Rabindranath Tagore’s vision of India and China: A twenty first century perspective

“I have always had the two sister countries of China and India in my mind from the day I began to study in my boyhood….Sino-Indian relations are the most important of the most important.” Tan Yun-Shan

There is a heightened focus on Rabindranath Tagore today, as we engage in preparations to celebrate the 150th anniversary of his birth. This year it will also be 87 years since Tagore made his memorable visit to China. He went to China with a message of love and brotherhood that he felt symbolized the essence of the ties between the two countries. From all we know, his visit captured the imagination of Chinese intellectual elite, some of whom were overcome with admiration for his eloquence and passionate espousal of the civilizational strength of the East, while others especially young students in some of the Chinese leading universities, drawing directly from the ideology of the May 4, 1919 movement, were vehement in their rejection of Tagore’s critique of modern civilization.

Even before his arrival in China in April 1924, Tagore was already a celebrated figure in that country. Chen Du Xiu, one of the founding fathers of the Communist Party of China translated Tagore’s prize-winning anthology, ‘Gitanjali’ as early as 1915. Guo Moruo, who was a writer of Tagore’s status in China in the early decades of the People’s Republic of China, was deeply influenced by Tagore when he was studying in Japan from 1914 to 1920.

It was during Tagore’s stay in China that the renowned Chinese scholar, Liang Qichao, presented him the Chinese name, ‘Zhu Zhendan’ which translates as “thunder of the oriental dawn”. Tagore was deeply touched.

He truly believed in the mutually beneficial interactive relationship between the two great civilizations of China and India. He passionately advocated the reopening of the path between the two countries that had become obscured through the centuries. His international university, ‘Visvabharati’, played a pioneering role in development of Chinese studies in India. The establishment of the first Sino-Indian Cultural Society, and then, ‘Cheena Bhavana’ (Chinese Department) at Santineketan were corner stones for this cause. Scholars, teachers like Tan Yun-shan, who led Cheena Bhavan for many years, contributed greatly to modern India’s understanding of Chinese civilization and her modern development.

The late Ji Xianlin, Padma Bhushan and doyen of Indologists in China, observed that Tagore was an icon of Sino-Indian friendship both in India and China. Ji Xianlin, much in the spirit of Tagore, authored the eloquent words, “China and India have stood simultaneously on the Asian continent. Their neighbourliness is created by Heaven and constructed by Earth.”

Our first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, was greatly inspired by Tagore’s desire for India-China fraternity. He believed in the strong civilizational links between the two countries that had drawn them to each other in historical times. This civilizational link also inspired the ‘Panchsheel’ or the five principles of co-existence. It is also to be noted that for the last many years, Tagore and Nehru have been regarded as among fifty foreigners who have contributed most in shaping China’s modern development.

Tagore was a visionary, always forward-looking. In one of his lectures in China in 1924, he said, “I hope that some dreamer will spring from among you and preach a message of love and therewith overcoming all differences bridge the chasm of passions which has been widening for ages”. These were powerful words addressed to both the peoples of China and India, calling them upon them to build a deeper mutual understanding. In speaking of the need for “eternally revealing a joyous relationship unforeseen”, he sought to promote the cause of China-India understanding, envisioning the ascent of India and China to a higher platform of civilizational leadership and fraternal partnership since they together comprise 40% of humanity. In his view there was no fundamental contradiction between the two countries whose civilizations stressed the concept of harmonious development in the spirit of ‘vasudhaiva kutumbakam’ (the world is one family) and ‘shijie datong’ (world in grand harmony).

Prof Wang Bangwei of the Peking University, calls Tagore an Indian sage, an Asian sage and a world sage. Many Chinese shared the sense of pride and glory as Eastern people when Tagore won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1913 but it took time for the Chinese to understand Tagore and his thoughts. In Prof. Wang’s words, “After several decades the vitality of his thoughts is being ascertained. We in the past had respected Tagore but also misunderstood him. Respect was all right but the misunderstanding was due to complex causes. Now it is time to re-open the issues, understand them afresh”. While Chinese scholars are aware of the great personalities of Indian history like the Buddha, Gandhi and Tagore, Akbar and Ashoka, they do acknowledge the need for China to pay greater attention to the study of India.

It was Tagore’s vision of eternal partnership between India and China that inspired the vision of India-China friendship in the 50s in the last century. Prof. Tan Chung, son of Tan Yun Shan, has coined a phrase ‘geo-civilizational paradigm’ to describe the relationship between India and China.

What is perhaps now well known is that apart from admiration for China, Tagore deeply felt the plight of the Chinese people. When he was all but 20 in 1881, he authored an essay vehemently denouncing the opium trade which had been imposed on China since that opium was mostly being grown in British India. He called this essay ‘Chine Maraner Byabasay’ or the Commerce of Killing people in China. He expressed similar feelings of sympathy after the Japanese invasion of China writing to his friend, a Japanese poet, Yone Noguchi, that “the reports of Chinese suffering batter against my heart”.

There is an impression in certain quarters that Tagore was a traditionalist. He was far from being one since he supported science and scientific modes of thinking. But outside India, as Prof. Amartya Sen has pointed out, he felt the need for the world to pay greater attention to the thinking of the East. And it was not as if Chinese intellectuals who leaned to the Left disliked Tagore. As I mentioned earlier Chen Du Xiu, one of the founding fathers of the Community Party of China was himself one translator of the works of Tagore. In fact, it has been seen that Tagore expressed the essence of globalization which is the “core inner instinct” that seeks to express the interconnectedness and interdependence of our world.

I believe that Tagore’s focus on Asia’s unique identity is of particular relevance today as we seek to promote peace, stability and prosperity in Asia. Instinctively, he reflected the spirit of an Asia which had traditionally lived in peace, pursuing the traffic of ideas, the peaceful absorption of different religions without proselytisation, and trade and commerce across oceans that were not polarized but were neutral – literally zones of peace and a common economic space. This was an approach defined by secularism and a complementariness of interests. This balanced commercial equilibrium was enhanced by the concept of spiritual unity. One has only to visit the caves of Ajanta or see the murals of Dunhuang in China to see the capturing through the eye of the artist of this vision of unity – with their depiction of various nationalities thronging royal processions or expressing their grief before a dying Buddha. In the 8th century, an Indian astronomer named Gautama Siddhartha, was named the President of the Board of Astronomy of China. This tolerance and openness, lack of prejudice toward foreigners and outsiders, the spirit of enterprise and the absence of trade barriers, was unprecedented in the history of the world. I believe this is what Tagore meant when he said that we should have our past as a rough guide for the future.

When Tagore visited China, both India and China were in the throes of their own and distinct revolution. In some sense, Tagore, with his poet’s love of beauty remained unaware of the visceral repugnance among the intellectual elites of China for Confucianism and traditional culture in a politically charged atmosphere. His vision was long-term and civilizational rather than ephemeral, approximating the millennium-long cultural contacts between India and China, in which he found a worthy model for sustenance of the Asian way of harmony and coexistence. This is why he interpreted the invitation to him to visit China as an invitation from China to India rather than to an individual, and ‘accepted it as a humble son of India’.

In this sense, Tagore neither sought to perpetuate the political or social status quo of China nor impose the self-negating values of India, as his critics in China at that time alleged. Instead, Tagore’s was an effort to shift the attention of both India and China from the West, whose power and prestige at that point were at their zenith but also produced war and turmoil, to each other as well as to their past glory and their harmonious contacts. Instead of taking a deprecatory view of their civilization ---- aided by the then prevailing western critic of the Orient, Tagore wanted India and China as fountainheads of ancient civilizations to take pride in their rich heritage and draw from their past to build a future of friendly contacts. While aware of somewhat unidirectional past contacts between them in the religious realm, Tagore did not attempt to persuade China to accept another wave of cultural influence from India. He merely asked China to join him in his experiment of building institutions based on the “ideal of the spiritual unity of all races”.

At the same time, the import of Tagore’s influence for the revival of India-China relations should not be underestimated, because it had waned after the Song dynasty and especially following the advent of the Europeans. It is significant that all exchanges between India and China with lasting impact till this point were by religious personages. Tagore was the first thinker of modern India to be invited by the thinking elites of China, along with the likes of John Dewey and Bertrand Russell, as the Chinese grappled with the question of China’s place in a modern world. In India, which was also facing pulls and pressures of different kinds, Tagore similarly sought to revive the spirit of unity with China and enhance understanding of this important country by pioneering modern studies of China and building on contacts with noted Chinese personalities.

Even if Tagore’s outreach to China did not evoke the intended response during or immediately following his visit, his approach looks prophetic with the passage of time. At that point in time, Tagore said in his final lecture in China, “I have done what was possible --- I have made friends.” However, this was not just friendship between the poet and his fans in China, it was in many ways symbolic of the renewal of friendship between India and China and awakening of their potential. For instance, India and China were to launch the Panchsheel initiative exactly three decades later, drawing upon their civilizational values. The tenacity of these principles in the modern world of complex diplomacy and realpolitik shows that what is ancient need not be antiquated. Both India and China are today arguably more modern and confident in outlook than in Tagore’s days, although India, with its tradition of gradualism, is often accused of lagging in its drive towards modernity. Be that as it may, both India and China today have the maturity to admire our past, including the past of our contacts, without getting overwhelmed or swamped under its weight. Our effort, as a pan-Asia initiative under the East Asian Summit-process, to resurrect the glory of Nalanda, is a pointer in that direction. The vision of Asian unity conceived by Tagore nearly a century ago, is close to getting realized in the process of community-building in our region.

There has been some criticism that Tagore did not offer any practical solutions to the problem of the day. One could equally argue that Tagore was a visionary who thought ahead of his times and the true relevance of his thoughts were not appreciated in his era. For instance, early on he foresaw the onset of globalization. On several occasions, he had mentioned that the most important fact of the present age was that all the races have come together and we are confronted with two alternatives. The problem is whether different groups of people can go on fighting with one another or find out some true basis for reconciliation and mutual help; and whether it will be interminable competition or cooperation. There is a striking parallel in how leaders of India and China have publicly articulated that there are areas of cooperation as well as those of competition between us, and that there is sufficient space in the world for both countries to satisfy their development aspirations and to cooperate during this process.

Tagore also pointed that in our earlier history, when the geographical limits of each country and also the facilities of communication were small, this problem of cooperation versus competition was comparatively small in dimension. Again in the context of people having come close together, Tagore mentioned that their differences in language, tradition and degrees of strength are so apparent that “our first meeting has only recognized these differences and in the place of geographical barriers it has thereupon set up the barriers of mutual understanding”. Again speaking on Asia, he said “When we in Asia talk about re-adjustment in response to the world situation today, we forget that it should be directed to a future of new ideals and not to the mere shifting about of the methods of the past.” We are today indeed grappling with these very ideas as we try to address the issue of a strategic security and cooperative framework for Asia.

Since the venue of this talk is Singapore, I cannot but help thinking of how the most evocative visualization of the synergy between India and China has often sprung from our friends in South-east Asia. And here, Singapore has played a leading role. It was in Singapore that Tan Yun-shan met Tagore and from where he resolved to follow Tagore to Santiniketan when Cheena Bhavana was being set up. It is from our friends in Singapore that we often hear the most incisive commentary and comparative analyses of modern China and India. And, it is probably here in Singapore that you are able to best understand the imperative of closer dialogue and peaceful interaction between India and China.

Tagore’s encounter with China did not culminate with his trip there in 1924. The idea of India and the idea of China – civilizations that could never perish – were guiding principles for leaders like Nehru. Until the unfortunate border conflict of 1962, the concept of fraternal partnership between India and China had never been questioned. The estrangement of the sixties and early seventies expressed an aberration that went against the grain of the inspirational words of Tagore and his belief in the geo-civilizational paradigm of India-China relations. The scholar Patricia Uberoi speaks of the post-Westphalian compact where the institution of the nation-state is defined by territorial boundedness. She writes how “with this come notions of centre and periphery, mainland and margins, and the justified use of force in their defence”. Perhaps, as she says, Tagore would have thought of frontier zones as “revolving doors- as creative spaces where civilizations meet, and not as the trouble spots of contemporary geo-politics”. It is that ideal of global sustainability that Tagore would have spoken to – where regional cooperation across territorial boundaries strengthens connectivities and diminishes the salience of protracted contest and conflict. Similarly the notion of intercultural give and take between India and China contradicts the theory of any clash of civilizations. This is a useful model for Asia as we see it resurgent once again, and we seek open, transparent, balanced and equitable dialogue structures and patterns of cooperation among all the regions of our continent.

Tagore’s vision of sustainability on a global scale, his cosmopolitanism, and his humanism, are of immense relevance today when we stress the values of inclusive development, and environmental sustainability as also education that creates individuals who transcend national boundaries to become citizens of the world.

Last May, I was present at Shanghai when the President of India, unveiled a bronze statue of Tagore at the crossing of Nanchang Road and Maoming Road very close to the spot where Tagore had stayed at the house of the young poet Xu Zhimo during a brief transit through Shanghai on his onward journey to Japan and North America in 1929. The event was a recognition of the enormous contribution made by Tagore in resurrecting the traditional friendship between India and China. Last month during the visit of Premier Wen Jiabao to India, the Indian Government announced that the study of the Chinese language would be introduced into the curriculum of secondary schools across the country. Tagore would have been overjoyed by this resolve to promote the scientific study of China through its language.

In many ways the Nalanda University project, which arises out of the decisions reached at the East Asia Summit, is an expression of this spirit. The road to Nalanda, giver of education and knowledge, echoes with the muffled footsteps of that period of shared history between India and China when the traditions of Buddhist pilgrimage and quest of scholarship defined the reaching out of these two countries to each other. In fact, the lore of the Tang Dynasty monk’s “Journey to the West” is like a trail leading to Nalanda. The tradition of Nalanda not only included monks like Faxian, Xuanzang and Yijing, but also other monks and scholars, prominently among them Kumarajiva, who is claimed by both India and China as their own worthy son.

In our own century, the 21{+s}{+t}, the Government of India has sought to revive Nalanda as a centre of cultural exchange and scholarship between East, Southeast and South Asia. The Nalanda Mentor Group headed by Dr. Amartya Sen has been working to realize the vision of a truly global university, a holistic mix of the old and the new, of the past, the present and the future. Again, Tagore’s happiness at this development would have been spontaneous. It is the modern day Xuanzangs and Bodhidharmas in both our countries and indeed in the rest of Asia that this University will target – so that this ancient rendezvous comes alive once again with all its attendant relevance and meaning. We are deeply appreciative of the fact that the Singapore Buddhist community is to make a financial contribution for the library of Nalanda University amounting to 5 million US dollars. Last month, Premier Wen Jiabao announced a contribution of 1 million US dollars for the Nalanda University.

Tagore’s vision of India and China was founded on the realization that the true depths of the relationship between the two countries are embedded in the cultural interaction of yore between the two countries, in the mutual quest for ideas and innovation, trade, science, and in the culture of debate. Let us not forget how the halls of Nalanda resounded with the intense debates of scholars and monks defending their interpretations of the Buddhist canon- and here the India versus China or China versus India context was not a conflicted one, but one in which there was a healthy competition embellished by the space which each side gave the other. I believe these forefathers of ours in both countries had grasped the essence of the geo-civilizational paradigm that Tan Chung speaks of.

Tagore was ultimately a breaker of barriers, and in that sense he is very much of the 21st century. His appeal should cut across any nationalism that is narrowly defined or circumscribed by a limited appreciation of the ebb and flow of the tides of history. That sanity and rationality should prevail in the debates and encounters of countries like India and China is a principle that nobody can find exception about. Tagore’s nationalism did not come in the way of the widest internationalism. This is a message for the youth of China and of India. Let their relationship flourish in the amrakunj – the mango grove – like the one at Santiniketan, a field of inspiration, with their personalities developing in harmony with the environment around them. Perhaps the theme of the amrakunj should define 2011 which is the Year of India-China Exchange!

Last month, during his visit to Delhi, Premier Wen Jiabao spoke to a crossection of media and cultural and academic personalities on how to improve perceptions of Indians and Chinese about each other. A number of interesting observations were made. Professor Manoranjan Mohanty, the eminent Indian sinologist, spoke of the two countries establishing Panchsheel centres for cultural, educational, economic and technological cooperation. One participant described the urgency of the need for changes in perceptions of each other and the gap that needs to be bridged. One of our film makers proposed joint ventures in film making which would resolve the alienation caused by 1962. One Chinese participant described Nalanda and Tagore as important icons for India and China. Yet another Chinese participant underlined the need for people from the two countries to understand each other directly rather than through the western prism, in an echo of Tagore! What came through was the need for an inclusive and plural approach given the multi-ethnic nature of both societies. The need for the two countries to evolve as hubs of creativity, in addition to being engines of economic growth, was stressed by Premier Wen. Rediscovering their civilizational ties not only on the basis of historical traditions but in the contemporary context through youth and technology was essential.

India and China share what is termed as a strategic and cooperative partnership for peace and prosperity today. Their relations have, in the last decade particularly, grown increasingly multi-faceted. These two big economies of Asia are interacting closely with each other, both in terms of bilateral trade, but also on issues concerning the global economic situation. The two governments have decided to institute a strategic economic dialogue as a measure of the increasing complexity and sophistication of their dialogue on economic issues.

It is a truism that between two such large countries such as ours, relations will be complex and with continuing areas of divergence. The challenge remains to build more convergence and common ground. I believe that the ballast must come from deeper dialogue which is defined by greater transparency, understanding the relevance and import of the words of thinkers like Tagore, realizing that a conflicted or contest-ridden relationship between India and China can do neither any good, that peace and stability for an Asian century flows from the enduring strength of a well-functioning interaction between these two countries. The concept of Zhongguo-Yin Da Tong” – or “Great Harmony between India and China” can describe the future of our relations, if we use not only our complementarities in development and economic growth but also our great strengths in cultural and civilizational values, thus emerging as hubs of creativity and innovation, to create a fitting new paradigm for the India-China equation.

Thank You

More In: Resources | News