Tagore and the Environment

Tagore should not be called an ‘environmentalist’, a term from the 1970s,[1] but in his work as an educator and rural reformer we can say that he believed in ‘thinking globally and acting locally’, an early slogan for the modern environmental movement.

The world has changed a great deal since Tagore’s lifetime. The human impact on the global environment has been profound and detrimental, making many irreversible changes to the land surface, oceans and atmosphere, hence the term Anthropocene has been coined for the current geological epoch. Today the words ‘environment’ and ‘environmental’, similarly ‘ecology’ and ‘ecological’, have acquired negative connotations from our concerns over threats such as climate change and mass species extinctions. It was not so in Tagore’s day. In his writings in English the word ‘environment’ occurs infrequently and with positive or neutral connotations as here:

[I]n India it was in the forests that our civilisation had its birth, and it took a distinct character from this origin and environment. It was surrounded by the vast life of nature, was fed and clothed by her, and had the closest and most constant intercourse with her varying aspects.[2]

Tagore would have appreciated the definition of ‘environmental’ used by his young friend, the geographer and musician, Arthur Geddes: ‘the natural characters and features of the country [combined with] those for which man is responsible’.[3] For Tagore there was a spiritual dimension to how the natural and the social together make a country:

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.[4]

We see here themes we could take forward to bring out positive connotations to ‘Tagore and the Environment’ such as ‘unity of people within natural boundaries’, ‘people and place through time in the traditional myths and epics’, and ‘pilgrimages to sacred places’.

Taking ‘environment’ to refer to ‘people and place’ can usefully be extended to the elements of sociology ‘Place, Work, Folk’ adopted by Tagore’s friend Patrick Geddes, who shared Tagore’s mission of bringing back ‘life in its completeness’ to India’s and the world’s depressed villages and alienated cities.[5] We can say that Tagore and Geddes believed in synthesis rather than narrow specialisation and analysis, in life as a whole and in education for life.

When Tagore is described as ‘a poet who was an indefatigable man of action’,[6] we think of the environment in which much of his activity took place, which was an international university in rural Bengal with links to the villages and tribal people in the surrounding countryside.[7] Tagore was a visionary who was capable of initiating practical action, but he had many competing interests and demands on his time and energy. He was averse to planning, was perhaps not a great administrator or manager, and it is known that he suffered periods of depression and despair, particularly over the state of the wider world. It is significant that in the 1920s when his hopes for his own projects was highest, he expressed his fears about the direction of the modern world, led by the West and dragging India after it.

In his essay ‘The Modern Age’ Tagore writes of ‘idolatry of money’ whereby ‘[t]he whole of the human world, throughout its length and breadth, has felt the gravitational pull of a giant planet of greed’.[8] In ‘City and Village’ he relates a fable about the moon people whose greedy plunder ‘outstripped nature’s power of recuperation’. Tagore concludes the story by saying: ‘My imaginary selenites behave exactly in the way that human beings are today behaving on this earth’.[9] It is as if Tagore were anticipating the US-led ‘development project’ dating from 1944 which let giant multinational corporations loose on the decolonizing world, to the detriment of planet and people.

Tagore begins ‘the Modern Age’ by contrasting the ‘natural expression’ of social relationships in ‘works of art’, with how ‘pure utility’ humiliates man and maltreats things of beauty. He illustrates this by telling us of his pain from seeing how factories making jute sacks have ruined the scenery of the Ganges. He looks back to ‘the mother-call of the river Ganges’ in a different age, when India nourished civilisation on its banks. The rest of the essay ranges over the social, political, economic and identity aspects of modern utility, with scarcely any reference to the environment. It may appear that Tagore had become a globalist, caught up in utilitarian issues and arguments, which is a trap we can all fall into, with so many grave concerns requiring individual commitment and political action. But we know that through all the years Tagore was travelling abroad on his lecture tours, most of the time he was at home working towards building a new India one village at a time.

Tagore regarded reviving village India as his ‘life’s work’,[10] and indeed it occupied fifty years of his life, from the 1890s when he was a responsible and engaged landlord on the Tagore family estates in East Bengal (now Bangladesh), to the next four decades at Santiniketan and the surrounding villages which became the focus of the Sriniketan project. Tagore’s message to environmentalists today must surely be that the only way to save the world is to act locally, reconnect with place and community, nature and culture, craft and creativity.

Bengali sociologist and economist, Sasadhar Sinha, in his book Social Thinking of Rabindranath Tagore, suggests that Tagore’s ideal of human unity ‘could only come when the present possibilities of compromise and reform had been completely exhausted’, and that this would involve ‘the disappearance of one’s own familiar world’.[11] Tagore regarded the ‘modern age’ as a phase during which humanity took a wrong turning, led by the West but dragging Asia after it. In his last public address ‘Crisis in Civilization’, Tagore indicated that he foresaw a ‘new chapter in history after the cataclysm is over and the atmosphere rendered clean with the spirit of service and sacrifice’. Have we reached the time for Tagore’s new dawn?

This discussion raises many questions about the relevance today of Tagore’s ideas and practice, such as the following:

  • When Tagore uses phrases such as the ‘unity of people within natural boundaries’, ‘people and place through time in the traditional myths and epics’, and ‘pilgrimages to sacred places’, can this help today’s environmentalists to adopt positive attitudes and approaches to solving environmental problems?
  • Patrick Geddes and Arthur Geddes both worked with Tagore at Santiniketan and Sriniketan. How did their ideas on ‘Place, Work, Folk’ and ‘people and place’ apply to Tagore’s mission of bringing back ‘life in its completeness’ to India’s and the world’s depressed villages and alienated cities?
  • Arthur Geddes spent the summer of 1923 working at Sriniketan, and wrote an article for the Modern Review with an ‘appeal for funds and gifts in kind’, supported by a vivid and enthusiastic progress report on how ‘the Institution has got into its stride and is well on the way to finding further solutions towards a happier countryside’. What were the strengths and weaknesses, the successes and failures of Tagore’s efforts to help struggling and hopeless rural people to help themselves?
  • Tagore’s friend Leonard Elmhirst helped Tagore establish Sriniketan and went on to found a Centre for Rural Reconstruction, the Dartington Hall Trust in Devon. Both ventures were ambitious and practical, and achieved some considerable successes for several decades, but changed character following the deaths of their founders, leaving behind substantial archives. What can we learn from these attempts a century ago at reviving and sustaining local communities and economies to help us meet today’s challenges?
  • Tagore established an international university in rural Bengal with links to the villages and tribal people in the surrounding countryside. What lessons can we learn from the ongoing debate about whether or not there is an enduring legacy to this work, and indeed is there is any hope for ‘The Restoration of the Peasantries’ (G.T. Wrench) in India or elsewhere in the world?
  • Tagore’s message to environmentalists today is that the only way to save the world is to act locally, reconnect with place and community, nature and culture, craft and creativity. How is that possible now that more than half the world’s people live in cities? There are international movements and networks today aimed at relocalisation, in particular encouraging local food production and community building. How might Tagore’s ideas help such efforts to succeed?
  • Uma Das Gupta has specialised in the ‘lesser known aspects’ of Tagore’s life, his ‘work as an educator and rural reformer’. In her short biography she describes Tagore as ‘a poet who was an indefatigable man of action’, emphasising that he was Poet first and foremost. In commemorative collections in particular we find the ‘lesser known aspects’ often presented last, after chapters on his lyric poetry and other literary genres. Das Gupta has also written that Tagore himself wrote little about his work as an educator and rural reformer; that to know about this work one has to gather comments by participants and material from meetings and administration. And yet Tagore described his practical projects as ‘what has been my life’s work’. Why has this vitally important topic been neglected by Tagore scholars?
  • The 1890s was a formative period in Tagore’s life, revealed in the collection Letters from a Young Poet (1887-1895) and in his short stories. What can we learn from these writing about Tagore’s passionate involvement with the natural world and his sympathy with village people? What other writings might we concentrate on to understand Tagore’s concerns about place and people?
  • Patrick Colm Hogan has identified alternative forms of identity connected to a contrast, and ongoing shift, between traditional village society and modern urban society. Traditional society is rooted in the land, is largely self-reliant, socially and economically, and people’s identity roles are vocational and probably inherited. In modern urban society, that kind of secure identity is lost, and people increasingly come to define themselves by labels such as nationality, ethnicity, or religion, which constrain their conduct, activities and social engagement. Tagore observes in his essay ‘The Nation’ how professionalism and specialisation have similar defects and dangers, bringing a narrow, impersonal rigidity to the modern world. Would a focus on identity politics help us understand what Tagore was trying to achieve with his work on rural reconstruction?
  • During his lectures tours around the world Tagore spoke of his fears and concerns about what he called the ‘Nation of the West’ driving its tentacles of machinery deep down into the soil, and of the ‘gravitational pull of a giant planet of greed’ in the Modern Age. One can imagine his scepticism about the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (IBRD), the world’s largest development bank, which ‘provides financial products and policy advice to help countries reduce poverty and extend the benefits of sustainable growth to all of their people’. How might we evaluate the whole development project from in light of Tagore’s understanding of the ill-fated modern age and its ecological excesses?
  • Tagore believed that while Europe was a sea-faring civilization India was a culture founded in the forest. How does Tagore’s understanding of ecological questions play into his view of the respective roles of East and West in the modern world?
  • In ‘Robbery of the Soil’ (as well as in other places) Tagore suggests a balance between the city and the countryside. How might we view the enormous demotion of agriculture in the modern world in this context?
  • For Tagore human self-realization in freedom was impossible without the coming together of the inner and the outer worlds of humanity. In this regard, how might we think of a spiritual ecology urgently relevant for the 21st century?

There is an opportunity to publish your article on ‘Tagore and the Environment’ in the online journal Gitanjali and Beyond (http://gitanjaliandbeyond.napier.ac.uk ).


[1] Joachim Radkau, The Age of Ecology, p. 1.

[2] Tagore, ‘The Relation of the Individual to the Universe’, in Sadhana, p. 4. The essays which Tagore wrote himself in English are available in electronic format, making them readily searchable. There is only one occurrence of ‘environment’ in Sadhana, but over 100 occurrences of ‘nature’ and derivatives.

[3] Arthur Geddes, ‘Environmental Regions of Bengal and its Borderlands’, in Man and Land in South Asia (New Delhi: Concepr, 1982), p. 188.

[4] Tagore, ‘Mahatma Gandhi’, in Tagore on Gandhi (New Delhi: Rupa, 2008), pp. 8-18 (p. 8).

[5] Philip Boardman, The Worlds of Patrick Geddes: Biologist, Town Planner, Re-Educator, Peace-Warrior (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1978), pp. 404-5.

[6] Uma Das Gupta, Rabindranath Tagore: A Biography.

[7] Tagore, ‘An Eastern University’, in Creative Unity, pp. 200-1.

[8] Tagore, ‘The Modern Age’, in Creative Unity, pp. 113-130.

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

[10] ‘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.’ (Tagore, Letter to H.E., The Viceroy, 28 February 1930, The Dartington Hall Trust Archive, Papers of Leonard Knight Elmhirst, LKE India, LKE/IN/25 Folder A, ‘Visva-Bharati correspondence’.)

[11] Sasadhar Sinha, ‘The Ideal of Human Unity’, in Social Thinking of Rabindranath Tagore (London: Asia Publishing House, 1962), pp. 43-53 (p. 53).

This entry was posted in environment, Rabindranath Tagore, rural reconstruction, social reform, Transition movement and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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