The poet reflected the spirit of an Asia which had traditionally lived in peace, pursuing the traffic of ideas and commerce in an open, inclusive way. This is his relevance to the 21st century.
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 symbolised 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 civilisational 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 civilisation.
Popular in China
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.
Tagore truly believed in the mutually beneficial interactive relationship between the two great civilisations 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 the development of Chinese studies in India. The establishment of the first Sino-Indian Cultural Society, and then, “Cheena Bhavana” 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 civilisation and its 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 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 civilisational leadership and fraternal partnership since they together comprise 40 per cent of humanity. In his view there was no fundamental contradiction between the two countries whose civilisations stressed the concept of harmonious development in the spirit of “vasudhaiva kutumbakam (the world is one family”) and “shijie datong (world in grand harmony”).
What is perhaps not 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.”
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 polarised 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 Eighth 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.
Vision of unity
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 civilisational 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 realised in the process of community-building in our region.
Tagore's encounter with China did not culminate with his trip there in 1924. The idea of India and the idea of China — civilisations 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 1960s and early 1970s expressed an aberration that went against the grain of the inspirational words of Tagore and his belief in the geo-civilisational 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 civilisations 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 civilisations. 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.
(The author is Foreign Secretary of India. This is a shortened version of her recent lecture at the Singapore Consortium for China-India Dialogue. The full text is available at www.thehindu.com.)