried out under the management of Leonard Elmhirst. In his biography of Tagore in the ‘Builders of Modern India’ series (1971), Hiranmay Banerjee too describes Elmhirst’s experiments, saying that ‘[i]n the process he evolved an effective programme for rural development and also developed a method which in many ways anticipated the Community Development Programme (CDP) introduced in [India] several years after in the First Five Year Plan under the direct supervision of the Planning Commission’.[51] Chakrabarti and Cullenburg report that the liberalization policies introduced by the Indian government in 1991 have meant that subsidies for such as the CDP (replaced in 1980 by the Integrated Rural Development Programme (IRDP)) are being withdrawn, leaving small farmers terribly vulnerable.[52] As Tagore anticipated in 1922:

The whole of the human world, throughout its length and breadth, has felt the gravitational pull of a giant planet of greed, with concentric rings of innumerable satellites, causing in our society a marked deviation from the moral orbit. In former times the intellectual and spiritual powers of this earth upheld their dignity of independence and were not giddily rocked on the tides of the money market. But, as in the last fatal stages of disease, this fatal influence of money has got into our brain and affected our heart.[53]

There are alternatives to the ‘giant planet of greed’, which could come about through a reconnection with nature and a transition to a new form of rural economy. Tagore always insisted that what is needed is a spiritual transformation, so in the final part of this paper we come to an examination of what that might mean for today’s world.

Tagore’s Spiritual or Personalistic Monism

‘Light, as the radiant energy of creation, started the ring-dance of atoms in a diminutive sky, and also the dance of the stars in the vast, lonely theatre of time and space. The planets came out of their bath of fire and basked in the sun for ages. They were the thrones of the gigantic Inert, dumb and desolate, which knew not the meaning of its own blind destiny and majestically frowned upon a future when its monarchy would be menaced.’ (Tagore, ‘Man’s Universe’, The Religion of Man)[54]

It is curious that Tagore’s book about religion begins with ‘creation’ in the absence of God. Tagore explains the apparent anomaly in his discussion with Albert Einstein: ‘This world is a human world—the scientific view of it is also that of the scientific man.’ [55] A few years before the book was published, in 1925 and 1927, Georges Lemaître published papers on relativistic cosmology which proposed that the universe was expanding. This raised the possibility that, extrapolating back in time, there was an initial ‘creation-like’ event, which Lemaître was to call ‘The Primeval Atom’ (later dubbed ‘The Big Bang’),[56] which our Poet-scientist called ‘the ring-dance of atoms in a diminutive sky’.

Tagore’s primeval universe is dancing, it is animated, or animate; it has a dancing soul as well as material atoms. For Spinoza, the monist philosopher, those are modes of a single substance which one can call Nature or God. For Tagore, a personalistic monist, this is Man’s Universe, and so the primeval universe is matter or soul for us, made so by our perception and understanding. For Tagore, ‘soul’ is not – or is not only – an inward experience, a contemplation of the ineffable mystery of creation, it is the urge to dance, not alone but in a ring with others of our kind.

‘Man’s Universe’ continues with the evolution of life:

‘Then came a time when life was brought into the arena in the tiniest little monocycle of a cell […] conscious not of the volume but of the value of existence, which it ever tried to enhance and maintain in many-branched paths of creation.’[57]

Tagore traced the paths of evolution, describing the process as: ‘a marvellous quality of complex-inter-relationship maintaining a perfect co-ordination of functions’, which is ‘the divine mystery of existence, that baffles all analysis’, the latter being an allusion to his objection to scientific reductionism. Man’s first appearance occurs in a powerful passage: ‘The fire is lighted, the hammers are working […] The process of evolution, which after ages has reached man, must be realized in its unity with him […] and we must acknowledge that the evolution which Science talks of is that of Man’s universe’.[58] Having developed this theme further, he begins a new subsection with: ‘The idea of the humanity of our God, or the divinity of Man the Eternal, is the main subject of this book.’[59]

Tagore’s accommodation of science’s truths within his ‘religion of Man’ was remarkable for its time, given the history of irreconcilable conflicts between science and religion,[60] which continues today in disputes between creationists and those who study and teach Darwinian evolution, and on aspects of research and medical practice. Religions today are about personal and group identity and difference, rather than binding together a society. This is an area where Tagore’s ideas have contemporary relevance, and his essay ‘Man’s Nature’ is particularly relevant:

‘From the time when Man became truly conscious of his own self he also became conscious of a mysterious spirit of unity which found its manifestation through him in his society. […] Man’s reverential loyalty to this spirit of unity is expressed in his religion […]. In the Sanskrit language, religion goes by the name dharma, which in the derivative meaning implies the principle of relationship that holds us firm, and in its technical sense means the virtue of a thing, the essential quality of it […]. Religion consists in the endeavour of men to cultivate and express those qualities which are inherent in the nature of Man the Eternal, and to have faith in him.’[61]

Tagore connects these principles to down-to-earth realities with a number of stories. One of these is about when he was being driven to Calcutta in a faulty motor car which needed water every few miles. When they were passing through small villages, water was freely provided. The villagers could have made a business out of this but, in a hot country where water is scanty in summer, they considered it their dharma, their duty, to offer water to whoever needed it.[62]

Those villagers were part of the ancient social system which was under threat, and which Tagore tried to revive. They were probably not conscious of a ‘mysterious spirit of unity’, but of tradition and learned habits they did not think to change. In his influential book, Provincializing Europe, Dipesh Chakrabarty wrote about Tagore having two ‘ways of seeing’ his country of Bengal, as ‘a land of arcadian and pastoral beauty’, the ‘golden Bengal’ of the song later adopted as the national anthem of Bangladesh, at the same time knowing the ugly side of village life: the ‘[j]ealousy, rivalry, fraudulence and trickery between people’ and the deep roots of corruption, and documenting the social problems: the scarcity of water, the disease and malnutrition.[63]

Tagore’s ‘religion of Man’ is not only about shared truths and tolerance of different views, but unquestioning joy and love, which he found through religious experiences, as he describes in ‘The Vision’:

‘The man whose inner vision is bathed in an illumination of his consciousness at once realizes the spiritual unity reigning supreme over all differences. His mind no longer awkwardly stumbles over individual facts of separateness in the human world, accepting them as final. He realizes that peace is in the inner harmony which dwells in truth and not in any outer adjustments. He knows that beauty carries an eternal assurance of our spiritual relationship to reality, which waits for its perfection in the response of our love.’[64]

It may be that ‘our spiritual relationship to reality’ can be revived, and made universal, through the deep ecology movement. In his book, Animate Earth, the ecologist, Stephan Harding, relates his own and others’ deep experiences of the living planet, a process he calls ‘being Gaia’ed’.[65] Tagore has evidently had such experiences, as the following poem illustrates:

‘When I lay in your womb for ages,
Mother Sea,
one with the unborn earth,
your life-throbs left their rhythm
upon the atoms
that have built my body.
I have in my being
the memory of a lonely mother-heart
nourishing in its secret the fruitful future.
In my life I carry the same mystery
of a great expectation
of unknown fulfilment.
It is hidden in the dark unproved,
yet it grows into certainty every day
without being known.’[66]


In the first section of this paper, on reconnection with nature, I considered the influences on the formation of the deep ecology movement, and suggested that a Tagorean deep ecology would be a deeper, richer and more joyful sense of connection with the community of life forms and the land. Tagore’s examination of our universe from its beginning shows the ‘primeval atom’ as a unity, a singularity, which expanded in size and complexity to arrive at the world we know. Tagore maintains that our experience of the world is a human conception, our collective truth, hence his insight that ‘the earth and the sky are woven with the fibres of man’s mind, which is the universal mind at the same time’. Tagore’s thought presents a vital challenge to deep ecologists, to embrace the human, to recognise that this is Man’s world.

The second section covered the history of breakdown and the potential for revival of village community systems. New class theory shows the feasibility of heterogeneous economies, to include communal expropriation of surplus labour. This model could be applied to the Transition Initiative movement, which has spread rapidly since Transition Town Totnes in 2005-6, and there are now hundreds of local initiatives in Britain and many other countries. The early adopters struggle to scale up any initiative from being a niche interest for environmentalists, concerned about human induced Climate Change and Peak Oil. Fear and guilt over these future threats, whose effects are not yet apparent day-to-day, is not a helpful incentive for the bulk of the population to get involved, which is where Tagore’s positive influence could be very valuable. Tagore’s ideal was a synthesis of local village and global university, without dehumanising cities and nations and profit systems in between. A Tagorean Transition Initiative would embrace his personalistic monism, and be focused on rediscovering human nature as united in mutual aid, in symbiotic social unity, in the Universal Being, the Super-personal Man.

[1] Rabindranath Tagore, 11, in Gitanjali (Song Offerings) (London: Macmillan, 1913), pp. 8-9 (p. 9).

[2] Handwritten inscription by Marjorie Sykes, in Jehangir P. Patel and Marjorie Sykes, Gandhi: His Gift of the Fight (Rasulia, Hoshangabad, India: Friends Rural Centre, 1987).

[3] Rabindranath Tagore, ‘City and Village’, in Towards Universal Man (London: Asia Publishing House, 1961), pp.302-22.

[4] W.B. Yeats, Introduction, in Gitanjali, pp. vii-xxii (p. vii).

[5] Viktors Ivbulis, ‘Tagore’s Western Burdens’, in Rabindranath Tagore: A Timeless Mind, ed. by Kalyan Kundu, Christine Marsh and Amalendu Biswas (London: Tagore Centre UK, 2011), pp. 154-62 (p. 155).

[6] In particular, we have the four books entitled The English Writings of Rabindranath Tagore (New Delhi: Sahitya Akademi, 1994, 1996, 2007).

[7] Louis Althusser and Étienne Balibar, Reading Capital (London: Verso, 2009), p. 70.

[8] Tagore was under pressure to publish in order to capitalise on his celebrity. (Sisir Kumar Das, Introduction, in Rabindranath Tagore, The English Writings of Rabindranath Tagore, Volume TWO: Plays, Stories, Essays , ed. by Sisir Kumar Das (New Delhi: Sahitya Akademi, 1996), pp. 11-31 (p. 12).)

[9] It is no coincidence that the movement started in Totnes, given that Dartington Hall Trust, set up by Tagore’s colleague Leonard Elmhirst, is near Totnes, and gave rise to a community sympathetic to alternative ideas.

[10] Rob Hopkins, The Transition Companion: Making Your Community More Resilient in Uncertain Times (Totnes, Devon: Green Books, 2011), p. 292.

[11] Re/Presenting Class: Essays in Postmodern Marxism, ed. by J. K. Gibson-Graham, Stephen Resnick and Richard Wolff (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2001)

[12] Louis Althusser, For Marx, trans. by Ben Brewster (London: Verso, 1982) and Louis Althusser and Étienne Balibar, Reading Capital.

[13] Christine Marsh, ‘The Village and the World: A Political Reading of Rabindranath Tagore’s Prose Fiction’ (unpublished master’s dissertation, Open University, 2006)

[14] Martin Haigh, ‘Deep Ecology Education: Learning from its Vaisnava Roots’, Canadian Journal of Environmental Education, 11 (2006), 43-56 (p. 43).

[15] Bill Devall and George Sessions, Deep Ecology: Living as if Nature Mattered (Layton, Utah: Peregrine Books, 1985), pp. 65-6.

[16] Warwick Fox, Toward a Transpersonal Ecology: Developing New Foundations for Environmentalism (Boston, MA: Shambhala, 1990), pp. 103-18.

[17] Rabindranath Tagore, ‘The World of Personality’, in Personality (London: Macmillan, 1919 [1917]), pp. 41-74 (pp. 73-4).

[18] M.K. Ghandi, [His answer to three questions], in Contemporary Indian Philosophy, ed. by Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1952 [1936]), p. 21.

[19] Some theologians argue that Hindu non-dualism or advaita is not the same as monism, for example, M.P. Christanand states that translation of advaita by ‘monism’ shows a failure to express the idea of absolute transcendence. (The Philosophy of Indian Monotheism (Delhi: Macmillan Company of India, 1979), p. 92.) One can pursue this argument satisfactorily for Tagore’s religion, but that would be beyond the scope of this paper.

[20] ‘Tagore is a monist, though he does not deny the reality of the world [… and] denounces the negative attitude towards the world’. (P. T. Raju, ‘Metaphysical Currents’, in History of Philosophy Eastern and Western, Volume One, ed. by Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1952) pp. 532-6 (p. 532).)

[21] Tagore, ‘The Second Birth’, in Personality, pp.77-107 (p. 101).

[22] E.g. see 30 mentions of Gandhi in The English Writings of Rabindranath Tagore, Volume THREE: A Miscellany , ed. by Sisir Kumar Das (New Delhi: Sahitya Akademi, 1996) and Marjorie Sykes, ‘Gandhi and Tagore: The Double Sadhana’, in Patel and Sykes, pp. 52-70.

[23] Jawaharlal Nehru, The Discovery of India (London: Meridian, 1951), pp. 318-9.

[24] Bill Devall and George Sessions, Deep Ecology, pp. 70-3.

[25] Rabindranath Tagore, ‘The Cult of the Charka’, in The English Writings of Rabindranath Tagore, Volume THREE: A Miscellany , ed. by Sisir Kumar Das (New Delhi: Sahitya Akademi, 1996), pp. 538-48.

[26] Rabindranath Tagore, ‘Mahatma Gandhi’, in Tagore on Gandhi (New Delhi: Rupa, 2008), pp. 8-18 (pp. 10-13).

[27] ‘Mahatma Gandhi’, p. 8.

[28] Khadi is cloth made from yarn spun with the charka. See Gandhi on ‘the economics of Khadi’ in Anjan Chakrabarti and Stephen Cullenburg, ‘Development and Class Transition in India’, in Gibson-Graham et al, pp. 182-205 (p. 182).

[29] Nehru, pp. 318-9.

[30] Karl Marx, ‘The British Rule in India’, in K. Marx and F. Engels, The First Indian War of Independence 1857-1859 (Moscow: Foreign Languages Publishing House, [n.d.]), pp.14-21, (p.20). (Originally published in the New-York Daily Tribune, 25 June 1853.)

[31] E.P. Thompson, ‘The Field Labourers’, in The Making of the English Working Class (Harmondsworth, Middx: Penguin, 1968), pp. 233-58 (p. 239).

[32] ‘City and Village’, pp. 308-9.

[33] ‘[…] I hope I shall have the opportunity on my return for another talk with Your Excellency in regard to what has been my life’s work and in which I feel you take genuine personal interest.’ Letter from Tagore to His Excellency, The Viceroy, dated 28th February 1930, applying for an Imperial grant for agricultural research. (The Dartington Hall Trust Archive, Papers of Leonard Knight Elmhirst, LKE India, LKE/IN/25 Folder A, ‘Visva-Bharati correspondence’.) (my emphasis).

[34] ‘City and Village’, p. 322.

[35] Marjorie Hessell Tiltman, English Earth (London: Harrap, 1935), pp. 297-302.

[36] Matthew Keep, ‘Agriculture: historical statistics’ (London: House of Commons Library, 2009).

[37] <; [accessed 16/03/11].

[38] Twenty years ago a progressive college with similar aims to Tagore’s university was established on Dartington land and premises, and named ‘Schumacher College’.

[39] Rabindranath Tagore, ‘An Eastern University’, in Creative Unity (London: Macmillan, 1922), pp. 169-203 (pp. 200-1).

[40] The Essential Gandhi: An Anthology of His Writings on His Life, Work, and Ideas, ed. by Louis Fischer (New York: Vintage, 2002), p. 250.

[41] Chakrabarti and Cullenburg, pp. 184-5.

[42] Chakrabarti and Cullenburg, pp. 186-9.

[43] Chakrabarti and Cullenburg, p. 194.

[44] W. E. Tate, The English Village Community and the Enclosure Movements (London: Victor Gollancz, 1967)

[45] E.J. Hobsbawn, Industry and Empire: An Economic History of Britain Since 1750 (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1969)

[46] Robert John Hopkins, ‘Localisation and Resilience at the Local Level: The Case of Transition Town Totnes’ (Devon, UK) (doctoral thesis, University of Plymouth, 2010)

[47] Intriguingly, at the time of writing, the British government is promoting what it calls ‘localism’, more to enable cuts in expenditure rather than empower local people.

[48] Chakrabarti and Cullenburg, p. 188.

[49] Guha, Ranajit, Dominance Without Hegemony: History and Power in Colonial India (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1997), pp. 13-20.

[50] Anisur Rahman, ‘Roots of action research and self-reliance thinking in Rabindranath Tagore’, Action Research, 4 (2006), 231-45 (p. 232).

[51] Hiranmay Banerjee, Rabindranath Tagore (New Delhi: Ministry of Information & Broadcasting, Government of India, 1971), p. 149.

[52] Chakrabarti and Cullenburg, pp. 189-90.

[53] Rabindranath Tagore, ‘The Modern Age’, in Creative Unity, pp. 115-30 (p. 120).

[54] Rabindranath Tagore, ‘Man’s Universe’, in The Religion of Man: Being the Hibbert Lectures for 1930 (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1931), pp. 13-24 (p. 13).

[55] Appendix II: Note on the Nature of Reality, in The Religion of Man, pp. 222-225 (p. 222).

[56] John Farrell, The Day Without Yesterday: Lemaître, Einstein, and the Birth of Modern Cosmology (New York: Thunder’s Mouth, 2005), pp. 76-91, p. 231.

[57] ‘Man’s Universe’, p. 13.

[58] ‘Man’s Universe’, pp. 14-15.

[59] ‘Man’s Universe’, p. 17.

[60] John Theodore Merz, Religion and Science: A Philosophical Essay (Edinburgh: William Blackwood & Sons, 1915).

[61] Rabindranath Tagore, ‘Man’s Nature’, in The Religion of Man, pp. 143-55 (Initial sentences of first four paragraphs of pp. 143-4).

[62] ‘Man’s Nature’, p. 149.

[63] Dipesh Chakrabarty, Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2008), pp. 152-3.

[64] Rabindranath Tagore, ‘The Vision’, in The Religion of Man, pp. 90-108 (p. 108).

[65] Stephan Harding, Animate Earth: Science, Intuition and Gaia, 2nd edn (Totnes: Green, 2009), p. 49.

[66] ‘25’, in ‘I: Poems’, in English Writings IV, p. 28.

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