Tagore’s Long View of Man and his Impact

‘For generations, the conquest of Nature has been accepted as man’s prerogative. But man is a part of Nature, it being his essential environment, and unless he can find his rightful place in it he has poor hope of survival. Man’s present behaviour often resembles that of an over-successful parasite which, in killing its host, accomplishes also its own death.
‘Man’s environment is the whole natural scene, the earth with its soil and water, its plants and its animals. In many places these have reached a natural balance which man disturbs at his peril.’ (C.I. Boyle, ‘Mother Earth’, Journal of the Soil Association, VIII (1954, 3.)[1]

This is the epigraph to an article by William A. Albrecht entitled ‘Physical, Chemical, and Biochemical Changes in the Soil Community’, in a huge volume of proceedings from the international symposium on ‘Man’s Role in Changing the Face of the Earth’, which took place in Princeton in 1955.


People nowadays (including my PhD research supervisors) are uncomfortable with the word ‘man’ being used for human beings in general. But the word is convenient grammatically. Also Tagore used it, both as a translation of ‘manusher’, the Bengali equivalent which is not gendered, and to refer to the males of our species who drive the modern ‘civilization of power’. Tagore’s views on man’s and woman’s roles are evident from this extract from his essay ‘Woman’, which he wrote as a lecture for his American tour in 1916:

‘At the present stage of history civilization is almost exclusively masculine, a civilization of power, in which woman has been thrust aside in the shade. Therefore it has lost its balance and it is moving by hopping from war to war. Its motive forces are the forces of destruction, and its ceremonials are carried through by an appalling number of human sacrifices, This one-sided civilization is crashing along a series of catastrophes at a tremendous speed because of its one-sidedness. And at last the time has arrived when woman must step in and impart her life rhythm to this reckless movement of power.
‘For woman’s function is the passive function of the soil, which not only helps the tree to grow but keeps its growth within limits. The tree must have life’s adventure and send up and spread out its branches on all sides, but all its deeper bonds of relation are hidden and held firm in the soil and this helps it to live. Our civilization must also have its passive element, broad and deep and stable. It must not be mere growth but harmony of growth. It must not be all tune but it must have its time also. This time is not a barrier, it is what the banks are to the river; they guide into permanence the current which otherwise would lose itself in the amorphousness of morass. It is rhythm, the rhythm which does not check the world’s movements but leads them into truth and beauty.
‘Woman is endowed with the passive qualities of chastity, modesty, devotion and power of self- sacrifice in a greater measure than man is. It is the passive quality in nature which turns its monster forces into perfect creations of beauty—taming the wild elements into the delicacy of tenderness fit for the service of life. This passive quality has given woman that large and deep placidity which is so necessary for the healing and nourishing and storing of life. If life were all spending, then it would be like a rocket, going up in a flash and coming down the next moment in ashes. Life should be like a lamp where the potentiality of light is far greater in quantity than what appears as the flame.’ (Tagore, ‘Woman’.)[2]

Tagore makes one think, and think deeply, and in such a way that one does not need to adopt his exact words and meanings. In this instance, his point need not betaken as relating (only) to gender as such, or men’s and women’s roles in traditional or modern society. What is more important is that he shows by this essay on ‘Woman’ that ‘Man’ (Manusher) needs what he calls ‘passive qualities […] for the healing and nourishing and storing of life.

For Tagore, there was always a practical aspect to his ideas. For me, at this point in time wanting to reconnect to the work and concerns I was engaged with before I heard of Tagore, the practical aspect can be an alternative food growing system, with another quotation from Man’s Role: a section on ‘Swidden’.

[1] Epigraph, William A. Albrecht, ‘Physical, Chemical, and Biochemical Changes in the Soil Community’, in Man’s Role in Changing the Face of the Earth: An Internationals Symposium, ed. by William L. Thomas (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1956), pp. 648-73 (p. 648).

[2] Rabindranath Tagore, ‘Woman’, in Personality: Lectures Delivered in America (London: Macmillan, 1917), pp. 169-84 (pp. 172-3).

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