Tagore’s Ideal for the World Today

In 1928 Tagore gave a lecture at Sriniketan, his Institute of Rural Reconstruction, which has since been published in various forms: in Bengali as ‘Palli-prakriti’ and in English as ‘City and Village’ and as ‘The Robbery of the Soil’.[1] Two elements of his talk are particularly relevant to the choices we might make on how to live our lives in the world today. Tagore was talking about rural reconstruction, aware that political attention in his country was focussed on nationalism and the campaign for independence from the British. This may be the reason that he concluded his talk by saying that at Sriniketan they were not thinking of the whole country, but only about ‘one or two villages’. He said that even if they could only free one village ‘from the shackles of helplessness and ignorance’ this would establish ‘an ideal for the whole of India’.[2] In the essay Tagore mentions his colleague Leonard Elmhirst who helped him launch Sriniketan, and who went on to set up a centre for rural reconstruction at Dartington, Devon, UK. This gives the modest aim of freeing one village a global perspective.

A further global perspective is provided by a fable Tagore told as part of his lecture:

‘I often like to imagine that the moon, being smaller in size than the earth, produced life on her soil earlier than the earth. Once, the moon too had her festivals of colour, music, movement; her storehouse was perpetually filled with food. Then, on the moon, a race was born that began greedily to devour its surroundings. Their plunder soon outstripped nature’s power of recuperation. Their profit- makers created wants that were unnatural. They dug deep into the stored capital of nature and ruthlessly exploited her resources. […] My imaginary selenites behave exactly in the way that human beings are today behaving on this earth.’[3]

This judgement was Tagore’s motive for his work to restore India’s village society.

In the final paragraph of ‘City and Village’ Tagore mentions his important lecture from 1904 which was entitled ‘Swadeshi Samaj’, in English ‘Society and State’,[4] in order to point to his idea that with freedom ‘a force from with the people starts functioning’. And it is important to note that Tagore saw this force coming from people working together locally, not from cities or nation states or global institutions.

We can consider Tagore’s idea today as a combination of ‘localisation and cooperation’ and ‘local and global with nothing in between’. This means we aim for local self-reliance by doing the work ourselves, and not looking for policy change for permission or resources. A key question that Tagore did not worry about was ‘Is this possible?’ Tagore’s friend Gandhi did challenge him on this, arguing that Tagore was too reliant on foreign expertise and money.[5] Gandhi’s approach was to reduce local self-reliance to a minimum: food and clothing, both of the simplest kind, achieved by growing food and cotton, and processing both locally. However, Gandhi’s role as leader of the campaign for Indian independence distracted him from his Village Swaraj work, particularly with his scheme of nation-wide spinning for one hour a day as a sacrifice, to convey the message of simplicity, service and nonviolence by ‘creating an indissoluble bond between the rich and the poor, capital and labour, the prince and the peasant’.[6]

Achieving localisation and cooperation today is not going to be distracted by that kind of politics, but we do need to ask the question ‘Is this possible?’

At the most basic level, ‘local and global with nothing in between’ means dividing all the land in the world equally between all the people of the world. The agricultural land is 40% of the total land area which works out as 14 billion acres. Divided between seven and a half billion people that is a little under an acre per person, which should be fine, assuming there are permaculture designers available, capable of working with people to find the best way to grow what they need wherever they are. In theory a vegan diet could support 5 people per acre. Of course, people would cluster together in cooperative groups. On the size of each community, it’s useful to take Dunbar’s Number of 150, based on his research showing that ‘humans can only comfortably maintain 150 stable relationships’. Seven groups of people that size cooperating together locally would make a typical neighbourhood of around 1,000 people on a plot of land of almost 1000 acres.

One obvious response to this picture of complete and equal land reform is ‘That’s never going to happen!’ Another response might be ‘People don’t want to go back to subsistence farming!’ Both those responses come from attitudes typical of people in Western so-called ‘developed’ countries, the most recent stage in the Modern Age which began only a few centuries ago, a brief period indeed given that fully modern humans have existed on the planet for around 200,000 years. We have always modified our environment (as all species do) in a process which can be described as ‘domestication’. Even before modern humans, hominids domesticated fire. At various stages we gradually domesticated plants and animals and also ourselves. In his study of ancient human culture, political scientist and anthropologist James Scott shows that the lives of prehistoric peoples were far from being ‘nasty, brutish and short’ compared to civilised settled agriculturists, rather the reverse: they were bigger, fitter, brainier and more resourceful. Even from the earliest states in 2,500 BCE to a ‘quasi-arbitrary’ date of 1600 CE, the vast majority of people were ‘hunters and gatherers, marine collectors, horticulturists, swiddeners, pastoralists, and a good many farmers who were not effectively governed or taxed by any state’.[7] This suggests that Tagore’s ‘Ideal for the World Today’, a combination of ‘localisation and cooperation’ and ‘local and global with nothing in between’, and aiming for local self-reliance by doing the work ourselves is simply a return to normal. So the answer to ‘Is this Possible?’ is a resounding ‘Yes!’

 

[1] I refer here to ‘City and Village’ as published in Towards Universal Man (London: Asia Publishing House, 1961), pp. 302-322.

[2] p. 322.

[3] pp. 313-4.

[4] ‘Society and State’ (1904), Towards Universal Man, pp. 49-66.

[5] Letter Elmhirst to Tagore, 22 August 1924, ‘The Tagore-Elmhirst Correspondence’, in Purabi: A Miscellany in Memory of Rabindranath Tagore 1941-1991, ed. by Krishna Dutta and Andrew Robinson (London: The Tagore Centre UK, 1991), pp. 72-121 (pp. 85-7).

[6] Village Swaraj, p. 133.

[7] James C. Scott, Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States (Yale University Press, 2017), pp. 219-20.

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