In his 1922 essay ‘The Nation’ Tagore wrote that ‘all systems produce evil sooner or later, when the psychology which is at the root of them is wrong’. What Tagore meant by the ‘psychology’ at the root of all systems, such that they produce ‘evil’, is that systems are dehumanising. My favourite of Tagore’s many sayings on that subject is this one:
‘In the West the national machinery of commerce and politics turns out neatly compressed bales of humanity which have their use and high market value; but they are bound in iron hoops, labelled and separated off with scientific care and precision. Obviously God made man to be human; but this modern product has such marvellous square-cut finish, savouring of gigantic manufacture, that the Creator will find it difficult to recognize it as a thing of spirit and a creature made in his own divine image.’ (‘Nationalism in the West’)
Tagore’s assertion that ‘all systems produce evil’ has always intrigued me because my paid career over more than 25 years was in Information Systems – followed by 10 years researching and teaching on land degradation (unpaid) and then 10 years devoted to Tagore studies (unpaid and expensive in university fees and much else).
My three-part career has given me a unique perspective on why we need Tagore’s vision now. In my 25 years as a systems analyst I designed dehumanising systems. The overall effect of the work systems analysts like myself did over that period is that an enormous number of clerical and middle management jobs have gone: replaced by computer systems. The opinion has been voiced in the newspapers recently that the older generation (my own) is very privileged. We own our own houses outright, we have savings and secure pensions and money to spend on travel etc., whereas the younger generation struggle to find work and cannot afford to buy their homes, struggle to pay the rent, and some have to go back and live with their parents. I feel bad about having contributed to that generational disparity – but I was only doing my job – designing dehumanising systems, i.e. systems meant to save labour costs and to be more efficient (I worked in both the private and the public sectors). My concerns at that time were more on what human systems were doing to the planet, hence my 10 years researching land degradation.
Naomi Klein has written that we are ‘living on a planet that is dying, made less alive every day’. Her book is entitled ‘This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate’. She spells out what her title means as follows:
‘[T]he thing about a crisis this big, this all-encompassing, is that it changes everything. It changes what we can do, what we can hope for, what we can demand from ourselves and our leaders. It means there is a whole lot of stuff that we have been told is inevitable that simply cannot stand. And it means that a whole lot of stuff we have been told is impossible has to start happening right away. Can we pull it off? All I know is that nothing is inevitable. Nothing except that climate change changes everything. And for a very brief time, the nature of that change is still up to us.’
I have not yet read Klein’s book. My quotes are taken from extracts published in The Guardian on 8-9 March 2015. I am pretty sure she will not have mentioned Tagore, but I know that the changes needed go much deeper than doing without luxuries and building local economies to be more self-reliant and resilient – although Tagore would approve of those things. I have been an atheist all my life and so I resisted seeing Tagore as a mystic, as a spiritual guru, but I now understand that aspect of his teachings, and how it is connected to his practical projects in progressive education and rural reconstruction. I wrote an article recently for a new online journal called Gitanjali and Beyond, by the Scottish Centre of Tagore Studies (ScoTs) of Edinburgh Napier University. This is the abstract of my article:
‘The subject of this paper is the relevance of Rabindranath 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’. 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 chapter in history’. There are signs of national and international power and control weakening, and the neoliberal economic system becoming unviable. The crisis of democratic capitalism could lead to disruption or disaster, or else be an opportunity for re-localisation such as Tagore advocated. There are movements for world change today focussed on taking responsibility for looking after ourselves and the environment directly through community involvement and decision-making. The Permaculture Movement is of particular interest for its ethical basis and practical approach resembling Tagore’s. This movement is poised to expand from its early years as a niche and fringe lifestyle choice, and it could be encouraged and affirmed by association with one of the greatest thinkers of the modern age.’
I wrote above that ‘[m]y three-part career has given me a unique perspective on why we need Tagore’s vision now’. The irony is that my 25 years in Information Systems and 10 years on land degradation are proving to be handicap in my efforts to get my monograph on Tagore published. My book is based on my PhD thesis. I spent a year revising that to make it accessible to both academic and general readers, hoping to get it published by an academic publisher which had published other books on Tagore. But it was turned down, I fear because I am not a career academic, as is clear from my CV. Never mind! I’ve decided to embark on an even bigger revision, to include in my monograph much more on Tagore’s relevance to the present crisis. My working title is Turning To Tagore.