Tagore on India’s dangerous mistake

In a lecture which Tagore delivered in India and abroad he describes the principles behind the local economy to be established at his university Visva-Bharati:

‘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.’ (Tagore, ‘An Eastern University’)

In his lectures on Nationalism delivered in the US and Japan in 1916-7 Tagore explains why it would be a dangerous mistake for India to follow the West into centralised government by the nation state. The nearest we have today to Tagore’s alternative of ‘rural reconstruction’ is Transition and Permaculture, which are about rebuilding communities and drawing up designs and plans to gradually relocalise the economy to use local resources as far as possible. The communities which get together may be villages or towns, and also urban neighbourhoods, and there are thousands of examples of this approach around the world. The local economies which are devised are very diverse because each is designed for the particular locality and people.

Recently I presented conference papers on how Tagore’s approach, and Transition and Permaculture as today’s equivalent to what Tagore attempted, are the world’s only hope for averting ecological and social disaster. These are the abstracts of these papers:

‘Tagore and Transition: Saving the World for Fun’, at Exeter University, 5 September 2014.

‘How do we respond to seeing our world under threat: from climate change, resource depletion, species extinctions, land degradation? We surely want to do what we can to save it, but what for? Do we aim to avert the most extreme threats in order to continue abusing the world, and probably making most people miserable? Perhaps we can find ways to save the world and make people happier at the same time. Two initiatives a century apart: Tagore and Transition, make conviviality, creativity and celebration central to their approach to world change. The poet and polymath Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941) aimed for cooperative self-reliance for Indian villages, seeking to overcome caste, class and religious divisions. He emphasised the importance of arts and crafts, including performing plays and music together. A similar ethos is evident in today’s Transition Initiatives – now numbering thousands in over forty countries. A study has shown that participants value conviviality and enjoyment equally with making progress towards the goals of moving their local economy away from dependence on fossil fuels. There is a circumstantial connection between Tagore and Transition in that the first Transition Town was established in Totnes, near Dartington, where Tagore’s colleague and friend Leonard Elmhirst carried out his own experiment in rural reconstruction, modelled on Tagore’s. In this paper I examine the aims and approaches of Tagore and Transition to test the idea that community self-help focussed on personal freedom and satisfaction is a viable and attractive solution to today’s social and ecological crisis.’

‘Understanding Tagore through Deep Ecology, Deep Anthropology and Political Theology’, at ‘Tagore and Spirituality Conference, Edinburgh, 8 November.

‘The aim of this paper is to consider the relevance of Tagore’s spirituality to the challenges we face in the world today. Tagore wrote to his friend Charlie Andrews in 1921 that he had realised that his Sadhana talks were helpful to Western readers, and hence his mission was ‘to work towards the true union of East and West’. The spiritual worldview Tagore brought to the West from 1912 onwards has been defined by Bengali scholars as ‘the integration of man and nature and God’. In order to bring Tagore’s message nearer to our time, I have translated this concept into modern terms: ‘Deep Ecology, Deep Anthropology and Political Theology’, themes which run through the texts of the lectures he gave on his foreign tours. Tagore warned that the machine age would be disastrous for planet and people but he seemed to offer no solution. In his addresses to his own people, Tagore urged a return to traditional village based society, and he described his practical experiments in rural reconstruction as ‘what has been my life’s work’. There is a movement for world change which resembles Tagore’s life’s work, the Transition Movement which was founded in 2006 as a response to the threats of Climate Change and Peak Oil. The aim is to reduce demand for fossil fuel energy by working towards local self-reliance and resilience, but apathy and denial may prevent Transition interesting more than a concerned minority of environmentalist and socialists. It is not easy to interest people concerned about the present crisis in a spiritual guru who has been dead for over seventy years. Tagore predicted that the dehumanising and destructive modern systems would come to an end, making way for a new dawn. There are signs of national and international power and control weakening, which may be disastrous or an opportunity for re-localisation, for taking responsibility for looking after ourselves and the environment directly through community involvement and decision-making.’


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