Rabindranath Tagore

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What does Tagore wish to tell the readers in his essay, "Nationalism in India"?

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Rabindranath Tagore's essay, "Nationalism in India" is a chapter in his 1917 book, Nationalism, which also examines Nationalism in the West and in Japan. The book as a whole is addressed primarily to the American reader. When he comes to consider India, Tagore notes that the country is particularly affected by the problem of race distinctions. He says, however, that America has "no right to question India" until her own racial problems have been solved.

Tagore argues that these problems will only be exacerbated by Nationalism, which has only ever been a menace to India. Although he is talking specifically about his own country in this essay, one can argue by analogy about the role of Nationalism in the world:

Her problem was the problem of the world in miniature. India is too vast in its area and too diverse in its races. It is many countries packed in one geographical receptacle.

The caste system, which looks so unjust to outsiders, is actually a serious attempt by Indians to solve the race problem with as little violence as possible. Tagore accepts such imperfect solutions as holding positions because he regards large-scale, simplistic theories like Nationalism (whether Western or Indian) with suspicion. He ends his essay on an equivocal note, not by proposing measures of his own, but by pointing out the unsatisfactory position of India from a political, social and industrial point of view and saying that any workable solutions must come from India, not from the West.

It is a sign of laziness and impotency to accept conditions imposed upon us by others who have other ideals than ours. We should actively try to adapt the world powers to guide our history to its own perfect end.

There is clearly a shift in perspective here. Tagore was clearly writing for the American reader at the beginning of the essay and, indeed, in the rest of the book, but here he seems to be addressing his fellow Indians in emphasizing that it is their responsibility to find solutions which avoid simplistic Nationalism.

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In "Nationalism in India" Tagore aims to convince his audience that India's many problems are social, rather than political. In fact, he goes one stage further and states that the fundamental problems in all nations are social. That being the case, Tagore maintains that nationalism, which is a political ideology, cannot offer any solutions to the many challenges facing the contemporary world.

In the specific context of Tagore's native India, he argues that the overriding challenge, as in the United States, is to weld together different races into one coherent body. Inevitably, the achievement of this objective is hampered by nationalism, which, of its very nature, divides rather than unites. Indeed, Tagore sees nationalism as being at the heart of many of India's most pressing problems. India is not a nation in the Western sense of the word. That being so, the construction of Indian nationalism is ultimately based on a chimera, a manufactured sense of what it is to be Indian.

Instead of trying to achieve this impossible goal, Tagore argues, Indians should concentrate on building a spiritual unity that derives from the country's many religious traditions. Only in this way will it be possible to forge a truly national consciousness, one that all Indians, and not just the Hindu majority, can accept.

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In "Nationalism in India," Tagore tells his readers that the problem India is now facing is forging the unity of its many races. Speaking to an American audience, he tells them that America has a similar problem in dealing with its racial problem and that India can be a leader in finding a route to racial harmony because, unlike America, India has started to face its issue. He writes, "In finding the solution of our problem we shall have helped to solve the world problem as well." In other words, India can be a beacon to other nations and can help the United States with its issues of race.

Tagore says that unlike Europe, America is unfettered by traditions and can forge a new future. He says that America and India must both find national unity and says, "A parallelism exists between America and India—the parallelism of welding together into one body various races." India has long faced disunity because of its geographical and racial diversity, but once India has accepted its political freedom, it still has to do the work of creating racial harmony and a sense of nationalism. He believes that the future of India lies in the direction of creating social cooperation, not conflict and exploitation, which he believes characterize the West. 

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Like much of Tagore's ideas, he wishes to challenge the fundamental beliefs of the reader in "Nationalism in India."  Tagore begins from the position that nationalism is a Western construct.  He suggests that the understanding of nationalism might not necessarily apply to India because its particular situation is vastly different from the West, where nationalism had taken its hold:

When our nationalists talk about ideals, they forget that the basis of nationalism is wanting. The very people who are upholding these ideals are themselves the most conservative in their social practice. Nationalists say, for example, look at Switzerland, where, in spite of race differences, the peoples have solidified into a nation. Yet, remember that in Switzerland the races can mingle, they can intermarry, because they are of the same blood. In India there is no common birthright. And when we talk of Western Nationality we forget that the nations there do not have that physical repulsion, one for the other, that we have between different castes.

It is here where Tagore's other primary pint is evident.  Part of the reason why nationalism, in the form being advocated at the time, is not going to be as successful is because of the presence of the caste system.  This element is not as present in the West.  Tagore makes it clear that a failure to account for this is problematic for those who advocate for nationalism.  For Tagore, the ability to remove the caste system is where any discussion of national identity must lie:  "Then again we must give full recognition to this fact that our social restrictions are still tyrannical, so much so as to make men cowards."  Tagore's essay on nationalism makes it clear that if individuals wish to challenge the division present in India, national identification must become secondary or aligned with the discussion of the caste system  Tagore's point is that this is the differentiation point of Indian consciousness.  Where one lives in the caste system remarkably changes their perception of what India is.  If individuals seek national unification, the primary focus has to lie in the caste system and what needs to be done with it.

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