By Hiranmay Karlekar
May 19th, 2012
Rabindranath Tagore based his idea of Humanism on the teachings of the Upanishads. Which is why it has the flavour of universalism
Tagore’s Humanism, based on the Upanishads, makes for harmonious existence. The year-long celebrations following Rabindranath Tagore’s 150th birthday, ended on May 8. These reminded one of the massive diversity of Tagore’s work and what he stood for. The latter is particularly relevant at this juncture for the whole world.
The essence of Tagore’s weltanschauung is his inextinguishable faith in humanity. Nothing underlines this more clearly than his address, Shabhyatar Shankat (Crisis of Civilisation) delivered at the celebrations to mark his 80th birthday on the 25th of Baisakh, 1348 (May 8, 1941) of the Bengali calendar. The world was then plunged into the monstrous violence of World War II. Earlier, Hitler had launched his hideous persecution of Jews and Japan had unleashed a reign of unspeakable atrocities in China. The erstwhile Soviet Union was reeling under the impact of Stalin’s murderous purges.
Tagore began his address by saying that his early acquaintance with the West was through its uplifting literature which had made him a deep admirer of it. He even hoped like many others that Britain would, in keeping with its libertarian traditions, guide India to freedom. His faith in the West had been shattered by Britain’s exploitative and savagely repressive rule and the West’s insane propensity to violence. He said he no longer believed in the West’s emancipatory role and humankind’s new leader would arise in the East. As translated by this writer, one of the most striking passages in the address reads:
“But it is a sin to lose faith in human beings; I shall protect this faith to the last. I would hope that after the total, all-encompassing destruction, there would perhaps begin a pure self-unfolding of history on the cloudless sky of renunciation on the Eastern horizon where the Sun rises. And one day, unvanquished human beings will surmount all obstacles and advance on a victorious journey to regain their lost status. I consider it a crime to believe that humankind’s limitless, unredressable might is the ultimate [reality].
I will say today before going that the day has come before us to prove that the power-drunk arrogance of even the mightiest is not safe.”
Tagore was a Humanist in his faith in the infinite potential of humans. His Humanism, however, went far beyond Western Humanism which put humans at the centre of the universe, and whose essence has been best encapsulated in the Greek Sophist Protagoras’ enduring aphorism, “Man is the measure of all things.” It is a philosophy that attributes humankind’s pre-eminence in the universe to its possession of reason which is also the source of morality as reduced to rules enabling social existence. Reason, however, is an instrument of analysis and investigation which can produce both morality and immorality, rationalise the latter as the former and provide means to circumvent moral codes.
The application of reason to devise tools of analysis and investigation has led to a phenomenal progress of science and technology and humankind’s increasing mastery over nature. While contributing to a massive expansion of human freedom, the process has also bred an attitude toward nature akin to that of colonial rulers toward their colonies. This has led to a heedless plunder of nature and a way of life that threatens the world with environmental disaster besides spawning an overweening arrogance of power which, compounded by a ruthless competition for the earth’s resources, has triggered savage warfare.
The cruelty and destructiveness of Western civilisation, underlined by the horror of the two World Wars of the 20th century and the oppression of British rule in India symbolised by the Jalianwallah Bagh massacre, accounted for Tagore’s disillusionment with the Occident. But even before this happened, he had evolved his own world view which was very different from the West’s. Reason was a component but not the defining attribute of his Humanism which rested on his profound spirituality steeped in the philosophy of Upanishads, which was personalised by a deep influence of the Bhakti cult.
Commenting on S Radhakrishnan’s translation of the principal Upanishads, Tagore wrote that the symbolical expressions used in the Upanishads convey messages that “like some eternal source of life, still illumine and vitalise the religious mind of India.”
The defining characteristic of the Upanishads is their transcendental, monist metaphysics. God, Brahman or the Universal Consciousness, is present is present in humans as the Atman or the individual soul which has all the attributes of Brahman. It is also present in everyone and everything else. The Mundaka Upanishad says, “Self-luminous is that Being, and formless. He dwells within all and without all. He is unborn, pure, greater than the greatest, without breath, without mind.” (Translation by Swami Prabhavananda and Frederick Manchester in The Upanishads: The breath of the Eternal)
The Svetasvatara Upanishad says, addressing Brahman, “Thou art the fire, /Thou art the sun, / Thou art the moon, / Thou art the starry firmament, / Thou art Brahman supreme, / Thou art the waters-Thou, / The creator of all.” (Ibid). The Taittiriya Upanishad states, “The Cosmic Self ... created the whole world of living and non-living things. He created them and then entered into them.” (Translated by Swami Lokeswarananda in Taittiriya Upanishad)
In the Chhandogya Upanishad, the sage Uddaloka Aruni tells Svetaketu that the body dies when the Self leaves it but the Self does not. He then adds, “All that it has is its Self in him alone. He is the truth, He is the subtle essence of all. He is the self. And that, Svetaketu, THAT ART THOU” (translated by Swami Prabhavananda and Frederick Manchester)
Humans derive their lofty status from the Brahman’s presence in them, a presence that links them with the rest of the universe in which Brahman is also present. The dawning of the awareness of the oneness of everything demolishes the colonial attitude toward nature as well as the arrogance that leads to violence. The Isha Upanishad says, “And he who sees all beings in his own self and his own self in all beings, he does not feel any revulsion by reason of such a view.” It adds, “When to, one who knows, all beings have, verily, become one with his own self, then what delusion and what sorrow can be to him who has seen the oneness?” (Translation by S Radhakrishnan)
Tagore’s Humanism, based on the Upanishads, is a philosophy of harmony which celebrates the divinity of the entire Universe. It is truly universal.
Source: The Daily Pioneer, New Delhi