But to give to do good (without love) is demeaning .... The interest one has to give to the money lender surpasses the capital. The interest that the do-gooder extracts is the self-respect of the person. (Tagore 1914: 926)
It is this intense belief of Tagore in the creative urge of human beings that made him reject, as mentioned earlier, Gandhi's call for everyone to spin the charka which he considered to be an impoverishing act. As he said, it is the Mind that is the wealth of the human being, and no external acclaim can save one from the 'intense indignity of mindless labour' (Tagore 1925: 1009-10) Tagore thus frontally questioned the age-old notion of 'dignity of labour' irrespective of the creative character of such labour. The import of this viewpoint for concern for just 'employment generation' - with any kind of employment, as is the concern of standard development economics, calls, for the deepest reflection.
The above gives Tagore's philosophical view of poverty in terms of basic human urges as distinct from needs of other species. But he also reflected on relative levels of living of disadvantaged people as a question of aspiration to share in the fruits of development, and wrote:
"The chief characteristic of a nation which is advancing toward development is that, to the extent possible, the insignificance of every person ... is progressively disappearing. To the extent possible everyone is earning the right to claim the full glory of humanhood. This is why in such a nation people are thinking how everyone can live in 'bhodrochito' (equal to the 'gentry') housing, get respectable education, will eat well, dress well, will be protected from diseases, and will gain sufficient leisure and individuality." (Tagore 1921: 965 ).
Note that in thus characterizing the aspirations of people to enjoy respectable living, which is a relative measure moving up with living styles of the 'gentry' in society, Tagore included sufficient leisure also as part of human needs that also is not provided for in conventional poverty accounting either in absolute or in relative terms.
Finally, Tagore was resolutely against untouchability in Indian culture, a human dimension of poverty against which he stood all his life. His famous musical drama 'Chandalika' is an intense rejection of untouchability as in the following words in the song of the thirsty monk to the girl who had pleaded inability to give him water because she was 'untouchable':
"You are the same human as I am, my daughter,
and the water that quenches the thirst of the thirsty one is holy water. "
Tagore was exposed very early in his life to western culture when he went to England at the age of seventeen. He observed there free mixing of the sexes to which he was very favourable as evidenced in his letters written from England at that time. Nevertheless, he himself married a girl of nine-and-a-half at the age of 22 which was not quite consistent with the concept of freedom of women. This may perhaps be a question more to his father who arranged this marriage than to himself as he was a very obedient son of his father, although one might wonder why this run-away-from-schools boy could not run away from this sacrifice of a child's girlhood and teens at his feet.
It is much more enigmatic that Tagore himself gave away two of his own daughters in marriage at the ages of 14-2/3 years and 10-1/2 years respectively, both to men they had never met. The second one in particular was given to a family whose education, tastes, customs; language and way of thinking were, by Tagore's own account, different from those of the Tagorian family (Tagore's letter to his wife: Dutra & Robinson 1995: 131). This is all the more inexplicable when there was no social pressure in the Brahmo samaj to which Tagore belonged, for early marriages - it was rather the opposite. And Tagore himself suffered immensely from the acute mistreatment of one of these daughters in the hands of her husband.
Most surprisingly, Tagore did in one of his earliest writings defend the cultural validity' of both the taboo against remarriage of widows as well as the practice of child marriage, and also the principle of devotion of a wife to her husband, in defending Hindu against western culture, arguing that Hindus have to follow these rites accepting their costs in order to preserve the stability of the family (Tagore 190 in Moitri 2000: 616-17) - sounding very much like Gora until he came to know of his Irish birth!
Another question may also be asked. As an admirer that he was of rulers of ancient India, Tagore is not known to have questioned the unspeakable atrocities these rulers committed on their women subjects, having them picked up with audacity and put in harems, under chains if disobedient, to deny them all sunshine of life. Even in his own life Tagore was quite respectful and in friendly terms with maharajas and princes with the same vices.
Notwithstanding swimming in his earlier days with age-long social prejudices on women Tagore emerged in his later days as a pioneer on women liberation. It was he who introduced co-education in his school in Shantiniketan for the first time in Bengal. The school programme included free outdoor games and sports for both boy and girl students together, and even jiu-jitsu for girl students for which he brought a teacher from Japan. He put girls on the bi-cycle on public streets, a rarity at that time in Bengal. And he showed the extraordinary courage to put young girls on the public stage for the first time in Bengal not only to sing and act but also to dance as an aesthetic art, at a time when for women to dance in public was the exclusive role of a special class of professional women with whom the gentry of Bengal would not inermingle socially.
Tagore's fictions, outstanding as they were, gave a very prominent role to women, depicting both their silent sufferings from and submission to male domination and also their questionings, some liberating themselves defying social norms, some liberating their male partners as well. There is no doubt that Tagore observed deeply the oppression on women in Bengal society of his time, got into the deepest corners of their mind, into their urge for an honourable life equal in freedom with males, observing their pain in silent submission to male oppression, and their defiance against such oppression.
Fiction apart, he wrote two poems on liberation of the woman - one his famous poem 'urboshi' depicting the woman free from motherhood and daughterhood and uncovered like the rising dawn, and the other 'shabola'- (the strong woman) - depicting the woman uniting with man with equal power. In 1926 he wrote his famous play Red Oleanders, in which the gold-and-power hungry demon King is ultimately liberated from his prison of inhumanness by the tenderness of Nandini.' the woman with her goodness and love. Ten years later he elaborated his full thought-out thesis on woman as the possible saviour of humankind and nature in his essay Nari (woman) with an absolutely original message. (Tagore, 1936.
In this essay on woman Tagore did not go into questions of women's rights in the family and society. Instead, he traced the role of women rearing and protecting Life in the evolution of human civilization an immense sweep from the day of creation of the human being to the modern times. He observed that it is male aggressiveness that is responsible for destructive activities of humankind - including what Marx viewed as 'class exploitation', in Tagore's words, 'the wealth of the rich ... accumulated by sucking the life of the workers.' As against this, Nature has from the very beginning bestowed upon women a tender life rearing-and-preserving role for which women have not needed any special education and training. He then observed that women in recent times all over the world were coming out of their homes to participate in the wider world's activities, and that this new breeze had started flowing over India as well. Tagore considered this to be very positive, in the fundamental sense of having the possibility of saving the Creation from destruction in the hands of male aggressiveness, as if as a response of Nature itself to this destructive trend. He saw in women coming out of the confines of their families to share responsibility with men in co-steering the wider world an infusion of a new kind of energy into world civilization with its compassion, its tenderness, to play a life-preserving rather than, as in exclusive male hands, a life-destructive role, not only for members of their households but for all humankind.
We have touched upon Tagore's initiatives in his estate in Pabna, and also through students of Shantiniketan and Sriniketan, to promote environment care by villagers. A passionate lover of nature, Tagore not only admired wondrously nature's beauty, but also viewed nature as an organic part of our own existence. His thoughts and sense of Identity with nature are expressed all over his works -his poems, short stories, novels, plays, his gem of collection of letters 'chhinnopatro' (torn letters) to his niece Indira Devi written from his estates, and his paintings, all have references and reflections on nature and our relation with it. So have his songs, only more intimate and compact in style and form. To illustrate, to Tagore summer is an expression of thirst, of loneliness, of abstracted pain, of a meditating soul, and also of hope as the summer storm brews. The monsoon, his most favourite season, engulfed his awareness like a lover. He rejoiced at its pouring, saw in its varying images and moods a language to express our deepest yearnings and also our intimate pains, our longings to unite with our beloved and also with fellows far in the past and in the future riding the chariot of the clouds which belong to all ages past and future. It is also the moment to overcome our ego and worldly cares and say the unsaid to our beloved that we are unable to say and to unite with our own 'anima' which beckons us in our dreams. And so on for the other seasons, all the time seeing in nature reflections of the deepest and varying human feelings and moods.
Finally, Tagore on the youth - a topic put as the last one because youth belongs to the future. Tagore's fascination for and hope in the youth are well known - youth with no liability so that they are ready to dash for the unknown, and ready for service when and wherever they are called.
Two songs, again, express best Tagore's social thesis on the youth- 'we are the runners of the new youth and smash the barrier'.
In his old age Tagore was losing hope of fulfillment of his dream for the world and wrote a stinging poem in 1931 - 'Proshno' (question) denouncing violators of humanity. His last years coincided with the beginning of World War II which agonized him greatly, and he struggled intensely to keep his faith in humankind. But he still wanted to hope. His last song composed in his death bed was on the arrival of the Mahamanab - 'Great Human' - that would save the world from such savage destructive wars and bring a new life on earth. n
(Social and Environmental Thinking of Rabindranath Tagore
in the light of Post-Tagorian Development)