Rabindranath Tagore was a Bengali poet, writer, educator and composer who lived from 1861 until 1941. He won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1913 with his collection of poems, “Gitanjali”. One of his songs is still the national anthem of India. He exchanged letters and ideas with many other influential people of his time, including Gandhi and Einstein. I would like to offer one of his letters here, written from his school in Shantiniketan, West Bengal, India on 26 October 1917, to his friend in England, artist William Rothenstein, for I believe it contains wisdom and relevance to today’s world.
My Dearest Friend,
It has given me a deep pleasure to know that my last three books you like. I had my fear that my American lectures, especially those about nationalism, might give offence to my readers in England. Possibly to some extent they have done so. But most of the reviews that I have seen in your papers are extremely mild. Some critics have taxed me with having misunderstood the meaning of the word ‘nation’. I suppose it is one of those words whose meaning is still in its process of formation. If you really mean by that word the peoples who have the consciousness of a common tradition and aspiration then why do you exclude us Bengalis from its category? For you are never tired of reminding us that we do not belong to a nation. When we try to understand you we find that our tradition and aspiration are of a different character from yours – it is more religious and social than political. Therefore it seems to me that the word nation in its meaning carries a special emphasis upon its political character. Politics becomes aggressively self-conscious when it sets itself in antagonism against other peoples, specially when it extends its dominion among alien races. This convulsive intensity of consciousness is productive of strength but not of health. The rapid growth of nationalism in Europe begins with her period of foreign exploration and exploitation. Its brilliance shines in contrast upon the dark background of the subjection of other peoples. Certainly it is based upon the idea of competition, conflict and conquest and not that of cooperation. The unselfish people have not completely lost their self, only the selfish ones put stronger emphasis upon it and thus have a special designation. And the people with an aggressively emphatic politics is a nation. The [professional man] has very often a special attitude of mind. There he feels an intense satisfaction if he can sell a lame horse at a price which is dear even for a sound one. Because in [his] profession [a] man has no other object before him but success. He may have an exalted standard of life in his private capacity and yet as a professional man his conduct may go entirely against that standard, without disturbing his appetite for dinner. Therefore it is not unusual to find rapacious landlords who are extravagant in their generosity. That grasping professional attitude of mind makes a nation of a people when it furiously pursues success and takes it to be a sign of sentimentalism to budge an inch from its reckless path of power at the dictates of humanity. What I have said in my lectures is that such an attitude of mind in a whole people of a country, such constant self-idolatry by all kinds of ritualism and human sacrifice must go against moral providence of the world ending at least in a catastrophe.
By some unexpected freak of fate I was caught in a dust storm of our politics. I have just come out of it nearly choked to death. I am more convinced than ever that a poet might do worse than write mere verses. Try to be true to yourself by all means but not to be truer which is a hollow temptation set in our path by moral teachers.
Give my love to [your] dear children and tell them not to grow too fast before I come to see them. Because that will be unfair to me who can only grow older without growing at all.